Super, thanks for asking

Am I missing the right allele that codes for the protein which likes Superman? I freely acknowledge that 80+ years of pop culture outweighs me … at least when reviewing or punditing the character. But I’m only talking about one reader-guy’s experience, and the fact is that Superman doesn’t work for me, never did, neither did the Daily Planet supporting cast, and neither did Lex Luthor or any of his villains.

There’s a way this is likely to be mis-read. I’m not deriding him as “the big blue schoolboy” and relishing the last thirty years’ multiple, nigh-infinite moments of Batman punking him emotionally or turning out to be right again or engineering some way to kick his ass. The Dark Knight Returns is so defining of so many comics readers’ framework for the character that they’ll slot any criticism of him into it, and that’s not what I mean at all. I’m not talking about casting him as a doofus whose views are simply not functional in the world at all. I don’t despise him or disapprove of him or anything like that – seeing him helplessly lost in a complex world doesn’t interest me.

The discussion is also tainted because we’re talking about a property rather than a character, therefore talking about who the character “is” or what he “would do” is a non-starter. No comics character makes sense in those terms anyway, but especially not when any discussion, no matter how couched in aesthetic terms, necessarily includes marketing strategy.

… of the century! (ouch)

Someone’s probably compiled a summary of all the various Supermans … my mind boggles at the prospect, and I really don’t have the necessary archival knowledge, so I’ll focus instead. Let’s put aside his very first original form, which I like a lot, but it lasted less than two years and is basically a lost artifact now. There’s the 1940s war-hero, and the 1950s TV show. There’s the whatever-it-is DC was doing through the Wertham years and the 1960s, which becomes part of what is variously considered “real” later; there’s the whole Superboy and Legion thing which its own zone …scoff if you like, but Superfriends contributed a whole lotta “what he’s like” to the culture too. The 1978 film with Christopher Reeves established a new visual and thematic touchpoint … I’m not even out of the 70s and there’s just too much. You could try to distill or essentialize or whatever you want to call it, but the fact is you have to make up something new for this go-round, and to hell with whatever sector of the auidence isn’t going to like it. I guess that’s what John Byrne discovered … if you try to do Roy Thomas on it so the new thing reimagines that all the old things more-ore-less make sense or even credibly pretend to … you pretty much can’t.

I’m not even going to try. I want to poke my disconnect a little harder about my own limited-reading construct I call “Superman.” Stop right there – don’t try to explain it to me! Many have tried, and they all say the same things, none of which I think are wrong or bad. A friend’s recent email brought this up again, and said the same things people have been telling me all along, so it’s a good starting point …

First, about the fun and zippy science fiction.

Superman is trippy by 1940’s/50’s standards. There’s a zillion kinds of Kryptonite that do insane things to him, there’s a dog, there’s a 5th Dimensional trick-playing midget, there’s the Phantom Zone, there is a Fortress of Solitude full of weird shit…

I grant that with no qualms. I totally appreciate it actually, and go one better by saying I don’t even think it’s dated. Taken in isolation, using his super-ness as a chassis for “anything can happen to him,” and pretty much removing the whole “crimefighter” aspect which hasn’t fit him well for 50 years anyway, that’d be a hell of a fun comic.

Second, and more important, there’s the notion of the plain decent guy.

I think what works about “All-Star Superman” is that it’s impossible to read it without genuinely liking Superman, just sort of as a friend. His super-ness is part and parcel of his humility and decency. Sure, he’s not out there vaporizing the NSA the way I might be. And yeah, his villains are kind of lame. But it’s still kind of nice to hang out with him. As far as I can tell, that’s the appeal of the character..

That works for me too – as an idea. … but when does this happen in the comics? I see it referenced for sure, in the better stories, but not actually done much. The referencing is often so strong to be good on its own, e.g. the hug in Kingdom Come actually got to me, but I can’t think of a bread-and-butter actual Superman comics story which I can point to and say there, he’s doing it, not just someone talking about how he does or used to, or the story as a whole being founded on the readers remembering how he does or used to, relative to what we’re seeing in this story, which is typically a self-exile or breakdown of some kind.

Granted, the image I just included is silly, but really – when Superman does good, does he do it well? ‘Cause when and if so, that’s what’s there to like, and that’s what I’m trying to find in story form.

This paragraph will be risky because of distractions. It’s an exercise. See if you can read Superman and the damage done without reference to movies. The author feels very strongly about Superman’s “grace and decency,” and he sort of waves his fingers at the character’s long history, but his single  representative or example for his point is the 1978 film. Could the same article be written using specific comics, or better, a general body of comics from a given period, in that role?

That question points up a larger one, which I think is not trivial. Decency is very hard to find in superhero comics. Long-time readers of the blog know that I scuff dirt backwards on the notion that there was ever a Golden Age of Comics in which superheroes were idealistic and the stories uplifting and establishmentarian. (There were two U.S. periods to be mentioned: the first is WWII, which turned the existing characters into patriots; and the late 1950s, when comics were subjected to heavy censorship that demanded such content, which the creators subverted almost immediately. Neither was “in the beginning.”) Superheroes are typically way more about edge-case morality, human fears and uncertainties, and social crisis, and they always have been. I’m talking about some admirable and consequential action on the hero’s part which impresses me, makes me feel like I want to be like that, when “that” is not shooting my therapist in the head what Grimjack would do.

I don’t care how much they try, Spider-Man isn’t decent like that. The New X-Men sure as fuck weren’t. None of my 1970s faves were (the Beast, the Vision, Mantis, Hawkeye). The best Captain America stories showed how impossible it was, specifically for the character who comes closest to Superman in iconic and historical terms. And I like those characters and those stories, because they have, as I never cease to belabor, Zap, Swing, and Scream. Or if you prefer, and as my heroizing Doctor Doom, Woodgod, Adam Warlock, and Coyote would indicate, because I am not ‘specially decent my own self.

Is there a decent Superman, textually? Without slapstick or deconstruction or meta this or that? Eighties DC was built on inventing “selves” and “is” for its main characters without a whole lot of genuine unity or content to build on, when what it really had were collections of scattered and contradictory historical copyrights, per character (OK, “iconography” if you want to dress it up). I’d like to know where the substance is before that point. I’m not saying it’s absent or a cheat. I’m looking for it because I’d kind of like to read it some time.

Next: Ollie ollie oxen free

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on April 3, 2016, in Heroics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. “… Is there a decent Superman, textually? Without slapstick or deconstruction or meta this or that?”
    The generally-accepted answer to this question would be Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman from 2007. It is totally its own thing (no continuity ties to anything else, self-contained universe) but it uses all the Superman stuff like bottle cities and super dogs. There is a lovely scene where Superman interacts with a suicidal girl that I’ve seen cited over and over as the greatest use of the character ever. I am not a Superman guy either, but I read and loved this series.

    (The fact that this version of Superman exists in an entirely self-contained limited series does rather illuminate your point, of course.)

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    • I’d like to jump into this discussion, because I can go on and on about how Superman, as a concept, pretty much *has* to exist in this specifically-tailored bubble universe that doesn’t play nicely with wider story continuity in order to work, let alone a near-century of accumulated canon-baggage which you can never really retcon away.

      (I do remember some earlier post where Ron remarked on the danger of making Magneto both Right and Powerful, which is ‘essentially boring, and preachy’. Same principle.)

      But I have very limited exposure to ‘primary materials’ on this subject- a couple of trade paperbacks and elseworlds, plus the DCAU and other apocrypha. So I might hang back and see what suggestions pop up.

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    • If that’s the answer, it seems awfully late in the game, supporting the idea that the decency is, historically, largely a projection or standalone complex. Others have provided other periods/sequences of comics though, so I remain curious, yellow.
      [editing in: this reply was for morgue2013]

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  2. epweissengruber

    The only Superman I like are the detailed cartoons by Max Fleisher.

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  3. For me the best Superman-is-a-pretty-awesome-dude-to-chill-with are the ones where he’s confronted with failure, particularly mortality, particularly his own.

    “All-Star Superman” is the most recent example, and pretty good stuff.

    “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” shows the effect Superman’s had on everyone else in his life, and how much they genuinely love him. That’s not quite the same thing as explaining WHY he’s lovable, but the expression feels sincere. (That said, I have problems with Moore’s usual sadistic tone–I think on balance this is a bad Superman story, but it does have some good parts.)

    “For the Man Who Has Everything” is another Moore story, but it shows that even without his powers, Kal-El is actually a decent guy–trying his best to look out for his family in the face of an apocalypse. (And realizing that the dream he’d clung to from childhood was hopelessly naive.) Also: the bit with the Bottle City is just a wonderful little bit of characterization.

    Superman #156 also deals with how Superman spends his last days; #149 involves a similar situation.

    Now you;ve got me curious to track down some stuff and figure this out. My own preference is for the extremely absurd Silver Age stories where Superman turns into a gorilla, or Jimmy Olsen joins a bead-based conspiracy, but clearly the character *can* work, and has for a lot of people. Though I do think it’s a matter of temperament.

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    • That looks like a high quotient of failure and death, again casting light upon or reflecting upon the decency, without simply being it in action – what Superman is, rather than was at some unspecified point in time.

      I’d glad I got you thinking about it; let me know what you uncover.

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  4. Oh, and here’s a thing: a while back, in discussing Marshall Law, you were talking about the nexus between machismo, toxic masculinity, self-esteem, projection, violence, and military adventurism. The Public Spirit or whatever-his-name-is finally defeated when he whimperingly complains, “Nobody can be a super man!”

    The cool thing about Superman is that he doesn’t try to be, and doesn’t expect anyone else to be either. It’s all right. You, just be yourself. We got this. But first I gotta smoke these cigars.

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  5. My favorite version of Superman is Alan Moore’s Supreme, but I don’t think that answer Ron’s question… 🙂

    The answer, probably, is what he already wrote above: there is no Superman. Even if it’s true for every Marvel and DC character, too, usually when a character is memorable is because some author gave us a “definitive” version somewhere, like Frank Miller with Batman and Daredevil, and afterwards that is the “true” version. Or even more than a definite version, like what happened with Thor and Lee/kirby and Simonson. When this doesn’t happen, the character is forgettable and nobody cares a lot about it.
    Superman is different. He is a “important” character only because he was the first super-hero comic, the comic sold a lot and they made movies and a lot of merchandising, but really, none of the stories was so good to “fix” a definitive version of the character. He changed a lot in all these decades and most of the stories are absolutely forgettable. Probably the most enduring image of the character in comics is the one from the Mort Weisninger era, but these days that’s considered so “silly” that is never used to define the character (apart from Alan Moore’s Supreme, of course).

    So, seeing that the fame and fortune of the character is an incident of history, not tied to the stories afterwards… I think that dismissing the first two years of stories, the ones where Superman punish evil capitalists that mistreat their workers (at least sometimes), is a mistake. Even if that Superman was cancelled, hidden and neutered afterwards, it’s still the reason why we still read Superman. These stories gave Superman his fame, they made him famous. And being famous at the time is the only reason Superman is still famous afterwards and today.

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    • “Yes but …”

      I think the process is more step by step, with identifiable points of interest, than your description. Superman had a mainstream media presence – the kind comics fans are always whining about regarding their favorite-of-the-moment – at several different points, and I don’t think any of those were founded on historical regard for his “first superhero” status.

      The crux point may lie in the court case between National Publications (then owner of Action Comics and Detective Comics, hence the unofficial imprint “DC” for its superhero titles) and Fawcett Comics in 1951. The scintillating reading is at Justia – basically, DC won. (The later acquisition of Fawcett by National opened the door for Roy Thomas style semi-deconstructionist interplay between the two characters ever after.)

      In 1951, the moment was right to strike hard into the new mass-market visual medium. Superman could be branded “the first superhero” because he was America’s first superhero in experiential terms, i.e., on TV in their homes. Whether he was the first superhero back in 1939, is basically a big “who cares” in comparison.

      It reminds me of how Pepsi got the distribution concession for the eastern European countries during the early Cold War, so Coca-Cola branded itself the “freedom drink” that poor pitiful oppressed people “couldn’t have.” Pepsi couldn’t fight back without looking like a commie-lover and has been #2 ever since. Slightly different details but a similar dynamic in marketing terms.

      None of which is really disagreeing with you, but I don’t want to dismiss the whole phenomenon as simply as your phrasing about “he was first and that’s all.” I think the continuing phenomenon (or phenomena) of the character should be addressed with an eye toward similar events through the decades, particularly relative to Marvel’s unbelievably tortuous and tenuous climb into TV and cinema.

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  6. I always feel vaguely guilty about saying this, because it comes across as pedantic and tendentious and antithetical to the conventions of the genre, but the logistics of someone who effectively has the whole planet as their backyard never meshed with the rest of Superman’s social baggage for me.

    I mean, everyone points out that scene in All-Star where he gives a depressed teen a shoulder to cry on, but given that (real-world) New York alone has one serious crime every 2 minutes, and he has effective omniscience, what exactly is he doing in the office at the Daily Planet or when he drives down to Kansas for the weekend? Never mind his stance on the NSA, does he note the fall of every sparrow or not?

    So there’s a reasonable argument to be made that superman’s perception as especially decent and heroic is largely based on the halo effect.
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/ll/mere_messiahs/

    But I agree with Ron & Moreno’s assessment of the earliest incarnation, who doesn’t have to suffer this impossible burden of perfection. And who genuinely is interested in maximising his social utility, despite blunders and oversteps and limitations. I want to love the character, I do, and I would if someone just gave me a version that made a lick of sense.

    @Ron- I know you didn’t want this to be about Batman, but I’m wondering if you ever read and contrasted Peace on Earth with War on Crime? The political cowardice of the former contrasted with the urgent groundedness of the latter makes me angrier every time I think about it.

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    • I really like and agree with your post.

      As a general point, I am not especially interested in the last decade or two of Marvel and DC superheroes. It’s all deconstruction now – either a comic is merely tie-in for whatever movie or TV effort is under way, or it’s a “let’s spin it this way” and everyone goes “ooooh, look how he spun it.”

      (That’s not to say a given movie or TV show can’t be good. I’m inclined to backtrack to considerable amounts of animated TV show time, for example, simply because I think I might enjoy them. But reading the tie-in comic strikes me as a colossal waste of time unless a specific issue or story happens to achieve greatness, e.g. Mad Love.)

      I haven’t read either of the titles you mentioned – that sounds like a guest post pounding on the door to happen, and this is me saying, “Come on in.”

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      • *glances around* …Who, me?

        I was having trouble putting my finger on it, but ‘all deconstruction’ seems like a pretty good summation. (Not that the results are necessarily bad- Rob Rodi and Esad Ribic’s Loki was like a diamond bullet to the forehead for me- but at some point I just start to wonder if we’ve had *enough* of dem X-Titles.)

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  7. Not sure if it’s intentional, but it’s “Daily Planet”, not “Daily Globe”.

    As for a “decent Superman”, I’m honestly not sure where there *isn’t* one, aside form the recent DC abomination under the New 52 and Zack Snyder. I mean, even his origin is filled with sacrifice and charity, isn’t it?

    http://superman.nu/origin/1.php

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  8. My Superman (a fellow both pleasantly and dangerously naive) is movies & TV (Reevesess and Super Friends, plus the new stuff). So I’m not sure my comments mean all that much regarding a textual Superman. But I’ve got a slightly different take on the decency issue, so for what it’s worth … as you point out, decency (I’d probably use niceness, to drag in all the “nice guy” associations) is pretty rare in superheroes. I think one point of Superman is that he – even more than the other un-decent heroes/villains – really doesn’t have to care at ALL about being decent/nice. But he does care about that, a lot. No matter if he’s fighting crime, shouldering the burdens of the world, whatever – he cares about being a nice, decent guy. It’s in some ways an absurd thing for frikkin’ SUPERMAN to worry about, and judged by his actions he may not often meaningfully succeed. But the appearance – to me, at least – is that he, um, CARES about niceness/decency, a lot.

    Value judgements about that action/caring disparity, and parallels of Superman/Superpower (in a global politics sense), I’ll leave to the discretion of the reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s a profoundly relevant case for comparison here: Bamse, the world’s strongest and nicest bear, storybook hero of Sweden.

      Now, all the hip Swedes reading this just made loud gagging noises, but I’m speaking here (1) of the original character written and illustrated by Rune Andreasson, not the more schmaltzy TV version nor the bowdlerized franchise; and (2) as a parent who has watched his bilingual dual-citizen kids compare Swedish and American media all their lives.

      Bamse is unquestionably a badass, and just often enough, is tempted not exactly to be the world’s nicest bear just this once. He never succumbs but it’s mentioned. He also typically finds ways to subvert and reform villains when possible, and when it’s not, he often merely does the right thing as their own self-destructiveness takes them down. Granted, he’ll kick ass when faced with plain danger.

      In the long history of Andreasson’s creative control, Bamse matured to get married and have kids with a wide range of physical and mental abilities – including one developmentally delayed daughter – and a big part of that drama was how he and his wife nurtured them toward their individual strengths.

      It’s a big part of Bamse’s adventures that he’s definitely innocent of such drives felt by villains like Krosus Sork (the capitalist greedhead) but is never naive concerning the damage they do or what to do about it. That’s a combination I’d really like to see carried out for a U.S. superhero one day, with no meta, no reflection on “why it doesn’t work,” no grieving “there’s nothing I can do, nothing,” going on.

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