It sometimes takes a Hitman to explain Superman’s greatness.

It’s not a secret at all that I’m a huge Batman fan. What’s a little less obvious is that I’m a huge Superman fan as well.

I’ve always enjoyed watching Superman TV shows and films (animated or live-action), and while I don’t have as many Superman comics or novels at home as I do Batman ones, it’s rare that I come across a Superman story I don’t like. I suppose the reason is that while Batman is the epitome of human training both physical and mental, Superman is more defined by the example he sets for others. He’s capable of incredible feats, but at his core, he’s a man who wants to do right by everyone.

Earlier today I was having a Twitter conversation with John Vogel (story/animation guru for NetherRealm Studios, developers of Mortal Kombat and Injustice: Gods Among Us), Tom Taylor (writer for the Injustice: Gods Among Us prequel comic), and Patrick McCarron (webmaster for MK fansite TRMK), where I made a snarky comment about a fantasy about Superman starting his day actually originated with Hitman. I then suddenly remembered one of my favorite Superman moments, and it in fact involved Hitman.

“Hitman” (who almost always went by his real name, Tommy Monaghan) had his own comic in the 1990’s; he was a contract killer living in Gotham City who decided to specialize in killing criminals (especially metahumans) after surviving an alien attack. In issue #34, Tommy was sitting on a rooftop when he gets the shock of his life: Superman is there, too. The two talk, and Superman explains that he’s feeling down because he failed to save one astronaut’s life while rescuing his comrades. Superman is having a moment where he doesn’t feel he can live up to everyone’s expectations. In response, Tommy gives his explanation of what he finds best about Superman… and it gets me because it’s so true, yet so seldom discussed.

Tommy: You can’t help what people are gonna believe about you…

Superman: No, but I have to live with it.

Tommy: An’ you’re really gonna beat yourself up about that? You’re gonna chase this ideal you know is garbage? This thing you can never live up to? Jeez. You’re everything that’s great about this country an’ you don’t even know it.

Superman: Come again…?

Tommy: Hey, let me tell you the problem with America, okay?

This could be the greatest country on Earth. It really could. You got all these different people comin’ here to get away from oppression an’ poverty, all lookin’ for a better life. But what do they do? They hang on to all of the things that got ’em in trouble in the first place. They wanna go on fightin’ the same wars an’ hatin’ the same people they did in the old world. They all wanna be Italian or Greek, or Irish or Polish or Russian, or African or Vietnamese or Cambodian or whatever… so they hang onto alla that. They stick to their own kind, an’ everyone stays suspicious of everyone else an’ for what? Culture? History? What the hell is that, a bunch of stuff your folks said you hadda believe in all your life? Does that make it real?

But you, man, you showed ’em how it’s done. You’re the classic immigrant guy who comes to the States an’ joins the melting pot. It’s like you’re sayin’ — okay, I’m from planet Krypton or wherever, but that’s all in the past. I’m startin’ over.

I’m American. What can I do to help?

This issue of Hitman ended winning its author, Garth Ennis, an Eisner Award. It’s well-deserved, in my opinion, because this is the first time I can think of where someone directly referenced the fact that Superman is the epitome of the American Dream: someone whose roots are from somewhere else, coming to America to make a new life for himself, and working to better himself and his fellow man.

What makes Superman interesting to me isn’t so much what damage he can do or how well he fights, but how he serves as an optimistic example and that his stories invite discussion about what makes him tick and what effect he has on others. It’s been a while since I read this story, but it resonates with me like it did when I first read it; just like all of the good Superman stories, it makes me feel better about us as a people.