Thursday, April 10, 2008

Superman stinks?

Back before Superman Returns, I used to get a lot of articles like this one forwarded to me. It's an article basically stating why Superman is a terrible character. (Thanks to Randy and Simon for the link.)

There are two basic forms these articles take:
1) I am a comic fan, and I know what makes for good superheroes, and Superman is NOT IT
2) Superman is too outdated for our morally complex times (this one is usually written by a non-superhero and/ or comic fan)

These articles are usually, I assume, meant to blow the lid off of people's pre-conceptions of the All-American hero. Often they are meant as a justification of the Marvel-style of superheroes and/ or Batman as the rightful heir to being "the best hero ever".

It's a weird sort of thing to want to write such an article, even for a comic site or publication. Really, no other character generates the same negative ink, just for existing. I don't recall if I've ever seen a "why Spidey is a terrible character", "why Batman is just dumb", or "why Captain America should stay dead/ retired already".

I do think the linked article does distill the basic crux of the arguments by comic nerds who do not like Superman. It's what I would characterize as argument #1, why Superman is not a good Superhero by and for comic nerds.

The four points for why Superman is a bad character are (more or less):

1) Indestructibility
2) Moral absolutism
3) Superman's very presence somehow lessens humanity
4) Superman is given powers, and somehow that's unfair

As I mentioned above, these arguments are usually paired with the relative bad-assery that the comic fanboy finds in Batman, Spidey or Wolverine. Now, clearly The League is a pretty big Batman nut, and our Batman fandom runs many years longer than that of our Superman fandom. We understand the argument. We also like Spidey, and feel sort of "meh" when it comes to Wolverine.

The biggest problem with most of these articles is that its pretty clear that the writer has only a cursory understanding of Superman, usually formed from a high-profile project of the cross-over variety, or a team book. And quite often it seems the writer is finding ways to force the world to see Superman through the filter of Dark Knight Returns. And, quite often, the writer has selectively omitted certain aspects or perhaps just missed some detail of the story which they are citing.

The League rebuts:

Indestructibility- usually the number one writing complaint for writers trying to take on Superman. He can't be shot. He doesn't fear a gas main exploding.

All of these are true. That was kind of the point of a guy who didn't need to worry about bullets, etc... when Superman was developed. If he could be shot and die, he'd be someone else.

Yes, if you want to get technical, Superman can be hurt by Kryptonite. Or magic. Or have his powers shut off under the light of a red sun (as seen in recent issues of Action Comics). But that's not really the point.

Superman can't be injured by conventional means, but those around him CAN. People can get injured. It's one thing to get shot at, its another thing for Superman to worry about the bullets bouncing off his skin and sailing all over the place. Its another thing to worry about escalation when that super-villain knows he can't get you, but blowing up a few city blocks will sure get your attention (or poisoning all the air ducts in Metropolis, right Lex?).

This doesn't address that many other fan-favorite characters are also invulnerable. The Hulk. Thor. Wolverine (from a practical standpoint). Iron Man. Captain Marvel/ Shazam. Green Lantern. Martian Manhunter. Colossus. And, hey... even Booster Gold.

Superman, like Batman, is a character featured in perpetually produced serial fiction. Neither will ever really die, no matter what an editor or executive might think will temporarily push up sales on a comic. At what point does it not become absurd for the man in tights and bat-ears to not ever just get a bullet between the ribs from some thug who gets off a lucky shot (and you can't tell me every crook in Gotham wouldn't be carrying at least two guns just for purse snatching)? Or why doesn't someone just start shooting at Wolverine from across the room with a decent gun? Or Spider-Man, for that matter? Heck, at least Superman has an excuse for shrugging off bullets, and at least the crooks in Metropolis aren't going to just wait for their lucky shot if they know it ain't going to work.

Are we to understand that the folks of the Marvel or DCU are too dull to understand that a well placed IED could take out most of the Bat-gang, most X-Men, etc...? And while that may make those characters a bit less fantastic than the Man of Steel, worrying about getting hit with a pool cue is not really what Superman is about. Consider Superman the guy feeling guilty when the bomb goes off because people were injured, and he didn't spot the bomb in time with his X-ray vision.

To suggest that the writers of Superman comics do not address the invulnerability issue in the pages of Superman comics, and elsewhere, is a bit disingenuous. It's addressed in almost every issue. It's considered Superman's responsibility to use that invulnerability (more on this later).

And to suggest that Superman has never confronted a villain who knew his weaknesses, or who wasn't a physical threat to Superman is just simply inaccurate (Mongul, Darkseid, Doomsday, Mxyzptlk, Bizarro, Brainiac...).

Moral absolutism - When this pops up, it's usually when I get the feeling the writer has never stooped so low as to actually have read a Superman comic in his/ her life. Superman comics are generally about Superman not being sure what path to follow when confronted with an almost insurmountable moral dilemma (see Busiek's "Camelot Falls").

Our writer said: Superman has no values of his own, so he's content to just uphold the values of the ruling class

True, in that usually Superman returns the situation to the status quo before the end of the story. It's been 60+ years since Superman was portrayed as a misfit working outside the law. But to state that he has no values of his own displays a fundamental disregard for 70 years of Superman comics. That's also not to mention that the same is true of roughly 90% of what's out there.

If you really want to dissect that statement, we can go back to our friend, Batman: A rich plutocrat who goes out each night and performs vigilante acts beyond the law on a populace that is obviously desperate enough to turn to crime.

Our writer says:

In Batman: War on Crime, Bats comes up against a young boy holding a gun on him. Batman, understanding the complexity of crime and the reasons for its existence, talks the kid into dropping the gun and giving up a life of violence.

Superman would probably just use his heat-vision to melt the gun, then put the kid in prison where he'd become a hard-bitten thug who'd murder somebody a few months after getting out.

For Batman (and the actual purpose of that story, if I recall), that kid was the exception to the rule. If the kid were seventeen or eighteen and holding the gun, Batman would be telling the kid how long each bone would take to heal as he broke it. The writer's suggestion regarding Superman's solution is a fairly inaccurate portrayal as the Man of Steel has EVER been portrayed. Most likely today's Superman would either let the kid unload the clip, then ask him where his parents were. Or, melt the end of the gun and have the same conversation with the kid Batman had in Dini's book.

The writer also suggests Superman's book "Peace on Earth" is a simple story about Superman stopping hunger. I'd encourage Leaguers to read the actual book. "Peace on Earth" is about Superman's inability to solve everyday crisis, and how it weighs on him. It does look at the complex reasons for hunger, and how intervention by any power might be problematic to solving the problem.

Superman has never been portrayed as a puppet of the powers-that-be, but certainly in the post-Wertham-era, he's not been the wise-cracking outsider living outside the law that Siegel and Shuster originally conceived. But a quick glance through a year's worth of Superman comics is a reminder that Superman lives outside of humanity to a large extent, and is aware of the corruptibility of the status quo. He doesn't merely act as a super-cop with all thought to the letter of the law as the author would suggest. While he's certainly not one to just pass by a drug deal on the street, he's here to try to protect us when we can't protect ourselves.

For that matter, its kind of a silly suggestion to bring up that Superman is just some guy who thinks his morals should be enforced. Isn't what Superman is doing the same sort decision making every elected official, police officer, soldier and appointee who ever had to make a decision that would affect others?

In short, what the author seems to want is a Superman who deals with complex situations. I would welcome him to take a look at the past few decades worth fo comics.

Superman's very presence somehow lessens humanity - This is kind of the Lex Luthor argument.

The argument here is that Superman's presence and tendency to act on humanity's behalf somehow suggests that humanity is stupid and dull and needs a savior. As the author points out, this was Lois Lane's argument which earned her a Pulitzer in "Superman Returns". This author felt that Lois's argument is never really defeated by the movie's action, a point which I would note goes out the window when Lois's plane is rescued by the Man of Steel and we can see in her eyes when she realizes her article might be a bit inaccurate.

Superman was created, to an extent, as a fantasy character by two kids who were seeing the corruption, wrong doing and abuse in their world. Keep in mind, this was Cleveland during the Depression, and one of these guy's fathers was gunned down in his own store.

In the first issue of Action Comics, Superman stops the execution of a wrongfully convicted man, smacks around a man abusing his wife and rescues Lois from a local thug. Not bad for a day's work.

These days Superman tends to stop giant robots, intergalactic forces bent on destroying the fabric of space and time, or well-meaning time travelers trying to make the point our author is trying to make. Humanity needs to save itself. Which sounds great until the next mudslide, earthquake in a third world country, or nuclear meltdown.

That's more or less the current idea behind Superman, that someone can take action immediately, not wait and hope that the Red Cross will show up after the fact. We may believe ourselves masters of our world, but when we are not... when we fail or we can't save the day... that's the story of Superman. When the lights are flashing at Hoover Dam and all hell is about to break loose, who shows up to patch the dam with his heat vision and get the generators back online, say a quick hello and then disappear back into the sky?

I don't think that suggests anything negative about humanity. And maybe it even suggests something about what anyone can do to step in and help someone else out when they're in a crisis.

Superman is given powers, and somehow that's unfair -
Well, that's kind of the point, isn't it? Sure, everyone on his planet had to die for him to get the powers, and touching a piece of his planet will kill him... But the point here is that, I think, the author is sort of saying "all those guys who made the basketball team were just lucky bastards with natural talent. If I could have worked out all the time, and maybe had professional basketball tutors, I could have been as good as them. That's what people want to see!"

This is sort of a personal preference in your superherofandom, and it has been used repeatedly in the narrative of the DCu as a point/ counter-point between Superman and Batman.

Superman has long been about responsibility of power, from his first stories onward through the present day. The decisions about how to use that power, and what sacrifices he must make to uphold that responsibility are the fabric of the Superman mythos.

The conception was always that Superman was the one with the power working for the underdog when the world was failing them. Somewhere along the line (I point to Dark Knight Returns) this whole notion that Superman was a thick-headed goof who was a government patsy appeared, and suddenly Superman's power was frightening and worked as a great strawman villain for DKR. That was more or less Miller's interpretation, and one he explained away in Dark Knight Strikes Again.

If we follow the logic of the author, Batman didn't earn his power, and so he's very likely to abuse it or misuse it. Which is only true to the extent that he's used his billions to do much but put clubhouses in space for he and his pals, and to dress up as a bat and punch out petty crooks.

I get the whole point about Batman being a complete badass because of his training, but, hey... I think this is kind of merely a question of taste.

More on the Batman v. Superman debate (which this guy can't let go):

Look, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire trustfund baby with a chip on his shoulder. I'm not sure if the author is suggesting that Superman should hang up the cape and move aside for Batman to do his thing (which kind of boils down to beating up the poor and mentally ill to make someone else pay for a crime none of these people ever committed).

As per the inevitable reference to the DKR fight between Batman and Superman, which has been replayed a million times... We Superman fans get it. Bats used Kryptonite in a surprise tactic. See him try that twice.

The thrill in DKR was seeing the unexpected, and, really, guys... Superman actually won that fight. He didn't need to fake a heart attack so as not to get his ass finally handed to him.

I might also point out: how many people would really pay to read an issue where Superman does the completely predictable and turns Batman into Batpaste? It seems like that would be unpopular.

On a final note: A long time ago I was having a similar disagreement with someone who shall remain unnamed. Their stance was "well, this is my perception of Superman". I understand that argument, to an extent. However, I do not feel it fair to pass judgment on a character based upon a few glimpses pulled from a few comics, a few spots of media, etc... Especially when using Dark Knight Returns as your basis for evidence. Four comics from a writer focused on a completely separate character do not a character define.

These articles will start making the rounds once again, I suppose. And as much time as this ridiculous post took, this is my last word on the matter for what I hope to be many, many years.

It seems that someone else has rebutted the first author's argument, and I encourage you to read their much more concise article here.


Michael Corley said...

An excellent discourse on this topic.

I would like to throw in the most simple (and pervasive) reason for anti-Supeness.

Superman is Number One.

It goes like this - if you ask a guy on the street to name a superhero they will, statistically speaking, say "Superman, Batman, Spiderman.... uh....."

Yeah, uh.

Superman is top of mind in superhero to the common man. There is no way to get around that because that's his position both from him being so old and for his long standing character appeal.

I could tick off a few others (Bill Gates, Any President Currently in Office, Wal-Mart) who are hated for many reasons, but often simply because they are number one. It's not very interesting to slam on Green Arrow, because 97% of the population of the U.S. don't really know who he is, where 100% know Superman.

Sometimes it's hard to be on top.

The League said...

I mostly agree. And I think a lot of superhero comic fans get irritated that a superhero who they associate with the non-bad-ass view of comics is so often listed.

If my own memory serves, in regards to trying to explain to people that comics were not just silly misadventures of men in tights, I cringed at any example that suggested otherwise. And certainly with Superman's long history, as you suggest, he's a pretty obvious target.

It kept me from bothering to try Superman comics up until college. And I still remember the look of disappointment when I was adding Superman titles to my pull list the first time. Superman is NOT cool to a very large chunk of the comic reading populace. And that's fine. But I think its a little silly to split hairs about Superman when almost every superhero owes some aspect of their existence to Superman's existence.

Michael Corley said...

I agree. I read Superman off and on from '86 or so in little spurts, but 97% of my comics were X-men and related titles (JLA being the more DC oriented fella). It really has been as an adult, when I cautiously have peeked into the local comic shop, that my tendancies float to DC.

J.S. said...

I agree that people just don't like Superman because he's number one. I also think that writers who have been involved with Superman over the last few decades (in any form- comics, cartoons, movies, etc.) have spent an enormous amount of time trying to humanize the character, giving him more of a sense of fallibility, moral uncertainty, and weakness. I think that most of this writing was done in reaction to the fact that people were finding Superman to be an unsympathetic character. The thing is, there's a difference between what goes on in the writing in any given medium that deals with the character versus society's overall perception of the character. As much as Superman has been changed by the writers over the years, I think a lot of people (and by this, I mean the non comic reading general populace) still think of Superman in terms of the early cartoons and the old black and white TV show. Superman underwent a bit of a modernization with Christopher Reeve and then again with Sperman Returns, but he never underwent an entire reconfiguring in the popular imagination the way that Batman did between the time of the campy 60's TV show and the later DKR stuff and the Tim Burton movies. Writers can try to change the character all they want, but the character will always be defined by the way that the audience perceives him, and I'm not sure how many changes to the Superman character that the audience has absorbed over the years. (I think that this is partially just because the original, early idea of Superman was so singular, powerful, uncomplicated, and simple that people really don't respond too well to people trying to "update" the character- people don't really want a Superman who agonizes a lot over moral decisions and who has weaknesses and fallibility. There's a niche in people's heads for a character that is supremely powerful, confident, and who always does "the right thing", and that niche is filled by Superman) Point is, to the general public, I think Superman is still the guy who has it all. He's the high school quarterback who might be a nice guy and who never complains, but that's because he's got everything going for him and he's always going to be the most popular kid in school. Part of the dislike of Superman is sour grapes, for sure. Part of it is that we just don't buy the version of Superman that has legitimate problems and issues to deal with. If you can't deal with sh*t when you have everything going for you that Superman has, then you're a freaking whiner. If you can always deal with everything that gets thrown your way, then you're a freaking golden boy and we're jealous of you.
I'm babbling, babbling, babbling.
But I do think that Superman is defined more by what the audience thinks Superman is than by what the writers do with him. And he holds a very special archetype in the popular imagination that is very, very difficult to change. I think people are responding more to this archetpye when the say they don't like Superman than to the character itself. But don't take it too personally, League. There are people who don't like the idea of God for some of these same reasons.

The League said...

To an extent, I understand that John and Jane Non-Comic Reader will always have the impression you describe, and that's fine. It's more or less reality, as near as I can tell, so I'm not going to disagree with what the public sees. (That said, multiple cartoons, 4 Reeve-starring films, a $400 million grossing feature film from 2006, and a show that's been on TV for 7 years might have made a dent... but maybe not) DC sells a lot of t-shirts and bumper stickers that way. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad interpretation of Superman, as it was how he was presented (to an extent) for many decades.

And, yeah, I more or less agree with your points, not just about Superman, but about a lot of different heroic characters. I don't think Superman needs to necessarily update his image the same way Batman did. And a lot of the groundwork Batman put down making superheroes less goofy than the Adam West show.

This post was specifically addressing the comic geek who rolls out the usual "my superhero is more bad-ass than Superman, so Superman clearly sucks" arguments.

I'm not sure that these guys ever get past the sort of perceptions you describe. I do feel that these geeks feel uniquely threatened by John and Jane Non-Comic Reader spreading their perceptions about Superman over to, oh, Wolverine. It's my opinion that, in many ways, the four arguments I mention are an odd reaction to that concern.