Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Superman Genesis not all "Gee-Whiz"?

I appreciate the folks who sent me the article on the Siegel family which ran today.

To summarize, its an article about how its recently come to light that Superman creator Jerry Siegel's father died during a robbery at his shop prior to the creation of Superman. Armchair psychology suggests that perhaps this event was the catalyst for the creation of The Man of Steel.

Here's a link to that article.

I have no idea what Siegel and Shuster were thinking during the years when they were working on their cartoon ideas (of which there are many which survive). Most of what I know about the actual origins of Superman and Siegel and Shuster comes from the Gerard Jones book "Men of Tomorrow", which I've referenced here once or twice.

It seems that novelist AND comic writer Brad Meltzer is releasing a novel in which the events of Siegel's father's death play a central role. And as Meltzer tends to sell a heck of a lot of novels, USA today and others are picking up on the theme in his latest novel "The Book of Lies" (due next month).

I do think that making the equation of "untimely death of father + desire to see justice = birth of Superman" is a pretty gross oversimplification. But its also exactly the sort of story that the general populace would rather hear than the long held (and oft derided opinion) that Siegel and Shuster were high school losers who needed some form of escapism from their nerd-status, and so fantasized about an alter ego which would make the ladies swoon.

It's been the latter interpretation that's made the rounds in columns and lists of "dumbest superheroes" (Googling "Superman lame" brings up 1.3 million sites) that has dogged Superman in the post Dark Knight Returns era. The character was seen as a weak man's fantasy stand-in, and that somehow made character, creators and fans of the character seem dopey. How this applies to Superman, but not to any other character... I have no idea, but that's been the general consensus.

Superman deals with yet another citizen who let their tags expire

The somewhat abstract armageddon of Superman's origin hasn't held up as well as the gripping visceral and personal tragedy of Batman's origins, and for twenty years it's been fairly regularly that Superman takes a pounding for his lack of murder in his origin (always an odd one, to me. Especially with billions of dead Kryptonians, etc...). So it'll be interesting to see how or if the true tragedy of the character's creator and champion will carry any weight going forward.

Writers with a psych class or two under their belt may not be so quick to dismiss the character as a nerdy kid's fantasy for landing girls, but will now read into the character all sorts of new stuff with the information at hand. (insert tiny, unenthusiastic "hooray..." here)

All of that has always been a gross oversimplification of Superman's origin. He was the product of two kids (young men by the time Superman was finally published in its more-or-less current form) who did what most people do when creating something new: they begged, borrowed and stole from other popular science-fiction and fantasy of the day of which they'd been fans for years. Doc Savage, Amazing Stories Magazine, strong men such as Charles Atlas, and everything in between.

They were fanboys before the term was coined, trying to break into a medium that was not an atypical aspiration at the time, just as young people now all want to major in film.

What's forgotten is that Siegel also produced characters like The Spectre, who make Batman's exploits look like child's play. And, by the way, Dr. Occult, whom I once saw cited as "the first costumed hero". Siegel was also responsible for humor strips, and worked a lot of comedy into Superman from the first issue. And, he preceeded Superman with the recently revived tough-guy, Slam Bradley (derivative of Dick Tracy, etc...).

That all said:

I'm not sure Siegel created Superman out of tragedy. I'm not dismissing the idea, but I can't possibly know one way or another, and I'm not sure if its fair to believe that's the case just because it seems somewhat romantic and/ or works with our understand of psychology gleaned from seeing Dr. Phil.

I do know that Siegel never saw Superman as an avenging character from the first issue. Rather, Superman was there to stop harm from occurring, whereas Batman was the detective on the trail of clues, bringing murderers and thieves to justice after the mess was already made (but you'd have to ask Bill Finger and Bob Kane about all that).

Whatever anger might have been there was turned into a more hopeful wish fulfillment, possibly. That rather than asking someone like Batman to pick up the pieces afterward, the Man of Steel had been there to save the day.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Both kids and adults should know that heroes aren't just people who show up after the fact. Sometimes they're the guys who step in first to make sure the bad stuff either doesn't happen, or never gets too bad. Maybe Siegel's real life experience taught him that what people really want in the face of tragedy is for something to save the day. And that's something all superheroes do when they're at their best. And that's kind of the point...


Michael Corley said...

I appreciate your statement that the real orgigin is probably complex, stemming from their fantasies, mainstream readings of their childhood and yes, perhaps even their own tramatic events.

I also stand by that the "Superman Lame" force sweeping nerd folk is a backlash from the fact that he's the first, the most popular and therefore the one who is derided above all.

Simon MacDonald said...

Hey, if you get a chance listen to this interview with Brad Meltzer on Word Balloon. At around the 20 minute mark he makes some comments regarding the death of Siegel's father.

Meltzer on Word Balloon

The League said...

Awesome! thanks for the link