Monday, January 07, 2008

2008: 80 Years of Superman

Superman has a tough time surviving in our cynical world, he is a creation of a black and white world of good and evil while we have evolved as a people more openly admitting to the light and shade that guides our characters. This is a symptom of the character being a first and so too a symptom of being such a distinctive cultural icon associated with such outright values. I am reading Watchmen at the moment, by all accounts a ‘graphic novel’, full of adult themes and more readily categorised amongst the pulp novels which pre-dated Action Comics and Superman. Nevertheless, a character in Watchmen, in explaining his decision to seek change by donning an alter ego and take to the streets cites Superman as his inspiration. Indeed Superman has this revered aura to him, one that comes from his struggle for ‘truth, justice and all that stuff’, and in some senses a holier than thou evocation of clean living, sacrifice and nobility with aspirational rhetoric and comparisons with Christ fitting perfectly.Unfortunately the general consensus is of Superman being a character that’s unappealing. His invulnerability makes the character difficult to empathise with and ultimately he is viewed as a big boy scout far removed from the cooler and more layered characters such as Batman which followed only two years after Superman, intentionally designed as a balance to the virtue of the Man of Steel. Little can be done to counteract that perception, an argument based on an analysis of the 80 years of comic book storylines I want to celebrate this year is not going to impress or sway those who know him through the actors who have played him on screen. Nevertheless it does deserve mention that there is a hugely rich legacy behind the comics, with month long stories of Superman going through multiple crises, his identities, his rivals, his responsibilities and his feelings each challenging him as he struggles to balance how he can act as an objective guardian of peoples safety and all the while construct a life where the woman he loves looks through the real him and idolises his created self.

Such huge amounts of power, a power he fears and in most instances holds back on has of course corrupted him in his time and been abused by enemies. The stand out decision though is to choose to do good with this power. His power is a part of him, not a creation of his wealth or the consequence of an accident, and his human upbringing moulds him into a man that wants to help. As soon as Simon invited me to contribute to the blog I never doubted the identity I would choose to construct, one that ties together ideas of anonymity and a hope of writing well. Clark Kent living in Metropolis is a tangle of excuses and appearances. However the one constant has been the use of his role as a reporter to achieve almost as much as Superman. His powers gone the week before his wedding to Lois Lane, she aptly reminds him of what Clark Kent can accomplish. Superman: The Movie doesn’t open with a shot of the exploding planet Krypton, it opens with a boy opening his comic book and reading of the Daily Planet, its globe acting as a beacon in the skyline of the great city of Metropolis and its paper acting as a record that could be trusted in.

To think that we’ve seen him rescue a plummeting plane and lift an entire country into the sky and still be able to say that Superman’s potential has never been fully realised on screen is something substantial. His is such a small story, it is one of what a single person can achieve but it is capable of being told on such an epic, awe inspiring scale. These are the times when limits and imagination have no bounds and Superman is such a case - to give in to the wonders of believing a man can fly and yet watch him choose which of the cries for help he should serve first in the cities below him is the beginning of great story telling and the basis for inspiring tales of heroism and courage. I plan to mark this anniversary with a number of posts during the year, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to re-appreciate the character.

1 comment:

n8 said...

I like your column, but shouldn't it be 70 years? Action Comics #1 came out in April 1938 (cover-dated June 1938).

Not trying to criticize, just wanting to point it out.