Monday, November 22, 2010

Super heroes and America

Here's an interview with Alan Moore, from a while ago. He's always got something interesting to say, but what's relevant here is this thought:

I'm interested in the superhero in real life, but not the comic book version. I've had some distancing thoughts about them recently. I've come to the conclusion that what superheroes might be--in their current incarnation, at least--is a symbol of American reluctance to involve themselves in any kind of conflict without massive tactical superiority. I think this is the same whether you have the advantage of carpet bombing from altitude or if you come from the planet Krypton as a baby and have increased powers from earth's lower gravity. That's not what superheroes meant to me as a kid. To me, they represented the wellspring of imagination. Superman had a dog in a cape! He had a city in a bottle! That's wonderful stuff for a seven-year-old boy to think about. But I suspect that a lot of superheroes now are basically about the unfair fight. You know: people wouldn't bully me if I could turn into the Hulk.

It's not Moore at his most articulate, since he's really contradicting himself at the end there. And he's falling victim to the same affliction that plagues many a person when looking at the popular culture of their youth: "These kids today don't have any taste, with their long hair and powerful superheroes." And he's confusing the individual with the collective, and wish-fulfillment with apprehension.

Not that Superman's for kids anymore.

Friday, July 23, 2010

All right then.

I've got some more links to post.

Recently there was a piece on NPR about Superman.

Then there are parts 6 and 7 of the Fortress of Soliloquy's analysis of Superman's origins. While we're at it, the same blog has some interesting thoughts about Superman 701, the first full issue of the Grounded story where Superman walks across America.

On the same subject, here is a page of links to reviews of Superman 701, courtesy of Comic book resources.

And here's another review. From Living Between Wednesdays.

Moving along, here's a list of the 10 Superman comics you must read.

That'll do.

Monday, June 28, 2010


So the beginning of the "Grounded" story by J. Michael Straczynski has gotten a lot of reaction. Here are a couple of the more interesting posts:

First, there's a Comics Alliance Review by a guy who doesn't usually like Superman. There's some good debate in the comments.

This one's more interesting, from Polite Dissent, a blog by a doctor.

This isn't a review, but a walking tour diary. It's just a bit of comedy.

And here's a collection of links to reviews.

Unrelated but still interesting:

Here's a woman's blog about showing Superman movies to her kids for the first time.

And here's a writer's thoughts about the death of superman way back when...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Trust me, this one's important.

Here's an article. It may not seem relevant to Superman, but it is. It's called "Inside the Baby Mind." From the Boston Globe last year. And it's about how psychologists and neuroscientists are discovering the ways babies think, as opposed to the ways adults think.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Big Week

So evidently this is an exciting time to be a Superman fan. There's a lot of hype, anyway, from the comics world. DC's really pushing the fact that Straczynski is writing Superman. Action Comics #700 comes out today. So there's lots of stuff on the web about him right now.

Here's a lengthy and interesting post about his costume and origin.

And a sort of retrospective with lots of visuals.

Then there's The Many Tomorrows of Superman.

Here's a description of Absolute All Star Superman, with a lengthy comment by designer Chip Kidd.

That'll do for now.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Superman on the moon

So recently someone asked me about the picture at the top of the blog. She had read this before meeting me, and the first thing she commented on was that there's a tiny picture of Superman at the top of this. There's a reason for that.

It's a picture from All Star Superman issue 6. Superman sees his dog Krypto for the first time in a while, and they're playing fetch and racing around in space to celebrate. They stop by the moon for a second, and we get this image.

Now, my degree is in folklore, and my specialization is mythology. I spend a lot of time considering the meaning of gods and what they do. I'm writing this book because the term myth is thrown around a lot when people talk and write about Superman, and I thought it would be a good idea to figure out exactly what people mean by that.

My graudate advisor was Greg Schrempp, who's written a lot about science and myth, greek philosophy, and maori cosmology. In his forthcoming book Scientists and Centaurs, he writes a passage about the first descriptions that astronauts gave of the earth as seen from space. he describes it as possessing virtually all the characteristics of a myth. It got me to thinking that maybe being a god is all about perspective.

Gods know things that people don't. When they tell us, we call it revelation and it's a very, very sacred thing. When people develop their own ways to find these things out, such as reading tea leaves to predict the future, we call it divination. We get little glimpses of the divine. One of the things that separate humanity from divinity is knowledge, which is why Adam and Eve eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was a crime--god didn't want humanity to be divine.

Knowledge is gained in lots of ways, but one of the most effective ways is through experience. We learn by doing things and by going places. Gods are able to go anywhere and do anything. They can stand at the archimedean point and see the cosmos from the outside. They have a perspective we lack. That is, until the astronauts went into space and saw the earth. They had a perspective that until that moment was only theoretical. They had more than a glimpse of the divine.

Superman, of course, can get this perspective whenever he wants. All Star Superman, which will have the above picture on its collected version this fall, is a central story to one of my chapters on myth. It's a story that distills the mythical qualities of Superman into twelve issues. And it's really, really good.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I'm not the greatest photographer. I've come to learn that my greatest fault in that area is that I just don't take enough pictures. Either that's all I'm doing, or I completely forget about it. Nonetheless, I did get some photographic evidence of the Superman Celebration. Let's start with Thursday afternoon, June 10. This was pretty early, so there weren't many people out yet. Other than Captain Canadian, that is.

Let's jump ahead to Sunday, with the group picture of the Superfriends of Metropolis.

Among the Superfriends, you'll find Brian Morris, who was instrumental in my work this year. I met him last year, and we talked for a while. He agreed to let me follow him around a bit this year, and he introduced me to a bunch of people. He is heavily involved in the Celebration, and he writes or helps to write the dramatic components of the opening ceremonies. He's a bit fan, and my interview with him, his wife Cookie, and writer Sean Dulaney at the close of the ceremony was one of the most rewarding parts. Here he is, showing his shield tattoo on his wrist.

Another tattoo, this time on the wrist of Kristina Johnson. It's the kryptonian symbol for hope.

People come from far away for this thing. This year, Angie Shelton of the Metropolis Chamber of Commers had the idea of having people put pins in a map to show everybody just how far. Yep, people come from Europe.

Was that a pin in Iraq?
They also come from Asia.

And just about every state.

The Superman Celebration was very, very warm this year. But I attended most of the events and managed to conduct the sort of fieldwork that will, I hope, make the book worth reading. I cannot express enough thanks to everyone who worked with me.

One of the most common activities at the Celebration is taking pictures. This revolves around the costumers.

The costumers value the pictures more than those who aren't in costume. This is a picture of the process from backstage, so to speak. Batman on left. Wolverine on right. Note Poison Ivy taking pictures in the middle. They're all friends who costume together and attend events like this. They're also members of The Society of Secret Identities.

This is another example of that sort of thing. On the left are a man dressed as Clark Kent and a man dressed as Superman. They're posed to resemble the fight between the divided Kent and Sueprman in Superman III. On the right are a bunch of people. Sorry it's so dark. It was late at night, in a darkened room.

Below is a reading of an old episode of the Adventures of Superman radio show, by a bunch of fans. What I love about the Superman Celebration is the fan involvement. There's a Celebration Committee of local people who organize everything, but over the years the fans who come from miles and miles away have become part of the process. They work with the committee to organize events such as this reading, the costume dance, the opening (and, starting this year, closing) skits that are part of the ceremonies, and other events.

Speaking of the opening skit, this year featured the prisoners of the phantom zone released to once again confront Superman. This is a photo taken after the ceremony ended. I have video of the whole thing, but no photographs. Superman is the official Superman of the celebration, but the other Kryptonians are fans.

Here's the official Superman again.

That'll do for now.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Some links

Here's a little article from Comic Book Resources about Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. I'm not really sure what the overall point of the article is, but it begins its conclusion:

So Superman becomes this bland, blank slate upon which a wide range of philosophies can be projected.

Then here's something from The Daily Caller. It tackles the accusation that Superman is an illegal immigrant.

There are some problems with the Supeheroes who pose for pictures with tourists in Hollywood.

Superman Celebration

From June 10-13, I was in Metropolis, Illinois for the Superman Celebration. Last year when I attended, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff going on. Festivals are like that if you're trying to study them. Consequently, I didn't get what I needed to write about the Celebration. But what I did get, more importantly, were contacts. I made some friends, such as Brian Morris, who really opened the door for this year to be more successful.

So, Brian, thank you. This year, I really got what I needed to get. Except for pictures. Didn't get enough of those.

I've just finished writing up my notes for the weekend. I learned more than I had intended, and see threads that I could possibly follow to new areas of this project, should the need arise. Mostly, this was a series of interviews. They're going to be invaluable for the completion of Superman in Myth and Folklore.

This year, I met a lot of people. That part was easier than last year. I found myself explaining the project more often and more thoroughly than I had expected. My teachers had always told me that you have to do this sort of thing, explain what folklore as a field of study is and whatnot, if you want people to have the kinds of conversations with you that the project requires. This is the first time I've had to do it. But it was worthwhile. People seemed interested and excited about the book. And once I got my points across, they showed me the right way to think about things and look at them.

I went to study a community, and that's exactly what I found. Once I told people this, they would show me things I hadn't noticed, things such as the way in which people help each other, even when they're competing against each other in, say, a costume competition. The point is that people are doing what they want to do in the best way possible, not so much in the winning.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Fashion and the superhero body

Right now, the idea that superheroes as drawn are, essentially, naked is what's taking up most of my time. I'd been working with what to do with this idea for a while, but then Michael Chabon wrote about it nicely in the introductory essay to Superheroes Fashion and Fantasy. It was a museum exhibit and then a book.

Related is this essay, "The Corporatized Child", by Allen Kanner, which is about the way marketers target children and how this is ruining the world. Don't worry, it's related in my head right now, soon to be related on paper and eventually in print. It's all part of a deadline that's looming in my near future.

Since all this is really about Superman's costume, I should take this opportunity to include this link: Showing Superman without Showing Superman. It's about how people put somebody who's obviously Superman on book covers without the specific iconography. Interesting stuff.

Some alternative Superman costumes as well.

And then somebody on the Internets goes and does something so useful for me that it gives me hope for this technology. Tom Foss of The Fortress of Soliloquy is doing a series of blog posts about Superman's origins. He's done five so far. Here's part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Excellent series, Tom. I hope it continues.

Monday, April 19, 2010


The actors who play the role of Superman are often conflated with the character. They are him, to the public. This has been especially relevant since Christopher Reeve's paralyzing accident. Celebrities often offer themselves as examples and models for dealing with any sort of hardship. When Reeve became quadripilegic, his role as Superman became important. He persevered and refused to give up hope that his condition could be cured.

I had a conversation with Jeff Ray, an IU student who works at the Wells Library. He noticed that I was checking out a book about Superman, and we started talking. He told me about his brother's condition, confining him to a wheelchair, and how they loved Superman. Knowing of Reeve's condition added a level of meaning to the character and made him all the more important to them.

Tracy Todd also identifies with Superman because of her condition as a quadriplegic. She recently wrote about her connection with the figure via Christopher Reeve in a blog entry.

With time, I managed to rebuild a new life in a new body. With the help of family, friends and my community I think I can safely say that I have managed to carve out a new, meaningful existence. When things get tough, I think of my Superman – his courageous and positive spirit carries me through the challenges of everyday life. And for that, I am thankful.

That's a great passage. Life is pretty hard, even if you're not dealing with physical difficulties. We use whatever we can find to get through it. I read again and again that superhero stories are only for immature boys, for people who don't want to grow up, that they're adolsecent power fantasies. People who say that are wrong. Tracy Todd, Jeff Ray, and a host of others who live with any sort of difficulty are proof of that. Todd ends with a great line:

Do you have a superhero carrying you through life?

I've been thinking a lot about what rold heroes (and superheroes) play in the world. Todd's blog post seems a perfect summary of the good that they can do for us.

I've been looking for this for a long time

So Barry Freiman has written up a list of descriptions of all the Superman references on Seinfeld. I'm pretty happy about this, since I have been trying to figure out in which episode Jerry and George talk about Superman's sense of humor for a awhile now.

That is all.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Science Books

Back to the types of books that focus on Superman. This time: Science!

I was a bit surprised at this, but there are several types of books that deal with science and superheroes. Only one, as far as I know, is solely focused on Superman: The Science of Superman, by Mark Wolverton.

Wolverton takes the position that, though none of Superman's powers are achievable for humanity today, the future may be different. He sees the powers as little more than quantitatively different from such natural human abilities as sight, breathing, etc. He speculates that a combination of technical advancement and evolutionary change will make the equivalent of superpowers a possibility. As far as I can tell, this book served as the primary source for the History Channel's program The Science of Superman.

The Science of Superheroes by Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg takes the opposite approach, demonstrating that nothing superheroes do will ever be attainable by humanity. They discuss alien life and the fact that Krypton would have to be gigantic beyond possibility to create a gravitational pull strong enough to make Superman the kind of being in the comics. There may be some influence on the History channel show as well.

The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios is a bit of a different book from those two. Kakalios is more interested in teaching physics than in whether or not powers are possible. He's quite happy when the powers are handled with a nod to the way the world works, but he's not hung up on it. He's pleased enough to teach us how to use basic (though extraordinary) Newtonian equations to find out how much force Superman would need to jump the 1/8 mile advertised by Siegel and Shuster in Action Comics #1. (He's not at all concerned with flight, since there's no real physics behind it: he ignores the impossible in favor of learning from the possible).

I like this idea of using Superman, and other heroes--the latter two books are inclusive--as a learning tool. A while back I gave a talk to a middle school about this very thing. I brought up other subject areas: fashion, psychology, philosophy, etc. These are topics that don't have more than one book devoted to them, and I think I'll devote a separate essay to them.

In one sense, these resemble the religious books. They take superheroes as a starting point and then discuss the implications.

Monday, April 5, 2010


I've been busy. Busy writing. Writing sixty pages of chapter 4. Maybe it'll have to break into chapters 4 and 5, and old chapter 5 will have to become chapter 6. I set a deadline for myself: have a draft of chapter 4 done by April 1. Well, that didn't quite work, because...because 60 pages, I suppose. I had expected 30. But, man, there's just a lot to say there. At one point, I realized that I needed to know a bit about Beauty and the Beast. I went home, found some books on the topic, read the relevant parts (I'd already read the books), and wrote nine pages that evening. It's out of control.

You read that right. I had to know about Beauty and the Beast for a book about Superman. Cupid and Psyche. East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon. Tale Type 425 for all you folklorists reading this. Do any folklorists read this? Also, Type 312. That's right. Bluebeard.

This is, perhaps, the best part about this project. One night, I found myself doing a bit of research into the life and career of Ben Affleck. Finished with that, I then picked up the next book on my reading list: a history of the friendship of Kurt Goedel and Albert Einstein. Not long after that, I watched the Iron Giant, then got out a book about ritual among the Ndembu. I think it's safe to say that these topics, in that order, and all related to a common end, have never been put together before.

Speaking of The Iron Giant...a great many people, grown men and women, discuss crying when a giant alien robot utters the word single word "Superman." And I've got to admit, it's a pretty emotional moment. That is one fantastic movie.

So I'm now taking a bit of a break from Superman. Those 60 pages (written in about 8 days--I set myself that deadline on March 24th. 30 pages seemed possible in that timeframe) took a lot out of me. The problem is, I can't seem to keep to my break. I spent last night contemplating Yoruba sculpture and how it relates to Calvin and Hobbes. The comic strip, not the philosophers. And, of course, how they all relate to Superman.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Strange Horizons

Well, folks, today marks the publication of my article "Superman as Science Fiction" on the website Strange Horizons. Horizons is a speculative fiction magazine. Each Monday, they publish a short story, a poem, book reviews, and some nonfiction--a column, an interview, an aritcle, or something of the kind. They also publish art. It's really a great website. I had an article published there a while back, as well.

This is the first time I've had anything about Superman published. I have delivered three papers on the subject at varous conferences, and have a fourth that I'm going to submit soon as part of a panel on fans and fan cultures. They've all been very well-received, and I've been approached in different ways to publish them. But I'm still deep in research mode, so nothing is eady yet.

"Superman as Science Fiction" is a little essay that wouldn't fit in the book I'm writing. Some of the ideas may show up again, but it's very much its own thing. And now that it's published, I see about a million things wrong with the prose that I'd very much like to change. Why oh why didn't I catch some of those when I read over the galley they sent me to check? Nothing major, mind you, but annoying to me in my quest for perfection.

Edit: I've been looking over the article, and I noticed that there are a couple of errors. Sorry. 1) Leo Qunitum is not the only character Grant Morrison invented for All Star Superman. I took someone's word for that, and should really have looked it up (or not included it at all, since it's not necessary information at all). 2) "What's So Funny about Truth...?" does not appear in Greatest Superman Stories Volume 2. Weird.

Friday, March 12, 2010


At first, I didn't think the announcement of Christopher Nolan's involvement (which has now evidently gone from rumor to fact) in a new Superman film would be all that relevant for my project here. But seeing the responses people are posting to the Internets, I have changed my mind. For example, one fan has put up a list of what he thinks the producer should be reading to prepare himself for producing the film. Really, it's just an opportunity for the columnist to write about his favorite Superman stories, which is no bad thing at all. Still, the gist of my point here is that people really want a good Superman movie. How profound of me.

Speaking of writing about favorite Superman stories, Sean Collins of the Savage Critics wrote an essay about All Star Superman. Here's a nice quotation from it:

Batman's the guy you wanna be; Superman's the guy you know you ought to be, if only you could.

I don't have much more to say today. Writing about hero myths is taking up all my energy.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Casting Call

It seems to me that there's a genre I've been largely ignoring. Let's call it the 'cast list' or something like that. It's simply where somebody imagines who would play whom in a movie made about their favorite characters. This happened before the internet, but the ease with which anybody with access can put together their ideas with pictures, etc., has made the internet the prime medium for this genre.

Superman gets this treatment a lot. There's comic book movie. comic book movie again. there's mtv. comic book movie again.

People feel entitled to a good Superman movie. They put their demands up on the internet. Because of the recent rumor that Christopher Nolan is to be involved in the new film, they write long, long letters and debates about how or why he should be involved.

Religious Interpretation

Superman may or may not be Christ, depending on who you ask.
There are perhaps more books and articles concerning Superman's connection to Christ than there are on any other Superman topic. It all seems to have begun with John T. Galloway, jr.'s The Gospel According to Superman, fixing a title that has probably frustrated other authors since it's 1968 publication. This book set out to prove once and for all that Superman is certainly not Christ, and that claiming him to be so is damaging. It explores the character's actions and history and ultimately concluding that Superman is in no way like Christ.

This was before the 1978 movie.

After that movie, articles began springing up proclaiming Superman's Christ-like-ness. It was all very deliberate on the part of director Richard Donner and one of the writers, Tom Mankiewicz. They saw the parallels in the stories and made them explicit, most famously during Jor-El's speech to Superman as the baby travels to Earth:

"They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I send them you, my only son."

As a kid of 1 when this movie came out, I completely ignored the subtext there.

So soon after you've got Sarah R. Kozloff's "Superman as Saviour: Christian Allegory in the Superman Movies" (from the Journal of Popular Film and Television, 1981). People saw the parallel, and it either made them happy or mad. Apparently the director got death threats.

Then there's The Man from Krypton: The Gospel According to Superman, by John Wesley White. I haven't read it yet, but it's on its way to me even as we speak.

More recently, there have been lots of these. I suspect the more obvious Christian imagery in Superman Returns and the widened audience for it provided by the internet has sparked the books and articles.

Anton Karl koslovic's "Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah" came ahead of the rush in 2002 in the Journal of Religion and Film. He's all for the subtext, as it points toward Christ.

There's Stephen Skelton's The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero. There's Ken Schenck's "Superman: A Popular Culture Messiah" in the book The Gospel According to Superheroes, edited by B.J. Oropeza. There are chapters in books such as Holy Superheroes by Greg Garrett, and H. Michael Brewer's Who Needs a Superhero? about this sort of thing.

Sort of Related are books such as Christopher Knowles Our Gods Wear Spandex and Don LoCicero's Superheroes and Gods. Both of these books look for early parallels (which they see as forerunners) to superheroes in myths and legends, not specifically in Christ. They both devote some pages to Superman. Also in this category I'd put Josepha Sherman's Once Upon a Galaxy, which does the same thing with various films and has a chapter on Superman.

Aside from a score of newspaper articles and hundreds of blogs and other websites, that's about it. People like to point out how similar Superman is to Christ, and then they like to argue about it.
I actually have a lot more to say about this, as you may expect. I sat down to take what I thought would be a page of notes and found myself with eight pages of a chapter, and I hadn't even gotten to Christ yet. So, no real commentary or analysis here, but there will be a bit in the book someday, I hope.

Monday, March 8, 2010

New Origin

All right. J. Michael Straczinsky is writing a new series of "graphic novel" Superman stories, to be drawn by Shane Davis. It's a retelling of the origin story, which will lead into subsequent "graphic novels" in the future. These are free from the other Superman stories published by DC. I put "graphic novel" in quotes because it's really just a long comic book, on perhaps better quality paper, and probably between hard covers.

Straczynski was interviewed by Newsarama recently. He talks about his love for the character and how excited he is by the job. Here's a section relevant to my own project:

I come from a hardscrabble, difficult and often brutal childhood. I come from the streets, I came from nowhere with nothing, and when as a kid I started to tell people I was going to be a writer someday, the reaction was laughter. was a period when I was about 13 that I literally got beat up every day, because no matter how badly I got beat, I would refuse to give in, so they'd try again the next day....So the idea of someone who could fly away, someone who could be anything he wanted, who couldn't be hurt...all of that had tremendous appeal for me. As a kid, it was pretty much all that sustained me.

That part about being able to fly away sounds sort of like run away from the people beating him up, but that's not how I think he meant it. He connected to the character as an escapist fantasy, as a lot of people do.

Interestingly, his interview draws a lot of ire from people in the comments section. I won't go into it here.

Even more interestingly, a part of the interview where Straczysky discusses altering the destruction of Krypton incites one reader to write a reply called "Leave Krypton Alone, JMS." Here Graeme McMillan discusses the origin and how he thinks it's wrong to make the destruction of Superman's homeworld "a hit job on a planetary scale." He's got his reasons, and he does a good job of explaining how it would affect the character.

The interesting thing to me is that people are invested in the origin story. They consider it on very deep levels, both in terms of the character and in terms of their own lives. It's important. And because it's important, it gets retold a lot, always from a perspective, always for a purpose. Always as somebody new wants it to be retold, which isn't always how the readers want to read it.

Edit: I have to add this link, to Newsarama. Today they posted an essay by Straczynski where he writes about the meaning of Superman, and Wonderwoman, two comics he will soon be writing.

The (auto)biography

People involved in Superman productions seem to want to tell their stories. Probably the earliest is Kirk Aly's A Job For Superman. Alyn starred in the Superman serials of the late forties. He was the first man to play Superman in front of the camera. As with several of these books, I haven't read this one. It's sitting in IU's Lilly Library, which means I'd have to devote several hours to sitting in the library and reading it. It's a special rare book library, and you can't check out its contents.

Next is Noel Neill's Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Neill toured the country speaking to colleges and whatnot a few decades ago. She was one of two actors to play Lois Lane on The Adventures of Superman television show in the fifties. She's still known as Lois. Last year, during the Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Il, the local dignitaries, Neill, and Superman ceremonially broke ground on the site of a new statue, one that will depict Lois Lane as played by Neill. It's right up the road from the famous Superman statue at the Metropolis courthouse. Haven't read it.

I've actually got pictures of the groundbreaking, but not with me. Darnit.

Then there's Superman on Broadway, by Bob Holiday and Chuck Harter. Holiday starred as Superman in the short lived It's a Bird, it's a Plane, It's Superman broadway show. Evidently this has been revived periodically, and was filmed for television, resulting in what's considered the worst of all Superman productions. Haven't read this one, either. Three strikes.

Then there are two books by Christopher Reeve: Still Me and Nothing Is Impossible. I have read these, mostly because the local library has them. They're less about Superman than I assume the others must be. Reeve tried to distance himself from the role somewhat, though he can't avoid it in these books. The second is more interesting since it essentially gives Reeve's interpretation of the character. The first gives Reeve's perspective on the films' production.

Since I've read two out of five of these books, I don't have a genre description or contents breakdown. They're sort of memoirs, sort of autobiographies. There are biographies of Reeve out there, which I am trying to convince myself I don't have to track down. The production histories operate as a kind of biographies of the shows and movies, so they complement these books since they delve deeper into the actors' lives than production histories can.

Then there's George Reeves. He's got a small industry going in the book publishing world. There's Speeding Bullet: The Life and Bizarre Death of George Reeves. There's Hollywood Kryptonite: The Bulldog, the Lady, and the Death of Superman. There's Behind the Crimson Cape: the cinema of George Reeves. There are entries on him in The Hollywood Book of Death and others of that kind. The only one I've read is Hollywood Kryptonite, which is more or less a conspiracy theory kind of book.

In Other News:

Here's an interesting article explaining why the author, Robert Cargill, thinks Christopher Nolan should not be involved in producing a new Superman movie. Nolan, as you may know, recently directed two Batman movies, the second of which became one of the most profitable movies of all time. The author's reasons for wanting Nolan off the project are five in number, but are really just one: Nolan's previous films are all very different and darker than Superman should be, in his opinion. He's right in that they are all quite dark and different from Superman in genre, theme, and mood. This, of course, doesn't guarantee that Nolan's involvement in a Superman film would make it like his other projects. What's even more interesting is this statement:

2) Superman isn't a detective. Nolan thrives telling noir-ish detective stories. Superman isn't a detective. He's a reporter. He hits things. Hard. And flies fast. And burns holes in things. And blows cold air that freezes things. Thinking? That ain't his style. He's not dumb, but a good Superman story isn't about him tracking down criminals; it is about a world in peril with only one man who can save it.


He is Mom, baseball, and apple pie, and he stands for "truth, justice, and the American way." There's NOTHING dark about him or his story, only a sadness that drives his overtly boy scout tendencies.

These areCargill's idea of Superman. Not too different from others', I'd guess, but interesting. Sure, he hits things, but so does Batman. And sure, Batman's the detective, but Superman's a reporter, which means he's a writer. And writers think about things an awful lot. There's also a lot of comics pages devoted to Superman doing experiments and whatnot in the Fortress of Solitude. It's partly how he fills his downtime and how he tries to solve various problems on earth. Still, Cargill's right about the Superman of the movies.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Production Histories

Over the next few posts, I'll be writing about the sorts of books other people write about Superman. There are several genres, each of which includes four or five books. Today, I'm looking at the "production histories." These aren't about comics, so much. They're about cartoons, radio, tv, theater, and movies. They're behind-the-scenes looks at the shows.

First up is Gary Grossman's Superman: Serial to Cereal. The title reflects the early film serials and the fact that Kelloggs sponsored the radio and television "Adventures of Superman" shows. His book mostly deals with tv and serials; there's a bit about the Fleischer cartoons from the early forties and the radio show starring Bud Collyer, but not much more. It was published in 1976, part of a series on popular culture edited by film critic Leonard Maltin.

It's got all the conventions of the production history genre: short biographies of the stars and producers (both before and after the show), descriptions of the episodes and the author's appraisal of them, some of the controversies and difficulties. I'm going to assume these are fairly standard for production histories of any show, though I must admit that I don't make a habit of reading these sorts of books. I'm racking my brain for any I've read, and come up with nothing.

Specific to Superman, though, are details of the extent to which the actor becomes typecast. In the case of Superman, however, typecasting seems almost the wrong term. If you're cast as a type, you can at least play that type in lots of different shows. If you're a thug, or an ingenue, there are all sorts of shows that have that type of character. If you're Superman or Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane, then apparently you're done for. It's more specific than typecasting--it's character casting. Also, I'm guessing that few other shows' production histories go into so much detail about the technology required to make a man fly onscreen. All of these books do, and every one of them details the accidents that happened because of it.

Grossman's is pretty good, though dated. He includes lots and lots of pictures. However, it's also sometimes really boring. Do we really need that much information about an actor who played a villain in one episode of The Adventures of Superman? I suppose some people would say yes.

Next up is The Making of Superman: The Movie by David Michael Petrouare, which I haven't read. No offense to Petrou; it's largely because I can't bear to absorb any more information about the production of Superman: The Movie and its sequels.

I did read Bruce Scivally's Superman on Film, Television, Radio, and Broadway. Not bad. It tries to be more comprehensive that Grossman's. It's more recent, so it's got lists of websites and whatnot. All the components of the genre are there, and it gets all the way to 2006's Superman Returns.

There's Superman vs. Hollywood, by Jake Rossen. This is the most sensationalistic of all the production histories. It revels in the controversies and the rumors/legends that have grown up around the actors and shows. It has its villains and heroes. Again, all the biographies, the behind-the-scenes, the flight technology, etc.

Then there's Flights of Fantasy, by Michael J. Hayde. This one focuses almost entirely on The Adventures of Superman, which was the title of both radio and television shows. It's exhaustively thorough, and does the most debunking of the legends. As such, it was interesting to have read this one prior to reading Rossen's Superman vs. Hollywood, which doesn't even attempt to debunk, say, the story that a kid pointed a loaded gun at George Reeves during an appearance as Superman because the kid wanted a bullet that had bounced off Superman for a souvenir. Rossen reports it as fact; Hayde does a bit of digging and concludes that the story was concocted by Reeves as an excuse for limiting his appearance in costume. Hayde cites interviews with Reeves and concludes that this was a fear the actor developed (justifiable, I think, since both he and Collyer and others had been kicked and hit by kids attempting to test their invulnerability).
I found these interesting at first, but I must admit I'm surprised that there are even this many of them. At most, they deal with comics in a superficial manner. Hayde states that the comics may be great, but that Superman owes his popularity to the producers and actors of Adventures on radio and tv. The information is virtually the same in all of them, though each has its own spin. Some, such as Hayde, deal more with Reeves' death than others (Grossman, for example, barely discusses it at all). In all, the genre caters to fans more than a general audience, which is exactly appropriate.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Super Marriage

Here's an interesting article, It Ain't Easy Being Superman, that compares Superman stories to the role of the United States as a world power. It concludes:

It’s not too late to rethink this. Maybe we can learn something from Haiti, to tap into our country’s instinct to help a neighbor in need, and think more broadly about our long-term relationship with countries that could really stand some bootstrapping assistance. If Superman, Lois, and Clark were real people, their story would have ended up in tragedy without some change in trajectory. We have the opportunity to make that change in our own world, if we would choose it.

Throughout, the writer refers to Superman in the past tense, as indicated above. Nothing against her, but in several versions of the story, Superman/Clark and Lois do change their trajectory, and they're married in current comics continuity. I know, I know, she's using the relationship as an analogy for foreign policy. Still, it brings to my attention that the common conception of Superman still has the love triangle aspect to it, despite any number of shows, comics, and movies. That's how it exists in the minds of a lot of people.

Here's a consideration of the marriage, from Sequential Tart (it's the last section of the page, down a bit):

Especially by bringing in Lois's extended family, the marriage emphasizes the "Superman family" approach to upholding the commonweal in contrast to vigilante crime-fighting. This places Superman's adventures in a larger social context and goes against the grain of the lone wolf hero figure. (Batman has his "family" as well, one that is more wary, even of each other, than Superman's.)

Monday, February 22, 2010


A while back (1981) the BBC produced a documentary on Superman called "The Comic Strip Hero", and "Batmitey" was kind enough to post it on YouTube. It begins with an intereview with Superman's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They talk about all sorts of stuff. It's crazy to see Joe Shuster hold up his sketch for the cover to Superman number 1.

Also weird: watching Frederic Wertham become annoyed by Superman. He'd written his book nearly thirty years before this documentary, in which he proclaimed Superman to be one of the worst things a kid could read, and yet he doesn't seem to be able to see beyond Superman's powers and the violence with which he solves problems. He seems especially annoyed that the character isn't real. When asked by the interviewer what he thinks of the fact that people say Superman stands for truth, justice, and the American way (this is in the fifth part, as divided on youtube), he can't even answer the question because it makes no sense to him. "How can it stand for something that doesn't exist..." he starts to say, which isn't the question. Then he goes back to the powers: "He flies through the air..." and he talks about how a woman who's raped doesn't need someone who can fly, but a police officer.

It's an interesting perspective. Again and again, people in the documentary talk about how Superman (and superheroes in general) are for little boys who want to be like them. Even Jerry and Joe talk about this. Also lurking behind Jerry and Joe's comments are their everyday wish fulfillments, such as being noticed by girls.

Then there's the thing that's not talked about, but that Wertham is heading toward with his comments when he talks about what "these two schoolboys" started in the beginning...It's what writer Brad Meltzer keeps coming back to in his novel The Book of Lies...the fact that Jerry Siegel's father was probably murdered. When Wertham refers to what the rape and murder victims need instead of Superman, he seems to forget that the victims often don't get what they need. People do bad things to each other. The law cannot protect everyone. So we imagine Superman, and a world where, when the law fails, there's something beyond it to save us. And wouldn't it be great if that something were powerful and unbound by the laws of nature so it could save us anywhere, any time? Wouldn't it be great if this person, or a whole group of people, didn't try to use their power to take over the world?

Friday, February 19, 2010

"There's no 'g' in 'brazier.'"

I was among the millions of kids who wanted to be Superman. This was largely because of the Reeve movies. I owned very few Superman comics, never watched the old Adventures of Superman show, etc. I liked Superfriends, but it was those movies that did it for me.

So I sat down and watched the first one again. It has been a decade or so since I saw it, and I still like it a lot. There are lots of oddities, like Lois' misspellings (leading to the Perry White line I've used in the title above). Reeve is perfect. After reading that his interpretation is based on Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby, I can see why he chose it. The dynamic between Clark and Lois might as well be that between Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. If I recall correctly, Reeve worked with Hepburn quite a bit.

My favorite parts: Catching the bullet to save Lois, then feigning fainting. The completely straight delivery of "Truth, justice, and the American way." Miss Tessmacher. The many wigs of Lex Luthor. Christopher Reeve's primal scream of denial as he decides to turn back time to save Lois. Great scream.

Stray Observations:

Superman is a disaster movie. They were quite popular in the late '70's, partly because technology made them possible. And it made Superman's flight possible. So flight and disaster movie, that's Superman. He's our response to "a capricious universe" in the words of Neil Gaiman and Adam Rogers in Wired a few years ago. It's interesting that so many actors who've portrayed Superman have been heavily involved in charity work--attempting to thwart all sorts of disasters both potential and actual. Bud Collyer, George Reeves, and Christopher Reeve (I haven't checked on the others) were all very much involved in these sorts of things.

But Superman is very overtly a disaster movie. The destruction of Krypton is shown in very great length. Lots of people running and falling. The helicopter crash--where he meets Lois--is excessively destructive. And then there's the missile test at the end, where all sorts of avalanches, dam breaking, bridges falling, etc, go on and on and on. There's so much more emphasis on disaster than on heroism, it becomes overwhelming. I know that the greater the disaster, the greater the heroism that saves us from it, but this was excessive.

Not that it makes it a bad movie. I really didn't pay attention to it until I was thinking about the time it was produced and the other kinds of movies that came out during that era. The eighties had very few (more in the nineties--millennial fever?), but the seventies had a lot--notably the Airport films.

Also, they're really showing off those flying effects. The first time we see Superman, standing in the distance of the Fortress of Solitude, he takes off and flies directly toward the camera before swooping away. My guess is that this was showing that they weren't limited by the effects of the old Adventures tv show, where Superman was pretty much always flying in profile, sideways across the screen.

So, it's a great movie, even now, I think. And I hope that's not just nostalgia talking.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


As part of this study, I really should watch Smallville more. I watched the last two episodes, but I tend to agree with Chris Sims' assessment: it's not very good. But I liked it in the past. I didn't catch the first few episodes, but somewhere near the beginning I started watching. I sort of kept up with it, if I remembered, for a couple of years. Then, as I recall, it got really really bad. I avoided it like the plague, and then I watched the last two episodes, which did nothing to alter my opinion.

But for this project, I have just watched the first four episodes of Season 1, and I liked them a lot. They blend teen drama, superheroics, weird mystery, monsters (of a sort), and a dash of humor. I suppose that the "monster of the week" plots grew tiresome for the fans eventually, and that the overarching plot of Clark finding out about Krypton, Lex trying to figure out Clark's secret, and the romance took over. But then what happened?

So, now that the show's in its ninth season, Clark is living in Metropolis, working at the Daily Planet, flirting with Lois Lane (who, evidently, has been on the show for five years), has a Neo from the Matrix costume, and fights crime, he still can't fly and isn't called Superman. And I must wonder...why not? Oh, and he doesn't wear glasses.

Certainly I'm not the only one wondering about this.

At the Superman Celebration last summer, I talked to a man named Terry who was there with his grandchildren collecting autographs. He told me that they're all fans of Smallville and that they hunt through the internet to find out all sorts of information. According to Terry, the producers have left the costume decision to Tom Welling, who portrays Clark Kent. I have not found confirmation of this.

Others attribute the lack of the red and blue costume to network interference, because the executives fear that a costumed superman in the television would confuse people when a costumed Superman in a movie theater appears.

It's a curious thing. The show seems to have fallen victim to the same problem that plagues so many shows where the characters are high school students: they have to grow up sometime. For whatever reason, they've kept on with the mission statement--a superman show without superman. Some people are happy with this, some find it unbearable. Enough of both camps still watch it to keep it on the air.

I'm not sure of all the details of the story as it fills out in the subsequent seasons. I know that there's something about Jor-El being sort of a bad guy, and Clark must deal with that. My main interest in this comes because of the origin story. If you consider Superman's origin to be the part of the story from Jor-El placing Kal-El into the rocket to Superman's first public appearance in Metropolis (usually saving Lois Lane), then Smallville still isn't done telling that story. Smallville is the single longest version of Superman's origin out there. Siegel and Shuster's first published version, in Action Comics #1, was precisely one page long. So is Morrison and Quitely's All Star Superman origin. But then, neither of those versions aired on the WB, and needed teen drama to pull in an audience.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Christopher Reeve

In his autobiography, Still Me, Christopher Reeve doesn't talk about Superman much. It's clear that Reeve liked the role, but didn't like what it did to his career. Following the success of the first movie, he deliberately sought roles that were in no way like Superman. As a result, he selected Somewhere in Time--a movie that evidently flopped on release but now has a very dedicated cult following. I remember seeing all sorts of memorabilia when I visited Mackinac Island, where it was shot.

On top of trying to distance himself from the role, Reeve seems genuinely unaware of how much those movies meant to people. He writes nothing about fans, about people accosting him on the street, etc. You'd think this would have been a major part of his life, but he spends more time describing the comedic stylings of Robin Williams than he spends discussing what Superman meant to people. He gives it one paragraph:

During my stay in Hollywood [for an appearance at the Academy awards; this is after his injury] I entered hotels and buildings through garages, kitchens, and service elevators, and met cooks, waiters, chambermaids, and maintenance crews. Many of them said they were praying for me. Others looked me right in the eye and said, "We love you, Superman. You're our hero." At first I couldn't believe they meant it. Then I realized that they were looking past the chair and honoring me for a role that obviously had real meaning for them. I didn't feel patronized in any way. Clearly a part I had played twenty years before was still valued. The fact that I was in a wheelchair, unable to move below my shoulders, and dependent on the support of others for almost every aspect of my daily life had not diminished the fact that I was--and always would be--their Superman.

Reeve writes about basing Clark Kent on Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, which is awfully obvious once you give it a second's thought. He writes about being the custodian for the character, and that he did his best with it. I wonder what he would think of current comics artist Gary Frank using his face for the comics version of the character in several of the titles now being published.

In all, he devotes about ten pages of 300 to Superman, which shows what his mindset was. For a man who endured a spinal injury that left him quadripeligic, one might think that he would use Superman as an image for the freedom of movement he longed for and could only experience in his dreams. Nope. He mentions his heroes: Charles Lindburg and Harry Houdini, who embodied this longing for freedom for him. The true recurring image is not flying but sailing. He finds it in his dreams every night, and it orders his existence to some extent.

That said, he does report some funny things about Superman:

In the first draft of Superman was a scene in which Superman sees a bald man walking down the street. Thinking it's Lex Luthor, he swoops down to collar him and take him away. But it's Telly Savalas, who says, "Who loves ya, baby?" to the startled Superman and offers him a lollipop.

Reeve is glad they got rid of that scene. And:

The less said about Superman IV the better.


This is but one fan of Reeve Superman, discussing a movie book she found.

Then there's My Enduring Relationship with the Man of Steel, which is about a woman's fascination with Reeve's character. At first, her fantasy is to interview Reeve, as Lois Lane does on her balcony in the movie. After learning that Reeve wasn't really much of a Superman fan, but is everything she hoped he would be as a person, she reconsiders her fantasy:

...while there was always a part of me that wanted to be with a Superman, what became more prevalent was the part of me that wanted to be like him. After all, Superman has given us a role model with qualities that we mortals can emulate without having to bend steel with our bare hands – fortitude, integrity, honesty, humanity.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Random Stuff

The Elephant in the Room spends a livejournal post talking about things that don't make sense when it comes to Superman. His reasons: (1) He can't die, thus no tension (2) Kryptonite makes no sense (3) The costume is silly (4) He doesn't solve real world problems (5) the disguise as Clark Kent is flimsy at bst. The comments indicate that he's not alone.

There's an essay in The Man from Krypton (ed. Glenn Yeffeth) called "Six Things that Plain Don't Make Sense about Superman," published in 2005. That essay lists (1) The Pathetic Inferiority complex of the Kandorians, (2) The Frightening Destructive Potential of Superbaby (3) The Odd Construction of buildings in Metropolsi (4) The odd favoritism demonstrated by Jimmy Olson's signal watch (5) Street level thugs who honestly believe they stand a chance, and (6) The absence of any real world limitations to superhearing.

In other links, here's the solution to the mystery of Superman and the Cyclops.

This one's pretty interesting. It's about how Superman can be boiled down to the description: A police reporter affects the outcome of the crimes he covers, then writes about them, hiding his involvement. (from the same website: who should write superman)

I've seen the story of Superman boiled down to one theme on several occasions. Josepha Sherman distills it to either the moses story (baby set adrift, found and rasied, becomes hero) or the story of a hero learning his heritage--these both in her book Once Upon a Galaxy.

Then there's the discussion between Tim Callahan and Steven Withrow in Callahan's column When Worlds Collide. They go over superheroes as "archetypes". This bit by Callahan is interesting, in response to Withrow calling Batman "the dark knight detective" as if it sums up his character.

But doesn't Batman represent something more primal? The "dark knight detective" aspect is something that comes out of Batman's pulp roots perhaps, but isn't he more like "the god of problem solving"? And he mostly ends up solving the problems by punching them in the face, no matter how much his intellect, planning, or Bat-computer might help him get to that point.

Superman, in many ways the opposite, doesn't have any problems, except those which he manufactures for himself. He could correct any injustice almost instantly, and even the social problems writers saddled him with for years were mostly the result of his attempt to pretend at humanity. To pretend to have those very problems. Had this mythic character never adopted the guise of an awkward newspaper man, he wouldn't have had to trick Lois Lane all those times. And he wouldn't have had any of those dual-identity struggles. Batman punches problems in the face to become superhuman, while Superman creates problems for himself to become human.

Does that mean that it's not just Superman that was necessary to birth the superhero genre, but the duality between Superman and Batman?

Withrow doesn't agree with that last point: But I still think the Batman archetype is a reaction against the Superman archetype. Not simply because Superman came first, but because I believe the world view that underlies Superman is more fundamental to human nature than the world view underlying Batman. We are born with a yearning for Superman as our ideal and must learn (if we ever do) to accept Batman as our reality.

I'd like to draw the parallel here with a comment I quoted not long ago, made by Josh Walgenbach: Batman is a man trying to be a god. Superman is a god trying to be a man.

In the 1970's, writer Denny O'Neil produced a new take on Superman, one that was significantly less powerful and more connected to humanity. Here's a lengthy overview, with lots of scanned pages, of that run.

That about does it for now.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Another Origin

I need to keep this issue in mind. It's time to assemble all the versions of Superman's Origin. This one is Superman 53, from 1948. The site is a review, with a summary and some comparisons to the contemporary continuity. More to come.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

George Reeves

George Reeves died, and the details of his death were immediately fashioned into legend. The newspaper headline read "Superman Kills Self," conflating the man with one of his roles. It was, of course, the role that defined his career, but he didn't necessarily want it to define his life. Nonetheless, to this day The Adventures of Superman has a devoted following, and the death of its star is still cause for speculation.

Part of the reason people still talk about it is the so-called "Superman Curse." Supposedly, if you're involved in the production of Superman television or movies, you're doomed. The Unexplained Mysteries (dot com) has a page devoted to the curse. The Superman Homepage offers a page of "common superman misconceptions" related to Superman, which includes sections on Reeves' death and on the curse. Lou Anders writes an article about it in The Man from Krypton: A Closer Look at Superman. The article is titled "A Word of Warning for Brandon Routh," and was written prior to Superman Returns. It's a curiously nonsensical article, which focuses far more on Keanu Reeves than one would think an essay on Superman should focus on a person who has never played Superman (his role in The Matrix notwithstanding). It does, however, have this little bit:

" can't be glossed over that it was this injury (to Christopher Reeve) which began the idle speculation that something supernatural existed called the Superman curse. Perhaps man isn't meant to reach too high, the thinking goes, and daring to take on the role of such a super man tempts the gods too much."

I'm tempted not to note here that Hugo Danner, protagonist of Gladiator and often-cited inspiration for Superman, died while tempting the "gods" by cursing them. He's struck by lightning.

Anyway, Greg Hatcher writes about George Reeves' death on Comic Book Resources.

Here's a page about George Reeves' ghost haunting the house where he died, which I don't think I'd encountered before.

The Straight Dope tackles the subject here.

There's a lot more to this. A book was written about it: Hollywood Kryptonite: The Lady, the Bulldog, and the Death of Superman. This book seems to have been the primary inspiration for Hollywoodland, a film that creates a fictional detective to investigate the case. The book pretty much goes for a murder verdict, the film concludes suicide. The book also goes over a lot of the rumors about Reeves.

There's so much more to this. The rumors persist. In her recent Memoirs of an Occasional Superheroine, Valerie D'Orazio writes about her contemplation of suicide: "Oh, how was I going to do it? Window. Sixth floor. I think George Reeves died like that, no? Took LSD, thought he was really Superman? or was that an urban legend?"

I could link to websites all day, but this seems to cover the important facets.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Was Superman a Spy?

Brian Cronin writes a blog called "Comics Should Be Good" for the site Comic Book Resources. As a feature on this blog called Comic Book Legends Revealed, Cronin regularly explores "comic book legends" and 'reveals' them as either true or false. It's pretty good. And as one of those blog things that becomes a book, the feature was published by Plume last April under the title, "Was Superman a Spy? and other comic book Legends Revealed."

This reads like a history book, whose focus is less chronological than by topic. There's a section on DC, with chapters on Superman, Batman, and one on everybody else the company publishes. There's a section on Marvel, with chapters on the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, Captain America, X-Men, and also one on everybody else. Then there's a section on other companies, including a chapter on Disney and a chapter on everybody else.

A book on legends about comic book characters and history should be right up my alley. It's a quick read, and there's interesting stuff (65 legends directly from the blog, 65 new to the book are explored). However, it's not really about legends in the strictest sense. There are no legends told here. There's merely the revelation.

Let me explain, using the latest entry (from January 21) as an example. On the blog, each entry begins like this:

Comic Legend: The musical "It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman" was inspired by the success of the Batman TV series.

STATUS: I'm Going With False.

Then Follows the explanation of why Cronin has chosen true or false as the status. This has to do with the dates of the musical's Broadway opening followed by the original air date of the Batman series, both in 1966. Cronin reasons that Broadway lead time prohibits the show as an influence. That makes perfect sense. He also quotes some of the people involved in the musical to prove that they intended to play it straight, not camp it up like Batman.

All well and good. The book, however, usually neglects to print the legends, nor does it give Cronin's opinion as to the legend's truth or falsehood. So the entries are interesting, but quite often I have no idea what the legend he's revealing was. Some are obvious, some obscure, and some seem just like straightforward anecdotes about comics history, characters, and behind-the-scenes drama. It's not very satisfying on a that level, as I found myself often wondering what the legends were rather than being glad to know the truth at last.

On other levels, I was disappointed that there was no mention of the legend/rumor that George Reeves committed suicide because of all the children getting hurt pretending to fly as he did in The Adventures of Superman.

Also, one of the legends, put on the back cover, is that Wolverine was intended to be a real wolverine by Len Wein, his creator. The book confirms this, but Wein himself has said it's false. Cronin posted this on his blog, but this was after the book's printing, so the book reflects the mistake.

Still, there's some good information here. I'm not sure how I'll use the 30 or so pages on Superman (I can't imagine I'll get a lot of use out of the fact that Superman drawn by Jack Kirby had his face redrawn by somebody else), but I'm glad I have access to them.

Monday, January 25, 2010

September 11

There's a book called The Terror Dream, by Susan Faludi. It's a book about what the American responses to 9/11 revealed about us as a nation. It's also largely about the myths we tell to get us through crisis. These myths aren't always healthy, as Faludi demonstrates with overwhelming evidence. It's fascinating.

A while back I posted some fan art of Superman grimmacing in pain because of his impotence in the face of the attacks on the world trade center. Here's some more.

It's called 'And Where the Hell Was Superman?' by Hardy Ecke. It seems to be on display in DC somewhere, but my information may be out of date.

Ecke explains the picture on his website: What causes me to fix the catastrophe in a painting is not that an attack on the civilized world is surrounded by unanswered questions, but insted that the saviour of the world became too tired to protect America from evil anymore....A Rambo and a McClane with all the other Hollywood comics cannot rescue the world because if they cannot reach victory with the brain they cannot succeed with the sword.

It's an interesting image, though I don't think it conveys the ideas (at least to me) that he wanted it to convey. I see in this painting an image of a symbol of heroism that is dated and tire, one that can no longer save us, which is evidently what he wanted to paint. But maybe my concept of Superman is different from his. Superman is different that Rambo and John McClane--both reference in his explanation. These guys are all muscle and tactics. Superman is violent, to be sure, but he stands for something more.

This is from Gregoy McNeill, writing on the Superman Homepage: Since then [9/11], our concept of what a hero is has changed. Living with the fear of future terrorist attacks and uncertainity has made us ask "Where's Superman?" The truth is he does exist. It's not the powers nor costume that defines Superman, it's the morals. Superman has evolved from the embodiment of America to what we as human beings can strive to become if we can constructively use our talents and potential in a positve light....All of us are superheroes when we take a stand against injustice. All it requires us to have is courage and faith. Superman is within us, it's our choice to decide whether or not we want to use it.

I think Superman as a moral exemplar is a more common conception than Superman as a brute. There's a therapeutic technique named for him, "What Would Superman Do?"; an English professor counsels the same thought exercise, There's Valerie D'Orazio's blog, Occasional Superheroine, where she titles a post, "Why Superman not Telling a Lie Had Such an Impact on My Life." She ends the post with the question, what would Superman do? (it's at the bottom of the page here). A Google search of "What would superman do" reveals over 5000 hits, though not all of those are immediately relevant, they're interesting.

And I return, as so often, to All Star Superman. A running theme is Brain Vs. Brawn, Luthor vs. Superman. In Issue 12, Morrison reverses it, when a weakened and dying Superman outsmarts Luthor and says, "Brain beats brawn every time," a line Luthor uttered several issues earlier (Issue 1, maybe). Of course, Superman is punching Luthor when he says it.

but back to Terror Dream...Faludi titles a chapter "The Return of Superman." This book would have been published about a year after the film Superman Returns. There's a lot to the book, about how 9/11 affected women in particular. The chapter relevant here is about how we had to search for heroes after the attacks. When none presented themselves in an obvious manner, we (meaning, largely, the media and government) had to invent them. We invented them in a mold that we had long held to be valuable and glorious, a mold cast on cowboys and superheroes. Into that mold stepped Bush and his cabinet, Giuliani, and others.

Also cast in that mold were the men on United 93. We sought evidence that the mold fit, and we found it in statements such as this one, spoken of Lou Nacke on Dateline: "When he was a little boy, he love Superman. And he'd actually had a cape on and went through a glass window pretending to be Superman." He also had a tattoo on his shoulder. So he must have been a hero.

I do not question Nacke's heroism. Nobody really knows what happened on that plane. When Congress tried to award medals to four of the men, whom the media had decided were the heroes who overthrew the highjackers, others protested. Eventually, all the passengers on the flight were given posthumous medals. Lots of other people, too.

Faluid writes that this search for heroes and the apotheosization of them reveals "a deep cultural unease beneath the hero worship." We were constantly looking for new heroes after attacks that "left us with little in the way of ongoing chronicle or ennobling narrative. So a narrative was created and populated with pasteboard protagonists whose exploits would exist almost entirely within the realm of American archetype and American fantasy. There was a danger to being honored with such manufactured laurels, particularly for the tragedy's survivors; for the fantasy to hold, citizens would have to stay in character, never mind that their roles were constrained and deforming, never mind that the command performance prevented them from expressing what they really had witnessed and suffered that day."

There's a danger in casting real people as imaginary characters. They can never deliver fully on the promise of the role. None of these people is Superman (neither, seven years later, was Obama), who would have saved the day. That's why the moral example is so much more important than the warrior. Faluid calls superhero stories the fantasies of adolescent boys, but that only refers to the power the character possesses. If the Superman who returned after 9/11 had been the embodiment of morality instead of the misguided muscle of the governmental reaction, things would have been different indeed.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Superman vs. Tarzan

So there's the Crash Test Dummies' Song:

Tarzan wasn't a ladies' man
He'd just come along and scoop 'em up under his arm
Like that, quick as a cat in the jungle
But Clark Kent, now there was a real gent
He would not be caught sittin' around in no
Junglescape, dumb as an ape doing nothing
[chorus]Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him
Hey Bob, Supe had a straight job
Even though he could have smashed through any bank
In the United States, he had the strength, but he would not
Folks said his family were all dead
Their planet crumbled but Superman, he forced himself
To carry on, forget Krypton, and keep going
Tarzan was king of the jungle and Lord over all the apes
But he could hardly string together four words: "I Tarzan, You Jane."
Sometimes when Supe was stopping crimes
I'll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn his back
On man, join Tarzan in the forest
But he stayed in the city, and kept on changing clothes
In dirty old phonebooths till his work was through
And nothing to do but go on home

And there's Superman/Tarzan: Sons of the Jungle.

That's not a whole lot to work with, I suppose. But there's something to be learned from the comparison between the two characters. Let's start with the obvious:
The began in the early twentieth century.
They're both orphans.
They're raised by adoptive parents.
They wear distinctive outfits.
They're far and away superior to everyone around them.
They rescue people.

I recently read Tarzan of the Apes, the first Tarzan novel that Burroughs wrote. I liked it a lot. I was surprised, since the other Burroughs books I've read have been disappointing. But in this book, he doesn't shy away from the difficulties of the character. And he makes Tarzan learning to read by himself pretty acceptable. He gives Tarzan a real moral dilemma at the end, and then resolves it in exactly the way you wouldn't expect a pulp novel from the '30's to resolve itself. I imagine that the rest of the novels in the Tarzan series have to undo Tarzan's decision to give up Jane and his title as Lord Greystoke, but reading that first one is quite a surprise.

I was also surprised by how superhuman Burroughs makes Tarzan. He's clearly past the potential of even the most physically capable human being. Burroughs acknowledges, though, that even Tarzan is no match for the strngth of the creatures of the African jungle. He has to outsmart them, and this even proves to be an important realization for Tarzan when Western Civilization finds him. He has to come to terms with his humanity.

Isn't that what Superman had to do as well? Is that what the show Smallville was all about for a while? (this is a sincerely asked question. I stopped watching a while ago because of my work schedule) But Superman isn't human. I return again and again to a characterization of the two most important comic book heroes, made by Josh Walgenbach during an interview I conducted with him last year. He said,

"Batman is a man trying to be a god. Superman is a god trying to be a man."

I come back to that again and again. It seems apt.

Sons of the Jungle

It's not so much a good comic as it is interesting. The overall point, possibly not intended by the writer Chuck Dixon, is that we have a destiny, so to speak. It may be written in our dna. It's certainly not a product of our environment. the story begins as in Burrough's first Tarzan novel, with a mutiny that would strand Tarzan's parents (Tarzan is already conceived at this point) on the coast of Africa, far from human settlement. In the novel, the baby is born and the parents subsequently die. The boy is raised by apes (on a side note, I was at first disappointed that Burroughs seemed to have no concept of actualy ape anatomy or behavior; then I realized that he had invented a new species--the apes that raise Tarzan are neither gorilla nor chimpanzee; he calls them anthropoids), etc...

In this comic--a joint effort by Dark Horse and DC--Superman's ship flies across the sky to crash just inside the tree line as Tarzan's mother prays for their salvation. The mutineers see it as a sign to spare the couple, and Tarzan grows up with back in England. He's morose and unhappy. Though he still exhibits the same superiority of physique and intellect that allowed him to survive in the jungle, he hates his life and begins exploring. He makes his way to the jungle where he finds happiness. He journeys with Jane and a reported from Metropolis named Lois Lane. They're on an expedition to find a lost roman colony. I can only imagine that this is a plot from one of the other Tarzan novels (Tarzan and the Lost Empire seems to be a prime candidate).

Superman, on the other hand, grows up among the apes. He's out of place, rejected by both the apes and the few humans he finds. He's confused about his Kryptonian heritage, thinking that all humans are Kryptonians. That's an easy mistake, I suppose.

Anyway, he meets up with Lois and Jane and Greystoke and Greystoke stays and Superman goes back to Metropolis. They each find where they're "supposed" to be.

Crash Test Dummies
This was a bit of a surprise. I hadn't realized that "Superman's Song" begins with most of the first verse about Tarzan, which is why I started thinking about it in the first place.

This song plays more on the "mythological" conceptions of the characters than on actual stories. That's what makes it interesting. Tarzan is the inarticulate brute who starred in the movies. Superman is lonely and unique, not one of several revenants of Krypton, which at the moment in the comics include an entire city that has been saved and placed on a planet near earth. maybe I'm just getting the "lonely" characterization from the tone of the song. It's a funeral dirge (which I thought even before i saw the video).
Note what the song opposes about the characters. Tarzan wasn't a ladies' man, but Kent (notably not Superman at this point) was a real gent. More than just rhyme scheme, this reveals a lot about the conception of the characters. It sets the civilized Kent against the jungle-dwelling Tarzan. However, in Burroughs' novel, Tarzan comments on the lack of civilization among all the humans he meets, thinking that they are no better than the apes and lions he's had to fight for most of his life. When given the chance, he reveals himself as more civilized than the highest levels of western society. And he can still kill lions with nothing more than a knife and a length of rope. He's the master of two worlds. Nonetheless, the inarticulate Tarzan dominates the popular imagination. The movies win out over the books every time. And yet those who adapt books into movies say that nothing they can do will alter the book one bit. Right.

The most interesting thing is that the song removes the "destiny" aspect from Superman. It makes his story all about the choices he makes. He chooses not to rob banks, not to turn his back on humanity. That's what makes the character great, and what is removed in the reading of the character as christ that permeates the current interpretations (stemming, I think from the 1978 movie).
In the end, the afterword to the comic series reveals Burroughs' distaste for Superman. He thinks its a silly character, and he would never put Tarzan in the city as editors asked him to do. But the characters aren't all that different. Tarzan is even once referred to as 'superman.' in the first novel (how in the world did I not write down that page number?).
Yep, I'm about out for today. Here's a picture by Frank Frazetta: