Aug 5, 2010

A Sense of Wonder: It Was Never About How Strong Superman Was

Welcome to the first installment of A Sense of Wonder, a new feature of indefinite length in which I detail the wonderful (and I mean that in the purest sense of the word) and imagination-inspiring aspects of the characters in the comic book medium, which would emphasize the superheroes, but would not be limited to them. Click here for the archive.

For the inaugural edition, I present to you the one and only Man of Steel, Superman!

There tends to be a good amount of debate among fans and non-fans of Superman alike, all under the premise of Superman being unrelatable, inaccessible to new and younger readers. This almost always evolves into a discussion about Superman's power levels, with half of the fans saying that the reason people can't relate to him is because he's too powerful, and the other half saying that it's exactly because he's powerful that makes him awesome.

While I tend to lean toward the latter camp, I'd also like to say, very simply and very easily, this. It's not about how strong Superman is. It's never been about how strong Superman was. One of the things I have always been an advocate of is the fact that Superman is not about his powers. His powers exist to give us a backdrop - writers such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have given us classic stories with a really powerful Superman, and the powers exist to give us a backdrop of all sorts of fantastic, crazy stuff. It's not about how strong he is; it's about what fun and fantasy we can have with this backdrop. All-Star Superman, in particular, is a perfect example of this.

When I was younger, I'd see reprints of Silver Age stories of Superman that were just filled with absolute wonder. He could FLY!  He had a Fortress of Solitude in the arctic, which you could only open with a big giant key that only he was capable of lifting!

He could breathe in space! He had friends, who could all fly! He could push moons, travel through time, and move planets!

He was really, really strong! It's not about him being so strong that nothing can threaten him; it's about him being so strong that he can do all this stuff.

He had a wonderful city in a bottle that housed thousands of his Kryptonian homeworlders, and when he went into it, he was powerless! It was like going home!

Why would you want to get rid of this? Well, supposedly, writers found it too hard to write ongoing stories about someone so powerful. It never made any sort of sense to me, because the whole selling point of Superman when I was younger was that he had such a rich world, which existed partly because of what he was able to do. Why would you deprive Superman a beautiful scene where he could look at space, or where he could lift something in space, or just doing something awesome in space, like this one where he kisses Lois on the moon, just because he's "too hard to write" if he's powerful enough to breathe in space? Why deprive the fans of beautiful, poetic imagery such as this just for the sake of a level of power?

Isn't Superman supposed to open up new worlds to us and inspire us? Why limit that because it's "too hard to do"? Just as Superman pushes readers' imaginations, so should he push writers. If a writer can't be bothered to come up with new and exciting challenges to make Superman sweat, the solution isn't to depower Superman and remove the fantastic elements that make him a great source of escapist fiction; the solution is to find a better writer.

Writers find it too hard to write a powerful Superman? It's funny, because some of the most beloved stories in history - I need only point to mythology - involve beings that were incredibly powerful. Something like Sherlock Holmes sold because Sherlock Holmes was the absolute best at what he did. No one needed him to be "more flawed," or "more human." Some of the best and most acclaimed stories in comics have particularly very powerful characters, such as Sandman, Preacher, and Swamp Thing, because those writers got that it was characterization and not the level of power that drove a story. And some of the best Superman stories have involved him being near-powerful, such as Mark Waid and Alex Ross' Kingdom Come:

Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Killian Plunket's Red Son:

And Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman:

And similarly, even in the best post-Crisis stories where Superman is powered down, his lower power level isn't referenced. I highly suggest Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Superman for All Seasons:

Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes (Honestly, between this and All-Star Superman, the Superman team was firing on all cylinders that year):

And Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke's "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" in Action Comics #775, so you know what I'm talking about:

In fact, in all three stories, I actually have no idea how strong Superman's actually supposed to be. What I do know is that he was continually pushed to his limits, and he handled it all with the strength of his character, using his powers in the most logical and smartest ways possible. Explicitly watering him down definitely takes away from the mythical aspect of it, and I think the whole thing where he needs an oxygen mask to breathe in space is just trite, ridiculous, and is one of those things that are so superficial and takes away the awesomeness. Furthermore, I really don't need pseudoscientific explanations like "Superman is a telekinetic when he's flying, which is how he's able to lift stuff up when he flies," that take away from the magic.

If a story came up where Superman had to push the moon back into orbit, I'd rather have him be able to do it (albeit not easily) rather than have the editors mandate that "Oh wait, he can't do that. We've placed a power limit on Superman." You know that oft-repeated Spider-Man scene where Spidey lifts a bunch of machinery from himself? You know how awesome it is? Well, imagine if the editors say, "Oh wait, he can't do that, Spider-Man has a limit on his strength." Then we'd be deprived of an awesome moment.

When I think of Superman, I think of an inspirational leader whose big failing is that he never realizes just how big of an inspiration he is. Cap is different - he knows exactly how inspirational he is; it takes him aback at times, but in general, he's aware of it. Superman, however, walks into a room, and everyone takes notice. The fact that there's other people in the room who are stronger than he is, faster than he is, or more powerful than he is doesn't undermine that; it highlights it. Because it's not about how strong he is - I prefer the ridiculously strong Superman because the stories are more fun, sure, but I've enjoyed stories about Superman when he wasn't so powerful (even some from the Byrne run) - it's about WHO he is, and the worlds that reading him opens up to us, the reader. So if you're going to depower Superman, I don't see the need to excise all of the fantastic elements like Kandor and the Fortress of Solitude in an attempt to be relatable, because to me, Superman is not relatable. He's someone to look up to and aspire to be.

Superman is the best of us. He embodies everything we can be and should be. He does good because it's the right thing to do - no guilt drives him, and not an obsessive sense of justice. He believes in hope, and he believes, like I believe, that no matter the level of danger or the seeming impossibility of any challenge, there's always a way. And  that we, as a whole, are much stronger than we think we are.

It's hard for people to relate to the sense of wonder, joy, and idealism that Superman has, at his best, given his readers. But for me, it's exactly why he's awesome.
Duy realized upon uploading a bunch of these images just how much he really loves All-Star Superman. A reread and review is in order.

For stories that capture Superman's Sense of Wonder, check these out:


Unknown said...

great post. Made me want to read Red Son again.

What do you think of Alan Moore's run on Supreme?

Duy Tano said...

Thanks, Rocky.

Moore's Supreme run - which I didn't mention here, since it would involve too much of an explanation for those who don't know what it is - is a mixed bag for me. I love the story and the ideas, but I'm not convinced that anyone who doesn't have a working knowledge of Silver Age Superman (or Silver Age DC, for that matter) would enjoy it. It seemed to be the equivalent of an inside joke, which is a shame, because if you were in on the joke, it was really good. As opposed to something like All-Star Superman, which you could have liked and enjoyed regardless of how much you knew about Silver Age DC.

I also think Moore was hampered by the modern art on Supreme. Rick Veitch did a wonderful job on the flashbacks, and Chris Sprouse did too when he finally took over the book, but Joe Bennett (and, towards the end, Liefeld) really dropped the ball, I think.

Overall, it was really fun and really smart and really good, but I wouldn't recommend it to a new reader.

Your thoughts?

Unknown said...

hmm, true. I read it with some knowledge of the Silver Age stories, so I enjoyed it. Didn't think of looking at it from a comic newbie's perspective.

Duy Tano said...

I should really dip into Supreme for some Easter Eggs every now and then. Half the fun is just spotting what each thing is referencing.

PIG said...

Great post man. I agree. It's not about what power level Superman has, it's who he is.

fanboy420 said...

reminds me of that run Grant Morrison did on JLA where the leaguers switched bodies and Superman had to fight some Python-themed villain in Bruce Wayne's human body, and Supes kicked that snake dude's *** to kingdom come because of his years and years of experience beating the crap out of Doomsday and Braniac and whoever the hell else thwarted Truth and Justice. 'Cuz ya know. He's all about that. And THEN some! :D

Duy Tano said...

There's that scene in Morrison's JLA too where Electric Superman manages to put the moon back in orbit. It was awesome.

And then, a year later, in JLA/Titans, when he was back as regular Superman, he needed help from everyone who could go into space (while he was wearing an oxygen mask, no less) to push the moon. It was lame.

Paul C said...

Great post. I agree with everything you say. It's weird, even though we disagree about the choice of Snyder as a director I think we're looking for the same things in Superman.

Duy Tano said...

Thanks, Paul. I'm going to go off on a tangent here and acknowledge the polarizing effect of Zack Snyder. I hated the Watchmen movie. Brian Hughes of Again With the Comics ( liked it fine. But when I read his review, I completely agreed with everything he said -- except for liking it. That Snyder guy's an odd fellow.

Simon said...

Hey! Interesting PoV.

I agree that Superman should be about who he is and not what he can do.

I think part of the problem is that he did get ridiculously powerful, to such an extent that he has been depowered twice (Neil Adams era & John Byrnes).

The one thing that Byrne did do right though was the villains. Lex for the mental challenge and Darkseid for sheer power.

In fact making Darkseid his nemesis was a master stroke.

Excellent post, loads to think about, cheers!

Duy Tano said...

The more I think about it, the more I think that sure, if you want to depower him for long-term viability, go ahead. Just don't call attention to it.

The only story that should call attention to his depowering (or repowering) should be the story explaining it. Everything else should not even mention it. That's partly why Byrne's run was so joyless. We really didn't need explanations of how Superman doesn't actually breathe in space, but can hold his breath long enough.

Seriously, I think there's a reason that season 1 of Justice League was so panned regarding its portrayal of Superman. You have no idea how many times I watched the Savage Time with casual fans, who would react like "Why is Superman so weak?" or "Why is Superman having a hard time lifting that tank?" And then later on, in "The Return," when they went to space, Superman's the ONLY ONE in a space suit, and it just LOOKS STUPID.

Basically, if it's about his powers, it's not a good story.

Anonymous said...

The best Superman stories were the first 18 months back in The late 1930's. Before the comic strip,before the Radio Show.

He couldn't fly, but could leap tall buildings and run faster than a locomotive. Nothing short of a bursting shell could penetrate his skin.

He had a strong sense of Justice and could kick some serious ass. He was a true here!

Duy Tano said...

Definitely a powerful concept, but I found Siegel and Shuster's execution lacking, even for the time.

I think it's a concept that should be explored more, though. I was very disappointed with Tom DeHaven's It's Superman, since I expected it to be exactly how Superman got to be the ass-kicker that he was in the Siegel and Shuster era, but it turned out to just be like a Smallville remake for the 1930s.

PynDragon said...

I believe the only time Superman should be depicted as being depowered is when he is recovering from Kryptonite poisoning. The only other time I could really see any of the depowering issues making any sense would have been if they were taking place after his battle with Doomsday and his "return from the dead". Those would be logical situations for Superman to seem weaker than usual.

There is also the fact that he gets his power from a yellow star and a red star would make him as powerless as a human. Was there ever any toying around with what other stars would do to him, like say a quasar or a binary system with a red and a yellow star or even a white dwarf? I could see his powers being different or fluctuating under these situations.

I'm not sure I know what I'm even talking about anymore. I really have to stop reading blogs late at night.

Duy Tano said...

I think that there was a story recently that established that Superman would get additional powers in a blue sun, and that humans would get his regular set of powers in a blue sun.

Anonymous said...

I think i agree with about 90% of this.

PennyPiper said...

Came across this - I know! It's 6 years since it was written. Don't care. Still relevant. Still fantastically written.. sums up the argument I've been making for decades about Supes. I'm just gonna send this to all of my friends with the header, "What I've Been Trying To Say." So well done.

Duy Tano said...

Quite happy to help! I still stand by this six years later.

Sp said...

Except in All-Star Superman. With all his powers huge boost, and not to mention his intellect he still couldn't restore Kandor to normal size, make good man out of Luthor that won't be put down like a dog (or watching himself falling into that if you are into Quintilion theory), Lois will never be with him, Zibarro is left on planet where he is literally alone among unconsiousness beasts.
Only win he ever had is taking down Solaris and making him a good guy, but only because those guys from the future told him that he will be that way.
ASS is notorious for distuction of Superman, but in a way, with colorful images and weird gizmos in-your-face, that many people will take it as nothing less than a celebration.

Not to mention this whole "Superman takes few tiny kandorians to cure some kids" thing make your mind boggle HOW DIDN't he thought of that before?! THIS is exact reason why you don't him all powerful, because while you do that, you will make his as much moronic and stupid.

Not to mention that this is NOT what Superman meant to be, just like Batman wasn't meant to be a guy spraying sharks with anti-shark repellent. Yeah, I know you, hispters, like these kind of stories, but it is WE, the fans of those characters who actually buying them. And we want our Superman to push ti his limits in a most desperate time to have edge, tension and drama, instead of being all-powerful instantly and just one-punch them.

He ISN'T silly character, he is cool, tough guy with a Clint Eastwood smirk and "shit be get done" eye. The reason why he is wearing red trunks isn't because he is silly, but because when he did wearing it it was cool.

Silver Age stories, they weren't ridiculous at that time, they were cool.But they were buried under a comic code and editorial. This is why we have TONS of exact stories when Superman gets miniturized.

Not to mention :
Kingdom Come, Superman is an old guy with a fragile moral, instead of fixing things he just builds giant gulag, which results in the much bigger cathastrophe and Captain Marvel is the one who saves the day.

I also like when entry-level people name drop AC 775, without mentioning it withing entire conext of Kelly's run. Like AC 805 for example. Not to mention that you are contradicting yourself. Superman brings down Elite only when he himself taps into cruel version, if he was as you want him to be, all-powerful, he wouldn't have this Punisher look as he did in the very end just so kids would be scared shitless and could learn their lesson not to be executioners (btw cartoon, which was also written by Kelly himself readapted this whole thing so Superman is more Superfriends-esque, still a good writers knows to what extend make Superman fast and strong so that drama can be kept) and seek alterantive ways (if there are, again, AC805).

You are the reason why Superman is historically a franchise with missed potential and low sales compared to Batman. Because every time when character is returning back to his roots, becoming great again you all dragging him down, just because he doesn't resemble that one '78 movie and want writers/mediamakers being stuck into another failed attempt of recreating this "weird" guy in a "very bad suit", ironically though Donner's attempt was to make them as realistic as possible, it were Salkinds who aimed at doing it "tongue-in-cheek".

Post a Comment

All comments on The Comics Cube need approval (mostly because of spam) and no anonymous comments are allowed. Please leave your name if you wish to leave a comment. Thanks!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.