Sunday, June 11, 2006

Summer of Superman: Why The League is a Superman Fan

When I was working on the League of Melbotis Awards, I asked for some possible blog topics. Almost half of the respondents asked "Why Superman?"

With the movie coming, I'm hoping to put things in the right context and possibly shed a little light on why I became a fan of Superman as a character, Superman as an industry, and Superman in general.

One of the oddities of being a fan of the Man of Steel is that everyone feels a bit of ownership. As a pop culture icon, Superman is up there with Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus for recognizability. You can chop through Peruvian rain forests for two days and find yourself face to face with a local wearing a Super Hombre shirt who knows, at minimum, Superman can fly, he's invulnerable to most harm and that he's very very strong.

A lot of folks have pegged my comic obsession and interest in Superman as a juvenile interest, primarily due to the marketing of Superman to children. I doubt anyone who has bothered to read a Superman comic over the past several years would feel as if the material were not geared towards children. While the comics of today are simed at adults and "all-ages", there certainly exists a "gee-whiz" aspect to Superman that's undeniable, and perhaps it's that fantasy element which is deemed "childlike". I will be interested to see if these same folks will retain their opinion if the new Superman movie attracts millions of viewers upon it's release, all suddenly Superman fans.

That's okay. From a critical perspective, most pop culture can appear a little silly on the sruface. I personally find the adulation of professional sports to be juvenile, the insistence of celebrity culture to shove starlets down our throats entirely infantile, and the fanboy obsession with trainspotting music and hanging out in garage bands dreaming of "making it" to be a little silly. It's curious that sci-Fi, in all it's many forms, has somehow become an excusable time waster. So has fantasy writing, to an extent. Meanwhile romantic comedies and soap operas are perfectly excusable for millions of people. The truth is: It's all pop culture of one form or another, and all of it just as guilty of flights of fancy.

That said: I've seen the folks who take themselves seriously and consciously behave in a mnner they believe to be "adult". They believe that adulthood means the ending of interest in silly things. I'd rather not turn off the switch in my brain that lets me crack open a comic and peer into another world, simply because some boring life-accountant decided I wasn't spending my time in a way they liked. Just as surely as sports fans would refuse to give up on their games simply because someone pointed out what a collosal time-sink it is to watch people throw around a ball (and, honestly, how much to season tickets cost to professional sports?).

Still, even among comic readers, a Superman fan might not be safe.

Among the fanboys, Superman hit a point of creative stagnation in the 70's that began to make the character less popular for collectors. Superman was not unpopular, but at the time Marvel was having it's triumphs and Batman went from being nearly cancelled to being revived with the Dark Knight work of the late 70's. The release of the first two Superman movies certainly helped the franchise regain a stint of Supermania. In the 1980's, "Crisis on Infinite Earths" and the resulting "Man of Steel" limited series should have put Superman back on top with readers, but an odd thing happened. Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" appeared with it's Clint Eastwood 80's sensibility and painted Superman as a patsy. For many readers appearing during the 80's comic boom, the powerful, naive boy scout was the definitive Superman. For years, DC didn't bother to counter their own image. Instead of giving the world a Superman which comic fans could get behind, DC seemed a victim of their own success and went with Miller/ DKR's take on The Man of Steel.

A generation of comic fans wanting to identify with the hard boiled Dark Knight saw Superman as the old, unwelcome man at the party and believed that the image of Superman was what was behind all those "Bam! Pow! Comics not just for Kids!" headlines they suffered through. Ironic then that it was Batman, the yardstick for comic superhero legitmacy, who had been the one who cemented the idea in the baby-boomers' heads that comics were for dullards.

Anyway, that was the context with which I approached Superman as a comic character. Sort of.

Like everyone else, I'd seen the movies in the theater as a kid. I remember being afraid for Superman when Luthor put the chain with Kryptonite around Superman's neck and kicked him into the pool. That's really my only memory of seeing Superman: The Movie when I was very little. I remember seeing Superman II with Jason, John, Jim and my Dad and Wayne. I remember thinking Superman was sucker for giving up his powers for some dumb girl. I even remember seeing Superman III and being terrified of Robert Vaughn's sister when she melded with the giant computer. Superman IV I wouldn't see until college on a sunny Sunday when I was avoiding doing any homework and my roommates were MIA.

In a lot of ways, I preferred Superman as a movie and cartoon character to the comics. I liked seeing him in action, zipping across the sky, using his superbreath to freeze a lake or flying out of the sky to save school buses. The few Superman comics I picked up off the shelf at the drug store didn't match what I saw in the movies. Superman was often in space with various pastel colored aliens. Luthor had his own planet. Mxyzptlk seemed less like the annoying imp from the cartoons and more like a sinister, near omnipotent genie.

When I was becoming a full-blown comic geek in the mid-80's, I have a firm memory of hanging out with a non-comic collecting classmate and explaining to him, in detail, why Superman could never be interesting. Every comic reader has the same litany of responses on the topic, passed down from geek to geek. In a way, it's an attempt to legitimize one costumed superhero over the other, and maybe, in the process, gain literary credibility for their superhero of choice.

Superman is invulnerable. There's no getting around that one. Bullets bounce off of him. grenades are an incovenience. A lightning strike will wind him, but nothing short of a tactical nuclear strike (or a hand full of kryptonite) is going to put him down.

He has too many powers. How can any character who can do anything the writers dream up possibly be of interest? He could resolve any conflict in the time it takes for him to pick from his catalog of abilities (right down to Super Ventriloquism), and defeat anyone in his path.

Superman is a boy scout. There's no danger to him as a character. There's no chance he'll make the wrong decision.

His secret identity isn't believable. How can a pair of glasses make for a disguise? How could Lois not see through the disguise?

His costume is stupid. He wears his underwear on the outside. He has a cape and shiny red boots.

He's got old fashioned ideas. His rogues gallery is lame. He's a government stooge. He's a fascist. He's a thug in tights. Who could ever believe such a guy would make the choice to help people?

I could.

I don't know when, exactly, it clicked with me. I think it started in high school when I stayed up too late on a Saturday night in 9th grade watching Superman: The Movie with The Admiral. I still recall watching that last shot of Superman in orbit, our hero pretty pleased with the end of the movie and having a good look at his adopted home planet. I turned to the Admiral and said "That was a lot better than I remember it being."

"Yeah," nodded The Admiral. "I always liked that one."

I picked up a few issues of Superman after that, and the same confusion set in. The DCU, at the time, was a little bit of a tough place to just wander into. They weren't as locked into the Marvel formula of having every character explain themselves in every panel.

I picked up some back-issues of "Man of Steel" at some point and understood what Byrne was doing with Superman, although at the time, I think Roger Stern and Co. had already taken over the regular Superman comics. Like the Superman movie, "Man of Steel" humanized Superman in a way I hadn't expected. Superman wasn't some Super Dad there to slap the wrists of wrong-doers. He wasn't a government stooge. Like in the film, Superman was a guy given incredible power, power he could use any way imaginable, and was trying to make the world a better, safer place to be. Perhaps a bit naive in the beginning (taking the boy off the farm, but not the farm out of the boy), but learning fast enough that the bad guys don't always wear the black hats, and that sometimes a victory isn't as clear as it seems.

No movies were coming out by this point, of course, and I'm not sure the syndicated "Superboy" program ever even showed in the two markets I might have lived in during that time. If it did, I was oblivious. Besides, I was into plenty of comics and didn't need to add Superman to my list of titles.

I was still reading X-Men. I was picking up Batman from time to time, depending on the villain (I was a big Two-Face fan), and I had just started picking up these Sandman comics toward the end of high school. At the time, I didn't even know anybody else who read comics. The internet was still something in a Robert Silverberg book (so there certainly weren't any newsgroups about comics), and I hadn't been to a convention since 7th grade.

They killed Superman my senior year of high school, and I remember having to explain to everybody "No, they aren't really killing Superman." Funny how that works. People still ask me once in a blue moon if that was the end of Superman. Of course the big revelation out such a dramatic turn was that Superman got some really outdated glam-metal hair. Even then I knew the worst thing you could do was try to update an icon to "appeal to the teens".

At some point in college, I picked up a few new issues of Superman, but what piqued my interest once again was the amazing Bruce Timm/ Paul Dini animated Superman series. The show delved deeply into Superman's silver age trappings, updating them perhaps stylistically, but never in spirit. All the villains I could remember from a Superman Flipbook my mom got me out of a Troll book order when I was five popped up sooner or later. Only now Toyman was a creepy little bastard with a plastic head instead of a goof on a pogo stick. Bizarro was full of pathos I'd not realized he might contain while destroying the tables at the Legion of Doom HQ on Superfriends. The Animated Luthor was cunning and brilliant, and utterly believable as a foil for the Man of Steel in a way Gene Hackman's Luthor never appeared to be.

What impressed me once again in the cartoon was the rich origin of Superman.

One of the complaints about Superman by comic fans is that unlike, say, Batman, Superman was born to his powers. But that isn't quite true. The explosion of Krypton, the loss of not just a family he would never know, but a planet he would never know, sent by parents who refused to give in to loss and send forth their only son into the cosmic void... Yes, Superman's powers are not derived from years spent training, any more than that of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man or any others of hundreds of comic book heroes (see: X-Men).

The pained conversation in Superman: The Movie between Jor-El and Lara deciding upon the fate of their child tells you all you need to know. In vague, knowing terms the dialogue establishes that they know their son will never, ever truly belong, as cursed by his abilities as he is blessed.

It's a theme that's been explored in dozens of motifs in comics, probably most prominently in Spider-Man. Perhaps it's the grounding and relatable loss of Spider-Man's Uncle Ben rather than the catastrophic and unimaginable loss of your birth planet that seems somehow more sympathetic. But the idea that the super powers came at a price came from Superman, Batman's origin appearing well after his initial appearances. And, of course, Spider-Man and Marvel's complement of heroes came along decades after Superman's first appearance.

And, of course, the goodly Kents appeared in the cartoon as they had in the earliest episode of the George Reeves series, the Christopher Reeve film, the Silver Age comics and the Byrne comics. Guidance and honest discussion of the life his powers might bring him were the gift from his earthly parents.

So what was the difference? Why Superman?

There's the cultural archaeology of a character who has survived 67 years of the expanding American media world. There's the core of characters (friend and foe) who have made the trip alongside Superman in virtually every media from radio to internet shorts. In short, the character has thrived like none other over since the invention the super hero comic with Superman's first appearance.

He's a character everybody has some knowledge of, and who can spark conversations with just about anyone. On Wednesday I found myself standing in my sweltering house talking to the 60 year-old air conditioner repairman about George Reeves as the repairman eyed Superman floating above the Daily Planet globe (a newspaper name probably as widely known as any actual paper shy of the New York Times). Little kids point to the license plate on the front of my car in busy parking lots. More than once when I've worn a Superman shirt to work (under an oxford) someone in the elevator has looked to me and said "now I know your secret identity" with a knowing nod.

Of late it's been trendy for trucks to sport Superman stickers, perhaps suggesting that the truck is as powerful as the Man of Steel.

Seinfeld dedicated a whole episode to the comic geek friendly notion of "Bizarro".

So if Superman is all of those things that people equate with him, what is there to like?

Superman is the original superhero, and whether the average guy on the street knows that Superman was the first costumed super-powered character of his ilk is almost irrelevant. He's the most imitated, satirized and flat out copied comic character. The concept has been refined and splintered into thousands of new characters since Action Comics #1 saw print, some of whom have existed alongside Superman for almost the same amount of time (and others who pre-dated Superman and were co-opted into the world of super heroes). But all of them have some hint of Superman about them.

It's no doubt the longevity of the character and the various strictures of the time and company have often left Superman looking like a goofy do-gooder. The tendency to mistake brainless entertainment for children's and all-ages entertainment has too often affected the ace of action. With as much Superman product as has existed over the years, not all of it was going to be brilliant. Yet the character continues to find an audience, his career outlasting Sinatra, Elvis, and dozens of other icons of the 20th Century.

At the character's heart, Superman has managed to symbolize many things to many people. As often as Superman is invoked as a sign of invulnerability, his one weakness is brought up just as often. "Kryptonite" has become a synonym for a sure weakness for the seemingly strong.

However, it's in Superman The Movie that we learn that Kryptonite may be what weakens Superman, but it's his humanity that is his greatest vulnerability. No man, no matter how Super, can be everywhere at once. And with the (temporary) death of Lois Lane, we see Superman wounded to his absolute core in his grief, just as he was at the loss of Jonathan Kent. "All these powers" Clark Kent reflects at the loss of his adopted father, "and I couldn't save him."

For me, that's the weakness I can understand. Too many powers? Not enough, we're led to believe. Not enough if you can't save the ones who matter most.

If there's no danger to him as a character, I'll accept that as a criticism. The story of Superman is not the story of a character constantly compromised, nor a character who wishes to be seen as frightening to any but those caught in the act. He's the embodiment of trying to make the right choices and trying to live at the assistance of others. Rather than a sign of lack of will, Superman's character is reflective of what can be achieved by someone who has decided to live selflessly at the aid of others.

We throw around the term "super powers" in relation to governments, but just as often, Superman's dangerous potential is treated with the same cautionary wind reserved for our states of unimaginable power. In the comics, the Luthors of the world see the power and are jealous, seeing in Superman the power to topple mountains. They refuse to believe in a man who could have all of that power and not use it for personal gain, not turn upon his fellow man. How can he weild such power and not choose to enforce his will, not choose to become the single-minded fascist who crushes his will down upon the world? How can a man not reflect what they see in themselves?

Just as often, there are the readers of the comics and the viewers of the movies who turn their nose up, raising the same questions. But these readers and fans are missing the point. The story of Superman is a story of hope.

Superman is about what can be done when we not only turn away from those desires to control and destroy, but when we use that power for the right reasons and in the right way. The actual stories in the comics, in the movies, in the TV series and radio show are about that never ending battle to not only combat the endless tide of the strong over the powerless, but the struggle to know the right choice.

They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way.

Does this make the character less relatable? Perhaps to some. To me, it's a wonderful story. It's a reminder of the potential of everyone to do the right thing, and to remember that everyone has the opportunity to make the right choices. I think that inherent message is what's kept Superman flying for seven decades.

As longtime readers of this blog will know, things aren't always peaches and cream at League HQ. There are the times I wish I could spin the earth backward or lift the bus off the bridge if it could help in the smallest of ways. I don't mind cracking open a Superman comic to remind me that the good fight is a never-ending battle, that it's worth it, and it doesn't hurt if you do it for the woman you love (even if she doesn't recognize you when you're wearing glasses).

No comments: