Monday, August 15, 2011

Blogathon 04: Who is Superman? Part Two

[Continuing my look at different interpretations of Superman from the past ten years...]

What exactly is it about Superman that keeps people like me away? The only times I bother with the character are when a writer I already likes writes something featuring the character. I've mentioned that I can't relate to the character and that I find his lack of a struggle with heroism a turn-off. But, there are others who relate to the character incredibly. Mark Waid has often spoke of his deeply personal relationship to the character.

The costume isn't honestly an issue for me. But, it is a form of protection, a distancing mechanism. His symbol on his chest is a shield. That he has two identities, one Superman, one Clark Kent, makes Superman himself distant. We could relate to Clark kent, because he's a human from Kansas that spends much of his time pining over a woman who doesn't love him. Superman is the fantasy alter-ego that has no problems and no real challenges. His fights against crime are just things that occupy his time it seems. Except, here's the problem: Superman is the reality and Clark Kent is the fantasy. It's not like the Peter Parker/Spider-Man relationship where he's Peter first and Spider-Man is an affectation. Superman is Clark Kent is Superman. How does one relate to that?

Grant Morrison and others have placed upon Superman the idea of a modern myth, a modern god in a way. I can see where they would get that, but it's never felt right to me. Superman is 'more than human,' but in such narrow ways like physical strength and compassion. Yet, his faults are so much less than ours. He doesn't line up to traditional myths in that way. Gods were 'more than human' in every aspect, good and bad. They did everything bigger and better, including being jerks and fucking things up. They were brash, prideful, quick to anger... then again, were they skewed too far in the other direction? Superman and his benevolent nature is the opposite of that. He fights for us, not against us, as was often the case. But, that still makes him distant and hard to relate to.

When Brian Azzarello wrote the character, he took Clark Kent out of the equation. In For Tomorrow, there was an event called the Vanishing where a sizable chunk of Earth's population disappeared. It was random. One of those people was Lois Lane and, since then, it doesn't appear that Superman is Clark Kent anymore. In fact, when we finally see where the people disappeared to, the first person we see is Clark. He's a robot, but the meaning is clear: he disappeared that day too. And Azzarello's Superman is much closer to the gods and figures of myth. He retains his compassion and thoughtfulness, but also adds in a questioning and almost selfish rashness. He gets involved in the affairs of a state, alienates the Justice League, and even threatens to destroy the planet. None of these things seem within his 'character' if you pay attention to what a lot of people said about the story. And, yet, it was Superman.

Besides Batman, I'm not sure there's a superhero that's so open to interpretation like that. If that's the case, what is the core of Superman? Does it come down to him following a few simple rules? He's an Alien from Krypton, he landed in Kansas, he's Clark Kent (or was at some point), he's stronger and faster than any human, can jump high/fly, wears an outfit, fights injustice as he sees it (could be in line with laws or not), and loves Lois Lane. Is there anything else that's consistent to the character, anything essential? After all, you could argue that Azzarello got it wrong with his Superman who threatened to destroy Earth when it attacked him using elemental monsters, but... that's a Superman story. Just like the rest, it was ink and paper, and, as we've established, Superman is just a comic book character ultimately. If a comic book says he did it, he did it. Does he actually have a core character?

If he doesn't, shouldn't he be the easiest character to relate to? He's so empty, strung together from the barest of pieces of information. Look at the guidelines I set out for what Superman is at his most basic and... is there anywhere you can't go with him? Then why is he so locked into one singular image?

In 30 minutes, I'll try to answer that, but probably won't.

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