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.