This essay originally appeared in Talking Back: Epistolary Fantasies, edited by L. Timmel DuChamp and published by Aqueduct Press in 2006.
I hope this letter reaches you. I wasn’t sure where to send it. There’s no address for your Fortress of Solitude, and Metropolis, USA, is too vague for the postal service. I know all your identities, which are no secrets to the people whose lives you have touched. There’s Clark Kent, of course, but there’s also Kirk Alyn, and George Reeves, and Christopher Reeve, among others. You’ve revealed yourself to us in so many ways, through those first cheap newsprint pages of the comics, and then through these seemingly normal, sadly mortal, men — each one extraordinary in his own right. I realized that, like a god, you are all around us and within each of us. So I’ve decided to send this letter as an e-mail to be forwarded around the globe. In this form, it may travel even faster than your famed super speed, spreading this message to those who need it and inspiring those who carry some measure of your strength every day. I’m addressing this letter to the Superman in all of us.
Where do I start? At the beginning, I suppose. I grew up without a father, as more and more children do these days. I don’t remember him very well because I was so young when he left, but I knew that he hurt us — my mom and my sister and me — in every way you can hurt another person, and we were better off without him in our lives. In his absence, you became my role model, Superman. You are the person who taught me what and who I should be when I grew up, that you could be a man without bringing pain to your loved ones. Though you are an alien, you are much more human than my father was capable of being, than most of us can ever be. Through your deeds I learned the difference between right and wrong, which resulted in the moral sensibilities I have today. I learned what it means to be a good person in a world filled with evils, but it took many years before I discovered that those evils aren’t always clearly identifiable as super villains (though we have those). Instead, they manifest in the daily slights and ills we cause so easily by caring about ourselves more than others.
Like many kids and adults alike, I wished I could be you. It seemed possible, because you were just like me once. In the video my mother brought home when I was a boy, you lost your adoptive father, and for all your powers you couldn’t save him. You grew up taking care of your mother, not as a hero with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men, but simply as a loving son. And even when you left home to seek your destiny, you always watched out for her. I can relate to the devotion you had for her, now that I am an adult with a mother living on her own. It is a responsibility, sometimes a burden, but something I do gladly because I care.
As a child, I ran and jumped around in a towel pretending I could fly, and when I eventually required glasses I pretended that I too had a secret identity. I wore shirts with your symbol on the chest, and I fantasized about what it would mean to be super. Lots of people wish they had your powers, but as I got older, my desire to be you was less about the coolness factor of your Kryptonian heritage than about following your example and wanting to help and protect people. From watching you, Superman, more than believing that a man can fly, I believed that a single person can make a difference — with out without heat vision or super strength. It’s harder without those gifts, and on a much smaller scale, but anyone can try to make things a little better for someone else in our daily lives. At the end of the day, your achievements aren’t about what you can do, but the fact that you try at all — whether you succeed or not. It’s these personal, never-ending battles with selfishness and hate and jealousy and fear that we must continue to fight, defeating them first in ourselves and then helping others.
Over the years you’ve changed, but not in ways that matter. Underneath those red, yellow, and blue tights you’ve always been the same: a symbol of the best in each of us, a symbol of hope. When I see you zipping across the sky, I have faith in the pursuit of “truth, justice, and the American way” — not the way of America now, of course, but the ideals of the America that you represent. Superman, you are a citizen of the world, but you’re a son of America — you are America. America has changed a lot too, but underneath it’s still the same, and it will return as surely as you did when the whole world feared you were lost forever.
Superman, you’ve saved more of us than you will ever know and we need you now more than ever. None of us is as invincible as we think we are. We are never as strong or as noble as we would like to be. We are not as selfless and caring as we should be, nor do we always know the limits of our own abilities. Help each of us to recognize our failings and give us the power to overcome them.
Save us, Superman.