Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Death of Supermen

The first comic book I ever owned was “The Death of Superman.” I was not into comic books when I was a kid mostly because I could not afford them. I contented myself with reading the five-peso Tagalog Funny Komiks that came in with the Sunday newspaper. I would have to admit though, that I was a Superman fan as a kid. Who wasn’t? Especially when the three Christopher Reeve movies came out (the fourth was a bit too much, I think, and I agree with Brian Singer for not even considering the fourth one in his story arc for the remake), every kid believed that wearing a red cape (and their underwear over their pants) would make them invincible and allow them to fly. And so we cried our ways into forcing our mothers to buy us these Superman outfits.

When I heard that they killed Superman, I was forced to save up my allowance so I can buy the comic books. They have got to be kidding. I had to read it for myself. I mean, who can kill Superman, right? This must be some marketing ploy.

Years later I realized that it was indeed a marketing ploy. Apparently, the Superman franchise was not doing so well with their sales that they had to do something drastic to revive it. But it wasn’t just a marketing ploy. They really killed Superman. They created an invincible alien monster that beat the hell out of the Justice League. The entire cadre of super heroes in the DC universe lent their hands to stop the rampage. Even the most obscure and unknown heroes had a shot at the villain. When all of their combined powers could not put a halt to the carnage he was causing, they sent the Man of Steel. But the Son of Krypton got beat up as well by the monster who was called Doomsday.

That last spread in the comic book was etched in my mind forever—Lois Lane, holding in her arms the lifeless body of her fiancĂ©. The invincibility of Doomsday did not make any sense. We did not understand why the enemy was unbeatable. The plot probably was pathetic and contrived. The battle was absurd. But it did not matter. It did not matter how lame he died. They killed the picture in every child’s mind that they could fly. Superman was dead.

After the death of Superman, dying became the “in” thing. I mean, if the superhero par excellence could die, why can’t the lesser ones? A lot of the other superheroes followed suit. Batman’s Robin died (the second one). Even the Marvel heroes started to follow the fad. The Ghost Rider died. Captain America followed, and then Jean Grey, Professor X, and Colossus. They even killed the entire X-Men in one episode of the animated series. I almost thought they’d kill my favorite of all—Batman. But they decided to just break his back and make him an invalid instead. They probably thought too many superheroes were dying already.

We have always been attracted and fascinated by these super humans mostly because of their special powers and god-like abilities. We project in them the things that we wished we could do—fly, disappear, shoot fireballs from our eyes, morph, read minds. But I think, what attracts us to them the most, or I should say, what endears them to us is their human and wounded side. They too, like us, bleed. They weep, they are anxious and stressed, they mourn, they struggle, they die. Their difference from us due to their superpowers is dwarfed by our similarity to them as humans who struggle to be perfect. No, this is not just an affinity due to the misery they accompany us with. It is not because we take pleasure from their failures and imperfections because we too are.

Of course we will always envy these superheroes for having the superpowers that we will never have. Despite this, we will always admire them and look up to them. We will continue to aspire to be like them not because of their powers but because they overcome their difficulties and succeed in their struggles only with their human virtues—courage, honor, nobility, faith, fortitude, and compassion. And so we realize, that we are more like them than we imagined. We are not that different. We already have what they have. We can endure the way they endure—with our humanity.

The death of Superman teaches this: superheroes die. Their deaths remind us of this affinity with them—we share the same human nature, the same weaknesses and the same virtues. Paradoxically, these deaths do not and should not depress us and let us fall into despair. It stokes our passion, in fact, to carry on their cause. The death of a superhero is the birth of a hero inside us. The torch is passed at the instant of their death. Our affinity and bond with them demand that we carry on their fight.

This fantastic visual-literary form reflects social reality with bitter accuracy. We will always remember the only revolution that we would probably be proud of—the 1986 EDSA people power. The flooding of EDSA with fired-up hearts to overthrow a dictator was caused by a crack in the dam of the Filipino’s tolerance and patience. It happened three years before at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport when Senator Ninoy Aquino was shot dead. It was a grim day for all those who witnessed it. I was barely a toddler then when it happened, but I remember the zeitgeist. His death was the birth of something inside the Filipinos then. Three years later, the Filipinos could not hold it much longer. The dam broke, and they let loose a cry similar to that of Lois Lane’s and the rest of the Justice League. They mourned, and then they carried on their hero’s battle.

In a more global historical picture, we are reminded of Mahatma Gandhi, the political and spiritual leader of India, who advocated resistance to tyranny through civil disobedience and total non-violence. He was assassinated while enjoying his nightly walk at Birla Bhavan. His death only echoed his teachings and principles throughout the world. It even reached Martin Luther King, who drew from his writings and eventually suffered the same fate. His death would create the same impact to the African-American people as well.

And there are countless other powerful heroes who died for a cause. Suffering an absurd if not untimely death before they can finish what they have started. There is John Paul II, Che Guevarra, Jose Rizal, Jesus Christ, and the list will go on. Their deaths would be their ultimate heroic act. Because through their deaths, we, the not-so-super, can now step up to become heroes.

It is a painful realization that it should take the death of a superhero before the ordinary can realize that they can become heroes as well. It is somehow a bitter truth that it takes the death of a super hero to give birth to the heroes inside us. It should not take such a tragic event to shake us off our sleep. But it is the painful truth. Again, we are reminded of our weaknesses and imperfections. But this should not discourage us nor make us pity ourselves. We look up to our heroes and we see not their superpowers but their human virtues and strengths, which we too have. Of course, their deaths unwittingly put us in a position of responsibility. We have to carry on or else their deaths would have been meaningless.

After the franchise picked up sales, Superman returned. I thought, what the hell? Whatever. But really, his return cannot invalidate the insights of his death. That is the sublimity of this tragic truth—heroes die so new heroes can be born inside us. We only wish that a hero’s death is not always required to awaken our hearts. We hope that it will not always require a tragedy to call us to action. But we are not so super. It is okay. We struggle. We strive. As men.

*previously published in Starfish Magazine February 2008 issue