Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Man of Steel Shield

I came across this blog post on Modern Ideas about the new shield for the movie Man of Steel. It's the author (Matt Kuhns, a graphic designer) working through some thoughts about what the term 'serious' means in the context of a movie about Superman. There are lots of good ideas there, and a very grounded analysis of why people need seriousness in a movie about an alien who comes to earth and dresses in tights so people won't know he's a journalist. Matt nicely articulates the tension between wanting to experience these stories as adults and yet wanting to distance ourselves from their silly nature.

The one thing I've noticed is that people are throwing the word 'serious' around a lot when it comes to superhero movies. Serious, not 'sincere.' I'll give that one some thought and maybe write what I think it means some time.

I've chosen not to read any of the news about the upcoming movie. I watched the preview for it, and I'll likely see the full trailer in front of The Hobbit part 1 when it comes out. Maybe I'll have something to say about it then. For now, I'll just say that I've always liked the epithet 'Man of Tomorrow' more than 'Man of Steel'.

Monday, November 26, 2012


I wrote my dissertation on Prometheus, specifically on the ways this Greek figure has been used in modern America. I finished a few years ago, so when the movie of that name came out earlier this year, I wasn't in a rush to see it. I watched it at home a few weeks ago.

I liked it. At first, I was a bit frustrated that so many things were left unexplained. After a few days, I began to like this more and more. I know that there's some plan for a sequel, but I won't get excited about that until it's released.

I find the idea behind the film compelling, with or without the ties to Alien. And by 'the idea', I'm referring to the ancient alien hypothesis--that a long time ago aliens came to earth and in some way either created humanity or at least tweaked life's evolutionary path toward us. It's part of the story of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and lurks in David Brin's Uplift Series. And not so long ago The 'History' Channel got a lot of mileage out of it. They started mainly from Erich Von Danniken's book The Chariots of the Gods, and the literature that sprouted in its wake. I wrote a bit about this in my article for Strange Horizons, Superman as Science Fiction.

Prometheus works pretty well as a set-up. I do hope the payoff is up to par. But what I liked about it most were the images and how they explored the themes of the plot. We've got a story about an expedition to the stars ostensibly undertaken to find our origins (and the twist that it's also about finding out how to live longer). It's about our birth as a species, and so it seems appropriate that the film's most potent image and most potent sequence reflect this. The sequence, the one most often praised and singled out, is the robotic c-section.

Yes, it's tough to watch, terrifying and electrifying. But think about it for a second. This is a movie about the relationship of a creator to its creation; it goes out of its way to point out that people not only create other people, but robots as well. Then, the robot David (Michael Fassbender) tries an experiment on a Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) by putting a drop of the black liquid in his drink (a strange analogy of insemination?), which results in a Shaw (Noomi Rapace) getting pregnant. Horrified, she gets a medical robot to remove the offspring from her body. Crazy stuff.

Then, the image: I think this was the most frequently used promotional image:

"Sometimes to create, one must first destroy."
David holding a hologram of the earth. It's interesting how this movie almost insists that light has weight. But most interesting is the fact that David, the robot who kinda sorta inseminated Shaw with the alien baby, has the whole world in his hands. And doesn't he say, at one point, "Doesn't everyone want their parents dead?"

Anyway, I'll close with one more image.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Chapter 6

Over at, Steven Padnick wrote an essay called Superman vs. the Myth of Aristocracy. Not a bad little essay, one which can be summed up nicely with the passage

Thus, by action and by example, Superman embodies a populist ideal, that it doesn’t matter who one’s parents are, no one can impose their will on the world. And it doesn’t matter how powerful one is, it matters how one chooses to use that power. Superman is great because he believes that everyone is worthy of respect, and everyone is worthy of aid. Everyone has some power to help change the world, and everyone is in this together.

I'm reminded of David Brin's article in about the very same myth, though Brin is writing about Star Wars and the myth of the hero described by Joseph Campbell. He is very critical of the despotic myth. In Star Wars on Trial, Brin groups Superman in with the despots of myth. Padnick asserts that Superman is in a different category.

I actually write a lot about this in chapter 6 of the book that this blog supports, "Superman in Myth and Folklore." In fact, it's that very chapter that's giving me a lot of trouble. Stupid chapter 6.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

California Is a Place

I just want to keep this link handy. It's for a short documentary on Christopher Dennis, the man who dresses up in a Superman costume in Hollywood to pose for and with tourists--usually outside of the Chinese Theater, if I recall correctly from the previous, feature length documentary Confessions of a Superhero. This one came to me through The Atlantic.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Friday, October 26, 2012

A couple of links

Here's a good essay on the history of Superman as it relates to the events in the current comic--specifically, Superman's departure from the Daily Planet in this month's Superman #13. It's by Tom Bondurant of Grumpy Old Fan.

Also, apparently there's a galaxy nicknamed 'the Superman galaxy.' It's out there somewhere in the Hydra constellation. Looks like an 's.'

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Random Updates

Well, the screening of Own Worst Enemy at the Thriller Chiller Film Festival went well. We had about 80 people show up--pretty good for a Saturday matinee, I think. Q&A afterward. I got to meet Laura Drake Mancini, who acted in the movie.

I haven't written much about Halloween here. One of these years I'll get my act together and join the Countdown to Halloween, which I absolutely love.  This year, as with last, writing about Superman has just gotten in the way. And editing books. This year I tried to participate in spirit by posting a little parody of My Favorite Things, which is about monsters.

Superman has been a popular costuming choice for Halloween, both kids trick-or-treating and adults doing whatever it is adults do this time of year. I haven't noticed quite as many versions of the costume with the painted on or puffed out abs this year, but they're still around. And I find them somehow tragic.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Own Worst Enemy, big in Michigan.

There's an interview with Jessica Judd, co-director of Own Worst Enemy, up on the Thriller!Chiller! website.

I definitely wanted to tell this story because so many people could relate to it.  As a sci-fi lover, I like to bring new viewers to the genre.  I also love that it allows both the male and female leads to have equal control over the outcome of the resolution, nobody exists just to serve another character’s journey.  In fact, for much of the story, our two leads are having two very separate journeys, which I think happens in most broken relationships. 

Own Worst Enemy is playing this coming Saturday at 2:00 at the Wealthy Theater in Grand Rapids as part of the festival. I've also learned that it's going to be part of the East Lansing Film Festival, which takes place November 7-15. The schedule is going to be announced on October 24.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My Favorite Things--Halloween Edition, now with Frazetta art

Cobwebs in corners and witches on broomsticks
Bright jack-o-lanterns and ghosts who play card tricks
Decorative villagers held up with string
These are a few of my favorite things

Dun colored zombies and spiders that scurry
Plump trick-or-treaters gobbled up in a hurry
Black bats that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Creatures and monsters of all shapes and sizes
Werewolves that howl at the moon as it rises
Mummies that lurch as they lose their wrappings
These are a few of my favorite things

When the day breaks
When the bird sings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

I wrote that a while ago, when my son Jacob found a plastic jack-o'-lantern behind a shelf and yelled, "Oh, that's my favorite thing!" I guess in an ideal world I'd find somebody to draw some pen and ink monsters to go with it and make a calligraphy version to hang up on the wall. Maybe some day.

I'm not quite satisfied with some of the lines, but I think it works overall. The Frazetta art is just there cause it's spectacular.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Superman is an arab

The author of Superman Is and Arab, Joumana Haddad, ends her book this way:

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who hated Superman. She knew that only if she refuses to be a conciliating Scheherazade and/or a shallow Lois Lane, and only if he drops his mask and turns into a real Clark Kent for good, could they live "happily"--that is, "interestingly"--ever after. So she used the only superpower she had in order to convince him, and herself: Words.

There's a review at the Superman Homepage by Steve Younis that sums up some of the key issues regarding Superman in Haddad's book .

The Superman I've always looked up to has nothing to do with any of these characteristics which the author connects to Superman. While she makes excellent points about men confusing being manly with being macho, I think the connection she makes in associating Superman with these negative traits is misguided and ill conceived. 

While I agree with the majority of Haddad's arguments in her book, I don't agree with her rhetorical style (I don't like her writing style, either, and that's as much as I'm going to say about that). The point Younis makes in his article is that, while each person is of course entitled to whatever opinion about any given subject, that opinion might not make the best metonymy for the macho lifestyle that the author wants to denounce if it doesn't reflect the actuality of the character. It's not just that Haddad's interpretation of Superman differs from Younis' interpretation; it's that Haddad's interpretation is not based on the character at all. Younis is right to point out that the book is barely about Superman, aside from a couple of pages early on where Haddad mentions that she interprets the character as representing the 'manufactured' men of the world, particularly the Arab world, who are often oppressive of women to the point of murder.

Ok, I'm with her on her primary argument, and even on most of her secondary ones. I disagree with her on the point about marriage largely because she doesn't write that more marriages could be successful if the people who are getting married bothered to find out first if their ideas of what makes a good marriage are compatible. She comes awfully close to saying this.

No, my main critique comes down to the Superman shield that separates sections of the chapters. There it is, every few pages, standing out to remind readers that her reading of Superman and Lois Lane is flawed. Haddad doesn't seem to be aware that she's writing about a character who so very much wanted to make the world a better place that he inscribed the words "Do good to others and every man can be a Superman" on the moon.  Now, I'm aware that the language there is the product of  the patriarchy, but they're still pretty good words, and during the time they were written that was how people wrote.

It's the rhetoric of it all that bother's me. If she's not able to see that Lois Lane can be a role model for people who want to pursue their chosen career, that Superman can teach people that violence is not the way to solve problems, then I have to wonder about what else she's missing. This is a writer who several times points out that she's being scandalous, after all, so I'm inclined to think that her title is more rhetorical than anything else--intended to get you a little bit mad so that you'll pick up the book and see what it's about, or at the very least make you wonder what she's getting at.

In the end, the message is the most important part. Haddad draws a nice distinction between equality, which allows for difference, and similarity, which suppresses difference. What humanity at large needs is equality in rights without the flattening of personality. Haddad describes herself as a third wave feminist because she hopes to bring about a world in which people are allowed to be themselves--which means we recognize that men can be men without having to be macho, women can be women without having to be dainty, or put on a pedestal, or virginal wives. She advocates allowing people to define their genders without fear of repercussion. I'm all for that. And she points out that the world can't change for the better without cooperation between active people, men and women, who can see the need for change and figure out the proper way to achieve it.

I think her message would be stronger if she didn't couch it in a misreading of Superman; but Superman's global prominence is precisely what she wants to capitalize on, so to that extent is is effective.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ken Levine's Superman

Might as well put this link up here. Ken Levine is a comedy writer. He's written for some of the greatest sit-coms on television. And yesterday, he started a bit on Superman. What if the baby had been found by an middle-aged Jewish couple. I think this passage sums it up:

YETTA: Don’t you see what this is? It’s a sign from God, Morris. It’s like when Bithiah found baby Moses floating on the Nile and raised him. Change boat to guided missile and it’s the same thing. Morris, this child – I just get the sense he’s… special in some way. And there’s a reason we found him. These things are not by accident. If that had landed five minutes earlier maybe Martha and Jonathan Kent would have found him and fifteen years from now he’d be selling dope. 

He continues it with a look at the creative process in today's entry.  Levine gives us his thinking behind literally every bit of the script and how it's rooted in character and comedy. Like this:

YETTA: I love you.

MORRIS: Yeah yeah. Let’s go eat.

That’s what Jews do. They make life-changing decisions then they go eat.

And evidently there's more to come...

Levine's blog is really great. I'm not interested in writing for television, but I still read it regularly.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Revisiting Wertham

There's an essay up at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund that is worth keeping handy. It's by Joe Sergi, and it's about Frederick Wertham's criticisms of Superman. It nicely sums up even the later events in Wertham's odd relationship with the comics world.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Beast and SuperBeast: Superman and Folktales part 3, Beauty and the Beast

by Arthur Rackham

So far, I've described the tales of "Cupid and Psyche" and "East of the Sun, West of the Moon." Together with "Beauty and the Beast," these stories make up what folklorists call Tale Type 425. It's essentially the story of the animal bridegroom. It's related to "Cinderella." The Grimms' version is called "The Singing Springing Lark." There's a good English version called "The Small-Toothed Dog," too.

Sometimes the beast is a weird warthog thing. By Walter Crane
That brings us to " Beauty and the Beast." It's a tale as old as time, according to the Disney film. So evidently time began in 1740, because that's when the story with that name was first published, in France. It shares a lot of the traits that we saw with "Cupid and Psyche" and "East o' the Sun." A good American version from the late 1800s is called "Rose," and it starts with a widower and his daughter. The man marries a woman with two daughters, who force Rose to do all the work while they play all day. The father goes on a trip, and asks each what they want as a present when he returns. The first two want the usual dresses and jewelry, but Rose wants nothing more than a rose. He promises to bring one. On his way home, he finds a splendid castle, empty of people but strangely with food laid out for him.

by Mercer Mayer
He makes his way to the garden, where he finds the most beautiful rose he's ever seen. He plucks it, and on the way out meets a great lion, who promises to kill him for taking the rose. The man agrees to his fate, but asks to be able to say goodbye to his daughter. The beast allows it. He returns, and when Rose learns of what has happened, she goes to the castle to plead for his pardon. When she arrives, everything in the castle bears the words "Welcome, Beauty, here!" The beast agrees to pardon the father, if she'll stay as its wife. She refuses to wed, but stays with him to keep her father alive anyway. It gives her a ring that allows her to visit her father whenever she wants, so long as she stays only a week. She does so, but her step-sisters conspire to keep her there too long. When she returns, she finds the lion sick. Not wanting it to die, she declares that she will be its wife. This, of course, transforms the beast back into a prince. She then makes her cruel step-sisters her servants in the castle, and all the people are happy.

by Katy Bratun
Again: secret identity revealed by transformation. Many versions, including the Disney film, have the woman violating an interdiction of some sort (in the film, she goes into the castle's west wing, where she finds the rose that counts the time until the enchantment is made permanent, thus learning something about him that he had to keep a secret). Tale Type 425 emphasizes the recurring motif of the search for the lost husband--which is absent from both Disney and from Superman. Instead, we get the rival for Belle's affections in Gaston. And in the superhero story, Superman can pretty much solve his own problems a lot of the time. Again, other than dealing with Kryptonite, Lois Lane doesn't do a lot of rescuing.

What does all this tell us about Superman? Well, that depends on what we want to see, to some extent. I see that Superman is really a story about marriage. Lois is always trying to marry him, or anyways she was until not too long ago. Sometimes they do get married, though in the comics version right now they're not.

Action Comics 243, by Otto Binder and Wayne Boring
Superman stories are often about transformation. That moment when he changes from Kent to Superman is frequently highlighted. The early Fleischer cartoons emphasized it, showing it in pretty much every one of them. The comics love to show it, using speed lines to show him doffing his suit and flying in his costume. The movies find all sorts of ways to put it on the screen, often just showing him running toward the camera and pulling his shirt open to reveal the shield (Smallville spent ten years building to that moment). A lot of memorable images show us that moment. The transformation is important.

Superman 165 by Robert Bernstein and Curt Swan
I place of the step-mother's (or witch's) curse, Superman is sometimes told by his adoptive parents to keep his identity secret. Sometimes he puts the curse on himself, thinking that he needs to keep his friends and family safe from villains. People speculate on it, coming up with their own rationale . But whatever the reason, he doesn't reveal who he is.
A lot of these folktales reflect the anxieties that women several centuries ago felt about marriage (and childbirth). They show us a time when women could be bought and sold, to men who might very well murder them, when bearing children was less a choice and more of a life-threatening obligation. They were stories about fearing men because men held all the power. Stories like "Bluebeard" told of the dangers (in that story, a woman is married off to a man who keeps a closet full of the bodies of his previous wives). But Superman stories have rarely reflected the Bluebeard story (except for All-Star Superman issue 2, which shows it to us through Lois Lane's paranoia, which we later learn was the result of exposure to some weird chemicals). The old stories are very much about women coming to terms with their marital situations. In "The Small-Toothed Dog," the girl has to learn manners. In the stories, she has to make up for doing the very things the beast tells her not to do (like looking into the wrong room, or seeing him for what he truly is, even when he is benevolent). There are consequences to Beauty's violation of the interdiction. In the same sense, Lois Lane is often mildly punished for her attempts to prove that Superman is Clark Kent and get him to marry her.

Gender politics and brutality has changed somewhat since the seventeenth century, but "Beauty and the Beast" is still about the same issue. Disney sort of made the story about accepting the animalistic aspects of the man. Consider the fact that on her first night in the castle, Belle does precisely what the beast tells her not to do, yet there is no real consequence for her behavior. He's the one who needs to learn the lesson, not her.

In Action Comics 243, the story is sort of about the same thing. Superman is turned into a beast, and at one point Lois even tries to turn him back by kissing him. But she assures him that she still loves him ("What do outward appearances mean?" she says at one point. "You're still the same wonderful man inside.") But he's awfully depressed about this transformation.

From Action 243
The story, spread through the three versions I've been writing about in this series of posts, seems to be about human and god interactions. There's an equation of god and animal here that's interesting to think about. The beast begins as a normal man or prince who has been transformed. But in the similar story of Cupid and Psyche, he's always a god. "East of the Sun" feels almost like a mediator or transitional tale between the two. In the end of a large number of versions, the women have to prove themselves worthy of the god.

Reading through the Showcase Presents collections of Silver Age Superman stories is fun for spotting folktale motifs. It would be hard to find any of this sort of folktale style in the more recent stories, I think. I recall the first time Clark Kent meets Lois Lane in Birthright, for example; his reaction is quite simply "Wow." She's already worthy of him. But of course, everything is different in the comics now. And there's a new movie series to rewrite their relationship for us again.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Beast and SuperBeast: Superman and Folktales part 2, East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon


Here's a story related to Cupid and Psyche. It's Norse, and it's called East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon.

A poor man had the prettiest daughter in all the land, but couldn't feed his family. So when a great white bear came to his cottage one day and offered to make him rich if he'd marry that daughter to the bear, the man agreed. The girl didn't want to go, but she had no choice. The bear took her to a castle where all her needs were met as if by magic. And every night a man came in the darkness to her bed and lay with her. Soon the girl missed her family, and the bear agreed to let her go if she agreed not to talk to her mother about what happens in the castle. She said yes, but at home her mother cornered her and got the whole story. The mother convinced her that she was married to a troll, and told her to take a candle to bed with her to find out the truth. The girl did so, but when she saw how handsome her husband really was, she couldn't resist kissing him. Leaning over, three drops of candle wax fell onto the man, and he awoke. Furious, he told her that his step-mother had cursed him to be a bear by day and man by night, and the spell would have been broken if they'd been married a year. But now he had to return home to the troll castle east o' the sun and west o' the moon to be married to a troll-witch with a frightfully long nose. Off he went.

The girl followed, and along the way got help from three old women, who gave her golden trinkets. And the four winds guided her to the troll castle. There, she gives the troll-witch with the long nose her trinkets for three nights with the bear. The bear is sleeping for the first two nights, but we soon learn that the trolls are in the habit of kidnapping Christians and keeping them in the castle. Some of these good folks hear what's going on, and they tell the bear. The bear realizes he's being drugged, and so avoids it on the third night. He and his true bride make a plan: the next day, when he is to be wed to the troll-witch, he will insist that he will only marry the woman who can clean his shirt with the candle wax stains. Apparently, this sort of thing can only be done by a good Christian. So the troll-witch and all her family fail, but the pretty girl succeeds, and the trolls burst from the anger of it all. The bear becomes a man again, and he and the girl are married. They and all the good Christians leave the troll castle behind forever.

I first encountered it in a collection of the same name edited by George Webbe Dasent, based on the collection of Peter Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe.

This story has been rewritten for kids a lot.

So again, we've got the secret identity, the woman seeking the truth, but this time we've also got the transformation of the bear man. Cupid may have been invisible when he visited Psyche, but he didn't undergo a transformation. Some of the differences are interesting, such as the fact that the bear is cursed by a stepmother, will have to marry a troll, etc. Superman has sometimes been the target in a devious marriage plot, often by trollish women (aliens, if I'm recalling correctly...Maxima?). In this version, the bear prince is saved by the girl, whereas Cupid was never in any danger.

We need more stories where Lois saves Superman.

Pullman invents excellent names for his characters in this series.

You know, until I did an image search for East o' the Sun, I never once made the connection to a certain other popular story about a girl and a bear. The literary resonances are much more Milton than folktale, but it might be interesting to revisit this series with East o' the Sun in mind.

Anyway, East o' the Sun is one of my favorite folk tales. The similarities to Superman are less obvious than we saw in Cupid and Psyche, but they're interesting nonetheless. And I think Frank Quitely's Superman is something of a big bear.

And there's that image of the girl on the bear. It's not explicitly Superman flying with Lois Lane, but I think the same emotions underlie them both.

I love this picture, but can't find any indication who the artist is.
Here's a link to the previous post about Superman and Folktales, and next and the beast.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Beast and Superbeast: Superman and Folktales part 1, Cupid and Psyche

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, by Antonio Canova

Well, this idea was going to be an academic article. But I realized that it didn't have any sort of argument. All I was saying was that the folk tale closest to the story of Superman is "Beauty and the Beast." That might be an interesting thing to think about for a few minutes, but it's not a terribly tasty academic subject. At least, not so far as I have been able to figure.

So, I'll put my thoughts on it in this blog. But not all at once. I'll begin by summarizing the relevant folk tales. The first one is from a long time ago.

I became interested in this connection when I was reading all the silver age Superman stories in which Lois incessantly tries to prove that Superman is Clark Kent. It reminded me of the ancient Roman novel The Golden Ass, by Apuleius. It's about a guy who does something to get a witch mad at him, so she turns him into a donkey, and he wanders around the Mediterranean trying to find a way to become human again. I like it ok.

Psyche at the throne of Apohrodite, by Edward Hale
In the midst of this story, the donkey man overhears an old woman telling a young woman the story of Cupid and Psyche. The young woman may or may not have been captured by brigands and was going to have to marry one of them or something. I haven't read the book in a long time. Anyway, the Psyche story goes something like this...

Psyche is beautiful, and this angers the goddess Venus because people are paying Psyche the homage due only the goddess of love. She sends her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a hobo or something, but Cupid falls in love with her. Interestingly, he doesn't just take her with him, but for some reason nobody wants to marry the prettiest girl in town. So her family consults an oracle, which tells them that she has to go up to the top of a mountain and marry a monster. Cupid has arranged an enchanted castle where Psyche can come live with her, but she's not allowed to see him. Every night, he visits her in bed, and because she can't see him in the dark she thinks he's a monster. She's allowed to go home to visit her sisters, who aren't exactly nice girls. They convince her that she has to get a look at him, so Psyche sneaks a lamp into bed. After Cupid falls asleep, she lights the lamp and sees his true beauty, but some lamp oil drips onto Cupid and he wakes up. Seeing what has happened, he spreads his white wings and flies away. The castle vanishes, and Psyche, pregnant with Cupid's child, returns to her sisters.  (The sisters, by the way, go to the mountain where the castle was and try to find them, but they fall off the mountain and die.) The story here becomes the tale of Psyche fulfilling tasks set by Venus, who forces her to sort a mound of grains (ants help her), collect wool from various sheep (a river god gives her advice), and journey to the underworld to ask Proserpina for a bit of her beauty (the complication here is that Psyche isn't supposed to look in the box, but she does, is put in a deep sleep, and is rescued by Cupid). Then Cupid petitions Jupiter to interceded on his behalf, and Jupiter convinces Venus to relent. Psyche drinks ambrosia and becomes Cupid's immortal bride.

Psyche opening the Golden Box, by John William Waterhouse
I'm including that summary largely because of two things. First, the god who hides his identity (in this story, by arriving in the darkness) and second, the woman who tries to discover that identity. For lots of images of this story, and a lengthier summary, try here. Cupid's reasons for not revealing his face are fairly clear in Apuleius. He seems to want her to trust him. Cupid says things like, "I would rather you would love me as an equal than adore me as a god." And "Love cannot dwell with suspicion." Here's an online version of the whole story, by the way.

So, has there ever been a clearer precedent for Clark Kent's relationship with Lois Lane than the line "I would rather you love me as an equal than adore me as a god"?

Sure, it doesn't quite line up with the bumbling Kent that so many versions of the story give us, but it's pretty good as a statement of Superman's motivations in maintaining the Kent identity.

The mythological context here also reminds me that the mixture of humanity and divinity usually doesn't go so well for the human in the story. Take Semele, for instance. She was a human in whom Zeus took an interest. Zeus' wife Hera found out about it and, in disguise, persuaded the poor girl to ask Zeus to appear to her as he appeared when he makes love to his wife Hera. Semele got him to swear by the river Styx to grant her one favor, and she asked him to appear in all his heavenly glory, so to speak. Zeus had to do it, because swearing by the Styx is an unbreakable oath for the Olympians. When he revealed his true glory to her, she disintegrated.

Should I just link to Larry Niven's "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" at this point?

Next time...we travel east of the sun, west of the moon. Followed by a visit with the beauty and the beast.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Own Worst Enemy now in Thriller Chiller

So the movie I wrote with Mike Judd, Own Worst Enemy, will be shown in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as part of the Thriller! Chiller! Film Festival. It takes place October 18-20 at the Wealthy Theater in downtown GR. I'll be there.

The festival will showcase 14 feature length films from around the world as well as about 50 short films. It opens with a screening of Romero's Night of the Living Dead on the 18th. Thriller! Chiller! is a genre film festival, featuring horror, science fiction, suspense, and action movies.

I'm pretty excited about this. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


So, now there's this.

Yeah, that's a story about some people who wants to change the name of his town to Smallville. Based mostly on the details of the recent tv show of that name, I think. The town's in Kansas, so that fits the way the story's gone since the late 70's. They started a facebook page to make it happen.

Nobody's asking me, but I'll go ahead and say it anyway: Since the real town of Metropolis is only about 7000 people, I think that any real city called Smallville should have a population of at least 2 million. Cause I like irony.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bill Finger

Marc Tyler Nobleman's new book is now out. He wrote a book about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster called Boys of Steel. It's a picture book about the creation of Superman. It's pretty good.

In the same vein, Bill the Boy Wonder is about the creation of Batman. Bill Finger came up with a great many aspects of Batman familiar to everybody today (Robin, Catwoman, the batmobile, and even the design of Batman's costume). But Bob Kane gets all the credit. Nobleman's book is part of a larger endeavor to give Finger the credit he deserves. Nobleman has recently been on NPR and TED talking about this. Those talks are pretty short, and if you're into comics on the internet these days you have probably already learned about Finger's role in the creation of Batman. But they're a good introduction to the topic.

Art by Al Plastino
Finger also wrote some Superman stories, including the influential Superman #61, which was a retelling of his origin, and where Superman finds out about his past for the first time.

There's an interesting analysis of Finger's impact on Batman and Superman in an essay called "The Dark Knight Origin of the Man of Steel" by Richard Harrison. It's in the Secret Identity Reader, edited by Harrison and Lee Easton.

The story of Bill Finger ties into creator's rights, because he didn't get any. It's a complex story, in the same way that Siegel and Shuster's stories are complex. It was a different time. And learning about it can honor the creator of Batman.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Superheroes and Hindu gods

I want to see this exhibit.

KATHMANDU: Can you imagine Superman in the Nataraj pose, or Lord Bhairab playing with Captain America, or Goddesses Kali in Superman’s improvised costume, or Hulk-like character flying with a mountain in one hand a la Hanuman? Such pictures have probably not crossed your mind, but artist Manish Harijan has visualised such images at his exhibition ‘Rise of the Collateral’ on at the Siddartha Art Gallery, Baber Mahal Revisited, from August 22.

Alas, I can find no images of it yet.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


I keep coming across the argument that when Superman's biological parents (usually Jor-El and Lara) put the baby in that rocket ship and sent him to earth, they were committing an act of sacrifice. That somehow, what they did was a sacrifice.

I just don't buy it.

The first page of Action Comics #1. (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster)
I've been told that they were sacrificing themselves to save him. That's not true at all. They didn't have a choice in the matter. The rocket couldn't fit them, so they did the only logical thing and tried to save their son. That's not sacrifice; it's just saving somebody. The fact that they died doesn't make it a sacrifice, precisely because they didn't have a choice.

All-Star Superman #1, (Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely)

Sometimes, however, they do have a choice. The rocket is occasionally big enough to fit both Lara and little Kal-El (this was as early as 1944). In every case, she chooses to stay with Jor-El. This is not sacrifice. This is being a bad mother. There's no way around it. she's not sacrificing herself so her child can live. She does die because of her own choice, but the child has nothing to do with it. It seems to be a really bad choice, too, since she's leaving the boy to the elements. She could stay with him and take care of him. She doesn't. That's not sacrifice.

"My place is here with you." From Superman #53 (Bill Finger and Wayne Boring)

I've also been told that the parents sacrifice their final moments with Superman. I can't even figure this one out. They're giving up their final moments with the baby so the baby can live? That's not sacrifice, that's being a good parent. Again, it's not like they have a choice in the matter of their own life and death. It's not like they're sacrificing themselves for a higher power, to ensure the baby's survival. They're putting the kid in a rocket, hoping he finds some place nice where he won't get eaten the moment the door opens. To keep him would be selfish, and, essentially, not much different from murder. They're taking a big chance; it's a gamble. Would we say that a roulette player is sacrificing some money in order to win more money?

Because of all this, the only thing I can think to make of it all is that people really need the origin to have an element of sacrifice in it. The word as used today has the connotation of nobility and honor, so they need Superman's family to have those qualities. But we don't need to graft ersatz sacrifice onto their actions to obtain this (nor do we need over wrought Christian allegory). Now, there is sacrifice involved in being a parent. It's hard. You give up stuff you want, and stuff you want to do, in order to provide the things that children need. But that's not what Jor-El and Lara did when they put him in the rocket. All they did was take a chance that the kid would survive. They were being good parents.

The idea of sacrifice goes back a long way. It primarily means killing something you need so that the gods will be nice to you. That's not so much what's going on in Superman's origin. But it also denotes giving up something to obtain a greater reward. So they're giving up their son, that's true. But what's their greater reward? They die. We could think that their greater reward is the possibility that their son is going to survive. But that doesn't work because they're giving up the same thing that they're getting as a reward.

That leaves just one more notion of sacrifice. The term itself refers to the act of making something holy (Latin: sacer = holy + facere = to make). By sending Kal-El on his journey through space, to earth, where he becomes Superman, could we say that they are making him holy?

by Alex Ross

Friday, August 17, 2012


So I found this today and thought it was worth noting. It's an essay about Superman and Jesus, from a site called At the Intersection of Faith and Culture. It's interesting stuff, though I disagree with a basic point.

The author, Jack Kerwick, agrees with the common notion that heroes must be relatable. By which I think he, and others, mean that they have to be flawed so that we can see they are human, finding bits of ourselves in them. Now, he's talking about Superman and Jesus. Sure, we can look at their psychologies and see some evidence of humanity there, but I think there we need to consider that there are different rules when thinking about gods.

When it comes to heroes, sure, we need to see their lives as basically similar to our own, different in degree but not in kind. But gods are different in kind. This is, to me, the most interesting intellectual component of Christianity. How is Jesus both human and divine? It's an old question, and it sparked quite the controversy in the early church. I'm not going to even try to answer it here. But...can we ask a similar question about Superman? How is he both human and alien?

John Byrne answered that question in his Man of Steel series. Superman may be genetically Kryptonian, but he was raised on earth and has chosen to stay here to make it a better place. So he's born alien but chooses to be human.

On a related note...

Here's a link to an essay on Superman, Batman, and morality. The author is a Superman supporter, finding that the character's optimism is preferable to Batman's pessimism; that the unattainable ideal is a better model than the lower bar set by Batman. I generally agree, but then he gets into some specifics that I can't agree with. Such as...

Batman is certainly a more tempting role model because his is an attainable standard...

I've heard this argument many times. Batman is better than Superman because he's human. He doesn't have super powers, so his heroism is all the more impressive. Leonard Finkelman, the author of the above piece, doesn't agree that Batman's better because he's human, but he's making that part of the argument. The thing is, Batman's no less superior to humanity than Superman. He's just as imaginary. To be Batman, you've gotta be the strongest, fastest, smartest, richest, and toughest human being on the planet. You've got to have the several lives' worth of time to perfect your mind and your body to that point. You have to have the incredible luck to be born into a phenomenally wealthy family. That's not quite as impossible as being from another planet, but when we get down to it, there aren't degrees of impossibility.

Anyway, there are some great insights in the essay. And he ends on a great, mythological note:

Like Kant, I am continually filled with wonder by the starry heavens above and the moral law within, and to be a Superman is to bring the one closer to the other.


Well, various circumstances prevent me from attending the Plano, Illinois, Smallville Superfest, which is going on this weekend. Plano served as the location for shooting the Smallville scenes of the Man of Steel movie to be released next year.

This makes Illinois the site of two different Superman festivals. And people think he's from Kansas...

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Better than the Book: Get Shorty

I’m beginning to think that the whole basis for films being superior to the books on which they’re based is the presence of a soundtrack. Get Shorty can practically serve as the argument in favor of this. Great music--a mix of jazz and pop and instrumental mood-setting that is really on to something. If you look at the list of tracks, you might not think it would suit a tale of a gangster who wants to become a movie producer, so many people must die a horrible death,* but it does.

My son owns several books that play music. One is a rendition of “Up on the Housetop” that sets the lyrics to illustrations and plays the melody along. But even I can’t read the whole book before the song ends. It doesn’t include enough music to get through all the verses. The other book is an elmo pop-up book, which has buttons you push to play music for each page. You’re supposed to read the lyrics along with the music on each page. Neither of these books technically has a soundtrack in the sense that movies have soundtracks, but they make me think that the technology would be possible, were any demand to arise. I doubt it will. However, there's a whole section of the greeting card industry now devoted to putting music into cards. Sound and reading material, together at last.

Travolta and Hackman are fantastic in this. The movie, not the car.

Anyway...Get Shorty’s great. Travolta’s great. Hackman’s great. It was the first film in which I saw Dennis Farina, who swears in nearly every line he utters in the film. Travolta also has the following line, when asking Renee Russo to see Touch of Evil with him: “We can go watch Charlton Heston be a Mexican.” It’s funny when he says it.

Dennis Farnia is fantastic in this.

Combine great actors with Barry Sonnenfeld, who’s a fantastic director. He did the cinematography for another great film, Raising Arizona. And he really works wonders here, too. Almost every shot is a marvel to watch--movement, motivated movement at that, all the time. For me, the whole movie is encapsulated in one shot: John Travolta walking up the stairs. Allow me to explain.

Rene Russo is fantastic in this.

Travolta, playing the gangster Chilli Palmer, is set to have lunch with Russo and Hackman. They see that some rival gangsters-who-want-to-be-producers have been there before them, trying to get Hackman to work with them instead. Travolta sees the threat implied by James Gandolfini’s approach to the stairwell. This was Gandolfini before he became Tony Soprano, by the way. So Travolta, who had been cool and charming with Russo, asks her to step back. He glances up the stairs, takes a step, and Greyboy’s Panacea begins. Travolta walks up the stairs, seemingly with the beat of the song. The camera pulls back--he’s coming right at us--and he’s a whole different person. He was a guy with a girl, about to have lunch before. Now, he’s all business. And Gandolfini gets a whuppin. Everything comes together right in that shot: music, acting, directing; it doesn’t get much better than that.

The book, by Elmore Leonard, isn’t too bad. It’s not nearly as funny. Overall, it’s just not all that great. The movie is.

Danny DeVito is fantastic in this.

Elmore Leonard, by the way, wrote a book called Killshot. It’s one of the only books I started reading but vowed never to finish. It’s that bad--which is too bad, since it’s set in my hometown. I didn’t get more than twenty or thirty pages into it. You might say that I never got to any of the good stuff. But I don’t think that’s possible. Three other people had the same reaction.

*I stole this line from, of course, Joel and Ethan Coen. They used something similar for their movie The Man Who Wasn’t There--it’s about a barber who wants to become a dry cleaner, so many people must die a horrible death. No offense is intended to them. Theirs is funnier. I just can’t help myself.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Quotations: Community Edition, Part 2

The only reason I slammed Jeff's head against the table was because I wanted to feel like an adult.

I refused to give Santa a Cristmas list because I didn't want to depend on a man for anything. Now look at me. I'm betty Crocker. I'm Martha Stewart. I'm one of the Steppenwolf wives.

You guys, you create fun, and I destroy it. Of course a silly little joke ends with a dead body on the lawn, I should have known that, but I wanted to do it anyway, cause I wanted to be like you. I wanted to be funny. Knock knock! Who's there? Cancer. Oh, good, come on in. I thought it was Britta.

I just yanked a little dude out of my friend.

I have two boys, and when we have a serious discussion I find that a brownie helps them to relax. So...why do you hate me and Jesus?

Oh, look. Britta brought what she believes in. Nothing.

Don't you get it, Jeff? They're not evil people that are good at foosball. They're good at foosball because they're evil. It's an evil game that brings out the worst in us, like out of town weddings where the reception is in the same place as everybody's rooms.

Bonus Anthony Michael Hall quote from the first season Christmas Episode...

My life is a gym!

If this dude doesn't show up we're definitely going to Applebees, cause I'm getting into a fight today no matter what.