"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
… [T]here were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
— Luke 2: 8-14 (King James Version)
If you are inexorably compelled to top off that passage with “And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” join the club. As well, if you’re wondering how this relates to DC Comics’ superheroes, fear not — we’ll get there. (And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, don’t worry — I’ll try not to prosletyze.)
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Each of us, as we age, edits our tastes; revising and, inevitably, revisiting them. For me, it came down to “I liked this before — why shouldn’t I like it again?” Over the years I have been through this process with pretty much everything which entertained me as a youngster: comics, music, D&D, even the big things like Star Trek and Star Wars. (While my Star Wars sabbatical only lasted from 1984-87, it still felt like an eternity.)
Naturally, when I decided I was going to get serious (relatively speaking) about religion, I took a second look at how I’d been celebrating Christmas. Along the way I winnowed down the number of Christmas specials I watched — not quite in an ideological-purity way, but by and large that’s how it turned out. The cuts were pretty brutal, especially on the animated side, because most of them dealt with the more secular aspects of the holiday: Santa, reindeer, snowmen, and a non-denominational “attitude of gratitude.” Nothing wrong with any of that on its own, of course; but to me it didn’t seem particularly Christmas-y. In fact, for a number of years only “A Charlie Brown Christmas” made the must-watch list, mostly for Linus’ recitation from the Gospel of Luke. Again, I wasn’t condemning Rudolph and Frosty to the fiery pit — I just didn’t feel like I was missing out on any lessons about Jesus’ birth if I failed to watch ‘em each year.
Accordingly, since then I have tried hard to set aside twenty or so minutes for the simple, affecting tale of an alienated boy struggling to find his place in the confusion of the Christmas season (and not, I should mention, seeking solace in a Red Ryder BB gun). Not only does it point the way to a key Scriptural lesson, it also reminds me of Charles Schulz’ singular view of the world, and how he was able to communicate that vision so skillfully for almost the last fifty years of his life. Of course he did it through the modest medium of comics; and of course his work both elevated and transcended that medium. When I watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (which I realize isn’t comics, but close enough for our purposes), I see the genius that was Peanuts; and it warms my heart almost as much as the holiday sentiment does.
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Lately, though, part of me wants to see a more baroque, retro-gonzo, Morrison/Quitely-esque Nativity account. Page One: a handful of silent, dark panels show shepherds keeping watch. Open up pages 2 and 3 for an eruption of radiance, as the angel makes ‘em sore afraid for three-quarters of the splash and calms ‘em down in inset panels running along the right side. Pages 4 and 5 up the ante even more with another two-page spread: the Heavenly Host exploding with light and fanfare over the dark desert, praising God and singing the most beautifully unearthly music any human had ever heard. I know the music is a tall order for print, but sometimes you just want to go all-out.
Sometimes, too, you want to make your pastimes fit where they might not ordinarily go. Hearing Luke’s account, it’s hard for me not to be reminded of the Kents finding baby Kal-El on the bleak Kansas plains. In John Byrne’s 1986 revision, the Kryptonian pod landed just before a Snowstorm of the Century conveniently trapped much of Small County in their homes, and gave Martha time to explain why no one saw her pregnant. Moreover, the ‘86 origin included an outer-space battle between the Green Lantern Corps and the Manhunters, the latter trying to claim Kal-El for their own. I like to think they fought close enough to the Earth that the green Oan energy could be seen from the ground, not unlike the angels’ display over Bethlehem.
That’s probably wishful thinking on my part, though. In terms of Biblical parallels, the Superman legend tracks closer to Moses than Jesus, and it’s only superficially similar at best. Superman may come “from above,” but his mission is based squarely on terrestrial ethics. In fact, Wonder Woman is more of a messianic figure, since it’s pretty much her job to bring Amazonian values to Patriarch’s World. Her classic origin is both mythic and poignant, but if one is looking for Christian parallels, the New-52 revisions are certainly helpful (besides being “in character” for the Greek gods, of course). The Christian Nativity is its own thing, just as Superman’s and Wonder Woman’s origins are largely their own, regardless of the connections we readers try to make.
Nevertheless, we make these connections, because we want our pastimes to be meaningful beyond their escapist thrills. When Superman died and returned, it wasn’t to save DC-Earth from its sins. (Instead, it helped propagate the sins of ‘90s excess.) However, those storylines helped reinforce those easy, familiar parallels. What, then, does that make the New-52 Supes? Is he “Buddy Christ,” the user-friendly Jesus for the 21st Century?
Actually, if we’re talking about periodic revisions, Superman is closer to Santa Claus. Snopes.com describes the latter as
a hybrid, a character descended from a religious figure (St. Nicholas) whose physical appearance and backstory were created and shaped by many different hands over the course of years until he finally coalesced into the now familiar (secular) character of a jolly, rotund, red-and-white garbed father figure who oversees a North Pole workshop manned by elves and travels in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer to deliver toys to children all around the world every Christmas Eve.
Thus, one was inspired by a real person — a wealthy orphan, as it happens, whose fortune helped him do good — and one sprung from the imaginations of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, but the intervention of “many hands” shaped both irrevocably. While the illustrator Haddon Sundblom drew iconic images of Santa for the Coca-Cola Company, and pencillers like Wayne Boring and Curt Swan set the style for Superman for decades, the looks of both characters had already been fairly well-established. We don’t see too many revisions to Santa’s look these days, and I suspect that before too long, the New-52 Superman will revert to a more classic appearance as well.
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In a way, this is what puzzles me about people who say they don’t “get” Superman and Wonder Woman. I understand that it’s easier to grasp the ideas behind Batman, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Under their abilities and gear, they’re just guys, driven by relatively mundane mindsets. Superman and Wonder Woman are allegedly more obtuse because they represent higher ideals. Well, what about Santa? His mission of omniscient compassion and annual rewards (coupled these days with a dollop of economic stimulus) is just as lofty, but no one looks to relaunch him every few years.
Now, you may say that Santa is hardly as complex as either the Last Son of Krypton or the Amazing Amazon, and there is some truth to that. However, with Superman and Wonder Woman, it’s possible as well to go overboard on complexity — to bend over backwards to make them “relevant” or “realistic” at the expense of what made them appealing initially. And this, too, is part of the reason no one looks to relaunch Santa — because Santa’s audience is self-renewing, and never really goes away.
Similarly, there will always be an audience for Superman, and that audience will know, deep in its collective heart, when Superman is done right. When that happens, whether it comes from Siegel & Shuster or Morrison & Quitely or Christopher Reeve, it’s one of the most special things on Earth. Superman is one of those rare creations of fiction which, like Charlie Brown and Santa Claus, has transcended its original state to become an icon of something pure and true. After that point, tweaking tends to yield diminishing returns. We “know” Superman like we know the others, because he speaks to the best parts of ourselves.
Accordingly, this time of the year it doesn’t take much to trigger my sentimental impulses. For me, the best trappings of Christmas are the most primal, the most elementary: the dark desert, the angels, the shepherds, and of course the Child. The primal Superman elements do the same: the costume, the transformation, the powers. Adding too much else threatens to obscure them.
Introducing his ultimate Superman story, Alan Moore referred to “a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.” Whoever that is for you, I hope this season inspires you to do the same. After all, that’s what Christmas is all about.