Superman and Super Listening
I don’t recall ever having a dream where I was flying, but I did have a recurring Superman dream when I was a little kid. My baby sister was getting old enough to move out of my parents’ room and into my room. I was going into my older brother’s room. My brother was going into a new addition over the garage, which had shifted the house even more. Going into my brother’s room came with sleeping in a larger trundle bed, which had another pullout mattress inside the frame. This bed was like sleeping on a sturdy wooden ship.
The recurring dream was that I would hide myself between the wall and heavy headboard like it was a dark cave. In reality, the bed was too close to the wall for me to fit and too heavy for me to move on my own as a child. In the dream, I would be coaxed out of this hiding place each night by the characters I watched on television, like the gang on Sesame Street or Super Friends, a seventies children’s cartoon with the DC Comics characters. There was never a crossover of different show characters, but when it was the Super Friends, I remember Superman taking the lead. He didn’t stand with his hands on his hips for a scared boy to be in awe of but took a knee and came down to my level. I remember him listening to me, and I would wake up as I came out of my self-enclosure.
Looking back on that dream, I can see the younger version of myself felt lost in the shuffle with everything going on in the house but was also in the early stages of pleasing people. I couldn’t talk it out with an adult. But Superman listened. It’s known that Superman has Super Hearing, but I would like to talk about his Super Listening and what I have learned from Clark Kent about active listening.
Active listening is the process of not only giving someone your attention but also being aware of your verbal and nonverbal messaging/body language while they are talking and then conveying back that you have heard what they said. For myself, it has helped me zero in on my communication with others and eliminate pausing to talk next. Active listening allows me to acknowledge and process information better when speaking with someone else and helps a conversation get to the root of the matter.
I propose that Clark Kent puts active listening into action every day working as a reporter for the Daily Planet. He travels around the world and interviews people, getting to know what the human spirit can and cannot handle on its own when it comes to news-related tragedies. It is through active listening that Clark knows when he hears, “This is a job for Superman.”
Clark Kent’s Super Hearing allows him to constantly be alerted to all the troubles going on in the world, but growing up on Earth gives him the insight to avoid inserting his narrative into Earth’s affairs and to only intervene when he is needed. Clark’s home planet Krypton was destroyed because people didn’t listen to what was going on around them despite his father Jor-El’s warnings. Jor-El was only able to save his son Kal-El (Clark) by sending him to Earth in a rocket, where our Sun grants him his powers. With Earth as his adoptive home, Clark became intrinsically human and thus developed his Super Listening over time. Given the tragedy of Krypton and all his powers, Clark could react based on his home planet’s history, heedlessly respond to every call for help, and constantly overstep making sure Earth doesn’t destroy itself like Krypton did. Instead, he chooses to actively listen to us.
I use “Clark Kent” and not “Superman” to discuss active listening because Clark Kent is not a secret identity. He is Superman’s identity and that’s his secret. During the Golden Age of Superman, this wasn’t always the case and it’s illustrated by the opening of the 1950s television show Adventures of Superman. A viewer can conceptualize a stunning visual guide of the hero’s powers, including beyond-average strength and speed, as they see the images of a train rocketing by or a firing gun under voiceovers like “stronger than a locomotive” and “faster than a speeding bullet.” But the line in the show opening—“in his disguise as Clark Kent,” a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper—creates a misconception that Clark Kent is not Superman but a costume. Clark has a Fortress of Solitude hidden in the Arctic for contemplation and to remember his Kryptonian culture. Here, he can remind himself where he came from and who he currently is on Earth: Superman. This introspection allows Clark to give us the space to work out our problems and to know when he is truly needed.
Writer/artist John Byrne relaunched Superman in 1986 with the miniseries The Man of Steel, which helped to reframe Superman in a more relatable way. In the miniseries, Byrne kept the adoptive parents of Jonathan and Martha Kent in the modern era of Superman stories. The Kents were the farming family from Kansas who found the rocket ship of Krypton’s orphaned lone survivor. Before the relaunch, comic book readers only saw the Kents appear in Superboy flashback stories set in his boyhood town of Smallville, Kansas. Keeping the Kents as supporting characters, Byrne helped to establish Superman’s humanity and that it was Clark Kent who was Superman. The biggest reason for the relaunch was that people couldn’t relate to a hero who was so powerful they were juggling planets. The Man of Steel miniseries was seen as making Superman more relatable by diminishing his power level and making things more challenging for him. The miniseries also established that his skills as an active listener were honed by having the Kents in his life. Television shows like Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997) and Smallville (2001-2011) would deal with the nurturing relationship of the Kent family. The foundation of Smallville was that the parents were always available for their alien teen son to talk about what he was dealing with and changes he was going through as his powers developed. These conversations were about physical challenges Clark faced, his romantic interests, or a young Lex Luthor, a friendship that turned antagonistic over the series.
Super Listening is my answer to why Superman doesn’t go around solving all the world’s problems. He has listened to us as Clark Kent, who has reported back on what he heard and is giving us a proper response. Alternative stories of a Superman type gone bad show that they are turned by their Super Hearing. Mark Waid’s Irredeemable from Boom! Studios showed the Superman-like main character, The Plutonian, hitting his tipping point because he can no longer take the barrage of criticism he is constantly hearing around the world. The third season of Amazon Prime’s The Boys has Homelander literally tell everyone to shut up and that he is better than them on live television as the character progresses beyond his breaking point from earlier seasons. Even Batman is closed off to listening. His mission is to make sure that no one suffers like he did on the night his parents were shot. The difference between a shut-off hero in Gotham and a listening hero in Metropolis is literally night and day.
As a young child who dreamed of Superman to talk to about my problems, I would go out into the waking world looking for actual people who would listen to me over the years. Sometimes I would find people who would listen but be manipulative afterwards. They would convey that they were listening but then tag on their own agenda. I learned that the other side of active listening was to not let people take advantage of you and to see these red flags. Through therapy, I have worked on a stronger sense of self, and have worked out when people have kept me grounded for their own purposes and who have helped me to fly on my own. I have also worked on my own team of Super Friends, people that I know I can trust to go to for active listening in conversation. My wife calls them all Team Dom. I consider my family part of the team too. Over the years, we have learned to be open about what we are feeling with each other and what I have been going through with mental health. These are small steps along the way that we can take to destigmatize the conversation around mental health. Active listening is something that can help with mental health awareness that doesn’t take a leap over a building in a single bound. I have found that being there to listen, to really listen, to someone isn’t just a job for Superman.