Tuesday, February 28, 2006

What job is for Superman?

DiDio said “What you call dark, we call drama. Some people expect Superman to stop robberies at a corner store. He needs threats of a greater nature.”
This is from the transcript of the "52 Pick-up Panel" at the recent New York City comic convention. On the one hand, I understand what Dan Didio means, and I agree that Superman needs some threats of a greater nature.. On the other hand...

Well, I'm one of those people who expects Superman to stop robberies at a corner store.

Watching Superman grapple with a (supposed) angel or pulls the moon back into orbit makes for an artistically dramatic panel. But it has so little relation to every day experience as to render it nearly meaningless to me as a reader. As others have commented, it's seeing Superman pick up a car or a tank that wows you, because you have a real sense of how much power that takes.

It's all well and good to pretend that you're going to keep Superman at a "reasonable reduced power level". Uh-huh. But every time that's done, fans complain that he's not powerful enough, or writers have to top themselves with increasingly powerful threats, and before you know it Superman's pushing planets again.

That's why I deplore the "arms race" that always leads to Superman fighting bigger and bigger monsters. Sure, a good old donnybrook with Solomon Grundy is always fun. But the only way to continously and engagingly write Superman is to put him in situations that his raw power won't solve.

For all their story-telling faults, Golden and Silver Age writers understood this in a way current writers (other than Greg Rucka) do not seem to. The Prankster; The Toyman; Wilbur Wolfingham; Mr. Mxyzptlk; Lex Luthor: these characters present intellectual challenges that can't simply be punched out of. Such figures have been squeezed out in favor of monsters-of-the-month like Mongul and Doomsday, and super-story-telling has been the poorer for it, I think.

Superman's abilities should help him solve problems but they shouldn't solve problems for him. Sometimes it's a subtle difference, but it's a huge difference nonetheless. We can laugh at the repetitive Silver Age plots of "must conceal secret identity", "must teach so and so a lesson", "must protect such and such without it being obvious", but those writers knew that mere physical challenges weren't the way to go. They forced Superman to use his power intelligently, efficiently, subtly; when you have as much power as Superman, that is a challenge.

Yes, I would like to see Superman stop corner store robberies, because, in many ways, that's a bigger challenge to him than monster-bashing. Imagine today that you have Superman's powers. How do you use them to stop crime and keep people safe? Today. In your city.

Tough, isn't it? If a big monster lands in your town and starts tearing up the street, well, then you know what to do; that's easy to figure (for you and the writers). But absent that, how do you apply your powers to fighting ordinary crime and corruption? WHILE holding down a full-time, fairly high-profile job? WITHOUT revealing who are, which would ruin your life and endanger everyone you care about? That is job for Superman, because anybody can deal with monsters.

Moral challenges are also part of the job, as the return of the Golden Age Superman has highlighted. How much do you use your powers to change things? Do you knock down slums? Slumlords? Intimidate the governor? Grab the leaders of foreign nations and strand them on a mountaintop? How activist should a Superman be? Does he work mostly to reinforce and protect society and "the system" or to reform them?

I'll bet every single reader of this blog could come up with a "Superman saves the corner store" story. I happen to think there are a lot of Superman stories to tell that don't require angelic wrestling matches. Does DC?

Do you?


Anonymous said...

I think the biggest failing of the post-Crisis Superman is that his supporting cast has been pretty much ignored--Lois Lane has hung around but not to any really great extent, and Jimmy Olsen seems to be the new Invisible Kid. Superman doesn't really seem like he's grounded in any meaningful sort of "reality" any more, and that make most of his fights and stunts just one big yawn after another--Clark Kent (who appears slightly more than Jimmy, but less than Lois) offers far more story opportunities than Superman, as would villains who are clever instead of merely monstrous--watching Superman keep slugging it out with whatever this week's version of the Hulk or Darkseid is just doesn't work for me.


Anonymous said...

dude, totally~!

You have so hit the nail on the head....big flashy fight scenes are awesome, but they don't make a challenging story.

I wish I still owned or remembered it properly, but one of my favourite stories pre-Crisis is Superman and Batman at a radio station where some crazy guy had set a bomb which would release anthrax under Superman or Batman's chair...they had to out-think the threat. There was a sense that Superman could actually have been beaten by just some normal man, not because he could be physically harmed, but because his power wasn't worth anything.

Superman should be about stopping muggers and rescuing kittens out of trees just as much if not more than smacking Darseid upside the chops cause the MAN should always be more accentuated than the SUPER....

Brian said...

Of-freaking-course, Scip. I've been saying the same damn thing for years.

The heart of your argument, at least as i see it, is that Superman (and, indeed, all of the Big Three) aren't like other superheroes. They're a separate breed entirely. Superman isn't a superhero, he's THE superhero, the most powerful being on the planet. Batman is just a guy in a costume with some neat toys, right? Wrong. By all rights he should be a street level hero, but he's SO smart and SO capable that he can run with the big dogs and keep pace. Wonder Woman? Her morality is skewed a bit to the right of human baseline, so, sure, she dresses up in a costume and goes and rights wrongs, but the way she goes about it is SUPPOSED to feel a little off.

But coming back to Superman, it's the story of a man who can bring overwhelming force to ANY situation. He's the equal of ANY task (within reason), as so the stories should become tales of wisdom instead of tales of strength. And, in fact, the VERY best stories are the ones in which he fails, and then overcomes, not through the raw application of power, but through the humanity he learned on a little farm in Kansas.

Don't get me wrong, I love me some superpowered asskicking, and the "Yield!" "Never!" scene from Morrison's JLA never fails to give me goosebumps -- but that has to be tempered with something. That scene wouldn't be half so powerful if, immediately before, we didn't see a battered and broken J'onn J'onzz, practically dead on his feet, gently pulled aside by a familiar hand and a soft voice, saying "You've done enough, old friend. Stand down. I'll take over now."

Because, at the end of the day, that's who Superman is. He's the friend we want at our back. And htat's who Superman should BE. He's not just a one-man superhuman wrecking crew. He's an ideal, hope made flesh when we need it most. Taking aways his humanity and defining him by how hard he can punch or how many tons he can lift cheapens him.

Anonymous said...

I was pretty sure that The Absorbascon was my favorite blog, but this post just made it obvious.

That DiDio quote has been nagging at me since I heard it. Superman's my favorite character, and that's because he does all the little but important things that I wish I could do but can't because either I'm too weak or too afraid. Superman is inspiring because he sets an example of things we can do in our lives, not just because we'd all be dead a hundred times over without him. ("We" of course refering to those fictional people in the DCU...) People aspire to be more like Superman, and that leads to a better world, where people aren't as afraid to stand up against oppression, or stop a mugger, or help a stranger on the street. Moving planets is occasionally cool (and somebody's gotta do it), but that's not inspiring; it just makes you feel small and worthless. You could never do that, and there's no use in trying. But I could help a guy who got a flat outside my house, and seeing Superman do that makes me want to do that. (I may not be able to patch his tire with my heat vision and inflate it with my Super Breath, but hey, I'm not Superman :P)

Anonymous said...

I'll contribute a story that has always irked me for this reason. "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way." where Superman fights the Authority. They spend the entire story mentioning again and again that the Elite utterly outclass Superman in terms of raw power. They completely disregard him and dismiss him. He has to take a stand against them knowing that there is no way at all for him to succeed, but because his morals demand it. That's a good set-up for a Superman story, but the resolution is that he suddenly remembers that he's dozens of times more powerful than they are after all and makes short work of them after taking the best they could throw at him. I really like this story, but that seems like a cop-out and another example of Superman just out-Supering his problems.

Bully said...

One of the best blog entries of the year--not just on this site, but in the comics blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

The thing that bugs me about that Superman vs. the Angel fight is that Wally has to tell us how cool it is. If Wally's narrative boxes aren't there, it's just Superman fighting a big bad guy, like he always does. Morrison plays the scene well, but the only reason for the reader to think that Superman is doing anything unusual is because Wally thinks so, and telling the reader "you should be impressed here" is a bit of a cheat. Wally's also the one who tells the reader to be impressed when Superman moves the moon a few pages earlier.

gorjus said...


But . . . perhaps I disagree. At the end of the day, what thrills me about Superman is not the normalcy of his life--I love the Superman that is crafting baby suns to feed to a "Baby Sun-Eater."

It's how he plays out as a man against that grand tapestry. The Superman who might be able to craft baby suns still grapples with the nature of containing evil (say, in Kingdom Come) or expressing his love (with Lois, in the new All-Star Superman).

I love a time-traveling, sun-crafting, universally-known, omnipotent Superman. But--I like him as a MAN doing all this. That's the bit of him I get to want to be. I'm never going to have an artic fortress, but I love to pretend that I could.

Despite my (slight) disagreements--I agree with the above. Fantastic post (and comments--Brian, your retelling of a story that I'd forgotten nails exactly why I love Superman, or the Superman I wish we saw more).

Anonymous said...

In defense of Didio, I don't think he's saying Superman should ignore the bank robbers... I think what he means is those aren't necessarily the stories that they are going to focus on. Why? It's been done. To death. To the point that every mook in the Silver Age has a pocket full of Kryptonite just to make the issue have at least the illusion of suspense.

I think the "threats of a greater nature" don't necessarily have to be bigger and badder villains. It's threats that force him, as you say, to make hard decisions, to figure out the right course, with the lives of millions in the balance. I'd also like to see a good writer experiment with a more pro-active, Golden Age-ish Superman, not just tackling the big city-munching monster OR the corner bank robber but also the white-collar criminal... those Lex stories that SHOULD be interesting, but seldom are because the writer doesn't have the stuff to make it interesting.

"Threats of a greater nature" is still a very, very big canvas to work with.

David Campbell said...

As Jimmy Olsen would say: "Jeepers! You hit the nail right on the fucking head!"

Well, he wouldn't swear, but you know what I mean.

Great post.

Marc Burkhardt said...

A brilliant post, one that eclipses a similar item I was preparing for my own blog. Like gorjus wrote, I prefer a Superman who feeds baby suns to lifeforms in his interstellar zoo. Yet the godlike Superman, at least as he was written in the Golden, Silver and Bronze ages, used his powers for far more than bashing omnipotent bad guys.

He would always take time out to help orphans, raise money for charity, keep Metropolis' streets free of crime (you would wonder why a common thug would even bother living in Superman's hometown) and still meet his deadlines at the Planet.

Put simply, despite his unimaginable powers, he was engaged in day-to-day life. Other than, perhaps, Wally West, I don't think you can say that about too many heroes today.

Maybe that aspect will return to the DC universe with a renewed emphasis on the importance of "secret identities."

Jake said...

Wow, I actually had an introduction similar to this post on tap for later this week. The last two days I've mocked an old World's Finest issue and last week I was reviewing a pair of Jimmy Olsen stories. I have another Superman story I was going to tear up and started to wonder why it was so much easier to make fun of Superman than other heroes.

I came to the conclusion its because he's more capable than other heroes and therefore his shortcomings are more laughable, especially the pre-Crisis version whose superbrain made him smarter than a computer and was able to use x-ray vision for just about any deus ex machina purpose.

You've hit the nail on the head why I've never liked Superman and fleshed it out better than I had. If all Batman's problems could be solved by "who can hide in the shadows the best" or all of Spider-Man's foes challenged him to a "bouncing around the city contest" they would be equally dull.

If there was more focus on Clark Kent than Superman, I might be interested.

Scipio said...

Thanks for all the commenting, everyone!

And, Scott -- welcome! My apologies to your understanding wife...

Jim said...

You make an excellent point and articulate yourself very well. This wasn't something that I thought about too much; I guess I just didn't read the comics. The most I recall is a consistent statement by creators that Superman was difficult to write. I agree with you, though. The question isn't how hard can he punch, but why? who's he punching? etc. It can be done.

I think what we see throughout the history of comics is that no matter what the complaint made by the creator about a character being too difficult to write (or draw, I suppose) for whatever reason ... if the character was ever written well, if a group of people ever enjoyed the comics, then it can be written well again. It just takes the creative mind to find a way.

Anonymous said...

Seems the decision is again in the air - what is more important, the super or the man. You can play Superman very well as an omnipotent distant inhuman god, but it does not make a good myth. What is the soul of the Superman? Probably that he is inhumanly human.
Not that he will wrestle the archimagus of the armaggeddon-chaossphere, but also takes the time to bring the lost kitty back to the little girl.

Anonymous said...

But the only way to continously and engagingly write Superman is to put him in situations that his raw power won't solve.

Bingo. That's honestly what's hampered my interest in the guy. Here's hoping this One Year Later/Infinite Crisis stuff settles these kinds of things once and for all.

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts.

I always liked the Legion stories because I thought it felt right that Superman (okay, Superboy), needed to be somewhere some of the time where other people were just as powerful as he was. (And it was so cool and heartbreaking that Duo Damsel had a crush on him all the while knowing he would marry someone else-- don't get me started...)

Jack Kirby, ironically enough, hit on this same idea in his A SUPERMAN IN SUPER TOWN in JIMMY OLSEN. This is clearly not the same Superman that was written by any other writer, but the idea that Superman could actually relax among his own kind and not be saving everybody all the time felt right.

I recently reread part of the Cary Bates stories where Superman loses his powers when he is Clark, and they worked surprisingly well for me.

I guess what I am saying (and I have gotten a bit off topic -- apologies) is that the Superman stories I seem to remember focus on
1) the MAN part, not the SUPER part and
2) involve Superman using his brain rather than his brawn.

Of course, I dreamed of being Brainiac 5 as a kid too ...

Anonymous said...

oops -- that wasn't anonymous -- that was me!

Anonymous said...

I'll have to agree to disagree with Scipio here.

While I'm a fan of well done smaller, intimate Superman stories, I'm a TREMENDOUS fan of Superman wrestling angels, changing the course of mighty rivers, and doing things that are super. It's grand, it's mythological, it's godlike, it's simple, it's big. When Superman does that kind of stuff and it's done well, it gives me that ex-Catholic, Wagner and Shakespeare lover, down on your knees for your super savior type feeling, you know? It appeals to my sense of faith, wonder and awe.

In contrast, the stories where Superman is thwarted at every turn by people more clever than he, they generally annoy and bore me. Annoying because, for heaven's sake, I think, just go snap his neck or lobotomize him with heat vision or something...

(side note, I got a sadistic little thrill on the JLU episodes when mirror universe Superman did exactly that...Finally! I thought, He finally grows some cojones!)

And those smaller stories are generally boring to me, because if I wanted to read a story about a hero who waffled and failed to take definitive actions, I'd read a Marvel comic.
I love DC, I want to read about the giants who walk among us who come to save or destroy us.

Hale of Angelthorne said...

I agree that "mega-fights" often = lazy writing. You eventually get the Silver Age problem where the supermenaces got bigger and bigger and Superman's list of powers got ludicrous (super-ventriloquism?). It can quickly get to the point where you have to wonder what all the other superheroes do since Superman could clearly wipe out all crime on the entire planet in a lazy afternoon. Rao help me, but John Byrne was right: we DO need a "less powerful" Man of Steel to foil robberies at the corner liquor store from time to time. Super-powered beat downs are great, but if they happen every month, they become boring (kind of like the recent trend in DC of blowing up cities).

Anonymous said...

Boy, fans are so irresponsible these days. Cheering on lobotomizing and neck-snapping and adoring Superman's keeping of an artificially engineered mindless organism designed to destroy on the galactic scale....


Anonymous said...

The one thing I always felt that Byrne did right in his Post-Crisis reboot was by emphasizing Clark Kent as the "real person" and Superman as the disguise -- but they squandered that inspired re-imagining by proceeding to neglect Clark and his relationships, and pulling Superman ever farther away from human-scale stories.

Anonymous said...

You know, Ariel, in the classic Golden and Silver Age stories, when Supes was up against a foe he couldn't defeat with brute strength, it never played out as if he was "thwarted at every turn by people more clever than he". The Pre-Crisis Superman was SMART -- it might take him most of a story to figure out how to deal with a situation, but he'd do it by observation, analysis, and plain out-thinking his adversaries.

Dealing with single-issue self-contained stories might have helped with that impression, since the writers didn't feel obligated to stretch every confrontation out through half-a-dozen issues of half-a-dozen titles.

The only period I can think of when Supes was "thwarted at every turn by people more clever than he" was the Post-Crisis era, where, up until the last year or two, Lex Luthor Always Got Away With It. Clark NEVER managed any kind of lasting victory against his arch-foe, and most of the time, he didn't even manage to inconvenience him all that much. Now, THAT'S a story element I hope we lose -- Lex as the Villain Who Always Wins.

Axel M. Gruner said...

C'mon, he was born and raised in Kansas. It's not all genes, have some respect for cultural climate and socialization.
He's more Kent than from the House of El.
A little bit farmer, a little bit gunslinger*, but he shouldn't be an alien.

* was there a Sheriff Kent?

Anonymous said...

"Super-hero arms race:" That has been my problem with many superheroes in the last few years. Superman and Wonder Woman have gone past "well-nigh" on the invulnerability scale. Batman is soooo smart he knows what everyone's doing all the time (except when his contingency plans get downloaded and used against superheroes every other week). Hulk can heal destroyed muscle, skin, and bones in minutes, and survive underwater. Wolverine can survive decapitation. Green Lantern can not be hampered by anything.

Ugh. Let's set some limitations, please. I don't mean "Kryptonite! Oooohhhh..." every issue, but it gets boring. I agree that we need to see Superman solving problems with his brain and sense of morality, not just his powers

I prefer a more human Superman, but loved "Yield!" "Never!" because of how Morrison set the stage. We saw Superman being human a few panels earlier (talking with Wally, gently and respectfully telling J'Onn to step aside), so the contrast was cool. Now it's been done, so I hope we don't see it again. Likewise, human Superman stories have sucked; I read very little of Casey' or Seagle's issues, but they did not work for me.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is: Superman needs good writrs, who can balance small and epic in a believable way.

joncormier said...

Man, I'd like to see Superman doing his taxes or trying to get everyone a rebate on their taxes. He could employ The Flash, or is that just Flash now? Let's say Superman doesn't agree with the US governments healthcare policy so he decides to grind the system to a halt by removing as much money from it as possible. That would be a great story.

Like the post by the way, just like the 27 other posters.

Anonymous said...

As I see it, Superman writers don't become Superman writers in order to have Superman burdened with mortal concerns such as the secret id or small-time heroics, they want to write Superman so they can work on the big threats, and stretch Superman physically. It's like the 'winning the lottery' fantasy, except it's not about all the stuff you can buy, but that your taxes are a complete nightmare. Superman doesn't need Peter Parker-level angst, but he needs enough reality to connect him to regular people.

I'd like to see a story about all the things Superman doesn't do, the crimes that take place while he's busy writing or sleeping, whatever, and how he deals with it.
Great post.

Anonymous said...

As usual, Scipio, you say what I'm thinking better than I can.

Putting aside the fact that a punch in the face every panel is lazy storytelling, Superman as a planet-moving, angel-fighting, time-travelling Jesus has always creeped me out. Superman - no, Clark Kent - applying his powers to deal with complex and relatable situations because he is simply a good man - those are the stories I want to read.

Of course, every so often he can fight a talking dinosaur. That's fun too.

And word to David J. too. Gratuitous violence does not a masterpiece make.

Anonymous said...

Guys, this is one of the most intelligent, deep, and on-the-ball blogs I've ever read. Nobody turned it into a petty "this guy could beat Superman" argument and everybody seems to know exactly what the Man of Steel is really about. Integrity, morals, and being a humble guy from Kansas. Of course you have to read "Kingdom Come" or "Peace on Earth" if you want the REAL Superman stories.

Go to Bullcrank.com and watch the "Batman" cartoon... you won't be disappointed