Wednesday, May 15, 2013


So, here's a link to thing on Estoreal Adjunct, one of those tumblr places. It should be a little essay about Superman, with a link in it to a Cracked article on Superman. Other than the Cracked piece, I'm not really sure who wrote what on the tumblr page - tumblr is an idiom with which I have not yet become familiar - but I read both of them and then sent them to my friend Johnbai, who wrote me in response. You should read them, too, and then read what Johnbai said, reproduced below.

I've mostly been someone that agrees with the Cracked article.  And I think the other writer agrees as well.  Saying Superman is more like Sisyphus than Diomedes is hardly a disagreement.  He's just saying that Superman's task of protecting all of humanity is doomed to futility (which is what the Cracked writer was saying anyway.) 
While I haven't loved many superman stories, I liked the "For the man who has everything" because it gives you a glimpse of what Superman might crave for himself, beyond all the selfless work-ethic.  It humanized him in a very compelling way.  And it took a writer of fantastic ability to craft that story. 
I also liked where JLU went during the episodes where the Justice League were in conflict with the American government. Because it asked the difficult question, what do you do when the official standard bearers for the "American Way" aren't playing by the rules any more.  
I was also interested in Miller's portrayal of Superman in the Dark Knight as a thug working for Reagan.  It's a similar dilemma for every paladin or samurai... what happens when your master happens to be a dick? 
I always thought the interesting flaw in Superman was that he just wasn't that smart.  I wanted to see angles pursued that showed that he could be manipulated, or would struggle/fail at something because he just wasn't smart enough to figure it out.  That always seemed like an interesting reason for Clark and Bruce to have their relationship.  Clark needed Bruce because he could connect the dots that Supes just couldn't see.

I just happened to have a spare couple of pennies to toss in on this.

I think the problems with writing Superman that exist because the character is too powerful can be approached in a variety of ways.

The first is to make him less powerful. Look back at the roots of the character: he couldn't always juggle planets. Reducing his strength and limiting his array of abilities in-story wouldn't hurt his marketing value or his iconic status.

But maybe that's a cop-out. After all, I don't see articles written about how hard it is to write a Thor story, or how boring a character Silver Surfer is, or how no one can make Green Lantern interesting. No, it isn't the power level - it's having the character face challenges - internal as well as external - that their abilities cannot easily solve.

As I was reading through these critiques, I thought about a story - I don't know if it is remembered or I made it up - that Superman saves a community of people from some simmering natural disaster that finally discharges, only to see them evicted from the place by the legal owners, who now can make a profit from the location because it is no longer in a danger zone. What would Superman do? How would he feel? I'm sure he would be tempted to re-open the volcano (or whatever) but then he'd be putting other lives at risk. There's a story in there somewhere. Superman may be able to move mountains, but some problems are too complex, or too fragile, or too subtle to be solved by power, if at all. Those are the stories we want to read.

Of course, this can go down silly road as well, as in the old Uncle Mort days of "I promised not to set foot in Criminal City for twenty-fours - how can I possible stop Machine Gun Barker? I know - I'll walk on my hands!" Arbitrary rules, laws, wagers, and conditions do not often a compelling story make, but real limitations do.

In my mind, neither does making Superman a government stooge work, just to give him an ethical crisis when his bosses want something nasty done. I thought Miller's Dark Knight Superman was one of the least interesting versions of the character.  Superman may be a boy from the heartland, but he's no mindless follower. Nor does making him a dullard seem like the way to go - although I think that he might be manipulated because of his trusting nature or native ingenuousness rather than stupidity. That kind of arc, and its aftermath, could also make good story.

Let me end with the hero-of-myth trope this conversation is developing. The idea that Superman will ultimately never get what he wants - the safety of everyone, everywhere - is an element of what makes a good Superman story, but it does not make him Sisyphus, or any other character from Greek mythology. It makes him an Aesir. The Norse gods knew that ultimately Ragnarok would come and that they would fight and lose and die, but they made ready and fought nonetheless. Struggling on even knowing that defeat was pre-ordained - what could be more heroic than that?

It isn't truth or justice or even the American way - it is the neverending battle that can make Superman approachable and relatable.


  1. Yeah, I also have problems with Miller's Superman. Stooges tend to need their masters in order to feel powerful, but the only thing Superman needs are a few good friends.

    I think what people miss is that Clark Kent is the man Kal-El wishes he could be, an ordinary guy doing investigative work to improve the world.

  2. Yeah, those nested quotes can be hard to follow outside the flow of the ongoing conversation, but in this case it's pretty linear. To break down the attributions:

    The headline and link "Do we really want an incorruptible, nice guy superhero? 3 Reasons It’s So Hard to Make Superman Interesting" is obviously the article from Cracked. Glen Weldon follows this with his rebuttal that begins "Go, read. I’ll be here when you get back." Then mikefromnowhere wrote the section beginning "What he said." Finally, my addition to this exchange is the excerpt from an interview with Vince Gilligan from New York Magazine in which the tv writer talks about "nice guy" heroes.

    Yes, it may be much more challenging to write a truly good man, especially when he has virtually divine powers. That challenge is what makes it worth doing.

  3. Ack! You've quoted me on a topic that I know nothing about! I'm a self-confessed Marvel fan who never even read DC comics. But...

    I think we can all agree, Superman needs to cry more. He needs to become more emo. Only then will we feel his pathos about not being quite human enough to love Lois they way she needs to be loved, not being quite dedicated enough to put out every housefire, not being quite diplomatic enough to end all war and famine. His suffering is part of what makes him readable at all.

  4. John, you're too modest - your insights are always valuable, and I think it was your 'non-partisan' positioning that helped move the conversation forward, for me anyway. Thanks for being my springboard.