To begin, if we can be said to begin, we must ask the question, what is the superhero?
If, as perhaps we are likely to conclude, the superhero is a figure, a human figure, clad in brightly colored clothes and set loose upon a Manichean universe in order to impose an understanding of justice outside the boundaries of law, through the exercise of force - is there any more apt figure to illustrate our idea of justice? In order to enforce justice we must create an collective imaginary in which justice actually exists, and can furthermore be grasped, fondled, manipulated by creatures whose ethical advancement lends them the appropriate authority to do so.
So before we begin, before we can even ask the question of what the superhero is, who he is, what he is (is it a he?), we must establish the means by which the superhero can exist. The premises we must accept are simple, in fact, they number only one: that a man can be right. Every other consideration pales before this assertion. If, as we might posit, a man could ever for a single instant consider himself right, then the laws of nature themselves would bow before him, would prostrate themselves. So impossible is the premise of a tangible eruption of justice in the world, even a momentary glimpse of such an ideal, that it is nothing less than the perfect fantasy. Of course, if we could know the form and figure of justice, we would not balk at a man flying, or a man carrying an automobile over his shoulders. Such feats would simply take their place in a long line of miraculous eruptions - but if we lived in this world of miracles, the extraordinary would itself long since have become surpassingly quotidian.
So then the superhero himself, does he have a name? A face? A story? Or is he merely a shifting locus of ideas, attributes, impulses, and abrogations? Because they do not exist we can posit any manner of virtues they might possess, if they did, in the same manner as we can imagine so many dispositions for celestial beings, safe in the knowledge that we will never be disproven. But any virtues aside from that singular, spectacular rightness are secondary.
Because there are no superheroes we can imagine as many as we like, with as much overwhelming variety as we can conjure. Therefore we come into intimate contact with the immateriality of our own imaginations. There is an ideal. We can measure the means by which various characters rate in accordance to this ideal - how they fall short, how they struggle, how they wince in the sunlight of their imperfections. How do we define this ideal? This ideal cannot exist, and yet persists, une certaine connaissance of an object that exists nowhere else but in our minds. Superheroes, like justice itself, exist as a singular ideal refracted through a multitude of lenses, a lens for each spectator. We refer to the idea of "the superhero" and expect that our singular impulse towards ideality is shared by our audience, are certain that the form we envision is coeval with those of so many others. But there is no universal justice.
There is only one superhero. When we refer to multiple figures, we define these phantoms by their distance from the ideal, the central image we project from the mechanism of our own inadequacies. We place a label on this one superhero: the Superman. It is he who holds pride of place, he from whom all others are derived, he whose primary-colored costume serves as a model for so many others. This division of red, blue, and yellow, clean and precise, enacts a fable of impermeability. It is the painter's palette at its most basic, unadulterated. The Batman by comparison is a mere shadow, a grey and black blur ensconced in the cracks between certainty and frailty. The painter has mixed his colors into a desultory mush, and if we see ourselves reflected in this imprecision it is on account of our own failure to attain the impossible.
But this superhero, this Super-man, does not exist. There are many - hundreds - thousands - of incarnations of the Superman. Different interpretations. Different shades of red and blue and yellow. The original, imaginary Superman is undiluted by the myriad shades. The original, imaginary Superman that we envision never appears, and so is never supplanted. If we must put a name to this Superman, the invisible ideal that is always already present but never arriving, perhaps we can say that this originary figure is the Supurman. Phonetically, there is no difference in the pronunciation. But to speak Supurman is to trace the ghostly demarcation of the idea as distinct from the reality (or "reality"). Here there is graphological evidence of the undetectable originary: the replacement of the er with ur recalls the Germanic ur, the primitive, the original. Supurman exists prior to our conscious understanding of Superman: from the first, he is the theory of rightness that we cherish, even as we grow to acknowledge the impossibility of justice. The primary colors never blur or smudge in our minds.
Supurman is constructed from fragments and shards of stories, a grab-bag of moments and memories, isolated scenes from motion pictures and cartoons, single panels of dialogue or discrete action sequences. The Supermen who appear in the pages of comic books may at times approximate this image, but only briefly. The very instant of specification, when the idealized form of Supurman becomes embodied in the figure of a fleeting Superman, he begins to die.
Creators may try to approach the Supurman, but in doing so they reveal the impossibility of his incarnation. A text such as All-Star Superman strives to iterate the most universal notion of the Supurman, but fails. It does not fail for lack of effort, it fails because the very attempt to animate the character's most iconic tendencies instead results in tragic exsanguination. An icon is an image, a still image, a symbol that carries far more weight than any individual specimen. It is a static image. The comic book can capture the infinitesimal duration of a single moment as an illustration, and in that instant the icon is revealed in its resplendence.
But one image gives way to a succession of images, to compose a sequence and then, out of multiple sequences, a narrative. In order to become a dynamic force in a living story, a Superman must move. The act of movement rends the illusion of iconicity, and so even if we may have believed for a moment to have captured, finally, a glimpse of the Supurman, he is gone before we have registered his presence. Perhaps in the single still image, the pin-up or the cover, we can come closest to imaging the ideal of Supurman: one picture, shorn of context, containing all the infinite potential of the fantastic, suspended in a moment just prior to actual engagement. In that isolated moment justice shimmers tentatively, still defiantly un-impossible. Through this brief intimation of justice we can imagine the Supurman as a true contingency in our own lives.
And so we must be unsatisfied. All the many, many Supermen who exist are merely shadows. As the genre continues its march towards senescence, it is common to see multiple Supermen appear side by side, multiple reflections. For all the Superman who exist, there can never be a definitive interpretation, because the orignary idea exists beyond the realm of interpretation. The Supurman exists in a state of permanent abeyance, his place filled by a succession of stand-ins and substitutes. If you dislike one, wait a moment and another will appear. Attachment to any one Superman is revealed to be a perverse adherence. You can have 10 Supermen in a single book, 100 Supermen, an infinite number of Supermen, all unique and yet all derivations, and still be no closer to the unconcealment of the one, true Supurman, who exists only at the border of our peripheral vision, locked in the Phantom Zone of our Ideal-ich, inaccessible save through intimation.
Not so with the Batman, Superman's eternal shade. There is no ur-Batman. There are many Batmen, each equally entitled to represent the idea of Batman. The Batman is changeable, perhaps, because he does not represent the ideal of justice as Superman does - rather, the Batman is premised on an engagement with the actual, the impossibility of justice; he represents the necessity of accommodation (an ontological necessity observed by Batman mostly in the breach). The child-like Bruce Wayne's desire to impose order on an inherently chaotic world emphasizes the impossibility of such an act, whereas Supurman is a liminal figure, existing in the perpetual potential of order to assert itself, for the world to be remade as utopia through the exercise of ethical force. The Supurman is revolution.
It does not matter what form these characters may take, what specific incarnation may survive or perish in the duration. Every Batman remains equally solid, and every Superman remains equally ephemeral. We are all of us in the shadow of Supurman, whose perfection - contra Anselm of Canterbury - is predicated on his nonexistence, a necessary condition of his absence. He remains the first and only superhero, the absent father whose prophesied arrival still carries the promise of peace.