Something I meant to mention last week, but it slipped my mind at the time: Warner Studios’ recent announcement that, in addition to working more closely with DC Comics to develop DC character films – a desire THE DARK KNIGHT doubtless strongly instilled in them – they were particularly interested in “darker” versions of DC characters.
Starting with Superman.
Another great example of the “one size fits all” mentality that frequently afflicts studio execs. Not that they’re the only ones that get that way, but while it shouldn’t be by now it’s still occasionally startling just how much people often don’t understand their own characters.
If there’s one character not built for “dark,” it’s Superman.
Sure, sure, I know: last survivor of an exploding planet, mightiest but most alone man on earth, hiding behind the mask of an “ordinary human,” etc. etc. Still doesn’t add up. That’s tragic, not “dark.” Different things. Dark represents a certain pessimistic viewpoint on human behavior, and a pessimistic viewpoint kind of works against the core of the Superman concept: Superman as the perfected human being. (Physically, anyway. Mentally, he vacillates from clever though rarely cunning to barely brighter than the original Captain Marvel. That’s what 80 years of a thousand different writers will do to you.) It’s certainly possible to place Superman in a dark setting – a society filled with people suspicious and resentful of his power, who are jealous of his greatness but refuse to acknowledge his selflessness – in other words, they can only conceive of him existing on their level, not that he might inspire them to his… wait… wait… I know that story. It’s… um… Spider-Man? The Silver Surfer? 90% of every Marvel or Marvel-inspired superhero story done in the last 45 years? They could have him end up universally distrusted, hated and feared, yet continuing to work for the common good from the shadows because… er… that’s the ending to THE DARK KNIGHT?
The character dark? Sure, that’s possible too. He’s rife with contradictions, some of which have been explored in comics. In his first year of existence, he was an inveterate scofflaw who felt no compunctions about spitting in the faces of the powers that be – the police, the government, big business, big money – as I’ve mentioned more than a few times, he was hardly averse to leaping high into the air with vile heads of state under his arm and letting them enjoy the view solo on their way down – if it meant making sure “the little guy” got a fair shake and wouldn’t otherwise. He was, in other words, the world’s most altruistic bully, a veritable sovereign power unto himself. Not exactly the most democratic message around, even if he was a populist – without shading or introspection, it was a little kid’s fantasy of how they, armed with a sure knowledge of how things should be, would change the world for the better if they had “powers beyond those of normal men” – but one of the most satisfying to those readers who had no real power of their own but wanted to imagine that one day they might have. It wasn’t long before someone figured out an ultimate vigilante beyond social controls was perhaps not the message they should be putting out there
The novel Superman draws much inspiration from, Philip Wylie’s GLADIATOR – now there’s a dark Superman. With great powers, rather like those originally possessed by Superman (strength and virtual invulnerability, though susceptible to massive shock), Hugo Danner’s raised to hide his powers from the world ala the original Superboy version of Clark Kent not to protect his loved ones from those who would strike back at him through them, but because his mother, initially unaware his scientist father had tampered with the kid’s genetic structure, imagines some sort of FRANKENSTEIN-esque scene of peasants with pitchforks and torches (or the later recurring impression of the alien creature hiding its existence on Earth for fear it’ll wind up a key attraction in Area 51’s operating theater) should Hugo’s powers be revealed. Short version: his own mother considers him a monster, and there’s no indication that Wylie thought anyone would ever consider him otherwise. Danner’s subsequent adventures reiterates the theme. He feigns weakness until high school and is bullied unmercifully by others for it, and in high school becomes a sports star by day and earns cash as a sideshow freak on weekends, until he kills an opponent with his strength during football, and he ends his school days as a pariah dropout. He leaves the country for awhile and becomes a soldier of fortune, then returns to a mundane job until he once again uses his powers, not secretly but out of view, for which he isn’t thanked but is instead given the Hanoi Hilton treatment in a futile attempt to pry open his secret, and fired from his job. Deciding to use his powers to make government more responsive to the people, he finds himself, despite his powers, ill-equipped to cope with the morass of Washington and ultimately has to declare failure. This and that happens afterward, until the climax where Hugo asks God what he should do with his great power, since up to his point he has managed to succeed at next to nothing and despite his efforts has made not one bit of difference in the world. “God”‘s answer is a lightning bolt that fries him to death, and you can take that to mean either God himself regards Hugo as an abomination that shouldn’t exist, or that even the world’s mightiest man shouldn’t stand on the highest spot in the area during a thunderstorm, even when conversing with an imaginary friend.
In either case, there are dark themes for you. But the theme of Wylie’s GLADIATOR (it was adapted for Wildstorm a couple years back as a prestige format miniseries by Howard Chaykin and Russ Heath, but as far as I know hasn’t been collected yet and why the hell not?) is Danner’s weakness, not his strength. The theme of Superman has always been his strength – of will, of arm, of character, especially of character – and how there is no obstacle, no evil, that can’t be overcome with the right application of moral fortitude and elbow grease.
Not exactly a “dark” theme, and there’s no way Warners can seriously “darken” Superman without straying from it. To the extent they do stray from it, what they’re selling is no longer Superman – at least in any form he’s been marketed as since, oh, 1939. That’s about the time Superman stopped talking about justice, particularly social justice, and began talking about law and order and respecting authority. It’s not like there aren’t dark themes inherent in the very concept of Superman, though, like many inherent themes, they’re the recessive gene of storytelling that need never be brought to the surface; talk all you want of how a couple of Jewish high schoolers created the character from their experiences (both Gerard Jones and Danny Fingeroth, among others, have written very good books on the subject, so go check Amazon for them), how Superman incorporates themes of the Depression-era Jewish-American experience, the thirst for both assimilating with society and maintaining a distinct cultural identity, and that’s all true, but at the core of Superman is the concept of the Strongman who orders the world by physically imposing his will on it, to the betterment of but not necessarily with the consent of lesser men, and will do with regardless of their authorization.
In other words, it’s an infantile and basically fascistic concept. At least on one side of the coin. The light side of the coin has been face up at least since World War II, though writers have occasionally rattled it around on its edges a little for a peek at the dark underbelly.
To make it clear: I’m not arguing for the dark underbelly. I doubt upending it would serve any purpose, and it’s hard to fathom any long-term purpose.
But the underlying concept is one that was already brutally unveiled, by Hitler, by Mussolini, by Stalin and Pol Pot and Pinochet and Thieu and dozens of other “strongmen” who’ve repeatedly made their marks on the last century. They’ve followed the same concept, the same desire for urgent change or “purification” of society regardless of the will of “lesser beings” (in fact, their regimes have been monuments of coercion in all its forms), to order their world as they think it should be ordered by physically imposing their wills on it, and seizing the authorization to do it. In the case of Superman, there’s no reason this recessive theme should ever become the dominant one.
When Siegel & Shuster created Superman, they weren’t praising his sense of social justice, though clearly that was for them a great thing, so much as his ability to easily surmount any obstacles to his own viewpoint that stand in his way. There’s nothing evil about that. We’d all love to have that power at some point or another. It’s a natural, immature, simplistic response to a complex world. But its expression in the real world is, more often than not, evil. In fact, in terms by which democracies are supposed to function, the One Strong Man whose will is imposed on the world is an evil concept, a negation of public debate and popular consensus, and of the concept that all people were endowed with the same inalienable rights.
Fortunately for Superman and his fans, he exists not in the real world but in a controlled fantasy environment where wrestling with those issues and subtexts is unnecessary. Even so, figures like Superman and Batman ultimately are (and were) reduced to… cops, wrestling not with the ethical dilemmas of their unbridled power but functioning by an externally imposed code. (That they accept it as “natural” makes it no less externally imposed.)
The map of Superman’s dark side was covered over 40 years ago by Jules Feiffer, in THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES. I know many consider Feiffer’s interpretation of the character off-base, but what’s important here isn’t that we accept his characterization as the controlling one, only that he outlines the “darker” aspects of the Superman persona: here is a man who masks his true identity and power in order to appear (at least in the original version) effete and impotent, and especially unattractive to women, though he himself knows better, and often pranks the very people who take his disguise at face value, as if he’s waiting for them to find him out. But the identity he takes on isn’t “normal,” it’s a caricature of normal, one as intended to drive Lois Lane away as anything else. But as Superman he rests above human concerns; bullets bounce off him, he can literally ascend above the world.
And that’s pretty much the range of the dark side of Superman, but the further you go there the more inhuman and depersonalized – alien – he becomes, and the more you overtly flirt with fascism. If your focus remains on Superman as a powerful character. You can pull off that sort of thing with villains – Freddy, Hannibal Lector, Jason – but with heroes it’s considerably dodgier. Or you can go the GLADIATOR route and do stories where Superman is forced to confront the limitations of his abilities. But those are already part and parcel of the Superman canon, in spades; how many times has he faced the dilemma of choosing between saving Jimmy Olson or Lois Lane or some innocent bystander or even Lex Luthor and stopping a menace whose activities threaten thousands, if not millions?
The problem is this: Batman can be ineffectual and still remain Batman. (Hell, in THE DARK KNIGHT ineffectual was practically his middle name.) He can have to wrestle with the negative implications of his actions rippling out into repercussions and only be able to cope by way of attrition, because no matter how superior or perfected a human being he may be, he is still only a human being, subject to the same faults and frailties as the rest of us, albeit in different proportions. If the best he can do is hold the line against evil, we don’t hold it against him.
Superman, however, can’t be ineffectual and still remain Superman. No matter how dark or perilous the path, no matter how great the threat, the essence of Superman is that he triumphs.
“Triumph” and “dark” aren’t really soulmates. It’s possible to have “dark” stories where the protagonist wins, but “win” and “triumph” aren’t exactly synonymous either. In noir especially, victories are usually pyrrhic; with Batman, for instance, even if he puts enemies in prison or in the madhouse, even if he clears out the graft running city hall and one mob after another, at best it plays as attrition, a Sisyphean effort. But his city is no more clean after him than before. Like the rest of us, he treads water.
Which is why Batman has always been the more immediate character for most readers, and viewers. He’s closer to our experience, especially in his current portrayal, even if he’s still a mostly fantasy figure. But Batman (like Spider-Man) was always tooled to appeal to our passions. Superman was always geared to appeal to our aspirations.
While that remains admirable, it presents problems for modern-day interpreters. It’s simply not a concept that can bear the weight of much complexity, because complexity simply isn’t what the character is about. You can overlay apparently complex ideas onto the character – Superman as a messiah figure, etc. – but effectively it’s the immature simplicity of the concept that anchors the character, and so he is, if not necessarily nostalgia himself, functioning on the same level as nostalgia. People only get nostalgic for what they remember as the good times, no matter how bad they were in actuality.
And there are eras where that works. This just doesn’t happen to be one of them. People may talk about longing for simplicity, sure, but most of us now belong to one of several generations that have grown up with increasing doses of cynicism, lies and manipulations, of government, of advertisers, of so-called educators claiming to be prepping us for modern life. Most of us cling to an ideal of some sort, but virtually no one really expects promises to be kept, or things to work how we’ve been told they’re supposed to. We live in the culture of the long con, where the main objective of almost everything is separating you from your money, with the value given back measured only by how long whoever wants to keep their particular con going, until everything is measured out in charts and formulae and demographic calculations and legal fees. There are times when people want to escape from having to think about our era. There are times when they acknowledge it for whatever grim entertainment it might provide. We’re in that time right now.
It’s not Superman’s natural habitat, which is why he’s unconvincing to a majority of people today. (Mechanically plotted films don’t help much either, on that front.) The best you can get out of him, in “dark” terms, is a superhero version of a RAMBO-style war movie – but that too has to end in triumph or it isn’t Superman. I suspect Superman can survive perfectly if not fabulously well in the rarified comics market, but adult-orientated mass media (as opposed to, say, Saturday morning cartoons that can encompass some more mature themes but are basically aimed at kids) just aren’t his kind of playground anymore.
What a kick the Republican Convention has been so far, huh? First the spectacle of the Sarah Palin VP nomination, which had many conservatives chortling about how the choice had dealt a fatal blow to the Obama campaign until they figured out that most women were actually offended by the suggestion – which Palin flat out said during her greeting speech in the most blatant bit of pandering in recently political memory – that as far as women were concerned all women running for office are completely interchangeable. Among the other itches Palin (who seems to be in the midst of a brewing scandal over her attempts to repopulate Alaska’s state workforce on the basis of ideological litmus tests) was intended to scratch were unions (she and her husband both belong to unions, though her record in office is vehemently pro-big business at the expense of labor), the Evangelistas who have been threatening to sit this year out (then came revelations of Palin’s unwed teenage daughter and her impending shotgun wedding, how she and her husband have basically handed their five children off to neighbors and relatives to raise for years, etc), and the press, giving them something to write about besides Obama. Boy, have they. The Republican Party must’ve been so used to reporters being glorified stenographers they forgot someone might actually check Palin’s background – as McCain’s handlers evidently forgot to. (They let it slip Monday morning, as facts about Palin started flooding in, that they were “just beginning” to vet her, then revised that on Tuesday to “of course we vetted her before we announced.) Meanwhile, her Wikipedia page was hijacked and converted into glowing high praise before the lords of Wikipedia pulled it back and readjusted the neohagiography. In other Palin-Internet interfaces, the MySpace page of the teenage father of Palin’s daughter’s baby-to-be, where he described himself as “a redneck” and stated in no uncertain terms “I don’t want kids” abruptly disappeared over the weekend.
But her real value to the McCain camp – they may have even thought of this – is is her sheer inexperience, which the press has been harping on. You may notice not many Democrats have been leveling the charge. So Palin’s a booby trap set by McCain’s handlers; any complaints about her inexperience trigger retaliatory accusations of Obama’s inexperience, even though by comparison he’s General Eisenhower. Even stranger developments may be on the way: Palin’s set for a crash course on foreign affairs from the Ghost’s people – meaning she won’t make the political mistake of, oh, seeing the world as it actually is – but she may learn where Pakistan is… which will put her one up on Big John. (Who doesn’t know, if his interviews are an indicator.)
Then there was Gustav who, on the downside for McCain, deflated the Republican convention but, on the plus side, sidelined the Ghost and the Dick from making personal appearances there, as much of McCain’s success in November will rest on how far he can distance himself from possibly the most reviled administrations in American history while vowing to continue all their policies. Gustav would have been a disaster for the Republicans in any case, despite the administration scrambling to prep for another smash on New Orleans. No matter how effective their current response, a significant storm would’ve only exacerbated the damage and human misery they never got around to fixing up after last time, and a lot of questions would have been asked. Gustav’s fading was a best case scenario for everyone, but even the near occasion of its strike on New Orleans resurrected questions about the abortive Katrina cleanup.
But the biggest story about the Republican convention is the one you probably haven’t heard, about the FBI teaming with Twin Cities police for a brutal crackdown on groups planning nonviolent protests outside the convention. “Official” estimates put the number of protesters at 5000-10,000, but this is always the problem with the press and protests in recent years; the press gets their official counts from the authorities, and the authorities are almost always the ones being protested. My correspondent on the scene, who spent much of the weekend getting pepper-sprayed and threatened with police batons despite (maybe because of) his very visible press card, estimates a minimum of 20,000 and maybe up to 30,000, not that you’re likely to see them on television. The raids were current standard operating procedure for repressing inconvenient public assembly: break-up organizational meetings with mass arrests based on nonsense like fire laws restricting room capacity where no fire laws had been broken. Which is irrelevant, of course; it doesn’t matter whether arrests are lawful, so long as they a) tie up protester time and resources, and b) generate a file on the arrested protesters so they can henceforth be tracked. (Like I said, this is now in the American “red squad” playbook. No one can quite figure out why riot police were throwing bottles of urine out of their squad cars, though.) The upshot is the same regardless: no public signs of disgruntlement in the presence of the Republican convention. How strange the FBI didn’t bother coordinating with the Denver police this way…
Notes from under the floorboards:
Damn! Slipped my mind last week to invite everyone over to read my new webcomic, ODYSSEUS THE REBEL, my new take on the greatest story ever told. Or was that the one about the circus? Anyway, it’s free and it’s cooking. Go!
And Boom! Studios is still running 2 GUNS as an online comic (among several others at the website) free of charge, in celebration of our Universal Pictures deal.
Nothing much going on in comics at the moment, aside from the Big Events that have been dragging on all summer. There are little bubblings of interest around the indie comics scene, but what the indies really need right now is a new killer ap. There’s good material out there, but where’s a new theme instead of endless variations on old themes? Where’s what’s urgently now? That said, I’ve been buried and will likely be buried the rest of the month working on The Graphic Novel (well, several at this point) in addition to starting a new project and at least having discussions on resurrecting an edgy old one, as various media things hover ever closer, but those can hover on damn near forever…
Though if you want to join the cause of saving Jerry Siegel’s boyhood home (where “Superman” was born; presumably they’d ideally get it historical landmark status), has Brad Meltzer got a webpage for you…
Hey, remember when Labor Day celebrated the victories of the labor movement, instead of just provided another open day for shopping? On the other hand, at least I don’t have to go to barbeques at the Labor Temple anymore, down on the dead zone of South Park St., far far from anything even remotely interesting, like I had to every year when I was a kid.
Haven’t had much chance to watch movies the past week, but THE SHIELD (Tuesdays 10P) returns for its final season on FX this week, while new biker series SONS OF ANARCHY (Wednesdays 10P) debuts on the same network. I guess ENTOURAGE is also back next Sunday, but since I dumped HBO I won’t be watching…
Jeez, I just realized the Burning Man Festival was on this weekend, up in northern Nevada. Just one more thing nobody talks about anymore. (Though I gather this year’s attendance was marginally up.)
Doesn’t look like much going on in the tech or DRM arenas at the moment either. Must be the holiday. Check back next week, I guess.
By the way, if any Windows users want to check out Google’s new browser, Chrome – do we really need another browser? Aren’t all browsers now really pretty much the same thing, aside from the window dressing? – you can download the beta here. (You can read their online comic introducing it, drawn by Scott McCloud, here.)
Congratulations to longtime reader and several time winner Chris Sequeira, the first to spot last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme was “question.” Chris once again wishes to point your attention to Gaslight Grimoire, your pathway to all things Sherlock Holmes. (Except the cocaine.) Check it out.
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist… anything, really – binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU’D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. Like every other blessed week, there’s a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column. Good luck.
TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.
IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
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