Friday, July 31, 2009

This is a good thing

I keep finding more and more news stories with passages about Obama such as this one:

"We've found out he's not Superman," said Nora Seeley, 54, when asked what she had learned about the president during his first six months on the job. Still, she said, "things are starting to turn around."

It's no surprise that his reputation among Americans is deflating. Nothing else could have happened in the wake of his popularity upon taking office. People may come to realize that there is absolutely nothing that anyone could have done to fix everything in this short a time. I honestly have no idea how he's doing, but I see more and more local businesses hiring, and that's a good thing.

In related news, here are more of Jennifer Silverberg's photos from the Superman Celebration, this time focusing on food. Here's one from the main story, which I should have posted sooner.

Awe and Wonder.

One of the ideas Joseph Campbell is famous for is his four functions of mythology: metaphysical, cosmological, social, and gastronomic. I may have gotten that last one wrong. But why wouldn't mythology help you digest food properly?

Anyway, the metaphysical function, according to campbell, is all about demonstrating to humanity that life is worth living, that creation is a beautiful thing, and all that. Then we get Dave Gibbons, artist who drew Watchmen, most famously, but also a little Superman story called "For the Man who Has Everything." Both written by Alan Moore. In an interview he said,

"Again, my personal view is that they should make it lighter, with that sense of wonder that Superman has always had. Not to make it childish or puerile but to make it something that has a bright sense of adventure and possibility."

He's talking about what a new Superman movie should feel like. He's not the only one. The internets are awash with fans speculating, hoping, decrying, and dismissing a movie that has no script, director, actor, or even basic idea. It's interesting. Part of this is the age we live in, an age of endless discussion not only of what might be and what might have been but what should be, in everyone's own opinion.

While every work has its fanatics and devotees, I wonder if there's something in particular about Superman that makes this speculation appropriate. I won't bother linking to every quotation in which Superman is called a myth, but doesn't that status mean it's different from a lot of other "properties" out there?

It's particularly appropriate to film versions of the character. Film, more than television or comic books, has the ability to instill that sense of awe and wonder. It's bigger than life, and until a couple of decades ago it had to be viewed in something resembling, if not a religious ritual, then at least a public dream. Everyone sitting quietly in a darkened room, slightly leaned back, dazzled by images of things they previously could only imagine. Compare that to sitting at home, phone ringing, neighbors screaming, cars driving by, etc...It's why the rudeness of modern theater goers is such a sad state of affairs.

Where'd that rant come from? I don't even go to the movies more than once a year anymore.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bursting into the imaginary world

There's a trend in people's writing and discussion of Superman, a trend toward imagining what a Superman would be like if he existed in the real world. We saw this in the previous post, where a couple of people imagined what Superman would be like drunk (if indeed he could get drunk) and how the character's politics and morality just wouldn't work. This goes back at least as far as Larry Niven's 1971 essay "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" which delves into the problems of Superman's sexual relationship, should one ever develop, with Lois Lane. Since then, countless writers have engaged in this sort of mental exercise, treating everything from the sensibility and psychological function of the secret-identity to what he would do in his free time. Sometimes, this sort of thing makes its way into comics or television shows (and not just ones featuring Superman--go watch Mallrats for Kevin Smith's contemplation of super hero realities).

There's a sort of opposite number to this mental exercise, in which people imagine what aspects of the real world would be like in Superman's world. Famous examples would be meditations on what Superman would do if actually around for World War II, or 9/11. The example below comes from a galler at The entire page linked to features fan art of Superman that reacts to the 9/11 attacks. This one was created by Ted Hernandez.

A corrolary of this is perhaps the imaginary casting of a Superman movie. Here's an example that reacts very specficially to the 2006 Superman Returns casting. It's one of those things that people do from time to time, but I've seen a lot of them recently. It may have to do with all the recent reporting on the legal battle over the rights to the character that has gone on between DC/TimeWarner and the Siegel family. It has prompted many rumors about when and if a new movie will go into production.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


First up, Jennifer Silverberg created a sort of photo essay about the Metropolis, Ill., Superman Celebration. You can check out the published work here, here, or some other photos on her website. Thanks, Jennifer!

Then there's this blog entry, wondering why anyone would want to be Superman, based on a recent viewing of Superman II. The writer, unfamiliar with the many versions of Superman's story, is unfortunately stuck with the "Christ Mission" that the films impose on the character. Other versions have Superman choosing his own fate. I dont' know how that would alter the argument she makes.

In a similar vein, this blog entry wonders about whether or not Superman can get drunk.

Haven't posted anything about Obama lately. Here's someone's reality check: "He's not Superman, right?" I like the "right" at the end. And because the idea is floating around in the ether, here's a cartoon that makes the same point (I would post the image, but for reasons unknown to me it won't work).

A common use of Superman in conversation and writing is to point out to someone "You're not Superman." This is meant to indicate that the person--or persons, or everybody--isn't perfect, can't do everything, and should expect it. In this case, it refers to struggling with alcoholism.

There's this novel, by Rich Cohen:

“David Alroy was the first superhero,” Cohen writes of a false messiah known as “King of the Jews” in 12th-century Persia. “He offered a picture of strength to a people lousy with weakness.” Cohen regards Alroy as a model for the figure created in 1938 — “another dark age for the Jews” — by two Jewish teenagers from Cleveland. “Superman is a writer; Superman is brainy in his glasses; Superman is in exile from an ancient nation destroyed by fire; Superman has two names, a fake WASP-y name (Clark Kent) and a secret name in an ancient tongue, Kal-El; . . . Superman, whose cape is a tallis; Superman, whose logo, the “S” emblazoned on his chest, marks him as a freakish stranger as the yellow Star of David marks the ghetto Jew.”

Finally, this is the first I've heard of the movie "A Man who Was Superman."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Origins of Superman

The novel Gladiator by Philip Wylie may or may not be an inspiration for Superman. It was published several years prior to Superman's first appearance in Action Comics #1, and sources I cannot cite from memory indicate that Jerry Siegel read the book before coming up with the character. The characters share many of the same traits, though not the same genesis, and the stories explore many of the same themes. If I were to make an argument that they are in fact the "same" story, I would have to found that argument on the despair that Hugo Danner (the Gladiator in question) must fight off throughot his life.

Yet Superman does not despair. Does he? The only reference to this that I can point to comes not in a Superman comic or movie, indeed, it's to a comic book in which Superman does not even appear. It's Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman, and in partular to the story "The Heart of a Star" drawn by Miguelanxo Prado. In it, in the early days of the universe, the stars and nebulae and the things that come before gods get together to have a meeting. In one conversation, Despair tells the star Rao (around which Krypton orbits):

Wouldn't bringing life onto a planet that is inherently unstable add to the beauty of the life? If at any moment it would explode...Truly it would only be perfectly beautiful, a perfect piece of art, if one single life-form escaped. To remember, to mourn, to despair. (Endless Nights, "The Heart of a Star," pg. 76)

This would have us believe that Superman's defining characteristic is not flight or morality, but mourning and despair. He is alone among people who are like him.

Interestingly, I interviewed a woman named Jodi Chromey, whose affinity for Superman echoes this interpretation. She has two half-siblings, whom she is like but unlike in origin and appearance. So she feels an affinity for Superman and even got tattooed with the S-Shield because of this element of his story.

Danner in Gladiator spends his whole life trying to reconcile himself to his powers--gained because his father performs what would no doubt be considered genetic enhancement if the novel were written later in the cnetury. They cause him trouble and pain at every stage of his life, and the novel is a series of explorations of how Danner tries to cope with each new stage and the troubles it brings. It's a great book.

Hugo realized at last that there was no place in his world for him. Tides and tempest, volc anoes and lightning, all other majestic vehemences of the unverse had a purpose, but he had none. Either because he was all those forces unnaturally locked in the body of a man, or because he was a giant compelled to stoop and pander to live among his feeble fellows, his anachronism was complete. (311)

There's no place in the world for him. He spends a lot of time searching, and we have to wonder why he never finds one. Perhaps it is because he is given no clear agenda by his father, whose experiments created Danner's condition (which, by the way, is not hereditary, which actually separates it from genetic). Perhaps it is because he generally keeps his condition a secret, save for a few times. And when the revelation of his nature does not instill disgust or fear in his confidant, Danner retreats from the potential friend. He keeps expecting greatness, so much so that he does not allow himself to attain it. I'm reminded of a line from one of my favorite stories, Mefisto in Onyx by Harlan Ellison. The protagonist, Rudy Pairis, is also gifted in that he can read minds. Instead of a boon, the horror and ugliness that Pairis sees in others essentially keeps him unemployed and mostly friendless. Ellison says that Pairis "couldn't get out of his own way." I think that applies to Danner as well.

But it doesn't apply to Superman. I think first of the Richard Donner movies, in which Superman is given clear purpose by Jor-El, who sends him to Earth as protector and "light to showthe way." In contrast, Siegel didn't, as far as I know, give much reason for Superman's choice to fight crime and social injustice. Later, Mark Waid's Birthright would spend a lot of time exploring Superman's choice and giving sound reason for it. He does not dwell on despair, but on the fact that Superman comes to the decision himself, after seeing the injustice of the world (particularly in Africa).

For both Danner and Superman, the decision as to what they must do with their lives comes at the onset of manhood. This is when despair is most possible, especially without direction. Danner tries being a soldier, a lover, a laborer, a political "lobbyist", a banker, and other things. Always, his strength proves an obstacle that he cannot overcome. Superman, on ther other hand, splits his life into two parts: super hero and journalist. He chooses not one, but two paths. This may be the real need for the secret identity, which many writers have decried as unrealistic and unnecessary save for the tension it provides the relationship with Lois Lane.

What I have learned reading Danner's story is that the difference that comes with such great strength brings with it not merely responsiblity (as Stan Lee would have it) but also adaptation. Such power is not the provenance of mortals, but of gods, which Wylie's narration repeatedly invoke. The rest of us simply cannot handle it in one of our own. We require not equality, but at least the potential for a level playing field. We resent it if someone rises too high, and we must impugn their perfection. Thus the many jokes that subvert Superman's moral rectitude.

We may just look at Superman and Danner as two explorations of the cost of power, one optimistic and one pessimistic. But that's not all that's going on here. Superman is the story of an optimist, and certainly Danner can't get out of his own way, but their stories (their story?) are actually about adaptation to one's lot in life. Superman devises a way to live by disguising himself so that he may present the world his true face in two aspects. Danner tries to hide his nature, but gives himself no outlet. He reveals his powers only grudgingly, and then rejects anyone who offers solace. Superman does just the opposite. Again, Mark Waid's take on the character rings true: his Superman insists that he cannot wear a mask--if he shows his face, peopel will trust him. Danner hides, and his dishonesty is rejected.

A last thought, on gladiators: they're slaves. More to come.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I need to have this link handy

The swearing in ceremony for the honorary citizens of Metropolis, Illinois.

The coverage for this event--entirely done by fans--is amazing. I wasn't able to record this ceremony myself, and would have had a lot of difficulty with something I'm writing if Jamie Kelley and Ronda Marston (aka Clark Kent and Lois Lane) hadn't spent the time getting it and putting it up online. Many many thanks.

Clothes make the man

Ok, so this is happening a lot: People dressed up as Superman (and super heroes in general) are being arrested. It's getting to be something of a pattern. There's this guy:

On Tuesday, he was lying on the sidewalk, which, not surprisingly even in this city, caught the attention of a police officer.
“I am just tired, I am not going anywhere,” prosecutors quoted him as telling the police. “I am Superman, the Governorator, ” he said, according to a law official.
He then ran into the street. Vehicles swerved around him, the complaint said. He “flailed” his arms, refusing to be handcuffed, it said.
And so that was how he landed in Judge Alvin Yearwood’s courtroom, sitting on a hard bench at about 11 a.m. on Wednesday, with a hole in his tights, as prostitution and drunk driving suspects were called up to appear.
“This was the company that Superman was keeping,” said John Marshall Mantel, a freelance photographer for The New York Times who saw him there.

I'm not sure I understand the reason behind referring to the guy as Superman. The "freelance photographer" is only one of the people who do this sort of thing. Because he wears the costume, he is the character. At least that's the logic here. This is a tough subject for me to work through, because there are a lot of facets to it. Lots to account for.

For instance, by putting on a Santa Claus outfit, a person kind of sort of really does become Santa Claus--at least in the eyes of the kids who believe in him. And there is something similar going on with Superman. And with the disney characters. The Superman (Josh Boltinghouse) at the Metropolis Superman Celebration isn't allowed to appear out of Character. He displays his own face (as does Superman--Mark Waid's Superman: Birthright has a great take on why this is necessary; Waid's a guy who really has thought all of this through), and because of his contract, kids who attend the festival will see the same face on Superman for many years.

A guy I interviewed here in Bloomington told me about the day he realized there was no Superman. He told it just like you might imagine a kid relating the story of how he learned there was no Santa Claus. It was the differences from his idealized version and the guy standing in front of him in a truck stop that clued him in. This guy had a wedding ring, a beer gut, and a moustache. None of which the Superman in his imagination possessed.

So what, exactly is going on with comments like the one by the photographer? Why must we conflate the man with the costume? Another example:

Superman and Batman took on New York's Finest last night in an epic Crossroads of the World battle that left the Caped Crusader in cuffs. (from the article linked in my previous post)

The costume is the most important symbolic aspect of Superman. Are these quotations telling us that by appropriating the symbol, we appropriate the identity? Or do they reveal that Superman is only what we make of him? That we control his image with what we do, so we should be careful what we do, especially when dressed as him?

The guy who dresses as Superman in Confessions of a Superhero probably has a lot to say about this. It was kind of appropriate how he as Superman was sort of the leader of all the other people who dress in costume outside the Chinese Theater in LA.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Simply mad about the house.

Thanks to meeks for the link to his footage of the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The opening speech, by Mike Ocevski (am I spelling that correctly?), is great. If anybody knows the guy who delivered it, and can connect me with him, please do so.

Every child's father should be their hero, but if he wasn't there Superman would be a great substitute.

The speech gives us a whole lot of different interpretations of the character and the way people apply them to their lives. I had no idea there is a Siegel and Shuster society.

The rest of the ceremony is great, too. There were a lot of people involved, and it seems really cool that they gave out bricks from the original house to various people, including the current residents. The "official super bricks."

At the end, when a tarp is being removed from a fence that has been cast with the superman logo: "Can I have my men of faith please lift the veil off the fence?" Tongue in cheek religion?


The Invincible Super Blog has an interesting take on the idea of Superman as an ideal immigrant, through the eyes of the character Hitman (issue 34). There are a great many ideas about Superman as an immigrant.

Immigration is a key component of what people call the myth of Superman. Gary Engle writes about it in an essay called "What's makes Superman so darned american?" that's in Superman at 50: the persistence of a legend (I wanted to link to something, but there doesn't appear to be any knowledge of this book on the internets--yet I have a copy on my desk right now).

You know, Superman comics don't sell all that well, at least that's what the comic shop workers I've been interviewing tell me. The last movie was not what people wanted. I have no idea if Smallville is a big hit or not, though the eight seasons it has run offer some indication. And yet Superman is huge right now. There are all these things going on, such as the house restoration. And people write about him on their blogs every day. People also dress up as him every day, sometimes getting arrested for it.

Great, now I have to go to Cleveland.

Gods Among Men

Another in a series of essays that compare Superman and Jesus--this time with Heracles thrown into the mix.

And here's a blog that unfavorably looks upon the comparison of Obama and Superman.

A New Site of Pilgrimage

I'm wondering how the restoration of the Siegel home in Cleveland will affect this project. The wording in this article has a religious slant, but the real reason to take a look is the photography:

Since Superman was born in Cleveland seven decades ago, visitors from around the world have made pilgrimages to what they consider holy ground. Above, the childhood home of Jerry Siegel, who, along with his friend Joe Shuster, created Superman, in the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland.

Also from the Wall Street Journal.

Here's one from the town of Cleveland itself, so to speak, that gives actually useful information, such as the fact that the house is still a private residence, its address, and the ribbon cutting that occurred this past weekend.

It's a curious thing, the way these article are constructed. When I was writing about Prometheus, I took a look at reviews of the recent biography of Robert Oppenheimer (American Prometheus) to see the differences in the way people tell a story second or third hand. What I found was enlightening. I saw that the reviewers skewed the story of Prometheus to fit their own ideas of Oppenheimer. With these articles, the Wall Street Journal plays up the fact that Siegel's father died soon after a robbery to imply that Superman was created as a power fantasy of a fatherless teenage boy. Superman as an absent father, highlighting his role as a protector. The cleveland blog begins with references to Siegel as "lovesick," which highlights the love "triangle" with Lois Lane and, further, the fact that Siegel wanted people (especially girls) to look deeper than his nerdy exterior.

I found this same reading of Clark Kent being put forward by one of the people I interviewed at the Superman Celebration. Brian Morris, sometime contributor to TwoMorrows, saw Clark Kent as a challenge: Superman saying to the world see me for everything that I am, not just for my pledge to help you. Kent is a statement that we're all more complex, deep, and interesting that the surface would indicate.

Other interpretations abound, of course. Here's an article by Richard Roeper that includes a transcript of David Carradine's monologue about Superman from Kill Bill (the beginning is about parking meters, but it's in there, I assure you).

"Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is there's the superhero and the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man.
"Superman didn't become Superman, Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red 'S'. . . those are his clothes. What Kent wears -- the glasses, the business suit -- THAT'S the costume Superman wears.
"Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak, he's unsure of himself, he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Stuff and whatnot

A more and more prominent issue in the study of folklore is creator's rights and copyright. This is paralleled by its prominence in the world of comics. It's particularly relevant where Superman is concerned. The creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sold the rights long ago. There has been a great deal of legal conflict over this, as Siegel himself felt cheated. His (and Shuster's heirs) have continued the fight. I don't feel the need to go into the history of this conflict here, nor am I qualified to comment on the technicalities of copyright.

That said, I side with creators.

There has been a new ruling that seems to favor Warner Brothers and DC Comics, who own the copyright at the moment. The only really interesting piece of news here (to me) is the fact that the heirs will gain all rights to the character in 2013. If I were them, I'd have a giant clock counting down the seconds, like the Chinese used to have in Beijing, right by Tiananmen Square, to count down the time until Hong Kong was once more part of China. That thing was huge.

I found this article on Smallville. I don't have much to say about the writer's opinions, other than I'm not a fan of the show. He makes some interesting comments about "canon" and "straying too far", but the one thing I have to get down in writing is that Smallville's creators didn't come up with the notion that Superman and Luthor were friends as kids. That was Jerry Siegel. He wrote a story in 1960 called "How Luthor Met Superboy" where the true reason behind Luthor's hatred of Superman became known. Superboy made Luthor lose all his hair. I'm not even kidding about that. See this article. This phenomenon of thinking the first time YOU encounter something is the first time it happened is pretty common, I think. I've certainly fallen victim to it a number of times. On TV Tropes they call it "Older Than They Think." TV Tropes is one of my favorite websites. I could read that thing all day long.

In other international news...

The new Prime Minister of Bulgaria is referred to as Superman.

So is Michael Jackson.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Two things

This project began as a study of jokes, but that soon led me to studying religious implications of Superman. This blog seems to be an obvious one to study from that perspective (see also entries for Feb. 25, . The writer calls Superman "an archetype of radical giving and effort for a greater good." That seems accurate enough, to a point. If we take archetype as he is using it, Superman is also the archetype of individual achievement and greatness at something, such as sports, sometimes in service to a team.

On an unrelated note, here's an article imagining what it would be like to be Superman's kid. There's been a lot of this sort of thing--working out the real-world possibilities of Superman's existence. Perhaps most famously, Larry Niven wrote "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex", which was all about the problems of Superman and Lois Lane's physical relationship.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

In other news...

So I got a strange message the other day. It came from an acquisitions editor at the University of Mississippi Press. Evidently they're interested in publishing the book I'm writing about Superman. It's not a contract or anything, merely an invitation to submit a proposal.

So there's that.

There's also an interview of me (yes, of me, not by me--) up on YouTube and on the Superman Homepage. Lois Lane interviews me about this project after Clark Kent talks to a comics writer,. about 8 minutes in. Marge's Donut Den!

A story...

What does this story have to do with Superman?

Capt. Vancouver was very anxious to Christianize these people [the Hawaiians], but that can never be done until they are more civilized. The King Amma-amma-hah [Kamehameha] told Capt. Vancouver that he would go with him to the high mountain Mona Roah [Mauna Loa] and they would both jupm off together, each calling on their separate gods for protection, and if Capt, Vancouver's god saved him, but himself was not saved by his god, then his people should believe as Capt. Vancouver did. (as told by Townsend 1888, pg. 74; qtd. in Sahlins, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities, 9)

Only time will tell.