ED. NOTE: The 44th annual San Diego Comic-Con International — the granddaddy of the American comics and pop-culture conventions — is expected to draw more than 125,000 fans to the Convention Center through toay. Throughout the event, Comic Riffs focuses on talented creators in attendance.
ALL OF US, if we’re fortunate enough to reach 75, are changed in profound ways while piling up all those Earthly years. But what if your life were controlled by creative and corporate overlords — writers and underwriters who had a stake in preventing sudden changes in your character?
Upon his 75th birthday this summer as a mainstream character, Superman, of course, is still a super-franchise. Which means in the short term, his image is typically as fixed as magnetic North. Yet look back over the long arc of his life so far, author Glen Weldon says, and the changes appear more dramatic.
“The thing about mainstream superhero comics is that, like soap operas, they’re narratives that deny their characters the very thing that
makes a story a story — which is to say: an ending,” says Weldon, who is at San Diego Comic-Con in support of his new book, “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography” (Wiley).
“The Superman of the regular monthly comics doesn’t emerge from an adventure changed in any real way, because vast marketing and licensing departments are in place, dedicated to preserving him as he is,” says Weldon, who writes for National Public Radio’s pop-culture blog, “Monkey See,” and appears on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. “He is a toy that different writers and editors pick up, play with, and put back in the box: forever iterating, never evolving — at least not within the confines of a story.
“The point of my book is that the character has evolved, of course,” Weldon continues, “but that this evolution occurs only gradually over decades, not within a single adventure.”
Comic Riffs caught up with Weldon to delve into Superman’s many migrations: from Krypton to Kansas to Metropolis, and — barely less implausibly — from Cleveland to Manhattan to Hollywood:
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MICHAEL CAVNA: In my first superhero drawings ever — I was about 4 — I depicted my dad as Superman. Now, beyond any kid’s-eye idealization — or amazingly persuasive indoctrination by my parents — the Superman that first resonated with me was a very paternalistic figure: the great Father Figure who would watch tenderly over Earth. Do you think that image of Superman resonates in pop culture today?
GLEN WELDON: Certainly, for much of his existence — the post-war years through the ’70s — he’s assumed the role of a kind of bemused, coolly distant father to an extended “family” of super-powered cousins, Bizarro clones, shrunken Kryptonians, not to mention the odd mermaid, alien and super-monkey. And there’s always something about him that reads as either paternal or, especially in the ’70s, as your egregiously unhip uncle — ”Say, that ‘rock music’ certainly seems to be turning these youngsters on, Jimmy!” But he didn’t start out like that.
No, he began life as our tough, protective older brother. A bully to anyone who’d seek to bully the honest American working-man. He’d go after those whom we’d now call the 1 percent: crooked politicians, corporate fat-cats, wealthy industrialists who skimped on safety measures and endangered their employees. Armed with this rather Progressive agenda, we knew the guy had our back. But World War II transformed him from a rabble-rouser to a patriotic symbol, and he spent the post-war years like many GIs did, settling into a comfortable, paternalistic existence as the ultimate Eisenhower Republican — only with a cape and boots instead of a pipe and slippers.
When this character first got his hooks into me — with 1978’s ”Superman: the Movie” — I didn’t pick up on anything particularly dad-like in [Christopher] Reeve’s performance. That film -- and the new [Zach] Snyder film, ”Man of Steel” — instead invest their emotional capital in depicting Superman as the universal Son, and Jor-El/Pa Kent as two sides of the universal Father — head/heart, respectively. To 10 year-old me (and to the me of today), the defining element of Reeve’s Superman is something he was the first to bring to the role — a calm, assured quality that he didn’t need to push. When Lois first asks him who he is, his simple answer — “A friend.” — resonated with me. Not a father, uncle, or brother, not someone tied to us by blood and cultural obligation — just a guy with the ability to do whatever he wanted. And what he chose to do was look out for us.
MC: Early [last] week at Politics & Prose, you spoke about the idea of Superman. I’m intrigued by the notion that there may be many Supermans on the comics page over 75 years, but that ther are far fewer in the minds of most people. Can you tell readers about your “Idea of Superman” approach?
GW: The character of Superman is owned by DC/Warner. He is a heavily licensed nugget of intellectual property, and he’s been rebooted,
retconned, killed, resurrected, and endlessly iterated in comics, movies, television shows, video games and novels for decades. Nerds like me know Superman the character, and his Byzantine backstory, stuffed as it is with weird developments and one-off characters who’ve since been wiped from official “continuity,” but who live on in our hearts; we can and do pick favorites between the thousands of stories that have been told about him.
The idea of Superman belongs to the world. It long ago transcended the various media that deliver the character to us. It’s an idea, and an ideal, that saturates the cultural ether around the globe — it’s the simple, pure notion that your sweet, silver-haired Aunt Fay thinks of when she thinks of Superman. The ideological fuel mixture varies, from person to person, but the gist — guy from Krypton, flies, blue suit/red cape, does what’s right, Truth Justice and the American Way — is a powerful, dare I say iconic, one.
In the book, I explore this distinction by looking at all the changes the character’s undergone over the years — which, I argue, reflect the cultural shifts taking place around him — as well as at the stuff that’s remained constant: What are his core elements, and why have they stayed the same?
Once upon a time, the comics shaped our collective idea of Superman. But as their audience shrank, it’s the films — and television shows — that today sustain Superman as a cultural concept.
MC: What remains most amazing to me about “The Superman” is simply the fact that he was first — that a couple of “outsider” Cleveland teens could create something, albeit with their influences, that could launch a 75-years-and-going-strong industry. What do you think made [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster so special — or at least inspired — at such a young age as superhero creators?
GW: Yep, he created his own archetype, and everything “super-hero” that came after him — we’re talking huge swaths of popular culture — is all down to him. Siegel and Shuster were young men who obsessed over the emerging genre known as “science fiction”. Others considered it dismissible trash, but in them it engendered passionate discussions, profound disagreements, and they talked about it using references to favorite authors and stories in a language their peers would find impenetrable. Which is to say: They were proto-nerds.
Brad Ricca’s great new book, “Super Boys,” dives more deeply in the Siegel and Shuster backstory than I do, but I spend a chapter looking at those first 12 Superman stories in Action Comics. Each one’s only 13 pages or so, but they caused a sensation, and I wanted to examine why that would be — what was it in these stories that caught fire?
What I found was that it took awhile for many of what we now consider the iconic elements to fall into place. The powers, the persona, his resolve against taking a life — it’s all still coming together in those first issues, several of which only show him in his costume for a panel or two. He shows a bizarre predilection, in those early issues, to disguise himself and go undercover — a trope that swiftly went away.
What you see is the sheer dynamism of the guy. Shuster’s art is rough, even sketchy, but captures movement and power and speed with great economy. Siegel doesn’t complicate his plots overmuch — he just drops this Really Strong Guy into mundane situations, lets readers marvel at the fact that street thugs can’t hurt him, and ends the story quickly. (That simple device — look how strong he is! — provided the narrative fuel for a lot of those early stories. Ultimately, however, Siegel would be forced to up the ante, introducing more dramatic villains and all sorts of secret-identity monkeyshines.)
But you can’t talk about this character’s early success without mentioning merchandising. Superman is an object lesson on the power of marketing — within months of Action Comics #1, Superman puzzles, games, dolls, moccasins, pajamas, and more were flooding the nation’s five and dimes. Superman’s publishers treated Siegel and Shuster abominably, but they had a large role in pushing Super-tschokes into the waiting hands of American kids, which gave those kids a personal — and literally tangible — relationship with the character.
MC: You recently gave “Man of Steel” a pretty favorable review. The long shadow of Richard Donner’s first “Superman,” especially, seems to dog all that follow — in wider pop culture, it’s the monster that must be wrestled with. Do you think the Nolan/Goyer braintrust were wise to go “Batman”-dark with “Man of Steel” — and are you optimistic about the sequels given this direction?
GW: I commend Snyder/[Christopher] Nolan/[David] Goyer for making a clean break from Donner’s aesthetic sensibility — and from “Luthor’s got a real estate scheme! Again! Still! Some more!” as a plot device. Singer’s 2006 ”Superman Returns” was too beholden to what had gone before, and felt like pastiche. This, at least, was different.
As time passes, and with a second viewing, the stuff about “Man of Steel” that worked for me is fading, and its pervading sense of grimness — matched to empty ”Transformers”-esque spectacle, and cynical 9/11 imagery, rankles more. I get why they did it — they want to gritty up Superman so he’ll fit within Nolan’s emotionally monochromatic Batman universe, so sequels can happen. But it feels like the grim-and-gritty nihilism that chased me out of comics in the ’90s has finally made its way to the big screen.
[Ed. Note: The powers behind “Man of Steel” announced Saturday that Batman will appear in their next Superman film.]
Ultimately, it’s a taste issue, and plenty of people who aren’t as nerdily invested in seeing the character as an inspirational/aspirational figure loved the film. So I can simply say that, in every sense of the term, “Man of Steel” is Not For Me.
MC: Your book deals with how Superman has been depicted in the books compared with on the screen — in part, that the cinematic Supes has cut a simpler image. Can you speak to that some, and would you like to see screen projects borrow from the books more — much how Frank Miller’s Batman so radically influenced the onscreen Bruce Wayne?
GW: The thing about mainstream superhero comics is that, like soap operas, they’re narratives that deny their characters the very thing that makes a story a story — which is to say: an ending. The Superman of the regular monthly comics doesn’t emerge from an adventure changed in any real way, because vast marketing and licensing departments are in place, dedicated to preserving him as he is. He is a toy that different writers and editors pick up, play with, and put back in the box: forever iterating, never evolving — at least not within the confines of a story.
The point of my book is that the character has evolved, of course, but that this evolution occurs only gradually over decades, not within a single adventure.
To combat this, and allow Superman to function as fictional characters are meant to, writers have come up with Imaginary Stories, Elseworlds, one-offs and miniseries. Because the minute you supply him a real ending, any ending, some very interesting/surprising stuff can happen. I’ve enjoyed a lot of story-arcs I’ve read in the monthly comics — Greg Rucka’s Adventures of Superman run is a particular favorite. And I like Mark Waid’s Birthright, Alan Moore’s various takes on the character, Kurt Busiek’s alt-reality meditation Secret Identity and Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, which gets a lot about the character right, and dials back the author’s propensity for crazypants-iosity.
And in fact, a lot of my favorite tales are getting adapted for the screen — just not the big screen. DC Entertainment is producing animated movies that tackle some classic stories, the old Justice League cartoon did a take on Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything” and the ‘90s “Superman: The Animated Series” is just a hell of a lot of fun.
As I noted, I’m all for big-screen treatments that break out from what’s gone before. Movies are not comics, and vice versa, so a Superman film should radically reinterpret the character to do what movies can do, not merely adapt it. In a sense, though I didn’t care for it, “Man of Steel” accomplished this.
MC: Speaking of Superman comics, what was the issue that hooked you — and how old were you?
GW: Like a lot of people who were young kids in the ’70s, my first exposure to comic-book heroes wasn’t from a comic. It was “Super Friends.”
Yeah, they tended to give preachy, bloodless lessons about protecting our precious natural resources. But they were bold and colorful and they had powers, and that’s all it took for these characters to get their hooks in me. “Super Friends” led to reruns of the Spider-Man cartoon, which led to reruns of the ‘60s live-action Batman series, and the old George Reeves “Adventures of Superman,” and it was all over.
The first time I tried comics themselves, they didn’t take. It was a Legion of Superheroes issue, filled with whiny teenagers expositing their soft, salty feelings all over the damn place, falling in and out love — gross — and never using their powers — the hell? I didn’t get it. These weren’t superheroes, like the ones on TV. These were something different.
A year later, I picked up a couple anthologies: [Jules Feiffer’s] “The Great Comic Book Heroes,” which reprinted classic Golden Age stories — Plastic Man, Batman, Human Torch, Captain America, the Spirit ... and Superman. That led me to pick up [E. Nelson Bridwell’s] “Superman: From the Thirties to the Seventies,” which I pored over like a Talmudic scholar in a bowl haircut. Read it out loud. Acted it out with friends. Took it to heart. It was over.
MC: Not to put you on the spot, but: Who has been the best Superman artist ever? I’ll confess: I’m a sucker for Alex Ross’s painterly quality.
GW: I confess I still picture the “Swanderson” Superman — pencils by Curt Swan, inks by Murphy Anderson — of my ‘70s childhood, whenever I think of the Man of Steel. It’s the one that seared itself into my head. Their Superman, despite his blandly handsome features, was remarkably expressive, and I loved seeing his sideburns creep slooooowly down those granite cheekbones, as the ‘70s wore on.
But it’s Kurt Schaffenberger’s slightly less photorealistic Superman that I love best. Schaffenberger illustrated the Lois Lane comic, which told more domestic tales of the Man of Steel, in which the big guy existed primarily as Lois’s love object. Schaffenberger knew we readers had to see a version of Superman over which we could see Lois tying herself in knots, and that’s what he gave us — a cartoonishly handsome matinee idol. Still the best-looking Superman of all time, for my money.
MC: Similarly, who has been the best Superman writer ever? And if you say “Siegel,” I’ll ask you for a runner-up, natch.
GW: Well, okay, but let me stress how good — and deeply deeply weird — Siegel’s stuff was, even in the very beginning. I mean it was raw and simplistic, but powerful. Crucially, Siegel loved a good gag, which injected this bizarre and potentially terrifying creation with a humanizing humor that let us embrace him. Later, when Siegel returned to write “The Death of Superman” and some of the most powerful tales of the Silver Age, his emotional palette grew more mature, even somber — Superman started pining for his lost world of Krypton, a place he hadn’t spared a thought in decades. Those are some deeply melancholy and resonant stories, in their gloriously goofy way.
I do think Mark Waid’s take on the character is spot-on, which is only fitting, given the deep reservoirs of Superman trivia he carries in his brain. Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman — and, to a lesser extent his JLA run — captures the essence of the character. If you can find Rucka’s Adventures of Superman run, he nails who Superman is on the first page of his first issue.
Other writers have worked on the character briefly, but left huge marks: Joe Casey did good work in Action Comics, reminding readers of what set the character apart, and Garth Ennis did a JLA/Hitman two-issue series that included a surprisingly heartfelt take on the character. Mark Millar’s stories in the Superman Adventures all-ages comic — the animated series tie-in — helped make it the best Superman comic on the market in the ‘90s, for my money.
MC: As long as we’re playing the Lightning Round: Who is the best Superman villain?
GW: Two are tied for first place, for very different but related reasons:
Not particularly surprising, I know, but look-it: These are iconic characters. They exist on the level of metaphor, and there’s a classic dyad that cannot be futzed with, here: Brains vs. Brawn. Put Superman up against somebody who’s as powerful as he is, and you’ve got a boring slugfest, albeit one taking place in clingy spandex. Endless fight scenes may be a staple of the comics, but they don’t get at the ideological essence of these characters.
No: The truly elemental Superman story is Brains vs. Brawn. Superman isn’t beaten when he gets out-punched, because we know he will get up again. That’s what he does. But when he is outwitted? When all his powers avail him naught? That’s a story. And that’s what Luthor’s for.
... But Superman isn’t merely brawn. Which is why a Mxyzptlk story shows an equally important side to the guy. Because when he goes up against mischief-making magic, we see how hard Superman works to save the lives of people in Metropolis, how tirelessly he strives to protect us. And — because the only way to get rid of Mxyzptlk is to get him to say his name backwards — it gives Superman, or at least Superman’s writers, a chance to show us he’s got smarts, or at least cunning, too.
MC: Lastly, what is your personal Kryptonite?
GW: I assume you mean this not in the sense of “Frozen peanut butter cups are my weakness!” or whatever, but a meaning more in accordance with what Kryptonite actually does: Weakens, debilitates, saps my will to live.
Oh, man: There’s ... there’s just so much. Runny eggs. Tunafish. The works of Charles Bukowski. Devotees of the works of Charles Bukowski. Artisinal anything. Sunny dispositions. Sports. People who laugh at their own jokes. People who say “the interwebs.” People who say, “That’s very me.” People.
SCHEDULE: Glen Weldon is currently at Comic-Con and said he planned on attending at least some of these panels.
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