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.