The true strength of a hero is not defined by how they conduct themselves when they’re at their best. It’s defined by how they carry themselves when they’re at their most pathetic. Any hero can come off as a paragon of virtue and strength when they’re standing atop the corpse of a slain dragon amidst a crowd of cheering admirers. But if that same hero has a bad day and deals with it by getting into a bar fight with a clown, they’re not going to come off as very heroic.
Bad days are everyone’s kryptonite. Even Superman is capable of having one for reasons that don’t always involve a cage fight with Doomsday. Those kinds of days help reinforce the traits and values that make him the alpha and omega of superheroes. He’s already had his share of bad days lately, which have ranged from dealing with Jimmy Olsen as a roommate to Lex Luthor as a teammate on the Justice League. But the day he endures in Superman #40 reveals something even more profound about the Man of Steel. And it does so in a way that’s both oddly insightful and laughably entertaining.
Superman’s rough day at the office begins with his flashy new power, which involves him firing off a potent solar flare at an intensity that only makes it a slight Dragonball Z rip-off. It’s the power that helped him defeat Ulysses. But unlike his many other inhuman feats, this power comes with a side-effect that even Dr. Oz couldn’t overlook. It renders Superman powerless for a brief span of time. It sounds like only a more convenient form of kryptonite, but it gives Superman an opportunity that he hasn’t had before and it’s an opportunity he exploits in the story.
While learning about his new power under the observation of the Justice League, Superman reveals a side of himself that’s easy to ignore. Being so powerful, he’s hopelessly numb to certain human experiences. He can never know the joys of an ice cream headache, dumping tobacco sauce on a taco, or taking a dip in a hot Jacuzzi on a cold winter day. This is a man who takes punches from Mongol and falls into volcanoes at least once a week. These are human feelings he can’t experience. Now thanks to this power, he has a window with which to be human and he embraces it.
This in and of itself is a profound statement about Superman. Most superheroes who don’t rely on cosmic forces, enhanced biology, or gadgets that cost more than MC Hammer’s old house go out of their way to avoid losing their powers. They see losing this power the same way a typical high school student sees losing their smartphone. It’s like having a limb amputated. But for Superman, it shows that what he stands for goes beyond his powers. Doing the right thing doesn’t take the strength of Superman. It just requires the desire to do it.
This is a trait Superman has shown on many occasions, but one that’s becoming more and more relevant in an era where every superhero goes through an emo period. Being without his powers doesn’t discourage Superman in the slightest. In fact, he’s probably the most upbeat person in the Justice League when he’s without his powers in this story, except for Wonder Woman when she gets a chance to see him naked. The ability to actually experience being human without it involving a plot by Lex Luthor is exhilarating for Superman. To him, being human only reinforces why Superman is such an icon.
It makes for a fun and engaging story, following Superman as he partakes in some very human experiences. The fun ends for him, however, when he experiences one of the least appealing human experiences that doesn’t involve root canal. He gets hung over. Let that concept sink in. Superman, the icon of all things just and true, gets hung over after sharing a friendly meal with his friends in the Justice League. It’s as funny and outlandish. Anyone who has ever experienced a hangover after a Super Bowl party can appreciate its impact.
Yet despite being so hung over, Superman still wakes up the next morning and continues being Superman. Even with his powers returning, it’s very clear that he’s fighting the urge to curl up next to a toilet for the rest of the day. But he still puts on his cape and manages to do what Superman does, stopping a fairly typical battle involving street thugs armed with alien weapons. In any other context, it would be as generic as Peter Parker breaking up with his girlfriend. But the fact that Superman is doing this while fighting a hangover just adds an extra bit of value to the story.
It’s still a fairly short battle with few details worth remembering, but it’s not intended to be another epic struggle against Brainiac. It’s meant to show that Superman is still capable of being Superman while exploring human experiences. He doesn’t rely on his powers, nor is he hindered by human weaknesses. He still does the right thing, even when he’s fighting the urge to throw up every 15 minutes.
Superman #40 is an entertaining, condensed narrative that tells and important story. Some parts of that story are rushed, but the important parts are not glossed over. Superman learns more about his new power. He also learns more about human experiences, from the pleasant taste of a cold beer to the unmitigated agony that too many beers can incur. But he still finds time to be Superman. It’s a perfect summation of what makes him an icon among icons. Only now, he’s not just an icon that can inspire others to be better. He’s an icon they can share a cold beer with and that just makes him all the more heroic.