What to Do With The Man of Steel (Part 2)

Better late than never, huh?  Work and a family vacation kept me from putting this up earlier, but don’t think I haven’t been thinking about it.  In fact, it’s sad how much time I spend thinking about a character a) I am not writing for and b) may never write for.  I can’t help it.  This is how my brain works.

Anyway, I spent my last post covering different versions of Superman and where he’s gone wrong recently.  Here are a couple of my thoughts on the elements to make him work now:

1.  Clark Kent isn’t a disguise
If you’ve seen Kill Bill, you may remember David Carradine’s monologue about how Clark Kent is Superman’s way of mocking the inferior human race.  This was built on the original notion of Clark being a disguise for Superman.  The Clark/Superman dual personality was an extension of Siegel and Shuster’s daydreams.  They were awkward geeks but deep down they felt a strength they wished they could show the world.  This is most clear in his exchanges with Lois.  It’s the “she thinks I’m a dweeb but deep down I’m the man of her dreams” fantasy.

In The Man of Steel, John Byrne presented us with a Superman who didn’t see Clark as a disguise.  It was who he really was.  In recent years, writers such as Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, and Geoff Johns have pulled back on that.  They’ve presented a Clark who may not be the bumbler of the Christopher Reeve films but he’s still a disguise.

This needs to be ditched and Clark has to become the real person again.  In the original comics, Clark Kent was a made-up person Superman created to mix into the real world.  That all changed when it was revealed he was raised by the Kents.  At that point, Clark Kent went from a disguise to who he was.  People may not have seen it that way at the time but back then folks saw your bloodline as being more important than who raised you.  That’s not the case anymore.

Also, if you want an audience to connect to Superman he can’t be someone who thinks of himself as Superman.  If Clark is a real person it means that Superman has his feet on the ground.  He’s one of us, not a super alien mocking us.

2.  He can no longer protect the status quo
Superman was created at a time when people felt the world was on the wrong path.  People feel the same way now.  If Superman continues to be the protector of the status quo, he loses the audience’s sympathies.  This is where villains like Lex Luthor come in.  In his evil businessman mode, he represents the power broker running society for his own benefit.  His success was built on the backs of the “little people”.  His Metropolis is a city with a bright shell and a rotting center.  In that world, Superman is the guy with the strength to fight back for the average joe.

Superman can’t do anything about unemployment or the housing crisis.  Instead, he should fight villains that represent the parasitic forces ruining the real world.  A good example of this is Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America.  In it, Cap goes up against ex-cold war operators trying to destroy America through an economic crisis mixed with political corruption.  That’s the sort of fight Superman should be taking on.  Enough with Kal-El trying to make it on New Krypton.  Superman is a character loaded with meaning and his stories need to connect with the audience in a symbolic way.  Stories like that don’t mean anything. 

3.  Ditch the gimmicks
How many colors of Kryptonite do we need?  Is Krypto the Superdog vital to the Superman myth?  These ideas may be fun for folks who love the “good old days”, but to a modern reader they’re hokey and take them right out of the story.  When you’re trying to do a character like this, it’s best to keep it simple and pure.  If you love Nightwing and Flamebird, those stories are still there for you to go back to.

4.  Don’t be scared to piss off the fans
Comic book readers are a funny bunch.  We often demand brand new stories that are exactly the same as the old ones.  We have a hard time letting go of whatever aspects of characters we love.  Many recent Superman creators fit this mold as well.  When it was decided to revitalize the character in movies and comics, what did everyone do?  They tried to turn back the clock to the Richard Donner Superman, which is the one almost everyone agrees was great.  Hell, I love it.  But in retrospect, Superman Returns was doomed because instead of looking forward, it moped about the loss of that era. 

Modern writers need to step back and look at what the important aspects of the character are and how they work in a modern context.  To many fans, the new Superman will never be as good as “their Superman”.  You can’t please them, so don’t even try.  After all, there are millions upon millions of people who don’t care if the Fortress of Solitude isn’t made of crystals.  All they want is an entertaining story starring a character that lives out their dreams (the clean ones anyway).

5.  Superman is about hope, optimism, and taking action on them
Superman isn’t a naïve boy scout.  He comes from a place doomed by the arrogance of its people.  As a reporter, he sees the worst of humanity.  He’s disgusted and angered by it but doesn’t allow those feelings to dominate his actions.  He feels hope in the darkest of times.

He was also raised to believe that everyone uses what they have to serve their fellow man.  Because he was born with the ability to do great things, he has to.  In the end, it means he has to sacrifice his own desires (see Superman II for the best example of this).  He’s a symbol to inspire everyone to think outside their own wants and do what’s right.  We could really use that right now.

There is a chance we may see a Superman soon who lives up to his potential.  J. Michael Straczynski is looking to update Superman in the monthly books and through his Superman: Earth One graphic novel that comes out later this year.  While I’ve voiced some hesitation about his “Superman walks across America” storyline, he could prove me wrong.  Plus he’s saying a lot of good things when discussing Earth One’s update on his origin.  At the same time, Christopher Nolan will be producing a new Superman movie.  He’s done wonders with Batman, so we’ll see what he can do here.  I am a little nervous, though, as Chris Columbus’ name is being thrown around as a director.

Of course, this whole thing could be solved by DC hiring me to write Superman.  This won’t happen, as I have almost nothing to refer me to the job.  I’m just saying I’d be open to it (hint, hint Dan Didio).

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