It Ain’t No More To It: On My Superman

April 26th, 2011 by | Tags: , , ,

started about halfway through David Bowie’s “Soul Love”. 2205 on 04.25.11. i cheated and edited in a correction toward the end at 0011 on 04.26.11, but it was a really dumb mistake. i’ll do better next time.

I read through the last year of Joe Casey’s run on Adventures of Superman the other day. It’s one of the few works of his I haven’t read, and this was the infamous “Superman is a pacifist” segment, so I figured I should. I came away pretty impressed–Casey had a lot of good ideas. Most of them were well-executed, and the ones that weren’t were still very strong. My favorite part of the run was a small scene from Adventures of Superman 610 that was unrelated to the rest of the issue. They’re spread throughout this post.

I really liked that Casey’s Superman refused violence as a way to solve problems, and I felt like this was another take on what Ann Nocenti was exploring in Daredevil all those years ago, the idea that resorting to violence is a sign of failure, rather than triumph. It takes one of the central tenets of the superhero, that muscles can beat anything, and says, “This is untrue.”

Casey having a specific take on Superman, like a mandate, was really interesting to me. Most writers tend to go with “Superman is all that is good,” which is okay, but not very interesting sometimes. It got me thinking about what I like about Superman, a character I wasn’t into much as a kid, but suddenly seem to have a lot of opinions about now that I’m an adult. I don’t really care to argue whether Superman is a Jesus figure or Moses (because he’s Moses, frankly), but I’m going to try to pin down what’s “my” Superman.

I figure my first, biggest tenet is that Superman doesn’t cry. If you take for granted that Superman is Superman, the one hero that everyone loves and respects, then seeing Superman cry would be like seeing your dad cry. It’d be horrifying, a big fat ball of ugly, crawling dread dropped directly into your hindbrain. When he’s Superman, when he’s got that costume on, he should fearless. He can be sad, sure–that’s fine. But Superman doesn’t cry. The only people he cries in front of… that’s Lois Lane and his parents. He’s strong for everyone else, but since he knows that his family is there for him, he can bring the wall down.

Superman’s got Lois Lane. She’s the one he goes back to when times get rough, and she’s the one whose the Mary Jane to his Peter Parker. She’s where he goes to be normal. I never like it when writers come up with infidelity, fake or otherwise, plots, because Lois married the actual best person on Earth. Cheating doesn’t even enter into his mind. It’s positively absurd, like Mother Teresa strangling a child on live television. Lois isn’t jealous because she knows exactly what her husband is. She knows she’s got nothing to fear.

I think Superman’s biggest feature is his compassion. He’s an idealist at his foundation, and he tries to serve as an inspiration. He can’t save everyone, and he knows that, but he hates it. He’d rescue balloons out of trees just to see a kid smile, and he spends more time silently helping people than sleeping. I like this scene with Emilio for exactly that reason. He doesn’t know this kid at all, but he’s so unbelievably compassionate that he came to see him, despite knowing that he couldn’t save the child’s mother. He just wanted to be there, to provide a shoulder.

I figure that at least 75% of what Superman does to help people has to be non-violent. Crime-stopping is okay, but that’s treating the symptom. Superman is going for a better world, not a “pretty good today.”

Because of that compassion, Superman has to be a pretty melancholy dude. He’s more aware of his failings than anyone else, and considering exactly how powerful he is, his failings are huge. There is a lot he can’t do, and those would be the things he wishes he could do the most. Like, when his parents died, Batman learned that the world only makes sense when you force it to. You reach out, you make a fist, and you pound the world into shape. Superman’s a little different. Superman’s about coping, rather than control. He’s battling a chronic disease as best he can.

Another thing I hate is when people suddenly distrust Superman. That’s stupid. He’s Superman. The whole point is that you’re supposed to trust him, that he’s hear to save us all. I think it’s interesting when people appear who point out where he’s gone wrong, though I can’t think of a time that story wasn’t smarmy and condescendingly awful. But he’s the one guy who is bigger than politics. He’s Michael Jackson, or Mickey Mouse.

Casey’s pacifist take was supremely interesting. Superman has violence at the core of his character. That’s how he solved problems when he first appeared, and for the past however many years. I’m not one to deny the power of violence as a problem solving tool, but I enjoy the idea of the strongest man in the world actively rejecting that power, and what’s more, treating it with scorn. It’s a statement: “I am better than this. We can do better than this.”

Rejecting violence also lets Superman tackle problems that would be otherwise tacky in cape comics. Superman fighting a super-strong straw man of a black militant is ugly and stupid, an attempt to boil down an endlessly complex quagmire into black and white. A Superman who sits down and says, “Let’s talk,” though, is a way to create much more personal and powerful stories. Sure, it doesn’t make for exciting fight comics, but we’ve had seventy years of fight comics. Go read those. Embrace something else.

I like the idea that Superman reads all his fanmail.

I’m not reading Superman comics right now. I don’t think I’ve read them since Geoff Johns and Eric Powell did that Goon story (I’m cheating, but I definitely meant Bizarro, not Goon). The Krypton stuff did nothing for me, the War With Krypton sounded excruciating, and at this point, JMS has managed to compromise the line. I’ve never been a huge Superman fan, but I like him in bursts. Superman: Birthright is great, as is The Death and Return of Superman. The Death was actually my entry into Superman, back in the day. He died on my birthday, in fact.

I think Superman is a good character. I don’t much care for the bulk of his comics, or really the movies, but he was cool on the cartoon. I wish I liked him more, but I do like seeing how other heroes play off him or are inspired by him. I think he’s too often played as a Boy Scout, full stop, to be truly interesting. There’s a lot of wiggle room in him, just like there is in most cape comics characters, but not a lot of experimentation.

Superman is one of the strongest characters in comics. I think it’d be cool to see how far he can bend before he’s not Superman any more.

finished about fifty seconds into David Bowie’s “Rock’n’Roll Suicide”. 2235 on 04.25.11

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13 comments to “It Ain’t No More To It: On My Superman”

  1. That last sentence is quote worthy.

  2. I think one of my favorite moments in Morrison’s JLA run happens during the Ultramarines arc. When the squad of Marines stop shooting at him, because they all realize, HEY THATS SUPERMAN. It manages to distract me from the way the artist totally fails to make my home town actually look anything like my home town…

  3. So how did you like Ziggy?

  4. I’ve been trying to think of a good response to this post, and the story you featured, but all I can come up with is “wow.”

  5. @Don Julian: Who?

    edit: oh, i see what you mean now. I liked it fine.

  6. It’s funny, I’ve never been a fan of Superman as a character, but after I finally broke down and read All-Star Superman I realised I’ve never read a Superman story I didn’t like. Course, at the time that only included the Alan Moore-written annual with Mongol, Death and Return, the Time and Time Again collection. After that I put theory to the test with Byrne’s Man of Steel mini, which I now regret, hah. Still want to pick up some of Loeb’s run for the McGuinness art, too.

    And only vaguely related, but Darwyn Cooke worked the hell out of that last episode of the Superman cartoon. Beautiful stuff

  7. Are you timing yourself now?! Rad.

    The aspect of the character that I always found most interesting was his ability to cope with not only knowing that he can’t save everyone, but that he must choose who to save. What does that do to a person? People need saving all over the world simultaneously and he can’t be everywhere at once. How does he decide where to go first? To what disaster? That’s not a coin-flipping scenario, but maybe deep down it is? I wonder, has that angle been taken with the character?

    I think the first superman comic I bought was ‘Death of’. It’s weird starting in on a character in the absence of said character.

    Also: Ziggy Stardust is kind of perfect soundtrack material for Superman.

  8. @Morgan Jeske: They did that with the Sentry. He had that computer that did threat assessment and fed him where to go next. I think the focus was on the biggest threats and then he worked his way down, but he completely gave over that responsibility to his computer. I forget the reason exactly, but i think it was too much for him? Pretty Jae Lee art on that series, too. You’re absolutely right about that, though, and I hadn’t even really given that specific aspect much thought. It’s rife with potential.

    I think Death Of is a great place to start. It sorta gives you the big tour of Superman’s universe, sets him up as the biggest dog of all, and then Reign showed the aftermath. It’s one case where stunt plotting really paid off.

  9. @david brothers: And what’s the blow-back from those choices? Not to take it too far into the realm of REAL!LIFE!IT’S!GRITTY! but what are the political implications of that? Supes must be cold to certain realities in order to just function day to day (like us!).

    I knew nothing of the continuity of the day when ‘Death of’ dropped. It made the experience far more shocking for me I think. There was the issue near the end where inter-cut with the rest of the issue were these panels of an unknown figure walking across the bottom of the ocean toward Metropolis. I dug the supermen as well, especially Cyborg and Steel. Cyborg because I thought he was actually the real deal all body-horrored (which was terrifying to me at the time) up and Steel because he was a self made hero taking up the cause, genuinely trying to help fill the void left by Superman.

  10. I just noticed that the envelope was scorched. I guess Superman uses his heat vision to open those up. Gotta love the little touches. 🙂

  11. @Morgan Jeske: @david brothers: I think Mark Waid touched on that briefly in the fourth issue of Irredeemable with his Superman stand-in., didn’t he?

  12. I like a cheerful Superman. I like the original Superman a lot, and although the character has to be more complex and virtuous than that, the confident grin really feels good in those stories as Superman takes down the corrupt and powerful and never stops mocking them while he’s at it.

  13. You should read Rick Veitch’s Swamp Thing-meets-Superman story in Swamp Thing #79; I’m curious as to how you would take it.

    In it, Veitch is pretty clear that the idea of the super-human is a very scary and dangerous thing, but Superman, is a good and decent person trying to do right in the world.

    There is a scene where Metropolis-in-microcosm commiserates about all of the anxieties they have in regards to Superman, all of which just evaporate the instant Superman himself shows up, and they are able to bask in his genuine goodness. It’s played for comedic effect, but Veitch doesn’t debunk or invalidate any of the fears or doubts expressed earlier.

    I think it’s probably the best “meta” Superman story I’ve read. Granted, those usually tend to be unsubtle and insufferable, but Veitch’s light touch (and use of the real Superman, not a Hyperion/Supreme/Majestic/whoever stand-in) make it work. (Though I probably haven’t read it in 15 years)