"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
There’s a lot more than gender differentiating Wonder Woman from her fellow first generation superheroes that have, against all odds, survived to the modern day. More so than even Superman and Batman, the only other heroes whose comics have been in continuous publication since their creation, Wonder Woman is a character with sharp, often difficult to reconcile (or even wrestle with) contradictions built into her.
Foremost among those contradictions is the fact that, as Tim Hanley alludes to in the subtitle of Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine, the character is universally known, to the point that she’s practically omnipresent in pop culture, but that knowledge tends to be pretty shallow.
That is, everyone knows Wonder Woman, but relatively few know much of anything about her. Her name and costume, her bullet-blocking bracelets and magic lasso, maybe her invisible jet, but that’s about it, really. Curious indeed.
I attended a small, perpetually broke Catholic high school that couldn’t afford to employ a guidance counselor. If we could have afforded one, it’s highly unlikely it would’ve been Neil Gaiman, as nice as that might have been.
At the time I was nearing graduation and about to go off to college to earn an expensive degree in pursuit of my lifelong — all 18 years of it — ambition to be a writer, Gaiman was just the writer of The Sandman (and a few other pretty great comics), and was, in fact, nearing the final story arc of that seminal series. At that point in my life, I certainly would’ve liked advice from the writer of one of my favorite comic series.
In the years since, Gaiman’s bona fides have only increased. In addition to writing comics, he’s written novels for adults and kids, he’ s written picture books, he’s written screenplays, he’s seen his works adapted into television and film, and he’s enjoyed the rarefied position of being a writer whose works are not only popular, but acclaimed, as well as being almost universally beloved in the field of comics, an industry with more than its fair share of crooks and cranks, of drawn daggers and venom.
Who better to offer advice to a young person about to embark — or at least attempt to embark — on a life in the arts, particularly a young person who would like to be a successful, professional writer of quality fiction? Someone who might want to grow up to be someone like, say, Neil Gaiman?
It’s really a shame that Golden Age artist Matt Baker was so relatively mysterious among his peers, as the historical importance of his influential work and his being one of the first and few black men working in comics at the time make him a figure a lot of people should want to know more about.
That there are so many question marks regarding Baker’s personal and professional life beyond his drawing table isn’t exactly a tragic thing, however. As editor Jim Amash notes during an interview included in his Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour, it meant Baker could be appreciated for his work more than any biographical details, as interesting and colorful as some of those may be .
Fred Robinson, Baker’s half-brother, puts it this way in the interview: “The reason that Matt got so much work wasn’t because he was black or white; he got it because he was good. It’s as simple as that. If you’re good, and you have what people want, they’re going to use you. You get hired. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier mainly because he was good; he could play ball better than anyone else. He just happened to be black.”
Baker died in 1959 at just 38 years old, the victim of a lifelong heart problem, and therefore didn’t live as long as so many of his peers (some of whom, like the 90-year-old Stan Lee, are still working today), and didn’t even last long enough for the rise of a fan culture around comics, and the nostalgia-driven efforts to collect and chronicle the medium’s beginnings.
James Daily and Ryan Davidson intend to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that every subject, even one as dry and forbidding as the law, is more fun when you add superheroes. Exhibit A: The Law of Superheroes, their new book based on their blog Law and the Multiverse, which seeks to do for their area of expertise what James Kakalios’ 2006 book The Physics of Superheroes did for his.
I lack a black robe and a gavel, so I’m not certain exactly how authoritative my judgment on this particular case can be, but I think the pair did a rather admirable job. I can’t say in good conscience that their book is a rollicking, can’t-put-it-down read — even with superheroes, it’s still a book about the law and other, um, legal stuff — but it’s certainly interesting, and, for those of us coming at it as longtime comics fans, it presents new ways of thinking about classic characters and their weekly adventures.
The book’s 13 chapters are divided into rather broad subjects like constitutional law, criminal law, international law and so forth, and breaks the subject down further with various articles falling under each chapter’s subject, pulling examples from comic books (and a few movies based on comic books, particularly the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman movies, Iron Man and the Spider-Man movies).
So, for example, the chapter on constitutional law contains articles on mutant rights, superpowers and the Second Amendment, forcible removal of superpowers, the death penalty as it might apply to immortal or nigh-invulnerable characters, and so on. It’s discussion of the law that mainly drives the book’s construction; where the superheroes come in is when it’s time to apply that law to the Marvel and DC universes (as well as the Ultimate universe and movie universes and so on). Copious footnotes are provided to direct an interested reader back to particular comics stories or particular laws and court rulings.
It’s never too early to learn what a cesspool of shady business practices and money-driven infighting the industry responsible for creating and promoting your favorite noble champions of justice really was.
That’s the thought that kept running through my head as I made my way through Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, author Marc Tyler Nobleman’s follow-up to his 2008 Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.
Like his previous work, Boy Wonder is a non-fiction picture book aimed at children. At least in presentation; I can’t imagine very young children being as interested in it as grown-ups though, and for grown-ups, there’s an excellent all-prose, six-page article marked “Author’s Note” at the end, fleshing out the more simplified story that fills the bulk of the page count with plenty of detail and discussing Nobleman’s process of research for the book.
The story of the late Bill Finger — who is, of course, the Bill in the title — doesn’t quite fit into a picture book format as easily as that of young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. There are a lot of similarities between the creators of Superman and the uncredited co-creator of Batman, including their backgrounds, the settings their stories occurred in, the impact of their creation and their unfortunate lack of participation in the rewards of that success, but Finger’s story is a lot more complicated than that of the boys from Cleveland, and lacks the natural melodrama of their hard-luck childhood and the epiphany nature of their hero’s inception (as presented in Boys of Steel, following Siegel’s own accounts, Superman’s transformation from a concept the young writer toyed with over the years into the world’s first superhero came in a sort of fever dream fit of inspiration one night).
While there’s a lot to be said for getting there first, is the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman was the first superhero, the character that created a unique and endlessly tweakable template and founded an increasingly pervasive genre, the only reason the Man of Steel occupies the unique place he does in our culture?
In his new book Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, Larry Tye pens a biography of sorts of the character, biographies being something Tye has more than a little experience writing (his previous works include biographies of Satchel Paige and Edward L. Bernays). Given that focus, Tye doesn’t really set about answering the question of why Superman is our most enduring hero, a question that seems particularly relevant as Supes has ceded the title of most popular hero to his one-time imitator Batman in a lot of the most pertinent metrics (comic book sales and box office earnings, for example).
Tye naturally alights on some of the most oft-cited reasons, including the psychological appeal of the incredible amount of wish-fulfillment Siegel and Shuster imbued their hero with — from being stronger than everyone else and able to fly to successfully leading a double life in which one persona is as accepted as the other persona dreams of being to the character’s unique relationship with the woman of his dreams — and the way the hero almost literally wrapped himself in the American flag and made himself synonymous with his home country.
While recounting the history of Superman, however, Tye reveals another obvious but less obsessed over reason. By a mixture of luck and his owners’ relentless pursuit of profits, Superman has managed to experiment with and conquer emerging media almost as immediately as they became viable — from the brand-new comic books of the late 1930s he segued easily into comic strips, and his was an early and huge hit radio program. He was in movie theaters with both cartoons and serials. He was on television in the 1950s, and between reruns and new shows, he never really left — live-action or animation or both at once, Superman is and always has been a television mainstay. Then, of course, there were feature films — Hollywood is riding a still-cresting wave of superhero blockbusters, and the next Superman feature is due next year, but there were Superman movies a full decade before there were superhero movies.
Early August might seem like a strange time to be thinking overmuch about Comic-Con International, which just wrapped up a few weeks ago. I can’t speak for the rest of the industry, of course, but I know I’m still exhausted from this year’s convention — and I didn’t even attend. Just trying to keep up with all the news via Internet was enough to burn me out.
But Rob Salkowitz’s new book Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture: What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us About the Future of Entertainment is well worth reading and thinking about — either casually or overmuch — given its up-to-the-minute survey of the comics landscape, and the fairly engaging, accessible way in which he discusses the pressing issues affecting just about everyone involved in it.
Despite the title, Comic-Con isn’t the subject matter of the book so much as the framing device Salkowitz uses to talk about comics. A regular attendee with some decent connections — he and his wife Eunice are friends with Batton Lash and Jackie Estrada, and they volunteer at the Eisners each year — Salkowitz discusses the history of the convention and the important place it occupies in today’s entertainment world (referring to it, at one point, as the “Iowa caucus for comics and genre movies”), but it essentially functions as a conceit for a business book.
It’s not merely that it’s the latest of Chopra’s many Seven Spiritual Laws books, which began with the publication of 1994’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success and include …for Parents, …of Yoga and …of Love.
Certainly it seems like a new coat of paint applied to a pre-written book in order to cash in on the emerging cultural popularity and importance of superheroes, and Chopra’s late career has intersected with superhero media of late thanks to his son Gotham Chopra’s involvement in the failed publisher Virgin Comics (now Liquid Comics) and some high-profile appearances at Comic-Con (including sharing panels with Grant Morrison). But Chopra doesn’t just repeat the same seven spiritual laws—for example, Superheroes and Success only share a single law; Superheroes and Yoga another—although ultimately the philosophies behind those laws, and the recommendations for fulfilling them, are the same.
No, more problematic is Chopra’s bluntly and repeatedly confessed ignorance of superheroes, at least of the comic book and movie variety he cites as examples to illustrate the laws (Batman, Storm, Iron Man, Dr. Strange and even The Beyonder are among them).
A great deal of the source material for Art Spiegelman’s ground-breaking, medium-defining, market-redefining Maus came from the cartoonist recording long conversations with his Holocaust-survivor father Vladek.
A great deal of the source material for MetaMaus, a book-length discussion of Maus that includes an astounding amount of reference, background and process-related material, comes from editor Hillary Chute recording long conversations with Art Spiegelman.
They didn’t put the word “Meta” in the title for nothing.
Less punchy, but also appropriate, might have been Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Maus and Probably Much More Besides, Including Things You Didn’t Know You Wanted to Know Until We Told You.
Pushing 300 pages and including a disc titled “The Complete Maus Files” that boasts the complete Maus and so much material about each page of it that it’s like a little Library of Mausandria, it might at first seem strange that the book about Maus seems to dwarf Maus itself, at least in terms of size. But part of the value of the project, beyond an admirable work of preservation of the astounding amount of research Spiegelman put into creating it and the family and cultural history that resulted and aside from creating an invaluable resource for future college kids writing papers on Maus, is what it reveals about Maus from a different perspective — inside out.
Supergods, his new prose book on the subject of superheroes, isn’t the least bit confusing. It is, however, slightly confused.
While the book eventually earns its self-help book-sounding subtitle of “What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human” in its closing chapters, that subtitle is a poor distillation of the actual contents of the book, which are a bit scattershot.
Supergods is partially a history of American superhero comics (and their British reflections). It’s partially a biography of Grant Morrison and his career in the comics industry, which naturally overlaps with the first concern at a certain point. And it’s partially a cultural history of the concept of the superhero in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the Promethean subject of what superheroes can teach humanity shining through here and there.
Morrison is an excellent writer, in prose as well as in comics-scripting it turns out, and the pages of the book are fiercely passionate, vibrating with authority and conviction on their subject, and thoroughly encrusted with often lyrical sentences and clever, even brilliant turns of phrase.
Despite these considerable virtues, the wandering mission makes it a frustrating read, as does the fact that Morrison’s many tics come to the fore almost immediately, and can make for a rather uncomfortable read (perhaps especially for those of us who have heard versions of many of these stories before, and from different perspectives).