Sunday, April 03, 2011

Happy Birthday, Superman!

This article was originally published in a 1998 issue of Singapore's The Peak magazine, which explains the dated references to the "electric blue" era of Superman comics and the thankfully cancelled Tim Burton Superman Lives project. It was a real pleasure not only to write about my favourite comic book character, but to be paid good money for doing so! 

Looking back, this article seems a little breathless to me, and somewhat haphazardly organized. I'd approach the subject with more nuance and deeper analysis today. Still, I think it serves as a reasonable primer for forgiving audiences. 

Happy Birthday, Superman!
60 Years of Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Sixty years ago, a ten-cent pulp magazine called Action Comics #1 hit newsstands across North America. On the cover was an unlikely image: a caped figure in red and blue tights, lifting an auto over his head, smashing it against an outcropping of rock as a band of terrified criminals scrambles for cover. That caped figure was Superman - last survivor of the doomed planet Krypton, who, disguised as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, fought a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. The character was an immediate smash hit, and his adventures have seen continuous publication since that first appearance in June of 1938. Today, Superman is one of  a select number of fictional characters in the pop culture tradition recognized the world over; perhaps only Tarzan of the Apes and Zorro are as well known. It all began when two teenagers, inspired by the exploits of daring crusaders like Doc Savage and the Scarlet Pimpernel, decided to create their own hero in the same vein - but with a few fantastic twists.

Jerry Siegel was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914. Joe Shuster was born in Toronto, Ontario, that same year. Joe moved to Cleveland at the age of nine, met Jerry, and the two began a friendship that endured until their deaths just a few years ago. They would ensure their place in history when, in 1933, they developed their first concept of Superman: a visitor from another world, with “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” For five years they attempted to sell their creation to the newspapers, intending to publish their character’s exploits in the syndicated comic strip format. It wasn’t until 1938 that they would finally manage to get Superman published - but in a new form, the comic book. Before Superman’s debut, comic books had only been collections of reprints of already-established newspaper comic strips. Action Comics would be the first comic book to feature original material. The editor of Action Comics was a little nervous about such an outlandish character being marketable, especially in a new medium, but to his surprise, the magazine sold extremely well and continued to rise in popularity with each successive issue. In those formative years, Superman fever hit the nation, spawning a second comic devoted solely to Superman’s exploits (Action Comics featured characters in addition to the Man of Steel), a radio program, movie serials, and a 1942 novel. By 1940 he was also featured in a syndicated newspaper strip - the original goal of Siegel and Shuster.

In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that the character was so popular with young men - the target audience, at the time, for comic book adventures. Superman was strong (stronger than anyone!), handsome, invincible - the things every guy wants to be. Not only that - the girls all fell for him, world leaders respected him, and no one but no one messed with him. (As the song goes - “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape.”) The real secret to Superman’s popularity, though was his alter-ego: mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, the bespectacled nerd who served as the stand-in for the reader. Superman had to disguise himself as Clark, the reasoning went, so that he could spend part of his time living a normal life, as well as ensuring that criminals could not strike back at Superman through his loved ones. Clark was shy, a little cowardly, and very awkward with women. He was smart, but clumsy and weak - no football or track star, he. He wore the same blue suit every day, along with an unflattering pair of horn-rimmed glasses. But when danger threatened, Clark would, without fail, rush into a telephone booth or empty storeroom and rip open his shirt to reveal the red and yellow “S” - a sure sign that hard-hitting action was not long in coming. It was, and remains, an attractive fantasy for young men. Sure, your friends may think that you’re a wimp - but you have a secret. If they only knew that under that meek exterior burned the heart of an unstoppable crusader for good…

The lively supporting cast helped expand the comic’s popularity. For the girls, there was Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane, Clark’s co-worker and love interest: feisty, independent, smart, beautiful, a career woman before being a career woman was fashionable. For younger kids, there was Jimmy Olsen, the eager copy boy who became Superman’s best pal. There was even a gruff father figure, the irascible but warm-hearted Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet

Superman’s background story adds to his mythic power. Consider that he is an orphan, the last survivor of the doomed planet Krypton. In the Superman tales, Krypton is an incredibly advanced civilization, densely populated by perfect beings who have conquered war, disease, hunger, and crime. However, the Kryptonians have grown somewhat complacent. Their world is about to explode, and only Superman’s father, Jor-El, realizes that the danger exists. As his wife Lara watches tearfully, Jor-El places his only son, the infant Kal-El, into a tiny experimental rocket ship. Just before the planet explodes, Kal-El is shot into space, saved at the last moment. The rocket lands in Kansas, where farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent find it. They hide the secret of the child’s alien heritage from the world, raising him as their own son, teaching him values and impressing upon him that he is a special being and must use his incredible abilities only to help others, never to cause harm or seek personal power. The circumstances of Superman’s origin are strongly reminiscent of Christian accounts; a godlike father figure sends his only son to Earth to spread the good word. 1978’s Superman: The Movie makes the allegory even more blatant. Marlon Brando, as the spirit of Jor-El, lectures his son at one point in the film:

“It is now time for you to rejoin your new world…and to serve its collective humanity. Live as one of them, Kal-El…they can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be - they only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all…their capacity for good…I have sent them you…my only son.”

In the film, the Kryptonians are garbed in brilliant white and the cities are gleaming crystalline towers; all very heavenly and angelic. The metaphor was little bit too much for some Christians; in the year of the film’s release, there was a brief period of outrage at the comparison of a comic book character to the Biblical Saviour. The furor died down quickly, though, and Superman’s popularity continued to fly high.
Superman’s rich back story became a little diluted over the years, though.

As the 1950s and 1960s progressed, writers began to introduce other survivors of Krypton. First there was Supergirl, Superman’s cousin Kara, a blonde teenager who had survived Krypton’s explosion when her home, the bubble-enclosed Argo City, was blown off the planet in a separate chunk. There was Krypto, Superman’s dog, and Beppo, the Super Monkey, both test animals shot into space by Jor-El whose capsules eventually drifted to Earth. (The SPCA would probably not have approved of Jor-El’s methods.) Then there came Comet the Super-Horse, Streaky the Super-Cat, Titano the Super-Ape, a plethora of super-criminals from the Kryptonian prison known as the Phantom Zone, and eventually an entire shrunken city in a bottle full of survivors of the cataclysm. By the early 1980s, one began to wonder if Superman’s parents were the only Kryptonians who didn’t survive the planet’s destruction.

Superman’s abilities grew as time went on, as well. In the early years, he could merely leap tall buildings in a single bound and was more powerful than a locomotive. By the 1980s, he was flying at speeds faster than light, shifting planets in their orbits, and had a ridiculous array of powers, including “super-ventriloquism” - which, apart from the obvious applications, enabled Superman to talk in the airless vacuum of space!

As the character neared his 50th anniversary, editors at DC Comics, publishers of the Man of Steel’s adventures, decided that something needed to be done - so they started over from scratch, “rebooting” the character as though he were a buggy computer, to get the kinks out. The experiment worked. In 1986 Superman was born anew, once more the only survivor of Krypton, with more basic superhuman abilities and a less convoluted array of supporting characters. Revitalized, Superman became more popular after the reboot than he had been in many years, and his success has continued into this 60th anniversary year. At present, Superman appears in over a half-dozen comics per month; he had a very popular television series, the whimsical “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” wrap up last year, and an excellent animated series is still running on the Warner Brothers network. Tim Burton, director of the first two Batman movies, is currently at work on what will be the fifth Superman feature film. Currently rumoured to be playing the lead role is superstar (if you will forgive the pun) Nicholas Cage; Home Improvement’s Tim Allen may play the villain Brainiac; and Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects) may essay the role of Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luthor.

Recently, some longtime Superman fans have been outraged by a radical change to the character; in 1997, his costume and abilities were changed. Superman lost the old red, yellow and blue suit; it was replaced by a blue and white jumpsuit, and his traditional powers were gone. Even the cape was discarded. Now, Superman had an array of electromagnetic abilities, acquiring blue skin and a lightning-boltish appearance.  Dubbed “Bluperman” by detractors, the storyline has nonetheless been popular. DC comics recently revealed, however, that as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations, Superman will get his traditional costume and powers back.

The character has become a pop-culture staple; the phrases “Look…up in the sky!”, “Faster than a speeding bullet,” and “Up, up and away!” are as immediately recognizable as “Beam me up, Scotty,” and “Who was that masked man?” His symbol, a stylized “S” in an irregular pentagram, is as widely known as any corporate logo, adorning t shirts, keychains, watches, and even underwear. Not an episode of Seinfeld passes without some glimpse of a Superman statue or sticker somewhere in the background; Seinfeld is an ardent fan of the character and even appears with him in a very entertaining commercial running currently in the United States. Musician Jon Bon Jovi and athlete Shaquille O’Neill sport “S” symbol tattoos. The Crash Test Dummies had a hit with “Superman’s Song” a few short years ago, as did the Spin Doctors with “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” - a reference to Superman’s pal.

During the run of the 1950s series The Adventures of Superman, the character was portrayed by George Reeves. I Love Lucy was running at the same time, and Reeves, as Superman, drops in on Lucy in one memorable episode. Superman has always enjoyed the company of famous personalities; he held off an invasion from Mars in 1950 assisted by, appropriately enough, director and writer Orson Welles. He met actress Ann Blyth in 1949, was honoured by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, argued with Ronald Reagan in 1986, and brought Hitler and Stalin to justice for crimes against humanity in 1939 (!), preventing World War II. (One regrets that this particular adventure was only imaginary.) He visited Disneyland with science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury in the 1978 Eliot S. Maggin novel Last Son of Krypton. He even fought the famous boxer Muhammad Ali - and lost! - in a very enjoyable late ‘70s tale. 

When the character “died” in the much-ballyhooed Death of Superman storyline a few years back, CBS anchorman Dan Rather read the following statement: “We can no longer say, ‘Let Superman do it.’ The quest for truth and justice must become our quest - not singly as vigilantes, but together as the great people Superman hoped we would be.” Superman recovered, of course, but Rather’s words remain moving.

Why such devotion to someone who is, after all, a fictional being, a four-colour wraith who only exists in our imaginations? I think it’s because, at heart, Superman’s greatest desire is to do the right thing. He never lies; he is polite and generous; he is humble; he uses violence only as a last resort; and, despite the ability to do so, he eschews personal power and uses his fantastic powers only in the service of others. In a world where all too few of us display such characteristics, it’s hard not to be inspired by such a concept. A few years ago, a friend and I were watching Superman III on television. She turned to me at one point and said, “You know, Earl - you’re just like Clark Kent.” Though I felt undeserving of the remark (and still do), it was the highest compliment I have ever been paid, and I treasure the memory. The idea of a Superman has inspired countless numbers of people, including me, to be kind to others and to help out whenever possible. In that sense, he is very real - real enough that from time to time I imagine that I glimpse a red and blue blur soaring overhead, and I am tempted to cry out, “Look! Up in the sky…”

So, Happy Birthday, Supes, and thanks for sixty years of adventure and inspiration.


Stephen Fitzpatrick said...

Nice article, but do you have anything to say about Superman renouncing his US citizenship in Action #900?

Earl J. Woods said...

I think it's a bold move with exciting storytelling possibilities - and long overdue. Superman belongs to the world, not any one nation. Besides, anything that drives teabaggers nuts makes me happy.