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It’s Time For Superman To Be Radical Again

By | March 23rd, 2021
Posted in Longform | % Comments

I’ve been grappling with something for a while now. As some whose favourite superhero has been, for as long as I can remember, Superman, I’ve been struggling to find myself caring about the character as much as I used to. Way back when, in the before times of the early ’10s, Superman meant the world to me. God only knows I’ve gone on about it enough. After the revelation that was reading Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s “All-Star Superman” in my late teens, I became enamoured with the character as beacon of hope and a bastion of truth, justice and, y’know, the rest of it. A shining example of who we could be if we all acted with compassion for our fellow person. An ideal to strive towards. All that naïve rubbish a child sees in a superhero.

The 2020/2021 mood
from 'Hawkeye' #2 by Matt Fraction, David Aja,
Matt Hollingsworth & Chris Elioupolous

But it’s not 2011 anymore. The state of the world is not what it was, and even when it was, it was still quite a state. The effects of late stage capitalism in full collapse under the strain of a global pandemic are taking its toll on the world. The United States stands on the brink of complete internal collapse as the incumbent Democrats only half listen to the voice of the people while continuing to prop up the very things eating away at civilisation that have put us on this path to self destruction. The United Kingdom continues it’s slow dirge towards outright fascism.

Decades, centuries of oppressive violence at the hands of the state’s criminal justice system stand exposed to the entire world as it is continued to be enacted. People march in the streets for justice, opposed by the long arm of the law which defends no one but those protected under the umbrella of the fascist state’s desirable subjects. The weak willed and selfish willing to take the entire planet down with them, just to have a moment of true control. Allusions of grandeur on a sinking ship. It’s been called an unprecedented time; filled with civil strife, harsh economic disparity and the looming threat of societal collapse ever present in the public psyche.

And yet, it does remind me of something. The early 1930s. Wall Street had just collapsed, spiralling America’s economy into what we now call the Great Depression. Post-war Germany, in effort to seek colonial expansion in the form of their lebensraum, began its shift towards fascism that would culminate in the rise of the Third Reich. Plus, there was that whole pandemic thing about a decade earlier. It was similarly unprecedented and, yet, similarly forewarned with no preventative action taken before the world fell into war.

In the middle of all of this, two kids change history.

The birth of Superman from 'All-Star Superman' #10 by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Jamie Grant & Travis Lanham

Their idea doesn’t burst forth fully formed on the cover of “Action Comics” #1 until 1938, but the story of Superman’s creation reaches back as far as 1933. As the world threatened to fall apart around them, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created a character who would answer the simple, universal rallying cry of “won’t someone, anyone just do something?”

And do something he did. In Superman’s earliest stories, he didn’t fly around the world saving cats out of trees, battling giant robots and bald capitalists. He wasn’t a sun god from a doomed planet whose destiny it was to lead the human race into the future. There was no mythos, no legend. In his very first story, Superman tackled domestic abusers, male chauvinism, and brought a killer to justice while saving an innocent woman from being wrongly executed with only minutes to spare. His debut to the world was ripping the steel door of a governor’s bedroom off its hinges with ease in the middle of the night. To put it in the most propagandist terminology I can conjure, he was a crusader for the common person and a hero to the working class, a modern day folk hero who could take a good talking to and a steel fist to any ne’er do well who dare perpetrate injustice.

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Superman's first appearance on the cover of
'Action Comics' #1, cover dated June, 1938

The beauty of Siegel and Shuster’s initial conception of the character of Superman as he appeared in “Action Comics” #1 wasn’t that he embodied truth, justice and the American way or that he was a symbol of hope who would lead humanity to a brighter tomorrow. No, that would come later. Here, he was a man with an axe to grind. A man who despised any abuse of authority or power. A man who could walk into any situation and fear no bodily harm. He was the man who could do something.

So, Siegel and Shuster used the character as a vehicle to explore injustices they saw in the world. The treatment of women at the hands of violent men. The exploitation of labourers to the benefit of wealthy capitalists. Predatory protection rackets in inner cities. He was, at his core, someone who stood up for the little guy against the powers that be. The guy who could walk up to your shitty boss, grab him by the scruff of his neck and put the fear of God in him.

Then, Siegel and Shuster are unceremoniously left in the dirt in the wake of World War II, having sold the rights of the character to DC for $130 and being unable to regain them after two unsuccessful lawsuits. Which left Superman a blank canvas. Without his original creators, DC could do whatever they wanted with the character. And, so, the ’50s and ’60s came and went and saw him become an upstanding, moral patriarch; the grinning, yet firm centre of America’s moral nuclear family. The 70s saw a failed attempt to reign in his arm long list of powers in the comics while the character became a blockbuster film star in perhaps the most game-changing superhero film of the 20th Century. The 80s saw a far more successful attempt to reimagine the character after “Crisis Of Infinite Earths” while the 90s saw the character’s death and rebirth, the first of many.

Ever since, I think it’s fair to say, DC have rarely been able to figure what to do with Superman. They have been trying and failing, attempt after attempt, to make Superman work in the modern day since the turn of the millennium. We’ve seen him as a married and seasoned hero and reporter. We’ve seen him as a brash young man with a chip on his shoulder and childhood of misery. We’ve seen him rebirthed as a father figure. Some of those stuck around, some of those didn’t, but this constant change of status quo has, in many ways, left the emotional core of the character behind. As time went on, Superman’s initial hard edges softened tremendously. No longer was he the brute force crusader for justice, the one man to champion the downtrodden. Now, he was for everyone. Truth, Justice and the American Way. Stood proud in front of the stars and stripes with an eagle perched on his arm.

But… that’s the thing, isn’t it? What even is the American Way? Is it committing genocide of the Native people of the land while colonising it? Is it kidnapping and forcing millions of African natives into bondage and slavery for generations? Is it continuing to segregate, abuse and lynch those people after they were freed from slavery? Is it creating a prison system that all but revolutionises slavery? Or is it invading countries all over the world, committing atrocities in the name of the free market? Is it exploiting the labour of the working class while the generationally wealthy continue to reap the benefits?

These aren’t unprecedented times. This is the culmination of everything America has been for centuries since its inception by White settlers. In a time in which it behooves us as a species to dismantle the systems that America’s rise to capitalist superpower forced upon the world, systems which enslave us and kill us and destroy the planet for simple profit, how can we stand by while this icon of working class solidarity and strength created as a vehicle for simple, moral fables against injustice in the world be paraded around as an empty cartoon shell of Truth and Justice while that corporation turns around puts the planet in even more environmental danger by selling JPGs of action figures.

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Christ. Sorry. I had a lot to get off my chest there. So, you might be asking, where does Superman actually fit into all of this? Well, as a character, he’s actually a pretty minuscule piece of the puzzle that is global socioeconomics, to be fair, but one that’s dear to me. And so as I decided to check out where DC had taken the character in recent years, ever since Brian Michael Bendis took over writing duties of both “Action Comics” and “Superman” in 2018, there was just this feeling of something missing. Let me break it down a bit.

'Superman' #1 by Brian Michael Bendis, Ivan Reis,
Alex Sinclair & Josh Reed debuts a 'back to basics' Superman

There are more than a few elements to Bendis’s overlapping story on the two titles, a story that I have yet to finish at time of writing, that are worth diving into, but there’s one that really stands to me out more than the others. Taking place entirely in “Superman,” ‘The Unity Saga’ was the fifteen issue storyline that kicked off Bendis’s run on that series. Now, I’m going to level with you: a bunch of shit happens in these fifteen issues that isn’t relevant to what I’m talking about, so I’m going to curtail it a fair bit because I’ve typed enough about this as it is.

Jor-El, Superman’s biological father, survived the destruction of Krypton, their home planet, because of reasons that aren’t relevant in a prior storyline. He initially shows up in Bendis’s run in the six-issue series “The Man Of Steel,” where not a whole lot actually happened, but was used to set up a lot of what would be explored in subsequent storyline. As we find out through very scattered flashbacks of one scene played out over the course of the entire six issue series, Jor-El offers Superman’s son, Jon, a guided tour through the fringes of the galaxy. His reasoning is that his family should be doing more with their yellow sun-given powers than putting out fires and saving cats out of trees. He wants to train Jon and allow him to experience a harsher world outside of Smallville, Kansas under the ever-present safety net that is his father. He simply cannot afford a sheltered life with the burden placed on him.

Now, here’s something I ostensibly agree with. Superman should be doing more than putting out fires (something Bendis’s first storyline in “Action Comics” is supposedly about), he should have higher aspirations in how to “save the world,” as it were, but that only comes about if those behind the scenes agree on how they imagine Superman “saves the world.” However, the following story in ‘The Unity Saga’ stands to disprove Jor-El’s argument by showing him to be, ultimately, a controlling and authoritarian figure. A member of some Space Illuminati from the past whose transgressions were many and, ultimately, lead to the destruction of Krypton. Transgressions that, when stood exposed, leave the worlds of the galaxy on the brink of all out war. Sound familiar?

This story culminates not in the large scale, science fantasy battle amidst the starships of a half dozen alien species between Superman, a returned General Zod, Jor-El and Rogol Zaar (the not-quite-Doomsday who was apparently responsible for the actual act of destroying Krypton) in the penultimate #11, but on Thanagar in the final issue. In the aftermath of the battle, Rogol Zaar is quietly captured and held in stasis and Jor-El sentenced and executed off-panel. Superman finds out about this from Adam Strange. You are not supposed to care that their crimes have been resolved and summarily punished. You are not supposed to find peace in the restorative justice enacted on these two beings whose selfish causes have cost the lives of billions over time. No, instead Bendis turns his focus to how the worlds of the galaxy will recover from the revelation that a shadowy cabal has been deciding the fates of worlds for generations (so long as you don’t worry about what we did with Jor-El).

Sure, I thought, you can’t decide the fate of the galaxy with a fistfight between the Gods. It’s hack superhero storytelling putting visual before substance. It’s the kind of stylistic maximalism we left behind in the 60s when we grew up and bif! pam! pow! superheroes weren’t for kids anymore. No, let’s talk politics, Bendis, let’s look at what Superman’s grand vision for the galaxy is. Because that’s the question, ultimately: how do these worlds poised at the brink of war disarm their conflict and move forward in peace? How do they join in unity for what is best for all people of all worlds involved. And, so, Bendis has Jon, Clark’s son who has lived the sheltered life of a farmboy superhero before being tortured for years inside a volcano at the hands of an evil, multiversal alternative of his own father, step forward and suggest something, apparently, revolutionary: a United Nations, for planets.

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Christ, I thought, surely this is a joke. He’s a seventeen year old, he’s naïve, he barely knows who to talk to a girl, he doesn’t understand the machinations of a country’s government nevermind an entire planet’s nevermind an entire galaxy of planets. That’s the bit, right? That the answer isn’t that simple. That it takes actually a lot of work to ensure peace, to ensure needs are met and cultures are respected and history is put aside for the sake of a better future. That only some dumb kid could come up with the only solution that no one had thought about and it was just basic diplomacy. Right? Surely.

The appearance of the Legion Of Super-Heroes at the birth of the United Planets in 'Superman' #15 by Brian Michael Bendis, Ivan Reis, Alex Sinclair & David Sharpe

I wish. Just to drive the point home of its brilliance, every character that hears the idea remarks that it’s so perfectly simple that how could no one in the history of the galaxy have thought of it? Surely, it must have been Superman’s idea. Couldn’t have been his kid, right? Not stopping there, though, Bendis cements this all by having the actual Legion Of Super-Heroes travel back in time to tell everyone attendance that this, right here, this moment is the single most important moment in all of history. This is the inception of galactic peace for the rest of time.

To use a phrase of my country: gie’s peace.

And that’s just in space. Meanwhile, back on Earth, some bloke in a mask is readying to usher in a new world order by exposing all of the secrets of every secret government agency in the world. All of the CIA’s shady shit, all of their coups and assassinations and political machinations, everything. And what do the heroes do? Stop it. Of course they do, they’re meant to save the world, right? They’re meant to protect us from the bad guys. But who are the real bad guys when the ones who are sworn to protect us are corrupt? It’s them, by the way. In case you’re wondering. The corrupt institutions have been the real bad guys.

This is where I think Superman and superheroes in general have lost their way conceptually. Superman started as a revolutionary, as counter culture. He bucked at the way institutional power is used to abuse those without capital. He used to rip the doors of governor’s bedrooms off their hinges in the middle of the night. He used to leave chauvinists dangling from telephone poles. He used to do something. Now? Now, he barely acts. When superheroes become agents of the status quo, when they become comfortable defending political institutions that are, at their core, ultimately in favour of the wealthy white population than they are of the masses, they lose touch with their roots. They become complacent. They become the jackboots that enforce the will of the police state, beating up junkies in alleys and persecuting the poverty stricken Black and Latinx populations just trying to make ends meet while leaving the capitalists who rip this world’s core out alone to do their deeds in secret.

When I last touched this essay, I left off right around here. Did a quippy little ending paragraph and left it in a drawer. I didn’t know if that last bit was a good enough to finish. It wasn’t. This was December, 2020. A lifetime ago. A lot of this essay has obviously been tweaked and rewritten to reflect even more current events and will likely already be outdated by its publication, but this is the first part written entirely in 2021. And you know what? Things still suck. But not all hope is yet lost.

See, in between beginning this essay and fishing it out of the drawer to kick it out the door in time for you to read this during the intermission of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a little show called Superman & Lois started on the CW. It stars Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch as the title characters, respectively, and Alex Garfin and Jordan Elsass as Jordan and Jonathan Kent, their teenage sons. Yeah, that’s the thing about this show: even though it is largely inspired by Peter J. Tomassi and Patrick Gleason’s Rebirth run on “Superman,” it takes a pretty radical approach by giving the couple two teenage sons, whom they raise in Metropolis. In the wake of Clark being fired from the Daily Planet, a death in the family, and a series of personal revelations, the Kents move back to the Kent farm in Smallville to try and live as quiet a life as they can as a family.

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A show that speaks truth to power, Elizabeth Tulloch's Lois Lane
confronts Morgan Edge in Superman & Lois

It’s a show that has so far tackled the corporate hijacking of the media, the ways in which venture capitalists will exploit small towns in America for profit and leave those communities to flounder and die, the alienation of teenage mental health problems, teenage suicides, marriages falling apart because of social and financial duress, and addiction to prescription pills. The list, honestly, could go on, but I think that shows just the level of social storytelling this show lives in. This is not a story about Superman as an omnipotent sun god in whose wake we shall all follow as sheep. This is a story about Clark Kent trying to be a good dad. And Lois Lane trying to stop her home from being bled dry by the corrupt systems of capitalism. And two kids trying to figure out what their place in the world is. It’s exactly the kind of storytelling I was just arguing that Superman, in particular, should tackle. You can follow my weekly reactions to the show here, should you so desire.

I had very little hope when I started writing this, about the state of the world in general and what our immediate future would be and what, if any, place superheroes still had in common lexicon, but there’s a sparkle in my eye every time I watch an episode of Superman & Lois. It may seem trivial to dig this deep into a social relevancy of a character like Superman in a time like this, but when you consider what Superman represented at the time he was created, he deserves to be more relevant than ever. For if superhero stories really are nothing more than vehicles for moral fables for children, we might as well tell them important ones. Superheroes, more than ever, need to speak truth to real power. They need to stand apart from institutions of the state that perpetuate the same oppression and inequalities that have lead us here. They need to be divorced of the corporate media structure and be allowed to flourish in the public domain where working class writers could tell genuine, relevant stories again. It’s time for Superman to start ripping doors off hinges again.

august (in the wake of) dawn

sworn to protect a world that hates and fears her, august has been writing critically about media for close to a decade. a critic and a poet who's first love is the superhero comic, she is also a podcaster, screamlord and wyrdsmith. ask her about the unproduced superman screenplays circa 1992 to 2007. she/they.