Thursday, June 21, 2012

Superman by Larry Tye

I just finished Larry Tye's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. I've read this book before. It was called Our Hero: Superman on Earth, by Tom DeHaven. Or maybe it was called Men of Tomorrow, by Gerard Jones. I read parts of it in Garry Grossman's Superman: Serial to Cereal. Or is that Cereal to Serial. I read other parts in Bruce Scivally's book, and in Michael Hayde's book, and in dozens of articles and memoirs.

In short, there's nothing new here. Well, that's not entirely true. Tye has the advantage of being more recent than any of those others, so he had access to Jerry Siegel's unpublished memoir. And because he's more recent, he knows some more details of the legal battles over Superman. But I read all about those on the Internet already.

So, yeah, a lot of my indifference to Tye's book is that I've been consuming everything about Superman for more than three years. Everything. So I merely sighed as he described what Christopher Reeve ate while bulking up for the role, and I groaned when I realized he was going to describe the difficulties that George Reeves had when they tried to make him fly. The bragadoccio of Donenfeld? Don't need another rehash. How much GI's loved comics? Covered in other places. Wertham and the comics code? Enough already.

There was some promise, in the beginning. Tye says he conducted hundreds of interviews. Too bad these are not prominent. They maybe get half a dozen pages out of 400. Mostly, they're random paragraphs about how somebody really likes Superman. I wanted more. When a guy says that he learned about morality from Superman, what does he mean? You can't figure it out from Superman stories. You have to dig deeper in your interview. It would be easy to fall into the trap Wertham fell into, and just dismiss Superman and the genre as fascist and too devoted to using violence to solve problems. Isn't it important to point out that Superman fans actually feel the opposite? That hitting people is not the right way to do things?

Tye doesn't really have an argument. His main point seems to be that Superman is "America's most enduring hero." This is just plain wrong. 74 years isn't that long, even by American standards. What about Davy Crocket? Paul Bunyan? John Henry? George Washington? Abraham Lincoln? Crazy Horse? Daniel Boone? Teddy Roosevelt? Tarzan? Wyat Earp? Any cowboy, really. None of those guys have gone anywhere. And that one year of existence Superman has on Batman doesn't seem like much these days.

What Tye really accomplishes is the merger of the production history with the comic book history and, say, the religious interpretation among other things. Jones' Men of Tomorrow spliced into Scivally's Superman book with a dash of Stephen Skelton. In doing so, he gives them all the short shrift. But I suppose there's some value to that. Many people would want a more cursory look at the history.

All of this would be excusable if the prose were worthwhile. Alas, it's mediocre. The book's structure leaves a lot to be desired. I have no idea why chapter 9 is called "Back to the Future." And the history is facile. Saying that Smallville succeeded in part because 9/11 had just happened is not really an argument, and if it were it's not supported by anything. If Tye were interested in exploring what sort of hero people really desired in the wake of terrible tragedy, he would find a much more complex answer. He would find that the media provided one sort, and that some people desperately searched for another.

Anyway, as I said, much of my disappointment in this book stems from my own context. When you've read all this stuff, and quite recently, you just shake your head as it's presented one more time, in less depth than elsewhere. Maybe that's my real complaint about Tye's book: it's trying to get everything in there, and really the only part that's served well is the life of Jerry Siegel. But even that is more detailed in other sources. To that extent, I was shocked when I looked at his bibliography. It's pretty extensive, so the part that shocked me was that he'd read all these other books and still thought that his needed to be written.

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