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Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Superman Then And Now

Auto destruction.

Auto fellatio.

Superman doesn't suck because he's a "big blue boy scout". He doesn't suck because he's old-fashioned, or because he wears his underwear on the outside. He sucks because he's been consciously, if inadvertently, (over)written to suck for the past 30 years.

This past month of Superman comics underscores the problem with the modern conception of the character; not only is he trapped under the weight of his own supposed Christ-like image, his publishers do everything they can to reinforce that image, to the severe detriment of the concept. DC doth protest too much, and it reeks of a desperate impulse to prove Superman's validity by explaining it slowly, one more time, because we apparently didn't understand it the first 900 times. With the Infinite Crisis upon us, one gets the impression that DC Editorial told all the current writers to wrap up their runs on the various Superman titles by exploring, for the millionth time, the theme of "Superman as inspiration." Mark Verheiden's Superman #225, shown above, goes straight for the hamfisted Jesus comparison; Greg Rucka's putrid Adventures of Superman #648 has already been eviscerated elsewhere; Gail Simone uses her Action Comics #835 to serve up a twist, with Superman speaking of the inspiration he draws from the mortals around him:

Simone's a more-than-decent writer, possibly the most amusing mainstream scripter in comics today, but I'm sorry, scenes like this eat their own tails. It's as if every Superman writer since Elliot S! Maggin is compelled to write their own "Must There Be A Superman?", the classic 1972 story in which Superman confronted his role as example, protector and wet-nurse to humanity, telling a crowd of Mexican immigrants "What you really need is a SUPER-WILL to be GUARDIANS of your OWN DESTINY!" Since that tale, it seems like every other issue has consisted of the writer sharing his or her character notes. Nothing's more clumsy or unneccesary than turning the implicit into the explicit. Simone's dialogue is graceful; her Superman is strong, likable, decent. But those panels, however noble their intent, are just too much. If readers recoil at anything in Superman's portrayal, it's the overbearing, constant insistence that he's a LEGENDARY ICON, worshipped by the regular folk, revered by all the other super-heroes as well as the people who publish his comics. In Batman's instantly famous line from Infinite Crisis #1, "The last time you inspired anyone was when you were dead," is the assumption that Superman should give a rat's ass, that part of his job description is to "inspire", like he's Mother Teresa or a Special Olympian. It's stifling. "What Would Superman Do?" Well, back when the character genuinely worked, he would punch an airplane out of the sky, hurl a crooked mine owner into his own dangerous mine shaft with a wicked grin, or beat the shit out of a gang of thugs without a second thought about what kind of example he was setting for the kids, what Green Lantern might think or if his actions were consistent with the Warner Brothers brand bible.

Joe Casey wrote Adventures of Superman a few years back. His run was hit and miss, the seeming fate of all modern Superman comics, but he did a tale that stands as one of the most interesting Superman stories of the past few decades. In the comic, an analog of the original "Champion of the Oppressed" version of Superman came into the modern DC universe. He did what came naturally to him; busting into executions to save condemned prisoners, sticking up for the little guy against the Man and his tanks. Of course he came into conflict with the current, approved version of Superman, not to mention the US government, and as he disappeared from a world that no longer had room for him, Casey played it as bittersweet, ambiguous, inevitable. But it wasn't ambiguous for me: the old Superman was far superior, a braver idea, he represented a heartfelt point of view. The Superman we're stuck with is the product of a 65-year-long committee meeting, and it shows. It's one thing for readers to cop that the Superman legend borrows from Moses, Jesus, etc. It's something else for the comics to shove that down our throats over and over again.

Superman fans constantly fret over how to make the character popular again. I'd start by throwing out all the reverence, all the self-importance. It's nothing but puffery that may make the creators and editors feel special, but it neuters the character. Look, I'm a child of the 1970s. I enjoyed Superman's anti-litter campaigns as much as the next kid. But really, that portrayal is creative exhaustion. The first Superman existed to challenge the establishment. Since the late 1950s, Superman has defined the establishment. Speaking of the late 1950s, DC could do far worse than studying George Reeves first season of the Adventures of Superman TV series. His Superman was respected by the cops and loved by polio-stricken children with dreams of attending the fair, but he didn't work for it, he didn't acknowledge it, he didn't worry about it. He just put his chin out, puffed his chest and did his job--with one serious don't-even-fuck-with-me scowl. That's the Superman I'd love to see when the Infinite Crisis dimensional portal bullshit clears.

well said, Cole. Plus, It good to know that I am not the only one who thinks Rucka is a bad writer in some subjects.
DC does love to remind us over and over again how its top-billing heroes are icons, like that somehow makes them still relevant.
I do think Superman is an icon, and that he is still relevant. I just don't think that constantly harping on it makes for good stories, or bolsters the claim. Superman should literaly be a man of Action. Modern superhero writers are too self-conscious--or at least they make their characters too self-conscious. Attempts at psychological realism (or more often, latter-day pastiches of Marvel Comics) leads to characters like the modern Superman, vacilating between self-doubt and confidence, good cheer and rage.

Grant Morrison is doing a good job so far in All-Star Superman balancing a supremely confident Man of Steel (per Jerry Seigel) with a capacity for melancholy and reflection (per Mort Weisinger), as when he stands in front of the Mirror of Truth in #2.
I want to kiss you right now.

Just saying.
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