September 16, 2016

Episode 110: Why Does Superman Suck? And Does He Have To?


POP CULTURE SPIRIT WOW

So let me start with a warning (or a huzzah, depending on your point of view): This is a really long issue. I got to talk to some really cool people about Superman, some of my favorite people in the universe, really, and I’m super excited for you to be able to hear from them.
 
But the other side of that is that you’re sitting down to a full five course meal in pop culture here. (Btw, the lamb is really good tonight.) If it’s helpful, I’ve separated it all into four chunks: Why Does Superman Suck? Does Superman Have to Suck? Hey, Look, It’s a Guy Who Made Superman Not Suck! And my usual links.
 
Feel free to let me know what you thought of all this at popculturespiritwow@gmail.com– it’s a pretty big experiment. And hey, if you like it, tell your friends, tell your family, tell that kid down the street who always looks angry, it’s actually just a muscle thing, he’s really very sweet. (tinyletter.com/jimmcd)
 
Okay, so here we go. Up, Up, and...
 
Why Does Superman Suck?
Tomorrow is “Batman Day”, an international “holiday” instituted by DC Comics to celebrate the Caped Crusader. The event began in 2014 in honor of the 75th Anniversary of Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27.
I love all the yellow. It's so unusual to see a Batman cover today go so bright. Such a cool feel.  
 
And apparently B-Day was such a success DC has kept doing it, with all kinds of signings, sales and events at comic book stores, bookshops and libraries around the country.  DC even offers a downloadable kit of things your kids can do, which includes not only coloring and a cut-out mask but a bedtime checklist that includes “brushing teeth, “taking a bath”, and “going potty” --- you know, just like Batman himself. 
 
(I’m trying to imagine a Batman comic which involves Batman “going to the potty”.  It would have to be by Frank Miller, I think.

Actually, speaking of Batman peeing, enjoy the Quora answer to "What does Batman do when he wants to pee?"

My favorite part: his suit probably has a "super thin, super absorbent lining that transfers urine away from the groin for space use, so he can secretly use it in in crime fighting."  

Dear Scott Snyder, could you please write the issue where Batman uses his pee in crime fighting. Please.)
Now you may ask yourself, when is “Superman Day”? There is one – sort of? It first happened on June 12th, 2013 , as part of DC’s promotion for that dark, awful train wreck of a reboot that involved Superman wiping out most of Metropolis in the dumbest most unbelievable fight (though not as ridiculous as letting your dad get killed rescuing a dog to protect your secret identity, which also happened) “Man of Steel”. 

*ahem*
 
And the day still happens every year, in fact an Ohio state legislator wants it to be an official day in the state. (Oh, Ohio.) 

But in general it doesn’t seem to be that big a deal.
 
Which is weird, right? Of any comic book character, is there any as big as Superman? I mean, yes, Wolverine, Spider-Man or Batman might be more popular right now – I’m guessing Captain America was probably at least as big as Superman in certain decades. But if you take the long view, it’s got to be Superman, right?
 
Yet the last three Superman movies have been such a total disaster that in the course of just ten years they’ve already had to reboot a reboot, and then killed off that version of the character as well. (By most accounts the “resurrected” Superman we’ll wish were still dead meet in “Justice League” will itself be a reboot of “I’ll save you but I’m kind of thinking the human race kind of sucks” Superman of the last two films.)
‚Äč"America, you bore me."
 
The comics haven’t been much better. Like the rest of the DC Universe, comic book Superman was rebooted as a young hero in 2011. Writer Grant Morrison made him an almost Occupy Wall Street-type figure, interested in toppling the rich and awful. It was interesting, but it never really landed.
 
Five years later, that character, too, is dead, as is his Lois Lane, and replaced with older versions who are married and have a son. And while people have been pretty excited to have married Lois and Clark, I’d say it’s mostly for the new Superboy they’ve created.
This is him.

He is adorable.  
 
So how did this happen? Why does Superman suck? That’s the question that nags at me. 
 
Sometimes I think it’s because he’s just too powerful to have believable, relatable obstacles. Faced with pretty much god-like abilities, most writers eventually end up turning to the trap of some uber-villain who is even stronger than he is. Which is okay, I guess, but then it’s just a lot of punching. Braniac, Zod, Kryptonite Whatever Man – it doesn’t matter how much groundwork the writers lay, none of them really seem a) like Superman’s equal and b) like they really have a legitimate personal connection with him. They’re each just like a talking version of an obstacle from American Ninja Warrior.
Maybe Superman just needs a pet dinosaur? I think that's it. 

Even Lex Luthor doesn’t really work for me. I never really believe his reasons for hating Superman. They just feel false – like they’re only there because he’s Lex Luthor and so that’s what he’s supposed to say.
 
Another possibility is that Superman is too idealistic for our current age. We can’t relate to him because the 1950s are like, so 60 years ago. And, as Stephen King likes to write in the Dark Tower, “The world has moved on.”
Like, SO FAR on.
But then, if there’s been any great Superman comic in the last twenty years, it has got to be the gorgeous, moving mini-series “All-Star Superman” done by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. And rather than avoid the whole “he’s such a good guy” thing, that comic leans into it. Way, way into it. And they’re not afraid to let him seem silly as a result, either.  In fact, that ends up being part of why we love him so much. Hopefulness is silly and absurd and naive. And yet it can also be so damn beautiful.

(Honestly, if you’re reading this and you’ve never read “All-Star Superman”, can I talk you into it?  If I were not a priest who had taken a vow of poverty, I would offer to reimburse you if you don’t like it. I’m that confident. (Also, that broke).)
 
Maybe Superman needs to have a cost to using his powers? Comic book-character-reboot-savant Geoff Johns recently tried that with Superman; he and artist John Romita Jr. gave Superman a new power, sort of an uncontrollable megaton blast. And after he’d use it he’d lose his powers completely for a while. And then they’d only come back one by one. It was a really interesting idea. 

Then Johns left the book pretty much in the middle of the storyline he created, and it all kind of fell apart so they killed Superman instead. 

Not that I minded. 
   
DOES SUPERMAN HAVE TO SUCK?
So as I was sitting here contemplating the question of Superman and suckage, I thought of some other people who I know also think about these things and are super interesting.
 
Like Vince Moore, who has both written comic books himself and run a comic book store. He probably wouldn’t know it, we haven’t even seen each other much in the last few years, but he’s sort of my comic book Yoda. Someone who I know will always have something thoughtful and unexpected to say. (He’s on Twitter. You can find him here.)
 
So Vince, why is it that the Superman story doesn’t seem to work today?

I think the problems with Superman in the 21st century are manifold. One, he’s a child’s character, an idealization made flesh. We are in a cynical age. We don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus is a fiction, etc.
 
Two, Supes is informed by Judeo-Christian stories and ethics. He does good because it’s the right thing. We are too secular and too atheistic to buy into a powerful man doing good for its own sake. What’s his real motive? A hero like Batman we get. He’s out for revenge, he’s a little damaged like most of us. But Superman? Forget it.
 
Three, and this is where the movies come into play. Folks are trying to redefine Superman using more modern ideas that don’t fit him. A lot of folks got upset when Snyder mentioned reading “Atlas Shrugged” while working on Justice League. Folks took that to mean Supes was being recast as a Randian hero. Which really doesn’t fit her philosophy. After all, by Randian logic, Supes should have used his gifts to become a captain of business or science.
 
...Superman is the ultimate Man for Others in an age when most are out for themselves. They are the Randians in that sense.”
 
Fourth, “Man of Steel” suffers from not knowing how to repackage the Superman concept while repackaging the plots from earlier movies. Because of that, the beats don’t make the same sense they once did... for example, the Death of Pa Kent. “Superman” milks it for all that it’s worth in terms of the moral lessons that Supes uses to resolve the death of Lois later. In MoS, Kent dies in a meaningless gesture of obedience on Supes’ part.

I gotta say, this idea that Batman is broken and therefore relatable, whereas Superman isn’t, makes sense to me. Every time I see a Superman movie or read a Superman comic, I am desperate to find some human foible in him, something normal that I can relate to. I’d seriously rather have a whole issue where his problem is “They keep giving me the wrong drink at Starbucks” than “Starro is invading the planet.”
 
Enormous god-awfully powerful super villains and evil hacker super genius Facebook creators are a terrible substitute for humanity.
 
(Also, is it me, or after reading Vince’s post is it pretty clear that Donald Trump must love the Zack Snyder Superman?)
 
Then I wrote Tom Brennan. Tom is an editor at Valiant Comics. The book “Faith” that he edits recently won an Eisner (comic book version of the Oscar). It’s really fantastic. You should try it. (Tom also tweets here.)
 
Tom’s been in the comic book business for quite a while, and he knows a lot. (Plus, and I swear this is true, ever since I met Tom, any time I read “Spider-Man” I hear Peter Parker talking in his voice. He really is that character – as good as they come, hilarious – and clearly doomed.)
 
Here’s what Tom had to say about Superman:

To me the thing about Superman is creators overthink him.  The idea of a good man trying to be good in a challenging world is plenty interesting.  Someone's convinced tons of writers that only dark and edgy characters are interesting.  A person can be clean cut, optimistic and...dare I say it...boring and still be a compelling character. 
 
Superman is better than us and yet if he totally gave into his powers and lorded that better-ness, he'd be worse than us.  He has to control himself in order to be our better and yet that he HAS to makes him, in a way, worse.

Given how he painted Superman as essentially a good guy trying to do good things, I wondered how he would compare the character with Peter Parker. Why does everyone still love Spidey, who also is fundamentally a good person trying to do the right thing, but they would rather throw their television out the window than watch or read anything Superman again?

Well Peter has the out and out failure baked into his background (letting Uncle Ben die) and physically he's limited.  Peter with Superman's powers would be as effective a hero as Clark but he can physically do less - he has to be creative.

Plus he's funny.  Clark isn't funny.  But alternately a guy who can do everything AND be funny?  That's a bully, not a likable person.
 
So it's partially the organic design of the character -- Pete has failure in his back story, Clark has the failures of others--and partially what they can do
 
To me the most interesting Superman is the “Death of Superman” Superman; showing him be relentless despite knowing there was only one way out of this for him made him far more endearing to me.

I really like Tom's point about how Spider-Man’s limitations make him more interesting. Obstacles force him to be creative, which is always a lot more fun to watch.
 
Also, why is it Clark is never funny? Christopher Reeve’s Clark was ridiculously funny. Truly, even though his clumsiness was an act, most of the time it kind of also seemed real.
 
Reeve found something new in the character with his willingness to be playful; he added a whole other dimension. Why can’t we have any of that?
This is why we can't have nice things. 
 
Lastly, I asked my friend Regina Small, who is pretty much the funniest and most insightful person I know when it comes to pop culture. Follow her on Twitter here. You will not be disappointed. 
 
Here’s what she said:

Mostly what doesn't work for me is that the newest Superman adaptations are full of ManPain. But Superman isn't Batman. He isn't of this world.  His primary struggle, such as it is, is that he's not one of us. Zack Snyder's take on him feels wrong to me -- Superman should be closer in resemblance to Thor than to Batman: the beautiful, well-meaning dope who loves us all without quite getting our mortal angst. “Batman v Superman” could've been amazing, were it not so joyless. The saddest thing about that movie was how no one truly was saved - there's an entire scene where Superman *stands around watching people be murdered.*
 
That's not Superman. He's not a nihilist. Superman saves people. He's a hero in the truest and purest sense.
 
We live in a world where ironic detachment is a mark of refinement, so an old-school superhero may seem a little cornball. But like a wise man in another, very different superhero movie, said: "With everything that's happening... people might just need a little old-fashioned.

This is definitely my biggest problem with the movies. In general, other than Batman, for me DC is to Marvel Comics as Star Trek is to Star Wars – yeah, okay, I’ll watch/read DC or TNG, but I’ve learned not to rely on them. They never seem to go very deep or far. (Star Trek exception: Deep Space Nine. DC exception: Johns’ run on Green Lantern.)
 
Even so, I went to “Man of Steel” with a lot of hope in my heart. I think I wanted to feel again that giddy sense of wonder watching Christopher Reeve flying for the first time with Margot Kidder. I wanted Superman to be faced with something as unexpected and personally catastrophic as the death of Lois Lane, and to be forced in that moment to make big bold crazy choices that might not work. I wanted him to be over his head, and awkward, and funny, and I guess even to be the big Boy Scout who’s secretly trying to help everybody.
 
A Superman who lets himself be part of a fight that results in the death of thousands (tens of thousands? wasn’t that scene basically the equivalent of a hundred 9/11s?) is just not Superman. 
This is Superman. Yes, today those would be women's glasses. Still: Superman. 

Hey, Look, A Guy Who Made Superman Not Suck
There’s one last person I spoke to about Superman. His name is Kumail Rizvi, he’s an architect working and originally from the United Kingdom. And, he’s been writing this amazing webcomic “Kahlil”, which is a sort of  Superman story, set in Pakistan today.
 (We’re going to be talking in detail about his comic from here on out, so you might want to read it first.)
 
There are many reasons this story shouldn’t work. For me, highest among them, the fact that his character gets involved with things like drones and terrorism. What’s the worst Superman movie ever (that wasn’t done by Zack Snyder)? I don’t think it’s “Superman Returns” – in fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that some day we’re going to look back on that film and like it a whole better. The ending with the kryptonite island is a total disaster, and the Superman-as-Jesus motif way too literal, but there’s a lot of fun stuff there. Superboy? YES, PLEASE.
 
No, the worst Superman movie before Zack Snyder ruined Christmas FOREVER was definitely the 1987 bomb “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”. Or, as we all remember it, the one with the nuclear weapons that we didn’t see. And the reason we didn’t is simple: as soon as you make Superman a vehicle to get preachy or social justice-y, we know it and we’re out.
Oh, Superman...  

In the very first issue, “Kahlil” has a flashforward to his adult self stopping a drone strike in the first few pages. It eventually involves other really significant political events. And yet, it is a fantastic story.
 
How did this happen? I wrote to Kumail. He was kind enough to answer a ton of questions.
 
1. So let me make sure I have your background right: you’re British-Pakistani, you work in the UK as an architect, and you draw this in your spare time. Is that correct? And have you also spent time in Pakistan?
I’ve taken a little time off to focus on Kahlil and some other illustration work but yes, I’m a Part I architect (basically a junior architect) in London. I lived in Karachi for a couple years as a teenager.
 
2.  What drew you to tell this story? And what made you want to tell it as a comic book? 
I remember during my final year of university, there was a group of independent journalists who released data on the number of US drone strikes commited by the US against Pakistan, and the numbers of civilians and more specifically, women and children that were killed by those ‘targeted killings’. It shocked and appalled me and I made an off-hand comment to a friend saying, you know, if Superman was Pakistani – that just wouldn’t happen. That line stuck around in my head and grew into a more fully formed idea after I graduated.

And why in the form of a comic book? The idea from its inception was always about Superman. I’ve loved comic books since I was a kid. I really got into it again when I was maybe 15 and my uncle handed me a copy of the Dark Knight Returns and I thought it was incredible. I’ve always wanted to make my own comic and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to tell this story.

3.  Early in Book One (which by the way has just the best title), you give us a single glimpse of the hero that Kahlil will become. And it’s within the context of American drone strikes. What made you choose that way into him as Superman?
I was always taught to show and not tell. I do my best to remember that and keep that integral to the storytelling and that image of Superman standing in the sky holding the remains of a drone he had torn apart was the first one I came up with. I wanted to say very quickly - this is not the Superman you know. You’re not in Kansas Anymore.

4.  As I wrote you, one of the things that really hit me about “Kahlil” is that it seems to both honor the most classical Superman and yet is fresh in a way that most Superman stories of the last 20 years have struggled to achieve.
 
In your opinion, why does it seem like Batman is evergreen but Superman is so hard to capture right now? For you, what are the keys to telling a Superman story well? 
I just went on a little bit of a rant about this on twitter a couple days ago, wondering why I’m enjoying the Bat books (Batman/Detective/All-Star) more than any of the current Superman titles. And I wasn’t sure. I’m still not.
 
I think maybe, with Batman, you can tell a noir story and that can be really effective. There’s a mystery, and constructs of the genre to rely on to tell a solid story. That sort of just works. That doesn’t work with Superman. He can solve the problem immediately. And I feel like writers often try to just bulk up the odds by reviving Doomsday. Again. And then they have a fistfight that levels cities. And that is the least interesting thing Superman does. 

I think focusing on the character of Clark/Superman and his relationships was always the most interesting part to me. His relationships with Lois, Jimmy, Lex, his Parents, and as Superman, the public, and his past. And trying to balance all of those at the same time and failing to do so. 

Another thing that always bothered me was, and I think Zack Snyder tries to talk about this in his movies but doesn’t do a great job, is that if Superman existed, him stopping robbers on the street and saving cats out of trees cannot be all that he does. When there are so many awful things that happens in this world, it would just be irresponsible and I do not think of Superman as irresponsible. The fact that he would try to help in those true crises but also try and stop that kid from being run over by a vehicle, or stop that girl from jumping off of a building is why he’s Superman.
 
5.     As I read “Kahlil” I frequently think of Brian Michael Bendis’ early issues of “Ultimate Spider-Man.” You and Bendis show a similar brave confidence in decompressed storytelling, taking the time to develop the familial relationships—and in doing so uncovering so much great material.
 
Would you say Bendis is an influence on your work? Who are some of the writers and artists you look to for inspiration? 
Absolutely! When I got back into comics, his runs on Ultimate Spider-Man and New Avengers were some of the things I first picked up. His dialogue sounded like no one else’s in comics, though when I found out he was a big fan of Aaron Sorkin (me too!) that made the most sense in the world to me. 
 
Writers-wise, I have such a strong place in my heart for Joss Whedon/John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men (also everything Joss does), BKV/Alphona’s Runaways/Y the Last Man, and Grant Morrison’s Batman run and All-Star Superman. Also Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye. 

And whenever I want to feel bad about my art I just look at some Paul Pope, David Aja, Paulo Rivera, and Alex Maleev.
6. One of the things that keeps landing for me is your choice to make Kahlil awkward. Unlike most versions of Clark Kent, Kahlil’s isolation has made him truly shy and unsure. Was that choice something you gave a lot of thought to?
 For sure. I remember, watching Kill Bill, and there’s a speech Bill gives about Clark Kent being Superman’s critique of the human race. Small, nervous, clumsy, incompetent etc. and thats only true if you look at those old Donner films and see Superman as the real guy and Clark as this facade he invented to hide his identity. Which is fair enough, but that never made sense to me. 
 
He was a boy from another world. He had gifts. He would’ve been made fun of, isolated, called names, bullied. He didn’t know where he was from, why he was the way he was, or what really he could even do. It made much more sense to me as that not being the facade but that being the real Clark / Kahlil. And that when he put on the blue and red, he was trying to be the best version of himself. The way he wish he could be always. That was him trying to be the inspiration others require him to be. Because when he’s trying to be the best version of himself, he’s still himself. He’s still Kahlil. But he’s Superman too.
 
7.  I note that almost every issue seems to touch on religion in some way – sometimes in people’s interpretations of Kahlil, sometimes in other contexts. Are you a religious person yourself? How do you think about God and faith? And what (if any) images of God are in the background of your work on “Kahlil”?
 Islam is built into the fabric of Pakistan. I don’t think you could tell a story about Superman growing up there without touching on it. And I think the various interpretations of Kahlil was also a key thing I wanted to touch on. From chapter one, some would see him as terrorist, others as freedom fighter, others would see him as an angel or demon. A government conspiracy? People think all kinds of things. 
 
And faith would be an important aspect of Kahlil's family’s life. And I’m sure that’s not true of all Pakistani’s but it was in mine. I’m muslim and was raised as such. I don’t want to ever make connections or ideas about God explicit in the story, but you can absolutely read into it, and find ideas, and themes taken from Islamic mythology.
 
8.  *MAJOR SPOILER* I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a scene with a suicide bomber like the one you have in Book Five. It’s not only a perfect moment for Kahlil to use his powers, it gives the bomber a complexity that’s not often considered.  What led you to that space?
 I remember a couple years ago, I watched the film Four Lions, which if you haven’t, do so immediately. It’s incredible. A dark comedy about a group of buffoon would-be-suicide bombers. It’s much funnier than it seems, I promise. Watching that, you see these idiots trying to pull off a terrorist attack and it never really seems like they understand why. And I understood that, suicide bombers aren’t old. They’re young. They’re kids. And often they’re manipulated into thinking certain ways. And if you’re stuck, in a place, with few options, and constantly feel under attack and a group offer you a way out, to actually do something - it’s easy to see how that happens. And it doesn’t excuse the thing they do, of course not, but to prevent it, you obviously have to understand why it happens. And it seems far less to do with religious conviction than extenuating factors. It’s easy to just call them evil and be done with it. Kahlil was about to do that very thing in the story. But Superman doesn’t do that. Superman is empathetic, and understanding and sees the best in people. We could all do with being more like Superman.
 
9. Would you call this a personal story for you? (It sure seems like it comes from a very personal place.) If so, in what ways? 
Absolutely yes. It takes place in the city I lived, the city that my family come from. The apartment Kahlil and his family live in is based on the apartment we lived in when we were there. Kahlil’s shyness and lack of confidence, his being unsure of himself was based in part on my own at that time. I’ve not been back to Karachi in 5 years and writing and drawing this comic, makes me feel closer to Pakistan and the culture there which was an unexpected joy. And finally, writing, illustrating, inking, colouring and lettering a comic takes an enormous amount of time. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t care about this story a lot.

Truly, if you don't think it's possible to tell a good Superman story today -- and I really didn't think it was -- give "Kahlil" a look. It's something special. 
 
+LINKS+
 
Conan O'Brien did a great fake ad this week for the new Apple Airpods. Smart play on their old ads.  I really wonder if that product is going to completely tank...

There's a Twitter account of animals behaving badly. Because Internet. 

Vulture this week had this fantastic interview with composer Angelo Badalamenti on how he created five of the songs for "Twin Peaks." His description of composing "Laura Palmer's Theme" on the fly while David Lynch whispered in his ear is worth it all by itself. (God I love interviews like that.)

Lastly, I don't know if you're watching "Stranger Things", the new Netflix show about kids in the 80s and their pet monster. (Okay, maybe it's not a pet so much as a terrifying nightmare thing that threatens to eat them all.) 

The show has some fantastic songs, including this incredible Peter Gabriel cover of David Bowie's "Heroes". (Ooh, I just realized this works really well with this newsletter's theme!)

Thanks again to Kumail, Vince, Tom and Regina for taking the time to answer a couple questions. Keep being amazing. It's working. 
 
And everybody, have a great week. If you can manage it, take a little time to look around. You might not be able to fly, but that doesn't mean your world isn't filled with wonders.