“All right, class. That’s all I’ve got. First drafts are due on Monday. Any other questions?”
The class is ready to go, but I know there is still one more question out there, so I wait. Someone will ask it. They always ask.
“Dr. Carpenter? Could you … I mean … could you tell us … what exactly you want on this paper?”
And there it is. As a teacher, it’s my least favorite question. (Okay, technically my least favorite is “When will our papers be graded?” but this one runs a close second.) It’s not that I blame them for asking; I get it. It’s only natural to want a clear formula for writing a successful paper. Unfortunately, besides some basic fundamentals, there is no magic formula. So when I give my answer, I no longer talk to them as a “teacher.” Teachers prescribe things. Instead, I try to answer them as a “reader.”
“Yeah, that’s a good question … I dunno. I mean, I could tell you, I guess. I could describe in detail exactly what I think would make for a good paper, but if you then went out and wrote that, the results would be … disappointing. Because deep down, as a reader, I don’t know what I want. What I want is something I haven’t seen yet. That’s why what I want isn’t really important now. Instead, you—the writer—must figure out what your paper needs to be and then write that. You have to own it.”
Things usually get a little awkward at this point, but that’s just how it has to be. The truth is I really don’t know what I want when I sit down to read an essay. And I think that’s a good thing.
Same thing is true with reading a comic or watching a movie. I may know, generically, what I want to feel, but that’s a lot different from knowing specifically what I want. And that, too, is a good thing.
I should probably tell you now that this isn’t the column I planned to write this week. I was working on something about J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One, but on Friday I got distracted. That’s when the trailer for next year’s Superman/Batman movie “leaked” online. Now don’t worry—I’m not about to review the trailer. That’s not really my thing. But the initial reaction I saw from some fans online does bother me because it touches on something much larger than a negative reaction to a single movie.
I’m already on record as an admirer of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. I know that many of you aren’t, and that’s cool. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of that film that is valid—the movie’s certainly not perfect—so that’s not what troubles me. We all have different reactions to creative work, and contradictory reactions are often perfectly valid. Lots of people dislike Watchmen, Citizen Kane, Abbey Road, and Blood Meridian. That’s all perfectly fine. I may love each one of those things, but I’ll be the first to admit that each of them has problems.
But what has always troubled me about the reaction to Man of Steel—and frankly to a lot of comics and comics-related movies—are those who object due to a preconceived ideological stance. In this case, I’m talking about dismissing the film out of hand because it doesn’t match a narrowly-defined notion of who and what Superman has to be. Superman doesn’t have to be much of anything. You know why?
Because there is no Superman. In a sense, there never has been. There are only Supermans.
In Siegel and Shuster’s first version—a prose story published in a fanzine—“Super-Man” was a villain. By the time Action Comics #1 debuted in 1938, the Superman most of us were first introduced to was already in its third incarnation, and over the course of the next 75-plus years, we’ve seen endless variations. Sometimes he’s a sci-fi alien, sometimes he’s a farm boy, and sometimes he’s a big city reporter. He’s been a warrior, a pacifist, a patriot, an internationalist, a recluse, and a boyfriend. Sometimes he’s funny, sometimes he’s depressed; sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses. We’ve seen him move planetary bodies, but we’ve also seen him struggle to pick up a car. He’s been young, and he’s been old, and sometimes—as in Alan Moore’s Supreme and Mark Waid’s Irredeemable—he’s not even technically “Superman.”
This versatility isn’t exclusive to comic book characters either. Think about Hamlet. That character appears in one play by Shakespeare, but how many “Hamlets” are there, really? Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is far different from John Gielgud’s, just as David Tennant’s differs wildly from Kenneth Branagh’s. Which is valid? Any of them, so long as they are well executed.
The same is true with a character like Superman. Personally, my least favorite era of Superman is probably the Silver Age, but my favorite individual story is Morrison and Qutiely’s All Star Superman—a deliberate homage to those Silver Age stories. It makes me sad to think that at one time in my life I might have wholly rejected the Morrison story on ideological grounds because I was opposed to “Silver Age” Superman.
That’s why it bugs me to see so many fans prescribing what various comic book characters have to be and what the tone of their stories must be. It’s not that the fans are wrong to do so—everyone is free to like what they want—but I think it’s very limiting and a little sad.
All of which takes me back to that proverbial question my writing students always ask—what do you want? When I’m pressed, I usually opt to tell them a story.
Several years ago, someone told me that back in the ‘60s the editors at DC used to have imaginary casting sessions for their characters. The editors’ choice for the Joker was particularly inspired—Peter O’Toole. From the moment I heard that, I could only see the younger O’Toole from Becket as the Joker. He was tall, thin, theatrical, and funny, and he had a touch of madness in his eyes. By my time, he was too old for the part, but the idea of O’Toole’s Joker settled in my brain and crowded out everyone else from Jack Nicholson to Mark Hamill.
Then a funny thing happened. About seven years ago I sat in a dark theater and watched a slump-shouldered Australian with a bad makeup job and a nasally voice, feign a broad American accent while shambling across the screen, purporting to be the Joker. He was nothing like Peter O’Toole.
And he was brilliant.
Had O’Toole ever played the Joker, I don’t think he would’ve been as good as Heath Ledger. How could he? I had already seen O’Toole’s performance in my imagination. Had it become a reality, O’Toole would’ve either come up short of my prescribed ideal, or he would’ve given me exactly what I wanted. And that would’ve been disappointing. Because deep down, I don’t really know what I want. And I have a hunch that the rest of us don’t either. If we did, we’d be writing all of our own stories, making all of our own movies.
Can you imagine someone rejecting 2001: A Space Odyssey because it doesn’t have ray guns and everyone knows good science fiction is built on the three “R”s—ray guns, robots, and rocket ships? Or someone who dismisses all piano-based rock music because “real” rock music is based on the guitar?
Great art never satisfies all our preconceptions, nor does it reinforce what we already know. Great art startles us. It takes us places we never knew we wanted to go, makes us feel and think things we never thought we could.
For that reason, if I had a message for the creative community, it would be the same thing I try to instill in my writing students—don’t worry about what I want. It’s not about what we readers or viewers want. Instead, it’s about you figuring out what needs to be created and then doing it.
In other words—startle us.
 I’m still reluctant to call it Batman v Superman, because unless it involves a lawsuit, that “v” needs an “s.”