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Comicscape - May 26, 2004

Superman: Out of Date, or Timeless?

By Tony Whitt     May 26, 2004


Michael Turner's cover to SUPERMAN #203.
© DC Comics

OPINION:




Recently, Lev Grossman of TIME Magazine wrote an article called "The Problem With Superman," in which he covers this summer's "reboot" of the Man of Steel and the reasons for said re-imagining of DC's greatest icon. He explains that one of the biggest problems with the character is not that he's from another planet, it's that he's from another time - namely, the late 1930s - and as such, he's out of date, representative of ideals that we simply don't find realistic anymore, and somewhat uncool. Those given the opportunity (or saddled with the responsibility, however they may look at it) of writing the character have had similar reservations - just read Steven T. Seagle's excellent autobiographical graphic novel IT'S A BIRD..., and you'll have some sense of how even comics creators find Superman to be somewhat lacking. Grossman's strongest criticism comes at the end of the article: "[Superman is] a metaphor for America," Grossman writes, "but an outdated, obsolete America: invulnerable to attack, always on the side of right, always ready to save the rest of the world from its villainy whether or not it wants to be saved."



Whew. I have to wonder if Grossman received nearly as many pieces of hate mails and death threats as I did when I wrote my own article criticizing Superman barely a year ago. Then again, Grossman's article is far better written - and he's not being tongue in cheek, which could lead to readers taking him more seriously. Whether the idea of criticizing Superman boils your blood or not, however, the fact remains that Grossman, and the reader whose comments originally led to me writing my own article, both have a point, and DC's decision to revamp the entire Superman line of books proves that point. Why fix what ain't broke?



The question remains whether any of the changes made by Chuck Austen, Greg Rucka, and Brian Azzarello can make the character more relevant to us, or whether they're simply quick band-aids

Cover to SUPERMAN #14.

to help an ailing character who is permanently out of time. The TIME article praises Austen's scripts in ACTION COMICS for giving Kal-El a far more "sly, self-conscious sense of humor." Jerry Seinfeld's AmEx commercials with Superman feature a far more human Man of Steel who is hopeless at working a DVD player. I gave kudos to Rucka a few weeks ago for bringing back the public persona of Clark Kent, the bumbling and socially inept outer identity of the more sure and self-confident hero he truly is. However, one wonders whether any of these changes actually transforms our hero in such a way that he has the same commercial popularity - and commercial popularity is really all DC seems interested in - as heroes such as Batman, or the icons of rival companies such as Spider-Man, Spawn, Hellboy. Even if we're talking in terms of strict relevance to our own lives, each of those four flawed, all-too-human characters (even Hellboy) has more in common with us than the all-too-perfect Last Son of Krypton - which is probably why Seinfeld's version is so popular.



Those four characters also have something in common with each other that the Man of Steel lacks and which the new writers, to one degree or another, are trying to inject into his invulnerable hide: a dark side. He's come close to having one a few times - the time he virtually took over the world in order to keep it safe, for instance, or the time he nearly killed the man who he believed had killed Lois Lane - but Superman's dark side, once it surfaces, goes right back under again, with all the regularity of a tide (except while a tide will always come back, his dark side doesn't). The problem may be that, unlike all those other heroes, Superman is the sort of character on which a dark side simply doesn't take. A near polar opposite of Batman, Superman represents all that is good, right, and bright about us. Darkening that brightness is like eclipsing the sun - it's destined to be a brief occurrence, and the sunlight will be even more blinding once it's over. More than anything else, and more than any other character, Superman represents our specifically American idealism - and American idealism, as we've learned to our pain recently, sells neither newspapers nor comic books.



Even the most cosmetic changes to the character have not taken for long. People will point to the electric blue costume change as the most obvious example of this, forgetting that only the most minor costume changes have ever succeeded on a first-tier superhero. Spidey's beautiful

SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT

black costume all too quickly became an ugly black villain. Batman's battle armor (never worn by Bruce Wayne, naturally) reverted quickly to the old tights and cape as soon as Bruce came back on the scene. Don't even mention Wonder Woman's pants suit from the early 70s. The only costume changes that have ever took in any lasting way have been things like the here again, gone again yellow background behind Batman's bat-crest, the change from an eagle to a stylized W on Wonder Woman's brassiere (or whatever it is). Not even the dark background behind Superman's S stuck around all that long.



If cosmetic changes won't stick to the Man of Steel (making him more accurately the Man of Teflon), then what chances do a glib tongue and a brooding manner have? And for that matter, do they even work all that well? Does Austen's Superman truly sound like Superman, or does he sound more like a Kryptonian version of Spidey? We can already assume that Brian Azzarello's storyline will resolve itself in such a way that Superman will be back to smiling and rescuing cats from trees by the time the year is out. The only way Superman will remain changed is if the stakes of the game remain changed - and something tells me that none of us can handle, or will gladly accept, such fundamental change. If we can't accept a DC Universe without Kara Zor-El, Krypto, or Kryptonite, how could we ever accept a Superman who is more like us?



Of course, all of this begs the question of whether Superman even needs to be changed. A less negative way of calling someone or something "out of time" is to label it "timeless," and Superman is certainly that. He may not be cool, but neither is your grandfather (probably), and yet you love him just the same - he symbolizes the foundations of your family and your family's ideals, dreams, hopes. (If he doesn't, then that's his problem, not yours.) For only slightly different reasons, we continue to

SUPERMAN: PRESIDENT LEX covers the erstwhile villain's rise to the highest office in the land.

love Superman: he retains that place in our hearts where our best aspirations dwell, where our dreams of what the American way could and should be live. Sure, he's a big ol' Boy Scout - but apart from their connections to a very specific religious worldview and their disapproval of gays in their ranks, what would anyone have against the ideals the Boy Scouts stand for? (Heck, if you share that worldview and that disapproval, then calling Kal-El a "Boy Scout" is the biggest compliment he could be paid instead of a put-down.) Sure, he represents small-town USA - this making Lois' occasional references to him as "Smallville" more resonant than they appear on the surface. But the ideal of the American small town and all it stands for (not the norm, mind you) is itself a microcosm of American ideals. Something doesn't have to be "cool" or "relevant" for anyone to believe in it.



Most of those readers who sent nasty e-mails last time I wrote about Superman specifically took me to task for being "un-American" or "not loving this country,"

Cover to ACTION COMICS #811.

despite the fact that all I took to task in that article were the narrative restrictions imposed by Superman's invulnerability, endless powers, and inability to lose. Given how much Superman stands for those characteristics we wish for in ourselves - our invulnerability, our endless powers, our inability to lose - it's no wonder so many were shaken to the core by my questioning whether those things should change. In the Superman "reboot" this summer, those very things are, to one degree or another, changing - and so the question remains whether or not they will remain changed, and whether or not they should.




I'm ready for the death threats, but I'd also love to hear your ideas about changes in Superman - what should happen, what should not, and so forth. So, if you have more constructive things to say than "Go to Canada, you Osama lover" or the like, send your ideas via the web site contact address here or to me directly. And remember, if you should happen to make reference to a title of a comic series please use CAPS when giving the title - since I do the HTML coding on this column every week, having the titles in caps already makes my life much easier. Finally, as always, don't forget our discussion boards! Now, here's what you can find in the shops almost immediately:




THIS WEEK:




For the kids this week, DC offers CARTOON CARTOONS #30 and
TEEN TITANS GO! #7. And look, Ma - no pimples!



Amongst other things, Dark Horse this week reoffers the funniest Mike Mignola one-shot ever produced, THE AMAZING SCREW-ON HEAD. Doubt we'll see a big-screen version anytime soon, though, and more's the pity... For everyone else, it's the BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL VOL 7: HEART OF DARKNESS trade paperback for $16.95; Kurt Busiek's CONAN #4; STEVE RUDE: THE MOTH #2; and ULTRAMAN TIGA #9 (Of 10).



Sure, Wildstorm brought us Micah Wright, but don't hold that against them. They're also bringing us Garth Ennis' four-part miniseries AUTHORITY: MORE KEV, issue #1 of which ships this week. We also get Alan Moore's PROMETHEA #30! How can you not love these guys?



The new Invaders continue to amaze and astound in a storyline designed to introduce them (but seemingly not to do much else) in AVENGERS #83.



Were it not for the one actual BATMAN issue this week, it would be Girls' Week Out in the

DC Direct's KINGDOM COME Superman

Bat-Universe. First Poison Ivy takes over Gotham while Bruce isn't looking, leaving Cassandra to clean things up in BATGIRL #52; Ivy's working in Costa Verde with another Bat-girl in BATMAN: HARLEY & IVY #2 (Of 3) (which obviously takes place at some time other than the same time as the BATGIRL issue, in that way DC comics have); Selina also goes AWOL in CATWOMAN #31; and the man himself continues his Judd Winick-sponsored battle against the Scarecrow and the Penguin in BATMAN #628.



The good news is that Joss Whedon's Marvel debut is finally upon us with ASTONISHING X-MEN #1! The bad news is that Marvel seems determined to use the occasion to bring back one of the biggest banes of the early 90s, the variant cover, of which there are two for this issue. Will it be possible to get a single copy, even with all these possibilities, you ask? Heh...you and me both...



Two story arcs down, one to go with CAPER #8 (Of 12), another fabulous production from the House of Winick. Don't ask me what happens in this issue, though â' I've been too busy reading BATMAN instead.



The Titanium Man returns in IRON MAN #83, no doubt to help Tony find those pesky WMDs.



Bet you were wondering where the latest issue of Darwyn Cooke's extraordinary DC: THE NEW FRONTIER had gotten to, huh? Seems DC switched it to bimonthly - the rat bastards. But never fear! Issue #4 (Of 6) ships this week at the same ol' bargain price of $6.95! It's a cliche to say "If you buy only one book this week..." but in this case, it's appropriate. Besides, what were you going to do with that seven bucks, anyway - go see VAN HELSING?



If you missed Sean McKeever's debut on MYSTIQUE earlier this month, don't panic - you can still catch the second part of his first five-part story arc in #15 this week. Don't know why there are two issues this month - has something to do with some "X-Load" event or other, I think?



Those who missed Mark Waid's chilling EMPIRE miniseries can now read the whole thing (plus a few extra bits) in the trade paperback for $14.95. Read the review in the print issue of CINESCAPE this month (when/if you can find it)!



I must admit, I don't know a thing about DARKNESS VOL 2 #11 or the SAVAGE DRAGON VOL 10: ENDGAME trade paperback for $15.95 coming to you from Image this week, but I'm sure someone out there will buy them, anyway.



Why is the Flash so popular - as a target for super villains, that is? Pick up FLASH #210, featuring the old New Teen Titans (yeah, that confuses me, too) and find out!



Don't hold the fact that it's taken so long for us to see NYX #4 against Joe Quesada - he has a lot to do. Exactly what, I'm not sure...maybe it's that "X-Load" thing again?



Ron Marz continues the story of Kyle's return to Earth (though, if you've been reading any other DC

BATGIRL #52.

book, you'd wonder when he ever left) in GREEN LANTERN #177. And for those of you who just can't wait for Hal Jordan to return to Earth, there's the GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW VOL 1 trade paperback for $12.95 to whet your appetite.



Vertigo's offerings this week include guest artist Chris Brunner doing his valiant best not to make Constantine look anything like Keanu Reeves in HELLBLAZER #196; the eponymous team trying not to get themselves killed in LOSERS #12 (and this is different from the usual how? you ask); paranormal investigators Adam and Julia Kadmon trying not to get killed by the so-called chosen savior of the monster race in MIDNIGHT MASS: HERE THERE BE MONSTERS #5 (Of 6). Knotty situations all round, then. (There, there, don't cry...the horror will be over soon, I promise.)



DC's answer to Iron Fist (and the Master of Kung-Fu, and just about every other martial arts character introduced in comics in the 1970s) returns courtesy of (or by the evil hand of, whichever you prefer) Chuck Dixon in RICHARD DRAGON #1. Yes, I'm asking "why," as well.



Were any of you able to get that reprint of SECRET WAR Book One? Me, neither. Guess we'll have to take our chances on getting Book Two (of Five) this week for $3.99. No gold foil cover this time, of course. You can only live in 1991 for so long, you know.



Gabe is still freaked out by Norrin Radd's plans for Earth in SILVER SURFER #9, while I'm still freaked out that no one in this title seems to believe in aliens and all that. Is this the Marvel Universe, or what?



You missed it last year, and so did I, so we'll both be buying the JSA: ALL STARS trade paperback for $14.95. Only difference is, I'll only be paying $4.95 if I review it for you. Oh, the perks of being a columnist...



Power Princess finally - finally! - shows up in SUPREME POWER #10. I know JMS likes to take his time setting up a plot, but this is ridiculous!



OK, I guess there are two books you should buy this week if you buy nothing else, and KINETIC #3 is one of them. Sorry, I'll be more accurate with my cliche next time...



Want to see how

Jade makes an appearance in GREEN LANTERN #177.

that movie should have been done? Then pick up THE PUNISHER #6 this week, which features the conclusion to the six-part "In The Beginning" story arc. Repeat after me: only Garth Ennis should be allowed to write PUNISHER movie scripts, just as Brian Michael Bendis should be allowed to write DAREDEVIL movie scripts...



And if there's ever a movie or TV series made about the Legion of Super-Heroes, then Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning should be the only ones allowed to write it. Their historic run writing this team's adventures ends with LEGION #33. Guess there are three book you should but this week if you buy nothing else... Thanks, guys - it's been great.



Spidey's still guest-starring in VENOM #15, so it may still just be worth buying.



I've been asked by several people not to mention just how awful the current storyline in JLA being cooked up by Chris Claremont and John Byrne is, so I won't. I'll only say that #99 is out this week, and that this is the end of it. Can I at least say "Hallelujah," then?



Speaking of reasons to shout "Hallelujah"... THE LIGHT BRIGADE miniseries ends this week with #4 (Of 4) for $5.95. People who call this a cross between PREACHER and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN obviously haven't seen SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Or read PREACHER, for that matter.



People continue to vanish around the globe in the second part of the twelve-part "For Tomorrow" story arc by Brian Azzarello, Jim Lee, and Scott Williams in SUPERMAN #205. Gee, you don't think this is going to turn into some DC version of LEFT BEHIND, do you?



Well, I'll be... Thor ended up under Superman again. How does that keep happening? Anyway... In THOR #79, there's still something going on between Thor, his son, and Desak, Destroyer of Gods, but what it is I could give bugger all about. (Guess this means I'll be getting death threats both from the Supes fans and and the Thor fans...I wonder if my spam filter works for that sort of thing?)



Speaking of thunder (but not gods, except perhaps in the eyes of fans), the THUNDER AGENTS ARCHIVES VOL 4 hardcover is also available this week for the bargain basement price of $49.95. Sounds like that bargain basement is downstairs in F.A.O. Schwartz...



And finally... Brian K.

Cover to THE PUNISHER #6.

Vaughan takes over the scripting duties on ULTIMATE X-MEN with issue #46, in which all the male mutants are killed by a plague except for one - no, just kidding! Plus, Wolverine is in WEAPON X #24 again; he's also in WOLVERINE/PUNISHER #3 (Of 5); and he's not in X-STATIX #23, but that's only because that issue is so crammed full of Avengers that no one could fit him in. Don't worry, though, he's in every other X-book - you'll get your adamantium fix.



See you in seven (if my house hasn't been immolated by heat vision or struck by lightning by then, of course)!



Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think by e-mailing us here!

Comicscape is our weekly Comics column.


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