Tuesday, August 21, 2012


I keep coming across the argument that when Superman's biological parents (usually Jor-El and Lara) put the baby in that rocket ship and sent him to earth, they were committing an act of sacrifice. That somehow, what they did was a sacrifice.

I just don't buy it.

The first page of Action Comics #1. (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster)
I've been told that they were sacrificing themselves to save him. That's not true at all. They didn't have a choice in the matter. The rocket couldn't fit them, so they did the only logical thing and tried to save their son. That's not sacrifice; it's just saving somebody. The fact that they died doesn't make it a sacrifice, precisely because they didn't have a choice.

All-Star Superman #1, (Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely)

Sometimes, however, they do have a choice. The rocket is occasionally big enough to fit both Lara and little Kal-El (this was as early as 1944). In every case, she chooses to stay with Jor-El. This is not sacrifice. This is being a bad mother. There's no way around it. she's not sacrificing herself so her child can live. She does die because of her own choice, but the child has nothing to do with it. It seems to be a really bad choice, too, since she's leaving the boy to the elements. She could stay with him and take care of him. She doesn't. That's not sacrifice.

"My place is here with you." From Superman #53 (Bill Finger and Wayne Boring)

I've also been told that the parents sacrifice their final moments with Superman. I can't even figure this one out. They're giving up their final moments with the baby so the baby can live? That's not sacrifice, that's being a good parent. Again, it's not like they have a choice in the matter of their own life and death. It's not like they're sacrificing themselves for a higher power, to ensure the baby's survival. They're putting the kid in a rocket, hoping he finds some place nice where he won't get eaten the moment the door opens. To keep him would be selfish, and, essentially, not much different from murder. They're taking a big chance; it's a gamble. Would we say that a roulette player is sacrificing some money in order to win more money?

Because of all this, the only thing I can think to make of it all is that people really need the origin to have an element of sacrifice in it. The word as used today has the connotation of nobility and honor, so they need Superman's family to have those qualities. But we don't need to graft ersatz sacrifice onto their actions to obtain this (nor do we need over wrought Christian allegory). Now, there is sacrifice involved in being a parent. It's hard. You give up stuff you want, and stuff you want to do, in order to provide the things that children need. But that's not what Jor-El and Lara did when they put him in the rocket. All they did was take a chance that the kid would survive. They were being good parents.

The idea of sacrifice goes back a long way. It primarily means killing something you need so that the gods will be nice to you. That's not so much what's going on in Superman's origin. But it also denotes giving up something to obtain a greater reward. So they're giving up their son, that's true. But what's their greater reward? They die. We could think that their greater reward is the possibility that their son is going to survive. But that doesn't work because they're giving up the same thing that they're getting as a reward.

That leaves just one more notion of sacrifice. The term itself refers to the act of making something holy (Latin: sacer = holy + facere = to make). By sending Kal-El on his journey through space, to earth, where he becomes Superman, could we say that they are making him holy?

by Alex Ross


  1. Great thoughts here! I think it's been stated more than once that for whatever reason, Lara's weight would potentially screw up Kal-El's odds of reaching Earth safely.

    But whether it's true or not, that's for an astrophysicist to decide, not me (who learned most of his science from comic books and that's a Flash Fact!). ;)

  2. Thanks, Brian. Oh, I checked out Looks good.