Favorite Superman: Featured Image

I initially wrote an article for this landmark comic event, the 1000th issue of ACTION COMICS, about my ambivalence to Superman. It was supposed to be about how I love the idea of the Man of Tomorrow, but rarely love his stories. Yet I deleted it. That’s no way to help ring in a big event. Sorry you won’t be reading that piece, though; it was truly something.

I also wrote a Superman piece about my favorite depictions of him on the page. I meant to include this one, but it kind of got away from me. So I gave it its own space.

Instead, I thought I would write about the Superman—or Supermen, if you will—that I do love. The versions of the Man of Steel that have affirmed my love of him, of the character concept. On this, the eve of the 1000th issue of ACTION COMICS, I come to praise Last Son of Krypton, not to bury him. Or, more appropriately, I come to sing the praises of one depiction of Superman.

So, please grab a glass of champagne. Feel free to sample the hot hors d’oeuvre being offered around the room. I apologize in advance for this getting a little sad.

Favorite Superman: Christopher Reeve
Christopher Reeve on-screen briefly in the documentary AMERICAN VALUES, AMERICAN WILDERNESS in 2004 (Courtesy of High Plains Films)

Christopher Reeve as On-Screen Superman

There is something a little strange about choosing Mr. Reeve for this, I confess. For one, he is a flesh-and-blood being, not a flat, four-color rendering of a hero. For another, the SUPERMAN film franchise featuring him was maybe 50% effective. The final one, THE QUEST FOR PEACE, is wildly cheap and noticeably so. The third has its defenders, but I always found it to be, well, bad. Even the “classics” of the franchise, the first two installments, struggled to maintain a consistent tone.

However, the problem was never Reeve. His Clark Kent was awesome, a masquerade that indicated itself clearly. He was Clark; that was clear; only the clumsiness was faked. The decency, the cute awkwardness — they were real. His Superman was excellent too, an inverse masquerade. The physicality of him was real, but the confidence, the emotional distance, they were an act. There is a reason that the Superman of the DC Universe for years looked so very on-model. The artists were drawing inspiration from Reeve himself.

ACTION COMICS #1000 Celebrates 80 Years of Superman With This Unforgettable Comic Event

Christopher Reeve as Real-Life Superman

For me, though, Reeve carried more weight as a man than as an onscreen character. In May of 1995, Reeve was thrown from a horse. As result of the fall, he injured his top two vertebrae which, in turn, damaged his spine. This led to paralysis from the neck down, seemingly irreversibly.

Just over a month later, my uncle Gary Gotowala would be diagnosed Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). For those unaware, ALS is better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It is a degenerative disorder that takes away a person’s muscle control. It begins with the voluntary muscles like those that govern walking, running, swimming, and so on. For my uncle, just 35 and a natural athlete, it felt like a particularly pitiless fate. Then, it moves to more fine voluntary muscles, like those that control hand movements, speech, and swallowing. Finally, it moves to the involuntary muscles—the heart, the lungs—and eventually the person literally loses the muscle control to live.

Now, my uncle’s condition and Reeve’s were not the same. Reeve’s happened in a moment, a thunderclap of cruel randomness. My uncle’s was a slow process and not a steady one. It proceeded by jumps, followed by times of relative stability, followed by seeming moments of improvement, followed by even larger leaps “forward.” The closeness of the timing of their injuries, however, always linked them in my mind. Additionally, much of what Reeve would campaign for, solution-wise, carried the possibility of perhaps helping my uncle as well. I drew hope from Reeve even as I knew that the possibility of either improving was slim.

Favorite Superman: Gary Gotowala and son
My uncle Gary takes a jaw shattering right jab from his son (and my cousin) Andrew circa 1994 (Courtesy of the writer)

Even Supermen Die

In June of 2002, almost seven years to the day my uncle was told he had two years to live, Gary died. He was buried in a Red Sox uniform, a rosary in his hands. We joked about how my uncle would only allow one Yankee to play ball with him in heaven, Mr. Gehrig himself. After all, Gary and old Iron Horse had a bit in common.

My father offered one of the eulogies, a story of him, some 6’4” tall, and Gary, some 5’ 5” tall, playing basketball in the pouring rain. Gary, then recently diagnosed but still fit as a fiddle, metaphorically carried my dad in the game. He danced through the rain drops and sank shots like the sun was shining and the court was bone dry.

We drank shots of Jaeger in my Aunt’s kitchen and tried to laugh because he would have preferred that. Celebrate, don’t mourn. He was 42 years old.

I don’t think I really, fully, accepted my uncle’s death until Reeve’s followed suit, over two years later. Reeve had been fighting an infection on and off for a month and reacted to an antibiotic. He slipped into a coma and died shortly thereafter.

Magazines and newspapers were covered with pictures of him in his prime or onstage during the 1996 Academy Awards. Some even used pictures of him from his time on Smallville, a nice coda to his career. I realized for the first time I had knit him and Gary together in my mind.

I borrowed a copy of DEATHTRAP from the local library. Having just become a caretaker on a farm, I took it back to the darkened house and watched it alone that Sunday night. I was not ready to see him as Superman again. He was 52.

How Superheroes Brought Me Back to Life

A Postscript

A year later, I found myself in the offices of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, then just the Christopher Reeve Foundation. I had just moved to Princeton, NJ — oddly enough, Reeve’s hometown.

I was there in Tea Neck, NJ interviewing for a public relations position. Before becoming a therapist, I focused on making money for others, either by fundraising for the likes of the MDA or selling more to corporate types. I was attempting to transition into helping people without asking for money.

The interview went wonderfully. I briefly met Dana Reeve, unaware that she was sick. I hopefully did not prove too foolish in front of her. It seemed like it would have been an excellent place to work and I felt comfortable right away.

I never worked there though. Before they could offer me a job, I heard from Community Hope, a mental health organization. I accepted a position working in a group home for adults with schizophrenia and then a promotion to a two year program for veterans with co-occurring disorders. It was the right choice. It got me back on track to become a therapist.

I confess, though, some of me wishes I had waited until the Reeve Foundation got back to me and offered me a job. A chance to work there, to work for his legacy…it would have been an incredible thing. It certainly would have made for a better ending to this piece.

Alas, in life we almost never get to choose our endings. Gary didn’t. Christopher didn’t. But we do get to choose a lot about the way we live. And regardless of how intentional or unintentional it was, Reeve chose a life that would have made his onscreen alter ego proud. You can’t do much better than making Superman proud.

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