I got to attend a lecture on death in comics recently, and one of the things that came up was Superman and Krypton.

Most of the examples on offer were fairly straightforward.  Batman watched his parents get gunned down in the street by an assailant who never faced justice, so he grew up to fight crime.  Daredevil’s father was murdered by gangsters; he goes on to fight for justice in the court system and to break organized crime’s stranglehold on his neighborhood in the streets.  Uncle Ben’s tragic death turns Peter Parker from a teenage showboat treating his superpowers like a new hot-rod into the self-sabotaging spider-martyr we all know and love.  The Punisher’s family gets gunned down, so he wages a one-man war on… well, in effect, the stage of grief that comes after anger.  I think it’s mostly supposed to be read as “crime in general.”

You get the drill, though.  Death -> heroic motivation.  Cause -> effect.  The characters rarely move past those defining moments because they’re constantly, in a sense, reliving them during the course of their vigilante careers.  They’re fighting to stop tragedies that can’t ever be 100% prevented and wading back into the cruelty the transformed them on a daily basis.

But then you have cases like Superman’s.

He has a tragic backstory, of sorts.  But he doesn’t really know about it, in most versions, until he’s older.  He grows up the happy son of two loving and devoted parents.  He loves his community, and he–mostly–fits in.  Physically, he looks human.  He blends in, he has friends, he goes to school.  He can walk down Main Street, USA, and not get a second look.  He’s also culturally human; he doesn’t have to work to adapt to a new social environment the way Kara does when she shows up.  He’s a native, in all essential aspects.  His powers set him apart, yes, but he might as well have been bitten by a radioactive spider or got hit by lightning while screwing around with heavy water for all the inherent tragedy there.  And, of course, he has the guidance of the Kents while he’s growing into those powers.

Basically, his grief is a less-felt one for a life and a place he never experienced.  It’s not that it’s not real or not deep–the character usually has far too much empathy for that to ever really be the case–but stacked up against, say, Jonathan Kent’s death from a heart attack, it just doesn’t inflict the same sort of animal pain.  It’s a tragedy, but at the end of the day, nothing that he experienced having has been taken away from him.  The loss is of a potential life, and one in which he was no more or less happy than the one he has, at that.

He puts on the cape and goes out heroing basically because it’s the right thing to do, and he can do it.  But of course, when it comes down to the bigger things, the save-the-world things, there’s the undercurrent of knowledge that no, really, the world could end.  If he doesn’t find a way to divert the asteroid, or destroy it before it hits the planet, humanity could be wiped out.  If he can’t stop whatever alien monstrosity’s out to kill all humans, that’s a thing that could happen.  This is not an unthinkable event, for him.  It’s not blank space in the map of his psyche.  He’s the product of one planet’s failure to save itself.  He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that sometimes these things happen.

So he carries the weight, but it’s in the way that a responsible adult carries the weight of  an outsized responsibility rather than the way a lot of his counterparts carry and negotiate a bone-deep trauma.

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