Comic Fodder

Superman: Not Complex or Cool

Of late, Superman has been a hot topic in comic circles as Hollywood tries a second attempt in under a decade to get The Man of Steel squared away in a film franchise. The idea, of course, is that it would be nifty to get two or three DC Superhero franchises at WB as successful as the summer 2008 hit, "The Dark Knight".

Comic readers circling the internet comment sections have had a wide range of opinions as to how WB could best execute, what went wrong with Singer's 2006 attempt "Superman Returns", and how the movie could work.

And one thing is pretty clear to this reader: In the realm of comics, there are super-hero geeks, sub-divided into their favorite publisher (often DC or Marvel), and splintered yet again into that lowliest, uncoolest group of comic fans in the high school cafeteria that is the comic geek-o-sphere... The Superman Fans.

I didn't read Superman until the end of college. I loved the first three Reeve movies, and generally liked what I knew of Superman and his mythology. I avidly watched Lois and Clark for about a season until school work became overwhelming.

But what worked for me in theory didn't work for me on the comics page.

I still loved the design of the Superman suit and was somewhat baffled by the "he's too powerful" argument, as I was busily reading "Sandman" and "Swamp Thing", and considered the DCU as a place of grander scale than Marvel, where even throw away villains like "The Gray Man" in Justice League International would be cosmic-level villains in the Marvel U.

As a high schooler, seeing DC revive Superman from death (which we all knew was a dumb sales ploy), to bring him back in an updated look that, frankly, looked four years out of date when DC made the change (by 1992-93, a mullet was already decidedly moving out of vogue, except for the scary rednecks of the suburban sprawl of Houston). Plus, the dialog of the Mike Carlin years felt flawed, the threats, sort of ludicrous (have you ever really checked out the Conduit storyline?). I'd loved "Man of Steel", but the monthly comics just didn't click with me the same way.

Plus, like most other kids who felt their brains melting with their first read of Miller's "Dark Knight Returns", I saw Superman for what he was. A chump. A patsy. Powerful but dim-witted. The dupe of the story rather than the emblem of Truth, Justice and The American Way (unless you believed the American Way was a paranoid, cancerous culture which co-opted its heroes, compromised them and used them for dirty land-grab wars).

Red Kryptonite

Its safe to say that, in many ways, Dark Knight Returns affected the way the world saw Superman for twenty years.

Seeking for a way to make Batman relevant in a world littered with superhumans, DC promoted the heck out of the idea that Superman may have been of above average intelligence, but Batman's genius was simply embarrassing to Superman. Somehow, it became Batman's duty to remind the audience Superman was only the muscle and he the brains of the pair. The message was repeatedly endlessly until circa 2006.

The readership, in turn, internalized DC's public floggings of Superman by Batman, and the effect spread out across the DCU. Where Superman had, in different times, been not just a being of great might but a super scientist as well, the character driven accusations of naivete by Batman were taken to mean Superman was as dumb as DC repeatedly told us he was.

Batman also wasn't the only character who got the drop on Superman one way or another (including one, admittedly, hilarious turn in Ennis's "Hitman").

Comic fans weren't necessarily staying away in droves, but the Superman books, by 2002, had fallen significantly in the sales charts. And by 2005, four of the ongoing Superman titles had been cut to two.

As the comic audience aged into the 1990's, the superhero genre gave way to the excesses of the period in both content and presentation. Meanwhile, Superman remained square, a detail highlighted all the more by the pathetic ploy to "hip up" Superman with a mullet and Clark Kent's embarrassing pony tail.

Where misinterpretations of Batman's post-Crisis/ Miller-directed persona had laid the foundations for the "extreme" era of superherodom, Superman's creators were spending time re-creating the pre-Crisis world of Superman, awkwardly trying to recreate the world of Superman which they'd grown up with, but sticking to the new rulebook imposed upon them.

Superman's status as the, literal, Last Son of Krypton made for a wide variety of bizarre and unsatisfying reincarnations of familiar concepts like Supergirl and Kandor as creators tried to force familiar concepts into the new mold. None of the new concepts survived too long before another creative team was razing the previous creators concept for their take (ever closer to a the original), until Infinite Crisis. (I, literally, have no idea how many takes there have been on Kandor since 1986. Maybe a half-dozen or more. And just as many Supergirls, I believe.)

Superman did fight "extreme" villains, with names like "Bloodsport", but that just made the comics seem like they were trying too hard to sit at the cool kid table.

Whatever the DC editors were doing wasn't working.

The older audience for comics wasn't filled with the wonder of superherodom that was required for Superman reading. The newer crop of readers had been raised on a steady diet of Spawn, Wolverine, and Punisher, and now had "Venom: Lethal Enforcer" among its options.

Superman with hands on hips and his reputation for helping old ladies cross the street seemed like little more than a relic. If comics were a medium for adult readers, then, by virtue, the material should reflect the grim action movies playing at the cinema where heroes shot first and asked questions later that adults were going to see.

Eventually the press somehow latched onto the idea that Superman's fundamental ideals of truth and justice were outdated in a post Clinton/ Lewinsky Scandal era, and even Superman's own writers believed it.

Steven T. Seagal documented his own struggle to write Superman in the phenomenal graphic novel "It's a Bird...", thanks to both his personal issues and his perception of Superman. It's a great Superman story in its own right, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Prior to 2006's "Superman Returns", pop-culture columnists who'd enjoyed Spider-Man were happily writing articles on why Superman was irrelevant to the 21st Century.

To Singer's credit, he must have been aware of the pop-culture consensus regarding Superman's place in a cynical world where "dark" is immediately lauded as having value. And he managed to address the issue head-on with Superman's discussions with Lois on "why the world needs a Superman". That he is here to try to rescue people, for no other reason than because heroes assist people who cry out for help.

To some degree, Singer's argument seemed to take. The "irrelevance" articles have dried up, and Superman has drawn top writers and something of a sales bounce.

Uncovering Krypton

What's fascinating about the speculation regarding the possible Superman movie is that so many people have opinions regarding how it should work, and they all vary so wildly. And while I know that, as a Superman Fan, I'm working with selective perception, it seems that you don't see nearly as many opinions on the subject with other characters.

Why the internet and mainstream press like to discuss a Superman movie to such a degree, when Superman has been blasted for being outdated, uncool in comparison to characters like Wolverine, and not as complex as Batman (and therefore boring)... It just seems odd that so many take an interest.

Is Superman outdated? Are we truly in an era where we simply cannot hold stock in a character we chastise for his lack of humanizing flaws, but then consider the character weak in Superman Returns when he wears his humanity on his sleeve?

What are these intangible flaws that we see in Spider-Man or Batman that Superman doesn't have? Or are we all still nodding in agreement with Batman from Dark Knight Returns and his disdain for a compromised hero without considering the context of the story?* And would an audience really want to read a Superman comic or see a Superman movie in which he was not the iconic Superman, who (at minimum) stands for ideals such as truth and justice, and therefore has a certain standard to uphold?

Who would that character be?

In a post Infinite Crisis world we've been fortunate to have a creative team that's abandoned the restrictions of the Byrne/ Wolfman relaunch of Superman, and who has been able to restore much of The Amazing World of Superman, from Legionnaire status, to a truly Kryptonian Krypto. And all of it no more nonsensical than anything else in comics.

We've also been lucky enough to have works from Morrison's "All Star Superman" to Dini and Ross's "Peace on Earth" and Loeb and Sale's "A Superman for All Seasons" to help guide the way back to what made Superman work as a character.

I suspect part of the interest in the new Superman movie is that the audience might have felt Singer was so very close with "Superman Returns", a movie that understood that there's a person under the cape. But he somehow got lost in plot details and failed to make an action movie on the heels of Spidey and Batman. (That said, I'll fight anyone who calls Superman Returns a bad movie.)

It may not just be childhood nostalgia that wants a good Superman movie, but a character who can stand up for truth and justice, and do so in a context that fully embraces the possibilities of the character as an Ace of Action, too.

But the statements one hears from fanboys, pop-culture journalists, etc... that Superman isn't complex enough, can't measure up to the standards of "today's" superheroes indicates to this reader that perhaps these people, who've heard from DC themselves for years that Superman isn't as cynical or smart as Batman (traits we want to emulate), haven't ever actually given Superman a real try. It's still odd to me that so many were enthusiastic about "Red Son", which I found compelling Elseworlds reading, but hardly the best Superman work of the past few years.

Throw in the great sales and terrific response to "All Star Superman", which is, really, a highly distilled form of Superman comics, and Superfans sort of scratch our heads at the newcomers and say "Yeah, this is the same guy we read about every month. Hope you enjoy your stay!"

Of late, we've been pretty luck with Superman comics, as the writers and artists are embracing the best of the character.** And a movie might be all that it takes to remind viewers that Superman is complex, he is conflicted, and he is as cool (if not more so) as any of his thousands of children and grandchildren out there in comicbookdom.

Personally...

I don't know exactly why or when I became a Superman nut. It certainly wasn't when I started reading comics.

But I do know that the ideal of Superman and the icon of Superman appealed to me a tremendous amount. The idea that the stories were often about how Superman chose to use his tremendous power seemed like a deceptively simple idea to me as I entered my mid-20's, and a few great stories, such as "Kingdom Come" really sealed the deal for me (not to mention the terrific Dini cartoons).

It was in uncovering the pre-Crisis Superman that I think the Superman-specific fanboy gene kicked in. I couldn't believe the history of the character as a property, or the wild ideas that had been such a part of the comic for decades and then tossed aside. Superman fandom is a bit like going up in the attic and finding a lifetime's worth of crates to look through.

And they keep making more, and some of it is really, pretty darn fun reading.

Superman Recommended:***

Reading:

"Kingdom Come" by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
"All Star Superman" by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
"Up, Up and Away", "Last Son", "Escape from Bizarro World", "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes" and current Action Comics by Geoff Johns, et al.
"Peace on Earth" by Paul Dini and Alex Ross
"A Superman for All Seasons" by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
"Man of Steel" by John Byrne
"Showcase Presents: Superman I- IV" by various
JLA: World War III

Media:

Superman: The Movie (starring Christopher Reeve)
Superman II (starring Christopher Reeve)
Superman Returns (starring Brandon Routh)
Adventures of Superman (starring George Reeves)
Superman: The Animated Series
Justice League
Justice League Unlimited

*To Miller's credit, Superman's obedience is explained pretty convincingly in "Dark Knight Strikes Again".

** You should be reading Action Comics

*** If you're considering any Superman media and have questions, don't hesitate to ask if its worth picking up. I may be able to tell you.


Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

=======


Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com

Very good post, one thing I thought that was missing though, was that the entire philosophy behind superman. Superman is a character with ultimate power who chooses to do ultimate good. Good by any definition not just by the law. Also on the recommended reading, put Final Crisis on there.

-- Posted by: Lex at September 10, 2008 7:53 AM

Thanks, Lex! I didn't want to oversell Final Crisis as it isn't done yet. There's still several issues for it to go off the tracks, but I'm enjoying not just Final Crisis, but the associated tie-in's.

I also agree with you on the philosophy. I tried not to hit the reader over the head with it, as I'm usually overly verbose... and I think you summed it up perfectly.

-- Posted by: Ryan at September 10, 2008 9:31 AM

As a new fan of Superman, this statement really rang true for me:

"Superman fandom is a bit like going up in the attic and finding a lifetime's worth of crates to look through."

Since going completely nuts over Superman Returns, I've spent quite a lot of time rummaging around in the Superman "attic", and every new discovery just deepens my fascination for this incredible character.

While I've always enjoyed Batman and Spidey, "Returns" opened my eyes to the incredible depth of the Superman mythos in a way that has me clamoring to know more. Quite simply, Superman MOVES me. All superheroes are powerful, but Superman's nobility and self-sacrificing heroism are awe-inspiring.

For me, these qualities prove to be far more complex and definitely more "cool", than the comparatively simple angst, darkness, and grittiness of other characters. And they give real meaning to all the great action that is such an important part of any Superman story.

As the Superman legacy moves forward, I'd love to see stories that are thrilling AND inspiring - full of action and excitement, while maintaining a storyline that reminds us of the incredible heart of Superman. That's a difficult balance to strike, but for me Superman Returns came mighty close.

Bryan Singer showed us that a Superman story can be profound; and in Brandon Routh, he found an actor capable of delivering an endearing, perfectly nerdy Clark AND a powerful, breath-taking Superman. For me that is an excellent foundation for a sequel that has a bit more fun and balance, with a more traditional focus on action. A reboot seems over-reactive. Even worse perhaps is the idea of making Superman a “darker” character.

Regardless of what the studio executives decide, Superman will live on.

-- Posted by: iolani at September 10, 2008 4:08 PM

iolani, we're going to have to wait and see what happens. I'm fairly confident that after Dark Knight, even if a reboot happens, they're going to work very hard to get the tone of the movie right. The villains and challenges may be darker (I keep thinking of Superman's roster of villains, and some of them, like Mongul, can skew pretty dark), but I don't see them changing Superman himself.

I'm glad to hear Superman Returns won over a fan to The Man of Steel. As per that attic... Keep digging. I'm still having fun learning something new all the time.

-- Posted by: Ryan at September 10, 2008 5:50 PM

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-- Posted by: mvwxpe at September 10, 2008 7:34 PM

I think that Superman is the ultimate nature vs nurture debate. Basically you have a demi-god placed on earth as a baby. The path of his life is going to be determined by how he is raised. Imagine how things would have been different if the Kents had not reared Clark. If you want to see it in print read Superman: Red Son.

I think that Morrison's All-Star Superman is the most perfect Superman story I've ever read. It addresses the critical narrative flaw I find in all Superman stories and it does it in the first issue. Mind you that book is subject for a whole other post.

-- Posted by: Simon MacDonald at September 10, 2008 10:51 PM