When I was a kid, about six or seven, I flew across the room. I stood on the end of my parents' bed (the one with posters that I later broke and blamed on the maid), extended my bathrobe behind me and pushed off. I sailed through the air, cleared part of the room and came to a remarkably soft landing by skidding to a stop under my father's chest of drawers. "Like Superman!" my sister exclaimed. That, I informed her, was the whole idea.
sk That was the only flight for which there were witnesses. Like the times I was both the cowboy and his horse (I could run at a gallop), my career as Superman went largely unnoticed by the world around me. No one knew that I could fly (faster than a speeding bullet) or that my strength was superhuman or that once I stood perched on the porch roof and considered duplicating my bedroom feat until, seized by panic, I prudently transformed myself into Clark Kent. I took the stairs instead.
sk,2 I tell you these true tales (one of them, remember, witnessed) because word has reached these precincts that Superman is going to be changed. After 48 years, the people at DC Comics say they are going to make the man of steel "more vulnerable." He will retain his super powers, but they won't be, well, so super. As for Clark Kent, always an oxymoronic character (there is no such thing as a mild-mannered reporter), he will become more assertive and "upwardly mobile" -- in fact, either a feature writer or a columnist. (Maybe he'll be on the McLaughlin Group and send Bob Novak to the moon.)
sk "It's very important for him to be accepted as a human being, to be accepted as he really is," said John Byrne, the writer and artist for the new Superman. "He Kent doesn't have to be the outrageous wimp he has been in the past. He is going to be more self-assured as Clark."
As an upwardly mobile and assertive columnist myself, I would like to tell this Byrne charecter something: Eat Kryptonite! Go play around with Archie and Jughead. Do what you want with Plastic Man or with that rich snob, Batman. Make Spiderman into Butterfly Man and convert Scrooge McDuck into an investment banker who got rich on inside trading. But keep your pen off of Superman. (Where's Lex Luthor when we need him?)
DC Comics, attempting to keep what a professor of popular culture (that's a different column) called its "market position," thinks it is doing the smart thing by turning the boy from Smallville into Quicheman. (Look in the sky: It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a fern!) But they are making a serious mistake. The attraction of Superman was that he personified that bundle of inadequacies and insecurities that we call "a boy."
A kid could look at the nonassertive, meek and desperately-in-need-of-therapy Kent and see that he was also Superman. Kent was the boy, and Superman was who the boy could someday be -- the promise, the future. Kent was lost in the world, overwhelmed by its demands, awkward and very often adrift in a sea of dreams. Boys are that way. They can look at Kent and identify. Superman needs only a phone booth and a change of clothes. A boy needs only some years.
We have yet to see the new, more assertive Kent, but that, too, is bound to be a mistake. Like countless heroes of countless movies, Kent is the guy who does not wear his machismo on his sleeve. He does not fight, even when provoked, although of course he could. He knows that true manliness has nothing to do with aggression or belligerence but, instead, with the way you conduct yourself -- that and an adherence to principles. In the movies, the principle might be nonviolence (the fighter who killed an opponent in the ring) or some silly pledge you have made a woman (Gary Cooper to Grace Kelly in "High Noon"). For Superman it is the concealment of his true identity. In any case, the message is a worthy one: being a man takes discipline and self-control.
sk,3 Now, alas, all of that will be gone. I fear that we will soon see Superman hanging around single bars, asking women their signs, jogging, telling shrinks that even though, fer shoor, he's super, he's not really happy, and making boys perched on beds everywhere think the future will be like the present. Maybe in the next movie he'll be played by Woody Allen.