Do we really want an incorruptible, nice guy superhero?
Go, read. I’ll be here when you get back.
Let me start off by making it clear that I agree with this guy’s basic premise.
It is resolutely true that for many people — including about 85% of those who approach you when they find out you’re writing a book called SUPERMAN: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY — the character is “boring,” “a stiff,” “too perfect,” “not relatable,” etc.
And what I’ve been saying to those people is pretty much Bowie’s thesis — which let’s note is a bit more nuanced than “SUPERMAN IS BORING LOLZ.” No, what he’s actually saying is: Superman is difficult to write stories about. And he’s right.
I don’t think, however, that the point he makes in “Reason 1” — that Superman in isolation is not interesting, because he’s too perfect — carries much weight. For the simple reason that no one writes about Superman in isolation. No one writes about Batman, Spider-Man, Achilles, Gatsby, Dracula, or Pippi Longstocking in isolation, either. Fiction, even superhero comics, is always about relationships — relationships that exist to delineate your main character.
His “Reason 2” — that Superman without his powers isn’t Superman — is, I’d humbly suggest, wildly, egregiously, astonishingly, incandescently and provably wrong. Superman’s powers do not define him — they aren’t what make him a hero, any more than a firefighter’s fire-retardant gear make him or her a hero. Over and over and over again, in every media that delivers Superman to us, we have seen that his selflessness and determination — not the powers, the costume, the spit curl, the secret identity, the flying dog — are what make him Superman.
Bowie gets closest to why it’s so difficult to make Superman compelling in what he calls “Reason 3” — though I’d state it slightly differently: In writing fiction, you add tension and interest by keeping your characters from getting what they want in a variety of ways.
But surely it’s tough to keep Superman from getting what he wants, right? With the super-strength and the super-ventriloquism and whatnot?
Wrong. It’s very easy to keep Superman from getting what he wants, and tell exciting, gripping stories about him. A writer just needs to have a good feeling for what drives him, what he wants more than anything else. And here’s what Superman wants:
He wants to save everybody.
He wants no one to die or suffer, no matter the cost to himself.
Which is impossible. Unattainable. Even for him, even with all his abilities. THIS, we can maybe understand? THIS, we can maybe relate to? This inability to achieve what we most want, and the resulting desire to keep chasing it? This is why the best Superman stories deal not with him being robbed of his powers, but with him dealing with their very real limitations.
Because, as Bowie states, there IS a character from Greek myth that corresponds to Superman. He just got the wrong one. It’s not Diomedes. It’s not Achilles.
Over on Slate, I wrote a semi-fictionalized account of a conversation I had with my editor during the writing of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, in which I lose my valiant fight to devote several pages of the book to the arrant awesomeness that is Krypto.
I can understand Normals not getting Krypto. I mean I pity them, but I understand them.
What I don’t understand — what I will never understand — is how people who love comics could find the notion of a flying, super-strong, heat-visioned dog in a cape anything but awesome.
It’s the kind of idea a kid would have — wildly impractical, silly, nonsensical, an idea that implicitly asks the reader to stop taking superheroes so damn seriously. To lighten up, Francis.
In a very basic way, Krypto is comics. He — and they — are awesome.
I promised myself that if I sold my next book, I’d celebrate by scouring the e-bays and e-coves and e-estuaries for this little sucker, so as to reunite us after almost 35 years apart. I mean, feast your eyes on that hunk of gorgeously extruded plastic.
That right chere is the JANEX Batman Talking Alarm Clock, produced in 1974. Throughout my boyhood, this clock (well, not THIS clock, but its cousin) sat on my bedside table, a grim sentinel keeping its lonely vigil over my sleeping form, zealously guarding me from things like sports and friends.
I loved it. And it pissed me the hell off.
I loved it because BATMAN!
It pissed me the hell off because: Well. You got a minute?
This Saturday, May 4th, is Free Comic Book Day.
For the past five years, I’ve written an FCBD Guide for the Perplexed for the NPR Pop Culture blog, Monkey See.
Kids, get some safety scissors and ask your parents’ help to clip the blog post out of your computer monitor.
“Easily the most ignominious pseudo-tie-in, however, was the disco song “Superman” released by Ceci Bee and the Buzzy Bunch, which went to #3 on the Billboard dance chart and later became a more modest hit for Herbie Mann.” - From Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Chapter 8 “1978: The Year of Superman,” p. 172.
(DO NOT CONFUSE this song with the Barbra Streisand ballad of the same name, and the same era. Very very different. Carries its own unique kind of hurting. I’ll get to that.)
I could only sample a tiny bit of the Ceci Bee lyrics for the book, but you really need to see/hear them, because ow.
“Superman, you make me feel
I’m the queen of world
Superman, you make me feel
So special when you move me
Up and down and round
You get so deep inside and, wow
You warm me up, it’s super
Then I wanna shout
Again and again
I love you Superman-man-man-man
Do it to me Superman-man-man-man
I need it Superman-man-man-man”
… It just … goes on like that.
The Adventures of Superpup
I’m reading Glen Weldon’s GREAT new book Superman: An Unauthorized Biography. It details almost every Superman comic/show/movie/etc ever released. Easily the weirdest is this unaired pilot, The Adventures of Superpup featuring little people in giant puppet-dog heads. Prepare for nightmares.
Publisher’s Weekly, schmublisher’s schmeekly. This is my favorite endorsement. Woo. Also: The Adventures of Superpup is indeed bananapants.