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Since his first appearance in Action Comics Number One, published in late spring of 1938, Superman has represented the essence of American heroism. “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound,” the Man of Steel has thrilled audiences across the globe, yet as life-long “Superman Guy” Tom De Haven argues in this highly entertaining book, his story is uniquely American.
Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the midst of the Great Depression, Superman is both a transcendent figure and, when posing as his alter-ego, reporter Clark Kent, a humble working-class citizen. An orphan and an immigrant, he shares a personal history with the many Americans who came to this country in search of a better life, and his amazing feats represent the wildest realization of the American dream. As De Haven reveals through behind-the-scenes vignettes, personal anecdotes, and lively interpretations of more than 70 years of comic books, radio programs, TV shows, and Hollywood films, Superman’s legacy seems, like the Man of Steel himself, to be utterly invincible.
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Superman on Earth
By Tom De Haven
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Tom De Haven
All rights reserved.
Over a span of three weeks in late spring 2006, I spent some part of almost every day on the telephone being asked and answering questions about Superman, Superman, Superman. Mostly it was newspapers and press services calling me, but a few radio stations did too, even a couple of podcasts. Superman Returns, the Bryan Singer movie starring Brandon Routh, was set to open in ten bazillion theaters worldwide, and American media were generating feature stories galore in breathless, complicit anticipation. But why call me for some (hopefully) pithy and (possibly) illuminating commentary about the character and the upcoming movie (about which I personally knew nothing)? Because half a year earlier, Chronicle Books had published a novel I'd written about Superman, my version of Superman, and that, somehow, qualified me as an authentic "Superman expert." Flattering to be so considered, but not really the case. It's Superman! had nothing to do with Singer's film, or with the Smallville television program, or with the Warner Brothers animated cartoon series, or even, for that matter, with the monthly Superman comic books. With the permission and approval of DC Comics (but without any input or strictures), I'd set my story during the Great Depression and placed Superman back in his original 1930s context—his first appearance was in Action Comics number 1, published in late spring 1938. The fun for me had been to imagine the Man of Steel physically and morally, even politically, as he'd been portrayed at the start by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two teenagers from Cleveland who created him. Written in noirish meter without too much kidding around, it was (yet another bildungs-roman) about the farm boy Clark Kent once he discovers he's stronger than anyone else. And can fly. It's Superman! had been widely reviewed, so my name kept popping up during database searches for Superman authorities.
Although I don't enjoy being interviewed and I'm not savvy at it—I tend to meander—I almost never (okay: I never) turn down a request for one. Who doesn't like seeing his name in print or hearing her prerecorded voice on the radio, even when half the time you come off sounding like a real knucklehead? Besides, it's self-promotion. I could sell a few books, maybe. It's a theory, at least.
What I kept being asked pretty much boiled down to three questions, usually asked in the same order. Why has Superman lasted for almost seventy years? Can you explain his appeal? Does he still matter in the twenty-first century?
For the first two questions I had decent answers, I thought, despite their sounding canned by the last few interviews. Why has Superman lasted? To begin, he has the solid advantage of being the first comic book superhero. Cachet right there—no? But really, it's the premise.You can't beat it. Doomed planet, sole survivor, secret identity, Earth's mightiest hero. Beautiful. And its simplicity has enabled hundreds of writers (comics writers, screenwriters, songwriters, librettists, poets, novelists, bubblegum-card miniaturists) working over a period of seven decades to dream up tens of thousands of Superman narratives.
Superman is forever a work in progress, changing, sometimes subtly, other times radically, but normally (not always, but normally) in ways that have kept him popular, to greater or lesser degrees, for several generations. At the same time, certain parts of his makeup—his essence, the crux of him—have never altered. Or when they have, corrections soon have been made, his integrity reconfirmed.
No matter the incarnation, Superman is a hardworking guy who gets things done. Whatever he puts his mind to. He's John Henry without the steam-drill competition and the fatal heart attack. As Tom Crippen, writing in the Comics Journal, put it, "Superman isn't there to live out our fantasies.... Half the time he's doing something you yourself would not want to do. But when he performs one of his feats, he's making a point on our behalf: that the universe is still our size. Existence is so built to our scale" ("Big Red Feet," 171).
In the 1930s Superman was Tom Joad in aerialist's tights: a gadfly, a caped vigilante, a working-class warrior fighting for better and more equitable social conditions. In the 1940s he became a personification of the American fighting spirit. Although in the comic books he by and large sat out World War II, somehow Superman emerged from it a totem of national indomitability, enterprise, and victory. (The posterlike—recruiting-posterlike—comic book covers that showed him hoisting the Stars and Stripes or balancing a bald eagle on his forearm no doubt had much to do with that.) During the 1950s and '60s he seemed, despite being freighted with more and more superpowers, far less like a force of nature and more like, well, your favorite uncle—affable, available, a little bit melancholy, but just a big old kid at heart. (In the comic books, that is. On television he was George Reeves, maybe not your favorite uncle—too scowly—but surely the most capable one, the guy who would show up at your house grumbling a little and fix the furnace when your dad didn't have a clue.) In the 1970s Superman slimmed down, like Schwarzenegger after steroids, and was suddenly a Baby Boomer in robust early maturity. (And in the movies he was, indelibly, Christopher Reeve.) In the 1980s—
There, or right around there, I usually was interrupted. Why didn't I just go ahead and explain his appeal?
His appeal. Okay. Start with this: Superman is an immigrant, which gives him American cred instantly and automatically. But he's also the ultimate immigrant. The Patron Saint of immigrants. Superman (or baby Kal-El, his birth name) didn't just cross steppes and continents, borders and oceans to get here, he crossed the universe! (Come to think of it, he's also an illegal immigrant.)
Superman happens to be an orphan as well, and the orphan is a pretty fraught character type, his plight and opportunity a recurring theme in everything from tall tales and folk ballads to children's literature and literary fiction. Popular fiction, too, for that matter. The orphan is charged with creating her own identity, often from scratch; the orphan either has none, or loses all, of his social status; the orphan prizes self-reliance, and lives self-reliantly.
But Superman isn't a mere orphan; he is (at least in the original and "classic" version) a double orphan, having lost two sets of parents, first Kryptonian, then Kansan. Nobody showed him how to change the course of mighty rivers or bend steel in his bare hands; the poor kid had to learn it all by himself.
Then there's the matter of mobility. American exceptionalism would have it that we don't end up in the same place we started, and is there a more basic national fantasy, from James Fenimore Cooper through Bruce Springsteen, than the imperative to pull up stakes, hit the road, and light out—to go and go now? Who is more unfixed, unfettered, or freer, than a man who can fly?
And of course I couldn't not mention Superman's religious, or parareligious, trappings: savior from the sky, messiah from heaven, looks human but isn't. The Christian symbolism. And the Jewish. Moses in the reeds, all of that.
I had good answers to the first two standard questions; glib ready-mades, but still pretty good. Third question, though? Always gave me trouble. Does Superman still matter in the twenty-first century? Matter. Matter how? Superman's name, his image, his Big-S graphic, even his logo are recognized by practically everyone on Earth, and his unalterable baggage (Krypton/ Kents/Metropolis/Lois/Luthor/Daily Planet) remains an effortlessly retrievable part of our shared cultural knowledge. Comic books featuring Superman continue to sell—nowhere near the number of copies they once did, but at three bucks a pop they still make money. Smallville is a multiseason hit, one of the biggest in television syndication, and Warner Communications hardly would have burned through two hundred million dollars bankrolling and marketing a movie about him if the company wasn't confident that there existed a large audience, a worldwide audience, eager to see him back in action. So yes, Superman still matters—that way. As a lucrative property, an aggressively protected trademark, a dependable, familiar entertainment franchise.
But matters-matters? Matters as something emotionally powerful, as a signifier of virtues and qualities we automatically profess to esteem, as an avatar of American-ness? Or matters the way, for example, The Simpsons does now, or Batman or Spider-Man or Indiana Jones—as both a cultural touchstone and a meaningfully coded tile in the national mosaic? Does Superman still matter in any of those ways? His anima, drive, and motives, let's face it, seem fundamentally out of sync: he's not alienated, he airs no grievances, and he doesn't seek vengeance. (While discussing John Ford's The Searchers one Sunday in the New York Times, the film critic A. O. Scott wrote that "the monomaniacal quest for vengeance undertaken by a lone hero at odds with the society he's expected to protect: it's sometimes hard to think of a movie from the past 30 years from Taxi Driver to Batman Begins that doesn't take this theme." Well, there were always the Superman movies.)
Despite his omnipresence, Superman looked to me suspiciously like a relic, sole survivor not only of Krypton, but of a USA where truth, justice, and the American way were unambiguous concepts, not in the least ironic or slippery. In the civilization of You Tube, Facebook, Grand Theft Auto, dogmatic politics, checkbook justice, and an inexhaustible fascination with creepy athletes and detoxing celebrity blondes, could Superman possibly matter in ways he once did? Or was he now, and from now on, essentially a blue-red-and-yellow cash cow/Boy Scout that kicked some ass in fan-driven monthly comic books and the occasional expensive movie?
Whenever I was asked during an interview whether Superman still mattered "today," I hesitated—how should I answer this?—but then always took the easy way out: of course he still matters, I said, even if characters like Batman and Spider-Man are currently more popular, and speak in more compelling ways to contemporary audiences—even so, for as long as we value kindness for its own sake, fair play, ingenuity, versatility, tolerance, altruism, and honesty, Superman's pride of place in the pantheon of American mythic heroes is fully guaranteed. That's what I said, every time. In so many words. Then I'd hang up the phone feeling not only like an unpaid shill for Warner Brothers but like the world's most clueless cornball. And a total bullshitter. "As long as we value kindness for its own sake." Oh, please.
Weeks later that summer, after the interviews ended, the newspaper stories ran, the taped radio programs were broadcast, and Superman Returns opened to generally mediocre reviews (I didn't see it myself till the following September; I thought it was okay; fundamentally dumb, but okay), I was living on a small island off the coast of northern Maine. I'd gone to an artists colony there to work on a novel, a manuscript I'd put aside two and a half years earlier to write It's Superman! It felt good to be finished with the Man of Steel.
One morning I volunteered to help with the laundry and grocery shopping on the mainland. Several of us—writers, musicians, painters, and sculptors—drove from Jonesport to Machias, and between waiting for the wash to be done at the laundromat and then heading off to the supermarket, I had an hour to kill, so I wandered around town, found a thrift store called the Bag O' Rags, and ended up pawing through racks and cartons of sport coats, skinny ties, and T-shirts imprinted with pictures of bright-red lobsters and the names of fundamentalist summer camps. On my way out, I checked the secondhand books. Jammed in with the Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and James Patterson novels, I found a dogeared and well-thumbed copy of The Death of Superman, a trade paperback that collected eleven comic books originally published in late 1992 and early 1993. The Death of Superman. For crying out loud, I'd forgotten all about that.
During the final stretch of the Clinton/Bush/Perot presidential campaign, rumors found their way into the media that DC Comics intended to kill off their flagship character and cancel publication of all four Superman titles. Front page of New York Newsday, a spread in People magazine: "Is This Truly the End for the Man of Steel?" Suddenly Superman's impending demise (DC at first denied it, then teased the whole thing along, then confirmed it) was something everyone, overnight, knew about.
The collected Death of Superman cost me a dime at the thrift store. Ask me why I bought it and I couldn't tell you—for one thing, I already owned a copy in much better condition back home in Virginia; for another, I'd thought I was done with Superman. Whatever. I purchased it and stuck it in with a bagful of T-shirts that cost a quarter, and left.
That evening, instead of writing fiction, which I'd intended, I pulled out the trade paperback and started reading. The credits list four writers, four pencilers, five inkers, four letterers, two colorists and two editors. And this: "Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster."
Virtually the entire 150-plus pages is devoted to a pitched battle, a fistfight–to–the–mutual death, between Superman and an unstoppable nonverbal alien predator called Doomsday (ash-gray skin, tattered green pants and seven-league boots, multiple bony protrusions). An astonishing amount of real estate ends up smashed to smithereens. It's all standard comic book roughhousing, except that on the final page, comprising a single, rubble-strewn panel, a battered, bloodied Superman lies dead (we're told in the boxed caption) as Lois Lane swoons with grief and Jimmy Olsen records the historic moment with his 35mm single-lens reflex camera.
That image originally appeared on the last page of Superman number 75, published in mid-November 1992, just weeks after Bill Clinton's election. With the presidential campaign over, the news media, tiring quickly of Socks, the president-elect's cat, had seized upon Superman's passing, paying him the kind of lavish obsequies (it's the end of an era/the world will not see his kind again) ordinarily reserved for ancient movie actors, comedians, singers, ballplayers, or politicians who have been out of the public eye for what seemed like centuries.
Even Saturday Night Live did a skit about it.
I feel like a big dope admitting this, but I was among those throngs of credulous Americans who lined up outside comic book shops on Wednesday afternoon, November 18, 1992, to buy a copy of the "death issue." Which you could get either plain or deluxe, the deluxe edition sealed inside a black polybag stamped with a bleeding S. A black armband and the Daily Planet's obituary were thoughtfully enclosed. What was I doing standing in a cold drizzle at a dying suburban strip mall, me and about fifty other guys—guys, all guys—ranging in age from fifteen to seventy, the majority of us obviously not regular comic book readers? (How do I know that? Because almost everyone looked around with amazed expressions—a whole store that sells nothing but comic books? Wow.) Willingly I'd become part of a minor but notable national moment.
Despite a lifelong passion-bordering-on-mania for cartooning, both the art and the profession, by the 1990s I'd lost interest in (and patience with) mainstream comic books, almost exclusively by then grim and violent superhero titles published by DC or Marvel or Dark Horse or Image. Superhero comics, the DC line in particular, had turned radically doomy in the wake of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen, both published in 1986–87, and I didn't like it much. The stuff managed to be both pitch-dark and garish. I disliked the glossy paper and the computer coloring, the digital lettering, the overdrawn and overdialogued panels overpopulated by absurdly yeasted physiques, and I especially disliked the self-important, dizzily convoluted continuities. The ambience was paramilitary, and the prevailing level of mental health among the so-called superheroes a fair equivalent of the mental health level of the supervillains, which was pathological.
I still was reading comics, still sought them out; I just had no use for the superhero stuff. And that included Superman. Still. Still, I'd felt ... obliged—I'd felt obliged to see how it all turned out, after more than fifty years and tens of thousands of stories. It seemed a matter of respect.
Goofy, I know. I know it.
But I wasn't the only one who felt that way and stood in line. On average, in 1992 individual Superman comic books (Action, The Adventures of Superman, Superman: The Man of Steel, and plain old Superman) sold roughly a hundred thousand copies apiece each month. Superman number 75 sold more than six million.
I bought just one copy (the regular version, not the deluxe), but a lot of people bought multiple copies, entire cartons of them, anticipating that the issue would accrue in value. Of course it never did. I'm guessing, and probably on the low side, but when, say, three million out of the six million copies sold were carefully preserved in archival bags with acid-free cardboard backing boards, how could it ever be worth anything? (Supply and demand? Remember supply and demand?)
Excerpted from Our Hero by Tom De Haven. Copyright © 2010 by Tom De Haven. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Our Hero.................... 1
Works Cited.................... 207
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