Friday, 20 August 2010

Grounded: Why Superman Has To Walk

I don't know if you know (frankly, I'm not sure why you would) but recently the Superman comics reached the 700 mark. They took the opportunitity to begin not only a new story, but a new direction for Superman. He would be walking the length of the USA to reconnect with its people. Walking. As in, on foot.

The idea has been pretty thoroughly mocked. And rightfully so: it's a bit stupid, really, like the time Captain America gave up on Civil War because he was out of touch with the modern American man. It's been pointed out that the writer, J. Michael Straczynski, has done a very similar idea with his last three major iconic-superhero stories, bringing Thor and Wonder Woman to ground so he can get a handle on them.

Thing is, it also kind of makes sense.
Superstroll
Superman is a power fantasy figure. He was designed by two fanboy kids, from not-well-off immigrant backgrounds, as their protector. Superman is the genie in the bottle of guys like them, the bespectacled awkward working-class guy. He is the purest example of superhero as Metaphor.

I have to admit that these thoughts are all tangled with the fact I finally read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay this summer, and Shuster and Siegel have become stand-ins for those two characters in my head. 'Escapism' is a word I am trying to avoid.*

Meanwhile: It's a fairly accepted maxim that good Superman stories are thin on the ground these days. If it weren't for Morrison - more on him later - I believe it would go 'noone's written a great Superman story for decades'. The last film was a wreck. The big touchstones are 'imaginary stories' (aren't they all) which rework Superman (Red Son: as a Commie, Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow: as a disappeared legend).

One possible reason? Nowadays, the average comics reader doesn't have much to fear.
Superwave
The geek is king. We sit atop culture, defining the newest trends. We're able to snobbily say, huh, you've only just heard of Scott Pilgrim? like the indie-gurus of yesteryear. And, as all those Bam! Pow! headlines will tell you, they're not even kids anymore. There are no bullies to fear, at least no more than their average fellow man has.

Ladies and gentlemen, the metaphor at the heart of Superman has been spent. We don't need him anymore.

Grant Morrison did the best possible version of the Kryptonian Super-Jesus for the modern age in All-Star Superman, taking the idea to its logical extreme, as Morrison is wont to do, and painting him as just that: an outer-space saviour for the entire world, never faltering in his love. But that can only be done for so long and so, as the Superman serials roll on and on and on towards the next one thousand issues, writers have to make do with what's left.
ASSuperman
In this case, Straczynski has chosen 'he's one of us'. The jocks are no better than us, anymore, and Superman is no better than the Common Man. Looking from the outside, testing with one foot, we can see that the metaphor bends a little under strain, but holds. To go further, I need to examine the Metaphor in its natural habitat: Issues #700 to 702 of Superman.

The metaphor, and the couple of ways JMS chooses to bend it, are fascinating. The line between Clark Kent and Superman is blurred - Clark Kent casually chats on the phone, as Superman strolls down a street. Superman, the old immigrant, asks new migrants: "Could you possibly have picked a worse time to immigrate here illegally?" Clearly, it was different when he did it. Or is he drawing a line between him and his past?

The Superman iconography is testing the waters, trying to reinvent himself so he can remain a successful icon in the modern world.
Superman 701
Elsewhere, though, it's business as usual. Superman gives a lot of speeches, without really saying much about the metaphor, or himself, or the ideas behind the story. They seem to work their magic on the people Kal El meets, though, who are consistently inspired by his presence.

Which comes off a little cheesy, particularly when he helps the skinny little kid who wants to play basketball. It's predictable, but does return to the idea of Superman as liberator of the weak geek (in this case, the geek who wants to, and successfully manages to, integrate into normality.)

Meanwhile, there's some disturbing 'fighting for over here, over there can look out for itself' rhetoric from Superman, which seems a bit contradictory both with the character - it's the kind of thing that makes sense out of the mouth of Daredevil or Batman, overcome men doing what they can for their slice of land but not an all-powerful alien who has come to save us all - and the message of these comics. An attempt to tie it back into that idea, that 'there' can become 'here' only compounds the issue.

It's all a bit confused. The life of the everyman isn't below Superman - he's happy to clear out a stockroom to pay for a steak sandwich** - but he's also treated reverentially by both the public and the text. His opinion is treated differently to that of the man on the street, he's the only guy who can stop a girl from suicide (which might sound familiar to anyone who's read All-Star, where it actually makes 100% sense).
SM_702_cover_solicits
I think it's an attempt to bring human concerns and stories back to Superman, but only manages it in a temporary, revolving supporting cast. Not in the big man himself, or even his human friends. Straczynski takes a genuinely interesting idea, but one that requires following through straight and clear. Here, he muddles it and interesting ideas fail to translate into interesting comics.

And you have to be reading as a meta-fictional thing, a setting I can really only tune my brain to because of the unholy amount of Morrison interviews (and our good friend the Diegetic Panelisation guy) I've been consuming, and I'm not sure it's intentional on the part of Straczynski. For example: when a woman slaps Superman right at the opening of the story, telling him he hasn't there for her dead husband, is that a rejection of the Protector of All Earth interpretation of Superman? Or just a convenient plot device to get Superman feeling outdated, and onto the road?

Similarly, all the reporters asking if his walking trip is a result of Red Kryptonite or "a secret mission" or "about magic", could be a rejection of the Silver Age approach to Superman, with the wacky adventures, or it could be Straczynski the grumpy old man (it's the second of two 'darn media' scenes in two issues).

And then, at the end (spoilers!) in comes Batman, and you have to wonder: how does this fit? And when am I going to give up trying to work that out?

Flash chattin

*Nevertheless, it would be supervillain-evil of me not to credit, and point you towards But I must give credit to the stunning passage that made me fall in love with that book, and shapes much of my reasoning here:
"Josef was one of those unfortunate boys who become escape artists not to prove the superior machinary of their bodies against outlandish contrivances and the laws of physics, but for dangerously metaphorical reasons."
**Mmm. Steak sammich...

6 comments:

Tom said...

The idea is just daft. What happened to Superman's responsibilities? This just seems like naval-gazing.

Superman is a pretty ridiculous idea in the first place and it's probably best not to poke holes in it like that... the ultimate truth is that it's a comic for children, that was always designed for children, and it should probably have stayed that way.

Thor, on the other hand, is so impenetrable most of the time the character seems to work better when he is having holes poked out of him by mere mortals.

(And do throw "Secret Identity" into the list of great Superman stories.)

Incidentally, JMS IS a grumpy old man. It's something that shines through in every interview he gives (along with his overinflated opinion of himself).

Christian O. said...

It's stupid, it's juvenile and I hate it.
Nobody complains about Batman's ability to survive and overcome everything, so why are people so intently set on complaining about Superman's status as "Jesus, but better"?

It's been said that there are two types of stories: man goes on a journey, and stranger comes to town. One examines the man and one examines the environment he is in. Superman is a character that is most often fitting for the second category. But people are very insisting in making him the first.

Alex said...

Ahh, you guys.
You continue to make getting comments a joy and my favourite reason for getting an email.

Tom: Are you drawing a line then, between Superman and other superheroes when you say 'designed for children'?

(I've never read Secret Identity. *BLUSH*, in the parlance of Scott Pilgrim.)

Christian: I think there's something different about Superman. Basically, he's not ... a very dynamic character, I guess?

But you make a good point. The Superjesus angle can't pan out in serial form for long, but the types of stories ASS was really doing: Superman going on a crazy sci-fi tour. Kinda like Mario Galaxy, actually...

Still, it would take some serious talent(s) to keep that rolling for long on a monthly basis. CONSTANT INVENTION! has never really been superhero comics' forte.

Tom said...

Yes, Superman designed for young children, Batman and Spider-Man designed for slightly older children/young teenagers, Punisher and Wolverine designed for teenagers. I'd say.

I'd lend you my Secret Identity but sadly the last person I lent them to lost them in Miami Airport.

Christian O. said...

Question: Why isn't Superman walking across America as Clark Kent, if he truly wanted to reconnect with humanity? He's positioning a clear distinction between himself and the rest of the human population by dressing as the aspect of his personality that is commonly associated with superheroes and icons.

Anyone have an answer that isn't "because JMS wants to write about humanity in a way that makes Superman into a preachy douchebag"?


Re: Superheroes' age group -

I guess I can see where you're coming from, that initially these characters are designed for specific age groups, but I think it just shows the versatility of the characters, that they can defy these classifications and really speak to a much broader audience. Pixar films, old Warner Brothers cartoons etc. are also mainly designed for children, but that doesn't mean, that they can't speak to and be partly directed towards teenagers or adults as well.

(Case in point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xmAC9Qu908 )

Christian O. said...

(Yes, I just wanted an excuse to share that link.)

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