Is it OK to claim ‘your’ Superman?
“This old version of To Kill a Mockingbird where Atticus kills a rabid dog isn’t *my* Atticus”
– Max Robinson, commenting on fan complaints about Man of Steel
I’ll try to keep this as non-spoilery for Man of Steel as possible, but if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to know anything about it, you may want to skip this.
There’s been a lot of discussion the past week about certain choices Superman makes in Man of Steel and whether those are things that character would/should do. Mark Waid describes being so upset by Superman’s actions that he stood up and yelled in the theater. In that review, the writer talks about “the essential part of Superman that got lost in Man of Steel.” And while I agree with what Waid describes as essential, not everyone does. In fact, some folks – like Robinson – question whether readers have the right to make those kinds of statements about someone else’s characters.
Tom Spurgeon has expressed distrust about that point of view. “I don’t know that there exists a right way to do a character that is divorced from its original creators like that,” he wrote recently. “Assumed fan ownership of someone else’s characters freaks me out a little bit.” He elaborated on that later in a series of tweets:
Have to admit, when something like the new Superman movie comes out I always feel a little bit like a monster wearing human skin on his face. I just sort of don’t relate to the whole idea of Superman as this sort of aspirational idea, let alone a character in which I have ownership. I mean, I may not end up liking the Superman movie if I get to see it, but I’m confident it won’t be [because] my idea of Superman wasn’t used. I don’t have a conception of Superman, I don’t know what Star Treks are supposed to be like, I can’t get worked up about the Lone Ranger. I guess I usually say that these characters are whatever their creators say they are, like Jaime H decided Maggie Chascarillo, not me. But these corporate characters are just empty suits, right? They’ll say or be whatever the person that owns them says they’ll say they’ll be. Maybe I’m just dead inside, I don’t know; I mean, I get “bad” but I don’t get “wrong.”
Although I tend to think in terms of a right way and a wrong way to write Superman, Spurgeon does have a point. Waid is a respected authority on Superman, but he didn’t create the character. And when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster made Superman stories, they were very often about a guy who did things differently from what I think of as “my” Superman.
At some point, Superman grew away from Siegel and Shuster’s original vision. Like Spurgeon says, that’s what happens when characters are owned by a corporation. They can be — and usually are — revised an infinite number of times to reflect the always-changing culture.
But that’s exactly why I defend the “my Superman” concept. Or “my Star Trek” or “my Hulk,” or whatever it is we’re talking about. It’s a defense mechanism against the whims of the characters’ corporate owners. If I’m going to enjoy stories about Superman, I have to be able to identify what it is I’m looking for so I can make choices about which I’m going to support. When a comic book or film (or even a statue) demonstrates it has a perspective on the character I don’t agree with, saying “That’s not my Superman” is just shorthand for “I don’t like that approach and I’m not going to support it.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Where it would be wrong is if — like in Robinson’s joke — we were to tell the character’s creator that she’s doing it wrong. That’s why I still can’t dismiss Spurgeon’s point. If “my Superman” is different from Siegel and Shuster’s, I don’t have any grounds whatsoever to tout mine as the “correct” one. It’s good to be able to discern what kind of Superman story I’m going to be able to enjoy, but that doesn’t give me permission to make my version a rule and insist that everyone else follow it.