Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Supermanifesto


Superman is, and always has been, about his supporting cast.

Batman has a supporting cast, sure, but it's basically composed of colleagues in his fight against crime: Alfred, Ace, Dick Grayson, Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, Helena Bertinelli, Barbara Gordon, Tim Drake. Those who aren't crimefighters don't get a lot of air time and/or fade away. All the Julie Madison types come and go; Lucius Fox has been seen only once, I think, since No Man's Land (he needs a role in the fight, as he got in "Batman Begins"!); even Police Commissioner Akins has virtually vanished because he doesn't "partner" with Batman.

But Superman? It's all about Clark Kent's friends and family: Ma, Pa, Lana, Pete, Lois, Jimmy, Perry, even Jor-El and Lara. Superman's "colleagues" (Supergirl, Krypto, Steel, Superboy) just seem to be, well, in the way (see illustration).

Tonight for fun, try to write 12 consecutive stories where, say, Superman, Superboy, Supergirl, and Krypto all show up to take on the same menace; then you'll understand why the "super-allies" are kept at a distance: Superboy, banished to the Kents' farm; Supergirl, shipped off to Jim Lee's Glamazonia; Krypto, exiled to the Fortress; Steel, crippled.

Some people claim this difference between Superman and Batman as part of the proof that "Batman is the real identity and Bruce Wayne is a persona, whereas as Clark Kent is the real identity as Superman is a persona." To which, I say, "Piffel."

Like many straight people, Bruce and Clark make most of their friends through work. Bruce's only job is as Batman, so all his friends are bat-allies. Clark has a job as a reporter, and so his social life revolves around that. Even when the writers tried to give him a super-pal, the retroactively hiLARious Vartox, what does Clark do? Gets him a security job at the Daily Planet and names him "Vernon O'Valeron". By the way, changing my name to "Vernon O'Valeron" is now one of my Life Goals, so if you run into someone by that name, say hello nicely, because it will be me. You'll recognize me by the outfit.

Any way, there are some unpleasant consequences of Superman's supporting cast being so overwhelming important.

1. In order to keep Superman's cast interesting, writers are drawn to make them suffer bizarre experiences. We could talk all year about the wacky adventures of Superman's various buds, but instead we'll simply let one "Jimmy Olsen" cover serve as a symbol of this obvious and ridiculous truth.

2. If writers do not wacky-fy Clark's human entourage they become ... boring. No one's known what to do with Jimmy Olsen since the Byrne reboot, they gave up on Lois and just slapped a "Loyal Wife" label on her, and the less said about President Pete "Hush, oops I mean, Ruin" Ross and his wife, Lana "Manhunter cum Insect Queen" Lang, the better.

3. Superman's rogues gallery is wan and uninteresting because the focus of stories isn't Superman versus his enemies -- conflicts with villains are used mostly to highlight Clark's relationship with his buddies. Lex Luthor only survived because he was retconned in a "former friend gone bad"; c'mon, how many heroes call their archenemies by their FIRST NAMES?


4. Superman stories tend toward petty interpersonal melodrama. This why it could so easily be turned into Smallville's painful hybrid of the X-Files and Dawson's Creek. In a Batman story, you'll get Batman versus any one of about 400 freaky villains who could credibly kill him. In a Superman story, you'll get pages of sob & choke as the supporting cast fusses over the ups and downs of their relationship with the Big S.

The Superman mythos is a fetid, inbred, Peyton Place.
In fact, if I had any guts, I would publically admit that secretly I think Superman, DC's heroic archtype, is for the most part a weepy whiny Marvel comic and that Superman should be my next "Character Donation" to the Marvel Universe.

But, of course, I don't have the guts to admit that.

22 comments:

David Campbell said...

In valley girl voice: "Oh my God, you are like - so totally mean. What did Superman ever do to you? I am so sure!"

Martin Wisse said...

I read that as Lana "Manhunter cum" Lang.

I'm a bad, bad man.

Scipio said...

I'm not trying to be mean, Dave ...

just trying to put my finger on why Batman is more popular than Superman, because the simplistic "superpowerless versus superpowered" doesn't explain it.

David Campbell said...

I think it all comes down to this: Batman knows how to accesorize.

Scipio said...

Perhaps Brandon Routh's S-shaped bling buckle will help then...

Ariel said...

The buckle certainly seems to attract attention to the more super parts of Mr. Routh's anatomy.

Ariel said...

Martin: I assume that a Manhunter would ejaculate WD40.

"Lana, why are you covered in oil?"

Brian said...

Seems to me like the heart of the argument is that it's EASIER to write a good Batman story than a good Superman story. There's this Greg Rucka interview, wherein he states that given a situation, there are about a half-dozen ways for batman to credibly respond to it and stay Batman. Superman's got one way to do it -- he's a narrow character by design. Optimistic, idealistic to the point of naivete, that's practically one of his superpowers along with the flying and everything else.

Problem is, it's nearly impossible to write this story well (though I'm holding out hope for the All Star Superman rolling out next month). So we're left with, to paraphrase the original post, stuff that is DULL. Freak of the moment cannon fodder for Superman, the biggest gun in the DC universe. Either a Superman comic is a wham-bang slugfest, or it's a whiny mope about power and responsibility. That's why it feels like a Marvel book. But Superman the character is as far from Marvel as you can get. No doubt about his powers, no hesitation (supposedly) in taking steps to ensure the best possible future. I think that's why Superman's condemnation of Wonder Woman post Max Lord felt so much like character assassination to me. Superman's had to make the hardest choices of any justice leaguer every day of his life, and he's smart enough to know hopeless/one-way-out situations when he sees them.

But no one writes that. No one is BRAVE enough to write that. So we get what you say, and the Batman stories are more interesting because stuff can actually HAPPEN.

Just my perspective on things.

--Brian

Bat-Mac said...

Damn you, Scipio! Stop posting such provocative stuff (and I’m not referring to the “cum” comment). Here’s my $0.02+ directly responding to this:

http://theblogcave2.blogspot.com/2005/10/free-comments-day-v-then-i-hit-him.html

Jeff R. said...

"Batman is the real identity and Bruce Wayne is a persona, whereas as Clark Kent is the real identity as Superman is a persona."

Piffle isn't enough; I say Bah!

Because that gets it exactly, exactly wrong. The key to any good Batman story is that somewhere, behind the mask and the voice and the toys and the training, inside he's always going to be the terrified little boy who just lost his parents. And the key to any good Superman story is that he isn't Clark Kent; he's just pretending to be a mild-mannered reporter, and he isn't Superman, either; he's trying his hardest to live up to his adopted parents ideals, but at the core, he's Kal-el, the product of an alien and extinct culture.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that Superman, post 1986 anyway, could be a Marvel character donation.

I think this is more of a problem with the writers rather than a problem with the character though.

I guess this is a biased opinion though because I've always loved the Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin stories.

My introduction to comics was a stash of an older cousin's DC Blue Ribbon Digests, and the first one I read was a collection of the FABULOUS WORLD OF KRYPTON backups and it was bar none amazing.

Those two guys wrote some really, really good Superman stories and proved it is possible to keep the character viable.

I think instead of donating Superman to Marvel you should donate the writing staff.

k26dp said...

"I think that's why Superman's condemnation of Wonder Woman post Max Lord felt so much like character assassination to me. Superman's had to make the hardest choices of any justice leaguer every day of his life, and he's smart enough to know hopeless/one-way-out situations when he sees them."

Thank you for pin-pointing the thing that's been bothering me about this that I hadn't been able to place my finger on. I don't know if Superman would condone the Max killing, but he certainly wouldn't have become so judgemental and turn his back on one of his best friends. Of course, DC writers have been writing the Clark-Diana relationship very strangely the last two years anyway (why the hell were the fighting and destroyed the Fortress Of Solitude again? I read the book and still couldn't figure it out)?

Elephantine Room said...

The key to any good Batman story is that ... inside he's always going to be the terrified little boy who just lost his parents.

This is rather pat and reductionist, and also makes for some really trite, bad storytelling (of the sort where Batman gets sprayed by the Scarecrow and we are shocked to discover that his greatest fear is - gasp! - reliving the night his parents were killed! Just throw in Captain America mooning over Bucky and Gwen Stacy's bridge and you have the perfect trifecta of overcooked comic book cliches).

I'm desperately waiting for the writer to show up who depicts Batman as a character who operates the way he does not because he can't get over his parents' deaths, but precisely because he has - because he's realized murder and evil aren't his personal tragedies, but are generalized threats that someone needs to do something about.

And the key to any good Superman story is that ... he's Kal-el, the product of an alien and extinct culture.

This just rings horribly false. If you were the last remaining survivor of, say, ancient Greece, sent into the future as a newborn and raised as a typical 21st century American, your reaction to learning the truth at the age of 20 wouldn't be to suddenly start worshiping Zeus and demanding you be addressed as "Apollo" or something. A dead culture is a dead culture, and we're products of the cultures in which we're raised. Superman was raised as a human, he married a human, all of his closest friends have been humans, he identifies as a human. The periodic bouts of "He's Kal-El" and "Why oh why did I live when my parents die!" feel silly and forced. He wasn't raised by Jor-el and he has no memories of Krypton. He knows in some sense that he's "lost" that culture, but there's no way he can feel that loss. Add to that the fact that he looks perfectly human and is accepted as such by everyone but Lex Luthor and you've got a very well-assimilated earthling/American who happens to come from another planet.

Chris Arndt said...

Let's try to reduce this to the ultimate honesty of the Silver Age versus the often-spouted lie in the Modern Age.

Superman can never die and will never die (aside from that one Doomsday thing and the occasional imaginary story) and there's very little as to threats that could actually kill them. The Silver Age response was reflexively and likely unintentionally to make him so near-completely invulnerable and un-harm-able that Superman is rarely if ever threatened with harm; his supporting cast is. The stories see the planet faced with threats; mortal (presumably) innocent bystanders are in danger, and his personal supporting cast, constituted of mostly characters who cannot die either, are also threatened with death.

There was one story where Brainiac's rival, a four-armed space villain with a 20th-level mind (Drax?) attached a bomb to Superman and encased the world in a shield that the Man of Steel could not penetrate. When the bomb detonated earth would be destroyed and Superman would be left to grieve. That was perfect.

In the eighties Superman was made significantly weaker and the writers decided to emphasize that Superman could be killed now. My response is.... when is he going to be? He obviously is not going to die in any permanent manner. He will not ever die in such a fashion so why are we pretending? We cannot get real drama out of the "will Superman (or Lois) die" question because the answer is always "NO". This is like giving James Bond and Moneypenny private seats at the opera and their own hotel room garuanteed.... they won't use it anyway so why bother?

At least in the Silver Age the people in the cross hairs were people who could actually be threatened and the drama arose from there. The only problem then was in making us give a crap about the vulnerable people.

Honestly, even Batman is invulernable from a story-telling standpoint, but even he cared whether the Senator has been shot.

Chris Arndt said...

Playing hardball....

Batman is Batman because he has a sense of duty. It's not out of a sense of tragedy or because he's sad or angry or anything like that. He's not psychotic or sociopathic.

At worst Batman is two things while still in character. He is a control-freak and a workoholic.

Batman is otherwise well-adjusted for a man who fights crime and lives in a mansion.

He fights for justice, not for revenge.

He uses his skills as best he can because he has those skills and few others do.

The character was influenced by Zorro, Doc Savage and a few other pulp heroes, many of them willing and open to laughing and having fun once in awhile without it having to do with their "disguise" or "persona". For a long while Batman was capable of laughing as well. Then the crappy writers took over, Denny O'Neil slowly shifted the atmosphere and Rucka laid the final nail in the frickin' coffin.

Chris Arndt said...

Superman grew up on Earth and has some old memories from Krypton and intimate knowledge of Krypton. This is how it is in veritably every story.

Whether or not Superman mourns for the planet of his genetic heritage is one thing, but in every canon he is just a man and he was raised on earth by Terran parents with human values and those values were American.

He is, however, hormonally speaking, an alien. That's my response to Larry Niven.

Whether or not Superman or Clark Kent is the persona or the invention or the mask is up to the writer. I prefer a little bit of both. Superman is a stage name and his personality is somewhat of a stage behavior, some way he'd never perform alone in his own house.... but none of it is an invention or a lie or manufactured.

Clark Kent is really Superman. Superman is really Clark Kent. Most of the time when someone talks to Superman and they know him personally they don't address him as Kal-El or Superman if they know he's Clark Kent (and no one is in earshot who doesn't have the knowledge). They call him Clark.

How Clark Kent acts around the Daily Planet office is as manufactured as how most people act in public. "Office Clark" and "GBS anchorman Clark" and "home Clark" are all facets of the same person and are for the most part as real as Superman.

"Clark Kent is who I am Superman is [just] what I do" always rang as a betrayl of the basic concept to me.

I do believe that making "mild-mannered" Clark Kent a soft-spined weak-kneed wuss has (almost) always been overdoing it. I don't believe that overcompensating in the other direction is the solution. I also think that idiots like Chuck Austen should understand that Clark Kent is not Peter Parker and is not genuinely unpopular. He's popular enough but his personality foibles are mostly to differentiate one life from Superman; he was never ever a hard-luck case in the secret id until Austen came around.

Some writers have different ideas than others.

Chris Arndt said...

Superman grew up on Earth and has some old memories from Krypton and intimate knowledge of Krypton. This is how it is in veritably every story.

Whether or not Superman mourns for the planet of his genetic heritage is one thing, but in every canon he is just a man and he was raised on earth by Terran parents with human values and those values were American.

He is, however, hormonally speaking, an alien. That's my response to Larry Niven.

Whether or not Superman or Clark Kent is the persona or the invention or the mask is up to the writer. I prefer a little bit of both. Superman is a stage name and his personality is somewhat of a stage behavior, some way he'd never perform alone in his own house.... but none of it is an invention or a lie or manufactured.

Clark Kent is really Superman. Superman is really Clark Kent. Most of the time when someone talks to Superman and they know him personally they don't address him as Kal-El or Superman if they know he's Clark Kent (and no one is in earshot who doesn't have the knowledge). They call him Clark.

How Clark Kent acts around the Daily Planet office is as manufactured as how most people act in public. "Office Clark" and "GBS anchorman Clark" and "home Clark" are all facets of the same person and are for the most part as real as Superman.

"Clark Kent is who I am Superman is [just] what I do" always rang as a betrayl of the basic concept to me.

I do believe that making "mild-mannered" Clark Kent a soft-spined weak-kneed wuss has (almost) always been overdoing it. I don't believe that overcompensating in the other direction is the solution. I also think that idiots like Chuck Austen should understand that Clark Kent is not Peter Parker and is not genuinely unpopular. He's popular enough but his personality foibles are mostly to differentiate one life from Superman; he was never ever a hard-luck case in the secret id until Austen came around.

Some writers have different ideas than others.

Jeff R. said...

A Bruce Wayne who's gotten over his parents' deaths doesn't need to dress up like a flying rat. He could be an honest-to-goodness cop, or do more about the problem as a full-time billionaire philanthropist. But he can't, because he ultimately can't give up the sheer joy of pounding the crap out of people who need the crap pounded out of them; and that kind of violence-addiction is not a product of a healthy personality.

As for Superman, he can certainly pass as human. But every second he knows that he's not. He's constantly aware of events happening miles away through his various senses. He has to consciously think of avoiding doing things that would cause a normal person minor injuries, because he's never had the need to develop those reflexes. Gravity doesn't affect him the way it does everyone else.

When he's among the humans, he identifies as human. When he's with other superheroes, he identifies as one of that community instead. But when he's alone, in his Fortress of Solitude...well, he writes his diary in Kryptonian.

Chris Arndt said...

This stuff should be put into my blog...

ahhhhh.

who has the time!?

Jeff R. said...

Chris's post(s) showed up while I was writing. A brief comment on it:

Batman calls Superman 'Clark'. Wonder Woman calls his 'Kal'. That's a bigger difference in the two relationships than the triviality of gender...

Bat-Mac said...

I disagree with what Ardnt says about Batman. Most interpretations of the Bat are valid (except for ASB&RTBW). His adjustment to his fight can vary, and to quote him with Superman, "Some writers have different ideas than others."

Batman having a laugh - well, sadly, that won't work anymore thanks to the 60s camp. What he does isn't "funny", and he will never crack one liners while his Robins are getting killed/Batgirls are getting crippled/Dad's best friends are with-holding medical attention from colleagues etc.

I completely agree with his depiction of Chuck Austen's Clark though. Tosh!

Chris Arndt said...

Well, Batman would never have been an honest to gosh cop because... well, frankly, more people need to read Untold Legend of the Batman to understand it.

1) Batman could never be a cop becuase cops are beholden to the law and guys who toss batarangs at people's heads, arrest and search and seize without legal warrants are obviously not beholden to the law. Batman fights for justice and he will tell the law to take a flying leap if he thinks it stands in the way of justice. But "the law" and "justice" in quotes if you must but if you think that one automatically upholds the other then super-hero comics made you cynical or something.... or didn't detract enough from your cynicism.

2) The fact that Batman cannot laugh now has nothing to do with the sixties or otherwise my large collection of seventies Batman comics are just figments of a few hundred thousand people's imaginations. The eighties and nineties killed the laughing part...

3) as for what Wonder Woman calls Superman... who cares? Their comic book relationship as it currently is.... is less than five or six years old, right? I throw it in the same bucket as the issues where Ray Palmer's wife knew where to kill the third Robin's dad....

Actually I find it rather interesting what characters would call him by his alien name... it is a name that barely anyone uses.