Friday, July 12, 2013

Superman Stops Shoplifter and Other Stories

Luke Junior, real life Superman?

In England, this happened:

Luke Junior, 24, was wearing the distinctive blue and red caped outfit as he took part in a charity fundraising event outside a shop.
When he spotted a thief running out of the store and being chased by staff, he grabbed hold of the shoplifter and made a citizen’s arrest.

The kicker:  

Mr Junior, who was already nicknamed Superman after previously pulling two men from a car accident.

So, this guy was dressed as Superman to raise money for a Sheffield hospital, saw a crime, and stopped it. As they carted away the criminal, the store's DJ played the Superman theme. This story couldn't possibly be better.

In other news:

Apparently that scene in Man of Steel where everybody hides beneath the overpass did cause some concern at the national weather service. The story rightfully point out that, no matter how much Warner Brothers points out that their movie is not intended as an instruction video for how to survive tornadoes, people will still pay attention to it.

Also, I haven't mentioned the marketing of Man of Steel to Christians much, or at all. Here's a response to it, by a minister who didn't care much for the overwrought allusions and references and parallels.

The desire to tie Superman to Jesus seems to run deep. I have even been invited to special clergy pre-screenings of the movie and have received emails, sponsored by the movie, with tips and notes on how to preach on Superman on Father's Day. The effort to tie the movie to Christianity is not what I would call subtle.
Now, I love Superman but I will not be preaching about how Superman is like Jesus. There won't even be a children's sermon. Why?
Violence. That's why.

 There's more to it, about the nature of salvation and the like. It perhaps warrants further exploration on this blog some day.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Some links

The Curse of Superman has been something people have talked about for a while. I think Benbella books The Man from Krypton had a chapter about it (titled "A Word of Warning for Brandon Routh). Anyway, this piece for Business Day online by Phil Altbeker is about the curse, and seems to be the most comprehensive statement of it that I've seen.

I didn't write about the curse at all in my book. It's not really about superman in the way that certain jokes or the Superman Celebration is about the character. It's about the actors. Additionally, I've never heard it mentioned outside of the media, so it's really not folklore (as far as I can tell). I suppose if somebody wanted to explore it, the best place to start would be to talk to the actors themselves, see what they've been told.

Then there's this curiosity over at the AV Club: a defense of Superman returns by David Sims. I disagree with everything the article asserts about how the story was handled, but in the end what I really take issue with is this line:

The Christ/angel imagery is inescapable (at one point, Supes falls from the sky, his arms outstretched as if he’s on a cross), but what else could you possibly be looking for in a Superman film?

Maybe Sims doesn't think that people could be looking for a Superman story in a Superman film.

From a while ago, a review of Man of Steel that seems worth reading by Timothy O'Neil.

Another review of the same movie that seems worth reading, by Justice Carmon. Takes the opposite perspective.

That's about it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

One Last Thing about Man of Steel

Anybody else notice how Pa Kent, who has lived in Kansas for what we can only presume has been his entire life, makes exactly the wrong decision by herding everybody to the underpass when the tornado happens?

Underpasses focus the winds of a tornado, making them stronger in that area. That last link actually gets into the debate about the issue.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Super Boys by Brad Ricca

I haven't seen much written about this book. A not so kind review ran in the New York Times, a favorable review in The Sci-Fi Christian. That's it, aside from the book store websites.

Ricca has done a tremendous amount of research, and that's the strength of the book. I've been reading about this stuff for four years now, and still I could only fill a single chapter's worth of stuff, though in my own defense I'm not writing anything about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Ricca focuses almost entirely on these two men. What comes through is the intensity that drove them to write and draw, write and draw, write and draw...seemingly forever, if they could have. At times the sheer volume of ideas Jerry was throwing at the wall is astounding. When I was asking comic retailers which Superman story people were buying most often, or asked for most often, they told me about Red Son. When I did a little digging, I found out that pretty much everybody liked it because of the ending, in which it's revealed that Superman isn't from Krypton's past, but from Earth's future, sent back in time. Grant Morrison gave that idea to Mark Millar when Millar was having trouble finishing his Red Son. But right there on page 101 of Super Boys:

The version [artist Russel] Keaton drew is an origin story of a three-year-old Superman who is rocketed to 1935 from the future instead of a faraway planet.

So Jerry Siegel came up with that more than half a century before Red Son. (I'm not saying that Morrison would have known about this story, which was never published--I don't think he stole the idea at all).

Yes, the overwhelming results of research kept me reading this book, but the writing didn't. I was put off by the very first sentence of the book, and I never came around to liking Ricca's writing style. Alas, I can't describe why, but that first sentence (of the acknowledgements) "I wrote this book myself" just bothers me. The rest of the book is like that. It's inconsistent in its perspective and style, too.

I will say that it nearly brought me to tears at one point, though, because of this:

Dated March 1
I, the undersigned, am an artist or author and have performed work for strip entitled SUPERMAN.
          In consideration of $130.00 agreed to be paid by me to you, I hereby sell and transfer such work and strip, all good will attached thereto and exclusive right to the use of the characters and story, continuity and title of strip contained therein, to you and your assigns to have and hold forever and to be your exclusive property and I agree not to employ said characters by their names contained therein or under any other names at any time hereafter to any other person firm or corporation, or permit the use thereof by said other parties without obtaining your written consent therefore. The intent hereof is to give you exclusive right to use and acknowledge that you own said characters or story and the use thereof, exclusively. I have received the above sum of money.
Sgd. Joe Shuster
Sgd. Jeronme Siegel
Returned by mail on March 3, 1938.

That breaks my heart.  But it's really a separate topic.

Super Boys spends more time on Siegel, but is probably the only way you can tell this story. Shuster became more and more reclusive as time went on, and Siegel was more active in trying to get Superman back.

I knew the broad strokes of this story, from Steranko's history, Jones' Men of Tomorrow, and Tye's recent Superman book. But this gets into detail. Hundreds of footnotes. Looks at their stories more than I had thought possible. It's a tough book to read, knowing the outcome, but it's worth reading. The one thing it makes clear is that the ideas that form the core of Superman--the vocabulary used to construct him--was floating around in culture everywhere Siegel and Shuster looked. His attitude, his appearance, his powers...these were fruits that the Super Boys plucked from a tree and mashed together into a brilliant character (I'm not sure what to make of this, though, since Ricca at one point tells us that if they hadn't done it, sooner or later someone else would have; it may not be a fair assessment of the situation, though I'm not in a position to fully evaluate it). Ricca credits them with creating Lois Lane whole cloth, though, since he can't find precedent for her. And I've got to say that he may be on to something with that one. Lois is constantly struggling against the constraints her world puts on her, to her credit. She probably deserves a book all her own.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Further Thoughts on Man of Steel

More spoilers.

I can't stop thinking about Man of Steel. This isn't a good thing, because the more I think about it, the less I like it. I really want to like this movie. It's just not working out.

Let's get back to Superman killing Zod. Over the past couple of days, it's come to light that producer Christopher Nolan was initially opposed to the idea of this happening. But writer David Goyer and director Zack Snyder thought it was a good idea for two reasons: 1. having Zod vanish into the phantom zone was anticlimactic, and 2. that they hadn't established an 'origin' for Superman's aversion to killing.

The first reason, I sort of agree with. There needs to be a confrontation between Superman and Zod at the very end. I just don't think it should be a physical one.

The second reason, well that's just stupid.

Superman's least interesting aspect is his physical strength. It was a big part of him initially, but the character has evolved over time to the point that there's no real point in writing a story in which he has to punch harder than somebody else in order to win.

How much better would it have been if he had confronted Zod, not by fighting him , but by trying to convince Zod that his plan is wrong. Lots of people have already pointed out that Zod's plan is stupid: he could just kryptoform any planet; he's going to lose all those great superpowers if he destroys earth, etc. Zod is a poorly written character, and for me it all comes down to that final scene.

So Zod wants to die, and he's threatening to kill a bunch of people in a train station or something, and he's shooting his heat vision at him. And Superman grabs his head to stop him. I'll let Rob Bricken from put it in his own way, as an alternative dialogue that might have played out in that scene:

Superman: All right, I guess I have to kill you.
Zod: No, goddammit! You don’t! I would, because I’m a fucking bad guy, but you’re supposed to be the hero! You’re supposed to find a goddamn way that solves this problem that doesn’t go against your moral code! And there are so many fucking ways you can get out of this situation without killing me! You could cover my eyes! You could fly off with me! And that’s just off the top of my head!
Superman: Well, if you really wanted to kill these people, you could, you know, just look at them.
Zod: I’m trying! You’re holding my head!
Superman: Yeah, but you know you can move your eyes without moving your head, right?

And there it is. The screenwriter and director wanted to have Superman kill Zod, so they just forced him to. Nothing about the situation forced the character to do it. It wasn't a natural development of the plot. They wanted it to happen, so they made it happen. That's bad storytelling. 

This picture has nothing to do with this blog entry.

So aside from the violations of logic and biology that ruin the climax of the film, there's also another aspect of it I've been thinking about. If they really wanted to show how Superman developed such an aversion to killing, they picked probably the worst way to do it. It's not that he needed to kill somebody to see how wrong it is--as the entire internet has pointed out, lots of people have that aversion without killing people. I can't help but thing that his aversion stems from such a selfish place. He kills somebody on purpose. He doesn't see that there are negative repercussions of his action. Everybody in the city could plausibly see his action as heroic, since Superman hasn't shown them the extent of his morality yet. So he develops his aversion to killing because of how it makes him feel. I can't help but think that he should come to this conclusion because of a combination of the morality imparted to him by his parents and his observations. He can't observe the repercussions of Zod's death, not really. Nobody will grieve over Zod's death, since everybody who knew him is in the Phantom Zone. Superman doesn't see the way the death of an individual affects the rest of the world, the loss and the sadness the anger it engenders. Killing a human being is wrong not merely because it robs that person of the right of living, but because killing ruptures the fabric of society. So he develops a moral code against killing because it makes him feel bad.

I honestly don't know if this is a valid reading of the scene, or of how morality devlops. Is it a bad thing if you stay within the law or you develop your own morality based solely on how you feel after doing something?  That's not how people work, at least not all the time.

In studying the reactions people have to movies, it's become very obvious that if people want to like a movie, they'll find a way to like it. If they don't want to like it, they'll find things they don't like about it. What's odd for me is that I wanted to like this movie, and I have stopped liking it after a short period of time.

What I learned from talking to people who love Superman is that they find something of value in every Superman story, no matter how poorly conceived or executed. I'll be interested to find out what some of those people, who form the subject of my book, have thought of this movie.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hindu Religion, Superman, and Mythology

Well, it appears that actor Henry Cavill's comment, comparing Superman to Hindu gods, using the word mythology, has caused a bit of a stir. Here are his words: India has a rich mythology and they're both [Superman and Hindu mythology] rooted in the same thing - hope and goodness,’ Cavill said during a promotional event, the Times of India reported.

We're not told much about the context of these words, other than that it was at a promotional event for Man of Steel.

One of the first things I was told when I studied mythology in graduate school is that the term mythology can be taken as an insult by members of certain religions. I understand this completely. To call something a mythology is, sometimes, to denigrate it, to imply that it's false, the product of an outdated worldview. It's saying that a religion isn't true. The end of the article linked to above gets into this, quoting a blogger who wrote about the Western, capitalistic appropriation of Hinduism:

“This is by far one of the most insulting descriptions to characterize the religion with,” she noted. “In reality, all religions are theoretically mythological because no one religion can prove its validity. Can Christians prove that the word of The Bible comes directly from God? Can they prove that the world was created in seven days? No, but even so Christianity’s core beliefs are rarely described as myths.”

This blogger, Foram Mehta, is later quoted in the article saying that she doesn't think Cavill meant any insult, just that he chose the wrong words.This latter quote comes, I think, from an interview with Mehta done for the IB Times, linked to above.

Anyway, the primary reason, aside from the use of the term 'mythology,' is that Cavill compared a fictional character created by two humans with gods, eternal and omnipotent creators.

Angry Hindu statesman Rajan Zed tells WENN, "Comparing gods with a human-created comic book fictional character is a trivialisation of all-powerful God, to whom we owe our existence. Superman, at most is a cultural icon, while God produced and sustained the world and was the source of being and life.

It's this trivialization, which arises from a superficial knowledge of the tradition behind the religion, that bothers both Rajan Zed and Foram Mehta.

Mehta writes of her experience of seeing Hindu religion compared to other ancient religions in school and being asked if she really believed in all those deities: Hey, wait a second, there’s not really more than one God. And why are Shiva, Vishnu, Saraswati, and Lakshmi being referred to as ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses?’ The Bhagavad-Gita is mythology? Like Greek mythology? This doesn’t sound right…

 She might be interested to learn that she's calling something mythology that is a thriving religious system in Greece today.

Mehta's blog entry is not at all about Superman, Henry Cavill, or his comments on Hinduism. She seems to have posted it in mid-February of this 2010. The perception of insult stems from terminology. Mehta's blog entry focuses a lot on word choice, noting that describing the story of Krishna and Rhada as 'erotic' is just as insulting as calling Hinduism a mythology, and that referring to the Hindu deities as 'gods' with a lower case g is as insulting as referring to the Christian god with a lower case g. She points out that Hinduism isn't polytheistic, it's polymorphic: The identities of Shiva, Ganesh, and the others are merely different manifestations or emanations of the one God.

These elements of language are important to her, and they should be. Language shapes our perceptions.

Now, it's time to write as a mythologist.

I don't view the term mythology as a derogatory one. In my mind, a mythology is a system of related stories, describing the creation of the cosmos and humanity, that is associated with ritual and serves as the foundation of a worldview. I'm also a folklorist by training, and part of that training included extensive fieldwork. During the process of learning how to interact with people in an academic manner, I was taught that you don't insult the people who have been kind enough, generous enough, to allow you into their lives in the service of scholarship and friendship. So I have always found it odd that people can title their books Hindu Mythology, Handbook of Hindu Mythology, and the like. You must honor those with whom you work, not insult them.

Still, without the word mythology in there, it's difficult to write about it in a comparative way. To be clear:  yes, I would write about Christian mythology, about Greek mythology. Mythology is the term that we can use to unite these things. In other words, for scholars, it's useful. That doesn't mean we should abuse it. It's just a standard way to categorize certain stories that are associated with religion, not a judgment on those stories.

In that light, I also write about secular mythology, of which Superman is perhaps the prime example outside of science. I wrote a book called "Superman in Myth and Folklore" (hopefully it will see publication some day...) that explores this idea. My point in that book is that people do the same things with Superman that they do with religious figures: they utilize him as a way to think through the problems they encounter in the world, such as how to maintain their sense of morality in an increasingly difficult world, how to integrate themselves into a large community, and how to negotiate their identity in a multiplicity of situations. This thought process manifests itself in tattoos, festivals, rituals, folk speech, fashion, jokes, and a whole bunch of other things in pop culture and folklore. It's not religious, but it incorporates nearly every component of religion other than belief--therefore there's no worship involved.

The rhetoric surrounding Superman and other superheroes that compares them to gods and other mythological and religious figures is an attempt by certain components of Western (and especially American) culture to elevate Superman, not to insult the religions. It's a way to express the notion that America does have its mythological system, comparable to these other mythological systems. This is an impulse that's pretty old. The writer of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval English poem, felt the need to invent a mythical British ancestor, Brutus, comparable to Romulus so as to put England on the same footing when it came to a proto-nationalistic pride in the stories that formed the bedrock of the burgeoning nation. It's the same motivation that prompted J.R.R. Tolkien to invent his legendarium of Middle-Earth, and led to the writing of The Lord of the Rings.

In the end, I agree with Mehta: Cavill probably meant no harm, but he should have chosen his words more sensitively. That he didn't speaks more to his lack of knowledge about Hindus than anything else: he likely didn't know that the term mythology would be insulting or that the comparison would be.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Time to Talk about Man of Steel

Spoilers in pretty much everything below.

Man of Steel is the first movie I've seen on opening weekend in nearly seven years. It is one of maybe half a dozen I've seen in a theater during that time frame. I went in expecting something mediocre, based on my opinion of the talents of the creative team putting this film together. What I got was not mediocre, but something else entirely.

At first, I kind of liked it. I was bothered by the camera work (I abhor the shaking camera when it's used to film mundane activity, such as somebody walking around). But other than that I left feeling like it was a decent film, better than Superman Returns at least. The only thing that really struck me was that it didn't feel like a Superman movie. It was a pretty typical superhero movie smashed together with something resembling science fiction in cinema, but that was about it. All in all, an ok movie, but not for me.

Then I had to figure out why it wasn't for me. And the answer has to do with the end of the film, when Superman kills Zod.

This act points to an evolution of Superman over the course of the film and its prospective sequels: he will eventually realize that he made the wrong choice, and when he's confronted with a similar situation, he'll finally make the right one. It makes the story about The Hero's Journey. And I just don't care about the hero's journey, except in an academic way. And I already wrote my book on Superman. I don't want to have to do more research at this point.

You see, one thing I love about Superman's early years in publication is that the origin was precisely one page long and then pretty much forgotten for a while. You had the slight expansion in the first Superman ongoing series, and in the comic strips, but that's to be expected. Sure, they added a few pages worth of material, but that was it. In the Fleischer animated shorts, in the serials, in Adventures of Superman on radio and TV, the origin takes a few minutes of screen time and then it becomes completely irrelevant to the story. The storytellers are saying, "OK, now you know how he got his powers. Let's move on."

The comics in recent years, and the Smallville tv show and now in Man of Steel, there's an obsession with Krypton and Superman's origin that does not resonate with me. It has everything to do with where I am in life, the fact that I'm not searching for some essence of my identity, that I am comfortable with myself. In other words, I'm not engaged in my own personal hero's journey, so I can't muster a lot of interest in watching somebody else's over and over again--this may also be related to the fact that I have read, watched, and listened to every single one of the retellings of Superman's origin during the past two years. Man of Steel goes out of his way to tell us that Superman is 33 when he dons the cape, and then he still doesn't really know who he is enough to know that it's bad to kill, and there's always a better way. (Don't give me that junk about Zod presenting him with a situation in which there's no other possible solution. He's Superman--there's always another solution.)

In other words, the Superman I want to read about and watch isn't somebody who's groping for his role in the world, trying to reach maturity. This is why Smallville just didn't work for me, and why Man of Steel doesn't. I'd much rather read about a character who is already confident, comfortable in his suit, and ready to face the challenges of his chosen role.

When I was digging deep into the body of stories that comprise Superman, I discovered "The Challenge of Superman." I thought of this as the set of oddities presented by the early years of Action Comics, Superman, and Adventures of Superman that any writers of a new version, starting from scratch, have to reconcile. I thought of the challenge of Superman as the union of his secret identity, his fascination with Lois Lane, his choice to be a reporter, and his unwavering moral code. We might also toss in the source of his powers (were all Kryptonians originally 'super'? or is it the yellow sun or the low gravity or something else), but that seems to be fairly well-set these days and not much of a challenge anymore

I like to think that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster left The Challenge of Superman to all those who came after them. They were saying, "Here, deal with these apparently nonsensical parts of the story. Make them make sense and you'll achieve greatness. It's a puzzle with many possible solutions." Ok, they didn't say anything of the kind, but the Challenge of Superman has been taken up by pretty much everybody in the ensuing years. And in solving the challenge of Superman, writers are forced to make statements about career, romance, the relationship of the individual to the group, and what makes us the complex, multifaceted people we are. It's an excellent way to approach storytelling.

There are lots of different ways that writers and editors have solved The Challenge of Superman. I think that I might explore some of these solutions in future blog posts, in large part because I have all these thoughts floating around in my head and they had no place in my book. Today, what I will say is that the creative team who produced Man of Steel didn't seem to give a lot of thought to his interest in Lois Lane or to his choice to be a reporter. They really focused on his secret identity, and seem to have set up a way to explore this moral code in another movie.

You see what they did there? They took a simple comment in Superman #1, in which his adoptive father (not yet Jonathan Kent by name) tells Clark he's got to keep his powers a secret, and they made it the focus of the father-son relationship. Sure, Kevin Costner tells Clark that he's been sent here for some reason, but he doesn't follow it up with anything about how Clark should use his powers to help people.

The core of Superman's morality, since Superman #1, has come from his adoptive parents. That's part of why he has such an appeal in the United States: "Baseball, apple pie, and Superman, that's America," John Hambrick told me. He owns the SuperMuseum in Metropolis, Il. It's a good point. The Kents' agrarian midwestern worldview forms half the argument in Gary Engle's foundational essay, "What's So Darned American about Superman?" from the excellent collection Superman at 50 (the other half is that he's an immigrant, according to Engle). So the only lesson Man of Steel allows the Kents to impart is that Clark has to hide his extraordinary abilities, which leads to a number of secret identities before he settles on Clark Kent again and becomes a reporter.

The thing was, I thought they'd already gotten there. There's that moment when Superman turns himself over the the American military, letting them decide whether or not he should be given to Zod. To me, this was a plain rebuke to J. Michael Straczynski and Superman: Earth 1, which had virtually the same situation with a completely different decision on Superman's part. In Earth 1, when an alien (named Tyrell, not a Kryptonian) shows up looking for the last son of Krypton and demands he be handed over, Superman does absolutely nothing for a long time, while Tyrell wreaks havoc and kills lots of people. Eventually, after an agonizing amount of time and long after Tyrell's grace period has elapsed, he puts on his suit and flies out to fight all by himself.

In Man of Steel, Clark Kent has a moments of indecision, during which he goes to a church to ask a random priest what he should do, then doesn't wait around to get advice and chooses to turn himself over to the military. He's asking them to make the decision for him, but he's really already made a decision. He has rejected Zod by giving himself over to the US. He's really making the choice to trust, which the movie tells us, which is Superman saying that he's not wise enough to make the choice himself. It's a noble thing to do, leading to dialogue; even though Superman distrusts Zod, he's willing to work for a nonviolent solution. So while Straczynski's Superman allows countless deaths through his inaction, the Man of Steel doesn't do so--at least not until the fighting begins. Then he doesn't try to save anybody in particular for a while so he can focus on punching and whatnot.

I hope I'm making my point clear. Man of Steel shows us a moral code produced by experience. Nothing explicitly wrong with that, unless you're writing Superman, who's supposed to don the suit with a firmly embodied sense of altruism that values life in all its manifestations above all else. Because with life comes possibility, the true value of the story of Superman. Death robs us of possibility, whether it be the death of a planet or the death of a villain. With death there can be no rehabilitation. Sure, Zod wanted to die, but then again so did the girl on this page:

All-Star Superman 10, by Morrison, Quitely, and Grant.

Superman's job is to give us strength, to remind us of the strength we already have, to inspire us. He can't do that by killing people. The greatest crime Man of Steel committed was that it did not even attempt to inspire anybody. The one scene where it approached this, when Superman learns to fly (honestly, I hadn't even noticed that he couldn't fly at this point in the movie) tonally clashes with every other scene. It attempted to show his joy in flight. There's no joy in any other shot in this film, except maybe at the end, when we get the flash back showing us Jonathan and Martha watching a young Clark run around in the back yard with a towel clothespinned to his t-shirt. I was trying to think of movies that had inspired me, had included real joy. I recalled the  scene in Metropolis of Superman '78, when Superman is just flying around town, rescuing cats and foiling crooks. That was joy in being Superman.

You know what else: The Incredibles. When Dash is running as fast as he can for the first time, fleeing the bad guys, and discovers that he can run on water (which is basically the same as flying, but that's a discussion for another day). Dash lets out this gleeful laugh, the music kicks it up a notch, and we see him weaving through rock formations, dodging his enemies, and enjoying himself fully for the first time in his life. It makes me want to do that.

I didn't want to do anything that Superman does in Man of Steel. He didn't enjoy having his powers--Jonathan Kent made sure of that.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Retro Remote's Superman Essay

There's a pretty interesting essay over at PopMatters called Superman and the War Against Anachronism. Kit MacFarlane has some interesting observations and opinions about Superman and Batman (and Spock, for that matter).

For example, he counters the notion that Superman's pervasive moral goodness and omnipotence makes him boring:

Again, Superman’s power should be seen as a challenge rather than a flaw: writers can no longer rely on the tired devices of physical constraints to keep the narrative going. Confident writers should embrace Superman’s power as something that places him above mere physicality: when the limitations on action are removed, the ethics of action still remain. The real dramatic struggles are those of ethics and inter-personal communication, not punching. (For those writers not up to that task, then there’s kryptonite.)

 In other words, Superman's not boring, but some writers are. MacFarlane also points out that most readings of Superman in The Dark Knight Returns miss several of the subtleties of the character there. He also criticizes the notion that every character should have an emotional arc in every story. It's a good criticism.

But here's something interesting, the criticism that he's a fascist stooge for the government. Well, sure, that “American way” thing isn’t exactly my favourite part of Superman mythology; but it’s also a bit simplistic to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that might seem to be connected to historical patriotism.

MacFarlane handles it well enough, pointing out the flaw in thinking that Superman stories have to be tied to the government, and specifically to a conservative governemtn.

It's interesting to think about that 'American Way' idea. Miller did make Superman a pawn (though I wouldn't say stooge) of the US government in DKR. But it's a mistake to equate 'The American Way' with the American Government. They're not the same thing, and we might make a compelling argument that the government is supposed to preserve the American way, not dictate it.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Superman and Philosophy

So this collection includes 20 essays written about Superman by philosophers. I'm not a philosopher, I'm a folklorist, so I don't consider myself adequately trained to comment on a lot of what they're discussing. There are lots of essays on morality, ethics, and the like, of course. There are some that explore themes brought up in Superman stories, such as whether or not Superman should use his powers to stop crime, etc. The first half of the book, and a bit more than that, feels repetitive because the writers are all discussing these themes, using the ideas of Nietzsche, Kant, utilitarianism, and the like. In the latter half, the topics broaden a bit (well, once they're past Nietzsche). There are discussions about the secret identity, the meaning of The American Way, the nature of an alien being trying to be human, stuff like that.

I don't know. I really don't have a lot to say about it. Most of the essays just ran together in my head. They're kind of bland. There are some analyses of Kingdom Come, All-Star, Red Son, and the other big stories, but I never felt like I was reading anything particularly new or innovative. And there sure were some sloppy comics references.  And there are some summaries of stories that don't seem too worried about getting things right, either. (There's also some sloppy scholarship in general, such as when one writer tells us that he's sure Siegel and Shuster created Superman as a direct refutation of Nietzsche's ubermensch, which just seems silly to assert without even trying to find evidence).

I think what I was looking for was a more thorough exploration of one theme that I've found compelling: Should Superman just take over? Since he's so good, morally and physically, why wouldn't we want him to make laws instead of just being a vigilante? This has been explored in comics, both in Superman stories and those of his analogues (Miracle Man is a good example), and with Plato being referenced a couple of times, I just expected the notion of a sovereign Superman to come up more.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Promethean Luthor

Cover to Superman 891 by David Finch

Man, I love that cover. I've become obsessed with mad scientists lately.

So, this comic (which I've just gotten around to reading) begins with Luthor fantasizing about being Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and providing it to an impoverished humanity.

His next fantasy (he's being influenced by a huge caterpilarcalled Mister Mind, who's allowing him to indulge all his wildest dreams, mentally anyway) is of being Dr. Frankenstein. He tears the sheet of his creation to find that he has created not Superman, but...himself.

Then he becomes an Old West Sheriff, which isn't so relevant.

Moving on, in Superman Returns, Kevin Spacey's Luthor has following conversation with Parker Posey's Kitty:

“Do you know the story of Prometheus?  No, of course you don’t.  Prometheus was a god who stole the power of fire from the other gods and gave control of it to mortals.  In essence, he gave us technology.  He gave us power.” 
 “So we’re stealing fire? In the arctic?” 
“Actually, sort of.  You see, whoever controls technology controls the world.  The Roman empire ruled the world because they built roads.  The British empire ruled the world because they built ships.  America, the atom bomb, and so on and so forth.  I just want what Prometheus wanted.”
“Sounds great, Lex, but you’re not a god.” 
“Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind.  No.  I don’t want to be a god.  I just want to bring fire to the people.  And I want my cut.”
The novel Frankenstein is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus." It's probably the first mad scientist story.

Prometheus formed the subject of my dissertation. It's one of the things that prompted me to write about Superman. I spent three years of my life studying that story, and it hasn't let me quit yet.

The interesting thing about Prometheus is that he fits into both the hero and villain category nicely. If you like Zeus, he's the villainous trickster. If you don't like Zeus, he's a benevolent culture hero.

Or, as in the case of Luthor, a villain who thinks of himself as a hero.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Post-Birthday Blues

This picture, of Siegel and Shuster looking up at a drawing by Neil Adams, seems the most appropriate for today.
After combing through twitter to see what all sorts of people are saying about Superman on the 75th anniversary of Action #1, I've decided that this tweet, from today, is my favorite:

There are all sorts of articles to link to, so I'll do it simply:

From IGN.
From the fantastically-named Ars Technica.
From the ComicsGrid.
And from the New Republic.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Superman Day

The place where Joe Shuster lived for a while in Cleveland.

Today, the 18th of April, marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Action Comics #1. Superman had been created some years earlier (circa 1933), but today's the day that people first saw him on the stands.

I had really hoped my book would be published at this point, but it's still stuck in the quagmire of peer review. For the moment at least, it's out of my hands.

Still, there's no shortage of books on Superman and the various stories behind the stories. I discussed Weldon's book recently; there's also Superman and Philosophy, which I'm working my way through (my first impression, being about half way to the end, is that it's ok but not great); there's The Ages of Superman, released last year. And coming in June is Super Boys, which is about Siegel and Shuster.

Commemorating the date, there are some events in Cleveland (I'm curious about the birthday cake at the airport) and lots of online and print articles such as this one in the New York Times

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Glen Weldon's Superman

Glen Weldon has a weird fixation on Superman's mullet.

His new book, an Unauthorized Biography of Superman, contains a lot of plot summaries. There's some behind the scenes stuff, lots of evaluations of what works and what doesn't work for the character, things like that. He starts at the beginning--no substantial references to influences until later on--and moves right on up to 2013.

Weldon writes a blog for NPR, and his writing style reflects that occupation. His wordplay is often clever, sometimes grating, but always fluid and clear. There's nothing new to his book, nothing that you can't get in others, but Weldon's focus on release dates, on some contextualization, and on some minor aspects of Superman trivia, is good t read. Of course, there's a lot he's left out. There's not a way around that when you're writing about Superman.

Still, he can't seem to get over that mullet.

There are other oddities, such as Weldon's inclusion of the odd detail that Jerry Siegel happened to die on a day when a Superbowl was played. But this is exactly the type of book I expected to see this year, Superman's 75 year in publication. No pictures, though, which is a shame.

There's another new book, called Superman in Philosophy. Haven't read that yet.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Reasons to Love the 1001 Nights

Sentences such as this one:

"In the hall was a well of Roman workmanship, in which lived a jinniya, of the stock of Iblis the damned, whose name was Maimuna and who was the daughter of al-Dimriyat, one of the famous kings of the jinn."

Paintings such as this one:

Aladdin by Frank Godwin

Monday, March 25, 2013

Quotes: Thor Edition

I was a Thor fan as a kid. I fully acknowledge that the Thor film released a couple of years ago was not terribly good. But I love it. Nothing you can say will convince me not to love it.

There is precisely one truly outstanding line in that movie, and when it's uttered by Thor, it feels like a throwaway line:

We drank, we fought, he made his ancestors proud.

It's followed soon after by...

I still don't think you're the god of thunder, but you should be.
--Erik Selvig

Can't wait for The Dark World...

The King!!!!

Walt Simonson's run on Thor has probably been the most influential story in my life.

I detested Stracyzinsky's Thor story. But I loved Olivier Coipel's art.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Superman and Science

A while back I wrote a brief summary of the popular science books that utilize Superman and other superheroes to teach scientific concepts. This method is still at work. In a Scientific American blog, Kyle Hill writes 'Superman Explains Why He Didn't Destroy the Russian Meteor.' You may recall that meteor, hitting the atmosphere above  the town of Chelyabinsk about a month ago. The explosion, in the atmosphere, shattered windows and shook the earth.

So, in order to explain why it would have been a bad idea to destroy the meteor in flight, Kyle imagines Superman telling people why he decided to let the atmosphere take care of it.

“We can only speculate, as no one has ever exploded a bomb of that size at that height,” said the Man of Steel, “but if I punched the meteor where it disintegrated over Chelyabinsk, I probably would have killed people.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Artist Chris Sprouse leaves Card Superman Project

Well, looks like the Orson Scott Card controversy has reached a 'to be continued...'. Card's views on gay marriage and his advocacy of overthrowing a government that allows it have caused lots and lots of news outlets to report that some people won't buy or sell a Superman story that he wrote. Then, all of a sudden, the artist of the story, Chris Sprouse, decides he doesn't want to be involved. Sprouse released this statement:

It took a lot of thought to come to this conclusion, but I've decided to step back as the artist on this story. The media surrounding this story reached the point where it took away from the actual work, and that's something I wasn't comfortable with. My relationship with DC Comics remains as strong as ever and I look forward to my next project with them.

 DC Comics reports that they're looking for a new artist, and in the interim they've removed the book from publication. They apparently have no problem with Sprouse's exit.

The links above all lead to news stories on sites that remain objective about the whole situation. There are others, however, who are less objective.

We kind of wish Sprouse had said it was Card’s bigotry that was taking away from the work, not “the media surrounding this story.” But if this get’s DC closer to canning the Ender’s Game scribe, so much the better.

 Wired, tipping their hat a bit, includes the line, "The now non-homophobic Adventures of Superman no. 1 will be launched digitally on April 29, with the print edition following on May 29."

That makes me wonder if a homophobic writer can ever write a non-homophobic story.

Anyway, the whole thing may just be quietly forgotten by DC now that they have an out. How hard will they look for a new artist? To be continued...

I don't think I ever linked to the petition to get DC to remove Card from the project. Here it is, 16,500 signatures strong.

It reads, in part:

We need to let DC Comics know they can't support Orson Scott Card or his work to keep LGBT people as second-class citizens. They know they're accountable to their fans, so if enough of us speak out now, they'll hear us loud and clear.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Card, Superman, Retailers

Comics Alliance has been running a series of interviews with comic book retailers regarding the Orson Scott Card Superman thingie. I linked to the first one here. They've added parts two and three and four.

Part 2 is a conversation with  the manager of Acme comics in North Carolina. It's a lot about how content can affect sales, but the manager ultimately believes his job is to give the choice to his customers, so he'll be stocking the comic in question. Even when he disagrees with the creator or content, it doesn't affect his business practices.

Jermaine Exum:  Just like in the worlds of entertainment and sports, the comics industry is not immune to creators who are divisive or are, in some cases, difficult to support. The moment where a fan must decide if they support the creation or the creator is never fun, nor is it anything you can prepare for until it happens. I myself recently purged my personal collection of the work of a creator I had previously enjoyed, due to his outlook on the industry we are both part of and my interaction with him at conventions. That creator's work is still on prominent display at Acme Comics, and we reorder it regularly as needed.

In the third, with the owners of Challengers in Chicago, we learn that this store is planning on donating all their profits to the LGBT advocacy group called Human Rights Campaign. A couple of relevant passages:

Patrick Brower: It is never our intention to take the choice away from the people who shop with us. Just because we may not be fond of this particular creator's very public personal beliefs doesn't mean fans of Superman that choose to shop at Challengers should be denied the opportunity to get that issue of Adventures of Superman. That we don't want to profit from it is not a good enough reason to not let someone buy it if they want it. Also, that issue is an anthology and Chris Samnee has work in that book. Have you seen his Superman pin-up? It's gorgeous.

W. Dal Bush:This book is a print edition of a digital-first DC superhero comic; it's not Saga. Based on our sales for other digital-first comics, such as Batman Beyond Unlimited or Arrow, we'd have been lucky to sell a dozen copies even if there'd been no controversy regarding the creators involved. While our donation of profits might not be apparent to DC, I don't know that a missing 12 copies would've either. All things being equal, we felt better making a donation and selling the book than boycotting the title.

Part 4 is an interview with Adam Healy, of Cosmic Monkey comics in Oregon. he is carrying the comic because it's his job to provide comics for his customers. Beyond that, here's an interesting statement:

We worry about not being able to satisfy our customers more than losing customers. We stock fairly low numbers on the shelf of most of the books DC and Marvel publish. They put out so many books that they compete against each other and lose. We simply can't afford to stock most books more than lightly since we have no evidence that there is a demand for the product beyond what our pre-orders are for each book. Realistically, without the media attention, an Orson Scott Card-written Superman book is not something that would sell well. Superman is a character that lacks the social relevance he had 75 years ago. People don't know what he stands for or why he does what he does, and current storylines do nothing to address this confusion.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Measure of a Man

I've been thinking about Issue 6 of All-Star Superman a lot lately. I've excised the chapter that focused on it from my book, replacing it with a chapter based on fieldwork instead. I'm contemplating turning the excised chapter into an article, so it's got my attention even though it's gone. And I've been looking over the story.

On top of that, there were the superheroics of early last month. It would seem to work nicely with a line from All-Star issue 6. Clark Kent, delivering a eulogy for his father Jonathan, says: "He taught me that the measure of a man lies not in what he says but what he does." It seems a profound moment.

But it only seems that way. I'm not the only one to find trouble in this, or in other aspects of Morrison's work, but as time goes by I feel like this line in particular just isn't correct.

So, this really isn't a post about Superman.

With that out of the way, the idea at issue in the line--that doing things is more important than saying things--creates a dichotomy between words and actions. We've all heard the notion that 'actions speak louder than words.' There's a hint of this in the old saw that 'seeing is believing,' because it opposes the active seeing to the passive 'hearing about' something (the modern phrase, however, is just half the older version, which told us that "seeing is believing, but touching is for real").

It's a false dichotomy.

Talking is doing. A silly sentence, yes, but it gets right to the point. I'm troubled by the notion that speech isn't an action, that there's no agency behind it. It's right up there in the US Constitution, among the other actions of petition, assembly, and whatnot in the First Amendment. If speaking wasn't an action, then it would have no effect. People wouldn't be motivated by words, or driven to hatred and love. In performance studies, there's a special word for speaking as action: speech act. I dub thee knight. I pronounce you husband and wife. I'm breaking up with you. Some of these are accompanied by actions, but the words are often enough by themselves. Words written, words spoken, words signed...these things can bring us to tears, spur us to victory, put us to sleep, and take away our fears.

And to me, it's interesting that Morrison, a man who makes his living with his output of words, overlooks that when writing Superman's speech.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Rap about OS Card and Superman? Why not?

So Adam WarRock has recorded a song about the whole situation with Orson Scott Card writing a Superman story.

If Superman was real, you know I think he'd feel
He wouldn't want a man of hate to tell his story
If Superman was real you know the man of steel
He'd say all people could just share in the glory.

He writes in his blog:

Some people say you shouldn’t judge an artist for their beliefs. You should judge them for their works. I don’t believe that. When an artist puts their beliefs out there, they are making those beliefs a part of their works, a part of the whole experience of them as an artist. If you disagree, or are offended by those beliefs, then you can judge them for it, you can boycott or actively protest against their works. This is the machine that we have in society, to fight back against ignorance, stupidity, hatred. We change people’s minds through action, through discourse, through engagement.

He ends, like so many do, by showing a bit from All-Star Superman:

You're much stronger than you think you are.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

One more

Let's just add this link to a Comics Alliance interview with the owner of Zeus Comics in Dallas, who says:

Let me pull back for a moment because you're speaking directly to choice, and I've seen the word "censor" and the phrase "freedom of speech" bandied about in regards to Orson Scott Card and his relationship to DC Comics and Superman. Card can say, write, blog, advocate whatever he wants. That does not mean that speech comes consequence free. Free speech and censorship relate to a government and its citizens. It does not directly apply to businesses and their relationships. Your employer decides your dress code, your hours, your work ethic and in particular the things you can and can not say to your peers or the business' customers. Businesses decide whether or not to hire or fire folks based on things discovered on their Facebook page, Twitter feed, even their appearance.
Now, Card has said some venomous things about the LGBT community and he advocates such through his relationship with NOM. In the same way Nike can drop Lance Armstrong because of his potential to hurt their brand, DC can drop Card because his hate speech towards a group is damaging to DC Comics and Superman. Card is contracted to write a Superman story. DC is under no obligation to publish or print that story in part or in whole. DC will edit that story, ask for rewrites and often dictate the content. For example, DC would not let Card's Superman drop the F-Bomb. Is it censorship of Card's story? It isn't. Its not Card's story. Its DC's story. They hired him and they can decide what to publish. Is it censorship if Zeus Comics decides not to carry the comic? It isn't. Each month, when ordering products through Diamond, I am making a decision whether or not to carry a comic based on values, quality of work, and its ability to sell. That's not censorship, that's capitalism.

Also, in print publishing, the comic shop is DC's customer. It's completely within our right to ask DC to remove Card and/or provide us with a product we can sell. If a writer's personal opinions are so contrary to my audience's values, their work won't sell. The coverage this last week about Card's near two decades of outspoken anti-gay bigotry and anti-gay activism have made Orson Scott Card toxic to Zeus' customers. In the end, it's really Card's outspoken animus for gay people that made the decision.

More about Card

A few more shops have decided not to carry the new Adventures of Superman, written by Orson Scott Card. One in Canada and one in Ireland. The Irish shop, called The Big Bang Comic Shop, released a statement which read, in part:

Ironically in all of this it’s a Superman story. And Superman stands for Truth and Justice. I’m pretty sure Superman, if he were a real living breathing person wouldn’t be into restricting the rights of any person no matter what their sexual orientation was but Mr Card is and that doesn’t represent the principles of Truth and Justice to us. The second irony in all of this, if we were to boycott the title all together we’d be no better than Mr Card restricting people’s right to get this issue if they so wanted to. We’re not about censoring rights, unlike Mr Card.

 A couple of things here: note the lack of 'the American way.' And the idea that the shop management (no names were included in the article I read) knows what Superman would do if he were a real person.

Here's a thoughtful response on how this story relates to one family's opinions about Card's other work--in short, his views on marriage and homosexuality have ruined a story (Ender's Game) that the writer and his family once loved. This isn't the first time I've seen a statement like that.

 And another response, from TG Daily, makes the connection between 'geeks' and gay folks:

We geeks know what it’s like to be excluded in life, and know how painful prejudice can be. Like gay people and other minorities, we just want to be accepted and treated like everyone else, and when it comes to genre worship, enthusiasm and sincerity is all that really matters, not the color of your skin, nationality, or sexual preference. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Card's Superman

Let's dig a little bit deeper into the controversy surrounding DC's choice to hire sf writer Orson Scott Card to create some Superman stories.

First, here's a USAToday article that sums up the issue:

DC Comics ignited a firestorm last week by announcing that Card, who has been criticized over the years for his vocal anti-gay political stance, would be one of a stable of writers contributing to a new digital-first anthology, Adventures of Superman. The series, launching in April (a print version will be sold in stores starting in May), features the iconic hero who has long been associated with the phrase "truth, justice and the American way.''
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender activist website has collected more than 11,000 signatures on an online petition asking DC to drop Card from the project....

In addition to being the author of the 1985 science-fiction novel Ender's Game and many other sci-fi works, Card is on the board of directors for the National Organization for Marriage, which is outspoken in its denouncement of same-sex marriage.

Here's another summary, from The Daily Beast. And one from The Guardian.

DC's response has been to brush it off:

As content creators we steadfastly support freedom of expression, however the personal views of individuals associated with DC Comics are just that — personal views — and not those of the company itself.

Beyond the petition, several shops have decided not to carry the print version of the comic.

At issue are both Card's beliefs and his actions. He's not merely someone who believes that certain people should be denied marriage, he sits on the board of an organization devoted to stopping it, and has stated that, should gay marriage become a federal right, people should rise up against the government. Michael Hartney has written on just this point:

If this was a holocaust denier or a white supremacist, there would be no question. Hiring that writer would be an embarrassment to your company. Well, Card is an embarrassment to your company, DC. This is the same. The LGBTQ community will no longer take this lying down. Our civil rights are no longer up for debate or discussion.
Ugh. And of all the characters Card could have been hired to write, you give him Superman? The character that taught me to lead by example? To do the right thing, even when it was hard? To keep going, even when it seemed hopeless? What an insult. Kids are killing themselves. They are killing themselves in a climate of intolerance and homophobia publicly fostered by people like Orson Scott Card. You don’t have to contribute to this. You shouldn’t. You mustn’t.

Christopher Butcher takes it further:

Orson Scott Card is a dangerous bigot. If he will not even attempt to atone for his dangerous bigotry (including: hate-filled screeds, lies, and incitements to violence), then I don’t care if he never gets another job again. Let alone writing a beloved icon of children and adults.

Here's a thoughtful response from Wired, about how the writer is disappointed by Card's views, but doesn't agree that he should be pulled from the story:

Let him write the story, and let DC publish it. You can then choose to buy the comic or not. You can then choose to protest the message in the actual story if you are offended by it. But silencing a voice — even one with as intolerant a message as his — is not the answer. It’s better to hold that intolerance up to the light of day and show it for what it truly is: fear. Fear of the alien. Fear of the other and the strange. A fear that, ironically, it was Orson Scott Card who helped me confront and vanquish at an early age, whether he meant to or not.

Mark Millar has apparently tweeted that calling for the firing of Card based on his views is nothing short of fascism.

But others have been prompted to more reflective statements about their view of the character:

Superman may not live in the real world, but I’d like to think that if he were a real being he would be on the side of justice for LGBT community members.

It's important to point out that the issue is coming to a head because of the character. Nobody seems to have complained much when Card wrote Iron Man stories, as many of the above links make clear. Because Superman is involved, people suddenly have strong opinions. Following on a point from Butcher above, Tom Spurgeon wonders about this:

Butcher's line about Superman having power as an icon above and beyond his role as a corporate-owned character attached to a dubious history of exploitation and issue-alignment, and that this matters, is well-taken. That is very much a blind spot for me. For me, Superman is an empty suit. One of my first Internet fiascoes was a mid-1990s declaration that no adult person actually considered Superman a role-model and being lectured by an array of adults on CompuServe that told me that they very much considered Big Blue a role-model and how dare I suggest otherwise. Live and learn. I'm still always a little confused that the ideal outweighs the uglier aspects for folks that are routinely exposed to both. This expression of that notion here, that being assigned to Superman means something more than if Card were given, say, his own entire comics line, comes from hardcore comics fans, not from like my Mom or from my friends growing up or their kids. It's sort of like if the press corps and Secret Service that dealt with JFK on a daily basis had a more hardcore idealized version of the president than Catholic households in Boston with his picture above the television had, although maybe that doesn't explain it well, and maybe those men and women did hold Kennedy in higher regard.

It's legitimately fascinating that Superman seems to me to have been traditionally claimed by conservatives as having ideals in that direction, and here is claimed for what we tend to think of as American liberal values such as inclusiveness. In fact, the irony from the perspective of this being a headache for DC Comics is that they've sold and sold and sold this viewpoint where they are in shared custody with generations of fans of an important set of ideas and principles wearing a cape, and in this instance they have to deal with the fact that people are going to hold them to that. Good

So there's all that stuff wrapped up in this issue. The general sentiment above is that Card is wrong in his opinions, and that he is in the minority. Some people think that Superman shouldn't be written by a person who feels the way Card feels, who advocates the things he advocates. As I see it, it all comes down to the idea that some people think that Superman should represent inclusivity--he saves everyone. They extend this idea beyond the character and the stories told about him to the complex of events surrounding the creation of those stories, including the people involved in the creation.