Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | The obligatory grumpy old Super-essay

Curved-podium tribunals are one of his minor weaknesses

Curved-podium tribunals are one of his minor weaknesses

DC Comics is calling June “Superman Month,” but next week is Snyder Week. The first issue of Scott Snyder and Jim Lee’s Superman Unchained arrives next Wednesday, and the premiere of director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel premieres in most places two days later.

Therefore, because there will be a lot of Superman talk coming down the pike, I thought I’d get mine out of the way early.

* * *

One thing that comics blogging has taught me is a healthy respect for the roles (including the rights) of creators. Creators’ rights aren’t unique to comics, of course, but you really can’t talk about the history of superhero comics, or the development of corporately handled superheroes, without at least acknowledging the people who first introduced the concepts. In this respect Superman is a special case, because he seems to have developed past his creators’ original idea (or, certainly, past the original parameters) into something Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster might never have imagined — and people seem pretty cool with that, in a way that perhaps doesn’t apply to similarly long-lived characters.

In the context of their larger histories, we consider the “sci-fi Batman” or the Bob Kanigher/Ross Andru Wonder Woman to be anomalies, far removed from what Bob Kane and Bill Finger or William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter started out doing. More particularly, we can see where specific creative teams decided expressly to get back to basics. With Superman, though, the differences come not just from expansions of the core concepts, but from a general extrapolation of the character into The Best, Period — with no significant push to roll anything back. Today we remember Siegel and Shuster’s original stories for Superman’s social conscience and two-fisted approach to the problems of the day. (We might also remember that around this time, his powers and supporting cast expanded when the feature branched out into other media.) Similarly, we see the Mort Weisinger era as having traded those primal impulses for an explosion of wild ideas and an establishment-oriented viewpoint. When Julius Schwartz succeeded Weisinger in 1971, the Superman books tried to blend all that lore with a more “modern” sensibility; and generally, that approach has stuck.

"Superman Breaks Loose"

“Superman Breaks Loose”

Accordingly, from the Schwartz era forward (if not before), fans and pros alike have tried to determine “what Superman means.” When all of Earth’s Kryptonite was rendered inert in Superman #233′s “Superman Breaks Loose” (January 1971), the pragmatic Morgan Edge reminded readers that absolute power corrupts absolutely. A year later, January 1972′s Superman #247 asked the seminal question, “Must There Be A Superman?”

Today, though, I am wondering, “must Superman mean something?” After all, we seem content not to compare Batman, Aquaman, or Green Lantern to Jesus, and the socially-conscious aspects of Wonder Woman (a more messianic figure, if you ask me) tend to vary with the particular creative team. Not so with Superman. The Orson Scott Card controversy didn’t go to the merits of the author’s story, but to the intersection of his homophobia and the unvarnished goodness that Superman has come to represent. (And I say that not to defend Card, whose views I find abhorrent.) For better or worse, Superman’s characterization has become almost indistinguishable from this deeper meaning — or, if you will, the need for such meaning.

Fortunately, chainmail shorts clean up easily

Fortunately, chainmail shorts clean up easily

Of course, then there are stories like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ famous “For The Man Who Has Everything” (1985′s Superman Annual #11), where Superman’s characterization is divided between a not-quite-ideal fantasy of Krypton and the Total Beatdown Mode of his battle with Mongul. The latter is “Superman breaks loose” in a fairly literal sense. (The “Who … did THIS … to ME?” panel even duplicates Neal Adams’ famous pose from a pants-wettingly low angle.) Supes calls Mongul “vermin,” lays into the would-be conqueror with air-igniting heat vision, and throws punches that register on the Richter scale. This is Superman when he doesn’t have to be a nice guy. He resists the Black Mercy because he knows his fantasy should never have happened, and therefore his inherent goodness causes him to “sacrifice” it — but honestly? What with reactionary Jor-El and the civil unrest he’s helping to foment, it’s not really the perfect fantasy. As a result, the point of the story is not so much that Superman abandons his heart’s desire, but that Mongul gives it to him and thereby earns his wrath. To be fair, Moore’s “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” (in May 1986′s Superman #423 and Action Comics #583; penciled by Curt Swan and inked by George Pérez and Kurt Schaffenberger) did center on Superman making a critical choice based on his particular code of ethics, so the two stories complement each other fairly well.

Now, this is not to malign “FTMWHE,” which is well-constructed (if a bit reliant on ironic panel transitions) and makes good use of that wacky ol’ Weisinger-era lore. Indeed, part of the appeal of “FTMWHE” is its relative lack of complexity. Moore wants Superman to be heroic, but he doesn’t couch that heroism in any ethical choice that might challenge the reader. Instead, he creates a showcase both for Superman’s powers and for the intergalactic diversity represented by lost Krypton and the menageries of the Fortress of Solitude. It could be Batman fighting the Scarecrow through the Batcave, Wonder Woman fighting Doctor Psycho across Paradise Island, or the Flash taking on Gorilla Grodd in the Flash Museum. It’s a good story, and it happens to be a good Superman story.

However, these days we hold Superman stories to higher standards, because the character himself has come to represent a nebulous set of lofty ideals. In that regard, I can’t help but think that the notion of Superman as an aspirational figure has colored both fans’ and pros’ perspectives. To put it bluntly, I don’t think Superman is a Christ figure. It’s a convenient shorthand that really glommed onto the character sometime around the first Christopher Reeve movie, and to me, it doesn’t fit. To say Superman is Jesus implies that Superman has all the answers. That can be very comforting, but it can also put people off, and besides it may make the character less interesting. The texts tell us fairly consistently that Clark/Superman’s morality was shaped significantly by his time on Earth, and particularly by his foster parents, regardless of how the particular creative teams viewed Kryptonian culture.

Therefore, while Clark may reflect the Kents’ shared ethics, and may be guided by them, he doesn’t take that further into any kind of evangelism. He may lead by example, although he may not consider himself a leader. Mark Waid and Alex Ross explored this aspect of his personality in Kingdom Come; and in his 1978 novel Superman: Last Son of Krypton, Elliott Maggin tried to summarize basic ethics with the phrase “there was a right and a wrong in the Universe, and that value judgment was not very difficult to make.” This informed the Kryptonians, the Guardians of the Universe, and Superman himself. It also drove home the point that Superman doesn’t advance any particular credo, just the nominal, common decency which underlies any “good” behavior.

Naturally, we could go further, but for our purposes it’s sufficient to note that Siegel and Shuster may not have intended the Kents to have been as big an influence. Until John Byrne’s 1986 revamp, Krypton’s morals were fairly similar to Earth’s. Krypton’s destruction was a tragedy, but Byrne emphasized that maybe it was more of a blessing in disguise. His Krypton was a cold, technocratic society that might well have conquered Earth with a super-army. (In a 1990 arc, the implacable Eradicator relic almost accomplished this single-handedly, by acting through a mind-controlled Superman.) Thus, “the Kents’ influence” becomes a rationalization for Superman’s character, not a fundamental part of his conception. Today’s Superman may owe his ethics to his foster parents, but for Siegel and Shuster, all that may have mattered was that he was ethical.

Now, I’m not saying Superman shouldn’t have a strong code of ethics, or that he shouldn’t be an aspirational figure, or that he shouldn’t set an example for his colleagues. I just wonder whether the emphasis on his “purity” has yielded diminishing returns. The Superman of Kingdom Come started out in self-imposed exile, created a quasi-totalitarian society, and had to be reminded of his basic humanity. He went from abdicating his leadership role, to abusing it, to learning how to temper it with humility. Kingdom Come has its flaws, but it remains a good example of a story which explores Superman’s ethical struggles without exploiting them.

Indeed, sometimes I wonder how much we need to do to justify Superman’s altruism. Readers readily accept that yellow sun + Kryptonian cellular structure = flying and laser eyes, but unselfish behavior apparently requires a little more suspension of disbelief. The issue of “what does Superman mean” has given way to “Superman always does the right thing,” and that risks putting the character in a box. The basic question should be, if Superman can do anything (like the song says), what does he choose to do?

The answer should depend on a sense of Superman as a person, not necessarily as an ideal; and should derive from the appropriate narratives, not from an externally-imposed “need to be good.” Superman Unchained and Man of Steel offer the latest opportunities to explore what drives the world’s first superhero, and I’ll be curious to see how they go about doing it.

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Comments

14 Comments

I have a completely different interpretation of Moore’s FTMWHE.
To me, everything that’s wrong about the Krypton fantasy is just Superman’s subconscious trying to destroy the Black Mercy’s illusion so that Superman consciously realizes it’s not real.
Superman’s just mad because he feels he lost his wife and children.

Dope piece, I agree I’ve never bought into the Superman=Jesus thing that’s often used. I think my favorite interpretation of the character is Morrison’s All Star and The DCAU Supes in both his series and JL/JLU.

I agree Shap

The JLU interpretation of “For the Man who Has Everything” was not perfect, but it also did something very cool that you can’t do in print — for a moment the voice of Jor-El changed from Christopher McDonald, who had voiced the character the in the very first episode of Superman: the Animated series” (and who voiced the older Superman in a “Batman Beyond” episode) to Mike Farrell, who had voiced Pa Kent in the series. That was a cool little moment.

However, the episode misses my favorite line of the story because Robin is not included (also a major miss):
“Clean thoughts, chum” said by Batman with a knowing smirk.

Good piece, Tom. Will you be reviewing “Man of Steel” two columns from now?

I like The Superman of Kingdom Come

I think that many problems with Superman’s characterization were born out of a blind application of Maggin’s motto. I have great respect for Maggin’s work, but saying that “there is a right and a wrong in the Universe, and that value judgment is not very difficult to make” simply doesn’t make any sense.

World is a complex mess, and it implicates difficult choices. The tendency of showing Superman as a wiseguy who always knows the right choice diminishes any kind of sympathy towards the character. Empathizing with him is simply almost impossible.

The only problem I had with Morrison’s All-Star was the Christ-like overtones. Supes had all the answers (for Lois anyways) and accepted his impending death and the legacy that would follow. If anyone raised Kal-El to a Christ-like figure, it was Morrison. And as a fan, I was disappointed with the obvious direction it took.

The Christ allusions began in the 1978 Superman movie with Brando’s voiceover during his 12-year sabbatical at the Fortress, “They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.”

I’ve never been very fond of that parallel, nor do I see any real authenticity in it. Superman saves physical things, like people and airplanes. He’s not out promising eternal salvation to those that follow his path. I find it overreaching and putting way too much weight on a character not designed to support it.

However, were he real, I could certainly see religious movements forming around him and that is an interesting story.

What I feel the Kent’s greatest contribution to their son is his humility and compassion. Imagine if he’d landed in the backyard of Dina and Michael Lohan. What sort of hell would have been unleashed upon the world?

So I disagree with laying this at Morrison’s feet. The Superman/Christ allusions began long before and, it appears Man of Steel may continue that thread. They have that crucifix pose after Jor-El tells him he can “save them all.” And to be clear, these allusions have never diminished my enjoyment of the movies or stories.

I think an interesting side effect of “What Superman Means” is who he comes into conflict with. I think of him at his power peak in the 60′s & 70′s, when he could do anything. His enemies then were often times one-hit wonders who would think they had what i took to take him down through a gimmick, only to find they didn’t. Luthor, a genius who had been trying to stop Superman for years, was often reduced to “zany plans” (like the Galactic Golum) to try and stop Superman. Brainiac was transformed into something so otherworldly that his very actions became alien. Even the aforementioned MWHAS & WHTTMOT stories were about his enemies finally coming up with a “zany idea” to take him down, though obviously with beautiful storytelling.

When he was de-powered by Byrne in the ’86 revamp, the emphasis was put back on Superman’s physicality and many solutions where to “hit things really hard,” which culminated with Doomsday (to wit, many complained that Superman didn’t fight Doomsday intelligently by using any of his amazing abilities like heat vision). Luthor transformed into a villain who would try to out think Superman to one who DID outmaneuver him – consistently. Brainiac was turned into someone who not only could out think Superman, but often did (the Brainiac story that comes to mind is Panic in the Sky, where Superman stops him by physically willing himself to. That was the solution; not outsmarting him to beating him, but by pushing his physical limits). These villains weren’t tricked or outsmarted by Superman to be stopped – they were usually stopped physically by him.

After Superman returned from the dead, I think, is when the emphasis of WHO Superman is became more prevalent. And his enemies changed with him. Luthor, while as Machiavellian in his plots before, became someone who outright taunted Superman’s ideals when he became President. He was practically begging Superman to take him out to prove that Supes was no better than anyone else. Brainiac became a monster who wanted to capture the world and study it – not enjoy and embrace it as Superman did. they became the antithesis of what Superman had evolved into – life. I think the two key stories whose nemeses articulate that are All-Star Superman and Final Crisis.

I admit that I have not been keeping up with Superman since the New 52, so I’m not sure how the enemies he is facing would compare, though my thoughts via my cursory looks are they are more about creating “brand” enemies that they can spin out into other things (sneakers, video games, etc.) than about creating thoughtful foils for the Man of Steel. But that may just be the jaded part of me who has not been impressed with DC Entertainment as a whole,

Pretty much covered all the Superman bases here .. except one .. fun!!

as in, being Superman was always fun. Up until it suddenly wasn’t. And somehow they can’t get Superman back to being fun. Yes, as been pointed out .. sometimes Superman was a dick to his friends. But he was having fun. And we all know that it would be fun to be Superman.

To me, the big success of IRON MAN is that Robert Downey Jr. made the character fun .. (and sometimes a dick) .. instead of the brooding drunk/serious guy he had become in the comics.

The trailers for the new Man Of Steel look exciting .. dramatic .. hi tech .. explosive .. all that. But it doesn’t look like Superman is having fun. Hopefully there will be some comedy in between all the sturm und drang ..

In a clip from man of steel, Supes flies off a big ice berg and is flying low above the ocean. You see a smile on his face as he flies past the camera. I think he will be a very emotional superman, a hero who wears his heart on his sleeve. Good essay too.

Hugo Sleestak

June 9, 2013 at 11:08 am

The messianic elements in the Superman story were, to my knowledge, first laid out in Galloway’s “The Gospel According to Superman,” published in 1973. Galloway’s book was another in that series of “pop religion” books from that era, such as Short’s “The Gospel According to Peanuts.” However, while Schulz’s characters might have explicitly discussed religious topics, Superman was a different critter altogether – a being (at the time the book was written) of almost infinite power, an only son, cast like Moses towards a greater future. After that, it begins to break down, because if Superman rescues your planet, he flies away with a wink and a wave, a bit like Santa Claus. A figure like Moses or Christ asks for much, much more than that, because if you’ve been saved OUT of trouble, you’ve also been saved INTO another dimension of living. Conveniently, Superman never gets your kitten out of the tree and then tells you that you’ve got to straighten up and take responsibility for the care of your pet. Trying to saddle Superman with messianic baggage is putting stress on something that wasn’t built to take that kind of weight. Superman isn’t Jesus. He’s us, working at our best, on a macro scale. To me, the best version of Superman came during the Weisinger years, when he became a figure of almost Shakespearian tragedy, even as his powers opened him up to all of time and space.

Great article. I always question the individuals who stigmatize Supes with a certain level of morality to rationalize their perception of mischaracterization when he doesn’t always “do the right thing”. To me, Superman has never been about ultimate power and authority given morality, but the other way around. He was raised human, with all the flaws and foibles that come with it, and his great power only accentuates the struggles he encounters to live up to that flawed humanity with the backdrop of alien physical perfection.

Of course, if we’re going with the Christ allegory, it should be pointed out that even Jesus wasn’t perfect pre-crucification. He had weaknesses, he had temptations, he had, at times, a nasty temper. He didn’t try to use his powers to save the world, but realized he was vessel for the world to save itself. At least, that’s what I remember from Sunday School those many, many years ago.

SUPERMAN died september 2011

June 9, 2013 at 11:38 pm

as far as im concerned, SUPERMAN as a dc comics character died in 2011. there is no trace of that character in this new lee/morrison abomination. hoping the movie is good now…

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