Guest Post: T on “How to Treat Superman”
Here’s everyone’s pal, T – BC.
People always ask on message boards if Superman is outdated or relevant or why he doesn’t sell. I’m going to break it down once and for all.
For decades as a comic fan I’ve read stories proclaiming how inspirational Superman is to people. Regular folk just going on and on about how Superman makes them better people. The first book I read was an anniversary issue by Eliot Maggin which was just basically page after page fellating the character. What I’ve always wondered is, why exactly is he so inspiring. The first time I ever was inspired by Superman was Superman II the movie, and that was because he faced off against three people with similar godlike powers and went in willing to die. And he held his own! In the comics…he never really did all that much. The Golden Age one was inspiring because he was a lot less powerful and did so much, singlehandedly fighting wars, solving conflicts between countries, setting up public housing, etc.
But once he got godlike and could move planets, he pretty much was fighting fat pasty guys with no powers. Luthor, Prankster, Toyman…he started getting slightly better people with time like Brainiac and Metallo and Parasite, but come on, were they ever really that much of a challenge against pre-Crisis Superman? I mean, if I was a regular guy, what would be so inspiring about a guy with 30 superpowers and the power to move planets fighting the kind of guys Superman fights? if I had those abilities, I don’t think I’d find it that daunting to face the threats Superman does. I mean, Maggin had a story where this nonpowered security guard fights a group of armed robbers because he’s so inspired by the idea of Superman…but if you were to take any lesson from Superman, it’s actually don’t put your neck on the line unless the odds are ridiculously in your favor. Regular people, if anything, should be inspired to underachive because of Superman, not the opposite. Like as a real world analogy, if I see the most dangerous martial artist on earth restrict himself to sternly disciplining bad children, I’d think it was cool of him, but it wouldn’t inspire me to try any great challenge or reach deep against overwhelming odds.
Captain America gets the same “he’s so inspiring” treatment nonstop, but he basically has no powers and is always fighting people ridiculously more powerful than him or going against whole armys with uzis. The first really inspiring thing Superman did was fight Doomsday, but that was almost 60 years into his existence, so you can’t say going against overwhelming odds is in his nature cuz he did it once in like 60 years. And even then, he got killed! He couldn’t even do THAT right!
THAT is Superman’s big problem with relating to modern, younger readers. They’re too smart for that. You can’t just cram down their throats that the guy is so inspiring and great and not actually show it. Superman for All Seasons is another one of those nonstop Superman-fellating books, and what does Superman do in it exactly? The usual fighting people who he totally outmatches, then getting played by Luthor. And the moment Luthor plays a headgame on him, Superman, without checking for proof or questioning Luthor’s claim, turns tail and heads home to his mommy’s house in Smallville to mope. All the while every character in the book is droning on about how great His Holiness! Same for Kingdom Come, Superman has problems with the new heroes, throws a hissy fit and pouts and basically takes his ball and goes home and stops fighting crime to teach them a lesson. Meanwhile, the supposedly bad examples of heroes are the ones who stick around and keep fighting crime in Superman’s absence while he’s away pouting over his hurt feelings. And he only comes back after being begged and getting his ego assuaged. Meanwhile, we’re told the whole time how inspiring and great he is! Only someone who is already a big Superman fan and is not willing to even question the notion that Superman is beyond reproach would accept this notion.
Now I know a common response is, Superman is great because he has all that power but still doesn’t get corrupted. Big deal. He’s not SUPPOSED to be corrupted. That’s the equivalent of when someone praises a celebrity just because they meet him and he’s not a total dick. You’re SUPPOSED to not be a dick, that’s just the bare minimum of what it takes to be a good person, not something that warrants saintlike reverence and hero worship. And besides, Superman actually gets corrupted ALL THE TIME.
What DC needs to do is pretend they are not writing to people who accept Superman’s greatness without questioning or challenging the notion in the least. Pretend it’s writing for people who have no idea who Superman is in the least. And starting from that notion, SHOW don’t TELL what makes Superman great. Show him going against overwhelming odds. Show him doing great things that many of us wouldn’t do even if we HAD his powers. And never at any time have a member of his supporting cast regale readers with hagiographic descriptions of his greatness. Or at least save such chatter for near the end, after he proves to the readers that he’s worthy of it. A great template of this is Ditko’s Master Planner saga in Spider-Man. No one says a single nice thing about Spider-Man, except maybe in passing, yet no one reads that book without feeling inspired and coming away with a true understanding of what makes him so heroic. Although I know there are a lot of mangaphobes out there, take a look at the book Dragonball Z and look at Goku, a character with Superman-like powers, and the heroic nature of his conflicts, and tell me if the differences don’t jump out at you. Meanwhile we are rarely treated with nonstop soaring speeches and praise heaped on him without end. And any praise we see him given is given only after he does something truly extraordinary in the story to earn it.
Give Superman such treatment and the character truly can soar again in the hearts and minds of the non-converted.