Thursday, April 18, 2013

On the Event of Superman's 75th Anniversary

Today is, reportedly, the 75th anniversary of the debut of Action Comics #1.  75 years ago, Superman appeared on the cover of a comic book and, within a couple of months, had already risen to pop-culture superstardom.  By World War II, he had become a staple of Americana and - while Superman didn't invent the idea of the costumed hero, the science-fiction hero, or the altruistic do-gooder, he managed to put a distinct stamp on all of those ideas in one place - and has been endlessly imitated ever since.

In his first issue, all we knew was that Superman was a refugee of a doomed planet who arrived here as a baby.  There was no Jonathan and Martha Kent.  No Jor-El or Lara.  No Daily Planet (Clark landed a job at the Daily Star working for "Editor", I believe).  Just Lois, Clark, Superman and a whole lot of action.  And, man, Lois is a tough dame in that first issue.  No wonder Superman fell hard for her.

There are too many good books out there that talk about Superman's origins as a product of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for me to try to recreate the story here.  But they were down on their luck 20-somethings (not the teen-agers that are described to have just had Superman pop into their heads one night) when they sold the property to a struggling publisher who was soon outmaneuvered by some smooth operators.  I don't want to dwell too much on the fate of Siegel and Shuster, that's been fought out in the courts for five decades.  But their creation was not just one of the moment, but one of the past, the present and a limitless future, the likes of which we'd only ever seen in a few American fictional characters, from Ichabod Crane to Huckleberry Finn.  And this one arrived in a splash of color, crude drawings and an insurmountable flash of power.

Superman is an amalgamation of a dozen or so pulp literature ideas, some stolen outright from big names like Doc Savage, some from lesser known sources like the novel Gladiator.  Many find biblical aspects in his origins or in the perceived saintly selflessness of his actions (an interesting idea given Superman's varying presentations over the years).

I would argue that most people* don't really know anything about Superman, but everyone believes they know all you need to know.  A lot of folks can dismiss what they don't know as unimportant, thanks to the character's comic book roots, while ignoring the fact that Superman has been a huge part of every major media revolution.  You see people ascribe characteristics and virtues to the character based on a glance and some half-remembered bits from a movie they haven't seen in decades.  Others demonize those same virtues as old fashioned or out of touch, without ever deconstructing what it means to declare a desire for a more just world, to protect those who can't protect themselves as irrelevant in the modern context.

The character is attacked for his masculinity and chastised by young men reading comics for not being masculine enough.  He's a simpleton for not using his powers for personal gain.  He's shown to children as a model for goodness and heroism.  He's been used to sell everything from flashlights to breakfast cereal to slot machines.  He takes a journalist's wage and works in the most exciting industry in the world and an industry we're told has no more relevance.  He's in love with a woman who is a victim, a sex object, a foil, a peer, a competitor, his better, a buffoon who only desires to become Mrs. Superman.  His best pal is a sixteen year old kid who jumps into a dress whenever the opportunity presents itself, and who alien princesses fall in love with on a routine basis.

Yes, it's Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.

Sticker in the window of a truck.  Comic book character.  Media figure.  Quintessential superhero.  Slice of Americana.  Cultural artifact.  Icon.

I probably think about Superman more than the average bear.  Not a week goes by that the hundreds of portrayals of the character, some aspect of the concept, or some detail of the character's creation or maintenance doesn't reveal something new that I hadn't considered or known before.  For twenty years I've had people telling me that Superman isn't cool.  Fellow comics fans let me know Superman wasn't what I was supposed to like about comics, and I get it.  When I first started reading comics, I couldn't figure out why anyone would be interested in Superman when you had Wolverine, Batman and all the other characters that made skulking around cultivating their angst seem pretty cool.

At some point that changed.  At some point I was more interested in a character who wore the brightly colored suit and called people "sir" and "ma'am" and wasn't burdened with vendettas.  Somehow, wanting to do the right thing, to go out there and do what you could for other people as thought put into action, became more unusual to me as an adult than reacting out of anger or frustration.  To act out of a sense of generosity and for a greater good may not earn you street cred, but if that's what you're working for, maybe the "S" isn't the right look for you.

It's been years, but I've had comic shop clerks openly make fun of me for being the guy who buys Superman comics, and I still get an endless stream of articles sent my way informing me why I should see through the sham and embrace characters more complex and modern.

It's a natural reaction to distrust anyone held up as a moral figure, especially in your twenties as you start actually reading the news and authority figures show their failings, one after another, and anyone who does good is eventually shown to be human.  But, (psst... spoiler!), Superman is fictional.  The stories aren't about the frailty of mankind, and our foibles.  It's about wanting to open the shirt and show the "S" on the chest and be the best we can be when a crisis occurs.  When someone needs help, maybe we shed the off-the-rack suit and the glasses, and give way to our better angels, leaving behind our nervous habits, our capacity for pettiness, our useless rage, our greed and, yes, our fear.  We can have hope, or...  maybe sometimes provide that hope by being the person who extends a hand to lift someone else up instead of slapping them down.

And, of course Superman is the guy who walks into a hail of bullets without blinking.  He's the one who steps up to Brainiac's ship with a bit of consternation, and, in the comics, like all of us when we're facing something down we're not sure we're going to be able to handle, he sets his jaw, steels his eyes and goes in.

I'm a 38 year-old guy with a job and a house and a car, and there's still something I get out of thinking about what it means to be the person who doesn't wear a mask, who is the first to step up and say "I'll help", who wants to be behind the keyboard pounding out stories when he's not pulling a cat out of a tree or diverting an asteroid from landing on Metropolis City Hall.  I want to be able to say I did the ideals of Superman proud, even though I know... hey, that's a crazy thing to do, and know I'm not even coming close.  But I hope it's made me kinder, made me pick careers where I could help people, given me the backbone to make not just tough decisions, but the right ones.

You gotta try.

But, you know, Superman is pretty cool.  And I have high hopes that the guy who started off pulling Governors out of bed to halt a death sentence, carrying corrupt politicos across telephone wires, overturning mobster's cars, charming Lois (and not even able to fly) gets another look this summer when Man of Steel hits theaters.

From what I've seen, the vision looks like what I've known about Superman for a long time.  He's an orphan of a whole world who finds himself a place with humanity by standing for us all and wearing a symbol of hope right there on his chest.  Yes, I'd love for people to see what I see in the character, but I don't count on it.  You get used to all these different interpretations and reactions.

We're in a new era, where corporate interests drive the longevity of a cultural icon, be it Superman, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny or other vaguely iconic bit of pop culture ephemera.  But Superman seems to have surpassed that.  Bugs Bunny is associated with the WB shield, Mickey with Disney.  I'm not sure most people know that Superman isn't somehow in the public domain and, in fact, I've spoken to many perfectly intelligent people who assure me I'm wrong, and I have no doubt they leave frustrated from our conversation to go off and do a Google search, certain they'll send me a link to show me how I was wrong.

But that's okay. It means people think that Superman is such a part of our culture that he's as uncopyrightable as Mom, George Washington and Apple Pie.  And if, indeed, that's where he winds up one day, I think we'll take care of him so he can continue to take care of us, saving the day.

Happy 75th to Superman.

*if you're here, you're not most people


J.S. said...

Happy birthday to Supes! Nice post.
In terms of people being comfortable with "the Superman that they know" and not investigating all of the myriad aspects of the character, I think for myself, personally, I feel that same sense of resignation with almost every comic character that's been around for a very long time. It's hard to get invested in the nuances of endless permutations when you know that the changes literally are endless (or will last as long as someone with publishing rights to the character is interested in continuing to make money off of tinkering with things). At this point I think Superman is more than a literary figure whose characteristics change with the whims of new writers and publishers- he's more of a well known archetype. The audience, as much as anyone else, has a right to reject a particular work when Superman is depicted with charactersitics that don't fit well with some fairly longstanding traditions. There's room for interpretation, of course, but there's also a legitimate role that society can play in rejecting a depiction when the author just gets it wrong. These central, core features for comic book characters make them more interesting that, say, more maleable, perpetual characters in other mediums (like soap operas).
All of this to say, a lot of people feel comfortable spending time away from the character for a while before returning to it because while the details may change, the character itself has certan reliable, fixed features.
I'm not sure what all of this says about mullet Superman.
Anyway, happy 75 to Superman. Happy 38 to you!

The League said...

The audience, be it comic geeks or grandmothers buying birthday cards, do play a part in defining the character. I'd actually argue (as someone who does read those comics) that Superman comics readers actually seem to keep the comics writers in line and let them know when they push the character into directions they know are wrong (see: Chuck Austen's aborted run on Superman). Superman readers are a conservative lot and generally know the character as well or better than the writers.

The issue of very recent history may be that the writers actually know pretty well what they want to do or should do, and the publishers (Didio and Lee) fundamentally do not understand the character.

Where I will part ways with you is when someone is just flat out incorrect, and that happens more often that you'd think. The hardest thing (and the thing I don't make time for anymore) is deciding not to try to convince someone why they may not be right in their interpretation or what they want to ascribe to the larger-than-life, cartoon figure of Superman. They see the archetype, but in decoding the message, their own hardware won't interpret the message as intended. I am thrilled that a new Superman movie gives the public an opportunity to see Superman for what I, and many other fans of the character (not the bumper sticker) believe the character could and should be seen by the public. Seeing Superman describe his "S" as a symbol of hope and leaping into action is extremely promising. I am very hopeful this most recent take will have a positive impact, and maybe even reach those early-days comic fans who see Superman as some throwback in the comics world.