I really love Superman.
Superman is my favourite fictional character, and I spend a lot of time thinking about why. A lot of what appeals to me about Superman are the ideals he stands for, but I’m a pretty misanthropic and nihilistic individual in my own outlook on life. Why am I drawn to Superman over Batman, Wolverine, The Punisher or any other darker, edgier superhero? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think it’s partly because the character has an outlook on life, Earth and its people that I’m kind of jealous of.
I’ve written a lot about how Superman, despite being biologically alien, is the best representative of what it means to be human but now I’m curious about which parts of Superman speak to others and what aspects of the character get incorporated into analogues for the Man of Tomorrow. In this series, I’ll be looking at a different Superman pastiche every week and discussing the ways they’re similar to and differ from the man himself.
This week, I wanted to start with Samaritan from Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross’ Astro City. I came into the article expecting to write about Samaritan as the platonic ideal of a super man but after re-reading key issues featuring the character, I was taken aback at how lonely and weary he truly is and how much he actually sacrifices in order to be everywhere at once.
One of the the things we know about Superman is that he’s going to be there to save the day, but Astro City literalises that with Samaritan, who has an Emergency Alert Transmitter that is constantly telling him what is going wrong, where and how important it is in the grand scheme of everything else going wrong. When it comes to super men, Samaritan is shown to be one of the busiest and in his first appearance in Astro City #1 he’s pretty much moving or doing something non-stop from the start until the end of the issue, which is bookended by his dreams of flying.
That’s really key to understanding the heartbreak of Samaritan. I nearly wrote tragedy, but it’s not quite that, but I think heartbreak fits. He’s someone that really loves being Samaritan and finds real fulfillment in his role as humanity’s protector and savior, but what he really wants to do is fly freely. You’d think he’d get to do that, but he’s only ever flying from one place to another and as he notes at the end of the issue he only clocks in fifty-six seconds of airtime throughout the entire day and that’s the most he’s got in months.
We get to see aspects of Samaritan’s regular life as Asa Martin, a fact-checker for her Current Magazine but even then it’s an extension of his role as a superhero. His position as a reclusive researcher allows him to disappear from his office without anyone noticing he’s gone and the resources of the magazine allow him to be plugged into the city’s network; this is 1995 we’re talking about, so commercial server systems aren’t really as easily accessible or navigable as they might be today. Samaritan sacrifices every aspect of his life towards his superheroic career because he knows the domino effect just one tragedy can have on the course of human history.
One of the most important things about Samaritan, I think, is his origin. He was born in the 35th century on an Earth one generation away from extinction and was chosen to go back in time to prevent the great catastrophe which kickstarted mankind down this path. His journey through time saturated with the “Empyrean” energy which gives him his power and he was able to avert the tragedy which led humanity to ruin: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Samaritan posits that someone aboard the Challenger likely went on to accomplish great things, or one of their children or descendents did and that’s what saved the fata of humanity, but I don’t think that’s why Busiek is going for. The Challenger disaster was a generational defining disaster that every school-age child in America watched happen in their classroom and for many it represented a harsh wake-up call to the reality of an uncaring world where bad things happened to good people. For a generation of Americans, the Challenger disaster represented the end of hope but in saving it, Samaritan sent a message that even when things go wrong, hope can be salvaged.
A great hero can be defined by their villains and I think Samaritan’s two main bad guys can give us a lot of insight into the character himself. The first is The Living Nightmare, a sentient collection of negative energies accidentally created by a psychologist who tried to eliminate fear. Samaritan fights The Living Nightmare in Astro City #1 but its appearance decades later is of more interest to me. Instead of attacking Samaritan head-on, it seeps into his consciousness slowly poisoning his outlook on life and his relationship with his friends, lover and co-workers.
This feels to me like a specific commentary on the ways DC Comics, which was publishing Astro City at the time, often tried to make Superman darker or more troubled in a misguided attempt to make him more relatable. It’s a similar approach to one found in Grant Morrison and Gene Ha’s Action Comics (2011) #9 but it doesn’t quite as brazenly bite the hand that feeds it as that issue does. Samaritan has to take fourteen hours out of his scheduled saving the world time in order to undergo tests which would ultimately determine the cause of his ill mood and in that time, the heroes of Astro City’s world step and fill the gap because Samaritan is at his core, an inspiration character, just like Superman.
Samaritan’s other villain that I want to talk about is Infidel, a complex character who serves as probably the closest thing Samaritan has to a Lex Luthor-type. A long-lived alchemist and one of the smartest men to ever live, Infidel lived in peace at the end of time until Samaritan’s actions remade the future and in the process eliminated Infidel’s world. The two would battle countlessly over the years as the villain tried to restore his timeline at the expense of humanity’s future and Samaritan would put it back and drive him away.
There’s a level of mutual respect between the two characters that I think Superman writers often toy with, but Lex as a character doesn’t really allow for that. However, it does bring to mind one of the greatest Superman stories of all time, Miracle Monday, which reveals that Superman’s greatest regret is that he wasn’t able to ever get through to Luthor. Samaritan’s relationship with Infidel is the same and shows a hero who just won’t give up; he sees the potential for greatness in Infidel’s genius and every year he’ll try and get through to it bit by bit, even if it takes all of their lives.
Another character Samaritan gets contrasted with his the superhero who would become his romantic partner; Winged Victory. As much a Wonder Woman analogue as he is of Superman, Winged Victory is a hero who fights for women’s safety and security above all else and feels like a logical extension of William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter’s original take on the archetype. The two clash at first with Samaritan not understanding why she would priotised one gender over another and Winged Victory not understanding why he’d pretend to be more human than he is but they ultimately find a common ground and strike up a relationship. As she says to him “You’re a god pretending to be normal, I’m a normal woman living up to the role of a god.” and in each other they find something they were missing out on in their regular and superheroic lives.
Samaritan is a really interesting reflection of Superman because while the latter is an incredibly human character at his core, Samaritan is perhaps a more accurate portrayal of the aspects of humanity a savior hero would have to sacrifice in order to do their job. In a lot of ways, Samaritan is a more “grounded” take on the concept than any other attempt to do so; you don’t make Superman grounded by making him meaner or more violent, you ground him by showcasing everything he gives up in order to save us.
If you want to read what I read for this article, here’s a short reading list.
Astro City (1995) #1 by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, Steve Buccaletto and Richard Starkings.
Astro City (1995) #6 by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, Steve Buccaletto and Richard Starkings.
Astro City Special: Samaritan #1 by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, Alex Sinclair and John Roshell
Astro City (2013) #26 by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, Alex Sinclair and Comicraft.
I’d also recommend reading Charlotte Finn’s “A Year In The Big City” series on Shelfdust about the most recent volume of Astro City, which includes a great piece on Astro City (2013) #26.