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The Man of Steel Revealed?

Our Hero: Superman on Earth

By Tom DeHaven
Yale University Press, 2010

Tom DeHaven, in his new book Our Hero: Superman in American Culture, grapples briefly with the question of Superman’s essential traits. As the author describes in the course of 160 giggly, guffawing, infuriating pages, Superman has undergone innumerable changes in the last 80 years, with whole rafts of details being added, subtracted, and transmuted as the character made his way through comic books, radio dramas, stage plays, TV series, cartoons, serials, and big-budget Hollywood movies. Indeed, most readers will be surprised to learn that some of the things everybody knows about Superman (that he works at the Daily Planet, that he’s vulnerable to an extraterrestrial element called kryptonite, and that he can fly, to name just three) originated not in the amateur little comic created in 1938 by Ohio teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster but in the more anonymous amphitheater of the Adventures of Superman radio show broadcast during the 1940s.

DeHaven settles on a small list of essentials: Superman is sent to Earth as a baby from the doomed planet Krypton; Superman lives among us as Clark Kent (DeHaven daringly asserts that Clark’s profession is largely irrelevant); Superman wears a costume (the costume, as DeHaven puts it); Superman’s story includes Lois Lane, in some capacity, somehow (DeHaven’s book is as squeakingly awkward about matters of sex as any Archie comic, so this isn’t really explained in detail); and most essential of all, Superman can fly and “perform marvelous feats of strength.”

It’s a neat list, and however some Superman fans might quibble with it, DeHaven has certainly earned the right to make it. His 2005 novel It’s Superman! is a terrific read, a genuinely worthy contribution to the long life of the character. In that book, DeHaven uses precise control over language to delineate very carefully what a young Clark Kent growing up in 1930s Kansas might really have been like, and the end result works perfectly. Opening this new book, taking up the altogether pleasing question of what makes Superman tick, you expect more of that fine rhetorical control.

Reading Our Hero, you find yourself wondering: what the hell happened? A Zatanna mind-spell? A Brainiac memory-ray? A face full of gold kryptonite?

The problem isn’t that the book is poorly written; the problem is that it’s trying to skip the step of being a book at all. When authors with newly-published wares go out on their publicity tours, they tend to approach the task in one of two ways: either they assume a vaguely befuddled air, as if the aspect of actually selling their work had never occurred to them and was a constant source of slightly anguished bemusement (you’ll know this type because when you’re in their proximity, you’ll be seized with an almost-uncontrollable urge to throw a brick at them), or they do their best to project a slideshow-and-bathroom-humor Spring Break demeanor – they did the boring old homework of writing the book, they seem to say, and now it’s time to have fun. It’s an infallible rule that an author who can make his audience laugh during a reading will sell out of his book at reading’s end – that’s the whole goal of this approach. Makes sense from a financial standpoint, but as a formality, you’re supposed to write your book first.

DeHaven hasn’t bothered to do that, and so Our Hero is littered with passages that only make sense when joked, ad lib, to an audience, probably accompanied by a computer slideshow. Here’s our author on very early comics art:

At the outset it was chaos, as violent and willfully transgressive as punk music would be forty years in the future. Sometimes you can’t tell what you’re looking at – is that a grizzly bear or the Rock of Gibraltar? Other times the clarity is so stark the image registers before the mind knows it. The figures and props are flat, emblematic, and ugly, direct from the id to the page, and the dialogue is fantastic, asinine, hilarious, like Richard Foreman’s Dadaesque incantations. Everything is dreamy, dreamlike, otherworldly, so fucking crazy.

Relatively smooth sailing until that ‘so fucking crazy,’ which is as much an affront to the reading eye as it would be a comic relief to the listening ear. Tell-tale signs like that are everywhere. Writing about the Superman Day held in 1940 in which an actor named Ray Middleton dressed as Superman for the kids: “The first actor to wear the suit. Ray Middleton, ladies and gentlemen”; writing about the post-WWII slump in superhero comics: “They were like a craze when it’s over; they were a craze when it’s over”; writing about third-tier film actor George Reeves’ decision to play the character on TV: “At this point Reeves couldn’t afford to turn down work, even when he wanted to. Superman, though. Ay yi yi”; mentioning that he, DeHaven, once tried to write a libretto: “Those things are hard!” You can practically see the laughter cue lighting up.

So, there are trials. Fortunately, DeHaven’s delivery is brisk enough so the reader is never mired in trials, and regardless of delivery, he’s got one heck of a story to tell.

It’s the story of Superman, and as DeHaven appealingly describes early on in Our Hero, it’s all-pervasive. You will search in vain anywhere in the world for a person who’s never heard of the character, and it’s genuinely difficult to go even one day without coming into contact with some aspect of it, from the cape to the costume to the big ‘S’ shield-emblem. Since the moment when Action Comics #1 first hit the stands in April 1939, there has never been a moment when some variation on the Superman theme wasn’t before the public eye. One comic title led to another, then a third; a radio drama ran for a decade and led to a half-hour TV show that was also a success. A tidal wave of merchandizing – toys, costumes, piggy-banks, cookies, bread – has been relentless, and relentlessly lucrative. The 1979 movie directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve made back several times its record-breaking price tag. The long-running TV show Smallville, which began as the story of young Clark Kent’s life back home on the farm, has gradually morphed into The Adventures of Superman in all but name and is watched by millions of people every week. The 2006 Bryan Singer movie Superman Returns, although a lackluster darling with the critics, made good money at the box office, and another movie – or perhaps even movie franchise – is in the works.

Clearly, something is going on here, and it’s tempting to chalk it all up to simplicity. Superman was the first superhero, after all, and in his original incarnation you could intuit what his powers were by a simple formula: anything you can do, he can do super.

I think there’s more to it than that, and DeHaven comes close to the crux of it a couple of times, noting that Superman began life as an essentially cheerful character. Even after the tragedy of his origin story began to take center stage in the comics (his whole homeworld blew up! He’s the ultimate orphan), Superman remained a happy presence. Not happy-go-lucky – superhero comics would have to wait until the heyday of Spider-Man to get that – but friendly, unstintingly upbeat. Even in ages enamored of angst, there’s something to be said for that. DeHaven encapsulates it nicely while singing the praises of Christopher Reeve’s performance as the Man of Steel:

More than anything else, he played Superman as a regular guy, smart and sincere, who loved what he did, was glad to be alive, and delighted in his gifts; he was amused and amazed, intoxicated by them, but lacked utterly in hubris. He was all four Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. A smidgen self-satisfied, but that was okay, who wouldn’t be, just a little?

Long before he gets to that movie role, DeHaven has a lot of comics history to impart, and he does so with the sloppy gusto that is Our Hero’s trademark. He gives a fascinating glimpse-portrait of Malcolm Wheeler-Nicolson, the “Major” who launched Detective Comics and may or may not have had a hand in launching Superman in Action Comics; he details the sad story of Jerry Siegel’s legal battles with DC Comics, as Siegel tried to get some just financial consideration for himself and Shuster from a company that had bought Superman outright decades ago (for a paltry sum, naturally) and proceeded to make millions off the character; he takes us inside the burgeoning empire of Superman comic book titles of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including several swipes at the period’s inimitable villain, character editor Mort Weisinger:

The editor of the sprawling line, the overseer, the auteur (I’m kidding, but not really) was Mort Weisinger, Bronx-born, morbidly obese Mortimer Weisinger – picky, petty, intimidating, overbearing, and monstrously cruel to the men (or, as he called them, “idiots”) who wrote and drew for him.

Along the way, DeHaven consistently strikes a disgruntled purist/mystified outsider pose that won’t fool long-time comics fans for an instant. At times, he’s willing to imitate that particular kind of franchise-fan (regardless of item or medium) who’s convinced the franchise was great – right up until the second episode:

…cheap and tawdry and rushed, but snappy and impromptu. It related itself and was convincing. After Shuster, and despite the professional polish and more creditable, more variable compositions, Superman never again seemed as integrated into his environment, or as spiritedly alive.

Superman was never done better than when Joe Shuster was drawing him? Hogwash. Joe Shuster would have been the first to laugh at such nonsense. Equally unbelievable – or, if actually true, mighty damn irritating – is DeHaven’s imitation of Grandpa Simpson in the Android’s Dungeon:

I can’t make much sense of what’s going on in the Superman comic books these days. And God knows I’ve tried. But a story I’ll start reading in Action Comics continues over in Green Lantern, or Wonder Woman, then picks up again in Batman or Supergirl, but I didn’t get those, I didn’t know, and when I open the next issue of Action, everything and everybody has moved on, and a lot of new brightly costumed characters I don’t recognize are gathered on a strange space ship I’ve never seen before intoning gobbledygook about, oh, I don’t know, power stones. What the hell are power stones?

(Sadly, the italics are in the original)

One can only hope that this note of avuncular confusion is a marketing ploy designed to give Our Hero at least some crossover appeal to non-comics fans. In describing the rise in the 1970s of “the first generation of bona-fide geeks,” DeHaven harkens back to his days as a boy in Mayberry:

Traditionally (before, say, 1965), you didn’t “collect” comic books: you bought one, you read it, you rolled it into a tube and stuck it in your back pocket or school bag – then maybe you passed it along to a friend or it was confiscated by a teacher or parent, but pretty soon it disappeared. It cost a dime. It killed half an hour. It certainly wasn’t a lifestyle.

(The author, methinks, protests too much; elsewhere in Our Hero, DeHaven lists off various Krypton-related animals, including a super-dog, a super-cat, and a super-monkey but pointedly excluding a super-horse – Superman fans will spot immediately the true depth of geekhood this reveals).

And there are some odd oversights, none more egregious than the footnote that accompanies DeHaven’s mention of fan favorite artist/writer John Byrne’s 1986 retooling of the character:

DC comics also officially ended the Weisinger-edited Silver-Age Superman series, with a two-part story that ran in Superman number 423 and Action Comics number 583. Alan Moore, still riding the crest of his Watchmen triumph, killed off a large number of the famous cast of characters, but took what he was doing seriously, respectfully though not reverentially, and turned in one of the handful of indisputably great Superman stories.

Yes indeed. And the name of this indisputably great Superman story? Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen.

This curiously scattershot element is the biggest shortcoming of the book (DeHaven seems unwilling to give any real consideration to more-or-less contemporary depictions of the character – Smallville and Superman Returns are given skimpy treatment, the 1990s live-action Superboy TV series and the various excellent cartoon treatments of Superman from the 2000s are barely examined)(criminally, the seminal graphic novel Kingdom Come is never mentioned), because the precise-yet-passionate rhetorical ability of It’s Superman! most reliably appears in Our Hero when DeHaven is analyzing either the Richard Donner Superman movie, or – much to the delight of readers like me, who love it unashamedly – the 1950s Adventures of Superman TV show, starring George Reeves (“tall, dark, handsome – and decidedly thick around the middle”) and featuring a per-episode special effects bill you could pay yourself. Reeves won the role over 200 other hopefuls, and DeHaven is right that his portrayal of the character lodged in the national consciousness:

Yet for more than two decades – until Christopher Reeve, in the late-1970s – it was most likely/almost certainly knock-kneed middle-aged George Reeves with his brilliantined hair (not spit curl for him, just a slight pomp) and obvious tummy girdle that most of us saw as a momentary flash in our minds whenever the name Superman was mentioned.

The only disappointment here is that DeHaven makes it seem like random chance (or perhaps the lack of dreamy Christopher Reeve as an alternative) kept poor old knock-kneed George Reeves in the mind’s eye so long, when actually watching those old Adventures of Superman episodes reveals a far more immediate possibility. Yes, Reeves’ Clark Kent is a tight-lipped no-nonsense take-charge kind of guy … but not even that prepares the reader for what his Superman is: truly, sometimes terrifyingly alien. He blasts through walls, leaps into fist-fights, springs out casement windows with an abrupt, almost cutting kind of vitality that makes everyone else look rooted to the spot, and when he has a serious point to make (and since Reeves plays him as a neighborhood beat-cop, he always has a serious point to make), he looms up to his audience, as though to underscore the unthinkable consequence should anyone not do what he says. At one point when Inspector Henderson – of the Metropolis Police, mind you, and a few grades up from a traffic cop – is being less than forthcoming about a case, Superman happily, conversationally says, “Now c’mon, Bill – I don’t want to have to toss you around like a beach ball.” Henderson offers a tight little laugh – and gets right to the point. Because if he doesn’t, this Superman (and only this one – without Reeves saying the lines, they’re completely impossible) really will pick him up and bounce him around until he does. In the world of The Adventures of Superman, the Man of Steel is completely unaccountable to the law – even by the Law.

(This is further dramatized when the TV series takes a scene from the old radio show and has a pair of dedicated criminals mock Superman about his well-known refusal to take a life. They figure they’ll do some time in prison, then they’ll either escape or be paroled and be at their life of crime again, and they laugh. Whereupon Superman deposits them on the top of a snowy mountain – and simply flies away. “You’re right – I won’t kill you,” he tells them. “What you do from this point on is up to you.”)

Still, it’s great fun watching these episodes again through DeHaven’s eyes, and his insights about them are always sharp:

Reeves snaps out Kent dialog, then presses his lips into a grim line. He does the same thing as Superman. Never – not here [in the original B-movie “Superman and the Mole Men”] and not later in the television series – does he play Clark Kent as Superman in disguise. He plays him as Superman in street clothes, out and about in his cool fifties threads, the tortoise-shell eyeglass frames merely a fashion accessory. Both personae speak the same way, glare the same way, move and stride and gesture and abruptly pivot the same way. Of course they’re the same guy. But nobody notices. And Lois Lane especially doesn’t; Kent faces down a lynch mob and still the woman snipes at him as contemptuously as she’d been doing in the comics for thirteen years.

It’s invigorating stuff, and you wish DeHaven had bestirred himself to add another 30 pages onto his book’s svelte length by paying similar attention to, well, every other television incarnation of the character to appear since the 1950s. Maybe he’s saving it for a sequel.

Certainly there would be no shortage of material for such a book! The lackluster first season of the 1988-1992 Adventures of Superboy TV show, for instance, didn’t exactly inspire long-time fans of the character to songs of praise. But then for the second season the show replaced the pretty but lackluster John Newton with the more intense Gerard Christopher and installed the absolutely stupendous Sherman Howard as a grinning, hammy, genuinely threatening Lex Luthor, and suddenly fans started getting relatively complex and entertaining multi-part stories similar to what they were enjoying in the comics (the best of these featured former ‘Tarzan’ action hero Ron Ely as a white-haired, cardigan-wearing elderly Superman – making Eli the only actor to date who’s played both those iconic characters). And although the Bryan Singer Superman Returns had its deepset flaws (in a daring act of cinematic seppuku, for example, the movie’s villain and the movie’s hero were both played a vaguely effeminate milksops), its elaborate special effects surely merit a mention, since they come closer than any other filmed version to showing us what actually seeing Superman in action would be like (curiously anti-climactic, it turns out: everything would be happening so fast, you wouldn’t see much).

Or maybe the question isn’t sequels – maybe DeHaven is worried any of this will distract him – and his audience – from that opening question of Superman’s essential traits. On his book’s last page, DeHaven performs a slight elaboration on those essential traits. Oh, Lois Lane is still there, as is (or was) Krypton, and the Clark Kent persona, and the amazing physical abilities. But now there’s another element in the limelight, a decidedly off-putting one. Superman, we’re told:

… can fly, and perform marvelous feats of strength, which he chooses to do because it brings him great satisfaction.

Chooses to do because it brings him great satisfaction. The philanthropist’s dirty little secret.

As with athletes and artists, there has always been a selfish, even a self-serving quality to Superman, to Superman’s ego. He doesn’t require love from the multitudes; Lois Lane will do. Basically, what he needs, and all he needs, is the freedom to act in ways that are satisfying to him.

That’s why he’ll “never stop doing good.”

It makes him feel good, dammit.

Our hero.

So duty, sacrifice, altruism, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” get dropped in favor of “I do whatever feels good”? Sounds like something Lex Luthor would say.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.