Thursday, October 15, 2009

More about the Secret Origin

Just a couple of links. The first is to the Superman Homepage, which has reviews of pretty much every Superman comic for the last ten years (and more). In this one, there are a bunch of review for Secret Origin 1.

Then there's a discussion of the same series over at Blue Tights Network. Mixed reviews, but most people seem excited about the series.

So why, you may wonder, so many links to reviews of this particular comic book? I'm interested because this project is mostly about Superman as a myth. Myths, unlike much of literature, usually don't have an established, authoritative text. Even the Bible (in English) has lots of versions, each with agendas that influence the translation. And, for example, the four books of the gospels actually contradict each other every so often. Greek myth is harder to pin down, since there's no text. You've got Hesiod and Homer, but those present problems. Later writers were just writing down what they'd heard, or paraphrasing other writers. And these often contradict each other as well. It gets even more compex with a living mythological tradition. So what happens is that everybody has to decide for themselves what's canon and what's not. The church may try, but with all of the different sects out there, there's something for everybody. And you can always try the church down the road if you don't agree with the interpretation being offered in yours.

With Superman, there's the added element of continuity. He's been constantly in publication since 1938, with stories in every medium. And writers try to make the story interesting in every medium, so they add or eliminate elements. Then there's editorial fiat, or stories introduced to boost sagging sales or garner higher ratings. And every so often, something like Crisis on Infinite Earths or Infinite Crisis happens, so the entire history of the character is wiped away, to be written anew. Then, there are things such as Imaginary Stories, which aren't real.


What we've got are competing versions of a story. The reviews and discussions are largely about how well the latest version works, which means that the readers evaluate it in terms of the expectations of the myth of Superman. Each person has a preconception of that story, which by virtue of their own identity, will emphasize, highlight, obscure, or outright eliminate motifs of the story as they see fit. Sometimes this isn't even conscious. Some people will imagine a Superman who is absolutely perfect, in morality, in physique, in action and in intent. Others will humanize Superman, giving him physical flaws or moral grey areas.

This includes the writers and editors. One of the Superman homepage reviewers postulates that the writers of comics today are particularly interested in the comics of their youth, so much so that they will force the comics they are working on to fit into the same mold, whether or not the story is progressing that way. They will alter characterization, add in nonsensical plot elements, etc, just so the comic feels like the comics of their youth. I don't know the extent to which this is true of Secret Origins, if it is at all, but I have certainly read comics that feel that way.

Nonetheless, readers are free to pick their version. There's a continuity to DC comics that runs throughout a great many titles. but there are elseworlds. There are Superman Adventures (well, not right now, but there used to be) that were outside the continuity driven titles. There's smallville, and cartoons, and other stories. Superman's also kind of like the weather. If you don't like it, wait a while. It'll change. Not much, of course, but it'll change. The last time it changed was Birthright, by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu. That was way back in 2004.

This variability is one quality that makes a story mythic. I'm not talking about the variability of a single film adaptation of a movie, or even two or three. I'm talking about the fact that there is no fixed text. People can point to an official Moby Dick or Lord of the Rings. They can't point to an official Superman. Would it be this current Secret Origin? Yeah, if you read the comics and adhere to the continuity. For the next five years or so, until they do it all over again because of a universe-shattering battle. But it's not THE Superman if you're only a fan of Smallville, or of George Reeves, or Christopher Reeve, or the Silver Age, or don't read the movies or watch the shows or read the comics but still know about Superman because everybody does. (Seriously, everybody does. Even people with no real access to American media.)

The point of all this is that there is no fixed text. There is no fixed Superman. The nature of the character's existence is to reflect the world because it's a constant product of that world. Sometimes we're awash in nostalgia. Sometimes we need our heroes to be vulnerable. Sometimes we need them to be perfect. And sometimes we need them to have a mullet.

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