Thursday, May 31, 2012

Perry White

So last time I wrote about a Superman supporting player, it was Jimmy Olsen. I wrote about how the heyday of his stories is long over because the way comics stories are constructed now just won't allow it.

Perry White, as far as I can tell, never had a heyday.

He's just this guy. The editor of a major metropolitan newspaper. He's a bit of a cipher. He has been made memorable by performances. Frank Langella lends the character some gravitas in Superman Returns, but it has nothing to do with anything about the character. It's all the actor. That's pretty much how it goes for all the movies and television shows.

There are some lines made memorable by their oddity and by repetition: Great shades of Elvis! Great Caeser's ghost! Don't call me chief!

Strangely, this was the cover for a story about Perry White dealing with the internet.

White occupies a strange place. He's not a father figure. He's not a wizened mentor. He's not Superman's pal. He is, more or less, a character who's often there to advance the plot. In the old days, he gave Clark and Lois and Jimmy assignments. There was a recent issue of Superman (#706) where G. Willow Wilson gave Perry a story about dealing with the ever-encroaching presence of those rapscallion bloggers. It was ok.

Yeah, that's about all I have to say about Perry White.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


I read somewhere that Hemingway devoted himself to writing perfect sentences. Here's a good one from "The Snows of Kilimanjaro":

It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell.

Good stuff.

He also wrote, Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs. That's in The Sun also Rises.

Here's stuff not written by Hemingway.

I remember the lies, but the truth escapes me. That's Paul McGarity. Old friend of mine.

Michael Zulli was my favorite Sandman artist.

Any novel begins in a weird, rooty place and ends up at the tip of a leaf. Neil Gaiman. He said that at a thing called Fiddler's Green, which was a convention for Sandman fans. Yeah, I went to that.

Yeah, it's about werewolves. Sort of.

For every man manufactures his own private Hell and peoples it with demons of his own creation, to torment him for his own secret sins, imagined or real. Jack Williamson, in Darker than You Think.

I went with the Italian version of the poster.

How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? That's spoken by Henry Fonda, in Sergio Lione's film Once Upon a Time in the West. When I heard it, it struck me as a manufactured situation--the character he's talking about really does wear both thing to hold up his pants, but I figured no real person did so. Since seeing that movie, I've seen several people who wear both suspenders and a belt.


Maybe my favorite Woody Allen movie.

Don't listen to what your school teachers tell you. Don't pay attention to that. Just see what they look like and that's how you know what life is really going to be like. Woody Allen, in Crimes and Misdemeanors.

There were times when Twain had dark hair .

 Unconsciously we all have a standard by which we measure other men, and if we examine closely we find that this standard is a very simple one and it this:  we admire them, we envy them, for great qualities which we ourselves lack.  Hero worship consists in just that.  Our heroes are men who do things which we recognize with regret and sometimes with a secret shame that we cannot do.  We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else.  If everybody was satisfied with himself there would be no heroes. Mark Twain, Autobiography

Let's end with this one:

Truth may be stranger than fiction, goes the old saw, but it is never so strange as lies (or for that matter, as true). Proof of which maxim is the fact that I just made it up. John Hodgman, The Areas of My Expertise.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Jimmy Olsen

I didn't get much of a chance to write about the supporting cast of characters in my book manuscript, so I figure this is the place to do it. First up, Superman's pal.

I like monsters.
I don't have much to say about the history, development, or portrayals of Jimmy. Or James. Or Jim. I do, however, like the bowties. But I only think they work in the comics. Sometimes things that work in drawings seem strange when worn by people on screen.
Jack Larson as Jimmy from the Adventures of Superman television show.

I do love the old Jimmy Olsen comics. That guy was insane. One time, he found an ancient bottle of soda pop, drank it--to prove it wasn't magical like everyone said--and turned into a werewolf. 

A stylish werewolf.
This is what I enjoy most about old comics. There's this sense that absolutely anything could happen. To me, the Jimmy Olsen character and stories of yore demonstrate this moreso than any other I can think of. He could become anything. He could get out of any situation. And he was pals with Superman. These elements haven't been utilized in years, most likely because of the dual pressures of continuity and for everything that happens to be THE MOST IMPORTANT STORY EVER TOLD IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE. The endless possibilities have vanished in a haze of retconning origins, universe-spanning events, and an obsession with the number 52.

Can somebody explain that one to me? Why is it 52? Is it just that there are that many weeks in a year?

Frank Quitely, you never let me down.
Anyway, I'm no expert on Jimmy Olsen. He has demonstrated a distinct lack of presence in the Superman comics for the last few years. And I have desire to address the fiasco that was Jimmy on the show Smallville. So my experience with the character has been limited to a few collections of old stuff I've read, which have been great. The problem is, it seems like the Jimmy Olsen of the many transformations is gone forever; killed in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Jimmy Olsen is a victim of the serious-ization of comics. There's probably a better way to phrase that.

So, maybe this isn't the most satisfying examination of Superman's supporting characters, but then again, Jimmy Olsen isn't the best of them anymore. I'll have more to say about the various L.L. of Superman's life, in the coming weeks.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Symbol

People like to write about the way Superman changes over time. Maybe one day I'll have something more to say about that, but for now, let's just look at the way some people present the changes to the Superman shield. 

There's this one from Metropolisplus

This incorporates some of the live-action shields. Why only go to Curt Swan?

Got this one from this guy's journal

This one gives more attention to the early, triangle versions.

And, for the record, this one's my favorite version. The shield from the old Fleischer Studios animated short films. I don't know why it's my favorite. It just is.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

An appreciation of Stefano Caselli

Caselli is an Italian artist who has started drawing some issues of Amazing Spider-Man for Marvel. I first came across his work on Avengers: The Initiative. Followed him to Secret Warriors. I'm not exactly sure what it is about his work that appeals to me. There's a plasticity to the way he draws people, most notable in this ASM cover and Mr. Fantastic's face.

I think his work is best suited to horror, and that's probably why he sort of made his name working on Hack/Slash. He also did the series Defex, and did some G.I.Joe work, too. Probably other stuff I haven't been able to track down.

Like I said, his work would fit well with horror, and with that often comes fantastical monsters.


Or Volstagg the Vehement. Wait, you don't know Volstagg? He'd buddies with Fandral the Dashing and Hogun the Grim. No, I'm not kidding.

Vainglorious? Variegated? I can't come up with any good v-words.

His covers for Spider-man are pretty great.

Caselli's work can be cartoonish in that his characters' poses and expressions are exaggerated, but this fits the superhero genre he's been working in lately. And I think it works. His faces are expressive, and that's a very good thing. He's one of the few pencillers whose work I actively seek out.

Tank Girl

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Darth Vader vs. the Wolf Man

My favorite movie ever.
Who’s stronger, Superman or the Hulk?  Comic fans once thrived on such questions, and to some extent, they remain popular.  I’m asking one that’s never been asked before…Who’s worse, Darth Vader, or the Wolf Man? 

First, let's be clear. I’m talking about The Wolf Man, not Werewolf by Night or Man-Wolf or the Werewolf of London or Teen Wolf or anybody else.  I’m talking about Lon Chaney, Jr., playing Lawrence Talbot in George Waggner’s 1941 movie (and, to a lesser extent, Benecio del Toro in Joe Dante’s 2010 movie The Wolfman), who despite being pure of heart and saying his prayers by night turns into a pig-nosed hairy fella when the full moon shines bright.  Second, I’m talking about Darth Vader.  Third, I’m not talking about a physical fight here.

That one would be interesting, sure.  What would happen to a monster who can only be killed by silver if Vader slashed his arm off with his light saber?  And would the Wolf Man’s speed and claws be enough to get by Vader’s reflexes and precognition?  Vader could stop laser blasts with his hands, after all. I never get tired of that scene in Empire where Han shoots at him in that Cloud City dining room.
Man, there's a lot of weird Star Wars stuff out there.

I’m more interested in how they lived and died.  They were both good people in many ways, separated from their families until reunited by tragedy and pain.  They both undergo a dark transformation and kill lots of people.  Then they’re defeated in battle by a family member: Larry by his father; Darth by his son. Their stories are about father-son relationships. (The 2010 Wolfman film has the son kill the father.)

Evidently we're uncomfortable with Oedipus reversed.
In Star Wars, the father-son tension and rivalry dominates the whole story. It’s already present in Episode IV in the scenes where Luke talks with his uncle and with Obi-Wan.  At the end of Jedi, Vader sees his son being killed by the Emperor, so he throws the Emperor down the shaft in the middle of the throne room.  The Emperor’s lightning bolts short circuit Vader’s life support and he dies soon after.  Then we see the ghost of Vader as Anakin, standing with Yoda and Obi-Wan, free of the death mask.  He is redeemed. The three prequel films go about showing us just what he was like when he was still a good guy; in other words, what makes him redeemable in the first place—how he was able to summon the will to save Luke.

In The Wolf Man, the father-son tension is all subtext.  Larry comes home to Wales after the death of his brother, presumably to assume the brother’s role in the family.  He and his father Sir John don’t argue much: it’s more like they don’t know how to relate to each other.  Then, Larry wolfs out, kills some people, feels bad about it but can’t stop it, and Sir John beats him to death with a silver cane.  The last shot of the film shows Sir John’s reaction to the revelation that Larry was really a werewolf, a murderer, whom he’s just beaten his son to death.  Claude Raines really nails that mixture of grief, confusion, disbelief, and horror.

Best picture ever? I think so.
The Wolf Man’s story is not done, of course.  Over the course of several other movies, he is resurrected and must go on a quest for assisted suicide, which brings him into conflict with a variety of other monsters, and, incongruously, comedians.  Never once does he consider himself redeemed, nor does the audience.  Here’s a guy who thinks he should die for what he’s done, and we can’t help but root for him.  Talbot’s motivation throughout these movies is rare in American cinema.

Now here’s the conflict.  Two murderers.  One is redeemed in death, one condemned to life.  One makes the choice to kill; the other is driven by urges he can’t control?  It’s not so much about fan arguments as it is about a view of human nature.  Is Vader a good guy, as the three prequels seemed to be trying to convince us?  Should Larry try to kill himself? 

These characters represent opposing ideas about redemption.  The Wolf Man tells us that no matter how good a person you try to be, if you do bad things--even if you don’t mean to do them--you’re damned.  Star Wars tells us that no matter how many kids you murder or no matter how many planets you blow up, if you save your son’s life, you’re salvation is assured. One of these is characteristically Christian in flavor.  As long as you repent, you can get into heaven.  The other is bleak.  There is no redemption. 

Why do these movies have such similar color schemes?
Popular culture is often accused of being vacuous, vapid, virulent, and other, less flattering v-words.  But here we see it as a realm of ideas, where the most vital issues of the day are explored and given consideration.  Do we do the bad things we want to do now and make up for them later?  Or do we act as if the evil we do lives after us, so we’d better do the right thing now?  It’s no coincidence that both stories feature a radical physical transformation: From man to machine and from man to animal (there’s a dichotomy worth exploring: giving in to the machine is redeemable; giving in to the animal isn’t--is one a step forward and one a step backward?).   

DavidBrin, science fiction writer and scientist, has infamously written that the morality at the core of Star Wars, which he sees as hinging on that moment of Vader’s redemption, should not provide a model for us to use in living our lives. He compares Vader’s redemption to the idea that Hitler could be acquitted of any crimes against humanity if only his lawyer made the argument, “But your honor, he saved his son!” The real question is what happens to Vader after his death.  The film asks us to see him as redeemed because in his Jedi afterlife he ends up with Yoda and Obi-Wan.  Star Wars, and The Wolf Man for that matter, is more complex than that.  Brin is really taking issue with a single image:  the redeemed Anakin at the end.   

Too awesome not to include. By obviouswinner.

 In the three Star Wars prequels, George Lucas explained why Vader made the choices that he made.  Good and evil are certainly more complicated than actions; we look to context and motivations for final judgment.  This is why the United States has different penalties for murder if it’s premeditated, a crime of passion, the result of mental insanity, etc.  So Lucas asks us to sympathize with Vader because of what happens to him when he is still called Anakin.  And what happens?  Torn from his mother to study with the Jedi, he learns to suppress his emotions and maintain complete control to avoid becoming evil.  He later has dreams that his mother is going to die. Despite knowing that Jedi can have prophetic visions, the Council nonetheless both forbid him from helping her and fail to send anyone else to help. 

Anakin breaks their rules but arrives too late to save her.  Later, he falls in love and gets married.  After his wife becomes pregnant, he dreams that she will die.  In searching for a way to ensure that his wife will live, he is told by Palpatine, who is both his friend and powerful political leader, that a way can be found using the same spiritual philosophy that the Jedi condemn as evil.  He learns that Palpatine is evil and turns him over to the Jedi. However, decides to save Palpatine so that he can help his wife survive. To save him, Anakin kills one of the Jedi. Seeing no alternative, he swears allegiance to Palpatine, at which point he is now called Darth Vader.  His first act as Vader is to murder the residents of his temple, which include children. For the next twenty years or so, he remains a servant of Palpatine—now the Emperor—and takes part in the murder of countless others. Some parts of Star Wars are really hard to summarize.

Offered without comment.

Like Vader the Wolf Man kills people. His motivations, however, are strikingly different. He derives no pleasure from murder; quite the opposite. Whatever feral joy he gets out of slaughter during a full moon is abated by the subsequent twenty-five days of failed atonement. He didn’t become a werewolf by choice. His one big transgression is attempting to seduce a woman who’s engaged to another man.

Both the Wolf Man and Darth Vader are monsters. Despite Lucas’ attempts otherwise, Vader still isn’t  sympathetic. (My only evidence is anecdotal, but I think the audience still views Vader as a villain.) If he feels bad about things, he doesn’t show it much. The Wolf Man, on the other hand, hates himself for what’s happened. He’s conflicted, and that makes him sympathetic. He may be a monster, but he’s not a villain.

Yet he is condemned to misery while Vader gets to enjoy Jedi Heaven. This can only be the result of the fact that Vader does get to commit one act of valor when he saves his son from death. The Wolf Man, on the other hand, has no moment of valor. 
No redemption, but a very porcine nose.
One great thing about popular culture is that it’s everywhere, and there is a great pressure to keep producing it. In the process, all sorts of ideas get bandied about. And people have the opportunity to examine them, to take them to heart, to explore their meanings. These ideas are often contradictory, but this is a good thing. They present alternative answers to troubling questions, often in playful form so we don’t have to take them too seriously. Regardless, the ideas are there, for us to explore if we want.
Redemption seems to be a very important issue for American. The problem is, it seems we’re not quite sure how to go about achieving it. That’s where stories such as these come in. We can, if we so choose, see in them different ideas about how it’s done. Vader and Wolf Man are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Our cinema is obsessed with characters who do something wrong and expend a lot of effort trying to make up for it. Very rarely do we deny them forgiveness, but how much are we willing to forgive? Killing people pushes us to think about that question. How far is too far? Are there unforgivable and irredeemable crimes? Does motive matter? Regardless of law in the matter, people must deal with each other. Convicted criminals can gain parole. They can evade capture. They can define away their crimes or rationalize them. The law can only get us so far. It doesn’t tell us how we should relate to our loved ones. Luckily, we have movies for that.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Luthor-Quintum Update

So I write about All-Star Superman a lot. I like it. It makes people think interesting thoughts. One guy told me that people who don't like All-Star Superman don't have souls. Another guy (actually, several people) seem to think that the character Leo Quintum--invented for the series by author Grant Morrison--is actually Lex Luthor, come back from the future to atone for his crimes by making the world a better place through Science. I wrote about this theory a while back.

What is with this cover?

Interestingly, it showed up in the book Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods as part of Peter Coogan's essay "Genre: Reconstructing the Superhero in All Star Superman." There's a bit about structuralism, a bit about genres, and he goes through the various proofs that Leo is Lex. He even cites some of the comment threads in which the idea appeared online, originally by Cole Moore Odell. (Coogan wrote Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, a book which I have seen cited a whole lot. It's got an Oedipal analysis of Superman and Luthor, and I have a thing or two to say about that interpretation of the character in my own book--which I hope everyone in the world will get to read some day.)

Denny O'Neil must make a full time job of writing intros now.

People are fascinated by the fact that Morrison himself does not say an unequivocal 'yes' or 'no'.  The whole thing is summed up here. Lurking behind all of this is the notion that Morrison gets the final word on the matter. But does he? People can interpret the stories in whatever manner suits them, even bending the narrative to fit their interpretations, often without realizing they are doing so. Artists tell a story, and people do what they will once they read it.

I'm kind of obsessed with the art of Frank Quitely.
This is really what's at the heart of my study. I spent a lot of hours talking to people to find out just what they think of Superman, how they incorporate him into their lives, and what meanings they find. Some people find it compelling to think of Quintum as a reformed Luthor. They hunt for clues in the manner of conspiracy theorists. They make their arguments. They find meaning there. And in that meaning, we might look for clues as to their own nature, their own worldview. The Quintum-Luthor identity complex is a fascinating look at, perhaps, a need to find redeeming qualities even in the most base of villains. It's the idea that we all can be redeemed in the end.*

More about redemption, though not about Superman, next time.

*It's interesting to note that, while the comic book version of All-Star offers in an off-hand manner the fact that "Even Luthor seemed to find some closure in the face of renewed global calls for his execution", the animated movie of it has Luthor play a more prominent role at the end. The fact that he gives Quintum the formula for Superman that leads to Project and the Superman dynasty suggests a more fully realized redemption, in spiritual if not in legal terms.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The story behind the story

From the June 21, 1941, issue of The Saturday Evening Post, we learn that Jerry Siegel once answered his door every to find a group of boys inquiring about Superman. Siegel told them that Superman did live there, but that he was out stopping criminals at that moment. To bolster his claim, he would show the kids one of Superman's spare outfits. He and Joe Shuster "have assumed a solemn obligation to instill faith, whenever possible, in the physical reality of Superman."

Interesting stuff. The article has what has to be one of the earliest printed versions of Siegel's tale of when he came up with the character, on a sleepless and hot summer night:

I am lying in bed counting sheep when all of a sudden it hits me. I conceive a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I ever heard tell of rolled into one. Only more so. I hop right out of bed and write this down, and then go back and think some more for about two hours and get up again and write that down. This goes on all night at two hour intervals, until in the morning I have a complete script.

He then runs to Joe Shuster's house and they work on the character together. In this version, it happened in 1932. I've usually seen the date as 1933. The Steranko History of Comics covers this, too.

Good stuff.

There are lots of other versions of this story told these days.There's an illustrated book called Boys of Steel by Mark Tyler Nobleman.
This seems to be the promotional image for The History of Invulnerability.
There's a stage play called The History of Invulnerability. I haven't seen it. Anybody know if it's any good?

A thriller that involves secrets about Superman's creator and Cain. Yes, that Cain.

There's a whole bunch of stuff about it in Brad Meltzer's novel The Book of Lies.

Where are all those people going?

Gerard Jones discusses it a bit in Men of Tomorrow. Also, i want to say that it inspired a lot of Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Klay novel.

There's some contention about what drove Jerry Siegel to create Superman, largely because he only talked about that one night in the early 30's and shied away from any self-psychologizing.  There are a whole bunch of other discussions of it that I'm omitting here. It's becoming a bigger and bigger part of the Superman story, especially as the publicity of the lawsuit over the rights to the character becomes more and more prominent. It seems likely that, if Warner Brothers could tell the story without making themselves look immoral, they'd probably make a feature film out of it.

On a related note: Google image search turns up some weird stuff, doesn't it?

Friday, May 18, 2012

So we chose not to deconstruct the superhero but to take him at face value, as a fiction that was trying to tell us something wonderful about ourselves. Somewhere, in our darkest night, we made up the story of a man who will never let us down and that seemed worth investigating.

--Grant Morrison, talking about All Star Superman in Wired.


That interview was from a few years ago now, but it's an interesting thought. He wants to investigate what it means to 'never let us down.' It's not always intuitive. It's not always obvious. What's the right way to help people? What's the right way to be a hero? What does it mean to be good? In interviews I've read and conducted, people say time and time again that we always know what Superman would do in any situation.

There's a pretty good recent book called Do the Gods Wear Capes? by Ben Saunders. There's a chapter on Superman, and it's pretty much about this question. In his view, Superman is basically a way for writers, from Jerry Siegel onward, to explore this very notion of 'the good.' And it's got a nice Mike Allred cover.

I guess this is why the Supermen (Supermans?) of so many recent incarnations are so troubling to me (I'm looking at you, Earth One--sort of you, too, Smallville, though I haven't read the new comic version of that). If Superman represents what we think of as someone who is the definition of good, why do those guys stand around so much, waiting for there to be no choice but to act?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Own Worst Enemy is done

Own Worst Enemy, the movie I wrote with Mike Judd--and which he directed with his wife Jessica Judd--is now finished. I watched it just yesterday, and it turned out pretty great.  You can watch the trailer here. Or here, if youtube's your thing. And this is the website. It stars john Mattey, Jennifer Kelsey, Mike Lutz, Karl Ramsey, Mona Gillen, and Laura Drake Mancini. As soon as I'm done moving into my new place, I'm going to have a screening in Bloomington, probably at The Bishop.

Other Stuff...

So I've gotten to a point where I have nothing more to do on "Superman in Myth and Folklore" (until somebody wants to publish it, that is; then I'll begin finding and fixing things that are wrong with the manuscript), and I've finished writing a short novel recently. What next, I wonder. I've been going more than a bit crazy trying to figure this out, and I think it's one of the reasons I've returned to this blog--you know, something to type while I wonder and brew.

I had thought of putting together a book of articles on Disney, but I decided against it (have you read the academic work on Disney? It's angry. All of it).

Now I'm thinking that I might write a book about Santa Claus. I may enlist the aid of some other writers, too. It's a big topic. I'll probably narrow it down a bit. I wrote my Master's thesis on holidays, particularly on Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. It would be fun to return to that material.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What Else?

As this blog resurges, I'm going to be writing about more than Superman stuff. Sure, there will be a lot of stuff about the character--I have an entire notebook filled with things that didn't go into the draft I sent to the publisher--but I can't write about Superman every day. So, what else is going on?

Here are some things I'm reading these days.


Superman and Action.  I'm about done with these, to tell you the truth. Seventeen issues into the relaunch of the New 52, and I've only liked one of them (that was Action Comics No. 9--and I only liked that one a little bit, and it had nothing to do with the other 8 issues of Action). Everything else has been a waste. Action has mostly terrible art. Superman has terrible writing and forgettable art.
A controversial cover because of the winged woman feeding an infant.

Saga. Two issues in and it's good so far. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.

The new series.

 Courtney Crumrin. I've read everything so far, and there's now an new ongoing that started out pretty great. There's a new hardcover edition of the original mini-series, Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things, that I'm dying to get. Unfortunately my budget has no room for buying things I already have, no matter how good the coloring looks or how beautiful the cover looks. Written and drawn by Ted Naifeh.

The best issue of the series so far.
Journey into Mystery. I'm on the verge of dropping this one. Not cause it's getting bad, just cause I think I'm done with it. I stopped reading Thor because the current writer has no idea how to tell a Thor story. Kieron Gillen has been doing a pretty good job with kid Loki and others in this one, but I find I'm just losing interest. And there's a new crossover, which I always find a good time to stop reading something. The art changes frequently, which often hurts the series.

Yeah, that's it for ongoing stuff. I found a copy of Clockwork Girl at the library, and I enjoyed that quite a bit. 


Fossil of a feathered dinosaur called microraptor. Awesome.
I'm on an evolution kick. I just read Why Evolution Is True by Jerry Coyne and What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. These were both written by evolutionist thinkers.  The first is a die hard Darwinist. Coyne discusses feathered dinosaurs a lot, and I'm a sucker for that subject. It's just so cool. The second is, obviously, by people who are considerably more skeptical about natural selection as a mechanism of evolution. Regardless of the ideas in What Darwin Got Wrong, it's horribly and arrogantly written, which made it difficult to consider their argument even on the few occasions they said something that made sense.

I plan to read Darwin's Black Box and Of Pandas and People next, to balance the evolutionary perspective with the creationist viewpoint. Wish me luck.

Finally, I'm reading the Arabian Nights. All 1001 of them (+ 2 if you count Aladdin and Ali Baba). I'm 67 nights in, and will do one a day or so until I'm done. That will take me until 2015 at least.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Media Saturation

Let's all just take a look at that picture from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in 1940. Superman debuted in spring of 1938. That means...within 2.5 years, he was popular enough for this image. Nowadays, that wouldn't mean much, since media have made saturation happen much more quickly. But in 1940, it was much more impressive.

This leads into some further thoughts about Superman and Gladiator.

I suggested a few days ago that the essential optimism of Superman ensured his popularity, while the pessimism of Wylie's Gladiator contributed to its relative obscurity.

But that can't be the whole story. Saturation is also important. Now, I don't know how books were sold in the 1930's, but I bet they weren't as readily available as comic books. (Books at the end of the 19th century were usually sold by subscription--that is, door to door). Putting comic books on the shelves of markets and drug stores, newspaper stands and the like ensured that lots of people (not just kids) saw them. Gladiator wasn't nearly so visible.

By the way, Siskoid has a blog entry about Superman balloons.

Monday, May 14, 2012


I had this weird moment a while back, while doing research for this Superman book. It was maybe 1:30 in the morning, and I had put on the movie Hollywoodland. I wasn't that interested in it at the time, and so I was reading the book A World without Time by Palle Yourgrau. I was taking some notes on the book, occasionally jotting down a relevant line from the movie, and suddenly the oddity of what was going on around me took hold.

I was watching  a man (Louis Simo, played by Adrien Brody) watch home movies. He sat in a darkened room while a 16 mm film played. He watched himself lift up his son so the boy could stretch out his arms and pretend to fly like Superman. At the same time, I was reading about the friendship of Kurt Godel and Albert Einstein, and about how these men have contributed to the idea that time does not exist, at least not as most people understand it. If Einstein was correct about relativity, Godel argued, then there is no such thing.  I must admit, a lot of that stuff was beyond me. There's math involved.

I was watching a movie about a man who was attempting to abolish time by watching home movies, while reading a book about how time does not exist. All because of Superman.

Ben Affleck as George Reeves as Superman
There's a lot more to the movie, and to the book. But I was reading both because Superman led me there. George Reeves, played by Ben Affleck in the film, played Superman on television in the 1950's. And that part of Reeves' live plays a major role in the film. And Superman's greatest power, I had concluded at the time, was time travel. I'm no longer convinced of that conclusion, but I was exploring it at the time.

My real point in all of this: Superman is such an all-encompassing subject that I could literally study anything I want with him at the center. The history of popular culture (hollywood, comics--really any narrative form), any aspect of science (there are several books about this already), myth, clothing and costuming, visions of the future, astronomy and the possibility of alien contact, moral philosophy, childhood development, play, creativity, and a lot of others I can't think of right now.

Dead Man Speaks is collected here.
But in all of that, I'm most reminded of an essay called "Dead Man Speaks" by William Gibson. He's talking about the fact that we can actually hear the recorded voices of people long gone, and the dissonance that results from that. We're the only species with a rewind button. Not a bad definition for the current state of humanity. He wonders briefly at the repercussions of this state of affairs:

The end-point of human culture may well be a single moment of effectively endless duration, an infinite digital Now.

That's it. The abolition of time. When age and decrepitude have no power against the nostalgia-driven fulfilled wish of the pause button. When we need never forget. Superman sometimes has perfect memory, and sometimes can travel to the past and future just by flying really fast. We can all do this, so to speak, with our memory and imagination. How long before the virtual becomes actual? How long before Gibson's idea comes to fruition?