Larry Nevin Should Never Have Been Taken Seriously, or Why the Super Sons Matter

DC One Million and Batman Beyond along with many other examples suggest that the concept of legacy characters and superhero parenthood can work. Yes, this ages the characters, but we have been stuck in the Modern Age (of comics) too long. If we want to truly get to and define a new age of comics than we need to forget Larry Niven’s essay ‘Man Of Steel, Woman Of Kleenex,’ reboots, and the idea of static intellectual properties (hereafter known as IPs). Before discussing the Niven article, and how it still limits comics and legacy characters: such as the Super Sons (Damian Wayne/Al Ghul and Jonathan Samuel Kent), I need to quickly explain the latter two.

First off reboots, not retcons, have been too prevalent at DC and its competitors. Now while many will and can blame various stories, as well as creative and corporate decisions, the real problem is fear. Said fear is usually centered around profits falling and this leads to reboots and relaunches. These attempts have been shown to bring profits back up for a short time. However, this also means that several stories, such as Superman’s origin, have often been retold. While I will not disagree that origin stories can be fleshed out and/or have elements of them updated, there are problems with doing so. In the case of Superman (and certain others) the origin narratives worked best before social media/smartphones were everywhere. Case in point the Midwest of the United States of America is not what it used to be, and keeping an alien baby secret decreases with technological advances.

Therefore while characters can (and most likely will) have retcons and repeats of adventures, we need to have aging for those like Superman. Yes, people pay for the brands they know, and static IPs presumably allow for steadier sales than building new or spin-off brands, but metaphorical stones hold only so much metaphorical blood. Translated this means that the cash cows of the past need to be allowed to have either literal or figurative “offspring.” Thus, we need to have characters like the Super Sons.

“But wait!” You say “What does aging, money, fear, and fictional children have to do with forgetting the essay ‘Man Of Steel, Woman Of Kleenex?’” Well my answer in its simplest form is something I call the Anti-Far-Sight Formula (Think Grant Morrison’s version of the Anti-Life Equation from Final Crisis, or Yoda’s dark side speech about anger from Phantom Menace). It goes Complacency (Static IP) = Corporate Greed (Money/Profit) + Short Term Gains (Reboots/Relaunches) – Willingness to Be Original/Create Fresh Stories + Fear Of Failure (Fear of Loss of Profits/Customers/Jobs) < Long Term Goals/Gains. In plain English I am saying that fans want stories that matter and/or are fresh while the companies desire better profits. Yet new storylines based on untested IPs are potentially more expensive from the corporate perspective. Therefore fear usually wins out.

As for Larry Niven’s essay it was written with a sarcastic bent in a time where comics, and most of pop culture, was seen as disposable. For example in the 1960s, when the essay in question was written, the word “rainbow” was used as a basis for a few plots. Though much like the absurd idea of the original Batman (Bruce Wayne) and Robin (Dick Grayson) being gay this essay was taken seriously by many. Even those fans of Superman and/or comic books who have not read it have at least heard about it. Yet after carefully reading it I have found several reasons it can easily be debunked. They are as follows:

  1. Barry Allen and Wally West (original one) both have super-speed and yet they have been shown to have healthy children via the normal method of procreation.
  2. Skaar’s mere existence in the main Marvel universe points out the absurdity of applying logic to Superman having kids when by the same kind of logic the Hulk should be sterile. Also both Skaar and Mon-El’s ancestor from Superman Annual #14 disprove the bit in the essay about aliens not being able to reproduce with humans. Of course the existence of Ligers in our world also proves cross-breeding between species is possible.
  3. The essay does mention Gold Kryptonite being used to help Superman reproduce and how doing so would cost him his powers permanently. However, a writer could have easily solved this with a line like “The magic spell changes the Gold Kryptonite’s effectiveness to only be for 5 hours.” Also the effect of Gold Kryptonite was changed to a temporary loss of power in the 2000s which has rendered the point moot. Though speaking of magic some ally could just do a spell that could help during a pregnancy or just the process of conceiving (Nevin’s essay talks about super-speed ejaculations and various dangerous consequences.)
  4. As for super strength at various times Superman has been de-powered, such as 52 & Superman: The Wedding Album. There is also the fact that if Superman can walk on the ground without causing tremors, and not break door knobs without intent, then he can hold back with Lois. Not to mention that Superman #679 shows the beginning of a sexual encounter.
  5. Lastly, Superman, and practically, all comic characters are fictional! Meaning it doesn’t really matter what logic one applies to their reproductive systems.

Now you may be agreeing with me at this point yet wondering “Okay but where do the legacy characters fit in, and how do you keep profits up?” Well I propose each franchise first comes up with a multi-year plan for where the respective franchise is going. After those amount of years you say that so much time has passed in-universe, and then you continue to do this until you have a reasonable story for the former hero to die off/or retire. The mantle/title/power set is then passed on to the legacy character. (And yes a duplicate universe/timeline where the characters are essentially reboots of the icons can always be introduced.) While there are other possible methods this one ensures keeping current readers while developing fresh takes for any possible incoming or returning readers.

Some examples of how this can be done have been shown via Superman/Batman #80 and the event DC One Million (specifically Superman: The Man Of Tomorrow #1000000). The former suggesting a less dark future for Damian Wayne that Jonathan Kent/Superboy could easily be a part of. These and other future tales can be built to, or with, in order to provide fresh storylines.

In conclusion I feel we need hope versus bleakness from our escapism. So if life as we live it is going to end due to current long standing problems (ex. climate change), or by political idiocy, then shouldn’t we get more hopeful imagery in our entertainment? Thus, though fictional, the Super Sons, and other legacy characters, represent the classic hope of children being the future.

Works Cited:

[Augustyn, Brian, Mark Waid (w), Paul Pelletier (p), Vince Russell (i).] “Undertow (Chain Lightning Chapter 4).” Flash #148 (May 1999) DC Comics [DC Comics].

[Curt Swan (p), Stan Kaye (i).] “Superman’s New Power!.” Superman #125 (Nov. 1958) National Comics Publications, Inc. [Superman DC National Comics]: Cover.

[Donner, Richard, Geoff Johns (w), Adam Kubert (a).] “Last Son Conclusion.” Action Comics Annual #11 (July 2008) DC Comics [DC Comics].

[Johns, Geoff, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid (w), Keith Giffen, Chris Batista (p), and Jack Jadson, Jimmy Palmiotti (i).] “Stop The Press.” 52 #10 (Sept. 2006) DC Comics [DC Comics].

[Jurgens, Dan, Karl Kesel, David Michelinie, Louise Simonson, et al. (w), John Byrne, Kerry Gammill, Stuart Immonen, Gil Kane, et al. (p), and Brett Breeding Murphy Anderson, Terry Austin, Bob McLeod, et al. (i).] “The Wedding Album.” Superman: The Wedding Album #1 (Dec. 1996) DC Comics [DC Comics].

“Man of Steel, Woman Of Kleenex by Larry Nevin – digital reprint (with permission) from All the Myriad Ways 1971 by Larry Nevin.” Steve Walstra, 1 Dec. 1994, www.rawbw.com/~svw/superman.html#Reprinted. Accessed 26 Sept. 2017.

[Moldoff, Sheldon (a).] “The Rainbow Batman!.” Detective Comics #241 (March 1957) National Comics Publications, Inc. [Superman DC National Comics]: Cover.

Morrison, Grant (w), J. G. Jones, Carlos Pacheco (p), and J.G. Jones, Jesus Merino (i).] “Darkseid Says.”

Final Crisis #4 (Nov. 2008) DC Comics [DC Comics].

[Morrison, Grant (w), Val Semeiks (p), and Prentis Rollins (i).] “Riders on the Storm.” DC One Million #1 (Nov. 1998) DC Comics [DC Comics].

[Pak, Greg (w), Ron Carney (a).] “Cradle Of Fire.” Skaar: Son Of Hulk #1 (Aug. 2008) DC Comics [DC Comics].

“Rebirth, Part 1.” Batman Beyond. WB, KPLR, Saint Louis, 10 Jan. 1999.

[Roberson, Chris (w), Jesus Merino (a).] “Worlds’ Finest, Part Two.” Superman/Batman #80 (March 2011) DC Comics [DC Comics].

[Robinson, James (w) Javier Pina (a).] “The History Lesson.” Superman Annual #14 (Oct. 2009) DC Comics [DC Comics].

[Robinson, James (w), Renato Guedes (p), and Wilson Magalhães (i).] “The Coming Of Atlas Part 3, All That’s Red And Blue Falls Down.” Superman #679 (Oct. 2008) DC Comics [DC Comics].

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Directed by George Lucas, Performances by Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, 20th Century Fox, 1999.

[Schultz, Mark (w), George Jeanty (p), and Denis Rodier, Dennis Janke (i).] “Future Story.” Superman: The Man Of Tomorrow #1000000 (Nov. 1998) DC Comics [DC Comics].

[Tomasi Peter J. (w), Alisson Borges (a).] “Battle in the Batcave.” Super Sons #5 (Aug. 2017) DC Comics [DC Comics].

[Waid, Mark (w), Daniel Acuña (a).] “The Wild Wests, Part One: Growing Up Fast.” The Flash #231 (Oct. 2007) DC Comics [DC Comics}.

[Wein, Len (w), Howard Bender (p), Bill Collins (i).] “Kryptonite.” Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory Of The DC Universe Volume XIII (March 1986), DC Comics, Inc. [DC Comics]: [4], [1].

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ben Hall wrote his Undergraduate and Graduate thesis on Marvel Studios film releases from 1998 to 2011, focusing on how the films were translated to the screen and their financial impact. He is currently trying to finish turning his Thesis into a book. Ben is passionate about comics, because they helped him learn to read. He also feels that each comic or graphic novel can represent societal issues and culture in a way that no other media can. He also previously worked-for-hire on Salem Press’s Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Heroes & Superheroes, specifically the Green Arrow: Year One, Wolverine: Origin, & Spawn sections. Ben is located on Twitter @Rippersspot and at Rippersspot.blogspot.com.

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2 Comments

  1. I never really took Larry Nevin’s essay seriously, seeing it as the satire that it really is: at least to me. It is interesting, though, to ponder just how far his 1969 essay might have influenced the creation of the Revisionist era in the superhero comics genre of the 1980s: if it, or at least the possible zeitgeist it was a part of, had some impact on Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Someone should write an article or a paper on “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” as potentially being an integral pop cultural influence on Superhero Comics Revisionism.

    There are, of course, so many things you’d have to take into account when applying Nevin’s logic to *all* of Superman’s life. Because, let’s say for the sake of argument, that his involuntary bodily functions pack the same punch as his conscious, superpowered ones, right? That his Kryptonian cells, charged with ultra-violet radiation like everything on Earth, would provide the same amount of impact and strength to everything he does. What Nevin should have pondered is: how does Superman even *function* on Earth?

    Does he consider, for instance, that Superman eats? And if he eats, presumably, he has to eliminate or deal with other digestive bodily processes. He should also have considered that Superman didn’t always have that Fortress of Solitude that he had to build — with or without the aid of a Jor-EL AI. He also didn’t always have the ability to fly, or even control his power enough to move fast to another location entirely … somewhere safe on this planet — to deal with the waste created by his foreign enzymes and genetics that could affect Earth’s ecosystem in an adverse way.

    Of course, when he was younger, he was still developing and his cells may not have processed the sun’s radiation as efficiently as he does as an adult, but even as Superboy he had enough power to do enough damage. It is also made clear at times that Kryptonians are pretty much like humans, or humanoid enough, to have similar needs. What did he do when he had bodily urges? Did he eventually practice the Kryptonian Kama Sutra? :p

    I think that the best way to deal with Superman and other superpowered beings of that kind is to borrow some Alan Moore sensibility with regards to Miracleman and state that their strength and what not is generated by a kinetic field made by their cell structure that they can consciously control: that when they don’t, they operate pretty much like normal humans do. Otherwise, Liz Moran would have been crushed and shredded by Mike and there would have been no Winter.

    As for your article, I like the idea of a new generation: which has been played with a few times, especially when you consider the Legion that exists in the 30th and 31st centuries as descendants of heroes and villains. I think it always comes back to the fact that DC superheroes are our gods and gods generally cannot be surpassed by their forebears, or their children: with some exceptions should these gods become the next generation of Titans and new gods need to be made … and ignoring the desires of industrial commercialism of course.

    I like that Superman has a son. And so does Batman. I like the new stories that can arise. I think there is room for mythological revisionism even now, that Batman and Superman could have their own revisions as myths often do with their own comics, but that another line of comics can be made where their children and descendants continue on. This has been done before, and we do have Elseworlds. I really like the idea of seeing heroes and villains age as time goes on as their next generation moves forward too.

    I also really still need to read DC One Million, though I grew up on Batman Beyond. A lot of thoughts here.

  2. Does a solar battery work in a womb? (I don’t know.) If not, why should Lois expect any discomfort during pregnancy? Even if it does, can’t you easily explain that the baby is powerless until the first direct contact with sun light?

    One thing you forgot in your formula is that there are quite a few writers (and artists) who want to work with the “real”, “original” (silver age) heroes. And, as always when dealing with company-owned characters, how much freedom should the writers have?

    And legacy heroes really work best when they are unique. Wally trying to be as good as his late, idolized uncle. It works, it sets him apart. Rhodey learning how to be Iron Man, and keeping that change a secret, it works because it was different. A whole universe of legacy heroes, however, sounds more formulatic than exciting.

    And finally, can we tell new stories? Or are we going to come up with the First Order? Because Clark’s son fighting Luthor’s son or Damian fighting a Joker wannabe sound really dumb. What’s the point? This is not just about getting rid of Clark or Bruce or Barry, but also getting rid of all the rogues and supporting characters. Should we? Are we done telling Batman vs. Joker stories?

    In the sixties or seventies, Peter Bodganovich asked Orson Welles if it was’t harder for a young filmmaker to start then, because everything had already been done. Orson told him that no, that everything had already been done when he started, and that the problem “now” was that everything had been seen. They used to say that every comic book was someone’s first, but now it looks more and more that every comic book is someone’s 600th. Isn’t that the real problem, that we all know that Charles Xavier keeps sitting and standing as if he was in church? How can you survive such an audience?

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