I’ve always liked Lana Lang, Clark Kent’s high school sweetheart. I’ve always thought there was a poignancy to Superman’s relationship with Lana. He can’t be with her, because he belongs somewhere else. He can’t be hers alone, because he belongs to the world.
I understand it’s hard to tell a Superman story. It’s hard to make an indestructible humanoid god with unrivalled physical power relatable. It’s even harder because that character is unflinchingly, unerringly good. He does the right thing all of the time. Characters like Batman, Wolverine, and Spider-Man who are flawed, vengeful, and periodically selfish make much more sense to us.
However, I think there’s something about Lana Lang that reveals the “human side” of Superman. Lana gets at the core of Superman. More than Superman’s rivalry with Lex Luthor, or Clark’s flirtatious give-and-take with Lois Lane, the relationship with Lana captures the essence of the character. An orphan from a distant planet, a fish out of water, Superman is alone. His inability to be with Lana is a symbol of this solitariness. He cannot be with her, because he is destined for other things. Just as he can’t be normal. He can’t be human. He can’t fit in… ever.
Superman is “relatable” precisely in those moments when he cannot connect or relate, because we all left for college and felt like aliens when we returned. We no longer fit in with our high school friends. We all meet old lovers and former teachers and visit old places and can’t quite find the rhythms.
My favourite Lana Lang story comes from the Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale mini-series Superman For All Seasons. The premise is that each issue of the series is narrated by a different supporting character from the Superman cast. One is narrated by Luthor, another by Jonathan Kent. The final issue is narrated by Lana.
In the first issue of the series we see Lana and Clark in high school looking very much the stereotypical middle-American teen couple
Of course the unique thing about this couple is that one of them is the most powerful being on the planet. Later in the issue, Clark breaks up with Lana after telling her his secret, and explaining why he can’t spend his life in Smallville, why he can’t spend his life with her.
In the final issue of the series, we see an adult Clark, return to Smallville and reconnect with Lana. It’s one of my favourite comics, filled with poignant, human moments between Clark’s support network. Like this one between Lana and Clark’s mother:
My favourite moment though – hands down – comes when Clark has to go stop a flash flood from devastating Smallville. Lana gives this speech; it’s a kind of goodbye, and an act of forgiveness. It’s the best Lana moment I’ve read, and one of the best Superman scenes too, because it really touches the core of the Superman character, and reveals how very human he really is.
This scene has always really moved me. I’m not sure why. It might be because in 1998 when this comic came out, I was in high school. I was in love for the first time. And like most young people in love I hoped it would last forever, even though I knew it wouldn’t last a year.
But I also love this story because it gets Superman right. Superman always has to do the hard thing. Yes, he has to do things that other people cannot do. But he also has to do the hard things that the rest of us have to do too, like leaving home, and sacrificing desire for duty.
Ironically – maybe even paradoxically – it’s his loneliness, his singularity that is the most relatable thing about Superman. It’s in these moments when he seems most like us. We all feel different, lonely, an essential disconnect from other people and other places. Also, in our heart of hearts we know that we have a duty to others. Deep inside we know we need not just to show tolerance to others, but to show kindness, even if it does not immediately benefit us and even if it is actually hard for us. We know this, and when we forget, Superman reminds us.