Why Superman Never Sells As Well As Batman: What Can Superman Learn?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Saladin Ahmed said on Twitter that Superman was more interesting than Batman: “He’s a ‘transracial’ adoptee immigrant kid, has an actual job, etc.”  And you hear that defense a lot from Superman fans – no, seriously, he’s really interestingHe’s got all that backstory!
The problem is, Superman’s only interesting choice was made long before he steps on-screen.  He decided not to use his powers for personal gain, but to selflessly use them to help the common man.
That’s awesome.  That’s why people like Superman – as an ideal, he’s perfect.  But unfortunately, having made that decision, he then never makes another interesting one again.  Because the whole point of Supes is that he’s not tormented about that choice – if you have a Superman who really wants to have a billion dollars, or really needs to shed his Clark Kent identity to show the world how awesome he is, or to just tell that old lady with the cat in the tree to fuck the hell off because he’s tired from saving Peking, well, an angsty Superman is not really Superman as we understand him.  Superman is comfortable with who he is, because he’s that awesome.
Which means there’s nothing significant that Superman can learn, emotionally.  The only things he can learn are things that make us look bad: stories in which humans just aren’t as good as Superman, and Superman is sad about that.  (But still filled with hope.  Superman is always hopeful.)  So the most significant Superman stories are the ones where it turns out you, you petty humans, are pretty shit-tacular.  And then maybe you have a story where Superman justifies not taking over the planet to rule it as a benevolent dictator, which isn’t a terribly comforting thought either.
So most of the thousands of stories told about Superman are pure status quo: Superman saves other people from a big bad guy.  What’s at stake for Superman?  Well, he’d feel bad if those people died.  Not a really gripping moment, and of course Superman isn’t going to lose anyway.
Oh, writers have tried to get around this limitation.  Some writers do it by switching to other parties, showing how Superman transforms everyone around him… but of course, that’s not really a Superman story, but “Touched by an Angel.”  Morrison did it by having Superman be the face of futurized wonder like he was in the 1960s, where Superman wasn’t really a hero but the gateway to an endless Narnia-like wonderland of alternative universes and weird shit.
But again, what’s Superman learning?  Not much.  He’s got a lot of tension between his Clark Kent and Superman world, which is interesting in theory, but you can’t make it interesting in practice without unravelling who Supes is.
Every great superhero has a couple of iconic arcs that define who he is, and usually one of them is the origin story.  For Spider-Man, it’s abandoning Uncle Ben, having Gwen Stacey die, and throwing aside his costume to walk away, only to discover that he really can’t.  For Iron Man, it’s his battle with the bottle.  For Batman, it’s having his back broken and still coming back for more.
For Superman?  His iconic moments are first of all his origin story, which makes sense.  All the stuff leading up to that decision are fascinating, a look inside pure American idealism, saying a lot about what we think of our country.  But after he makes that decision?  His most iconic moments in comics are his death stories, one by Alan Moore and one by DC Marketing… both of which are fascinating because once Supes has made his choice, the only other interesting thing that can happen to him is that we see how he ends.
There’s one other iconic story, which the movies had to bring out: he gives up his powers, and has three Kryptonians come to town.  Which, in the end, is the only story Superman can learn: giving this power up won’t make him happy, not because he wouldn’t be content with Lois Lane, but because the world will suck without him.
Superman is a great character in theory, and people like him because of what he represents.  But that representation means he’s a static character, one who cannot learn because he made the proper decision before he put on the damn suit.  Abandoning that means, well, he’s not actually Superman.  Contrast to Batman, who can learn all sorts of lessons about how he should fight crime and his own mortality and the limits of extremism and the toll his relentless battle takes on his loved ones and how best to inspire people, all without compromising the fragile core of his concept: he fights crime because he is driven.
Superman?  Great on a poster. Not so good in an ongoing saga.

9 Comments

  1. Magus of the Moon
    Apr 11, 2013

    Hitman #34 is a superman comic that answers this, it specifically delves into his psyche, and what he feels about the image of omnipotence created around him. It’s a superman comic that is more interesting that most Batman comics that do similar things.
    Also, people use static as a pejorative far too often. Batman is probably just as static as Superman in a lot of media, but he’s more interesting because he’s darker, and has more characters that are reflections of him. Batman’s motivations never change throughout his whole comic history, so we’re left with a dude with a very much Punisher-esque sense of justice minus the killings.
    Superman only really has Lex Luthor and Braniac as genuine foils outside of his Death story, and that makes it look like he has a smaller range, while the whole Batman cast works off of facets of that character.
    There’s more, but I have to jump to class.

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 11, 2013

      That Hitman is a classic tale, but it couldn’t be told in Superman. Because it betrays the Supermanian ethic that he’s cool with it.

  2. prezzey
    Apr 11, 2013

    This strongly reminds me of Lukyanenko’s main theme. I’d recommend The Stars are Cold Toys and its sequel along these lines, but I think it’s not available in English yet… though, curiously, it has a TVTropes page!
    Frankly, what I find off-putting about both Superman and Batman is how one is set up to be shiny, sparkly, the stereotype of a hero, the other is all grimdark and set up to be the stereotype of an antihero. That struck me as market segmentation even before I knew that there was a term for it.

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 11, 2013

      Interesting. I’ll have to check that out.
      In terms of market segmentation, it’s interesting because, like most marketing, it’s people choosing what they want. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of heroes to choose from, and for some reason they stuck. Nobody planned it. Nobody could have planned it. Yet there they are.

  3. BenjaminJB
    Apr 11, 2013

    I’m not sure about this frame, Ferrett. For one thing, the title asks about who “sells” better, but the main thrust seems to be who is more “interesting.” There’s an overlap there, sure, but I get leery of equating them. But I agree with you on this: Superman is pretty static as a character.
    But then many adventure heroes are pretty static. Putting aside for a moment the Daniel Craig Bond films, James Bond is a classic static character. Tintin is a static character. Elvis in his movies is a static character (I think). Screenwriter Todd Alcott (on his blog) has argued that these characters aren’t protagonists–who change and grow–but more like MCs, ushering the audience through set-piece after set-piece. Now, that may not be incredibly interesting as structure, but they sold pretty well.
    And I also think that Batman fits into this category pretty well: you say he can grow and change, but there’s always that one thing that remains the same, the drive to stop crime–or to have stopped the crime that made him. It’s an impossible task that can never change, which is why he can never really change. I agree there’s something interesting in Batman’s fallibility–the eternal question: will he become a fascist to stop crime? But in his own way, that balancing act is a stasis, since he can never fall on one side or the other for very long before the comics continuity gets reset.

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 11, 2013

      James Bond is static. But on the other hand, he only has one story to tell every three years. Superman, on the other hand, has at least two per month.
      There’s nothing wrong with having a character as a setpiece, but you also note that more recent Bonds try to set him up as someone who learns something – particularly the Daniel Craig Bond, which you really can’t set aside because that’s a conscious experiment in trying to keep Bond relevant. It’s one of those things where the generic hero as setpiece used to work, but audiences have grown more sophisticated and require a bit more these days.
      It still works on occasion. I’ll point to Morrison, who did pull it off. But it’s harder, especially since movies have raised the bar on comics in terms of setpieces. What’s more impressive, seeing Joe Schmoe draw Metropolis getting destroyed, or the full CGI crew showing it demolished?

  4. David
    Apr 11, 2013

    Batman sales have been largely fuled by the sucess of the movies. If the Superman movie is great expect the sales to increase.

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 11, 2013

      Not really. Batman’s been outselling Supes for years, largely thanks to better stories. That was before the movies.

  5. Friday
    Apr 12, 2013

    Plus the bump in sales from comic book movies is fairly negligable, especially in monthly sales. The Avengers was one of the biggest movies in recent history and while The Avengers franchise is going strong in singles it picked up a whole one title at the movies release and its a fairly middle of the road seller. The movies have beomce thier own animals.

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