Monday, July 5, 2010

Wherefore art thou Superman?

I'm back, and I'm going to talk about Superman now.  Okay go.

In an earlier post I made the contestable claim that comics "did not begin to come into their own until the advent of Superman".  There's a historical argument to be made in support of this claim--particularly if we are talking about comics as an industry, but even if we are talking about a socio-cultural artifact.

Maybe in some future post I'll give a more robust history of Superman and his place in the early comic book industry, but suffice for now to say that Superman is the prototype of superhero comics.

I'll suggest that what we call "comics" can be generally divided into four categories: mainstream comic books; indie, or underground, "comix"; comic strips; and web comics.  What all of these have in common is their employment of juxtaposed art, but from a cultural and especially a commercial/industry perspective, the four categories are quite different from one another.  Mainstream comic books, of which DC and Marvel are the two main publishers, have been and continue to be dominated by the genre of superheroes, of which Superman was the first.  Superman is the reason why comics and superheroes are associated with one another.

Though fans of superheroes may (and do) argue with each other about who is the "best", and Superman is often dismissed as boring, Superman is the standard against which all other superheroes deviate.  This is true partly because Superman was literally the first superhero, and many of the first superheroes are or were blatant imitations, but also because Superman's popularity and longevity mean that he is deeply iconic.  Although his character is almost as old and his legacy as established as Superman's Batman is a non-standard superhero to the degree that he deviates from the type as established by Superman.  A dark hero without superpowers is perceived as unusual despite the number of Batman imitations that exits only because is it different from Superman, who is the rule.  This is why Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns imagines Superman upholding the status-quo.  Not because Superman as a character necessarily upholds the political status-quo but because Superman is the embodiment of the standard of superheroes against which Miller wants to define his Batman.

So when Alan Moore writes a deconstruction of superheroes, in Watchmen or in The Saga of the Swamp Thing or in the less well-known-but-worth-reading Supreme, he is deconstructing Superman -- writing Dr. Manhattan or Supereme or Miracleman (for which I have no link since it is out of print) as a counterpoint to and a commentary upon Superman.    The same is true of Grant Morrison's classic run on Animal Man, or of Mark Waid's Irredeemable and Incorruptible, or of Robert Kirkman's Invincible.  All of these are meditations on superherodom, and therefore they are meditations on Superman.  The same is true of Spider-Man, of Batman, of the X-Men, of Wonder Woman, of every superhero dark or idealistic, male or female, earnest or ironic.

So whether Superman is an particular reader's cup of superhero flavoured tea, (and incidently I do like Superman) he is the standard against which all other superheroes -- implicitly or explicitly -- are judged; both by readers and by writers.  If that is true, then for any kind of systematic or rigourous examination of superheroes as a genre we must begin with Superman.

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