Friday, August 24, 2007

Least Likely to Change: Superman

Who has changed the least?

Only a select group of Golden Age heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Black Canary) are still around. And I don't mean "retrieved" characters like Alan Scott, Jay Garrick, or any of the JSA-style inheritors. They are a different animal entirely from the Underoos Icon Gang.

So let's pull our Underoos out of the drawer and examine them over the next few days ... just to see how they're holding up.


Well, he looks the same except for some minor vagaries of costuming. But he's changed alot.

He's added a host of powers (many of which, such as superventroliquism, were mercifully shed along the way), and the powers that have been consistent in kind have increased dramatically in degree.

His personality, on the hand, has changed in kind. The Golden Age Superman was almost anti-authoritarian. As a reaction to the powerless people felt during the Depression, the GA Superman broke into people's houses (including the Governor), beat the snot out of normal humans, hung them from flagpoles, grabbed unsympathetic employers and forced them to experience the deplorable conditions of their workers... . Superman (no matter what Frank Miller might think of him), has never been about supporting authority, but about having the power to circumvent it.

Yet, nowadays, we not only respect and envy that power, we fear its misuse. So Superman, most powerful of heroes, has had to evolve into the very image of He Who Would Not Abuse His Power, and come to be an authority figure himself. John Byrne (no matter what you might think of him) understood this tension and very early on he cleverly had Mayor Berkowitz use Superman to circumvent regular, slow justice and arrest Lex Luthor on the spot ... after saying he'd "deputized" him, of course.

His larger "secret identity" schtick is still very much intact. Clark Kent is still mild-mannered (I mean, as much as an investigative report can be) and his difference in personality from smiling, confident Superman is still his best disguise. But the two-and-half-sided triangle between Clark, Lois, and Superman is no more.

That's a big change. Superman used to symbolize men's need to be loved and admired not only for their aggressive confrontational selves, but for their quiet nurturing selves as well. And, I might add, some woman's refusal to do so, particularly strong capable ones like Lois. Despite professing to want "sensitive" men, women usually really go for a confident macho guy. How else would you explain that so many comic-reading women who would call themselves feminists are googly-eyed over Hal Jordan, of all people? I don't know a single comic-reading gay guy who goes googly-eyed over Hal Jordan; only women. Comic-reading gay guys go googly-eyed over guys who are confident yet secure enough in their masculinity to wear yellow balloon pants and red neckerchiefs. And breakdance.

Anyway, while that idea of being loved that way used to be presented through Superman as nearly impossible, his marriage to Lois (in which she loves both the Clark Kent Him and the Superman Him) is now shown as an ideal. In all fairness, then that's not a change: that kind of love was presented as ideal and the only kind worth having in the Golden Age, too. That's why Superman never accepted Lois's advances; if she was too good for Clark Kent, then she wasn't good enough for Superman. It's not Superman who changed; it was Lois.

It's a pity they never really showed us that change; they were kind of suddenly, you know, married.

In any case, how much has Superman changed in your eyes?


Anonymous said...

One of the most charming developments on the Superman front, as far as I'm concerned, is that his favorite book is "To Kill a Mockingbird": I would bet anything that he sees himself as Atticus Finch on some days (hoping to persuade people to follow their better natures but never forcing them) and on other days he's Boo Radley (misunderstood and a little bit feared despite his benign intentions).

Anyway, you hit the nail on the head as to what has changed about Superman in my experience. When I was growing up (during Clark's newscaster period), Superman used his powers to foil Steve Lombard's sportscasterdickery during the day, and to grapple with the Purple Piledriver late into the night. The fact that the guy could potentially abuse his powers was never even considered; he was simply Superman, he did the right thing, everybody loved him, and writers never put him in a bind that he couldn't good-guy his way out of.

Personally, I'd be freaked out if there were a guy standing next to me who could kill me by looking at me, breathing on me, tweaking my nose, or tossing me five million years into the future. That's why George Reeves was the best Superman: because he was the one Superman who wouldn't scare the shit out of you if, say, he were to land in your backyard. (His Clark Kent was the best too, but that goes without saying: mild-mannered in the best sense.)

Steven said...

Personally, I think Lois did change quite a bit from her Golden Age self (hard nosed reporter chasing after Superman the story) to her Silver Age self (marriage crazed woman chasing after Superman the husband) to her more modern, more nuanced self.

The modern Lois wants to be with Clark, but notably didn't take her husband's name! Compare that to the character who used to dream about being "Mrs. Superman".

The character presented in John Byrne's "Man of Steel" is independent, career oriented, but is still willing to see Clark as a fellow reporter and possible love interest, and that was five years before they were engaged, ten years before they were married, so it certainly didn't happen suddenly.

Anonymous said...

"That's why Superman never accepted Lois's advances; if she was too good for Clark Kent, then she wasn't good enough for Superman."

That's probably the best assessment I've read on why Superman kept spurning Lois...and I guess the fact that she did change showed that he had some reason for hanging in there with her as long as he did.

Personally, I grew up reading the comics with the totally man-hungry Lois who thought nothing of driving off cliffs to get Supes' attention. I never could get what he saw in her, until I read the comics from the 40's, in which she really did seem to be not only smarter but much more determined than Superman...who most of the time would wind up saying things like "lost him! Oh well, might as well go back to the Daily Planet and see what Lois has dug up."

Anonymous said...

"Despite professing to want 'sensitive' men, women usually really go for a confident macho guy. How else would you explain that so many comic-reading women who would call themselves feminists are googly-eyed over Hal Jordan, of all people?"

I'll give this a shot, if you'll forgive me from straying from your main topic. Two nonexclusive possibilities: a) People want things in their fantasy lives that they realize would hurt them in their real lives, and b) The appealing aspect of Hal is not his machismo but his incompetence, which makes your feminist feel superior, and possessed of greater self-knowledge, than the guy.

MaGnUs said...

How much has Superman changed? Well, John Byrned turned Superman into the disguise, and Clark Kent into the man, and that's why (even if I always liked Superman) I became a Superman fan, mostly.

And as for Lois, it was the fact that Clark Kent was a real person that made it possible for him to, without using superpowers, was able to make her fall in love with him. Because he's a "real" person, and as such, his supporting cast is made of almost as real people, not cardboard cutouts designed to be "THE BOSS", "THE NOSY PAL", "THE LADY REPORTER WITH THE CRUSH", etc, etc.

SallyP said...

Superman will always be the most heroic I suppose...because that's what he's supposed to be. The idea that someone that powerful could go bad, must really haunt Batman's nightmares, and it should.

Lois has changed of course, thank goodness. The catfights with Lana were hilarious, but ridiculous.

You realize that I do adore Hal Jordan. Of course, Guy is really the sexiest. *sigh* ALL the Green Lanterns are just so...dreamy.

Anonymous said...

I think the marriage has been a bad thing for Lois, now she's not even dealing with the Superman/Clark split , she's just dashed past it. It's bad for Superman too, as he's not dealing with that either. It's like assuming I could be richer than Bill Gates and still show up at my lousy job. Lois-the-Harpy was bad, but is Lois-the-Happy-Zombie any better?

Derek said...

But, Steve, if you were richer than Bill Gates, couldn't you still show up at a job you love?

And I don't get the "Lois-the-Happy-Zombie" analogy. Because she's happily married, she suddenly doesn't have a personality? I don't mean to put words it your mouth; I really just don't understand the analogy.

Unknown said...

Somewhere along the line Superman stopped being anti-authoritarian, and became a champion of the system; a living embodiment of the good that can be done when the system works. Almost a DC version of Captain America if you will. (Ironically, of course, Captain America ended his days as an anti-authoritarian hero.)

Daniel said...

You left out one of DC's longest-lasting characters, one who has been in continuous publication since his creation.


Scipio said...

Touche, Daniel.

Anonymous said...

Superman grew up. That's the long and short of it.

He outgrew his rebellious phase and became the "establishment" -- or more like the platonic ideal of what the establishment could and should be.

And thematically his stories became more about the limits and proper use of power rather than fantasy wish fulfillment of "What I would do if I could do anything."

Scipio said...

Interesting way of looking at it, Josh.

David C said...

"Superman grew up. That's the long and short of it."

Yeah, I pretty much agree with that. Modern Superman (and even Silver Age Superman - "All my powers and I couldn't save them") is as much about the limitations of power as about power itself.

As for Lois, I'd argue that she's another significant Golden Age character in her own right, and probably changed more than any of the superheroes on the list.

Read some of the Golden Age stories - she's really a pretty hateful bitch! That quoted panel? She's like that pretty much all the time, and usually with little to no justification (such an attitude might be justified by Clark's feigned cowardice, but usually she just loathes Clark on general principle.)

Silver Age Lois, for all her many, frequently catalogued, faults, at least treated Clark as a friend most of the time.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Superman's escalating power levels forced the change in his personality, I think. His desire to reshape the world waned exactly as his power waxed. It makes a kind of sense.

A guy who can "leap an eighth of a mile" and outrun trains can change the world but so much, no matter how hard he tries. Silver Age Supes, who could blow out stars like birthday candles, could enforce his chosen order throughout the world in the blink of an eye. The first guy acting for social change could be stirring; the second guy would be terrifying.

I don't know how much that factored into the actual decisions of Ye Olden Comic Booke Creators, but I'd wager it played at least a small part.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Oooh, and the first comment on this post got me thinking...

What are the "Designated Personality Traits" of various super-characters? Those "humanizing," "real-world" traits that turn up time and again?

Superman's favorite book is "To Kill a Mockingbird" and his favorite food is Beef Bourguignon. Green Arrow loves chili. Are there any others?

(My personal favorite, an underused one: Spider-Man is a Mets fan. Of course he is.)

Anonymous said...

"Superman's favorite book is 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and his favorite food is Beef Bourguignon."

I like to think his favorite food is sloppy joes served at insane asylums. He just sort of shows up unannounced, cuts his way in line, and everyone tries to not piss him off. Then he flies away and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

Anonymous said...

Oops, I left out some details: Superman sort of shows up, cuts his way in line, gets his sloppy joe without saying a word, and sits down at a table in the corner (everyone stays at least one table away). Superman quietly eats with a thousand-yard stare on his face, and glares at anyone who looks his way. Finally he files away and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about Silver Age Superman having less desire to reshape the world, I was reading some mid-60s Superboy and Action Comics and it seemed like every other issue Superman would mess with world governments or something(taking over the UN and putting his symbol as the only flag, simply to trap some space villain).

About the Beef Bourguignon, shows how much I know, I thought Superman was vegetarian!

Anonymous said...

"he sees himself as Atticus Finch on some days (hoping to persuade people to follow their better natures but never forcing them)"

I'll always remember that scene in TKAM where Atticus sat on the jailhouse porch, with his quiet, deadly air of authority, cradling a chalkboard.

Eric said...

I do not agree with the following statement: "That's why Superman never accepted Lois's advances; if she was too good for Clark Kent, then she wasn't good enough for Superman."

During the time when Superman was the real person and Clark Kent was the disguise, she should fall for Superman. Clark as a disguise was weak, pathetic, cowardly - a 2D cardboard cutout. Why in the world should Lois Lane fall for that? She wants someone who is her equal - she doesn't want a doormat for a significant other.

She is strong, passionate, looks to uncover the truth and put criminals behind bars. When Superman disguised himself as Clark Kent, that disguise is not worthy to be with Lois Lane.

She WAS too good for Clark Kent, since Clark Kent was a pathetic excuse for a human being - he was a disguise who was not well-rounded.

Here is a quote from Kill Bill Vol.2; I do not agree with it, however that is apparently how the average person (and Quentin Tarantino) thinks of Superman/Clark Kent: "Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He's weak... he's unsure of himself... he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race." You expect Lois to fall in love with that?

It’s only when Clark becomes the real person (which is how it should be) that Lois falls in love with him.

So could you please explain your point of view (the quote at the beginning of this comment)?

What if Lois had shown interest in another pathetic weakling? Would that have been enough for Superman? That if she’ll lower herself for anyone who is not good enough for her, then suddenly she is good enough for Superman?