IS SUPERMAN FUCKED?
Look! Down in the gutters! It’s a bum! It’s a used condom! It’s SUPERMAN!
I remember an Arts documentary here in the UK around the same time the first Superman movie opened where some weirdie-beardie sociologist said that Superman was one of the three most famous fictional characters in human history (the other two being Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan). I remember another documentary (yes, I watch too much TV) around the time of Superman’s much-publicized 50th anniversary informing me that Superman’s chest-emblem was one of the three most famous graphic images on the planet (the other two being Batman’s bat-symbol and some other thing which I obviously can’t remember because it didn’t relate to comics). Therefore, I have to ask myself why one of the world’s three most famous characters with one of the world’s three most distinctive symbols right there on his chest has been dead as a movie franchise since Reagan was in the White House and Warren Ellis was a skinny eighteen year old. Why, when every fourth-rate computer game and fifth-rate comic-book has been green-lit and fast-tracked has Superman been languishing in Development Hell for almost a generation? In other words; Is Superman Fucked?
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t write this with even the smallest amount of glee. Superman was the first thing I ever dug as a kid and undoubtedly the reason I put words in the mouths of fictional characters for a living. I was eight years old when Superman The Movie made it to the UK and literally vomited with excitement as I waited in the queue. Superman was the first thing I ever pitched to DC (as a thirteen year old) and the first proposal I ever had accepted by the mainstream DC Universe (as a twenty five year old). I bought the Superman DVD. I bought Christopher Reeve’s memoirs. The only comics I’ve never been able to part with since my balls dropped and my voice broke are about fifteen years worth of dog-eared Superman titles which sit only a few feet from my heart as I write stories for Marvel Comics today. Mark Waid isn’t the only guy on Earth Prime who can tell you Clark Kent’s social security or Jimmy Olsen’s middle-name. So don’t talk to me about SUPERMAN, baby, because I’ve been there.
That said, sometimes it takes your best pal to tell that your arse looks fat in those trousers and I have to admit, Superman’s looking pretty rough at the moment. Sure, there’s the McG flick in the works, but has a screen-writer been attached? Has anyone been cast? Do we even remotely know what it’s going to be about? Even if it does make it past all those hurdles which tripped up Tim Burton’s disaster-in-the-making, should we really get excited about a project being helmed by the Charlies Angels geezer? I think the recently-announced Superman Versus Batman picture is much more likely to make it to the big screen and actually proves, quite depressingly, my feeling that Superman is actually on the verge of expiring as an pop culture icon. It’s no coincidence that Aliens versus Predator was announced in the past few weeks too and Freddy Versus Jason is already in the can. Washed-up faces from a bygone age have nowhere to go, no choice but to huddle-up and pray that their combined effort will spark some kind of interest in the popular imagination again. I can only think of Frankenstein and The Werewolf Meet Abbot and Costello when I hear that Superman and Batman are combining forces for a motion picture spectacular. It’s like Mork and Mindy meets the Happy Days Gang; too desperate for words.
As someone who makes the bulk of his living from the comic book industry, I’ve also tried to fathom why Superman has continued languish halfway around the Top 100 every month when the best Superman comics in a generation are out there at the moment. Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness are, in my opinion, the best Superman creative team since, Christ, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Warren Ellis was a skinny eighteen year old. Likewise, I’m a huge fan of Joes Kelly and Casey and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs man Mark Schultz. Kano, Pascual Ferry and Doug Mahnke are some of my favourite artists right now (I’m actually planning to steal them both at the earliest opportunity) and Mike Weiringo’s brief run on Casey’s exhilarating Adventures title was the best visualization of the character since Alex Ross first worked his magic. So why are sales still so disappointing? Taken together, these guys are probably the strongest story and art team on any of the popular franchises at either Marvel or DC Comics. There is no fifth wheel here. No ugly pal scaring off the pretty girls at the bar. These books have been trying their hardest for two or three years now with event after event and there’s been little, if any, improvement in their overall condition which leads me to the conclusion that Superman might just be beyond saving. It’s an open-secret that Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Tom Peyer and myself were approached by a DC Comics Group Editor to pitch for the Superman franchise a few years ago and we were pissed off we didn’t get it at the time. In hindsight, however, I wonder if it was a blessing-in-disguise because I’m not convinced the creative teams are really the problem.
So whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? My theory is, like all pop icons, his time just came and went. Like Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan, his relevance expired. Because so few of us can remember a time when Superman DIDN’T appear in Hollywood movies and multiple titles every month, we’re fooled into thinking that things will always be the same. But they aren’t. Times change and, like Atari games and winkle-picker shoes, Superman only exists for a dwindling number of followers and the occasional kitsch revival. It struck me hardest when I watched the recently-released Superman DVD a few months ago and noticed how much Superman embodied the 20th century. One of the reasons I think Superman The Movie can never be surpassed by future directors is that it sums up everything about the century he was created for. It starts in the Depression of the thirties moves through an adolescence which seems to be set in the nineteen fifties and eventually brings itself up to the present day. Even the cast go back to the early days of American cinema and stalwarts of every previous Superman movie and television program are provided with cameos. Superman was created in the Great Depression by two Jewish kids and was essentially a fable for the Jews, the Italians, the Mexicans or the Asians who took us much from Lady Liberty and their adoptive new home as Clark Kent. It’s no coincidence that Superman was a movie, a breakfast cereal and an assortment of toys within three or four years of its first publication. It was made for it’s time and we’ve been living off that momentum for quite a while now. Even the guys who made the movie from the seventies were just bringing to the big screen something they loved as a TV show twenty years before, much like the Spider-Man and Hulk movies of today.
Does this mean Superman will ever disappear? I don’t think so. As I write, there’s a television show featuring a fresh spin on Superman’s early years and doing pretty well in the ratings at the moment. Like Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan, there will always be people who love this stuff enough to try to get a project off the ground and periods where these kind of characters will actually be fashionable for a little while as some new writer or director gets a chance to have a shot at something he appreciated as a kid. There’s a Phantom Society of Australia, for God’s sake, so I don’t think Superman will disappear from the radar by any means. As far as comics goes, I think his future might be a little more uncertain. After all, what’s left to do with the guy but bury him when you’ve already told the world he was killed by Doomsday? Some rays of hope ARE on the horizon, thank Christ, when Mark Waid (who wrote the best Superman story ever with Kingdom Come) and Warren Ellis (the superhero writer of his generation) unleash their respective Superman series in 2003. Then, of course, there’s, ahem, the Superman: Red Son project which Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett and myself have been working on for a number of years. Can Jude Law make Superman cool again in a way that Dean Cain couldn’t? Our royalties are depending on it.
Mark Millar can be found on the Web at his new Web site www.millarworld.biz.