The Crusty Curmudgeon’s Comic Classics ~ A “Super” Problem

© 2013 Paradox Productions LLC

So what’s the problem with Superman? In a nutshell, it’s this: There isn’t one. But anyone with any creative custodianship over the character for the past forty years has been utterly convinced that there is. Because of this, the powers that be keep trying to change a character that does not need changing. They tweak his powers; they tweak his backstory; they even tweak his costume. And with every tweak, an iconic character and comic book masterpiece is lessened.

Like drawing over the Mona Lisa with crayons in an attempt to make it better, all that is accomplished is the ruination of something perfectly beautiful.

It wasn’t always like this. Superman was the very first comic book super hero and his success launched an entire industry. For his first quarter-century of existence, he was the world’s most famous and beloved super hero—and nearly every other super hero character that came afterward followed his formula almost slavishly. Indeed, the very term “super hero” is derived from the character named Superman.

supes167-smIn the late 1950s/early ’60s, Superman reached his artistic zenith. Under the editorial direction of Mort Weisinger, there was a burst of creativity that has never been equaled for a singular comics character.

Between Action Comics, Superboy, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and his own title magazine, major additions were made to the Superman mythos with startling regularity. In a relatively short span, readers were introduced to Brainiac and the bottled city of Kandor, the Phantom Zone, Superman-Red and Superman-Blue, the Bizarro World, Supergirl, Krypto the Super Dog (who was then followed by Super Cat, Super Horse, and so on), the Legion of Super-Heroes, countless “imaginary” stories (tales that took place outside of regular continuity), and (of course) 1,001 new shades of kryptonite.

action243-smNow don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say it was Shakespeare. Much of it was goofy or just plain weird (Superman with the head of a lion? Superman as a mutated ant-person?), but it was also emotionally pure—not to mention surprising, affecting, at times ironic, and nearly always fun. So what made anyone think drastic changes were necessary?

It likely started with the ascendance of Marvel and its new house style in the mid-1960s. Marvel did books that were more dramatic, with characters that were flawed and tended to lose as often as they won. This drew an older and slightly more sophisticated audience.

action296-smThis audience largely turned up its collective nose at Superman, who seemed silly and frivolous compared to the Marvel characters. When Marvel rocketed past DC to become the top-selling comics company, the DC guys likely began asking themselves what they needed to do to get back on top. They came to the obvious conclusion: Be more like Marvel.

This meant knocking Superman down a few pegs, power-wise, so that he could actually face mortal danger from time to time and thus inject some real drama into the strip. They also wanted to cut back on the kryptonite, which had become a crutch plot device. So Denny O’Neil began an arc in Superman #233 (cover date January 1971) that wiped out all the kryptonite from Earth while also introducing a doppelganger of Superman that would leach away precisely half his power.

It didn’t take. Almost immediately after the end of the storyline, Superman was back to full power, bench pressing planets and flying faster than light from one galaxy to another. And nearly every cheap hood in Metropolis had a piece of kryptonite in his back pocket again.

There were a few other (minor) changes made around this same time that did take. The biggest of these was when Clark Kent went from being a mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet to a news anchor for WGBS television—a post he held through the end of the pre-Crisis days (over fifteen years of real time).

The thing is… who cared? Newspapers were still being published then (as they still are today), so it’s not as if a career as a newspaper reporter was anachronistic. Why the change, then? I guess the editors were thinking that the television medium was more modern and exciting, but the career shift really made no difference (at least none that I could see) in the creative approach to the character.

mos1-smThen came the post-Crisis John Byrne revamp in 1986. This time the changes would stick for a while. Unfortunately, those changes largely sucked.

John Byrne chose to use what would become his formula method: the let’s-take-the-character-back-to-its-roots approach. This is an approach that, under most circumstances, I would passionately endorse, as long as (A) the creators involved actually understand the character’s true roots, and (B) it makes sense dramatically and creatively. The Byrne revamp failed on both these counts. (In fact, most of Byrne’s revamps don’t work for me because nearly all of them fail on these same counts.)

First item on the agenda was to make Superman less powerful (no great shock). The creative team also wanted to modernize his rogues gallery and supporting cast while ditching Bizarro World, pink kryptonite, and any other fictional clutter that was deemed “silly.” Lastly, they wanted to get rid of Supergirl, Super Dog, Super Cat, and all the other Kryptonians hanging around Kandor and the Phantom Zone. Their thinking was that having all these other characters running about with the same powers and alien heritage robbed Superman of his uniqueness. They wanted to make Superman the “Last Son of Krypton” again, just as he was when he first appeared in 1938.

There was a major flaw in this last idea—that flaw being that it wasn’t 1938 anymore. In 1938, Superman was the only super hero in existence. Just being a super hero in itself was unique. But in 1986 there were a hundred other super heroes sharing the same universe as Superman—and many of them were aliens from other planets as well. This new Superman was no different from any of them; there was nothing unique about him at all.

You know what would have made him unique? The Phantom Zone, Kandor, a more detailed Kryptonian background… y’know, all that stuff that was just thrown out.

Superman_233Now let me weigh in on the Superman-is-too-powerful debate for a sec. I’ve actually heard this from a lot of people, including (and it pains me to say this) some writers I love and deeply respect. No offense, but this has always been bullshit. For a true artist, there are no limitations—only challenges.

Where comic writers are concerned, Superman is where we separate the men from the boys. If you’re not up to the challenge of writing Superman, then don’t write him. We’ve seen great writers do fantastic work with the classic, near-omnipotent Superman (such as writers Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) so we know it can be done. If you can’t do it then simply recuse yourself and get out of the way. The one thing you don’t do is water down a great character just because you lack the skill and imagination to write him as is.

More deeply considered, I think the real issue here is that a lot of comic writers can’t get over the fight scene. When the time comes to write a fight scene for Superman, they don’t know how to make it dramatic because Superman’s vast power undermines the drama. But this is where they miss the boat. The drama in Superman doesn’t come from some mindless fight scene, it comes from elsewhere, from a much deeper place.

Grant Morrison hit the nail on the head in an interview he did for the All-Star Superman animated feature DVD. In the featurette “Superman Now,” he stated: “The great thing with Superman is that even when you juggle stars, Lois Lane can undermine [you] with one cruel word. And that was what was powerful about it for me. That’s why we made him even more powerful than ever, because everybody kept saying, ‘You can’t make a Superman story because if he can do anything, then what conflicts are there?’ And I thought, ‘Well, emotional conflicts, the biggest ones, the things we all understand.’”

To put it another way: Superman’s conflicts are not physical; they’re metaphysical. His battles with Luthor are not fistfights; they’re philosophical clashes. Luthor is Job to Superman’s God; the Icarus to Superman’s sun. Luthor represents humanity at its myopic worst. He’s the smartest man in the world yet somehow still blind to the most obvious truths. While he hates Superman, all Superman can feel for him is disappointment at such wasted potential.

Along these same lines, Superman’s greatest power is not his near-infinite strength nor his super speed nor any of his other physical capabilities. His greatest power is his nobility. It is this quality that makes him the greatest super hero. It is also the quality that makes him the only man in existence that is worthy of the vast power he commands.

In the past forty-plus years, there have been a great many Superman comics published, along with several movies, animated series, etc. Much of it has been dreck, though there have been a few gems, plus more than a few others that were at least solid entertainment.

In all that time, there have been three projects where Superman was utilized to his full potential, in my mind. The first was in the original Superman movies directed by Richard Donner. (I include Superman: The Movie and Superman II together here, since Donner actually made both at the same time. In my opinion, they remain the greatest super hero movies ever.) Second was Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” And third was the aforementioned All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison.

Recently, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel opened in theaters across the country. I don’t expect it to join the exalted company just listed. In fact, I don’t even plan on seeing it, as I don’t care for Snyder’s work generally, especially disliked his Watchmen adaptation, and feel he’s a poor choice to helm a Superman franchise (or any super hero franchise, really).

As I write this, I don’t know how well the film did business-wise over its opening weekend, but I find myself in the awkward position of rooting for it to flop, since any significant success would mean we’re stuck with Snyder doing more of Superman (and possibly even a Justice League movie) in the future. I realize my one-ticket purchase isn’t going to make or break it, but I’d still rather not pay to see something I’m fairly certain I won’t like.

A friend of mine did see it in previews, however. He’s almost as crusty as me, but not nearly as curmudgeonly. Still, our tastes in super heroes are pretty simpatico. His rather succinct review on Facebook read as follows:

“Excessive. Suck. That’s not Superman.”

But that’s okay. Because while I have no faith in Zack Snyder (and probably still less in the executives at Warner Brothers), my faith in Superman abides. One day he’ll get the treatment he deserves and we, in turn, will get the Superman we deserve. As Lois Lane put it at the end of All-Star Superman:

“He’s not dead. He’s up there fixing the sun. And when he’s done he’ll be back.”

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