Tuesday, December 15, 2009

So long, Superman!

About three and a half years ago (that's roughly 25 years ago in blog years), I posted what I felt was more or less my statement on WHY I'm a fan of Superman.

You can read it here.

I'd also pointed to my Superman collection at the time, which has only expanded in the intervening years. At that time, I did not have replicas of five shades of Kryptonite, a toy Kryptonian Battlesuit, etc... Were there time and my office in any condition to show, I'd have put up a few images. But its not, so... you're just going to have to stop by some time. Tours are $2.

I'm fairly sensitive to criticism of the Superman character, primarily because Superman has taken on this odd, avatar-like role for the squeaky-clean image of heroism that's fallen out of favor but which is mostly a gross oversimplification.

I talked about that here.

At another point I tried to address what I would think are limitations of Superman (and superheroes) here.

I get a lot of blowback from readers when I bemoan the misconceptions, and am told "well, its what the public thinks that matters". But I also am aware that the public perception is shaped by articles exactly like the ones Loyal Leaguers gleefully forward me (which is shockingly often). That's not to say that you can't criticize Superman as a character, but the thing is: John and Jane Public in this case are getting sold a bad bill of goods. And I've always felt that wasn't quite fair to DC Comics, John and Jane Public, people like myself who actually bother to read the comics, watch the movies, cartoons, TV shows, etc... and certainly to a figment of a teenager's imagination whose done little more in 70-odd years of existence but be the good guy.

There are different visions for how the story of Superman might end. Ends are how we can judge characters, after all. Alan Moore's closeout of the Silver Age with "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" is tragic, but ends on the right note. DC One Million suggests Superman sort of goes on forever. I like the ambiguous wrap-up to All Star Superman, with Superman toiling at the heart of the sun, having given up his Earthly life to save the world, and lifting from the page of all mythic heroes, with the promise that he will one day return.

I've made no secret that part of why I embraced Superman was because the franchise/ series/ character/ whatever DID have that weird, funhouse aspect of "oh, Jesus. What now?" that I still cackle about when a new editon of Showcase Presents Superman hits the shelves or I find just the right back issue. And its certainly a big selling point for me when I pick up an issue of Jimmy Olsen. I like that this same character is responsible for amazing comics like "Kingdom Come", "Peace on Earth" and many, many more... But its also the same character that spawned Beppo the Super Monkey.

Often, Superman can be a reminder of how short I feel the vision is of humanity. Sometimes I believe that its a lack of belief that a person wielding such power would turn it to the good that makes us flush with rage when the story does not become one of betrayal, petty abuse of power, and instead, page after page chooses to show us a man struggling with the choices before him.

In his own story, of course, Luthor is the hero. He's the brilliant mind who turned genius to profit and power, and who cannot imagine that someone so gifted would not want to cap and trade his own power. Superman must be waiting for something, and while we hiss and boo Lex, we're envious of him.

There's, of course, a personal and a quite literal financial stake in all this. I've got something invested. But I also started elsewhere with comics, with superheroes, with action and science fiction heroes, with all the same stuff we all pass through. n the end, I landed on Superman. Somehow, the constant striving to do the right thing didn't seem like such a bad thing. And maybe even the "taking it a step further" that happens when you want to be better than who you really are.

And that's what I read when I pick up those comics, and watch those movies. All those powers, and Superman still so rarely saves the day. I know I can do better, and I so often fail to do so. I do okay. I do well enough, but I don't do enough.

In the years of this blog, its unlikely I've turned a single person into a fan of the Man of Steel. I know I've probably shared more about the character than even one of you ever cared to read. That's okay. You people have no idea what Jamie lives with, here in our Fortress of Solitude.

I haven't forgotten that JimD obtained a theatrical print of Superman: The Movie for what was practically a personal screening, getting Randy to come down to join us, and setting us up in a magnificent theater (The Jefferson in downtown Beaumont). Or that Peabo and his wife drove out there with us to watch the movie.

And I haven't forgotten the endless viewings Jamie suffered through of Superman movies, TV shows, cartoons, etc... Nor have I forgotten the Super-related items folks have shared or given to me as gifts. All of that winds up as part of the package of what I think of when people ask "So you're a Superman fan?".

At the end of the day, I like the idea that there's this alien who came to Earth, and because he was raised to believe in Truth and Justice and The American Way, those things we're all supposed to believe in, that he decided not to use the power for himself, but to do the right thing. Whether its saving a space plane from crashing or standing between a shooter and their victim, that saving the day is the right thing to at least try to do.

It doesn't hurt that he can bend steel in his hands, that his eyes shoot lasers and that he's got Lois, Perry and Jimmy around.

Or that he's got a dog that has all his powers that's a superhero, too.

As I mentioned in previous parting posts, I am aware that Superman is and has been an odd sort of crutch when I needed hours to fill and something to focus on outside of the day-to-day. But I've also been able to look at Superman as metaphor, as inspiration of a sort, and as distraction during some of our most challenging days. A fictional Superman cannot eliminate ill-health, or want, or distress. All the character can do is appear in stories where someone tried to do the right thing, often against obstacles that seemed literally impossible, enough to defeat even a Superman.

I have a favorite memory, of Jamie getting better in the hospital, and me knowing she was getting better when I was able to show her pages from one of those fat "Showcase Presents" Superman albums and say "this is completely insane! Look at this!" I believe it was Superman accidentally finding himself with the head of a lion, and Jamie and I having a good laugh. That's just good stuff.

I'll miss talking about Superman with you guys.

Sometime, pick up a Superman comic. I'll be around to make suggestions, if you like.

I just hope that a few of you, when you see the red cape and boots will know a bit more than "John and Jane Public", and nothing would please me more than finding out you'd won points at trivia by naming Superman's dog (hint: its Krypto).


Simon MacDonald said...

While I am no where near a big a Superman fan as you I have read the character on and off over the past 30 years. Most notably the time frame just before and after Crisis on Infinite Earths.

The kernel of an idea that always keeps me coming back to the character is the nature vs nurture debate. Basically Superman is an alien who is orphaned and then adopted by some humans. He has this vast amount of power but he doesn't use it for his own gain as he has been raised to help and respect others.

I've always liked this as I'm adopted as well and us adopted kids always feel a bit "alien". However, in Superman we have an example that what we are made of doesn't matter as much as who we are.

J.S. said...

Simon, that's possibly the best defense of the superman character that I've ever heard. Seriously.

The League said...

Elegantly put, Simon. And I could not agree more.

Simon MacDonald said...

Thanks for the props guys. It makes me think I should get off my ass and write up that series of "where do super heroes come from" posts that I keep thinking of. It would be a mix of the literary, pop culture and personal influences of the character.

For example: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde + Nuclear War + Anger Management = The Incredible Hulk

The League said...

Hey, if you do it, you need to cross-post at Comic Fodder.

NTT said...

I think you both are right on with the character of Superman. He really is not the cosmic boy scout but the example of humanity at its best instead of its worst. The best portrayals of Superman have always been his struggles to not to form a perfect society as a protector but to know that despite his great powers, there is only so much he can do. But he does his best anyway because his greatest strength is not his powers but his empathy. He rejects the Nietzschean moral relativity even though he has no need to ever empathize with those who are not on his physical and mental level.

Superman works well with the metaphor of the Christian savior, that he is the Son given to humanity in its darkest times, an alien, an immigrant not of this world but embracing it anyway.

Writers need to keep those themes in mind and he will always be relevant and entertaining. Unfortunately, DC seems to like banishing him into other galaxies while keeping a title in his name.

The League said...

Interesting times at DC. I believe that the "get Superman out of the picture so his comeback will have all the more meaning" spawned by WONK has gone on entirely too long and meandered too much, and seems tied to the fact that DC announced the series as being 12 issues without any particularly good reason WHY it would be 12 issues.

Not that I haven't enjoyed WONK. I have. But the long-picture view they're doing for us Superman collectors has led to a bit of straining of good will.

That's part of why I'm excited by the Earth One announcement and the OGN approach. Get Superman to an audience that comes to him with only a few basic ideas in mind, and then leave the collector's comics for all the continuity heavy stuff.

By the way, price was listed today at Amazon. HC will be $20, which means the SC will be $13- 15 for 128 pages. That SC sounds like the right format.

Simon MacDonald said...

@NTT actually I think that Superman was originally supposed to be an analog to Moses, not Jesus. Certainly as the character developed writers have brought in the messiah metaphor which could apply equally to Moses or Jesus.

This is not to say that Supes is Jewish. It has been clearly established that he was raised a Methodist. Which is another connection to Moses as he was born an Israelite but raised Egyptian.

The League said...

Well, given that the writers, artists, editors and publishers of Superman were all Jewish for the first years of Superman's existence, I'd suspect that a "Christ" figure was probably not the first thing on anyone's mind. But given that the concept was sold from two 17 year olds who lifted extensively from other pulp and action heroes to form Superman, I'd say it sort of gets into a certain thematically iconic heroic storytelling that includes Moses, Jesus, and plenty of heroic stories which were pretty darn similar to what falls into the Judeo-Christian texts.

Absolutely the writers of Superman: The Movie leaned heavily on the Christ and Moses ideals, and that movie has been hugely influential on the public perception and subsequent interpretations of Superman. The comics have become very aware of the slippery slope and occasionally address it, but its rarely handled well.