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At 75, Superman is flying higher than ever

Christopher Reeve in the 1978 film “Superman.’’ Larry Tye (inset) is author of “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.”

Warner Brothers

Christopher Reeve in the 1978 film “Superman.’’

Larry Tye is author of “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.”

RANDOM HOUSE PUBLISHING GROUP

Larry Tye is author of “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.”

For 75 years, through wars and depressions, tornadoes and tsunamis, Superman has been there to save us from eternal doom. With the Man of Steel’s milestone birthday coming in June, we spoke with author and former Globe health care reporter Larry Tye (inset), who wrote last year’s “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.” Tye is hosting celebrations across the country, and he shared some insight as to why his superhero, more than Spider-Man, Batman, Green Lantern, or any of the others, has maintained an enduring place in pop culture. Tye will be at Temple Isaiah in Lexington on Saturday, Feb. 9, at 1 p.m.

Q. Why has Superman lasted for so long?

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A. There are two reasons that seem contradictory. One is that Superman, over the last 75 years, has evolved more than a fruit fly. Every era, every decade, we got a hero that helped us, changed with us. He was suited to his times. But as much as he changed, he remained the most consistently clearheaded superhero in distinguishing right from wrong. Superman always knew instinctively what was right and wrong, and [there was] that . . . familiarity and reliability that we knew just who he was and what he believed in.

Q. What made him so different from other heroes?

A. First of all, Superman came first. Secondly, he was more righteous, the . . . do-right kind of a seemingly old-fashioned hero. Batman was our dark hero. Spider-Man was our fraught hero. The world has enough darkness, especially now with war and recession. Now, what we want is a hero that makes us feel inspired to do the right thing and has a clear sense of the light.

Q. Why do people connect more with Superman?

A. I think it’s because of that sense of right and wrong. He’s the hero of life. As much fun as Batman and Spider-Man are, Superman has confidence and righteousness that is really different. At first, I thought Superman was an all-American hero. Then I started researching and I would get crazy e-mails from all over the world. Superman was actually translated in over 50 languages. Whether you grew up in Egypt, Siberia, or Brazil, he was tapping into something that was innate in humanity.

Q. Has religion also played a factor in his enduring existence?

A. He’s been embraced by every religion on Earth. Christians see a God-like figure and the ultimate Christ story. Buddhists see a Zen hero. Atheists and agnostics say, “Who needs religion, we have a secular Messiah.”

Q. You mentioned in your book that people use comics and cartoons as sort of an escape from the world. Why do you think so?

A. I think so because we need a way to escape. If we can escape and, at the same time, learn about our best instincts, then we can grow as people. When we’re in a depression or a war, Superman didn’t just give us a mindless escape. He was a beautiful story of power, the power to fly, powers we all wanted. Everyone dreams of people being able to see a hero hidden within [them], some extraordinary capacity. Growing up, I would have loved to have thought that, when people saw me, they saw a hero. Superman and [creator and writer] Jerry Siegel had that. [Siegel] was a little short, a little round. Yet, he was Clark Kent as he saw it.

Q. How is The Man of Steel thriving today?

A. I think he is thriving in today’s world by embracing the changes. He’s blogging rather than writing and trying to be a more hip version. I think Superman has always been the king of superhero-ism. [The creators of later heroes] grew up with Superman. It’s not just that Superman is a brilliant light in 75 years of history and pop culture. He led the way from comic strips to cartoons to movies to video games. He was out there in every new medium as a leading figure.

Q. Why is it important to celebrate cultural icons hitting this landmark?

A. I think the reason is the same as the reason why I wrote the book: because through our heroes, we are making a statement about ourselves. More than that, our choice of heroes says something about what we consider our aspirations. I wanted to understand America and our embrace of heroes, and the easiest way was to look at a superhero. Politicians come and go. In sports, a hero one season is a punching bag in the next. And yet Superman has been here for 75 years. . . . He captures something about our essence of [good].

Interview was edited and condensed.
Katy Rushlau can be reached at katherine
rushlau@globe.com
.
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