Sunday, January 30, 2011

1984 Superman Postcard by George Pérez

The Man of Steel, the last son of Krypton! He started it all, and he's still the best.

That line pretty much says it all, but perhaps not in the manner intended. These DC postcards from 1984 usually offered a very brief take on the featured hero, offering a bit of origin, motivation, and/or powers. Nothing of that sort here, because Superman is a gateway super-hero; one of those characters you know before you know virtually anything about anything. I probably had Superman's origin memorized before I could write my own name. One of my earliest coloring books starred Superman and featured art by José Luis García-López and perhaps, if memory serves, Jerry Ordway. I remember seeing Superman: The Motion Picture with my mother in 1979, and again on our crumby little black and white television when ABC ran the network broadcast premiere (for which I stayed awake past the helicopter rescue.) I used to watch George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman, and I bought my share of comics.

Therein lay the beginning of the problem. Action Comics and Superman got poor distribution in Houston, so the Superman comic I bought the most was DC Comics Presents. I loved The Brave and the Bold because of its jazzy Bob Haney scripts and snazzy Jim Aparo art, plus Batman was pared off with cool, obscure heroes. DC Comics Presents featured art by whoever needed a paycheck that month, and no more dedication on the scripts. The team-up characters didn't seem to have much pop, either. You'd think I could find solace in World's Finest Comics, but even as a kid I found Superman and Batman unpalatable as partners, and the stories seemed even worse than DC Comics Presents. I couldn't even catch a break on cartoons, as Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends absolutely shamed any of the Superman animated shows. Hell, even The Incredible Hulk, a cartoon I'd just as soon skip, was still superior.

My last major hurrah as a Superman fan was during the big John Byrne revamp of the late '80s. I came on around the twelfth issue of the new Superman, also pulled the team-up version of Action Comics monthly, and even got pissed at Maury Povich for making a sarcastic comment about my shortly-revisited favorite hero on an episode of A Current Affair. That all ended sometime around the 18th issue, which featured a cover of some Otto Octavius looking mad scientist controlling a robot to attack Superman. I realized in all the months I'd read the book, the only villain I had liked was the Silver Banshee. Action Comics #600 was only interesting because of Wonder Woman, and truth to tell, I couldn't figure out what I had really dug about the books beyond the art of John Byrne.

For several years, I had no interest in reading Superman comics. He never got his Dark Knight Returns, and while the quality had improved from my early days, Superman seemed to just tread water every month. I jumped back on the bandwagon for Reign of the Supermen, because the resurrection of an all-new, modernized Superman or four for the 1990s was too intriguing a notion to pass up. I came to really like John Henry Irons, and hate the rest. I hung in for six months or so after the end of the story arc revealed the sum total of Superman's bold new direction to be a particularly ridiculous mullet and some terrible new villains. They could have at least had the decency to finally get rid of those stupid red trunks.

I read various Superman comics throughout the decade as an extension of my fixation on following the DC Universe as a whole. It was during this time I was taught to hate Superman. The same tired creative team across four monthly books and a quarterly seemed like tent evangelicals preaching the superiority of Superman by way of making other super-heroes look bad in his presence and offering no villains who could pose a consistent threat. Superman was clearly the most powerful and unsinkable hero in all of comics, killing any drama and undermining any realistic characterization. Superman may have been everybody's first super-hero, just as everybody loves their family when they're children, but at some point you grow up and realize the flaws you were too young to understand. With parents, you see a reflection of your own frailties, and they turn from idols to friends. Superman was like the overbearing parent who still tries to push you around when you have a family of your own, never turning a critical eye inward.

"He's still the best" like the Fantastic Four was "the world's greatest comic magazine," because a publisher dogmatically tries to will it so with mere words. The truth is that Superman is a developmentally stunted man-child and his creative teams are at best stifled, at worst muzzled. Superman is to super-heroes what those moral majority types are to politics: anachronistic throwbacks to the illusion of a simpler time defined by its injustice against all but a lucky few.

It makes me mad, because a still have most of a thoroughly read and seriously battered 1970s treasury edition of Superman #1 where the Man of Steel was an idealized social crusader for the common man and the most universal Judeo-Christian values. I remember the good-natured guardian Superman of the '50s TV show and a couple of good movies. I see in the fans of Smallville people with middling taste but the best intentions when it comes to super-heroics on the small screen. I miss having the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by Superman. It seems he's so busy being the best, he forgot how to be worth a damn.


mathematicscore said...

There's some excellent points made here. I would ask, what are your thoughts on All Star Superman?

Diabolu said...

I still haven't read it in full, but Morrison has a good handle on the character. Most of the pathos people like in Post-Crisis Martian Manhunter was salvaged from the wreckage of Weisinger Superman, and I understand Morrison mines the Silver Age heavily in All-Star.