A common criticism of Superman is that he’s hard to relate to. He’s too good, too powerful, or generally viewed as not being as complex as a tragic character like Bruce Wayne/Batman or a flawed hero like Tony Stark/Iron Man. Deborah Snyder, producer of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (I liked it, by the way), said as much in a recent interview. Strangely, perhaps, I’ve always found Superman, and his Clark Kent alter-ego, to be the most relatable of superheroes and the new Superman & Lois series on the CW has been reminding me why. They did something with the character that took me by surprise: the Daily Planet laid off Clark Kent. Having dodged the layoff bullet a few times and not survived a couple of other workforce reductions, including recently thanks to the COVID-fueled economic downturn, I’m well acquainted with this reality of corporate life. Superman isn’t wealthy so he’s not immune to the economic or psychological effects of a lay off like he is to weapons fire. The show depicts him, played with warmth and dignity by Tyler Hoechlin, as he suffers loss, struggles to be present as a father and husband, and has to navigate an uncertain financial future. Yeah, us too, Superman. Fortunately, the point of the show is not to take delight in Superman’s bad luck. It does what a lot of great art does: it reminds us we’re not alone and how to heal.
Art of all kinds has always been important to me and I developed a love of comic books early in life. Probably due to the prevalence of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and various superhero shows on Saturday morning, like The Super Friends or Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. My parents would also get me some random comics to encourage my reading habits and I doubt they knew I’d still be reading comics now. I loved it all but Superman was always little Justo’s favorite:
And, outside of a period in the 90’s where I was too busy being moody and darkly “interesting” (I thought) while still being too shy to ask a girl out, I still liked Superman deep down no matter the age. He always starts as a kid’s power fantasy but that’s not the reason he sticks around. Even nostalgia only goes so far. We relate to Superman not because he’s powerful or the guardian angel of a fictional version of our world. We relate–I relate–to Superman because he’s an outsider; and an immigrant adopted by a loving family and a cynical world; someone who straddles two cultural identities and assimilates while still being proud of who he is and where he’s from. Most importantly, we learn that selflessness takes many forms, like how Clark Kent and Lois Lane stand up for the powerless and take on the bullies of the world as journalists in addition to the adventures of the caped Man of Steel.
And yet the first thing Todd Helbring, Greg Berlanti, and their writing staff did on Superman & Lois was take away his career, in much the same way unforeseen circumstances took the careers away from so many of us in the last year. It’s not unusual to be defined by a job. Losing it is as much a crisis of identity as much as a financial crisis. It’s not something a super power can help us get over. We can prepare and put on a happy face as we get asked for the thousandth time how the job search is going, or if we’ve applied to this or that, or talked to x-person or reached out to a new stranger. While grateful for the caring of others, it still hurts to be in the position. There aren’t motivational phrases or mindsets that soothes the feeling of wasted time, lost connections, and a powerfully mutated sense of imposter syndrome. But there is gratitude.
You might be wondering what Superman has anything to do with this, or what the new series has to say about being laid off. It says what every Superman story always says. He focuses on those around him and on being a better father and husband, on being a good friend, and on helping others. It’s a warm hug that reminds us we are not alone in our struggles. That if someone needs help you help them. Not because you expect something in return but because it is the only thing to do. You keep being present for your family, your partners, and your friends. Reach out to old colleagues and distant acquaintances, even the ones you might have had the shortest of interactions with. They’ll remember you by reputation if you did things right.
We can’t fly or save everyone who needs us. We can’t always save ourselves from despair. We can, though, always remember to be present for those that need us even if you think you’re the one who needs saving.
Selflessness takes many forms, as does healing. This is what the best Superman stories remind us and I hope none of us ever get so cynical to think kindness is not relatable.
To all of you looking for new jobs and remembering that you are more than the bullets on your resume, you are not alone.