Friday, June 27, 2008

Seventy years of a neverending battle.

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I'd be remiss if I let June slip past without acknowledging the 70th anniversary of one of the world's most iconic characters, Superman.

In June of 1938 the Man of Steel entered the public consciousness and has remained firmly lodged there ever since. When you see a picture of a little boy with a towel tied around his neck, chest out, and fists planted firmly on his hips, you know instantly who he's pretending to be. This even if there's not a trace of the hero's red and blue colors to be seen on him.

Over the years, Superman has been portrayed often as a genial lunk, or, more recently, as a godlike being with a Kansas farmboy's heart. For the longest stretch of time he was simply the man who could do anything, from time travel to actually warping reality with the power of his "super-mind". The stories that I've read from this period, by the way, are particularly dull. How do you physically challenge someone who can push the Earth out of its orbit? How do you outwit someone who can memorize the entire Harvard Law Curriculum in a single afternoon? These were both actual plot elements in the Superman stories I read as a kid. I imagine DC's writers puling their hair out trying to come up with the next month's story. More recent efforts have stepped back from that sort of "Super-Superman" storytelling, fortunately.

But even the slightly scaled-back version of Superman extant today is miles past the abilities of the 1938 version, and philosophically, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's original creation was very different from the guy to whom his contemporaries sometimes refer as "the big blue Boy Scout".

1938 was the very depths of the Great Depression, and Superman could easily be interpreted as an avatar of The New Deal. In addition to the requisite mad scientists (including Lex Luthor with a thatch of red hair on his head) and gangsters that normally constituted the forces of evil in comics and pulps, Superman also came to grips with the likes of callous industrialists, Ponzi scheme con artists, and corrupt politicians. Siegel and Shuster found fodder for stories in issues like prison reform and mine safety, always casting Superman as a crusader for "the little guy", often in danger of being crushed by the system.

Superman lost his political edge during World War II when, understandably, there were bigger fish to fry. The fact that he never got it back once the war was over has been partly attributed to the fact of a changing political climate, combined with DC's efforts to cast themselves as the "safe" comic company for kids. Dr. Frederic Wertham had launched a jeremiad against comics in general, with particular focus on competing publisher EC's lurid horror titles like Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, and other fare aimed at older audiences. Thus Superman went from being a New Deal Democrat to an apolitical guardian of the status quo.

With that change came the increase in power I had mentioned earlier. Superman went from being "able to leap 1/8th of a mile" to flying at supersonic speeds, and a durability to the degree of "nothing less than a bursting shell" being able to break his skin to survival in the hard vacuum of space and taking a sauna in the heart of the sun.

As his abilities went over the top, writers cranked out an increasingly diverse rogues' gallery for Superman to contend with: The city-shrinking android Brainiac, an opposite number in the form of Bizarro (soon to be joined by a planet of Bizarros, all married to Bizarro Lois Lanes), one-noters like the Toyman and the Prankster, and, if that weren't enough, various mutations among Superman's supporting cast. Jimmy Olsen alone became a werewolf, a Bizarro of himself, and even started his own superheroic career as Elastic Lad, where he sported stretching powers akin to Plastic Man. And let's not forget the ever-expanding cast from Krypton: Supergirl, any number of villains incarcerated in the Phantom Zone, and the menagerie of Krypto the Superdog, Streaky the Supercat, Beppo the Supermonkey, and Comet the Superhorse (I am not making any of this up).

Time marches on, though, and before long it was becoming clear that Superman was becoming passe'. He was viewed as camp, a subject of parody in a world growing more cynical. In the 1970's, his only presence outside of the comics was on the Saturday morning cartoon show Super Friends, starring a very much watered-down Justice League of America. They couldn't even throw a punch for fear of upsetting parents' groups, for God's sake.

After a long career of saving the world, things had reached the point where something would have to save Superman. In 1978, "something" turned out to be a father-son producer duo named Alex and Ilya Salkind, who retained Richard Donner as a director and an unknown actor named Christopher Reeve to bring us Superman: The Movie. It was a pitch-perfect film that gave the Superman story both a badly-needed shot in the arm, and a dose of respect not often in coming from even his own company.

Eight years later, DC underwent a massive housecleaning of its continuity, updating the characters that worked, and rethinking the ones that didn't. Superman took his turn with writer/artist John Byrne's limited series The Man of Steel, which presented Superman as more of a human being and scaled down his powers to a more believable degree (for comics). Byrne's work was to become the baseline for the following decades of publication, where the character was allowed to even develop somewhat and - unthinkable in the early days - finally marry Lois Lane.

Even with all of the ups and downs, Superman has been continuously published for seventy years this month. Seventy years, and every month a new adventure for the character. Hopefully, he'll be around for my kids, and their kids after them.

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