Where the Hell is Superman?

 

A deranged pilot points an passenger jet at a mountain and murders 150 people, each one waiting helplessly to die before the end comes. An army of terrorists raze villages, leaving literally thousands of men, women and children dead in their wake, all in the name of God. A hateful young man goes from classroom to classroom, gunning down six year old children in a bid to make a bigger splash on the front page than his “hero.”

We live in a world in which these things happen all to often, a world in which villainy and evil goes unchecked until it subsumes the 24 hour news cycle and fills our feeds and our walls and our streams. In this world, the one in which we live, the one to which we have been sentenced, we are left to fend for ourselves against the most hateful and vile of our own kind.

But there is another world, a world of our imagination, where someone is there for us. He is a savior and a hero and he stands for truth and justice in a never ending battle. For us. For peace and life and liberty.

In that world, he flies in at the last moment and puts all his might against the engines of that passenger jet and brings it safely to a landing in the Alps. In that world, he moves at the speed of lightning, pulling Ak-47s and machetes from the hands of Boku Haram militants and freezing them with a breath. In that world, he hears the gunfire as it blasts through the front door of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT and he is there, bullets bouncing off his chest, blazing eyes melting lead. In that world, Superman is there to save us from the worst of ourselves.

So where the hell is Superman in this world? In a universe of limitless possibility, where man can break the firmament with his scientific knowledge, where the power of the atom bends to our will and where we can hurl spacecraft millions of miles across space to land on other worlds, where is Superman? In a world that many believe allows for miracles, where angels deflect oncoming traffic and where gods provide winning lottery tickets, where is the Man of Steel when we so desperately need him?

Superman is the creation of our collective desire for hope in a hopeless world, for justice in an unjust world, for peace where sometimes it seems only war and pain and death surround us. He is the latest in a long line of fantastical heroes that embody not just might, but the truest virtues of the people that created them. Gilgamesh and Heracles and Karna and King Arthur and John Henry are all iterations of this hope.

But for all Superman’s super-strength, his super-hearing, his superiority, the true greatness of Superman is his super-humanity. Superman is not “Superman.” Nor is he “Kal-El” of Krypton. For all his godlike power and his alien origins, Superman is Clark Kent, the son of middle American farmers who cares deeply for people, who understands that his power, his ability to stop crashing airlines and half genocides and stop the senseless massacres of children do not exist as Deeds in and of themselves as the heroes of old might have viewed them. Rather, the deeds of Superman are merely reflections of a devotion to the Peace, to Justice, to the Good of All.

So where the hell is Superman? If we allow him to be, he is within each of us, he is an agnostic symbol of Hope, of Justice, of Peace and of true Goodness in a world that so desperately needs him. Superman is not real, not in the physical sense. But if we allow him to be, he can be real enough.

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Superman vs Cthulhu: Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror

 

A new project has me thinking about how Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror interact with one another. At first blush, these two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive.

Super Heroes are ultimately symbols of optimism. Their stories are generally about normal people who, when granted powers far greater than those of their peers, seek to bring justice and peace rather than bring war or ruin. Some modern interpretations disagree, of course, but these kinds of deconstructionist views act as the exceptions that prove the rule: you would not have an Authority, for example, without Superman and Batman engaged in the neverending battles and crusades.

On the other side of the genre coin, you have the kind of existential horror exemplified by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his many collaborators and imitators. Here, heroism is, at best, a naive notion that is quickly dispelled by despair and madness. In cosmic horror, there is no justice or peace, and even war and ruin don’t matter, for the real terror comes not from the amorphous things living just outside of our vision, but from the unfeeling and uncaring universe. Everything is sliding toward entropy and nothingness. Even the monsters are doomed. It is the ultimate expression of pessimism and nihilism.

So how do we bring these two genres together? And, more importantly, why? What can we hope to create from mixing these reagents, and how do we avoid blowing ourselves up in the process?

Is that a deep one?

 

Comic book super heroes and undulating weird horrors have cross paths many time before, of course. super heroes emerged out of the same primordial pre-pulp fiction as did Lovecraft’s work, who was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Algernon Blackwood. The violent, criminal yet essentially “good” masked heroes of the pulp era gave rise to the earliest Super Heroes (the Man of Steel owed much to the Man of Bronze, and Bat-Man was heavily inspired by The Shadow). The pulps were waning just as comics started to rise, but many of the young men (and a few women) creating those early costumed heroes had cut their genre teeth on pulp magazines like Weird Tales. Characters like Dr Fate and The Specter appeared very early on and considered great cosmic powers and elements of horror in their stories.

Super hero stories have always mined horror for villains and plots, embracing whatever monstrosities sit atop the cultural consciousness. Vampires and werewolves have always been popular, usually inspired by the Universal movie versions of those creatures, and there are a number of Frankenstein’s monster analogs and even outright uses. Zombies, the current favorite of pop culture horror, are everywhere and have devoured both the Marvel and DC universes within the last few years. And there are many comics and heroes that site squarely in a place of horror, from Marvel’s Blade and Morbius the Living Vampire to Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn to DC’s Swamp Things and more recently Justice League Dark.

From the Official Dark Horse Hellboy website.

One book in particular, though, really embraces the Lovecraftian side of horror (mixed with just everything else as well). Mike Mignola’s Hellboy — the titular character is a demon, but also a super hero — is a horror comic that does super heroics, or a super hero comic that does horror. In either case, it represents probably the most perfect marriage between the genres, and Mignola’s evocative art and tight scripting do not hurt. However, as good as Hellboy is at mixing these oil-and-water genres, in doing so it pulls the Hellboy character out of the lofty clouds of primary colors, capes and cowls and grounds him with the guns and the ever-present gritty cape analogue of the trench coat. So while we can use Hellboy as a way to start thinking about Super Heroes versus Cosmic Horror, it is just a point of beginning (but a damn entertaining one).

 

You don’t get much Super Hero vs Cosmic Horror than Starro

 

What would Superman do in the face of Cthulhu? How would Batman react upon discovering the Shadow Over Innsmouth? Could Captain America maintain his sanity when confronted by vast uncaring cosmos via the Color Out of Space?

Although the trappings vary, all super heroes essentially punch things for justice: they use direct intervention against enemies that can be beaten, captured and otherwise negated. In short, super heroes can win. By definition, the terrors of cosmic horror cannot be beaten — their victory is inevitable and the only succor against that knowledge is to retreat into madness. This seems at first to be an insurmountable problem in marrying the genres.

What I think allows the super hero to continue to not only exist but to operate and even succeed after a fashion in the context of cosmic horror is their inherent optimism. Super heroes fact insurmountable odds daily — or at least monthly. A meteor rocketing toward the Earth, a virus transforming people into mindless drones, an army of hyper intelligent gorillas invading from two universes over, these are all familiar threats to the super hero, and they all threaten the very existence of mankind. Yet, the super hero soldiers on and preservers.

The only difference between those typical comic book threats and the threat posed by cosmic horror is that the latter cannot be overcome. But that is knowledge reserved for the audience. As far as the super hero is concerned, that elder thing spreadings its dark influence throughout the world and threatening to wake is just another villain to be defeated. That heroic optimism provides the hero with not only the will to face these eldritch horrors, but also at least a modicum of protection against the mind rending, soul shattering truths at the heart of cosmic horror: that we are insignificant in the fact of the enormity of time and space and that we are no more than insects to the vast and incalculable minds of the monstrosities that exist in the dark between the stars.

Moreover, even for the hero that has accepted the inevitability of the ultimate end, the true motivation of most super heroes remains: protect the innocent. In this case, it means saving potential sacrifices from cultists who would hasten the rise of the elder thing, destroying the weird alien creatures that wander aimlessly into our reality, and, occasionally, push back the timeline of that waking just a little longer. It may also mean something else, often outside the usual purview of the super hero: protecting people by hiding the truth from them, sparing them the madness that invariably comes with recognizing the futility of it all.

As different as the genres seem, I think the combination of super heroes and cosmic horror provides a lot of potentially compelling stories, without needing to tarnish or deconstruct the heroes or water down the existential threat of the cosmic horror.

 

75 Years of Solemn Heroism

 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of Batman. Last year, it was the 75th anniversary of Superman and while that hero enjoyed broad coverage in the media, I think the Dark Knight is going to be more difficult to celebrate. Not, certainly, because Batman is less well known than Superman — if he is, it is only by the slimmest of margins. Rather, the problem lies with the very nature of the two characters, their inherent differences and their opposite but equivalent places on the spectrum of iconic heroism.

 

Superman is a messianic figure, a savior on par with Mithras or Moses. He represents, in short, hope. Superman fights bad guys, of course, but he is as likely to save innocent lives from earthquakes and meteor showers. His powers are so great that he can halt a tidal wave, extinguish a raging inferno or even turn back time itself. He is a god-like being whose primary interest is in protecting humanity and helping humanity succeed. Superman could end war by enforcing peace, and often writers will have Superman or analogs do just that, but he does not. A favorite trope in Superman stories, when writers are too lazy to create compelling narratives with the so-called “boyscout” Superman, is to cast him in the villain’s role, corrupted by power or despair or rage. But those depictions of Superman serve only to reinforce his fundamental nature as the goodest of the good guys.

 

Batman, however, is different. If Superman represents our desire for a savior, then Batman is a symbol of our desire to act, our need to sometimes get our hands dirty in order to bring about justice. Where Superman is a being of light whose depictions sometimes swing into dark places, Batman is the opposite. His time in the light is a parody of himself; he is most at home in the darkness. Where Clark Kent is the ultimate adoptive child, raised by loving parents to see the good in all people, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate orphan, a victim who is constantly reliving his tragic loss. This is not to imply weakness on the character’s part — some writers depict it as such, an obsession that paralyzes Batman into inaction, while most depict it as the source of Batman’s unending dedication to his his quest for justice. Rather, it is an exquisitely human motivation, one that we can understand, embrace and even, in our darker moods, imagine for ourselves.

 

Both Batman and Superman are adolescent male power fantasies; I do not refer to them in that way to as a pejorative, but as a fact. The men who created both characters were, in fact, adolescent males and they were powerless in a world of depressed economy, crime and corruption. Their heroes had the power to confront these issues, Superman and Batman each in their own ways. Their careers would run parallel from then on, Superman always in the light while Batman would emerge from his shadows to combat alien menaces and laughable villains, only to be drawn back into the shadows where he belonged.

 

This story from CNN illustrates the difficulty with which the modern popular media will have in trying to do stories about Batman at this anniversary. While the people interviewed were certainly inspired by Batman, one feels the need for quiet reflection on them rather than the parades and ballyhoo that Superman’s anniversary engendered.

 

If we imagine for a moment that Batman were real, that Brice Wayne was real, we imagine a hero who is equal part victim. We imagine a man who has spent three quarters of a century trying to come to grips with the worst tragedy a child could possibly suffer, the worst images a child could possibly witness. We imagine a man who has dedicated everything he has, everything he is, to the singular goal of ensuring no child ever suffers like he did, that no person ever suffers like he continues to suffer every day. Batman does not stop earthquakes or alien invasions, he stops killers. Batman does not turn back tidal waves, he turns back tragedy. Batman does not fly in to save our lives, he swoops in to save our hearts and minds. It is heroism, but it is a solemn, dark heroism that asks us to feel dark and solemn things as we consider it.

The Making of Clark Kent

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR MAN OF STEEL

The following is not a review of Man of Steel. That would be far too short (“I loved it!”) and hardly interesting. I am going to keep these kinds of posts rare — I think you would rather read my fiction than my pop culture ravings — but I was so intrigued by a certain aspect of Man of Steel that I just had to write about it. Feel free to comment and start a discussion.

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A great flurry of nerdly debate has raged for the last few days, ever since Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel film debuted. This debate centers around one of the film’s controversial decisions: Superman is forced to kill General Zod to end his reign of terror. The two sides of the debate can be summed up as those that believe Superman Does Not Kill, versus those that believe a “grittier” and more “grounded” Superman would make the right choice in committing the act. Here is what I believe: it is not an interesting debate and is far from the most interesting, controversial choice made in the film. Throughout Superman’s long history, and especially in the modern era of the last 40 years or so, Superman has grappled with this question time and again. it is a go-to moment for Superman writers, simultaneously generating the aforementioned controversy, as well as milking the hero for all the pathos he is worth. Sometimes, as with a previous comic book iteration of General Zod as well as with the rampaging behemoth Doomsday, Superman chooses to take the life to save thousands or millions. Other times, such as against the darker, grittier anti-heroes of both Kingdom Come and The Elite, he goes to the edge, only to pull back and show everyone killing is not necessary. By having Superman kill, or not, the creator in question is able to make a statement about heroism, violence and Superman himself. In Snyder’s version of this classic trope, Superman must kill but is anguished by it, establishing a very good potential reason for Superman’s future self-imposed prohibition on killing (which would be served well for a movie or three, leading up to the inevitable encounter with Doomsday in a Death of Superman film).

 

All that said, the really interesting choice that Snyder and Company make in Man of Steel is how Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent comes to be the Clark Kent we know. I submit that, in Man of Steel, Clark begins as Kal El and becomes Superman, but in the end emerges from this trial by fire as Clark Kent. Most interestingly, the one who guides him to that identity is Lois Lane in an almost perfect reversal of her usual role as uncoverer of Clark Kent’s secret identity. In this case, she is instrumental in forging it.

 

Allow me to unpack this to some degree. First off, I should define the terms Kal El, Superman and Clark Kent. Kal El is the son of Jor El, the Alien Among Us, the one that Lex Luthor of the comics fears so desperately. It is Kal El, the outsider and the “nerd” that gets bullied in school and rages against his adopted father and, however impressively, lashes out at the mean old truck driver. Kal El takes on assumed names and works menial jobs and wears a beard and a ball cap to hide himself in plain sight. This is the character we first meet, whose birth is so natural that it is unnatural, even on his alien homeworld, and whose very existence is a heresy. Superman, by contrast, is the Hero, the Messiah, the Divine Being whose power is unmatched (except hy his opposite number, of course). Superman already exists in Kal El, of course: part of the latter’s alienness is the former’s great power, and the skulking Kal El does so in order to give room to Superman to save lives and right wrongs. Kal El might have destroyed the truck, but Superman kept him from destroying the trucker.

 

Clark Kent is another thing entirely, especially in Snyder’s mythology. In the traditional Superman story, Kal El becomes Clark Kent the moment he is found on the side of the road by the the humble and pure yet strong and convicted Jonathan and Martha Kent. Clark Kent becomes Superman at some later date — it varies depending on the telling, sometimes still as an adolescent and sometimes well into adulthood — and then only much later becomes aware of and embraces his identity as Kal El. In these narratives, Clark Kent is the real person, the core of the character, and Superman is not a masquerade but a vehicle with which he can do the most good, while Kal El is a legacy identity. Snyder’s Clark Kent, however, is different. Though he owned the name, the identity meant nothing to him. He had thrown it away for the even more generic “Joe” when we first met him, in fact. We see, in flashback, him reject this identity when he rejects his adopted father.

 

The thing allowed me to make sense of Snyder’s strange take on the old Superman identity triangle was this: as adults, a key component of our identities are our professions. “Hello, my name is Ian. I’m a land surveyor.” (Or, “Hi, my name is Ian. I’m a writer,” if I am feeling especially optimistic.) Clark Kent is a reporter. As the nature of news media has changed, so has the kind of reporter Clark kent has been, but integral to the Superman mythology has been his place at the Daily Planet. In many origin retellings over the years, Clark chooses a career as a journalist because he loves it and he is good at it and it allows him to help people in a non-superheroic way, but the core reason, ever since the beginning, has always been that it allows him to be in places where trouble is brewing. This offers the dual benefit of keeping Superman close to the action, and allowing regular crises during which Clark Kent can easily disappear. Narrative specifics aside, part of the very definition of Clark Kent is “reporter.”

 

Lois Lane is a reporter, by definition, as well. Her character has oscillated between frozen harpy and smitten kitten over the years (the latter especially during the quiet era between the golden and the silver ages) but she was most often a resourceful, tough, beautiful female reporter, doing it better and faster than any of the men around her. In most traditional tellings, she is Clark Kent’s professional rival long before she is his romantic pursuer (usually because Clark makes an early splash with Superman exclusives), so it is of particular interest that Snyder chooses to depict her relationship to the Clark Kent reporter identity the way he does. Here, Lois not only unmasks Kal El, she introduces the world to Superman and helps create Clark Kent. It is a notable reversal of the usual direction of their story, where Lois disdains Clark and loves Superman and only later discovers they are one and the same. Most importantly, Lois creates Clark Kent. She not only gives him a human connection that matters in their budding romantic relationship, she helps him forge his way into the offices of the Daily Planet so that he may enjoy all those previously mentioned benefits for a super-hero in having a secret identity as a reporter.

 

Now, I know there was no textual evidence in the film for Lois’ direct involvement in his hiring. To that, I can only say, Come on! Given the complete lack of any evidence Clark Kent went to college, let alone studied journalism, the only reasonable explanation for Clark becoming a daily planet reporter is Lois going to bat for him, probably secretly given that she pretends not to know him when he is introduced. While it is certainly possible to drive a truck through the plot holes presented by this turn of events, the fact remains that this is what happened. Lois Lane, rather than eventually peeling away the costume of Clark Kent to reveal Superman, created it for him.

 

What this says of the relationship between Lois and Clark, relative to previous iterations of the mythology, is profound: they are partners in Superman’s never ending battle. It is not unexplored territory. It almost always becomes that after many years and the dramatic possibilities inherent in the secret identity and romantic entanglements subplots were thin. To have it occur at the inception of Superman’s career, however, and to make Lois not just important but responsible for it put the two characters on equal footing in a way that I believe is unexplored. Surely Lois will still need saving from supervillains and very long falls (both of which we saw in Man of Steel) but what she does not need saving from here is the incongruent, oftentimes insulting girlish stupidity foisted upon her. Who has not wondered how it could be that Lois, who had kissed those super lips and been held by those super arms, could be fooled by a pair of glasses? Who has not questioned her chops as a Pulitzer winning journalist when she could not make the simple connection that every time there was a crisis, Clark Kent ran away and Superman appeared? Who could not vehemently dislike the woman who spurned her good natured, intelligent and talented colleague for the flying man she hardly knew? These aspects of the character, all established during the decidedly non-progressive era of Superman’s creation, have, in the modern era, served to undermine the character as believable or likable or both.

 

Whether any of the potential consequences of this choice are explored in future films is an open question. Big budget action movies, especially sequels, are not well known for their nuanced depictions of relationships. Even if the status quo asserts itself, however, the choice was made and will influence the way future iterations of the Superman myth is told.