Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Your Questions Answered: What if I Had Creative Control of Superman?

Jake asks:

Since this is Superman heavy blog, if you were the publisher or editor in chief over at DC, or even just a writer on a Superman title, what would you do, creatively, with Superman? Assuming you could flush the whole reboot, what would you do (or not do) with the character? Just focus on good, solid storytelling? Make Superman more socially/politically conscious? Introduce him to a wider audience, i.e. kids, women, etc.?

Believe it or not, this isn't something I think about all that much, and maybe that's wrong-headed, but I'm never comfortable with reviews of something that start with "what they should have done was..." or "what they should really do".  It seems like an endgame with little satisfaction.

Usually the question I find myself asking is: why didn't that work?

But rather than dodge the question, let me give it a whirl.

1. Re-Establish a Supporting Cast of Humans

If you've been picking up Superman comics for a while, or, in fact, most superhero comics of the last decade, one of the primary problems I detect is that there is no status quo.  There's no "home base" for the characters to point to and have in mind as they go about their adventures.  Spider-Man lost his with the dissolution of the Mary Jane marriage, Batman is almost never seen as billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne with his youthful ward, and the only writer who seemed to want to put Clark Kent in the Daily Planet for more than two panels every six issues was Geoff Johns, who left the book before his creative imprint could really take hold.

From the Wolfman/ Byrne reboot on, DC sort of fudged and made the Kent Farm the new home base.  Superman turned to his parents whenever he had a bad day, which was an interesting twist as they did treat it as adults sharing a secret rather than as a Super Mama's Boy scenario, but it did mean a large change of dynamic from the somewhat lonely private life of Clark Kent that we'd seen for decades prior.

There's a big focus in superhero comics these days wherein they characters only spend time with other superheroes after the origin story.  The Avengers only really talk to one another and SHIELD agents.  Batman only talks to Alfred and his cadre of masked young men, and Superman - even in the relaunch - only seems to talk to his 5th Dimensional neighbor and the Legion of Superheroes.

It sort of raises the question: what are any of these characters doing?  What are they fighting for?  What is the point of going out and putting on a cape if everyone you know is wearing the suit?

Until fairly recent years, on a regular basis we'd get thought bubbles of Superman in peril concerned that he'd never see his friends at the Planet ever again, and it genuinely upset him.  Not only did a huge percentage of stories in the comics, radio, TV and film series center around The Planet and the cast there, those characters wound up with their own series that ran for decades.

I don't think Marvel had anything to lose in dumping the secret ID's of Captain America and Iron Man as those characters don't really need to hide their identity.  They're soldiers and captains of industry running around with personal arsenals.  Superman, however, isn't about tactical superiority, necessarily.  He's among us.  He's of us.  Sure he took a job where he could be a crusading journalist by day to cover the news and understand the world (not it in his apartment and blog about stuff he saw on Reddit), but he's an alien who has a need to connect and share.  He made friends at The Planet, and that dynamic gave weight and import to the stories as something other than just people in tights punching one another.  He lived among us, and when we needed him, he stepped out of view long enough to change clothes and come save the day.

In so much of what you see in comics now, I have absolutely no idea what would be lost if the characters lost the day.  It's all secret ninja fights in dark alleys based on petty grudges.  Superman can be that from time-to-time, but the specialness of what a superhero is doing is dramatized not in another splashy spread on the page but in how that character is different from the unique personalities that surround him or her and what it means to be both friend and protector of that community.

I do think there were points in the Carlin-edited era where we got maybe too much of life in Metropolis, so it's a hard balance to pull off.  But it can be done.

2.  Superman is a news reporter who writes for The Planet, whether that's a paper or not

Possibly one of my least favorite innovations of the Bronze Age is Clark Kent, News Anchor.  It forced awful tricks upon the narrative to see how Clark could still be in the broadcast chair each day at 5:00.  And it went on for years.  I can believe a man can disguise himself with a pair of glasses.  I don't believe he'd always make it to work if he was Superman.

Clark as blogger is more of the same.  It removes him from the aforementioned personal dynamic and frees you up to let Superman to disappear and nobody to be looking for him, but it loses the gravitas of what I think we can understand to be Clark's writing and his desire to be among humans.  Creatives keep mistaking the death of print papers for the end of the news, and that just isn't that hard to write around.

3.  Remember why Superman ever existed

You asked if I'd make Superman more socially relevant, etc...  Well, I think Morrison was on to something with the first few issues of his Action run.

Superman, when he was the only character in town, was unique as a sort of Robin Hood who didn't need to worry about getting arrested or beaten/ shot if he resisted while he went about doing what was right.  This went both ways, as we see in the first issue of Action where Superman defies the vary governor of his state and saves someone about to be executed, and later takes on gangsters.  Both sides wield power, legitimate or otherwise, and Superman is beyond mortal concern when it comes to taking a stand or sticking up for the people who can't help themselves.

For kids' stories, it's all pretty straightforward, but as comic shave grown into a medium for older readers, the better Superman stories explore what the implications are for exerting that power, and what effects it has from an intended and unintended standpoint.  And some great comics of the last fifteen years have explored this idea, and some bad comics have appeared that tried for this idea and fumbled (see JMS's work).

Basically, I wouldn't be interested in stories that didn't have some element of exploration of the Superman concept.  If it's a generic superhero story pasted onto Superman about villain's revenge, etc... I'd want to see how the writer had established the risk to more than just Superman (again, no ninja fights in dark alleys with no risk or reward for someone outside the character).  In some ways, it's the same questions you can ask of cop stories or of anyone given power via authority or tactical superiority to the average person - and we tell cop tales all the time.

That doesn't mean putting Superman as a security guard at an Occupy protest and making him sweat about who is right in that situation, but you can extrapolate from there - and, by the way, there was a reason Lex was made a corrupt billionaire in the 80's.  If Batman's dough could get him into helping people, clearly Lex's dough could get him into trouble.

4.  Speaking of Lex

What to do with Lex?

Man, I have no idea.  He's been so many things in the past 40 years, it's hard to figure out, because in a lot of ways, they all worked.  Even President Lex.

I don't think you can go back to Prison Gray Lex from the Silver Age, and I don't know if you need for Lex to remember Clark and Lana from Smallville in order to make him despise Superman.  Yeah, I'm punting on Lex.  I'm not sure.

The important thing is that Lex truly believes that Superman's place on earth and his ability to ignore the restrictions placed on even a brilliant mind such as his own is a slap in the face of humanity, and, in particular, those who are on top by scratching and crawling their way there, despite the fact that Superman isn't profiting from his exploits.

Lex is firmly in the camp that everyone behaves only for reasons that are in their self-interest, and that filter is so potent that the idea that Superman might get self-satisfaction from assisting others has made him unable to feel satisfaction with anyone or anything until he can defraud Superman and show there's a better way of doing things.  His cynicism knows no bounds, and in that way, he's truly at odds with Superman's hope for a better tomorrow.

5.  The power set

Superman is myth and legend.  I hate to say that we need to cap his powers, but I do think they can be fluid as the story dictates.  That said: I think the era of "Superman flying through the time barrier" and "juggling planets" is probably not a good fit for today's audience.  I hate to say, however, what size boat he can or can't lift, for example.  Or how fast he can move (I assume The Flash is always faster).

He may not be as cunning as Batman, or the tactician, but there's a huge need to re-establish Superman as a the child of brilliant scientists and no slouch in the IQ department.  Nor should he be allowed to be dressed down continually by Batman (see: every pairing between the two between 1986 and 2006).  He just has his own thinking, perhaps beyond Batman's narrow focus.

I like a Superman that can fly into space and to the sun and back without carrying air tanks, but who isn't leaving the Solar System unless he's in a space ship.  He brushes off a bursting shell, but he doesn't want to get too close to the sun or see what happens in an atomic blast.

And, damn, all these shades of Kryptonite are a pain.

6.  Lois Lane

A.  She's a reporter.  She's not a producer or whatever the hell DC made her in the mad scramble as they fought legal action.
B.   I miss the marriage, but I think we lost something when Lois learned Superman's secret.  I'd re-establish that Lois can't know, and have fun with the dynamic of Lois's ignorance on the dual identities.  Of course she talks trash about Clark to Superman and says dumb things about Superman to Clark and Jimmy.
C.  She's also an integral part of why Superman needs Clark and needs to appear human.  It's the only way to stick close to this remarkable woman until he can figure out how to better integrate his two lives.  Lois is the touchstone to what he sees in humanity that's worth saving - the spark of righteous indignation at injustice, the desire to set things right - it's what sets him out there in the cape and tights, to be the person to be the change that Lois wants to see.

7.  Clark/ Superman/ Kal-El

In my book, Superman is - in many ways - who Clark would be if he'd just been the human child of Martha and Jonathan Kent.  Likely, he'd be a reporter who was maybe a bit overly persistent in his pursuit of investigative journalism.  Superman may be smarter than that guy, and more damage resistant, but the core of who Superman is was set in his years between 1 and 18 by Jonathan and Martha.

But he wasn't that human child, and at some point he knew he was so different he became withdrawn, and the Clark Kent that we know was made - still with Jonathan and Martha's principles, but not sure how to deal with his classmates.  How do you talk about the fact you coughed and knocked over a barn wall?  That you accidentally saw Lana's underwear with your X-ray vision?  That if someone pushes you in the hall, they're going to be pushing against a stone pillar?

Learning that he's Kal-El is freeing.  It explains so much, but it also creates a new sense of responsibility for a whole culture, like suddenly learning he's a foreign exchange student from a country nobody really knows.

He's gotten a little weird.  As Clark, he can fake a normal conversation, but he has to think about it to sound like his co-workers.  He's imitating their banter, awkwardly, at the water cooler.  As Superman, he speaks with authority, and if you listened closely enough, you might realize that the writing voice of Clark Kent is shockingly close to the speaking voice of Superman.

Superman, in the end, is another face - a professional face.  There is no Kal-El face except when he's in the Fortress.

This isn't hard for him.  It's second nature.  It's moving between school and home, Sunday School class and palling around with Pete Ross and Lana Lang.  It's the face he puts on to speak to interview the mayor as Clark versus the voice he uses as Superman when the Mayor thanks him for saving the city.

But to Lois, Jimmy, Perry...  Clark is a sweet guy, the kind of guy you want to set your friend up with because he's non-threatening and seems well-read.  And he sometimes surprises you with what's on the printed page.  But Superman...  that guy is like meeting Neil Armstrong and  Harrison Ford in one package.  It's just a lot.

8. Audience

I'll assume I'm also publisher and CEO here, as well as editor.

Yeah, Superman isn't for kids blasting Nu-Metal from their iPhone.  Comics are full of characters for that demographic, and trying to make Superman work for the same audience that came to comics for The Punisher, Venom, Spawn, and (I hate to say it) Batman isn't going to work very well.

At this point in American pop-culture, Superman is seen as an Uncle who goes around telling kids to brush their teeth and get good grades, and that's square as hell, man.  I'm not sure he was every actually like that in any medium, but I'm not going to deny the perception is out there.

Superman Family Adventures was so on-point with the possible kid-appeal of Superman, the Planet cast and the extended family that I was truly mortified when the series got canceled.  But selling comics to kids in the Direct Market is like selling spinach salad at the candy store.  Comixology may have some reach, but DC comics still depends on the marketing and publicity channels for the Direct Market that isn't built to serve kids or parents.

DC could so a lot to rehabilitate Superman so that the character has the same range of appeal that they've developed for Batman across age groups via varying media and product lines, or that Marvel is doing with Spidey and The Avengers.  I don't think we need to focus on making one title that will please all audiences as that way lies madness.

But for Action and Superman?  DC didn't used to be afraid of differences in tone between their books.  I'd say:  it can be a sunnier book than Batman.  It can be counter-programming to the relentless funeral dirge of the Batman books and be a little more pop-art friendly and open to the bizarre and weird in a way that doesn't immediately scream "serial killer", but rather "man, Metropolis is a strange, strange place but I'd want to live there, giant metal robots and all".

I have no problem with Kandor, Krypto, Supergirl, Superboy, Streaky...  We may want to apply Comet and Beppo in limited doses.  It makes him no less The Last Son of Krypton, but his relationship with all those things not only provide narrative possibilities, but demonstrate different aspects of the character and his world.

And, by the way, making Jimmy Olsen cooler than Dr. Who as a character doesn't seem all that hard to me. he had the bow tie and jacket first, dammit.

I don't think it's a huge secret that All Star Superman was a big hit and is generally well received.  It has weight, it has pathos, it made me choke up at least twice in twelve issues, if not three times (Pa Kent's death, the scene with Regan the jumper, and Superman's final moments with Lois).  Superman can be an aspirational character and not just a character who makes us comfortable wallowing in self-pity.  It doesn't matter that he's  incredibly powerful.  Complaining that you can't imagine someone more powerful than Superman or who could challenge Superman says more about your lack of imagination as a writer than it does about 75 years of people who have given it a shot and succeeded.

What I don't think Superman needs is a killer edge to appeal to the audience that DC is courting.  They've got that audience with the rest of their line, and Grant Morrison is selling Superman comics just fine without making his comic fade into the wallpaper of what's become of the DCU.

I very much look forward to seeing what WB puts out this summer as a Superman movie.  There's no question that the movies of 78 and 80 were massively influential on the comics, and the comics have likewise been reflected back in TV and movies.  That's how the character works.


Jake Shore said...


First of all, thank you for taking time to answer my question so thoroughly and thoughtfully. I really enjoyed reading this.

The short version of my reaction is: Good answer. In fact, I'm not embarrassed to to say I have a little bit of a man crush on you right now.

The longer version is I couldn't agree with you more. Seriously, if I didn't agree with every word, it was like 99.9%. You see, I actually think about this very regularly, not so much as I review individual comics, but as I survey the state of comics in general, and the depiction of Superman in particular. Being the conservative curmudgeon I am, I necessarily hate and fear change, which is why it makes me crazy what is happening in comics, not just from a creative standpoint, but because what Marvel and DC are doing just defies common sense.

What bothers me more than anything, however, is the creators, editors and publishers, most of whom I assume grew up reading comics, have essentially denied children today what they loved and were able to enjoy growing up; either because the content is too adult, or because management has decided to make comics exclusively for 16-35 yr. olds. From a marketing standpoint, I just can't understand it. There's a reason why PG movies make so much more money than R movies. It's basic arithmetic. You've doubled your audience.

At a time when the popularity of superheroes (because of Hollywood) is at an all time high with the general public, to make comics less accessible than they ever have been (for children, women, minorities, new readers) just makes ZERO sense. Comics could be flying off the shelf today, regardless of the changes in technology, if DC and Marvel actually tried to expand their audience and grow. Isn't that what businesses are supposed to do?

You nailed it in your 'Superman Unchained' post. They just don't seem to know what to do with Superman. They don't seem to trust him as a character, even he though he's a beloved cultural icon largely because of his boy scout appeal. When the "Man of Steel" trailer was released, I saw footage from people who posted their smart phone videos online, of audiences cheering for and getting emotional about a character that supposedly no one can relate to anymore. I never saw that with Batman and Avengers trailers. DC needs to stop letting the opinions of geeks and people who run comics websites determine the creative direction of their product. Comics have become so insular, you'd think the industry was run from Pyongyang.

You're more plugged into the comics scene than I am so you may take issue with my lack of nuance, but I don't think I'm too far off.

The League said...

Thanks, man.

I've probably said it before and I'll say it again: It seems like Superman speaks less to the mode of how we get to a better tomorrow and more about our agreement that we want a better tomorrow (when he's played right). He can speak to our frustrations at the barriers between where we're headed by flying over or through them. He's the altruist that we wish we could be if our mortal shell were not so fragile. That sort of blows up the political landscape we're all navigating as he is that boy scout who isn't a part of the political discussion.

I think it's still a very big "if" with "Man of Steel", but if it does take off, we know WB will be putting pressure on DC to move beyond the comic shop demographic and appeal to a truly mass audience (once again). It does seem like feelings toward Superman are changing in the pop zeitgeist, and maybe it's just a cultural cycle we're going to get to ride.

J.S. said...

So here's a follow up question: would the Superman that you envision be able to survive in the current comic marketplace? Do you think it would have an audience?

The League said...

Five years ago, I would have sighed and said "I don't know. Probably not." But given the success of All-Star Superman, the current run on Action Comics by Grant Morrison and the positive reaction to work by folks like Chris Roberson, yes. Also, I think the comics audience is not necessarily as homogenous as people think, not is it as homogenous as the folks currently running DC.

And, as I mentioned, the homogenous nature of what DC is putting on the shelves.

I don't want to get too "inside baseball" as per the Direct Market versus the bookstore market, but even JMS's Superman book "Earth One" which was for the Barnes and Noble crowd sold like crazy for a while, so there's an audience that's reachable and willing to buy a Superman book at, frankly, an outrageous cover price of $20. With collected editions and digital sales, it may not be the DM that's seeing the book at top numbers, but it's possible that outside that market, it does quite well.

As a BTW: the Season 11 "Smallville" digital comic apparently does PHENOMENALLY well. As aggravating as I find Smallville's continued success, it is an indicator of something not happening in comic shops. And while the LCS is hugely important, it's no longer the only game in town as format has changed to digital and trade collections online, at Amazon, etc... All-Star did well as a stand alone comic, but as a collection? It's done extremely well. I'd compare the change to the importance of foreign box-office in this day and age for Hollywood tent films.

Even within comic shops, the era of the audience all looking like 18-25 year old white guys is fading. On Friday evening last week the place was crawling with kids and young women, who may or may not want a Superman book, but it's not all about X-Treme Mutants anymore.

As a last note, I'm not sure that young people who grew up in a world with Superman on TV every week for 10 years with Smallville, and for whom Dark Knight Returns predates their birth, have the same pop culture bias/ knee-jerk reaction we were inculcated with as young people when it comes to The Man of Steel.

Simon MacDonald said...

Wow Ryan, the best complement I can give this post is that I would read the hell out of a Superman book that followed the ideals you've put forth.

The only disagreement I have is that All Star Superman had 4 cry worthy scenes. The three you mentioned plus when he showed up at the children's hospital with Kandorean doctors.