R.I.P. Joe Kubert

Sgt. Rock and Easy Company.

The comic book world is poorer today for the loss of legendary artist Joe Kubert. You can find out the details of his life and death and contributions to the comic book industry somewhere else if you want to, but I just want to express how much the man’s art meant to me personally. If it weren’t for a huge stack of torn and yellowed issues of G.I. Combat I found almost fifteen years ago at my grandparents’ house, I doubt I would appreciate comic books as much as I do today. I’m sure the writing was excellent and complex (G.I. Combat was ahead of its time where mature storytelling was concerned), but the only thing that really matters when you’re eight is the art. It either grabs your attention and keeps it, or it doesn’t. Joe’s always did. It still does. That’s the nice thing about truly good stories: they last.

He couldn’t have known it at the time, but Joe Kubert’s illustrations from these old war comics would be remembered long after they were first published. They’ve been collected into graphic novels and reprinted in comic encyclopedias many times over. More importantly, they influenced me profoundly when I was young. In the pages of G.I. Combat, they were my introduction to the world of comic books. Seeing how much I enjoyed the comics they already had, my grandparents started buying newer ones for me and my siblings. That’s how I got hooked on Spider-Man, which is why I went to see the 2002 film version the day it came out. As soon as I left the theater, I went into a bookstore and bought my first comic with my own money. Ever since then, comics have been an integral part of my life, and Joe Kubert’s art is directly responsible for that. Like I said, Joe couldn’t have known what a profound effect his work would have on my childhood decades later. But if nothing else, it brought a lot of joy into my life. I can’t think of a better legacy for a comic book illustrator. Thanks Joe.

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Why I Love Superman (Part 2: Addressing Criticisms of the Character)

Last time, I discussed my views on Superman. They were very positive.  I am of the opinion that Superman is the quintessential superhero, with rich potential for consistently excellent high-concept stories. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way. I see a lot of anti-Superman sentiment these days, be it on the internet or in conversation with friends. For the most part it seems to be coming from non-comic book readers rather than hardcore nerds. This is probably because they only have the Superman films and a handful of cartoons to judge him by. Now, the nicest thing I can say about Superman’s appearances in other media is that they have been a bit…um, inconsistent. Sadly, there’s been a lot more bad than good. So hey: if you’ve never read a Superman comic, but you saw Superman IV: The Quest for Peace when you were seven and you think he’s lame, I completely understand. You get a free pass. Stick around, you might enjoy finding out that you’re wrong.

But I have heard plenty of negative things about Big Blue from the other side of the aisle as well. And if you’ve been reading comics as long as I have and still think Superman is lame, or even that he’s less interesting than other superheroes: well, shame on you. Shame. You should know better. You have Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and Superman: Birthright, and All-Star Superman and Kingdom Come and Must There Be a Superman? and countless other stories starring the Last Son of Krypton to serve as evidence to the contrary. I shouldn’t have to tell you this. Well, no matter. In the next several paragraphs,  I’m going to examine the three most common criticisms of Superman (or at least, the three I seem to hear the most often) and do my best to explain why I don’t think they’re valid. Here we go:

1. Superman is not relatable because he has too much power. 

“I know you’re stronger, why would you even AAGGGHHH!”

This one is, without a doubt, the most popular argument I’ve heard from the anti-Superman camp. On the surface, it has merit. After all, Superman can lift mountains. He can fly faster than you can think. He can use his heat vision to put a crater in the moon while he’s sitting on the Kents’ front porch. How can a character who can do all of those things possibly be as relatable to young people as, say, Batman, who uses only his wits and skills to fight crime? In fact, no superhero can come close to matching Superman in terms of power. So how can a character who’s virtually all-powerful and indestructible be relatable to readers?

Well, here’s your answer: Superman is plenty relatable. It doesn’t matter how powerful he is or how often he wins. See, people in the comic book world toss around the word “relatable” a lot. A lot. It’s like a mantra to them. But to me, the word has lost its true meaning over the years. A character being relatable doesn’t mean that their circumstances resemble yours. No, a relatable character is one whose behavior is realistic and nothing more. If you, the reader, can understand why a character does what he does, mission accomplished. You can relate to them. You don’t have to agree with their actions, nor do they even have to be the actions you would have taken in the same situation. As long as the writer has clearly explained them to you and you think to yourself  “Yeah, that makes sense,” then congratulations; you’ve just related to a fictional character. Have you ever met someone who, despite their flaws, is smart, responsible, thoughtful, kindhearted, and selfless? I know I have. Well, go read a Superman comic. If it’s a good one, you’ll be able to relate to Superman because you know that there are people with similar qualities who might do the same thing if they were in his position. Pretty cool, huh?

Before I move on, I just want to bring one thing up. Even if you believe that a superhero’s life circumstances do play a part in making them relatable, consider this: taking away the elements in their lives that require suspension of disbelief, Clark Kent’s existence is probably much closer to yours than Bruce Wayne’s. After all, Clark had a relatively normal childhood, works a regular 9:00-5:00 job (one he’s probably stressed about losing since nobody reads newspapers anymore), he’s married, he lives in a modest apartment that costs more than it should because it’s in the big city, and his co-workers take advantage of him because he’s a nice guy. Bruce Wayne was raised by his butler, travels the world, drives a luxury automobile, lives in a mansion, runs a billion dollar company, and attends or hosts charity balls and parties all the time. Which one of these two men has a life that’s closer to yours, hmmm?

2. There is no tension in Superman stories because he doesn’t have enough weaknesses.

“And magic! It, uh, it turns your kids into demon worshipers! Yeah…”

 I’m sure you’ve heard this one before. Hell, you might have even used it yourself. Superman’s only real weakness is Kryptonite (well, that and magic, but it’s mostly comic book nerds who know that). If the baddie is going to be a real threat, he’s got to have Kryptonite, right? That’s got to get boring after a while, right? And if he doesn’t have Kryptonite, the fight’s over before it starts, right? And okay, if magic counts too, that’s only one other kind of villain Superman can fight who might be able to threaten him. Batman and Spider-Man have to worry about dying in a thousand different ways on their adventures. That gives them tension and drama that Superman just can’t have, because as much as he might pretend to the contrary, he’s immortal!

I have several responses to this argument, which might actually be the easiest one to address. First, a truly creative writer can give his villain plenty of ways to take down Superman without using Kryptonite or magic. There are plenty of examples to draw from, but I won’t go into detail here (red solar energy, sensory overload, distraction from the real target, cutting off oxygen, mind control, etc.). Second, it’s truly sad if the only thing that makes our heroes interesting is how easily they can be killed. I’m all for comics having serious themes, but an obsession with the mortality of the characters appearing in them damages their escapist element to a degree I’m just not comfortable with. Third, Superman’s conflict with villains is not where the tension comes from (or at least, it shouldn’t be). It’s on a bigger scale than that.

I talked about this a little bit in my last blog post, but it’s worth restating. Superman has the power to remove a great deal of suffering from the earth. He could disarm every country with nukes. He could unseat dictators. He could alter the landscape of nations in order to put more space between warring people groups. With the technology he has access to at the Fortress of Solitude, Superman could probably fix most of the world’s problems.

But he can’t. Well, he won’t. He has too much respect for free will to do that. Superman always worries about whether he’s doing too much already. What if his attempts to help earth are actually keeping its people from realizing their own potential? What if they become so dependent on him that they won’t know how to solve problems on their own? In fact, that’s one of the reasons that Lex Luthor, Superman’s archnemesis, hates him so much. He worries that the Man of Tomorrow might someday try to use his power and resources to rule the world in order to save it. Admittedly, Lex doesn’t exactly have the planet’s best interests at heart, but he’s got a point. Superman could rule the world if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. He’s too responsible and too humble to presume that he knows what’s best for everyone. And he’s too concerned that he’s already limiting the natural development of earth and its cultures. That’s where the tension in Superman stories comes from. It comes from Superman’s mission to inspire change, not force it. If you’re American, you might find that conflict especially relevant today. Understand that when you read Superman comics from now on, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy them more.

3. Superman’s Clark Kent disguise is dumb.

“But, I’m mild-mannered! Superman’s not mild-mannered!”

 I almost didn’t include this one because it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the other arguments I’ve mentioned, and it is also quite easy to address. So real quick, here we go: no, glasses and a different hairstyle are not a good enough disguise to fool so many people. But that’s not the most important part of Superman’s disguise. It’s about muscle control, practiced mannerisms, body language, a different voice, baggier clothing, and an overall attitude. Keeping in mind the fact that the Clark Kent disguise was developed by Siegel and Shuster before TV or decent quality photographs, and there you are. If you want, watch the scene in the first Superman movie where Clark switches personas back and forth while trying to decide whether to tell Lois the truth about Superman and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

Now, I know there are other, more specific complaints about Superman that you may have. But, if you think about them carefully, you’ll see that they probably can fit under the umbrella of the three broader issues I listed above. If not, let me know. We’ll talk. As always, this was an opinion piece. If you disagree, I understand. I’m just trying to give some love to an icon who deserves it. Superman is still relevant, you guys. Maybe now more than ever. I hope this helped if you doubt that.

Why I Love Superman (Part 1: How I See Him)

I watched The Dark Knight Rises this past weekend. It was great (EDIT: Having seen TDKR multiple times since, “great” is not the word I’d use now. Impressive, perhaps. Maybe even entertaining. But “great” is giving it too much credit). One of the previews we got to see before the movie was a minute and a half teaser for The Man Of Steel, Zach Snyder’s Superman movie. Since the movie won’t be released until next summer, there obviously wasn’t much interesting footage. What little I did see disturbed me, though. Right from the beginning, the logos for DC comics and the production studios were displayed in the same black and gray as they were before The Dark Knight Rises. Then we see gray overcast skies and a depressed, bearded Clark Kent working as….a fisherman I guess. Then we hear Kevin Costner give a voiceover about how Clark has to decide what kind of man he will be. Then a reeeeallly short clip of Superman flying, and that’s it.

Like I said, they probably don’t have much footage to work with at this point, and certainly not enough for me to make a definitive statement about the quality of the movie. But, until I see evidence to the contrary, I now have no reason not to assume that this new Superman film will be grim and full of angst (similar to what Tim Burton was planning to with the character for his failed Superman Lives film). And that’s too bad. Because I love Superman, and I don’t want to see his character altered to reflect the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Maybe that is what most moviegoers want to see. Maybe they want all of their heroes to be flawed and unstable and perpetually brooding. Because that’s the only way they can be “interesting”, right? Well, I don’t think so.

Apparently Superman killed Mystique and wears her skin as a trophy.

You see, I love Superman. I’ve always loved him, and I always will. Not so much for what he can do (which is admittedly awesome) but for what he represents: our potential. I don’t mean flying and invulnerability and heat vision. No, I mean our potential as a species to become better people. Someday maybe we can also be selfless, compassionate, and noble. Those are the characteristics of Superman I most admire. I’m less interested in the Man of Steel than I am in the Man of Tomorrow. To me, Superman symbolizes everything that is good about us. He is all of our best qualities externalized. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

We don’t like being reminded that most of the time we aren’t living up to our potential. We want heroes who are like us instead of heroes who are what we could be. We’d rather have a hero who is motivated by negative emotions and a tragic past, who copes with his issues instead of trying to overcome them. There are valuable lessons to be learned from those kinds of characters, it’s true. But I don’t believe we should be content merely with heroes that cope. We need heroes who learn from mistakes (whether their own or others’) and move past them, heroes who grow and change with time. We need heroes who do what they do to help people, not to make themselves feel better. Superman is a hero for all of the right reasons, and he is a hero in all the right ways. So how should movies depict Superman? How should comics be depicting Superman? Well, here’s my take:

When I think of the Man of Tomorrow, I think of him as being the synthesis of two of my favorite fictional characters (maybe these choices will seem a bit random to you, but I grew up watching both of these guys on a regular basis, so I can’t help jumping right to them). The first of these is James McKay, the main character of William Wyler’s 1958 western film, The Big Country. He is a retired sea captain who moves west with his fiancee, only to discover that everyone there, including said fiancee, expects him to constantly prove his manhood in public displays. But McKay has sworn off this foolish behavior. His father died years before in a pointless duel of honor and he doesn’t want anyone to go down that same path. He has a quiet determination, he’d rather talk than fight (but fight he does when he finds it necessary), he shows mercy when he has the chance to kill his enemies, and he tries to broker a peace between two warring families of ranchers.

Movie posters used to be WAY cooler.

I’d highly recommend you watch The Big Country if you want to know more about the movie. It really is a gem. The thing that stood out to me the most, even as a child, was how cool McKay was. He’s not a western hero in the traditional sense, but that’s the point. His conduct throughout the movie essentially shows the audience that traditional western heroes aren’t really that admirable. Far more admirable is a man who wants to solve problems with words rather than guns. He doesn’t show favoritism to either side, providing solutions to their problems and pointing out their foolishness when they need to hear it the most. By the end of the movie, McKay’s actions and his sincerity have convinced many of these antagonistic ranchers to hear the wisdom in his words. Some of them don’t, or at least, they don’t care. But that’s the way it always is, right? (Psst! That applies to Superman!)

The second fictional character I see in Superman is Jean-Luc Picard, my favorite captain of the Enterprise. While James T. Kirk is certainly an awesome dude, I have to say that Picard really lives out the creed of Starfleet and The Federation of Planets the best. It’s pointed out more in Star Trek: The Next Generation than any other Trek show that Starfleet is not a military organization. The crew of the Enterprise are primarily explorers, ambassadors, and relief workers. Occasionally they do have to fight battles, but it is always as a last resort, when there are no acceptable alternatives. Picard, more so than Kirk, really exemplifies those principles.  He has some flaws, of course, but that just reminds us that humanity can always improve, even in the enlightened era of the 24th century.

“Make it so.”

One thing I want to specifically mention is how Picard interacts with less advanced cultures. Starfleets’s number one rule is called the Prime Directive, which forbids interference with the development of alien cultures. While he sometimes interprets the Prime Directive a bit loosely as the situations dictate, Picard upholds the spirit of it at all times. He understands that some worlds are just not ready for the kind of knowledge and power he has at his disposal. Whatever choices they make, it must be them making the decision. If Picard used Starfleet’s technology to solve all of a more primitive society’s problems, they would eventually lose the motivation to solve problems for themselves. This leads to all kind of conflicts within the show, of course. When should the Prime Directive be broken, if ever? How much assistance given to a world that desperately needs it is too much? (Pssst! See how this also applies to Superman?)

I hope you could see how all this tied into Superman. But allow me to spell it out just in case I wasn’t clear enough: this is how I see Superman. Obviously there have been many writers over the years who have tried a number of different approaches to the character, and many of them have been successful. But this is the approach I feel is best suited to The Man of Steel: a fusion of James McKay’s wise outsider with quiet strength and Jean-Luc Picard’s philosophical ambassador of the future.

I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone but me, and if that’s the case I apologize for wasting your time. But do me a favor: if this has piqued your curiosity even the slightest bit (whether you agree or disagree), watch The Big Country, and a few episodes of Star Trek: TNG (“First Contact”, “Who Watches the Watchers”, “The Measure of a Man”, “The Offspring”, “Wounded”) just to get a feel for what I’m saying. If you like your Superman to be more of an action hero than a philosopher, I get that. I do. I know I used to feel the same way. If you like a darker hero, I also understand. Sometimes dark heroes do seem more interesting than “boy scouts.” This post was purely opinion. Anyways, stay tuned for part two, in which I discuss some of the criticisms of Superman and whether they stand up to scrutiny.