Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Essays on Comic Book Characters #1: Superman


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Yes, it's yet another brand-new feature here on the Random Acts of Geekery! This one will be comprised of a series of monthly or so essays on various comic book characters, how I discovered them, and how I feel they should be portrayed. And what better one to start with than the first costumed super-hero of them all, as well as my favorite, Superman?

The Man of Steel. The Metropolis Marvel. The Man of Tomorrow. Last Son of Krypton. All of these appellations and more have been applied to Superman through the years. First appearing in Action Comics #1, and not too long after getting his own book with Superman #1 and beyond, Superman has been the goose that laid the golden egg for DC Comics (or National Periodical Publications, or whatever other titles they've had over the years).
dcsh_78pepsiplacemat1.jpgIn his initial appearances, Superman didn't have the full range of powers that we're familiar with today. Oh, he was tough – a hypodermic needle wouldn't penetrate his skin, much less bullets. Initially, it would take a “bursting shell” to penetrate his skin, although by Superman #1's reprinting of his origin, it was altered to “not even a bursting shell.” He was certainly strong... strong enough to pick up a car and lift it over his head, not to mention leaping those tall buildings (since he didn't fly in those early days, making him the first superhero to be jumping from place to place decades before the Incredible Hulk started using it as his preferred form of transportation). No super-senses to begin with at all. Of course, his powers started escalating fairly quickly, as leaping gave way to flight, then he first developed x-ray vision, followed by its variant heat vision and the various other super-senses. Some powers didn't stick, such as his ability to change his face (that one really came out of left field, if you ask me, and I'm glad it didn't become a permanent addition to his power base).

sperman_kryptoidealMy first exposure to Superman was probably the New Adventures of Superman animated series made by Filmation that aired on CBS Saturday mornings in the late 1960s, and that show also introduced me to his younger self, Superboy, and the superdog Krypto (I always wondered why they never used Krypto in the Superman cartoons... to say nothing of the various villains created just for the cartoon instead of using the comics' villains, or how some of the villains they did use were greatly changed, but never mind that for now). I had no idea that the voice cast were the same actors who played the parts on the radio show during the Golden Age of Radio, nor was I aware that there had been a previous animated series done for the theaters (I wouldn't see those until the early 1980s), or a live-action show starring George Reeves (although in the 1970s, when a local station started running them, I definitely watched them faithfully), or that between those were a pair of serials that I still have yet to watch.

Watching these cartoons led me to the comic books. I don't know specifically what the first Superman comic I ever read was... it's possible that it was an 80-Page Giant, which I may have purchased at my elementary school's sixth grade sale (this was something they did every year, taking over the basement of the school for a week to sell stuff, the proceeds going to pay for a week-long camp). It may have even been purchased at a garage sale. Back in those days, nobody really thought much about the value of older comics (well, they were old to me at the time), and you could find them for sale cheap all the time. I specifically recall having the Action Comics 80-Page Giant issue that told the Supergirl story, from her arrival on earth through to her being revealed to the public at large, as well as other books reprinting Legion of Super-Heroes tales from Adventure Comics, including adventures with the Legion of Super-Pets. I specifically recall reading the Death of Lightning Lad saga, probably the first time a hero had been killed, and intended to stay dead, and then coming back to life months later. I remember reading a story in which the Legion went into the past and brought the dinosaurs to earth from Krypton!

But the very first Superman comic starring his adult self that I recall reading was an issue of Action Comics. On the cover, Superman is in a wheelchair, with greying temples, all but powerless, begging for money until it's learned who he is, and he tries to get away from the mob using his wheelchair. The story grabbed me in a way I hadn't been grabbed before, and since it was part one of a two-part story, I desperately wanted to get the second part.

My mom, bless her heart, was very supportive of my reading habits. I was an early reader – according to mom, I started reading when I was two, thanks to my Uncle Gary reading billboards aloud to me. She's also said that she'd take me grocery shopping, and I'd recognize different products and say their names. At first, she thought it was the distinctive packaging that I recognized, but then she decided to write the names down at home and apparently I could read them. I don't know how accurate those stories are, but I do know that I was reading proficiently enough by kindergarten that when the Weekly Reader was distributed to the class, I'd be chosen to read one of the stories out loud to the rest of the class.

So, being the supportive mom she was, we went to every store we could think of to find the next issue and failed completely. I do remember seeing many other comics on the stands (for some reason, the issue of X-Men reprinting their encounter with the Locust has stuck with me through the years), but not that next issue of Action Comics. It would be the 1980s, again, before I would re-acquire the issue as well as part two and read them.

That started me reading every Superman comic I could get my hands on, as well as other comics, as well. By that time in my personal history, it was a great time to be a comics reader... not only were there all the great current titles to be had, but Marvel had been already reprinting earlier stories in titles like Marvel's Greatest Comics and Marvel Tales, to be soon followed by Marvel Triple Action. DC, for its part, had been doing those aforementioned 80-Page Giants, but by that time, they were giving way to simply “Giants”, and then the glorious 100-Page Super-Spectaculars.

dcsh_tpb_supermanstory.jpgI recall reading stories like, “Superman... You're Dead, Dead, Dead!” in which Superman apparently discovers through a time travel incident that he's just the latest in a line of Superman clones, created as each Superman before him dies. Wild stuff!

So I got my education of Superman through stories of the 1960s and 1970s, with the rare reprint from the 30s to the 50s in those Super-Specs supplementing my reading. I was able to learn more about Superman and the people who created him and his stories later in the 1970s, through books like All In Color For a Dime (purchased with birthday money along with The Great Comic-Book Heroes) – although I should mention that years before this, I had seen both volumes of Steranko's History of Comics at the Gov-Mart Bazaar (sort of like a Kmart or Target) and I couldn't talk mom into getting those for me. I'd read Action, Superman, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Adventure Comics, Supergirl, Superboy, and Justice League of America for my fixes, although I didn't always read my own copies. Sometimes the family would be visiting relatives or friends who happened to have comics, and I'd spend my time reading what they had.

But I digress. This Superman was a true hero, admired by the masses because he did the right thing all the time. He protected the weak and helpless. He very rarely used his powers for personal gain (and those times he did were so minor in comparison to what he did to help others... things like putting Steve Lombard in his place when Lombard was trying to pull pranks on Clark Kent). Clark Kent wasn't a complete loser, like some people try to say he was... he was one of the top reporters for the Daily Planet, even if he had a tendency to get seasick easily, or didn't care to put himself in danger (Lois Lane had no such qualms, naturally). The citizens of Metropolis would cheer when they saw Superman flying overhead, and when disaster struck, when the familiar red, blue and yellow form appeared on the scene, everyone knew it was going to be okay.

Lex Luthor was his arch-foe, but he wasn't a constant presence! Same with Mr. Mxyptlk, or Brainiac, or any of the other foes of Superman. Sometimes, the entire story would be about what Superman had to do to preserve the secret of his other identity (in the days when the Kents were dead by the time Clark was an adult, this didn't seem to be all that important to me even then, as Superman had established a talent for creating new alter egos quickly, but these days I realize that part of it was that he did think of himself as being Clark Kent even back then. Besides, when Jonathan was on his deathbed, he did continue to implore Clark to keep his Clark identity a secret).

slurpee_73jonkentIt didn't matter to me if Clark was a reporter for the Daily Planet or a TV reporter for Galaxy Broadcasting (come to think of it, these days the latter occupation makes way more sense, given the death knell sounding for the newspaper industry). What did matter was that when he was needed, he'd find an excuse to duck out, change out of his suit while thinking “This is a job for Superman,” and take off flying, calling “Up, up and away!” (something started in the radio show to indicate he was flying... while it doesn't really make much sense when you see it in comics, or in cartoons, it's a part of Superman as much as anything else, if you ask me) and he'd deal with whatever needed to be dealt with, usually using his super-brain at least as much as his super-powers.

slurpee_73marthakentOut of control fire? Superman had options, and he'd never use the same one twice. He might blow it out with super-breath, or fly around it fast enough to create a temporary vacuum to snuff the flames (although this stunt was usually left to his Justice League teammate the Flash), or he might spin at high speed over a body of water, drawing a spout to the fire, or he might grab a handy iceberg and use heat vision to melt it over the blaze. It just depended on what the circumstances were, or what he just felt like doing.

Someone shooting a gun? He might stand there and let the bullets bounce off of his chest, or he might use heat vision to melt the firing pin of the gun to keep it from working. Volcano erupting? Super-freezing breath, or perhaps he'd carve a channel in the earth for the lava to flow safely away from people. It was all amazing, and it was all in the service to the people he's sworn to protect.

Although it was never really specifically said in the comics of my youth, I think Superman enjoyed his powers. Yes, he did feel a responsibility to use them, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't fun, was it? Oh, he'd never crack a smile as he was doing what he did... but that knowing wink that we'd get from Clark Kent, which was almost always in the last panel of the story, that wink told me that he knew there were other ways he could've done what he needed to do... but this way was fun as well as productive!

sp_clarkkent.jpgA lot of people think that someone with Superman's powers would take over the world. These people don't know Superman, or Clark Kent, for that matter. They forget that he was brought up by Jonathan and Martha Kent, probably the best parents anyone could ever have asked for. They gave him the moral code of ethics that they believed in themselves. Even if Clark didn't have powers, he would've probably ended up being a hero of a different kind, such as a policeman, or a fireman, or a paramedic. Clark Kent could never have grown up to be a ruthless businessman.

And one can't discount the role that his Kryptonian parents played, as well. It was established that baby Kal-El had memories of his parents (well, they'd call him a baby, but he was clearly a toddler in the origin stories of the late 60s/early 70s, probably at least two to three years old, despite DC insisting on referring to him as “Superbaby” and making him talk pretty much like Bizarro), and when we'd get those flashbacks to before Krypton exploded, we saw Jor-El applying his scientific brilliance to the better of all Krypton, so there had to be some influence there.

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Now, let's look at his costume... or rather, I tend to think of it as his uniform, even though technically it isn't (one could argue this, that the costumes that Supergirl, Krypto, heck, even Beppo the Super-Monkey and Streaky the Supercat are all variations of Superman's costume, therefore it should be considered a uniform. Even if you look at the Batman characters like the original Bat-Woman and Bat-Girl, or even Batgirl and the current Bat-Woman, those costumes are way more than variations on Batman's... inspired by, perhaps, but aside from a tendency towards bat-ears on the mask – and even the first two on this list have masks that almost appear more influenced by some of Catwoman's masks – there's not a lot of similarity, at least so far as colors go). From the beginning, it's been blue shirt and blue leggings, red cape, red trunks, red boots, s-shield on chest. The shield has evolved over time, although it pretty much was finalized by the 40s or so, and the boots evolved as well, but overall, it's still recognizably the same uniform from the beginning (at least until this whole “New 52” change, but there's been nothing I've liked about what DC's done with Superman in the comics, at least not in the comics that aren't based on animated series, over the past 10+ years). It's iconic. Did they try to change the costume for Kirk Allyn, the Superman of the serials, or for George Reeves, or Christopher Reeve, or either of the actors who played Superboy, or for that matter, Lois & Clark Superman Dean Cain? Nope, and it wasn't altered for the various animated versions, either (well, they did fill in the yellow of the shield with black for the Fleischer cartoons, but I suspect that was easier and faster for them to ink when doing the cels). It wasn't until Superman Returns that we saw a Superman costume on the big or small screen that went away from the classic costume (even that one wasn't that far off, but I still didn't care for it).

If you ask any kid today to draw Superman, how much do you want to bet he'll draw Superman wearing the red trunks, if he even knows how to draw Superman at all?

A lot of people, mostly stand-up comics, have joked about Superman and other heroes wearing their underwear on the outside... but they don't know the history. The earliest superhero costumes were based on the closest real people who performed feats like superheroes... circus acrobats. They wore distinctive, skin-tight clothing... and many had trunks over the tights (my best guess as to why this was done was probably because tights have a tendency to reveal a bit too much in the groinal area, if you get my drift, and I'm sure you do).

Superman today isn't my Superman at all, not in the comics, and not in the movies. I've had people try to tell me that I should go see Man of Steel, but I'll be damned if I spend one red cent to see it, based on what I've heard about it that veers greatly away from my view of how Superman should be portrayed. I already got burnt once on Superman Returns.

I'm sure many of you (I hope all of you) read my story for what I would like to see in a Superman movie, and unfortunately, it looks like Warners is keeping with what they've been doing recently. I have no reason to believe that DC Comics will do anything different, either. But you know what? I'm 51 years old at the time this is being published, and DC is clearly not marketing their current books to me or others of my comics reading generation, nor are they trying to get the kids to get into the comics at an early age.

It's ridiculous, that in this day and age, when the San Diego Comic-Con is one of the biggest media events in the country, that the publishers of the first super-hero is selling fewer comic books than ever, and they are content to keep marketing towards the narrow range of readers they already have right now. There's no entry-level books to bring in the kids, so new readers? They're a thing of the past.

superman_greatcomicbookcollectionIf it weren't for the Showcase Presents volumes, DC wouldn't be getting my money at all these days. Well, except for those brilliant Batman '66 toys that I still can't afford (at least when I'm writing this back in September), anyway. What can I say? I'm a sucker for the '66 Batmobile.

I can deal with Superman from the 30s to the 90s, but this century hasn't been good to Big Blue.

Thank god for back issues. Can you imagine someone pitching a Superman story to DC these days that shows a possible future where Superman's lost his powers, is confined to a wheelchair, and is disguised, begging? They'd be laughed at, and nobody would get the irony that the very same story got kids to pick up that same issue of Action Comics that I read that completely hooked me on Superman. I'd be willing to bet that those comics of my childhood could attract as many new readers per month as DC is losing readers every year.

I hope you've enjoyed this first installment of this new essay series, and will continue to read future installments. I welcome your comments, as I do on all the features here.

1 comment:

  1. Great comments, Jon, and I can relate to most everything you said. I grew up loving Superman and still do. Unfortunately, I had to quit reading Superman about 15 years ago because of what DC did to him, and like you, you couldn't pay me to see the new movie. That is _not_ Superman.

    I've been reading the Silver and Bronze Age comics again and loving them. Even when they're silly; they weren't silly when I was a kid. They were thrilling, and I still remember that thrill when I re-read them now. And I'm perfectly happy with just re-reading those from time to time for the rest of my life.

    Thanks for the remembrances!

    Hunter

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