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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 03/07/2005
Vol. 2, #159

As a writer in many modes, comics, novels, poetry, even music and art in some cases, I run up against the problem which, as I used to put it, where does the self end and the world begin? I've grown somewhat more sophisticated since then because I've discovered that no one seems able to find any specific boundaries between self and world, where one begins and the other ends. At one extreme, Buddhism demonstrates that there is no self to be found anywhere in all experience; that the world happens without the benefit of a so-called "I", and that the "I" itself is a constantly changing mode of experience rather than a fixed entity. The arguments in this area are complex, confusing and fascinating. The range of cognitive science is multiform and sometimes incomprehensible. So I have limited my interest, narrowed it down to an aspect of my experience (with a question mark about the "my"), of the superhero.

In all the years of writing about the most extreme of the superheroes, Superman, I found myself dealing with a man locked in a bodily physics that seemed to have no limits. He could manage anything demanded by the most extreme physical conditions. And I found too that this situation is not in itself interesting. There's really no story to speak of when sheer physical prowess can overcome any and all threats and resolve any and all problems. In time, I got to think, therefore, of Superman as a human being and his powers as something added to a human who would use them in a human rather than a superhuman way. Like a man sitting at the control of a vast and powerful physical machine. With that machine, he could overcome any resistance at all in the physical world. But what about the man himself, the one at the controls? As we know from the Smallville stories, he had a human upbringing, human small town values and a morality that any of us would recognize as perfectly "normal." He was helpful; he was patriotic; he liked girls, never getting involved in anything remotely bimodal, and, quite clearly, he loved Lois Lane like any ordinary Romeo in any straight-laced American city.

Essentially, this common "normalcy" of Superman's ethos made him just an ordinary guy with extraordinary powers. And because of that he tended to exercise those extraordinary powers under the constraints always found in the ordinary law-abiding guy next door. But even more so. You simply knew that Superman could never go astray. What, use his x-ray vision to look up girls' skirts? Help himself to any gee-gaws he wanted any time they seized his fancy? Lose himself pondering philosophical questions of being, of life and death. And no where does this very ordinary fellow with the super muscles ever get involved in questions of religion. Mostly, in a genral way, he followed the Ten Commandments. But was never explicit about them.

So, eventually, in this age of self questioning and self-transcendence and Buddhist non-self, I came to the conclusion that you could say Superman's self was defined less by what he was than by what he wouldn't do, always set within the confines of the world of everyday. He didn't see into the future or the past.

He was no seer. He did his "seeing" the hard way, by mechanical means, using his inborn technique of superspeed to pass the finitudes of time and space. There was nothing occult about this man. He couldn't read minds, but he knew a bad guy when he saw one, just like the cop on the beat. So, in a way, apart from his powers, he was the most ordinary, the most average, the most typical of any post puberty American male. And because of that, because he was so precisely a product of his times, he began to fade out of the picture when "the Sixties" seized upon the bland post-war American ethos and made him seem like a relic of the past. Grandmother's boy, you might say. They tried all sorts of tricks, duplicate earths, they even resorted to knocking him off for a while. But without changes at the heart of the strip, none of it worked.

Circulation plunged. No one in the business knew quite what to do with this out-of-date boy scout. If I was one of the writers who saw it coming, and tried to do a little "deconstruction" by way of Bizarro, it was never really understood and never followed up in the right way, except by chance. Yes, they didn't know what they were doing, but they were desperate, so they did it.

At the moment, you might say they're holding, mostly because of all the seniors that grew up with Superman and share a nostalgia for the time and attitudes of childhood.

But slowly, as Marvel turns Spider-Man into a more living character, that is, one you can define not just by what he won't do, but what he does, he's beginning to outpace Supes and take over, as was evidenced by the success of the recent Spidey movies.

In the meantime, DC holds on as Warner releases Smallville, a retrofit of the original superman ethos, but maintained, quite sensibly within the bounds of childhood. But will they ever understand the character well enough to do another really great Superman, as a grown up, and especially grown up in the fact that he's no longer defined by what he won't do. If so, how will he actually break out? How will he cross the boundary they once drew around him and still keep him as the Superman we all once new and once loved.

I could tell them, but that's how it goes in that place. They haven't asked me.


<< 02/21/2005 | 03/07/2005 | 03/14/2005 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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