Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Superman: "It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's a Choice..."

 An artist (as, for instance, the sculptors of Ancient Greece) who presents man as a god-like figure is aware of the fact that men may be crippled or diseased or helpless; but he regards those these conditions as accidental, as irrelevant to the essential nature of man--and he presents a figure embodying strength beauty, intelligence, self-confidence, as man's proper, natural state. An artist (as, for instance, the sculptors of the Middle Ages) who presents man as a deformed monstrosity is aware of the fact that there are mean who are healthy, happy, or confident; but he regards these conditions as accidental or illusory, as irrelevant to man's essential nature--and he presents a tortured figure embodying pain, ugliness, terror, as man's proper, natural state. 
 -Ayn Rand
 The above quote would be a fair summation of the reason and purpose of Superhero Babylon. And it's not for nothing that Superman's cape is the chosen symbol. Superman, more than any other character, represents everything that is right with Rand's quote. So when I accidentally discovered a graphic novel called It's a Bird in the bookstore, well... Superman doesn't appear very often in DC's VERTIGO line of comics, which are given over to darker, more adult-themed stories. So it's not surprise that when he finally gets the spotlight, it's the kind of spotlight one finds used in an interrogation scene. I was surprised, however, by the ending...

 An interrogation; indeed, that's how Steven T. Seagle approaches the "Man of Tomorrow." No mindless hero-worship here, which makes the ending that much more remarkable. As Grant Morrison writes on the dust jacket, "this is Superman for grownups." The story is actually NOT about Superman, but a "semi-autobiographical" look at the writer's inability to write about Superman. When offered the chance to write the Superman comics, "Steve" initially declines, unimpressed with an opportunity that any other writer would leap tall buildings for. Why?
The truth of the matter is, I have no Superman stories. There's no access point to the character for me. For anyone if they ever really thought about him. Too much about him makes no sense.
So why does the writer feel this way? Steve's got "issues...back issues..." (and begins the part of the story that Grant Morrison describes as "part savage deconstruction.") We see the writer give every excuse under the yellow sun, from political, ideological, and practical. But the real issue is personal; the story starts off with the young Steve's experience in the hospital where his grandmother lays dying of Huntingdon's Disease. Steve is given a Superman comic to read, which becomes forever associated with "the smell of rubbing alcohol and sick people with veins showing through their legs." Even the shield on Superman's chest becomes associated with the "S" at the end of "Huntingdon's." And that is the real story of this story, the author's inability to identify with an invulnerable Superman in a world of mortality. The fact that Superman is an alien just makes the concept that much more...alien. Like the "artist of the middle ages" in Ayn Rand's claim, it's not just the fact that Superman is an outsider that bothers Steve. His girlfriend points out that Steve, like Superman, is an outsider, too. But Superman is strong, and Steve is...well, Steve doesn't want to talk about that right now...
 They convince him that to be like Buck Rogers means to wear a space helmet and blast armies of Martians with a disintegrator gun, and that he'd better give up such notions if he ever expects to make a respectable living. And they finish him off with..."Buck Roger--ha-ha-- never gets any colds in the head...Do you know any real people who never get them? Why, you had one last week. so don't you go on imagining that you're better than the rest of us!"
-Ayn Rand
 "They" have certainly convinced Steve, who wants to convince everyone that Superman does not work as a symbol of human achievement, precisely because he IS super, and, therefore, unreal. Steve objects to the "contradictions" of Superman, and the resultant call to "suspend disbelief," because he "likes  things to be believable..." For him to write Superman, he would "have to believe he could live in our world. But he can't," because everything about him is "ludicrous." (Rand, a "Romantic Realist," would call Steve a "naturalist.") And so the savage deconstruction" begins...

 According to Steve, Superman as "alien outsider" can't relate to the "real" outsiders at the Daily Planet, outsiders such as the Jewish accountant who endures the water cooler jokes about "her people" and money, or the black janitor who's main power is invisibility...until money goes missing...or the lesbian or the handicapped. These outsiders can't just take off their glasses and hide their true identities...or reveal their true identities...Superman as outsider can't compare to other aliens who left their homes, like Columbus or the Challenger astronauts who never reached their intended destinations. Superman made it to Earth, therefore his story is not as important as the "tragedy" of the others. Superman as invulnerable is only valid in fantasy; and even then, Achille's had his unprotected heel, the Great Wall of China had "vast, indefensible gaps." Even Alexander the Great was felled not by the enemy army, but a fever...

 "Steve" realizes that Superman, of course, IS not invulnerable...there is a little problem of Kryptonite...and this is where we see the real conflict of the author...Kryptonite:
Kryptonite is antithetical to Superman! It's the opposite of life. Some sick bastard wrote the word "Kryptonite," and suddenly Superman is vulnerable!

 Steve, who, up to this point, comes off as an intellectual and cynical, and "realistic," starts to show a Romantic streak. But it's too soon; the "savage deconstruction" must continue...including a deconstruction of the colors on Superman's costume...(notably, the story is depicted in earth tones, with the exception of Superman's primary colors.) Steve calls out Superman for being a "phony American":
 You're as much American as jazz, baseball, or the comic book...but you're not red, white, and blue. You're clad in the triad of primary colors: red, yellow, blue, the three hues from which all other colors are created. Is red-yellow-blue some kind of pre-political correctness? Do you represent men of all colors? Or is it more mechanical than that? Did Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster choose red-yellow-blue because of the arcane printing limitations of 1938? Or was there some chromatic alchemy at work? A secret spectrum chosen for its symbolic meanings? 

 This savaging of Superman's "Americanism" becomes an attack on America itself, for failing to live up to its ideals. When challenged that Superman, as a creation of the children of Jewish immigrants, shows us that "anyone with the will can make it here," Steve calls it "crap," with an argument that could have come straight out of The Myth of the American Superhero:
That's the myth of America. But Superman doesn't use human virtues, he uses alien trump cards. He beats the crap out of people who don't play the game his way. He fights for the American ideal, but he fights with his fists. He's an alien interloper, and he's after our women. He's not showing us what we can be, because we can't be from another planet, have x-ray vision, flight, or super-strength...

 At this point, Steve is cut off by the recipient of this diatribe, who objects to the vilification of his childhood hero as a fascist, imperialist, and whatever fashionable Chomsky-ite diatribe academics teach their students nowadays. To this, Steve responds...with a fist. This is a development of the conflict arising in Steve, as he represses his latent "romanticism." To really understand what is happening here, one has to look at Carl Jung's description of the hero cycle, which involves the hero becoming the very thing he set out to fight. But to really understand what is happening here, one has to understand that Jung's idea of shadow projection is not limited to heroes, but to anyone who represses their underlying feelings. All the objections Steve has to Superman are based on Steve's own denied lust for power in the face of his own powerlessness. But because he is not ready to admit this, Steve begins to retreat to his own "fortress of solitude," which becomes an airtight cell which suffocates him. And so, Steve begins to finally admit his REAL issue with Superman: he is not Superman because he is confronted with the possibility that the Huntingdon's Disease that has tore his family apart may claim him as well. And this is how Steve finally gains a point of accessibility to the Man of Steel. He remembers the original Superman story that he read in the hospital as a child, and remembers not the plotholes, but the emotional investment, of wanting to "turn the page and know what was going to happen next." Steve may or may not have the disease, this is still uncertain. But he learns that the point is not to give up as long as there is a choice: 
That's what Superman is all about. To remind us that we have hurdles...but as long as we keep jumping them...we're in the race.
 And so, this became a story not about Superman, but how a Naturalist become a Romanticist. As the story ends, Steve can look to the sky, with his own children, and see not a bird, or a plane, but Superman, and tells them that "you can see him you look close enough, but you really have to want to." A better example of why the Superman cape is our symbol I couldn't ask for.