Vincent S. Moore Presents:
Why Superman Never Has And Never Will Suck
This column is being written in response to this piece: Why Superman Will Always Suck by Anthony Burch. I’ll leave it to my readers to look it up on the web.
From the responses both on the website where I read this lovely bit of criticism and other places around the Internets, I guess many people agreed wholeheartedly with Mr. Burch.
I, for one, do not.
For the last thirty years or so, it has been in vogue for those that either don’t like pop culture or have spent too much time in the bubble of academia to pick and nitpick and poke and prod at various aspects of that very same pop culture, in order to point how just how silly and terrible such things are. This is very easy to do. For those who love their particular pop culture or subculture, it is a waste of time trying to convince these people otherwise.
Yet I have a strong quixotic streak and refuse to lay down and just take it.
I love Superman. Not in a freaky way, but as someone who first encountered the character in my youth and still finds his adventures across a variety of media entertaining. I have thought and still think Superman is a cool character. And despite the opinions of a self-appointed few pundits, I will always think so.
Unlike Mr. Burch who finds the Man of Steel boring in so many ways.
The Man of Steel, the Action Ace, boring????
I’ll grant it that there have been poor periods in the collective storytelling about Superman. However, I don’t think that anyone who has seen either the Fleischer Studios adventures from the 1940s or the Warner Animation TV series from the 1990s would agree with that statement. Those stories made the Man of Tomorrow and his adventures exciting and thrilling, full of drama and humor. And today’s comics by Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek are a joy to read.
To counter the arguments of Mr. Burch, I will tackle each of his points on my own.
Invulnerability is one of Superman’s best known and greatest powers. The ability to shrug off any of the dangers--bullets, poisons, lasers, etc.--that would kill a normal human being. The secret fantasy of many people, whether they would speak of it or not.
And that is the key.
Invulnerability is the fantasy many wish for and Superman has. Which befits a character that is a wish fulfillment power fantasy made flesh and wrapped in blue, yellow, and red.
Superman was the fantasy hero, the perfect avenger created by Siegel and Shuster to right wrongs and aid the common man. That was the whole point.
In modern times, having sat through creative writing and English classes or read many books on writing, Superman might appear to be a drama buster. The essence of drama is struggle. Superman, in not having the “normal” weaknesses of average people, can himself be a limit on the amount of drama in a story. Simply because where bullets would stop or slow down any other character, they have no effect on Superman directly. I will concede this could be boring to some folks.
Yet, that’s taking the issue too seriously.
The adventures of Superman over the years have often shown us, overtly and covertly, the struggle between the dictates of drama and power fantasy. When Superman comes on the scene, the drama might decrease as the level of power fantasy rises. That is troublesome to some. Yet not being affected by the need to struggle very often is exactly what Superman is supposed to do. Doing those things we cannot is Superman’s purpose, the reason for his existence.
It is wrong to confuse this struggle between drama and fantasy as a limit of the character. It is his purpose and his strength.
Besides, when you really take a look at the wider spectrum of heroic fictions, indestructibility is a common power to them all. Superman merely manifests this power directly.
For example, Spider-man. All too often, Spider-man is held up as the counter example for what a superhero should be, compared to Superman. That Spidey suffers while Supes gloats and laughs to himself unaffected by harm. That trouble and struggle are Spidey’s only friends whereas they leaves Supes alone. Yet for all of that, Spider-man is still here. At any point in any of his adventures, Spiderman could have been killed. And he wasn’t and will never be. Spider-man has even been reborn at least once that I recall.
So has Buffy. She has died twice during the run of her television show and may die any number of times during the run of her current comic book series. Buffy Summers is a great wish fulfillment power fantasy heroine. Yes, she struggles and loses in the short term, only to win in the end. Buffy’s victories are never in any real doubt although, through the tools of drama, such doubts may be felt. Buffy can never truly lose her struggles. Not totally.
The same applies to James Bond. I mean, can you imagine watching a Bond film where he doesn’t get the girl(s) and doesn’t beat the bad guys? No one would ever watch such a movie. Bond cannot lose and cannot be defeated or destroyed. To do so would destroy the character. And that is something the fans of Bond cannot and will not allow.
Just ask Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about that. Doyle tried killing his greatest creation Sherlock Holmes. Only to be confronted with his indestructibility when the fans of the detective balked and protested loudly to Doyle’s publisher. Doyle had to relent and tell the tale wherein we learned just how indestructible Holmes was.
From these examples, we can take an important lesson: that it is the possibility, rather than the inevitability, of defeat that excites and interests audiences. Superman doesn’t simply win because he shows up. There is some struggle involved. There has to be or else there is no story whatsoever. But do not confuse this with being a weak character.
Remember, the difference between heroes and protagonists is that heroes, no matter the genre, save the day and live to see another day for the most part, while mere protagonists can be killed. There isn’t a Hamlet 2 (ignoring the upcoming bad flick by those South Park boys). Romeo and Juliet aren’t being seen in the follow up play showing their honeymoon. Protagonists die. Heroes are forever.
Second, Moral Absolutism.
It is difficult to discuss morals in the age of relativism, but I will try.
Superman’s morals are simpler than ours. Truer in that, well, he’s a fictional character. The moral dilemmas he faces are those allowed by his editors and/or those dreamed up by his writers. Superman does not exist in our world or has his own complex view of world. Again, just what one would want in a wish fulfillment power fantasy figure: a simpler, truer view of the world, uncomplicated by having to juggle the views and values of a myriad of cultures.
But is our world really so complicated?
I tend to think that harming women and children is wrong in all human cultures around the world. And that helping and protecting those who are weak is a virtue just about anywhere on this planet. As is standing up against those who would harm or wrong others. Those morals seem basic to me. Those are often the morals Superman upholds and exhibits.
So what if Superman comes off as a goody two shoes? Is aspiring to any kind of higher moral standard completely gone from the world? Is this not what most religions are supposed to do? Why shouldn’t such ideas be represented in our heroes in the stories designed to entertain us?
See, Superman began life as a social crusader, helping those in need and occasionally fighting against those who upheld the law. Quite honestly, with popularity came the need to ditch such radical ideas and move Supes into a more innocuous kind of moral fight, against those counterpoints to his heroism: the supervillains.
But that does not mean that Superman has no values of his own. He has the values of all good heroes. Values like Noblesse Oblige, the idea that those of power and higher status have a duty to help those in need and those who do not have what they have. Or like Chivalry and Knight-Errantry, that seek to be of service to their fellows wherever needed.
However, I can see that in an age of no values, those who have values can appear to be dull and boring.
Third, Truth, Justice, and the Kryptonian Way.
Now, despite how cool it is to think this way, Superman is not necessarily a right winger or a fascist. I’m sorry but this argument is way past tired and often used by those who would rather stand by and do nothing instead of taking action when the situation warrants.
While Superman’s moral actions have changed with the times--from social crusader to ‘status quo’ cop--he has not changed in response to life in a post 9/11 world. Superman is not an advocate of torture or a supporter of neo-conservative imperialism. He still appeals to our better nature.
Standing up to those who would harm society, who would do wrong, is neither liberal or conservative; it is human. If you think that fighting those who would commit crime is wrong, then call me the next time you are robbed or attacked. I am as liberal as can be. But when I was being mugged a few years ago, if Superman had swooped down and caught the guys that ultimately got away, I would have been glad to see him. Once again, this is just what one should want in a wish fulfillment power fantasy character.
And, like many others on September 11th, I found myself wishing that Superman were here to save the day.
Which fits what Denny O’Neil thinks of Supes. That he and other superheroes are not only modern day myths but latter day tribal gods. That serve to protect the people. That answer prayer in hours of need and desperation.
That may make us sound weak, but it is a part of human history and human thought, and has been for a very long time.
Whether it is a Hero (in the original meaning of a divinely empowered being), a Messiah, a Golem, a Madhi, or a Buddha, human beings have been looking for and speaking about a “better man” for ages and ages. If it is okay to talk about such things on Sunday or whatever day of worship one celebrates, why is it not okay in comics?
Looking at it another way, Superman is a role model, someone to aspire to be and to inspire us to greater achievements. I would fathom a guess that Superman is an inspiration to those who push the limits of their bodies or take up arms to defend us all on the streets at home or abroad. I could be wrong. But only those with no aspirations (or who think they are too cool for role models of a higher standard) would feel threatened by Superman.
For far too long has the cult of mediocrity held sway in America. If The Incredibles takes the time to lampoon those who would force the different ones, the special ones into being average like the rest of us, then it is time for those mediocre values to be questioned or discarded.
Wanting to fit in, to have friends and loved ones, is a common human value. Wanting everyone to be the same, to be treated the same, is just wrongheaded. Geniuses do not grow on trees. They are not mass produced. They are special and different and rare. And they impact societies in many ways that are outside the norm or are strange to the majority.
Just like superheroes do.
Superman is not only a role model for what one can aspire to but is a role model of how to fit into a world that is strange to you when you are different or special.
Fourth, Power Given < Power Earned.
With the popularity of manga, it is also becoming in vogue to say that superheroes have it easy compared to shonen heroes. That superheroes are simply given power while the shonen heroes have to grow into power and have to develop it over time and through tests of strength.
Except, it is a false dichotomy.
Power, whether, innate or acquired, must be applied as well as developed. Otherwise, it is merely potential. And many manga heroes have the bulk of their power innately when we first meet them. Taking Bleach as an example, what attracts Rukia to Ichigo is the amount of potential spirit energy within him. Notice that: the potential power within Ichigo. Besides the ability to see ghosts, that power doesn’t manifest until Rukia kickstarts it.
All heroes train to develop their powers. The only problem with Superman on this front is we no longer see this. In years past, we saw Superman in his Fortress of Solitude lifting weights, running a track, and other exercises. Also Superman’s powers have grown over time, both in terms of the powers added by writers over the years and the backstory of the character.
Once again, Superman is a wish fulfillment power fantasy character. Or as Robert Heinlein put it, “an adolescent’s dream of the dragon-killing hero.”
What difference does it make if Superman has his powers instantly or grows them? The values espoused by shonen heroes are no longer a part of American culture. We are living in the era of instant gratification. So earning power looks nice, but it is the having of it that cooler. I would actually bet that to the readers of manga the struggles are not as interesting as the powers themselves are. Just as it is with superheroes. The real difference is more simply generational (“Eww, you read superheroes”; “those damn kids are reading that manga crap again!”) than it is a problem with superheroes in general or Superman in particular.
Despite the popularity of shonen manga and its core value of power earned, I see too many kids’ faces light up when shown Superman.
To kids, power is power. How it manifests is not their concern. It is only the concern of adults who overthink everything.
Fifth, Batman > Superman
In talking about two of the Big Three, one finds himself comparing apples and oranges in addition to speaking about two sides of the same coin.
Is Batman a better hero than Superman because he has earned his cape? Because he witnessed the death of his parent directly versus learning about the death of his world in retrospect? Because he has learned and spent and struggled to become a superhero instead of merely absorbing enough sunlight?
There is no easy answer to this.
While Superman has been many powers, he is a child of the soil, raised by farmers and sharing their values; Batman is a childe of wealth--the greatest power in the world, the ability to buy whatever one wants or needs.
Where Batman is dark, Superman is light.
And in the end, both are wish fulfillment power fantasy figures.
Batman takes the anger of a wronged child and, through the power of wealth left him (but not earned by him), turns it into the power to affect his environment. The same as Superman. In the real world, children of wealth full our TV screens with their antics. None of which show them taking action to mete out justice.
And what is upholding justice if not upholding the status quo?
Ever since the mid 1980s, showing just how different Superman and Batman are is a popular game. One that begins from a false premise. The two are heroes, fighting to make their respective and collective worlds better places. The tools and tactics may be different but the end results are the same.
Batman and Superman, along with Wonder Woman, balance each other. To compare them to each other is impossible. They do not exist with each other.
Finally, The Fix.
Obviously, I don’t agree with Mr. Burch that there is anything seriously wrong with Superman as a character. He performs as he was designed to, as a wish fulfillment power fantasy character.
This does not mean I don’t think his adventures couldn’t be handled better.
Superman, like any other good character, needs challenges worthy of him. Without worthy challenges, he won’t be tested. That he will fail the tests is not the question; that he could fail the tests is.
Such as tests of his morals. Could he let one person die to save millions? What if that person were close to him? What if that person would do a greater good in the future?
And tests of his mind. Where he has to think of solutions and not simply hit everything with his fists or blasting everything with his heat vision.
Superman’s writers and editors have to keep coming up with innovative ways for him to use his powers. Or even have adventures without his powers, like in the 1960s. Just to show that it isn’t the powers that make the Superman.
In times past, Superman was a scientist and a martial artist and a painter and many other things. As the original Nightwing, Superman did everything Batman does just as well. Those times could exist again with a little effort.
Again, one cannot mistake the limitations of the editors or the writers or even the corporate mandates as limitations of the character of Superman.
He is limitless.
Which fits a character called by his corporate masters The World’s Most Beloved Superhero.
Is this hype or is it fact? Who knows?
I know the naysayers out there will point to many other characters and concepts that are more popular in the moment. Like Naruto or Dragonball Z.
And they may be right.
But they are more likely not.
For without Superman to have led the way, who is to say that these modern wish fulfillment power fantasy heroes would exist. Or exist as they do.
And we need these characters.
I mean, do we read or watch TV and movies to watch protagonists fail and suffer, in order to feel better about our lives? Or do we read, etc., to see heroes succeed in the end, as a way to uplift ourselves and to see better versions of ourselves? To learn to rise above it all and to achieve our goals?
Superman always has been and always will be about possibilities and hope. That is something no corporation can take away.
Superman is the perfect hero for his time and his time is not quite over yet.
And that doesn’t suck at all.
Well, looking around, I’m sure some of you are surprised by what you’re seeing.
I mean, the actual focus on a single topic and one major section.
Well, in thinking about my approach to this column, I had to accept that my brilliant idea of making this a magazine within a magazine was stupid. Or wasn’t working. CWR is a web based entity. We grow in part by being linked to by various and sundry people. Quitely frankly, I wasn’t getting any link love in the last few months.
So, with some reluctance, I’ve switched back to my original format.
But I haven’t given up on writing about multiple topics.
Announcing the Papa Doc Abraxas’ Omnium Gatherum blog. In the coming weeks, I will start blogging there consistently. Just like everybody else. Hopefully that will fill my need to talk endlessly about all kinds of things.
Also, I’ve launched a My Space page. If you readers are on MySpace, drop by, rag on me, and send me a friend request.
Now, as I am very, very late with this column, I will bid you all a fond farewell until next time.
Be good out there.
Copyright 2006- 2010 Marc Mason/Comics Waiting Room. All rights reserved