Apr 25, 2013

What I Learned from Multiple Supermen

Last week seemed like Superman week, and a bunch of stuff happened. It was Superman's 75th birthday (Happy birthday, Superman!), the Siegel lawsuit against DC for the ownership of Superman finally ended, and the new Superman: Man of Steel trailer came out. The most interesting thing to me was what a friend said in relation to that trailer:
I wonder if general audiences are more forgiving of characters that aren't as recognizable. Everyone has a preconceived notion of who Superman and Batman are so if they screw that up, it's much more critical. I don't think general audiences came in with a strong preconceived notion of who Thor, Hawkeye, and even Captain America are. I didn't really, so I was more ready to accept their version. I think it's a unique problem that makes Superman especially harder.

And that got me thinking, because she was right. We do tend to judge fiction by what we've seen before—I know someone who has never read a Spider-Man comic in her life, but judged last year's Amazing Spider-Man movie harshly because (and I'm not kidding about this) it didn't follow the exact same story in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies (never mind the fact that it couldn't have and that would have been storyline suicide), right down to Tobey Maguire's more built body in comparison to Andrew Garfield. And even if we try not to judge by those standards, we still assume people do—a friend told me that I didn't like the Nolan Batman movies because it didn't live up to my views of Batman, which I just thought was weird because I grew up with at least three or four different versions of Batman, and my problems with the Nolan Batman movies are problems I would have with any movies, or any works of fiction, for that matter.

You could make the argument that there is a correct version of Harry Potter, or maybe even Captain Marvel considering that no interpretation of his past the Golden Age has been anywhere near as critically or commercially successful, even if you scale down to relative fan sizes (the most popular hero of a generation, or a backup hero meant to entice hardcore fans? Not a comparison), and even that's already an argument. Don Rosa's Scrooge McDuck may be the closest thing to Carl Barks' Scrooge McDuck, but no one says the Scrooge McDucks not done by Barks and Rosa aren't "real." Cranky, miserly Scrooge McDuck who does whatever he can to not show emotion in the Barks comics is as "real" as the cranky, miserly Scrooge McDuck who's more open with his feelings in Duck Tales.

But for someone like Batman or Superman, it just seems silly. There may be wrong interpretations, but there isn't just one correct interpretation. It's impossible, and it goes against one of the greatest strengths of these characters: their adaptability.

When I was a kid, I was inundated with a lot of Superman material. These included, in no particular order because I actually can't remember the order I got these in, the Christopher Reeve Superman movies (complete with a comic adaptation of III), a digest reprinting Silver Age Superman stories, scattered issues of John Byrne's Superman, the Super Powers Superman action figure with the minicomic, Jack Kirby's Super Powers comic, and a bunch of Bronze Age comics, including Superman vs. Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century. What did these versions of Superman have in common? Well, aside from the suit, him coming from the planet Krypton, the basic power package, his secret identity as Clark Kent, and Lois Lane? Almost nothing.

And when you look at all the different versions of Superman, you can see there are many choices to be made, many aspects to his personality that need defining.  To name a few:

  • Do you use clumsy Clark Kent like Christopher Reeve, or do you use hard-boiled get-the-story Clark Kent like George Reeves?
  • Is Krypton a scientifically advanced utopia, like in the Silver Age, or a too-scientifically-advanced and emotionless planet of detached and disconnected people, like in Byrne's version?
  • Did Superman come to Earth as a baby, as in most versions, or as a full-fledged grownup, as in the radio show?
  • Are Clark Kent and Lois Lane married, dating, or stuck in that Clark-Lois-Superman triangle where Lois doesn't even know his dual identity?
  • Is Clark Kent a newspaper reporter, a TV anchor, or anything else that has to do with the news?
  • Does the S stand for Superman because Ma Kent made the suit, or does it stand for hope in Kryptonese?
  • Does Superman embrace his Kryptonian heritage, as he does a little too much before Crisis on Infinite Earths, or does he, as Byrne established, place the Earth so far above it that Kryptonian culture ultimately doesn't matter to him?
  • What's with kryptonite? Are there multiple colors and are they plentiful, or is there only green and it's rare?
  • Does Superman kill when he has to, as Byrne made him do in a well-received story involving Phantom Zone criminals, or does he absolutely never kill?
  • Are Ma and Pa Kent alive or dead? Or is Ma Kent alive and Pa Kent is dead? Which is it?
  • Can he fly or only jump an eighth of a mile?
  • Was he Superboy when he was younger or wasn't he?

Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, apparently went on record that DC ruined Superman the moment they gave him flight. It sounds so preposterous now, because flight is so ingrained in our image of him, but there was a time when he couldn't fly and apparently that was a big enough deal that at least one person thought changing that power ruined him. And this is a pure preference—that's his version of Superman, the one he thinks is ideal. It's not wrong to prefer it. It can't be.

My ideal version of Superman? The really powerful version with a Fortress of Solitude in the arctic, complete with the Bottled City of Kandor and multiple versions of Kryptonite, who loves Krypton but also loves Earth, and has accepted that the Earth is his home now. Ma and Pa Kent are both alive, and he's married to Lois. Clark Kent is a hard-boiled reporter and not a clumsy act, Lex Luthor is a businessman, Brainiac is from Krypton, and Superman doesn't kill—ever. Other superheroes can kill when they feel they have no choice and their hands are pushed, but Superman will not, and things will be fine, because that's the Superman in my head. He always finds a better way. And guess what? That Superman has never been published, ever. It's just too specific a version. There are too many factors.

Some want a more human, more relatable Superman, and while I don't get the appeal of that at all, it's still what they want, and variations of it have been known to work. Maybe not for me, but they worked. People really love that Byrne run, and Smallville did run for 10 seasons.

And I guess that's what I learned from growing up with multiple versions of Superman. There is no "right way" to do him. There are many wrong ways to do him—I think we can all agree, for example, that the infamous Kevin Smith anecdote where Jon Peters told him to make sure the Superman in his movie didn't fly, didn't wear a suit, and had to fight two polar bears and a giant spider would have been a bad idea.

It's SO funny though.

But for a right way? There isn't one. Superman has at least two classic versions: the very powerful version who's surrounded by fantastic trappings and who lets humanity find themselves, or the less powerful and more grounded version who tackles more social injustice than otherwordly evil. These two versions are not compatible. They cannot coexist at the same time. They could, perhaps, be different endpoints for the arc of the same character, but all those traits all at once? They don't mix. They can't mix. They're contradictory. Superman can't say "We need to let humanity fight its own battles" and then punch a lobbyist. He can't say he misses Krypton and then say he doesn't care about Krypton in the same story. Superman can have diametrically opposite versions and they can work. Superman is an adaptable character, but unlike someone like Spider-Man, who can adapt as the same character over time, Superman has to be rebuilt because his character aspects are so either/or that there really is no middle ground. The same is true of Batman.

I think they key is to hone in on the pulse of your intended audience. That's what Siegel and Shuster did back in 1938, when they introduced Superman as a two-fisted champion of the oppressed who took the law into his own hands and even fought corporate lobbyists, because America was still in a depression and people needed that kind of proactive attitude. It was only a few years later when Superman got turned into the perfect All-American boy, complete with eagle on his arm, which reflected America's role in World War II. Christopher Reeve gave the world a hero to admire in the midst of a time when they were cynical about it, but that same approach didn't work 20 years later when they tried it with Superman Returns. (And what were they thinking putting the star of Action Comics in a  movie with barely any action?) But even Brandon Routh's Superman is a Superman, as valid and as real as the rest of them; he was just the Superman in a really underwhelming movie.

It's obviously easier said than done, and sometimes it'll work and sometimes it doesn't, but I think the phrase "That's not Superman!" should be used in a more sparing fashion. Sometimes it's true, but more times, it's not. There's just no such thing as a "correct" Superman, and liking one version doesn't preclude you from liking the others. There are almost always pieces in any version that you like or don't like. The Man of Steel trailer may not have done anything for me, but I'm still glad he's actually, you know, punching someone in it. I love the zaniness of the Bronze Age Superman, but think it went too far sometimes, like that one time Clark Kent actually ate his costume to hide it and then said at the end of the story that it will come out all right (seriously, ew). I may not have liked what John Byrne did with Superman, but he laid a good enough foundation that I enjoyed the work of subsequent creators, especially Roger Stern's.

There's more than one way to do things. And there's nothing wrong with accepting multiple interpretations of one character. Maybe we shouldn't be so stringent about how we think these characters should be like, and maybe we should learn to let go when a writer doesn't capture our vision—after all, it's his vision, not ours. And there's nothing wrong with liking more than one version. My favorite time to have been a Superman fan since I was a kid was in 2007, when Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely were doing All-Star Superman and Geoff Johns and Gary Frank were doing Action Comics. Both Supermen were different characters, and I loved both and wanted them both to continue. All-Star was the closest version to the one in my head, but Action was the one I was showing non-comics-reading friends, because it just had such wide, primal appeal.

Maybe, instead of sticking hard and fast to our ideal versions of a character like Superman, we should be celebrating his adaptability, and encouraging DC Comics to put out multiple versions instead of pushing one "real" version. Because there is no one real Superman; just a collection of trappings that make up any version of Superman. And as long as those trappings are satisfied, it's all "real."And as long as an interpretation speaks to the target audience, then it deserves some room to breathe. Even contradictory ones, at the same time.

1 comment:

Dino said...

really enjoyable piece, all the more relevant now following the Man of Steel uproar!

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