Just us, in here, together – What All-Star Superman teaches us about mental health awareness

all-star_superman

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK right now, which means that – as a pop culture fan – my thoughts have inevitably turned to All-Star Superman. This might sound strange to those of you who don’t read comics, but anyone even vaguely familiar with this mid-2000s limited series by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant will know that All-Star’s tenth (and arguably best) issue contains a now-iconic scene where the Man of Steel rescues a suicidal teen.

The raw emotional, thematic, and symbolic resonance of these five panels should be pretty much self-evident. However, I’d like to dig deeper into how the scene’s meaning is enhanced when viewed within the context of All-Star’s wider narrative, and what lessons it can teach us about supporting everyone (and anyone) suffering from mental health problems.

A celebration of (super) human potential

Superman is dying.

That’s the compelling premise that drives the overarching plot of All-Star Superman. In the opening pages of this award-winning, out-of-continuity tale, the Big Blue Boy Scout flies too close to the sun (literally!), absorbing a fatal amount of solar radiation that leaves him with only a year to live.

What happens next could easily play out in very dour, po-faced fashion – but in fact, it’s the opposite. Rejecting the prevailing wisdom among a certain subset of fans that “grim” equals “adult”, Morrison and Quitely fashion a story that doesn’t just celebrate what makes Superman great – presenting a definitive take on the character that incorporates the best aspects of his long history that feels paradoxically timeless and fresh – but, by extension, spotlights our own potential for astonishing courage, kindness and ingenuity, even in the face of death itself.

“And no matter how dark it seems. There’s always a way”

– Superman, All-Star Superman #11

Steamrolling over tired arguments that Superman is too powerful to be relatable, Morrison cranks up the Last Son of Krypton’s god-like abilities to even greater extremes, then reminds us that there are some things (like terminal illness) that everyone struggles to deal with.

Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, but in All-Star Superman he’s still forced to confront his own mortality, just like the rest of us – not by engaging in titanic slugfests with crazed mad scientists or tyrannical sentient suns (although he does plenty of that, too), but on a more intimate scale and in an utterly human way.

And so over the course of the series, he tells the woman he loves that he loves her, he wraps up his unfinished business, he puts in place measures to protect those he cares about – in his case, the entire planet! – when he’s gone, and he even writes a will!

Through it all, he publicly shoulders his burden with appropriately superhuman dignity and acceptance, barely breaking stride as he accomplishes the so-called “12 Labours of Superman” – but this is at least partly a brave face. Privately, though, in his downtrodden Clark Kent persona, he wrestles with the same anxiety, sadness, frustration, and anger felt by anyone in his situation.

The point is, Superman could be forgiven for being just a little self-centred in All-Star Superman, as the dude is clearly going through a lot. Yet even on death’s door and facing an inevitable final showdown with his archnemesis Lex Luthor, the Man of Tomorrow still takes the time to comfort Regan, a young girl on the verge of taking her own life.

Not your typical superhero rescue

As mentioned earlier, this moment features in Issue #10 of All-Star Superman, “Neverending”, which takes place over the course of a single, larger-than-life day. The seeds for it are sown early; the circumstances that compel Regan to contemplate suicide slowly brewing as the day unfolds: a frantic psychiatrist in the foreground of one panel, a few soundbites from his desperate phone call part of the cacophony in another.

“It’s never as bad as it seems. You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.”

– Superman, All-Star Superman #10

As readers, we can’t initially comprehend the significance of these seemingly trivial jigsaw pieces. Fortunately, though, Superman can. Despite having his hands full fighting killer robots, repairing the moon, mapping his own alien DNA, creating his own miniature universe (seriously!) and more, our hero’s super senses have made him aware of Regan’s perilous situation and he’s been monitoring her ever since.

So even though there’s a million other things he could be doing, and even though he still hasn’t found the time to properly declare his feelings to Lois Lane, and heck, even though he’s just plain exhausted – only a few pages earlier, sweat pours down the brow of this once-tireless demi-god’s increasingly gaunt face – he doesn’t hesitate to come to the aid of Regan, a complete stranger.

But what really matters here is how Superman intervenes. Incredibly, he doesn’t swoop in and catch Regan after she’s already stepped off the ledge, like you’d expect. Instead, he puts a sympathetic hand on Regan’s shoulder and gently reminds her that things are never as bad as they seem and encourages her to believe in her own strength. In short, Superman’s actions enable Regan to save herself, by empowering her to step back from the ledge and towards a healthier state of mind.

And the best part is, that’s something we’re all capable of doing ourselves.

Extraordinary acts of everyday heroism

That’s what makes this All-Star Superman scene such a perfect parable for Mental Health Awareness Week.

When you get right down to it, Superman’s appeal is that he reminds us of our own heroic potential. Just as he can throw on a pair of non-prescription specs to be more like us, in our own modest way, we can be like him just by acting selflessly.

Think about it: nothing Superman does to rescue Regan requires superpowers. If you strip away the escapist fantasy window dressing, all he does is keep his eyes and ears open for mental health warning signs, and once he’s identified someone displaying those warning signs, he’s present for them with words of compassion and support – behaviour we can all easily emulate.

Not that it’s always easy. You might not have time-chomping Chronovores or riddle-posing Crypto-Sphinxes to contend with, and your cells might not be literally exploding inside your body, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t days when you’re short on time and low on energy. When that’s the case, it can be very tempting to ignore other people’s problems – and that’s when we have to follow Superman’s example, by digging deep and helping them anyway.

Ironically, All-Star Superman’s perfect explanation for why these extraordinary acts of everyday heroism are so important is delivered by none other than Lex Luthor. After being granted access to Superman’s powers in Issue #12 and momentarily seeing the world from the Man of Steel’s unique perspective, it finally dawns on ol’ Lex why his hated rival is always putting other people first.

“It’s all just us, in here, together,” he tearfully observes, “and we’re all we’ve got.” It’s a simple yet profound sentiment – one that we should all bear in mind, during Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond.

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