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Friday, July 22, 2011

The New Daily Planet

For the fourth or fifth time in his long publishing history, Superman's backstory will start all over again, and the character's status quo is being considerably shaken up. The new Superman will have lost both his natural and his foster parents, and he'll no longer be married to Lois Lane (indeed, because of the twisted logic of retroactive continuity, the marriage never happened at all).

Some readers in their 20s and 30s are livid over this change, feeling that "their" Superman is being taken away. I understand those feelings; I had them in 1986, when the Superman I enjoyed in childhood was erased from comic book history and replaced by John Byrne's take on the character. But I'm older now, and in the interim I've gone back and read most of Superman's adventures, from the 1930s onward. This isn't the first time the character has started over from scratch; it's not even the second or third. The Superman of the 30s is a very different animal than that of the late 40s, who is different than the character of the 50s, the 70s and on and on. Superman endures because he evolves, and there's joy to be had in discovering the adventures of each and every iteration of the legend.

There's one artifact of Superman's backstory, however, that is coming dangerously close to dating the character: his day job as a "reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper." Big newspapers certainly seem to be on the decline, and one wonders how long printing presses will continue to run. If the New York Times struggles to retain its traditional audience, how can the Daily Planet fare?

The solution is actually relatively simple. Traditional journalism may be on the wane, but society will always need the fourth estate. Perhaps the new Daily Planet shouldn't be a traditional newspaper, with offices in a skyscraper; perhaps instead its footprint should be more diffuse, an online news source of truly planetary scope, with citizen reporters blogging from all over the world. Lois and Clark and Jimmy Olsen would have to be multidisciplinarian ENGs, able to write, shoot video and photos and submit material online. Perry White could be the last grizzled relic of traditional publishing, facing a whole new learning curve as he struggles to ride herd on his younger, hipper employees. Imagine what Jimmy Olsen's flikr account would look like; imagine the sardonic, no-nonsense tweets Lois Lane would produce. Imagine how mild-mannered Clark Kent would navigate the merciless flamewars that so often erupt on social media!

The business viability of news reporting remains a problem; advertising revenues won't cut it. Perhaps this new Daily Planet could be publicly funded, maybe as a subsidiary of NPR. Or it could be funded by donations; certainly DC philanthropists such as Bruce Wayne or Oliver Queen would donate generously.

The only problem I see with this new milieu is the lack of natural storytelling opportunities that arise in a traditional workplace. Gathering together in a central location from 9 to 5 provides a convenient setting for drama or comedy, and having all of the Planet employees telecommuting presents new storytelling challenges, not least of which is that it makes it almost too easy for Clark to slip away during emergencies to change to Superman. Maybe Perry would insist on mandatory weekly meetings just to reconnect, traditionalist that he is.

This idea isn't at all radical or new; when television news seemed to be eclipsing newspapers back in the 1970s, Denny O'Neil tried a similar trick, giving Clark Kent a new job as a TV anchorman. That change lasted fifteen years or so, until the Byrne reboot, which reestablished Clark as a Daily Planet reporter once more. That return to the status quo was still tenable back in the 80s, but perhaps not so much anymore. Clark Kent should remain a reporter...but the character's writers should recognize that the nature of his job is evolving before our very eyes.

Besides, I think it would be interesting to read Clark Kent's Twitter feed.


"The Jeff Of Zetar" said...

I read a story in one of those magazines you to read when you are on a passenger jet about a fellow in Vancouver who has become so addicted to coffee that he spends every day at the same Starbucks, and has done so for the past fifteen years. The fellow is a writer by trade and he uses a laptop for his work. He takes the laptop to Starbucks and writes enough to earn his wage, and then drinks coffee. The magazine article was autobiographical, written by the coffee addict.

The tone is meant to be humorous and self-deprecating. It tells the story of the man who has become a fixture of the shop, and in his mind something of a local legend. Since he spends so much time in the shop, he considers all of the staff his circle of personal friends. He even worked up the courage to date one of the baristas, but that got uncomfortable.

Here's the thing: the coffee addict gets older day by day, but the staff does not. The waitstaff and baristas are all college age, and they rotate in and out regularly, epsecially with the Starbucks being fairly close to UBC. The girls he wants to date are all getting younger, while he gets older. I found the story creepy. The Starbucks staff are trapped in the shop with this guy. They are compelled to be there to work, and the addict is there every day as a slave to his habit.

Maybe the people of Metropolis feel the same way about Superman. Think of all the Lois Lanes Supes has outgrown. They're like Bond girls now (and at least one is). While there might be a certain excitement or dread factor living in Metropolis, knowing that Superman will be there to fight for the good, or that your favourite coffee shop may one day be obliterated by Lex Luthor's death ray, maybe there would also be a bit of grinding jealousy, too. Metropolites in the sub-urbs mark their days, months, years, growing old and grey, getting heavy with fatty diets and smoking, having families, affairs, divorces, babies, raises, car crashes, lottery wins, and so on, while Superman remains Superman always.

It is said that Superman's greatest weakness is kryptonite, but that's not true. Superman is allergic to K, but he needs it to keep from being insufferable in the same way that Gilgamesh was given Enkidu, or that Achilles was afllicted with a weak heel. I suggest that Superman's greatest weakness is one of our own: money. Few people care about unprofitable heroes, no matter how great their acts. Take Saint Alexander of Comana (who?) for example. Here's a fellow who tried as hard as he could to divest himself of wordly goods and was made Bishop of Comana for his efforts. The only reason we know he even existed is because he is mentioned in passing by St. Gregory of Nyssa in writing about the life of St. Gregory Thaumaturgis (who?? and who???, respectively).

Superman needs to evolve if he is going to continue to make money for DC. Unlike the coffee addict or St. Alexander, Supes will allow himself to be modernized to appeal to the younger audience, and thus keep himself alive for another generation. How humiliating that would be for the Man of Steel, knowing that you are virtually immortal, but knowing that the price of immortality is that you must be reborn once it is percieved that you are becoming unprofitable. Maybe humiliating is a poor word choice; Kal-El is, after all, an alien, and so might not express our human range of emotions.

We get older, but Superman defies the aging process - again. It's almost enough to make me want to take up drinking coffee.

Earl J. Woods said...

Jeff, I think your thoughts here show why it's desirable for characters and stories to eventually fall into the public domain, where new creators can breathe life into old characters without worrying about marketability. John Byrne once told a story about a Superman whose world ages around him, and it was mildly interesting, but one wonders what other authors might do with the idea.

"The Jeff Of Zetar" (a) said...

Ohhh, that's a big topic right there, and a very good one in which to bite. Pop media evolves much faster that copyright law, which is both good and bad. Without some brakes built into the system, the art world would be even more anarchic than it is now. But without fresh work, we get stuck with the same tropes repeated over and over again.

Marketability is at the core, as you point out. Without worrying about cost-effectiveness, the human creative spirit is awesome and powerful. But then it also becomes undisciplined and difficult to refine. It's the cliché of the million monkeys on typewriters, although substitute Internet junkies like us for the monkeys.

Superman can't live without money, and DC can't live without Superman, or at least it would cost a lot of good jobs if they tried. Therefore, DC has to be very protective of Superman's income stream. Maybe Lex Luthor won't take finally down Krypton's last son. Maybe it'll be some punk with a burning hot art talent and a fistful of Copic Ciao art markers who does an end-run around the lawyers and suits that keep Superman safe.