Sunday 1 March 2015

Stupor Man

In a previous post I traced my journey towards appreciating the super-hero Captain America, so I thought I'd explain the reverse route, of how I came to really dislike Superman. The fat, hairy slob even gets a bit of a kicking in my first book, but I figure he can take it.

I think, for a lot of children, there's a predisposition to like Superman; he's friendly, wears bright primary colours, has instant brand recognition and is ubiquitous. Yes, he's just like Ronald McDonald. However, from a writer's point of view, Superman is to me an awful character. If you think that's harsh, even DC Comics have killed him off numerous times.

The problem I have with the Man of Steel is that he's just too powerful. It's not entirely his fault - being the first comic book super-hero, his creators threw the kitchen sink at him. Super speed, super strength, super breath, flight, heat-vision, x-ray eyes. . . yawn. The challenge as a writer is that there is nothing to truly test him so you get ridiculous villains and equally silly plots. In short, he's dull.

To overcome the problem of his godlike powers, some bright spark came up with the idea of Kryptonite, a substance which renders Superman powerless in different ways. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before every minor criminal had a chunk of this exceedingly rare rock in hand. And, as if this wasn't daft enough, it came in a variety of colours, including pink Kryptonite which makes Superman, ahem, less masculine.

As if all this wasn't bad enough, Superman also had Super Pets. I knew of Krypto the Superdog, but Super Cat, Super Monkey and Super Horse were new ones for me.

Certainly, there's mileage in a story about an alien with godlike powers which ends up on earth but I struggle with Superman being for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from humans, yet able to travel faster than light (which you'd think would end most fights before they began) and willing to let atrocities happen without intervening. If you followed things through to their logical conclusion, this all-powerful being would rule the planet and subjugate humankind for our own benefit.

A recent series explored the possibility of Superman's spacecraft landing in Soviet Russia instead of the US and him growing up as a Russian icon. How about a storyline in which a black Superman lands in the American South during slavery? 

Yes, I know it's foolish of me to debate the 'real-life' implications of a cartoon character but what this all comes back to is relatability and vulnerability. As humans, we are all flawed and our tragedy is to stand in our own poop while looking up at the stars in wonder. Every great MG hero has failings - Harry Potter is impulsive; Lyra Belacqua is stubborn; Kizzy Lovell is prickly - but these flaws make them recognisably human and readers can see the consequences and learn from them.

Unfortunately, for me, Superman's lack of any weakness - moral, physical or mental - makes him as appealing as a lump of rock. 

Even the ancient Greeks knew that we like our gods to be as vain, petty and foolish as we are. 

And I haven't even mentioned the costume!


  1. Not sure I agree with you on this Jason. Superman's a fascinating figure - he was created as a working class hero during the depression, fighting crooked government officials, slum landlords and anyone who made the life of struggling Americans a misery. His godlike powers have always played heavy on him - there's much more angst in these books than you might imagine. He wants to be like us but invariably when he gets to close, tragedy isn't far away. As for moral weaknesses - they're played for all their worth in his often fractious dealings with Batman, who sees him as a smug stooge for the Man. I'm sure someone has written a fascinating PhD about Superman as the embodiment of America's schizophrenic self love / loathing. Grant Morrison (who has written a black Superman story) writes brilliantly about all this in his essential book Supergods.
    As for that costume - I'd wear one, if only I could pull it off!

  2. Hurrah! I was hoping someone would defend the big fella. Admittedly, you can take any comic book character and poke fun at some of the story lines, the older ones especially. Everyone has their own takes and finds their own access points to a character - I don't take away anyone's right to love a character. It's just that I haven't found my way in for Kal-El yet. There's still time and hope. It's my loss, no-one else's.

    Incidentally, as you probably know, Supes started out with a lot less powers but they got ramped up later on as his popularity grew. John Byrne tried to scale him back but again this didn't last. Once you have an invulnerable character with super intelligence and faster-than-light speed, I don't see how you can provide him with a serious threat.

    I did like Brian Singer's take on the Messianic parallels, though...

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