In an essay entitled "The Myth of Superman," writer/philosopher Umberto Eco commented on the narrative dilemma of serialized fiction, using Superman comics as an example. Eco was concerned with delineating the features of a 'closed' text - a classic Superman story is 'closed,' in Eco's terminology, because it is designed to elicit a predetermined response - the mythological iteration of the Superman character. Therefore, nothing can happen in a Superman tale which advances the hero along the life-path: he cannot marry, reproduce or grow old.
Has this held true with Superman comics? Is he still catching bank robbers and stopping trains circa the nineteen forties? Or has he been free from his "closed" environment and allowed to do 21st century deeds?Has his character grown?
I think Eco's comment holds true for all comic book characters in a general sense. Their core personas have to remain the same so they are recognizable generation after generation. That said, what keeps comic books vital [are] each generation's different interpretations of core personas. The characters also appear in story arcs or graphic novels that take into account current events.
And this morning, Do Some Damage blogger Jay Stringer espouses Daredevil as "the ultimate noir superhero".
Daredevil has always been my favorite for all the reasons you mention, and because his blindness means he's aware of others' and his own fallibility and frailty; few superheroes are.
I also think, because he's a lawyer, he's aware of how blurred moral lines can become. Readers are always conscious of the law and where he stands in relation as they read his stories.
Daredevil stories are sometimes too dark for me; he's screwed up a lot; done things I didn't think he ever would. All superhero stories are about right prevailing in the end, but only when we've been to the darkest parts of ourselves can we truly appreciate forgiveness, redemption, restoration of order. Daredevil can tell these fully-arced stories like no other.
And Patti Abbott today brings me back to Superman, following up, "What essential characteristics cannot be changed before [Superman] disappears[?] ...I'd suggest his weakness in the presence of Kryptonite has to be inviolable. What others are essential?"
There was a time Superman couldn't fly. That's where the phrase, "Leap tall buildings in a single bound" comes from. And I don't think he was always vulnerable to kryptonite. Kryptonite came along as Superman grew more and more invulnerable to other things like bullets.
I'll move away from powers and concentrate on Superman's character. I think what has survived the longest is his sense of justice. For me, Superman wouldn't be Superman if one day he decided to end the "neverending battle" because he can't possibly stop all villains.
Almost as important to me, Superman has to care about regular people. This is often shown in the extent to which he immerses himself in the identity of Clark Kent. My favorite tellings are the ones where the Kents have a big influence on the man Clark/Superman becomes. He may be a strange visitor from another planet with powers far beyond those of men, but what he most wants to be is a man. He wants to have the American Dream because that's what his parents had, though they were of modest means.
He falls in love with Lois Lane and wants the chance to marry her and have a family, but his duty to the world as Superman constantly pulls against that.
Finally, I think Superman is an even better embodiment than Spider-man of the axiom "With great power comes great responsibility." Superman has to use his great power to help, not to hurt. Even in his weakest incarnation, Superman could have killed Luthor ages ago. This could have been justified the way police are justified in shooting killers. But Superman at his best doesn't yield to the temptation to harm others. At his best, he can't conceive of putting himself before others, while a man like Luthor can't help thinking of ways to manipulate others to his advantage.
UPDATE (04/21/10): Drawn by Eco's "closed story" concept, Detectives Beyond Borders blogger Peter Rozovsky asks:
Are your favorite crime series "closed"? Do their protagonists grow? Does the "growth" hurt the series or help it? Bonus points if you give examples of each.
I think almost all long-running crime series are somewhat closed. This is mainly because, to keep the series going, the author can't have his protagonist age too rapidly or suffer an injury too serious to bear.
My first favorite series was Robert B. Parker's Spenser. The first ten or so Spenser books were open. Spenser started his relationship with Susan in the second book. He aged fairly realistically, broke up with Susan (and coincidentally took a life-threatening gunshot in the following book).
There were no further significant changes to Spenser's equilibrium, however, once he reunited with Susan. For example, in the 1997 book SMALL VICES, Spenser takes an assassin's bullet at close range, and takes a year to recover from it--all depicted in the same book, as if shown in time-lapse photography.
Similarly, I know Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder went from not knowing he had a drinking problem, to attending AA meetings, to finally quitting drinking, but I don't know that he's done anything as significant since then.
I prefer each book to be meaningful. Not to say the protag goes through life changes in every book, but each case should weigh on him, and the cumulative effect should change him. He should learn from each case, perhaps handle things a little differently each time, showing experience. If a series becomes too rote, I stop reading.