Monday, August 15, 2011

Blogathon 03: Who is Superman? Part One

[Beginning my series of posts discussing some different interpretations of Superman from the past ten years...]

Earlier this year, I reread It's a Bird... by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen for the first time since it first came out. A Vertigo graphic novel, it's a partially autobiographic exploration of Superman by Seagle after his fictional counterpart is offered one of the Superman comics by his editor at DC. There's also a lot of family/personal stuff thrown in, but what I want to focus on is the Superman stuff. Seagle offers so many differing views and approaches and takes on the character in this story that it seems like the natural starting place to begin with. That so many are divorced from traditional views of the character, breaking him down to his components and their symbolic value is of particular interest to me.

Seagle first approaches Superman as a comic book character. He's the star of a comic that he read once with his brother while waiting in the hospital for reasons that become clearer later. Then, he's a character (or a title, I suppose) that he's offered to write. That these two points are where he begins is important, because, before all else, Superman is a fictional comic book superhero. He may be everything else people try to put on him, but that's where it begins. Before his role as a Christ stand-in or a film character or an image on a pillowcase, he's the figure in a comic book. He's not real, he's dispossible, he's just ink and paper. That's where he begins and, ultimately, where he ends. I'm not trying to be dismissal or lessen the character's import, by the way.

And he's a character that fictional Seagle doesn't want to write. The rest of the story is him struggling with what Superman is and what he means as his editor, his girlfriend, anyone who knows about the offer, insists he should take. He says that he doesn't relate to Superman, a problem that I sometimes share.

In breaking Superman down, Seagle offers different views. Take the costume: he gives us a short story about a teenager who wears a Superman costume to school on Halloween and, for the first time, he genuinely feels, well, super because of how people look at him. The next day, he's just his boring self again. A week later, he returns to school in the costume and is laughed at, ridiculed, labelled 'weird' and sent home. People talk about the iconic power of Superman's costume and his chest symbol, but does it hold any value when someone else is wearing those things? If you put on the costume, you're not super, you're not Superman -- and, yet, that's the thing so closely identified with him than anything else. Is it ultimately an empty symbol?

Later, in examining the colours of the costume, Seagle breaks down the various meanings, how the primary colours come from the desire to pop and the simplicities of printing at the time of his creation. The sequence is rather stunning visually as Kristiansen uses the same pose but changes the colours. We see Superman brought down to just blue or the red, yellow, and blue switched around. That those versions of the costume don't look right is interesting. Is it because those colours work best this way or is it simply that we're used to Superman as is? Looking at the colours, we see rage, cowardice, and depression. There are other meanings, but I like those ones best in my scorning, mocking way.

What does the costume of Superman mean exactly? What does any costume mean? Other interpretations of the character won't bother with that entirely aside from Joe Casey's final year on Adventures of Superman where a visit to Heroville results in the soldiers that accompanied him wearing superhero costumes to walk among the populace and Superman telling them to wear their colours proud. The costume is so tied to the idea of a superhero and Superman's to him. It's not the key to his character, but it's a start...

In 30 minutes, I get past the surface a little. I hope.

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