Monday, June 13, 2011

2011 Superman Celebration

I couldn't go to Metropolis this year. But it's not the loss it might have been, since people are pretty good about documenting the events. Here's a link to the opening ceremony.

Thoughts on which one is the real one

This essay appeared in The Comics Journal Recently. It's about the blandness of Superman's face. There's nothing distinguished about it. It makes comparisons to Batman, etc, being masked and therefor more interesting. There are some provocative thoughts here, but most notable is this

And this is why Superman actually remains unique. He is the unfinished and irresolvable superhero. there have been debates about which is his aspects is the ego, and which is the alter ego, but really it's a chicken and egg scenario; neither had priority. He arrived as an infant, tabula rasa, and the very first time his adoptive parents concealed his super-baby traits, he was split in two by a super-secret concerning his identity. He was always both Superman and Clark, or he is forever neither of them, two possibilities that are equally chilling.

I'm reminded again and again of the idea that the interpretation tells us more about the interpreter than about the text.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Thoughts on Smallville, Continued

So the last post was a bit rough on Smallville, so let's balance that out a bit. I've been watching the old episodes of the show online as they're posted. Three new ones a week. One of this week's was called Faded, about a guy who can turn invisible and uses his power to kill people.

That's not the interesting part. What I liked about the episode is that it begins with Clark saving this guy's life. Clark sees him about to get hit by a car and pushes him out of the way. The guy, Graham, spends the next twenty minutes trying to repay Clark for saving his life. Then Clark finds out he's a killer. In the end, the killer is killed.

But Clark takes a moment to think about things. If he'd never saved Graham, then the next person he killed would still be alive. Should he have saved Graham?

The show, in the words of Chloe Sullivan, says yes: "Save first, ask questions later." Clark seems to accept this, though he doesn't really comment on it. It's all too short an exchange. And it puts the moral decision in Chloe's philosophy, not Clark's. That's not a huge problem, since we're the moral creatures we are because of other people's advice as well as our own contemplation. It's part of the show's characterization of Superman that virtually everything we know and love about the character originates elsewhere in his teens and early twenties. More than any version I've seen, Smallville makes Superman an accumulation of moral influences, rather than a philosopher in his own right.

Ah, but I'm veering toward harsh criticism again. Let's backtrack and veer in another direction.

This episode, more than any other of the show, made me think. The truly great Superman stories are all about what Superman would do in certain situations. Not just, what would Superman do if a monster attacked or a volcano erupted or Luthor hatched a real estate scheme. But what would Superman do if he found out that he was dying (All Star)? What would Superman do if he were forced to kill someone to save the world (Whatevert Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?)? What would Superman do if a group of anti-heroes killed villains, but were embraced by the public (What's so funny about Truth, Justice, and the American Way?)?

This episode, for a minute at the end, poses the question, What would Superman do if he found out he saved a murderer? It's a good question, one I haven't seen in the comics (though I haven't read 75% of them--do you have any idea how many Superman comics exist?). We see how Smallville answers it: Save first, ask questions later. How would the comics answer it?

I suspect that the golden age wouldn't pose the question. But what about the Weisinger era? I suspect that it would have come up in a different way: Superman saves a guy, finds out he's a killer after the guy kills again for whatever reason, but then by some strange and magical circumstance (Mxyzptlk?) is thrown back in time to see if he'd still save the guy. Superman wouldn't question himself--he'd save the guy, but this time he'd find a way to stop the guy before he kills again and put him in jail. Mxyzptlk would get angry that he really caused no trouble, but Superman would have a speech about how you save everybody (similar to Smallville, but in the mouth of the protagonist). Then he'd trick Mxyzptlk back to the 5th dimension and call it a day. All in all, a nice eight pager.

Using Mxyzptlk is probably too easy, but hey, I'm not a Superman writer.

It doesn't quite feel like a siver age story to me. Would it come later, in the 70's? The theme feels right, but I can't see the story happening that way. I think it would have a lot of conversation between Superman and the killer. It's certainly not an 80's story, or a 90's. Right now, it might work, except that Superman is so embroiled editorially determined fiat that it wouldn't work. Then again, by all accounts Mort Weisinger was the fiattiest of all editors. So what do I kow about it?

So that's my thought on Superman for today.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Some Thoughts on Smallville

Well, it's over. That's something.

I haven't watched every episode of the show, but I've seen a whole lot of it as part of this project.

Smallville, in the end, treated Superman less as the initial Superhero and more as the culmination of a superhero movement. The first four seasons are spent largely in Smallville, where Clark Kent is reactive, using his powers only when he absolutely has no choice, and he keeps them a secret. In season five, a lot more happens in Metropolis, and he meets a woman who has powers and dresses in a costume, who works at the Daily Planet, is clumsy in her secret identity, wears glasses as part of it, and whatnot. It begins the notion that he could be a superhero. From there, he meets a succession of other heroes and becomes the Blur all as part of the process that leads him to create a public persona called, I think, Superman. It's an interesting notion, though I don't think it was originally part of the plan for the show.

The show evolved over its ten years. In the end, it was basically nothing like it was at the beginning. The same can be said for the Superman comics. Evolution is part of the character.

I have a few criticisms, and I think that these are damning in the end.

First, the show didn't give us a good look at Welling in the suit. There have been endless discussions about the reasoning behind this. The official reason is that it essentially wasn't necessary, since the show was about Clark Kent and not about Superman. This is at once a dodge and an example of idiotic thinking. Clark Kent is Superman. The actual result of not showing him fully suited up is that people wonder why he didn't appear in the suit. And they come up with answers; namely, that he didn't look good in it. This is not something that you want people to think.

But a more profound flaw in the show is the choice to delay the choice to don the suit and become Superman. The show basically takes the first page of Action Comics #1 and stretches it out to ten years. That first page has the telling panel wherein we learn that "Early on, Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created... Superman."

The language there is telling. He decides to become Superman. We're not told of any motivating situation. Later retellings cement the choice in the morality learned from his parents, but it's still his choice. It happens early. He makes that choice in Smallville and journeys to Metropolis to carry the choice to its logical end. In the show Smallville, he seems to make the choice when he's just out of high school. Before that, he does use his powers to help people, but they're only people close to him, people in his community and especially people he loves. There's nothing wong with this. He's not Superman when he's in his hometown, not devoted to all of humanity yet. This develops with the show well enough. By the last seasons, he does devote himself to helping everybody he can. But then...He only becomes Superman because if he doesn't do something the entire world will end. They conflate his emergence in the suit with personality elements and forces outside himself. He waffles. He doesn't want to save the world, even though he's sure he can do it. His choice is removed by circumstance. He could opt to do nothing, but everybody would die. That's not much of a choice.

It's the difference between desperation and altruism. Superman is usually altruistic. He decides to do goo however he can.

The Superman of today acts because of forces outside himself. This is really desperation. This is the Superman of Smallville. It's also the Superman of Superman: Earth One, a popular comic book released last year. Again the earth is threatened, and Superman delays and delays and delays until he has virtually no choice but to become a hero. With this being so popular, and Smallville enduring for so long, it seems that this element of Superman is the one for our time.

In the end, my main critique of Smallville is that Clark Kent, even when he dons the suit, never FEELS like Superman. They did their best in the last season to make it happen. They tried to show him being inspirational and heroic. But for me, it just never came together. So I suppose I'm glad they never really called him Superman, never really showed him fighting the neverending battle in the suit. They can keep the Smallville Clark Kent, the Earth One Clark Kent. I'll stick with the real thing. The one who was always Superman, and who didn't need ten years and a planetary crisis to figure it out.