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.