Glen Weldon knows what makes Superman soar

When Wiley wanted to publish a history of Superman in time for this month's Man of Steel, they contacted the right guy to write it. Glen Weldon covers comics for NPR's Monkey See blog and is also the resident comics expert on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He's insightful and funny, the perfect person to guide someone through the confusing, 75-year history of the Man of Tomorrow, which is what he does in Superman: The Unauthorized Biography.

Superman's history isn't just confusing because of the legal battle between his creators and the publisher whose marketing and licensing made the character a household name, although there is that, too. There are also the countless (well, I would have said countless; Weldon proves me wrong by counting them) retcons and reboots and reinterpretations that have affected the Last Son of Krypton and his supporting cast for three quarters of a century. Weldon navigates all of that in his book and finds the through-line that defines Superman and what he really stands for.

This is something I've been thinking about myself lately, so I was eager to not only read Weldon's book, but to talk to him about it and get some more insight. I learned a lot in the process, including the true meaning of Kryptonite, the importance of Electric Superman, and the real failure of Superman Returns.

Michael May: I want to start with something that's going to sound like a statement, but I promise there’s a question at the end. Superman’s fathers play an important role in shaping the man he becomes. In the comics, Jonathan Kent is traditionally the primary force in grounding Clark to humanity and giving him his moral code, but the trailers for Man of Steel are playing up Jonathan’s fear that people won’t understand or accept a superman.

In contrast, it’s Russell Crowe's Jor-El in the recent trailers who talks about his son’s moral responsibility. And of course there’s Marlon Brando’s “my only son” speech in Superman: The Movie. I’m not asking you to pass judgment on a movie you haven’t seen, but I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about Superman’s two dads and the role each plays in his development.

Glen Weldon: I wrote a piece for Monkey See when that (second?) trailer came out, showing Pa Kent expressing fear. My reaction then stands -- I kind of like it. It makes sense to me. Ma and Pa Kent have always been treated as secondary characters whose role, in the hero's journey, is to instill Midwestern values in him, outfit him with a few homespun homilies, and send him on his way. Which is fine -- you need to surround your protagonist with characters that help define and delineate him.

But what if they weren’t secondary, flat characters? What if they had internal conflicts of their own, conflicts that served to complicate the wisdom they impart as parents? Smallville touched on this, a little, in its way. It may not work, but it certainly serves to make Pa Kent a character in his own right.

In the ’78 film, Jor-El and Pa Kent represented head and heart, respectively. Jor-El supplied him with knowledge, and a respect for the rules. Pa Kent taught him that he has the power to help people – to save them – and that’s what matters. So his final decision, in the last act, to hit the temporal reset button is effectively a rejection of his cold, Kryptonian heritage and an embrace of his status as a child of Earth.

Years later, in the Man of Steel miniseries, Bryne would turn that subtext into the explicit text. And years after that, Waid’s Birthright would invert it again. It will continue to see-saw back and forth, as new writers put their spin on the guy.

You talk in the book about Kryptonite as a symbol of Superman’s past. If his powers and attitude are metaphors for unlimited potential and looking to the future, the harmful relic of his old home represents the ability of the past to hold us back and potentially even to harm us. That’s a brilliant way of looking at it. It also raises the question: How important should Krypton continue to be to Superman? Is the character damaged by stories in which he wallows in grief or nostalgia for his homeworld? Or is there value in revisiting that concept every so often? 

The Weisinger Silver Age was obsessed with Krypton, because it effectively infused the stories with the primal, Freudian emotions of early kid-hood that readers felt in their guts: loneliness, fear of abandonment, etc.

When Kryptonite was introduced in the movie serial, on the radio, and (years later) in the comics, it did more than just weaken Superman – it was the means by which he learned who he was and where he came from, for the very first time. That was information the audience knew well, but not Superman himself.

So this relic of the past, this thing that can kill you, is the thing that literally tells you who you are. That is some heady symbolism – if we were to break into response groups to unpack it all, it’d take days.

For the first 20 or so years of his existence, Krypton wasn’t a particularly big deal. Then, during the Silver Age, it became his melancholy obsession. That diminished a bit in the Bronze Age, as the pursuit of Relevance had writers struggling to make Superman more Earth-bound and “relatable.” Byrne turned Krypton into a cold technological nightmare world to be shunned, and Waid turned it back into a science-fiction utopia.

All of these interpretations seem equally valid to me, inasmuch as they provide fodder for interesting stories – I have my personal preferences, but they have more to do with me than they have to do with the character.

Another surprising observation in your book is the importance of Electric Superman. A lot of fans would love to pretend that phase of Superman’s career never happened, but it uniquely illustrates a vital part of Superman’s character.

I admit I would have loved it if Superman’s electric phase look didn’t evoke “Olympic Figure Skater” as strongly as it did, but that bold experiment helped me understand that Superman isn’t his costume, or his powers.

What makes a firefighter a hero isn’t his flame-retardant uniform. It’s what he does, and why he does it. Superman: Same deal.

So all the outward signifiers – costume, powers, spit-curl, etc. – are just that.

Superman: 1. Puts the needs of others over those of himself, and 2. Never gives up. Those are the two elements that any story about Superman require. As I detail in the book, when either or both of those elements are missing, we instinctively reject it -- it feels wrong, off-base; just not Superman.

Superman is a powerful character because he symbolizes the best of humanity. He gives us something to aspire to. But as you point out in the book, the specific ideal that he represents has changed over the years and decades. In the ‘30s, he was all about social justice, but during the ‘40s he came to represent World War II patriotism. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, he turned into a defender of conservative domesticity and the status quo. I’ll ask about the late ‘60s and beyond in a minute, but which of those early decades is your favorite from the standpoint of Superman’s symbolizing an ideology?

Personally, I like the progressive reformer Superman, the defender of the little guy. Those early stories have a raw, propulsive, rough-around-the-edges energy; this Superman is looking out for us, but he’s not safe.

Again, that progressive aspect to his character is what makes him the Man of Tomorrow – he inspires us forward, like the Socio-Realist murals of the time, into the golden, sunlit future.

Is it fair to say that Superman’s representation of human perfection reflects a distinctly American perspective? 

In one sense, he’s the ultimate Immigrant Who Makes Good, and that aspect resonates strongly with the can-do American psyche. And certainly, Superman is powered by an ideological fuel mixture that strikes me as uniquely American – our noblest ideals (Truth! Justice!), our propensity for violence (and our struggle to rein it in), and our unabashed love of garish spectacle (the guy’s basically a July 4 fireworks display stuffed into a pair of blue long johns).

But after all, one of his creators was Canadian. And the idea of him – that of a powerful protector who does the right thing because it is the right thing – isn’t unique to America. It’s one of the oldest ideas in the world, and it appears in every culture’s myths and folklore.

Starting in the late ‘60s, Americans became divided about what the ideal American should look like. As large parts of the country lost trust in the government, how well do you think Superman functioned as a symbol of perfection?

The mood of the country soured with Vietnam and Watergate, and Superman came to represent the capital-E Establishment. But keep in mind his primary audience was young kids, who seek assurance that Good will triumph over Evil, that their place in the world is secure.

As I note in the book, the late-sixties was a time when parodies of Superman and super-heroes proliferated (Batman! Underdog! Super Chicken! Mighty Heroes! Atom Ant! Captain Nice! etc etc) because older kids and adults found the whole notion of a costumed do-gooder – at least one without some kind of psychological hangup -- ridiculous.

What do you think prevented him from keeping up with the times?

As I touched on above, Superman was written for young kids – by middle-aged men. DC didn’t know what to do about what the newsmagazines were calling “the growing youth culture” – so they simply peppered their usual stories with references to “hip” things like “the Beatles rock music”. It was fine for kids, but suddenly kids weren’t buying as many comics as they used to – teenagers were.

Marvel had taken another tack – adopted by writers who were just as middle-aged as their DC counterparts, but who were savvy enough to pitch their comics to adolescents. They made comics about angst-ridden, hormonal teens FOR angst-ridden, hormonal teens. Bingo.

DC, convinced that they needed to make Superman more relatable and relevant, did what they thought they should, though it didn’t work. Denny O’Neil wrote a more grounded, less powerful Superman in the '70s, Swan and Anderson adopted a more photorealistic, Neal-Adams-esque style, and there were repeated, earnest, well-intentioned attempts to get Superman to address issues of race, poverty, sexism, etc. But it’s a mug's game: Such stories don’t bridge the distance between his simple, iconic, four-color world and our own – they only serve to widen it.

Has Superman ever found his way back to being a consistent, ideal representation of humanity (American or otherwise)?

There’s the idea of Superman that exists in the public consciousness, and there’s the Superman of the comics. In 1978, with the appearance of Superman: The Movie, the comics lost what little ability they’d retained to shape the notion of Superman that exists in the cultural ether. When it comes to what my sweet, silver-haired Aunt Fay thinks of Superman, it’s about the movies, not the comics.

In that regard, the fragmentation of media means that many different versions of Superman, new and old, are available at any one time. Smallville, the animated series, Superman IV, Superboy, Justice League, the comics, the Elseworlds, the trade paperbacks of old storylines ... they all exist, ready for sampling. On one hand, this lowers the barriers that keep new audiences from sampling his adventures, but it also makes the prospect more overwhelming and confusing: Where to start?

Me, I always suggest Superman: The Animated Series – an effective synthesis of classic iconography and contemporary concerns.

Also, they are awesome.

What was your introduction to Superman?

Super Friends, I think. Or that cartoon short of him on Sesame Street, in which teaches kids about the letter S. Which led me to the old Superman TV cartoons (voiced by Bud Collyer, of the original radio show), which led me to George Reeves, and that was it.

It seems like a lot of fans get to Superman through a similar route. I know I’ve logged many many more Superman hours in movies and TV than I have in reading his comics. How important are comics to Superman stories? Can people get the same experience from other media?

As I’ve mentioned, one of the most important things I learned in writing the book was how pervasive -- how important -- the movies (and to a lesser extent the TV shows) have been to ensconcing Superman in the public mind.

The engagement I feel to the Superman of the comics is strong and binding. But, on a population level, there’s only a handful of people like me. There are trillions of non-comics readers in the world, and most of them have a pretty good idea of who Superman is. Their level of engagement is nowhere near as deep as mine, but it is real, and in many ways theirs is a cleaner, purer vision of him, as its unencumbered by the decades of trivia and reboots and retcons I carry around with me. For them, he’s simply an icon. For me, he’s a character.

Speaking of Superman in other media, you mention in the book that Phyllis Coates was working on a sitcom that prevented her from returning to Adventures of Superman as Lois Lane in Season 2. This is a totally self-indulgent question, but do you know what sitcom that was? She's probably my favorite Lois, so I'm curious.

Michael J. Hayde's book Flights of Fantasy, a much deeper dive into the Adventures of Superman era, tells me she left to co-star with Jack Carter in a sitcom called Here Comes Calvin. IMDb says it never went to series, though.

One of the complaints people make about Superman is that they can’t buy altruism as a motive for doing heroic things. That probably says more about readers than about the character, but what's your response to that?

I feel like I shouldn’t have to point this out, but people who do the right thing unquestioningly do exist. As Greg Rucka pointed out in the wake of the Boston bombing, amid all the horror captured in those videos, you see people running to help out, people whose instinct was to step in and do what they can.

True, most of us would run. But some of us wouldn’t. Some of us don’t. Some of us never do. Superman is a guy who does the right thing because it’s right – but also because he knows he can. That doesn’t make him any less a hero. It makes him a guy who does what he firmly believes is his job.

That brings to mind the section of your book where you write about Superman Returns. Most of the criticism I hear of that movie is about the lack of action or the idea that Superman and Lois have a son or that it’s just too similar to previous movies. You have a different complaint, though.

The theatrical cut of the film shows Superman returning to Earth after abandoning it for five years, as he went in search of his people.

No. Sorry. Wouldn’t happen.

He puts the needs of others over those of himself. He never gives up. Spider-Man? He’d leave. He often has. He’s the reluctant hero. Superman isn’t. You can try to graft a self-centered motivation onto his character, but we won’t buy it.

Superman Returns shows us a Man of Steel who turns his back on the people he’s sworn to protect, out of a desire to find his people. This is what the screenwriters want to explore – what would happen when a hero lets us down. The film proceeds to punish him for his betrayal – he is rejected by Lois, brought low by Luthor.

But the movie never bothers to provide an emotionally satisfying explanation for why he let us down in the first place. His departure is treated as a plot point – we don’t see him making the decision to leave, so when we watch him get punished for a crime we never witnessed, that crime hangs in the air between us and the story.

Before we finish, let's talk about endings for a bit. Superman's probably never been more popular than he was when he died in the ‘90s and most of the general public thought he wasn’t coming back. Is there a message in that? Do people just want the end of the story? Is the continuing nature of corporate-owned superhero comics a drawback in bringing in new readers?

Like soap opera characters, a mainstream and heavily licensed comics property like Superman is denied the one thing that turns a series of events into a story – he is denied an ending.

Endings shape narrative, but Superman’s narrative is simply endless, Sisyphean iteration. That’s why the Silver Age started churning out Imaginary Stories – many of which found Lois and Superman attaining some measure of suburban domestic bliss, in an age when the American Dream consisted of backyards, barbecues and bridge nights.

It’s why Elseworlds became a whole thing, why we hunger to imagine an ending, any ending for a character like Superman.

As for new readers, the wealth of stories in all kinds of media can be daunting. I think they just want a good story. It’s nerds like me, who’ve seen the same stories iterated again and again and again, who are forever seeking closure, often unconsciously.

You close the book by talking about how Superman will always endure. This is a controversial question, but do you have an opinion on how that should happen? Should Superman stay in the sole custody of DC or would you like to see him eventually enter the public domain?

The idea of Superman long ago transcended the various media that deliver him to us. As a thought experiment, I love the idea of Superman as a public domain character like Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. But one of the reasons he’s managed to pervade the culture is all the heavily licensed transmedia cross-platform synergistic revenue stream blah de blah that DC and Warners will never let go of. I’d like to see it happen, but I’m not holding my breath.

What Superman comic book stories would you recommend to someone interested in learning why he’s so awesome?

All-Star Superman is a fantastic Superman story, but I think it makes a lousy introduction to the character. It’s a feat of synthesis that taps into Superman’s Jungian archetypal blah blah blah, and it’s got a nice solid ending (and a tremendous characterization of Luthor). But the whole thing is fed by a substrata of Superman’s comics history; without even a passing understanding, it’d be like reading a poorly translated book of poetry. You’d miss the music.

So I’d start with Action Comics #5, in which, for the first time, all the classic Superman elements come together. Big huge set-piece – a dam is threatening to burst, Superman must race a train to stop it, all depicted in Shuster’s raw, kinetic linework.

I love that first Mxyzptlk comics story [Superman #30], which shows Superman outwitting a foe, not simply relying on his amazing strength.

I’d want something from the Silver Age. I’m a sucker for “The Red Headed Beatle of 1,000 BC” but that’s a Jimmy Olsen story, technically. Either "Superman’s Return to Krypton" [Superman #141] or "The Death of Superman" [Superman #149], then, which is filled with high weirdness (a rocket with a warhead the shape of Luthor’s head) and the salty (Choke! Sob!) emotionalism of the age.

"Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" [Superman #123; Action Comics #583] provides a nice if deeply melancholic walking tour of classic Superman, and "For The Man Who Has Everything" [Superman Annual #11] is smart about a lot of things, and somehow got me to like Jason Todd.

Man of Steel is of interest to show how Byrne overhauled the character to suit the Reagan era.

I’m not a fan of the '90s "Death of Superman", so I’d skip that in favor of the entire run of Superman Adventures, which told a lot of great, kid-friendly stories with economy, style and humor.

Round it out with BirthrightSecret Identity, and Greg Rucka’s Adventures of Superman run.

What's your greatest fear and greatest hope for the Man of Steel movie?

Snyder makes great trailers, but soulless films. Nolan fully imagines the worlds he puts on screen, but lends them all the same chilly, distant, brooding tone. I worry that the marriage of the two filmmakers will exacerbate the worst traits of both.

In other words: Superman doesn’t brood. We’ve got a guy who does that. Superman isn’t him.

I’m cautiously optimistic, however. The quotes from Birthright and All-Star Superman are encouraging. Hearing the word “hope” mentioned: Yes. The way Pa Kent reacts when Clark ask if the boy can keep pretending to be his son: Also good.

I’m a pretty cynical d-bag in most areas of my life, but when it comes to Superman I’m a romantic. A Superman film needs heart, needs hope, needs earnestness – you catch a glimpse of it in that shot in the trailer, showing the kid running around his backyard with a towel around his neck, putting his hands on his hips. Boom. That’s the moment. The Superman Shot. That’s what I, and many thousands of nerdlings like me, have been doing in our backyards for 75 years. That’s Superman.

If the film can capture that, I’m in.

The Dark Multiverse Proves [SPOILER] Is the Most Dangerous Teen Titan

More in Comics