Superhero Accessories:

Part Two: Truth, Justice, All That Stuff

…continued from here.

DC have long had a problem fitting Superman into the grimmer world the DC Universe has become now its readership mostly consists of adults. It’s clear that senior editors feel the ‘big blue Boy Scout’ approach is now hopelessly outdated, but understand that a darker approach just doesn’t suit the character. Early in his career, Alan Moore had tackled the issue of a ‘realistic Superman’ with his revamp of Marvelman, which featured a Superman-like character who killed his arch nemesis, then his turned-to-evil sidekick, before taking over the world and overturning the military, political, and economic systems in successive panels. Even if DC had wanted it to be, this couldn’t be a template for Superman himself, who is locked in a shared universe with dozens of other running titles, and so prevented from making any lasting global changes. Moore went on to write official Superman stories, but all three (“For the Man Who Has Everything”, “The Jungle Line”, and “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”) were riffs on the extended mythos of the Silver Age version of the character. When he was put at the helm of Supreme, a character only a few years old and designed as a ‘grim’ Superman, Moore reversed its course and made the title into an excuse to homage the Silver Age. Where other superhero revamps of the time went for a ‘back to basics’ approach, scraping away old continuity like barnacles, Moore cheerfully plastered Supreme with coats of super-pets, goofy backstory, and parallel universes.

Ten years later, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman showed a way to square that circle. Rather than starting from scratch or reveling in accumulated absurdities, Morrison recreated the spirit of the Silver Age, but projected it forward by creating new supporting cast members, returning Superman to his roots as a character from folklore. Quitely’s art ensured it looked like a product of the twenty-first century, rather than a pastiche of comics from the 1950s. While All Star Superman outsold the regular Superman books, it’s proved a harder formula to replicate or boil down than Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s late-‘80s take on Batman. The trailer for The Man of Steel quoted from All Star Superman, and Morrison was hired to write Action Comics for the New 52 relaunch, but the adult Superman in both was a more dour and troubled figure than the one in All Star Superman.

In the Silver Age, Superman had an acute awareness that his great power could literally destroy the world if he made the wrong decision or was careless for the merest moment. His mission was to maintain and restore the status quo – literally righting wrongs. The writers of Superman always understood what Moore made explicit in Marvelman and Watchmen: the mere public knowledge that a being like Marvelman or Dr Manhattan existed would change the world. Watchmen was heavily based on a Challengers of the Unknown pitch Moore and Gibbons presented to DC, an exploration of the history of the DC Universe that made it clear the influence Superman’s arrival had on global politics. A world with Superman in it would not look like our world except with a few superheroes in it – the existence of aliens, gods, and artificial life would radically transform us. But the appeal of Superman was not a few drawings of him performing feats of strength. Alan Moore once told an interviewer:

‘I got my morals more from Superman than I ever did from my teachers and peers. Because Superman wasn’t real — he was incorruptible. You were seeing morals in their pure form. You don’t see Superman secretly going out behind the back and lying and killing, which, of course, most real-life heroes tend to be doing.’ [i]

The rules the Silver Age Superman followed were simple ones: don’t lie, cheat, steal, or hurt people, stop people who pick on other people, be generous with help and praise, and be a good friend. The 1978 movie reinvented Lois Lane as a rather more cynical character whose function was to point out how corny those rules seemed to a grown up audience … while showing her being won around to Clark’s view of the world. It was a smart way to pill the sugar. But the revolutionary positions of the previous generation become conservative ones in the next. The 1930s Lois Lane no longer looks like a feminist firebrand, she seems almost borderline psychotic. Take this exercise in word association:

… at the same time, Lois Lane was once able to headline one of the bestselling comics on the market (there was never a month where Wonder Woman outsold her). She got top billing in the 1990s series Lois and Clark. She was central to All Star Superman. Despite this, there’s evidence that the powers-that-be at DC feel she’s an outdated legacy character, a little like Streaky the Super-Cat. In the New 52, her marriage to Clark has been retconned away, and she’s been dumped by Superman in favour of Wonder Woman.

The changing role of Jonathan Kent is perhaps the most instructive. Clark’s adoptive father was originally the man who instilled Superman with his moral code. When Superman was created, the belief that farmers were a wellspring of honesty and decent values was pretty much taken as read. Clark took those values with him to Metropolis, and the simplicity of the rules he followed made navigating the world surprisingly easy. Life on a small farm was probably never carefree, but it certainly isn’t now. Smallville found a neat way to make an ironic reversal – the Luthors come to Smallville from the city to develop their vast agribusiness. The underlying issue is that the idea ‘real American’ values are only to be found in the rural areas is certainly a polarising statement now, rather than one we can all agree with. The whole notion that there is a, in Sarah Palin’s phrase, ‘Real America’ carries with it racial and political overtones. As Elizabeth Sandifer puts it when discussing the movie The Man of Steel:

‘given that the American values of hardworking folks in rural Kansas are, not to oversimplify, responsible for almost everything wrong on the planet, I am not averse to this being interrogated a bit. The fact of the matter is that a Superman raised by hardworking farmers in Kansas who has fully adopted their values would, and we can state this as empirical fact based upon their voting patterns, be overwhelmingly likely to be a misogynistic, racist, religious fundamentalist who actively supports regressive politics that leave the poor to starve so that the rich can get just that little bit richer. Perhaps the Kents are one of those handful of progressives that exist in rural Kansas, but with counties that went 85% for Mitt Romney last year, well, you know. The Pa Kent of the film, however, embraces this problem. He instills no sense whatsoever in Superman that he has a responsibility to the world, or to anyone but himself. He teaches Superman to hide and suggests that maybe he should never surface or help people. He teaches selfishness and individualism.’ [ii]

The result is that Superman has lost his moral certainty, but not really replaced it with anything.

The television series Smallville accidentally created a new template for Superman. The series was based around a young Clark Kent discovering his destiny … but it ran for far longer than anyone expected, ten seasons for a total of 218 episodes, during which time it relocated to Metropolis (‘Smallville’, by the end, was Lois Lane’s nickname for the lead character, not where most of the stories were set), and the actor playing Clark, Tom Welling, was and looked 34 (Clark was meant to be around ten years younger). It meant that we saw a decade of Clark Kent unwilling and unprepared to be Superman. The Man of Steel uses basically the same story but Clark takes even longer, becoming Superman when he is 33.

Across the board, the current mainstream Superman is defined by his inaction. One of the more startling examples comes from Superman: Earth One, where it’s Jimmy Olsen who makes a moral stand and shows courage in the face of an alien murderer. Clark stands impotently to the side, unwilling to show himself.

We’ve returned to Alan Moore’s point. The problem with superheroes more generally is that characters like Superman and Captain America were not created for modern audiences, that they are holdovers from a different time, and as such just aren’t fit for the purpose of being modern day heroes. They’re from an era when this …

… counted as an entirely unambiguous, unproblematic example of good versus evil. We’ve moved on, and we have to face the possibility that Superman’s just not the right tool for the job of discussing what’s wrong with the world and how we might fix it.

Alan Moore is simply stating a fact when he says that today’s popular superheroes were not created for today’s audiences. Virtually all the mainstay DC heroes were created around 75 years ago, Marvel’s are 50 years old. The DC characters we’d think of as ‘newer’, like Lobo, Nightwing, and John Constantine are pushing thirty. Even Image and Dark Horse’s are over 20 years old at this point. You can see the glass half-full or half-empty here: at one level, it’s impressive that characters like Batman have endured. And this isn’t something unique to comics: Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Doctor Who were all created for previous generations. We’re also seeing confirmation bias at play: these are the characters who survived, and plenty of their contemporaries who were once household names have all but vanished.

The obvious response to Moore is to say that the Superman and Batman adults enjoy today have evolved from the ones children read about in the 1930s. Characters survive by having a strong central concept, but one that is flexible enough that different emphasis can be placed on different aspects of that concept, according to current tastes. In Batman Unmasked, Will Brooker has Batman’s ‘essential formula’ as:

‘Batman is Bruce Wayne, a millionaire who dresses in a bat-costume and fights crime. He has no special powers but is very fit and strong, and very intelligent. He lives in Gotham City. He fights villains like the Joker. He fights crime because his parents were killed when he was young. He is often helped by his sidekick, Robin.’ [iii]

As Brooker notes, over the decades there are examples of stories and runs of stories where one or more of these is either not present or downplayed to the point they may as well not be. Others are important features but not essential to his character – Brooker suggests the Batmobile and utility belt. Batman Unmasked was published in 2001, and perhaps a 2014 list would find room to mention Alfred – recent revamps like the Christopher Nolan films, the Arkham videogames, the Earth One graphic novel and Beware the Batman have made Alfred a far more central figure and an active mentor, rather than merely someone who chides Master Bruce for letting his soup go cold.

By adjusting the exact balance of elements, you can make the same character appeal to a new audience, even a new generation. There’s almost certainly no better example than Batman, who can encompass everything from camp hijinks around a surfing competition to police procedural about a serial sex offender. A few years ago, both the Christopher Nolan movies and the Brave and the Bold cartoon series were the ‘current Batman’. In a world where old comics are collected into graphic novels, and old movies and TV shows are collected on DVD and Netflix, the notion of what’s ‘current’ becomes rather blurred anyway. With rights issues cleared up, DC are now starting to market the Adam West series, while also gearing up to make dark Superman / Batman team up movies. The Arkham series of videogames are hugely popular, set in a gloomy, rundown Gotham City, and one of the options is a jarringly ironic ‘skin’ for Batman in the style of the Adam West series:

We also face the issue that the audiences for something like Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, and Batman are vast and heterogeneous. What some audience members will love, others will despise, and many more may never even see. (Comparing sales figures, it’s almost statistically impossible that a majority of the people who bought the videogame Arkham City also bought a Batman comic that year.) Levels of audience loyalty, engagement, and existing knowledge vary wildly. And the audience is affected directly and indirectly by what they see in the news, the economy, the social climate, and so on. Attitudes change over time. Ultimately, the makers of Batman have to remain tuned to a complex, shifting ‘mood of the public’, and to make sure that, as far as possible, their stories are inflected towards the interests and tastes of the present day. There will inevitably be elements of trial and error, misfire and happy accident. Adapting things for the screen means that one piece of casting, good or bad, might change the whole direction of the series.

So change, even dramatic change, is possible, but it’s important to understand the corollary: as every superhero creator is working with a limited number of basic ingredients, that places limitations on the stories that can be told. While the issues raised in ‘The Man Who Bought America’ are more realistic, and are discussed and dramatised at some length, and while the story wrestles with what a character called ‘Captain America’ represents in the twenty-first century, and shows that far right politics exists in the modern USA but does not always go around dressed in an SS uniform with a giant red skull for a head, the genre still dictates that the story is resolved in exactly the same way it used to be in the kids’ comics of the 1940s. Here’s the resolution of the story:

As series change, feedback loops can be created. The subversive, ‘dark’ comics of the mid-1980s like Watchmen were, at one level at least, meant as ironic commentary on the notion that superheroes were ‘realistic’. Stories like The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and Arkham Asylum were deliberately placed outside continuity to distance themselves from the ‘mainstream’ Bat-titles, and were designed to make the point that Batman was extremely violent and possibly as insane as any of his opponents. These comics proved wildly more popular than the ‘regular’ Batman. The Tim Burton movies followed their lead. (The original Sam Hamm script tacked much more closely to the Englehart / Rogers run from the 1970s comics.) The outlying versions of Batman became the norm, with their innovations quickly showing up in the main titles – and by definition, once they were the rule, not the exception, the original subversive point being made was lost. For twenty-five years, now, the default-value Batman has been extremely violent, growly, and possibly insane.

I suggest that one of the ‘essential’ ingredients of Batman has become a particular problem. This is thanks to a convergence of real life events, an increasingly sophisticated audience and their demands for ‘more realistic’ stories, and the cumulative effect of some storytelling choices.

It’s the first defining characteristic Brooker identifies: Bruce Wayne is rich.

To be concluded…



[iii] Will Brooker, Batman Unmasked, Chapter 1 passim.

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Lance Parkin has written Doctor Who novels and non fiction, as well as writing or co-writing books on the works of Philip Pullman, Star Trek and Alias. His literary biography of Alan Moore, Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, is out now from Aurum Press.

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1 Comment

  1. Nick Ford says:

    That comment by Phllip is easily one of the most disgusting thingsI have read today.

    So let’s just generalize an entire state or region based on *voting patterns* (which don’t account for nearly everyone, obviously) that could in no way be interpreted differently

    Like is there some sort of 1:1 ratio between liking Romney and being an awful person?

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like conservatives *or* liberals but holy crap what an awful thing to say about a populace based on scant evidence that frankly isn’t very convincing.

    It is amazing to me what liberals can get away with under the guise of “progress” when it is really just awful classist nonsense.

    This is another article highlighting what I mean:

    Sorry to get on my political high horse but man did that piss me off.

    …Great article though! Looking forward to more, Lance! XD

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