Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Finding Superman

I've had an affection for Superman going back to childhood.  I've never really attempted to formally articulate the basis for my admiration, but I think it's for the same reasons most people love the character.  Over the past 20 years, the comic book industry has become decidedly more adult and less kid friendly.  During that same time, Superman has increasingly come to be viewed as a square; the Richie Cunningham to Batman's Fonz.  DC has done little to alter that perception and seems to be increasingly confused about what to do with their flagship character.  I've griped and carped about this a few times without ever getting specific.  And now I don't have to.  Ryan over at The Signal Watch, my go-to Superman expert,  has done a masterful job reminding us why we love the character, as well as explaining the reasons for Superman's current place in the wilderness and what could be done to fix it.  Here are some highlights:

On Superman's supporting cast
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? 

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 one 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.

On Superman as a socially conscious hero
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 very 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.

On Lois Lane
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.

On who Superman is
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. 

On Superman's audience
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 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.

Well said, Ryan.  (Read his enitre post here).

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