Wednesday, June 28, 2006
DO WE STILL NEED SUPERMAN?
Yeah, I know I’ve been a bit Superman crazy lately, but the release of the new flick about Big Blue has set me to thinking about whether or not he’s really relevant to today’s audience, a generation under the thrall of hip-hop, “American Idol,” and Playstation. Much like James Bond, debonair agent 007, he’s a relic of another time that has long since passed, and the real trick is figuring out how to make him work in this modern world and render him appealing to not only children, but adults as well, adults who have had a shitload of their childlike sense of wonder kicked out of them thanks to the ravages of environmental decay, 9/11, and the unmitigated horror that is the Bush administration.
My own first exposure to the last son of Krypton came via syndicated reruns of the 1950’s television series “The Adventures of Superman,” with goombah-looking George Reeves essaying the part; admittedly, his was an iconic portrayal for its era, despite his epic underarm perspiration stains, but thanks to the limitations of both budget and 1950’s special effects technology the folks who made the series were never able to pit Superman against anything even verging on a worthy adversary. No aliens, no giant monsters, no other super-powered badasses, just a bunch of boring gangsters and bank robbers who, although they knew he was fucking invulnerable, would empty their firearms into his chest at point blank range without even making him flinch, and when the douchebags ran out of bullets they would chuck the guns at him. And he would duck!
Not long after seeing that stuff, I eagerly dove into the flood of reprint comics that swamped the market at the time, rendering each trip to the newsstand or supermarket into a passport to wild flights of fancy. Both DC and Marvel Comics churned out tons of the classic stories, a boon to the kids of the time since the sometimes 100-page tomes were relatively dirt cheap, and each new issue of Superman’s mags contained a new story supplemented by a fistful of four-color history, both great and not-so-great; DC was notorious for coming up with some of the most ludicrous stories every conceived (the horrendous Superbaby and Wonder Tot series comes to mind), but they were entertaining as hell, and though I was a kid who would say, “This is really fucking stupid,” I couldn’t put them down. And even when those tales resounded with mind-wrenching stupidity, I held Superman in high regard for what he stood for, not merely as the prototype of the superhero as we know it, but most importantly as a symbol of all that was truly right and good. Not so much a personification of the American fighting spirit, since that’s Captain America’s job, but as a good guy whose appeal was utterly universal, bridging the barriers of nationality, ethnicity, religion and even culture. I mean, for fuck’s sake, during WWII he was Emperor Hirohito’s favorite comics character, and the Emperor was frequently depicted on Superman’s covers getting a big red boot lodged right up his ass, along with Mussolini and motherfucking Hitler!
During the 1950’s Superman was literally “the man of tomorrow,” kind of a symbol of the hoped-for utopia-to-come heralded by the dawn of the atomic age and post-war economic and technological prosperity, but then the undreamed of turbulence of the 1960’s rolled around and Supes’ adventures became a parade of truly crazy concepts and “imaginary” stories that took the reader as far out of anything even resembling a realistic context.
It wasn’t until the decade came to an end that Superman became more grounded, and comic book legend Neal Adams lent him an impressive and realistic visual style (an approach that had worked wonders a couple of years previously for Batman, whose general public perception was that of a masked buffoon thanks to the hit TV series starring Adam West). From that point on Superman became a more conventional superhero, the prototype rendered near obsolete by the artistic/storytelling innovations wrought by Marvel Comics since 1961 with the concept of superheroes who were every bit as neurotic as ourselves. Such an approach could never work for the Man of Steel; the paragon of wholesomeness and steadfast stability fretting over paying his rent, or getting into petulant shouting mates with Wonder Woman and Batman? No dice, chum. Well, at least not until the 1980’s.
Superman was redefined during the 1980’s, both in terms of scaling down his godlike abilities (when you’re as powerful as he was at that point, there was absolutely no suspense or any way to challenge him) and rendering his character more “human;” the creative forces at DC played up the angle of Superman having been raised in the American heartland by wise and kindly foster parents who instilled in him a reverence for all life — Superman does NOT kill — and an earnest desire to do good and help his adoptive homeworld as best he can, and I must say that I truly love that interpretation. He’s immensely powerful, but he doesn’t choose to rule over mankind as a cruel despot and is utterly selfless in his approach to his mission, but he is still just one man and cannot solve all of the world’s problems by himself. He is essentially the world’s guardian against threats both major and minor, yet when it comes to mankind’s own personal ills he opts to let the human race attempt to solve its own problems, and that’s what makes his appeal so strong: it’s not just that the people of the world believe in HIM, it’s that he believes in US. The misanthrope in me says that may not make him the sharpest knife in the drawer, but it’s just so damned decent of him.
So as I grow older and the world around us gets crazier and meaner, yes, I emphatically believe in our need for Superman, perhaps now more than ever. For the most part this sorry generation of parents isn’t doing a goddamned thing to influence their kids with any sort of positive example, willingly turning over their offspring to the babysitter of video games and other diversions that require no parental input, and the media is not providing much in terms of heroes for the kids to admire. The cartoon heroes that infest the airwaves these days are mostly foreign imports whose shows amount to no more than half hour commercials for toys and games (except for the generally excellent and clever KIM POSSIBLE), but thankfully Cartoon Network has come to the rescue with JUSTICE LEAGUE and JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED, perhaps the two best superhero shows ever aired in the States; Superman features prominently in both series, along with a plethora of other heroes including Batman, Wonder Woman, Green lantern and the Flash, and the requisite action and colorful adventure is laced with many moving character bits.
To sum up, I honestly think that as long as there are human beings we will need heroes, and not just heroes in general, but Superman in particular. The Fantastic Four are there to explore the frontiers of super-science, Batman has his fascist agenda, and Spider-Man is the underdog that we love to root for, but it’s Superman who offers us hope for humanity. Goodness and kindness are both in short supply these days, and he has a lot more to offer than just his fantastic powers. In fact, that’s really what saving the world is all about, isn’t it?