In 1993, Superman died.
It was more or less a publicity gimmick by DC Comics, and it wasn’t handled terribly well. They didn’t infuse his death with much story meaning — Luthor didn’t get him, Brainiac didn’t get him, Mxyzptlk didn’t get him. Instead he was beaten in random violence, when an unknown monster rose from the earth and began tearing his way across Metropolis. His death seemed very out of character, too; Superman’s primary function has never been violent. Sure, he’s fought, but he’s always done so reluctantly, with a bit of sorrow at the necessity, and tends to find the purest expression of his vocation in standing against impersonal forces, who are not evil, and against whom neither can he hold a grudge. His focus is, and always must be, the salvation of men and women and not the punishment of evil.
But still. He died. It was a big deal, because DC more or less told the world that this was it, and Superman really was dying. As in no more Superman. Sure, knowing comics, someone else might take the role, but Clark Kent was going bye-bye, and there wasn’t anything you could do about it. People lines up outside their local comic shops to pick up sealed copies of the book, most never intending to read it, but wanting, simply, some memento of this occasion and to pay, as much as they could, their respects to the man who symbolized the best part of the human soul, despite being a strange visitor from another planet.
And of course they’re going to pay their respects. He’s iconic, true, but more importantly, he’s meaningful, and I think this is very widely understood. As much as people tend to prefer Batman (I’ve had that conversation so many times I have lost count) for his human limitations, they respect Superman precisely for his willingness to give himself over to everyone. I’ve written fairly recently — in another piece about his death — that what makes Superman Superman is that he’s not a tyrant. He’s a king, to be sure, but he’s not a tyrant. He’s not petty or capricious, but he, the greatest among us, has made himself the servant of all.
So anyway, Superman dies, and the world — the honest-to-God real world in which you and I live, in which Superman is nothing more than a comic book character — stops for a moment to mourn him. Real emotions were felt. Real tears were likely shed. The comics were bought, and stored, and people for whom this character had been even a background element of their entire lives moved on to a post-Superman world. And then it happened.
He came back.
Superman had the gall not to stay dead. For all the hoopla surrounding Reign of the Supermen, for the circus of news, what strikes me the most in conversation with people is how much they resented it. It made them feel ridiculous, for one, for mourning someone who has about as much existence as Slaglon the Space Bunny (who I just made up), and for having been manipulated by a big company to feel sorrow as a marketing technique. They resented the company, they resented the character, and, having been introduced to the concept of the comic book death, they resented comics. And yet, now, seventeen years on, Superman is still kicking.
I write about all this today because it’s Easter, the day of resurrection, and Superman is sort of an icon of Christ. And if that’s true, he’s also an icon for how people respond to Christ, at least after a fashion. Thus, he dies and won’t stay dead, and rather than being grateful that he’s returned, we piss and fume and chunder at the event. He’s dead, dammit; stay dead. Death is for the living — it’s our place to make peace and mourn, and that veil is supposed to be inviolable. We don’t get to come back — and our loved ones don’t get to come back — so why should Superman? For that matter, why should Christ?
The parallels between the Son of Man and the Man of Steel only go so far, of course. Superman’s resurrection obviously never really happened, and neither did it accomplish much; he was able to reclaim his cape from a series of imposters, but ultimately, he settled back into routine. Superman was not glorified. He did not ease the state of man. He offered nothing but what he, in his limited capacity, could offer — to stop a bus here and there, to redirect the occasional asteroid, to bring peace to a city, but never to a soul. Superman, too, is fallen, if not quite as far as the rest of us. He doesn’t come from heaven, but from a cold and antiseptic technotopia where even the most distant touch is a forbidden communion. When coming to Earth, he didn’t empty himself, becoming like man, but was in fact filled with stunning power in the very act of his arrival.
And yet — he remains for many of us as Christlike a figure as we’re willing to accept, and he is rejected precisely for that Christlikeness. He’s the boy scout, the goody-two-shoes, unwilling to make the hard calls like the staunch realist Batman. And what’s worse, he died, he made us mourn him, the bastard, only to make our emotions shallow, hollow, and false by coming back.
We can’t accept resurrection easily. We can’t, and we won’t. We fill our mythologies with monsters, not heroes, who straddle that boundary, because only a monster would have the arrogance to not subject himself to directives of Terminus, lord of limits, and cross between life and death. We don’t like it. It scares us, because we’re afraid of death. If someone can die and come back — well, what else can cross that line?
But Christ could and would and did all of these things. He died, rose, and ascended, and promised us the same. He only made, really, one request of us: die with me. Be baptized into my death. Die to sin. Die to the world. Die to yourself, and live in me. The first step to eternal life is you have to die, and the guy who told us all that to begin with really did pony up and show us how that was supposed to work, and the end result is two-thousand years of people not wanting to take any of that seriously if they could possibly avoid it even a tiny bit.
Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. We’re afraid of death probably more than anything else. It takes an entire lifetime to steel yourself against it, to ready yourself to that reality. I’ve had a gun to my chest, and I have to admit that I was terrified of that bullet piercing the veil. And yet, had I died that night, had the mugger pulled the trigger –
Christ yet lives. That’s the point. That’s the message of Easter.
Christ yet lives.