Friday, January 06, 2006

Man of Steel

Just because I find Superman to be - as a rule - a spectacularly uninteresting character, it does not follow that I haven't read a few Superman stories. I've read many, in fact, probably more than I'd readily admit.

My favorite Superman is the Superman of 1986, the Superman we first met in John Byrne's Man of Steel miniseries. Of course, for many purists and even some casual fans, the post-Crisis Superman was heresy. There were so many changes - many of which were conceded as necessary but a few of which were ill-advised - that it was inevitable there would be a backlash. Sure enough, despite the "new" Superman's utility, the "old guard" mentality has spent the last twenty years restoring Superman to what he was before the Crisis. I refer to the "old guard" as less an actual conglomeration of individuals and more a pernicious mindset spread across dozens of creators and editors and thousands of fans. For people who grew up with the Golden or Silver or Bronze Age Superman, the new guy, even if not appreciably different from the old guy, must have been a bitter pill to swallow. People have odd sentimental attachments to these colorful super-characters - I'll be the first to admit it. Superman in particular exerts an impossibly strong grip on the imaginations of those who are so inclined.

(Of course it goes without saying that if you don't have any attachment to a particular character you can be fairly cold-blooded. Anyone who reads this blog should recall my crusade against Batman and my recurring favorable references to Quasar and the New Universe. I am the last person to cast aspersions on another man's peculiar tastes.)

I didn't grow up with the Man of Steel Superman, but he's my favorite. Certainly, Byrne and his cohorts made a few missteps in their methodical reconstruction of the mythos. Before the Crisis, Braniac was probably the most visually impressive and menacing villain in the Superman mythos - he's never really recovered from his unsuccessful "revamp". Similarly, Mr. Mxyzptlk was turned into a cackling sadist - but he was eventually rehabilitated, thanks primarily to Louise Simonson and John Bogdanove, who utilized the character to excellent effect during their tenure on Man of Steel.

But for the most part, the changes were good and they made for marked improvements. Yeah, the whole Superboy thing took the sails out of the Legion of Super Heroes, necessitating years' worth of complicated stories dedicated simply to explaining how pre-Crisis continuity could be maintained in a post-Crisis world. Even Byrne has - I believe, although I may be mistaken - voiced some regret over the deletion of Superboy from the mythos. Well, I think that Superboy was a stupid idea to begin with, and the stories were better off without him.

It's a commonly accepted fact that the pre-Crisis Superman was an asshole. There are entire websites devoted simply to explaining this fact. So many of Superman's adventures for so many years basically revolved around him tricking his friends, the world or both that it's hard not to see him as something of a sadist on occasion. But part of this disconnect, I believe, evolved from the way the character evolved. The pre-Crisis Superman, as had been established over the course of many years, knew his Kryptonian origins from the very beginning, remembered his childhood on Krypton, and identified himself as an alien living amongst humans. So of course it goes without saying that he regarded the humans around him with some degree of disconnect. Empathy was a strong motivator for Superman, but so was condescension - put the two together and you've got a pretty obnoxious combination. Although I am certain the creators at the time didn't put a lot of thought into these motivations, it came to seem as if he was something of an boor. No fucking wonder Lex Luthor wanted to wipe that smug look of his face - you probably would too.

Post-Crisis, Superman became much more identifiably human, and I think the development made for a stronger character. The fact that Superman regards himself as a human who just happened to inherit an intergalactic legacy, as opposed to an omnipotent alien who pretends to be human for shits and giggles, makes for a far more interesting character - certainly, it goes a long way towards injecting pathos into an otherwise stolid figure. The fact that he didn't grow up Super but came into his powers later in life added to the appeal by ensuring that he had a firm recognition of human weakness and limitations - so, no Superboy. Sure enough, almost every Superman story adapted into other media since 1986 -- the cartoon, the Lois & Clark series, even Smallville (although I haven't seen enough of the latter to comment) -- has implemented many of the ideas first seen in Byrne's revamp, in particular the newer "human-perspective" outlook. The famous comment about there being two Supermen - the licensed, publicly-known Superman and the actual character in the books - has proven to be surprisingly inaccurate when examining the character's life in other media.

But again, the old ideas are slowly returning, regardless of whether or not they should. The idea of Luthor and Clark Kent being friends in Smallville is one of the stupidest ideas in comics history, and I the fact that it's been folded back into continuity is just silly. Reed Richards and Dr. Doom have a reason for knowing each other, whereas Luthor and Kent being childhood pals is just too pat. Might as well have Bruce Wayne stop by and sit a spell while you're at it - but I'm sure they've done that, or will do that at some point.

The Superman introduced in Man of Steel was powerful but not the most powerful. The last decade has seen his powers visibly ramping-up, subtly returning to pre-Crisis levels through a process of subliminal inflation on the part of creators who don't want to portray Superman as anything less than a God-like force of nature. Used to be that Darkseid could wallop Superman with one punch - it made sense that such a badass would be more powerful than Superman - otherwise, what was the point of conflict in the first place, if Superman was stronger than even the mightiest intergalactic warlord? Now Superman makes a regular habit of beating Darkseid like a red-headed stepchild. Part of the fun of the post-Crisis Superman was that he wasn't omnipotent, but enough stories have portrayed him as powerful enough that it just doesn't matter anymore.

Now we've got kryptonite everywhere - whereas one of the smart things Byrne did was establish that kryptonite was so extremely rare you would never again see small-time hoods chucking pieces at Superman while rubbing a bank. There was the recognition that it was a powerful enough plot device that it had to be used as sparingly as possible. The multiple colors are even back, to judge from flipping through recent titles. Maybe this is an element that'll be swept under the rug with the new Crisis - I guess we'll see.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that the character should have stayed static since 1986. But for all you can say about Byrne, he did a pretty good job of building a fine framework in which a character who had pretty much been exhausted of all interest could have some fun stories again. It wasn't perfect - the Mxyzptlk and Brainiac examples spring to mind, as does the regrettable story with Superman and Big Barda filming a porno movie - but it was pretty good. And sure enough, there were people who have insisted all along that this Superman was not their Superman, and who have furthermore taken umbrage at every subsequent development. Well, I don't read any of the ongoing Superman titles, but judging from those Superman books I have read I can testify to the fact that Superman is an incredibly difficult character to write well. Byrne's ideas made it easier to tell interesting stories by defining a new set of boundaries for the character.

Boundaries are necessary. Boundaries define limitations, and if you don't give a character limitations, there are very few interesting ways to create conflict. Besides, how else do superheroes prove their heroism than by surpassing their limitations? Many of those stories from the pre-Crisis era that succeeded did so by placing Superman on an existential level removed from the actual process of physical struggle - "Superman Red and Superman Blue", "Must There Be A Superman?". But you can't turn Action Comics into Keirkegaard Comics, so you have to find a way to create conflict, which Byrne did by tweaking a few aspects of the mythos while still keeping the character's iconic elements essentially intact. By restoring so much of the pre-Crisis status quo, the current creators have gone to great lengths to restore so many of the attributes that made the pre-Crisis character so damned boring. Considering the character's history of inconsistent and wavering popularity, they return to unsuccessful modes at their own peril.

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