Superman: An Outsider Among the Justice League? (Inspired by Superman vs. Meshi)

Manga Superman looking sad on a black background, thinking " be honest, I'm not sure I fit in here."

Superman vs. Meshi is an official Superman manga that I greatly enjoy – not just because it’s cute, funny and well-drawn, but also because its depiction of Superman is actually really interesting. Like most of my favored depictions of him, he’s very humanized and very personable. It makes sense to focus on this side of him in this manga considering the book has a very human, small-scale focus: each chapter is a short story about Superman going to lunch in Japan, with lots of descriptions of the food he’s eating. There’s nothing too exciting going on – in fact, it’s implied that Superman has apparently done such a good job in this universe that the whole world is fairly peaceful. But the manga is far from boring, at least to this Super fan. I really enjoy getting to know this version of Superman, and it’s also surprisingly fun to read the detailed descriptions of Japanese food – they always sound quite delicious and bring back good memories of any times I’ve had similar food.

But more to the point, let’s talk about a specific trait of this Superman that is somewhat rare among Superman depictions. In Chapter 3, he meets with the Justice League and does some introspection about his relationship with them. I’ll go ahead and share the relevant pages.

A manga page showing Superman in a meeting with the Justice League. The dialogue is:
Batman: What's wrong, Superman?
Superman: Oh....I just have to go to work this afternoon. And since it's peaceful, I thought maybe we could cut this short...
Batman: What are you talking about...? Noon is hours away. And we're the Justice League. Don't you consider protecting the Earth your real job?
Superman: O-of course, Batman...Sorry...
Superman's thoughts: That's right.
Aquaman: That reminds me, where's Green Lantern?
Superman's thoughts: This is the world's most powerful team...I'm proud to fight alongside them.
Flash: Oh...
A manga page showing Superman in a meeting with the Justice League. The dialogue is:
Off-panel League member: He didn't show up again today...
Superman's thoughts: be honest, I' not sure I fit in here. Every time I look at Wonder Woman, it feels like I'm ogling her. I have no idea what Cyborg's thinking. Aquaman can I put it? Crude. Flash talks so fast I can't catch what he's saying sometimes... Green Lantern hasn't shown up for quite some time now... Batman is the anchor...but he's also unrelentingly serious and gloomy.
A manga page showing Superman leaving the Justice League meeting and flying away, looking said. His thoughts are: They're not a bad bunch when you're with them one on one...their individual senses of ethics vary, but they share the same commitment to world peace. It's just when we're all sitting around a table...particularly in a meeting situation...well, am I the only one who gets exhausted from it...? Maybe I'm more working solo.

There’s a lot to talk about in these three short pages, but the main thrust of it is that Superman doesn’t feel like he really belongs in the Justice League. That’s not what people expect from Superman. Superman is supposed to be the friendly and confident guy that everyone gets along with and looks up to, especially his fellow superheroes. He’s one of the first characters, if not the first, anyone thinks of when they think about the Justice League. So naturally, it makes sense that he would fit in with them perfectly – in fact, he should define what it means to be a Justice League member. Right? Well, not necessarily, in my opinion.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t think there’s such a thing as the “right” or “true” or “correct” version of Superman, since he’s a fictional character who has been portrayed in a wide variety of different ways. But an aspect of him that has showed up in many forms over the years is the idea of him being a bit of a self-contradiction in terms of his connection with others. He has many friends and allies, yet somehow has a sense of loneliness to him too. He’s different from others – an alien from a now nonexistent planet and either the last of his kind or one of only a handful of surviving Kryptonians. And the mere fact of being a superhero who has to keep a secret identity disconnects him from the majority of people.

Now, it does seem natural that therefore, perhaps Superman might be able to connect with other superheroes more easily than other people because they know what it’s like to be a superhero. But there are reasons this might not be the case, which makes me think this is a reasonable direction for the character. I’m going to be talking in generalities and across continuities looking for reasons why this can mesh with traits generally given to Superman.

Superman’s Origin

Most superheroes, including those in the Justice League, started as normal humans, and became superheroes because of an unexpected event. You could maybe interpret this as applying to Superman in terms of Krypton’s explosion being the unexpected event that “gave him powers” by leading to him being sent to a planet with a yellow sun, but I think this is a bit of a stretch.

As far as Clark’s life goes, there are many times he’s not depicted as having all his powers from the get-go and instead needing to grow in order to get them. This still feels pretty different from starting as a normal human and getting your powers from something external. In a way, Superman is fundamentally different from the majority of Earth’s population in a way that most superheroes are not, due to not being human and never having been human.

And yet, on a psychological and personal level, it’s perhaps more accurate to say Superman is human…but he might not be perceived as such by people who see him as Superman rather than Clark Kent. This leads me to perhaps a more important divide between Superman and his fellow heroes.

How Superman is Perceived and Revered

Superman is almost always perceived as a really big deal even among superheroes. Is he THE first, most honorable, most successful, most popular, most powerful superhero in every universe? Not necessarily, but his perception is something like that. And I think those expectations might have the potential to make things more difficult for Superman. People probably assume that they can’t relate to Superman before they even try to get to know him. Even accomplished, powerful superheroes don’t necessarily see him as a peer, but as someone above them.

What’s also awkward is that Superman doesn’t see himself this way – he’s generally confident, but humble. And he lives much of his life not reveling in his fame or power, but as a mild-mannered reporter. I see this a lot in those Superman vs. Meshi panels, and it warms my heart. But Superman knows it’s important to inspire others, including his fellow heroes, so while he’d want people to know that he doesn’t see himself as high above them, he might feel reluctant to shatter his myth altogether.

Seeing this awkwardness be overcome, possibly requiring character development from both Superman and the League members, could be a very satisfying story.

This might explain why Superman tends to have closer friendships with his fellow members of the “Trinity”, Batman and Wonder Woman. Since those two are also rather “legendary”, they aren’t as awed by Superman.

Superman is More Used to Working Alone (Well, Sometimes)

OK, this point is a bit dubious because Superman does work with other people and other heroes even outside the Justice League, but he’s at least closer to working alone than many other Justice League members (in most depictions). He may have “Super-Family Members”, but they’re somewhat independent from him – he doesn’t have long-term, “true” sidekicks. So maybe working with a lot of other superheroes doesn’t come naturally to him to the point it might be a bit awkward.

The big problem with this is…the Legion of Super-Heroes. If Superman was part of a superhero team when he was young, before even meeting the Justice League, than naturally it should be more normal to him, right? Of course, the Superman being part of the Legion as a teen is something that keeps coming into and leaving comics continuity, and it rarely makes its way out of the comics, so this isn’t even applicable to many versions of Superman.

Back to Superman vs. Meshi Real Quick

Before I conclude this article, I’m going to circle back to the manga that inspired it. It’s interesting how little relevance most of this article actually has to Superman vs. Meshi in particular. Unlike this article, Superman vs. Meshi didn’t seek to justify why Superman doesn’t fit in with the Justice League with detailed reasons based on the general traits of how he’s portrayed. It just did it rather casually, treating Superman as basically a normal guy. And I like that.

Still, I think it was worthwhile looking at some reasons why I don’t think this depiction of the Man of Steel is at odds with his character in general. I hope I can find more stories which depict Superman’s relationship with the Justice League in an interesting way. If you know of any, please feel free to let me know!

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