Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Death of Superman

It has oft been said that if you have one truly original concept within your lifetime, you will be a rich man.
Since then political correctness has swept Western civilisation - it's altruistic message usually twisted beyond recognition by its supporters - and original idea's have been replaced by the repackaging of old ideas and special edition DVD re-releases.
But, in the pre-WW2 days of the late thirties, two Jewish immigrants by the name of Jerry Seigal and Joe Schuster had an inspirational creation: Superman; and with it the idea of superheroes was born.
An entire genre of storytelling grew from this concept, almost encompassing an entire medium as its popularity wave spread its influence across the decades. Arguably as recognisable world-wide as Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola and Super Mario (full name: Mario Mario), capturing the imagination of children and adults all over the planet with his simple message that good must, and will triumph over evil
No-one could have foreseen the success that an essentially throwaway character could have had, especially not from the pages of the funny-books, after all, aren't they for kids? He is essentially just a science-fiction creation with underpants on the outside isn't he? Surely if his popularity across 8 decades and his viability as a commercial property could have been predicted, then Seigal and Schuster would have made sure to retain the intellectual rights to the property? But alas, this was not the case.
At best, Superman was a metaphor for Jewish settlers (the strange beings from another land) who wanted more than anyone else for the promise of the American dream to hold true. After years of facing anti-Semitism, the prospect of living free and not being persecuted for your beliefs must have been a charming allure to migrate to the Land of the Free (TM), especially considering how things were heating up in Europe (Note to God: Poland - bad place to put a country). Yes, Truth, Justice and the American Way - what a tag-line (how many other countries have a tag-line?), and what an icon to uphold those beliefs.

But something strange is happening to our icons, they don't have the power they once had.

Mickey Mouse looks different. The Fonz grew old. Tom and Jerry gained the ability to speak. Somewhere along the way, Snoopy became more important than Charlie Brown.

And Superman died.

How do you kill off Superman?

Behind the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iraqi War, it was one of the biggest events I saw growing up. Now I wasn't a comic-book reader at the time, and only had a brief understanding of who the character was and what he could do - but I knew what he meant intrinsically, even if only on a subconscious level, and I knew that Superman wasn't supposed to die.
Now you can make an argument about how we are all mortal and it teaches kids about the facts of life, but damnit, you already took Aslam from us and if you really want to teach kids about life and death buy them a cat and move near to a busy road.
You don't just kill Superman.
But they did, and to be fair, it was a big event. Few comic stories make the national news but this one did, comic shops had queues around the block and many retailers still to this day cite that as their fondest memory as a store-owner. The issue (Superman #75) sold literally millions of copies.
The Last Son of Krypton - in the heart of his adopted city of Metropolis - died, mere feet away from the Daily Planet offices and his loved one he had fought so hard to protect: Lois; Perry and Jimmy. His cape billowed in the wind in a final gesture of nobility and defiance. This strange visitor from another planet, who had lived as an inspiration to all and embraced the American way, died saving others, and proved himself to be as human as any of us.

Fast-forward six months, he is fine. Alive and well.

How do you top that? What does the character have left in him? Where do you go from there? Long hair? New costume? Slightly bigger "S"? Slightly smaller "S"?
As a Superman fan and reader, there have been very few stories that have inspired me in the last 10 years. A lot of damage was done to the character and, I would argue, to the comic industry as a whole. Comic readers are used to characters coming back from the dead, Joker, Magneto, Jean Grey, Mr Immortal, it's part of the industry we all know and accept.
But Superman is an icon, and by bringing him back, the non-comic reading world felt cheated, lied to even. The next time a comic story hit's the news do you think the public will listen as closely? Do you think the news stations will react to the press release at all?

Next year sees the release of a new Superman film for a new generation, so new in fact that the guy playing Supes - Brandon Routh - is younger than me, making me feel bloody old. It's a new lease of life for a previously iconic character and only time will tell if the more blasé, modern day sceptical audience will be as transfixed as previous audiences, especially with the watering down of the character by shows like "Lois and Clarke" and "Smallville". After all, you can see people flying in movies and video games all the time these days, who can't fly. And with most of the world turned anti-American (or at least anti-Bush), what's so good about Truth, Justice and the American Way?

The original Richard Donner Superman movies were heralded by the tag-line, "You Will Believe a Man Can Fly". But Superman is about more than flying. He is about honour, morality, equality. He represents no one race or religion and brings a message of peace and understanding. The concept is worth more than any amount of capitalistic profiteering.
Iconic figureheads tend to outgrow the limitations and intentions imparted by their creators.
Maybe Superman isn't about believing that one man can fly, but about believing that maybe we all can.

-Sid Beckett. Bitter, but strangely optimistic.


Matt Boyce! said...

you sir are a genius,

Pete said...

And on that note, cue the John Williams score.