Posts Tagged superman
Has there ever been an industry that treated its founding fathers as badly as comic books? And what would their superheroic creations think of these injustices?
This month, my Bookslut column looks at some of the grand ironies of corporate-owned superheroes. It barely scratches the surface, and there were a dozen other half-formed ideas and outrages that didn’t make it into the finished version.
The letter that inspired me – Joanne Siegel’s angry response to the chairman of Time Warner – can be read in full here. And in his book Our Hero: Superman on Earth, Tom DeHaven describes how Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel’s fury with DC Comics had begun decades earlier:
In October 1975 he sat down at his old typewriter and composed a screed of malice and grief, a cry for recognition and justice, and a thundering imprecation: “I, Jerry Siegel,” it began, “the co-originator of SUPERMAN, put a curse on the SUPERMAN movie! I hope it super-bombs. I hope loyal SUPERMAN fans stay away from it in droves. I hope the whole world, becoming aware of the stench that surrounds SUPERMAN, will avoid the movie like a plague.
Want more? The long history of court cases involving comic creators is summarised in this massively depressing article by Paul Slade.
(There’s an intriguing theory towards the end, too, wondering why we’re seeing more and more comics of Superman in black-and-white variations of his costume. Warner won a legal victory over an early monotone ad showing a preview of the famous cover of Action Comics #1 – so is DC now “already preparing for a world where it may wish to minimise any aspect of Superman it doesn’t fully own”?)
The Comics Reporter added some welcome comments to my piece:
Mainstream comics publishers such as DC and their communities have ascribed a real-world moral authority to these fictional characters for years now. Why shouldn’t that extend to broader ethical issues involved in their creation, publication and distribution? If Superman, Batman and Spider-Man are presented at times as moral agents capable of instructing and inspiring their readership, why wouldn’t the expectations they engender apply to a situation where the press of ownership concerns has taken precedence over the greater morality represented by treating people with compassion and gratitude?
And for some ideas of how public domain superheroes have always existed in the Marvel and DC universes, check out this piece on IO9, inspired by the release of Marvel’s new movie Thor. Of course, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s smash hit The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen forged a Justice League-style supergroup from famous fictional characters from around the turn of last century: Stoker’s Mina Harker, Wells’ Invisible Man, and so on. I wonder if we’d ever see something similar combining characters from Marvel, DC, and whoever-the-hell-else in a hundred years.
For my money, Moore’s best work on Superman wasn’t when he was writing the official version for DC Comics. It was when he was working with an obvious knock-off – still Superman, just with the colours changed and logo filed off – in Supreme. Imagine if he’d been able to tell these stories with the real thing. Wouldn’t they have meant more?
Writing this piece, I found it painfully difficult to reconcile this history with the unbridled optimism that powers the best superhero stories; with my childlike love of these characters and their worlds. I kept thinking of the court case over Flex Mentallo, Grant Morrison’s “Hero of the Beach!” from the pages of Doom Patrol. In the court’s ruling over the character’s copyright, it highlighted a particular line from the background material provided by DC Comics. It said that Flex “…represents Morrison’s argument for a space beyond critique”.
A space beyond critique: pure optimism, pure altruism, pure imagination.
Recently in The Stranger – a Seattle newspaper that itself sounds like a mysterious vigilante – Paul Constant railed against the phenomenon of so-called ‘real life superheroes’. You know: those who dress up and wander the streets, claiming to prevent crime. Constant writes that they’re “attention whores who will stop at nothing to get a couple inches of print”.
Why do these ‘heroes’ seem more interested in press coverage than helping those in need? What happened to following a good deed with a quick, humble disappearance? Don’t these guys remember the theme song to the old Spider-Man TV show? “Action is his reward”!
I’ve written before about the one thing Superman – the perfect, original superhero – says he cannot do. He laments that he can’t cross into our world, our reality, to save the day when we need him most. And if these men (yeah, pretty much just men) are the best we can do when it comes to real life superheroes, we’re doomed if we’re attacked by anything worse than an evil costume party.
In a rare burst of optimism, here are three examples I’ve found to prove Superman wrong about his limited abilities in the real world.
You might remember a story from last year about a family, facing foreclosure, who were packing up their belongings when they found a copy of Action Comics #1 in their basement. That happens to be the first appearance of Superman from 1938, and it’s worth a frightening amount of money. Here Superman was, 70-something years later, appearing again to save the day.
New York suffered an infamous blackout in 1977: 3,400 arrested, 558 cops injured, 851 fires, and $1 billion in damage. Those statistics come from the New York Daily News – the newspaper that managed to go to print during the blackout. How? Because Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie was shooting its Daily Planet scenes in the building, and the newspaper borrowed the film crew’s generators. “The newsroom was bathed in generator-powered klieg lights,” as the New York Times described it, “which made it more difficult than usual to distinguish between fantasy and reality.”
(Like I’ve mentioned earlier: it’s not just that Clark Kent happens to be a reporter. It’s that Superman is “the mighty newspaper”.)
One more? In Joe Kubert’s award-winning graphic memoir Fax from Sarajevo, he mentions the cars that served as volunteer ambulances during the Serbian siege. They needed to carry the critically wounded through sniper-filled streets of Sarajevo to a makeshift hospital, not far away, but far too far. The inside of the cars were lined with comic books – because “two or three copies can stop a bullet or a bomb splinter.”
I don’t know the details of that family’s near-foreclosure; maybe it was too perfect a story to fact check too thoroughly. And maybe getting a newspaper out during a crisis isn’t exactly a miracle on par with flying around the earth so fast that time turns backwards.
Look closely, though, and you can see that Kubert’s drawn Superman on the covers of the comic books that served as ambulance armour. I hope the Man of Steel stopped a sniper’s bullet by letting it burrow deep into his paper chest.
There is no Superman Curse.
Yes, TV Superman George Reeves was found dead by gunshot in 1959, whether from suicide or murder. And okay, fine, movie Superman Christopher Reeve was paralysed from the neck down after being thrown from a horse in 1995. But a curse? In his book Our Hero: Superman on Earth, Tom De Haven puts it like this:
For terrifying examples of the Curse of Superman, though, that’s about it. A lot of different actors have played the character over the past seventy-plus years, including Bud Collyer, who played him more often and longer than anyone, on radio and several different animated cartoon series, and he did just fine, becoming a famously affable network game-show host, died at a ripe old age.
There is no Batman Curse, either, no matter what the Daily Mail might’ve said during the filming of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – even though many happily implied it was his role as the psychotic Joker that resulted in Heath Ledger’s death.
Cue ambiguous quote from an earlier Joker, Jack Nicholson: “I warned him.”
And now we have the ongoing parade of accidents in Broadway’s Spider-Man musical, awkwardly titled Turn Off the Dark. One performer was rushed to hospital after a thirty foot fall; the lead actress portraying the villain quit with the show still in previews; and other Broadway actors have made online statements like “DOES SOMEONE HAVE TO DIE?” Of course, there is no Spider-Man Curse. It’s ridiculous.
And yet I can’t stop thinking of these accidents as modern echoes of ancient stories; myths of mortals impersonating gods and facing tragic consequences.
In comic books, ordinary mortals embodying superheroic abilities often ends badly. Taking the illegal, power-granting drug Mutant Growth Hormone can make your heart explode. In the collected manga Batman: Child of Dreams, ordinary people are transformed into Batman’s greatest foes like the Joker and the Penguin, but they can’t handle the strain. They burn out from the inside, weeping, physical falling to pieces. The “basic elevator pitch” of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents? “You get kickass superpowers for 365 days, and then you die.”
When super-team The Authority crashed into our reality – in Grant Morrison and Gene Ha’s short-lived, two-issue run of 2007 – the heroes were shocked to find that no one here had powers. What’s worse was they worried just being here would be too much for our fragile earth. As their team shaman explained: “Even in our weakened state, we’re still too strong for this place. We may as well be monsters, trampling over the laws of nature until they break.”
We can wear the costumes, and strike the poses, and say the lines. We can hope our CGI doppelgangers do most of the spectacular stuntwork for us and that we aren’t left, terrified, tangled high over the orchestra pit. There is no Superhero Curse.
But what if Spider-Man’s skill, Superman’s strength, or the Joker’s psychosis are too much, too big, to be safely captured in mortal bodies and brains? What if comic book characters are described as ‘larger than life’ for a reason?