I’ve been on a comic binge in the last couple of months, and it started with Astro City, this odd little series of comics that does little vignettes from the perspectives of the bystanders, villains and heroes of a Metropolis-like fictitious city. The very first comic in the run follows a Superman-esque hero called Samaritan, a time traveler from the future sent back to the eighties to avert the ecological disasters that were killing off the human race in the thirtieth century. The parallels between the characters are obvious. Single white male, broad shoulders, cleft chin, red and blue costume, moonlights as a mild-mannered fact-checker for the local newspaper. But this first issue also shows the monumental difference between Samaritan and Superman; a difference which is representative of what sets Astro City apart from other comic books.
This average day in the life of Samaritan begins as his dreams of flying, naked and aimless for the sheer joy of flying, are interrupted by his alarm system warning him of a massive impending disaster on the other side of the world. Throughout the rest of the comic, he keeps a running track of exactly how much time he spends in flight from one place to another, throwing back a tsunami, capturing members of a criminal conspiracy, meeting with other superheroes to get much-needed information, rescuing people from crumbling buildings and generally saving the world.
He spends as little time as possible as his mild-mannered alter ego, showing up for work only to lock himself in his office, set his thirtieth century computer to do the work for him, and flying out again. He skips his lunch break, and he even excuses himself from a banquet in his honor several times for “bathroom breaks” to run high-speed rescue missions before returning so as not to offend those who seek to show him their appreciation. He ends his day nearly dying in battle with a monstrous super-villain, with an accumulated flight time of fifty six seconds, only to collapse into his bed for two or three hours of sleep with dreams that taunt him with purposeless, joyful flight.
Samaritan makes invulnerability and godlike power look hard, and that’s something Superman never did. I never bought it. Clark Kent is a bit of dork, but he gets it on with Lois and he has all this time to waste playing human. All I could ever think when I read one of those comics was, “Isn’t there someone on the other side of the world being raped or tortured while you’re acting like a clutz at the Daily Planet?” The writers of Superman have invented the campiest, most absurdly overpowered enemies to throw at Superman. They’ve put him on the galactic, intergalactic, multigalactic scale, as if to say that Earth’s problems are small enough for one supersonic god-man to solve in his spare time.
Maybe I’m over-thinking things, but Superman was everything about America I never liked growing up in the eighties and nineties. The simplicity, the innocence, the overconfidence, the unquestioned middle-American ethos; all of this was personified in a godlike being that could only be undermined by nefarious genius or magic rocks from space. He fought for “truth, justice and the American way” with one arm tied behind his back and a wink and a nod to his readers.
But Samaritan could be a sort of twenty first century personification of America. Overworked, running from one battle to the next just to hold a little bit of the world together and even then not getting things right all the time. His simplicity and innocence don’t come from thoughtlessness but from exhaustion and the constant distraction of immediate, pressing human tragedy. Samaritan has confidence and poise, and even pride, but it’s pride earned in the endless tasks set before him. It’s a possible ideal of American patriotism that Supes never stood for.