My Brother Is Superman
Carl E. Thompson
c.2006 Maveric Lion Productions
I don’t remember exactly when my brother, Joe, bought the Superman shirt. It was months after we became homeless, during that time when I got the ill fated and nearly fatal job in the storm window factory.
At first I thought it was a silly waste of money that we didn’t have.
But then he explained it to me and it all became perfectly clear.
That August 11th I checked into Jefferson Hospital with infected diabetic ulcers on both great toes—one of which—the left—had gone right to the bone. The prognosis did not look good. First the doctors had to deal with the infections and then decided what to do about the left toe. Whatever the case my days in the storm window factory were over. No more jobs where one has to stand on one’s feet for ten hours a day.
At that time I had a cell phone but Joe did not. So there was no reliable way for me to get in touch with him.
To call a men’s shelter you need to have the number of the pay phone. If you call the main phone they will not, under law, admit that the person you are trying to reach is there. If you call the pay phone then you are at the mercy of whatever slop head happens to answer it. On top of that so idiot may have the phone tied up talking to his girlfriend or making a drug deal. That’s the way it works down on the lower levels of society.
Knowing this and knowing that, sooner or later, Joe would show up at St John’s Hospice looking for me I left a note with the person in the front office at the shelter, and then I settled back as well as I could, considering the circumstances.
The hospital is one of the nicer ones in Philadelphia, a town that is top heavy with nice hospitals. The nurses were pretty and personable and I had a television in my room. Hospitals have grown up, you no longer have to share a room with a dying drunk or a criminal psychopath—as had happened when I was first diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager.
I had a notebook with me, so I started to work on my writing. If I could no longer make storm windows I’d have to find another way to make a living and get us out of this mess.
I didn’t want to think about what might happen. More time spent in homeless shelters, trying to struggle by on the joke that is Welfare payments in Pennsylvania. And the thought of losing a toe—or a foot—I just didn’t want to address that. Not yet. There just seemed to be a lot of permanently homeless men with missing limbs. The thought made my blood run chilly.
And I was worried about Joe—the only viable family I had left.
So, needless to say, I was scared.
It was Saturday before Joe found out where I was.
From the door of my room I could see him coming up the hall in that blue shirt with its yellow diamond and big red S. You know what it looks like. Everyone knows what it looks like. People who have never read a comic book know all about Superman and know what his S looks like. Along with James Bond, Tarzan, his buddy Batman and Sherlock Holmes he is one of the most famous men who never existed.
When John Lennon said that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus he was wrong—but not for the obvious reason. Superman, the Man of Steel is as famous—if not more so—than Jesus. People who have never heard a Beatles album have heard of him. They know about his secret identity of Clark Kent, that his born name is Kal-el and that he is the Last Son of Krypton. They’ve hear of his arch enemy, the bald scientist/billionaire Lex Luthor and Superman’s long time girlfriend. Lois Lane. Jokes about X-ray vision and changing in a phone booth are cultural standards. People who can’t tell you who the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is can tell you Superman’s father was Jor-el.
And here came my shaggy haired brother wearing that shirt. It was a beautiful sight.
Joe is the artist of the family. He has always wanted to work in comic books. So I thought the shirt was simply a manifestation of that desire. But I was only half right. There was more to it than that.
It all goes back to the Superman myth. And the way people feel about this mythical being. And by association who they feel about someone in that shirt.
When Christopher Reeve died after a long and courageous battle with paralysis they didn’t say “actor Reeve dies.” No, they said “Superman dies.” Yes, he did a great job playing the Man of Steel in two good and two mediocre movies but he wasn’t Superman—not really. He was an actor who played the role with truth and honesty.
So powerful is the myth of Superman though he died of a possibly self inflicted gunshot wound actor George Reeves was popularly claimed to have broken his neck trying to fly out the window of his one story ranch house. How could Superman die of a bullet wound? But he did die—so maybe he broke his neck trying to fly. That fits in with the dark side of us that wants to see the mighty—even Superman—fall. Hey, maybe some bad guy hit him with Kryptonite before he fell.
“Carl! There you are. I was worried.”
Superman dropped his pack on the floor and sat down in the chair next to my bed.
“When I didn’t see you for a few days I thought it was just that damned job and its crazy hours. But when I didn’t see you today I realized something was wrong. We always get together on Saturday. So I went to St. Johns to see where you were. They told me that you were in Thomas Jefferson. I rushed right over her.
No doubt jumping tall buildings in single bounds.
I told him the facts, trying not to break out in tears that I’ve been holding back even in front of him since our mother died and we got dispossessed by a city that cares more for crooked realtors and luxury condos than poor people.
My brother stood and looked out the window on my hospital room. Looked out over the city that had wronged us, his hands on his hips. I could see that he was not using his x-ray vision. He too was trying to fight back tears.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who can save us from this,” I said. “There’s no Superman, Joe. And if there was Philadelphia would try to tax him out of existence and make being a superhero against the law.”
“They’d fail,” he said, truing towards me, shaking his leonine head. “Because people want there to be a Superman.
“When I walk down the street wearing this cheap t-shirt little kids yell hey, Superman. People call to me and say hello. The other day I heard a cop say into his radio: Superman is in the area. With the possible exception of the kids they all know there is no Superman, but they want there to be. They want a hero who is bigger in life and not one with feet of clay. And they’ll even accept a guy in a store bought shirt.
“And you wanna know why? Because of what he stands for. For things that they would all like to believe in but are afraid to. Truth, justice and the American way. The way America was meant to be before it became what it has become. They wanna believe in that. But they are scared to.
“Bin Ladin’s real. They can count on that sick freak and his psycho followers. But wouldn’t it be great is Superman and the Justice League were real too? That they had stopped what happened that September morning. If we could depend on someone besides those fools in the White House and those idiots in the Senate.
“Even though there were heroes that day they were mortal and they died. We want heroes that don’t die and never quit. Not assholes whose only virtue is they belong to the same political party as us. But those men and women that died that day, they were Superman in their own way. He didn’t exist so they had to become him. We all do. To keep the dream alive.”
It made sense. Self protective cynicism can only get you so far. Sometimes you have to take the risk and dare to believe that life has a meaning. That good will triumph over evil and that, in the end, self sacrifice and bravery are worth it all.
From that day forward I’ve looked on things differently.
From that day forward I’ve been proud of my brother. For me he is the embodiment of an ideal. He is my hero, the guy who inspires me to keep on going. To me my brother is Superman—as are I and every one of you.