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:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

all star puzzle: is leo quintum really lex luthor?

I've got to keep these handy. It's the idea that the character Leo Quintum in All-Star Superman is actually Lex Luthor, who has come back from the future after having seen the error of his ways as a result of seeing the world as Superman does.

Not-The-BeastMaster posted this one last year. Also, this one.

From the Savage Critics. Also relevant are the comments, as it's the first place I've seen theorizing that Quintum is Luthor. Let's see if I can find here...we'll throw this one in there, too, though the part on Superman's a bit down the page...and here...and this one is relevant...and so's this, more or less...

I hadn't even thought of this, and after examining the evidence...I have no comment to make either way.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Memoirs of an Occasional Superheroine

Valerie D'Orazio began this book as a series of entries on a blog, called "Goodbye to Comics." She expanded and revised these to the book Memoirs of an Occasional Superheroine, which is also the title of a blog she writes. The book is a memoir, so it's about her life, but it's also about superheroes, the comics industry, and sex--not just the kind of sex you have, but the kind that's part of your biology. The part that informs but doesn't define your gender, if that makes sense.

You might not get that from the cover, which features a perky young woman with bright red hair and a cape. It looks innocent. The story inside is anything but. This is about D'Orazio's life in all its difficulties. This makes it a hard book to review, since I'm the last person to know anything about the issues with which the author has had to contend throughout her life. It begins with a childhood of abuse by her bodybuilder father and moves through a series of rejections, sexual harassments, drug difficulties.

Scholars don't like to deal directly with such things. They're difficult topics, so most of us abstract the material to make it more comfortable. It would be easy to just write about the parts where D'Orazio discusses Superman and other superheroes and be done with it. But that would do the book a disservice. It's a good book, and deserves to be addressed on its own terms.

There may be more thorough accounts of the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of sexual harassment that occur in the work place, but I haven't read them. In this book, D'Orazio writes about what it was like to deal with harassment in all of its forms at DC Comics in New York, and it's horrific. I can't imagine it. I'm a man, and men's bodies don't display their sexuality in the way that women's bodies do--whether they want to or not. They have to try to hide it. I sympathize when D'Orazio writes about this, though I cannot empathize. I don't have the experience or the mindset. Men do these sorts of things to women every day--the staring, the offhand comments, the innuendo, the "innocent" requests for dinner, the denial of impropriety, and whatnot. The stress is immeasurable, since the harassment saturates every aspect of the woman's life and work. Is she really being passed up for a promotion because she's not good at her job, or is it because she won't agree to have dinner with the supervisor? No one should have to ask themselves that question. D'Orazio refers to it as unprofessional, when it's actually criminal.

There's a whole lot more to this story. That level of interaction with men follows her throughout her life. She doesn't flinch from describing it, nor from describing herself in less than flattering terms. She does things that, well, aren't so smart. She's the first to admit it, and she often uses a line from a Wonder Woman comic to drive home the point. She has a "fuckitup" button.

And this is where the story gets interesting for me as a scholar who's writing about the uses to which people put the stories that are important to them. She tells her tale, the story of her life, in terms of superheroes. Not merely comic books, either. She refers to Wonder Woman a lot, and Catwoman. D'Orazio has internalized these characters, as well as others such as Superman and Batman. There's a story of Phoenix, from Uncanny X-Men 207, that's also very important to her. Memoirs of an Occasional Superheroine is the story of a woman's life as read through superheroes. In this, it is extremely valuable for me.

I much of this--of the reading of her life in terms of comic book charactes--actually occurred at the time and how much of it is part of the process of writing the Memoirs?

If anyone wants to really demonstrate the power of literature in a person's life, all they need to do is point to this book. If one were cynical, one might also use it to demonstrate the negative impact of comics, but to do so would require a gross misreading of the book and the people who populate it--not to mention comics themselves. Comics aren't the problem, instead they provide D'Orazio with a way to understand herself and her troubles. And wow, she's got some troubles. Or had. There's a happy ending.

I've been following her blog, so that wasn't a surprise to me. What was a surprise is the "Second Self" that D'Orazio develops first as a defense mechanism against abuse but that later becomes her conscience, her shadow self, her failures, and ultimately, it seems, her salvation. She rejects the second self (she never refers to it as her secret identity or alter-ego, as one might have expected, and I think it's a wise choice; to do so would be to force us to read it as acomic book trope, which would reduce it in ways that I don't think are appropriate, especially considering how the book ends) at first, which seems to be a bad idea. But this is not a book about love, or self-love, or anything like that. It's more about acceptance: of her problems as things she can't ignore, of herself as a person who has troubles but can overcome them, of the imperfection of the world and the ability to change parts of it--including herself.

It's also about telling her story. She's told not to so often, and listens, that the few times she does tell it early on (about the abuse and harassment), it's basically too late. She needs to tell her whole story in order for it to be an effective strategy in her life, and that's what this book is (well, as much of the whole as anyone can ever tell).

Her blog has changed recently, reflecting that the phase of her life chronicled here is well past. It's more about archetypes, symbolism, and specific superheroes now than anything else. Still interesting, though, just like the book. But the picture from the cover of the book that used to be the masthead of the blog, that's gone.

Some links:


Here's an interesting discussion of superheroes as archetypes from comic book resources. It's evidently ongoing, so it's not over. It's part of the column When Worlds Collide. Here's a relevant passage:

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.

The discussion suffers from a sketchy definition of the concept of the archetype, which is a sketchy concept in the first place that I don't think really benefits anybody. Also a sketchy grasp of comparative mythology. But still pretty good analysis of Superman and Batman and the Fantastic Four.

Original Graphic Novels

This is something that I might not normall discuss here: a retelling of Superman's origin--and presumably leading into a serialized adventures--in a longer, less frequent format than the monthly comic. I mention it because the discussion surrounding it is interesting. This one, by a Grumpy Old Fan, particularly. It goes into the history of Superman and the changes the character goes through. Fans know of the change and have accepted it as an aspect of Superman. It's perhaps one of the character's defining qualities--his mutability.


Here's the Huffington Post using Bizarro as a way to characterize how Washintong does business. Funny.

This sort of thing is really useful. I wish it were easy to record in conversation, but the easiest way to get it is in popular culture, news, etc. By "this sort of thing" I mean people using phrases, ideas, characters, etc., from Superman in other contexts. Such as the article: "Washington often seems like Superman's Bizarro World where "Us is opposite." They even link to the Wikipedia for Bizarro in case the reader can't figure it out from the context clues. Actually, it feels like the quote should be "Us do opposite." Doesn't it?

This is folk speech, and it shows the extent to which Superman has pervaded public life. We can say "faster than a speeding bullet," "Truth, justice, and the American Way," "Up, up, and away," It's a bird, it's a plane..." " kryptonite, and everybody will have an idea what we're talking about. Or pretty much everybody. Are there other phrases? Bizarro is one of them. Batman's got a few of those, too.

Superman Comes Out of the Phone Booth

This is funny. It's a video.


This one's kind of old, but interesting. Comics were used in the army to help troops improve their literacy.

That'll do for now.