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Superman and Citizenship – Chipping Away At Icons

Posted by: John Schroeder at 08:54 am, April 30th 2011     —    3 Comments »

And Now For Something Completely Different…

So, Thursday last I was driving around and as is typical, listening to the Hugh Hewitt radio show.  Sounded like a pretty typical show and I had a lot of work to do when I got back in the office during the second hour, so I did not turn the show on while I was busy responding to email and otherwise documenting the end of a hectic work day.  And then, suddenly, every form of communication I own (email, texting, instant messaging, the telephone) ERUPTS into simultaneous activity!  It seems our friend Mr. Hewitt wants to talk to me on air and everyone that listens to the show is trying to tell me so.  I figure that there has been a Romney/religion story break and while I am dialing the show I am busy checking my sources to see what has happened.  When I am finally on line with Radioblogger what is it I discover Hugh wants to talk about? – The announcement that Superman is renouncing his American Citizenship in Action Comics #900.  Yes, it’s true, I am an avid comic book collector and have an unfortunate level of knowledge about such things.

First some background in in order.  Comics, it must be remembered, have their origins in the magazine publishing business, hence they are dated and numbered.  To publish 900 issues of anything is an amazing publishing achievement.  This is especially true of comics, despite beloved and continuing characters.  Sometime in the 1980′s, the comic market switched from stuff kids picked up in drugstores to serious collectors.  Number 1 issues are highly collectible so it has become the general market strategy to end a title after a limited run and begin anew with a slightly different title and a new #1.  Action Comics is one of the few exceptions to this rule.  Action, originally an anthology book, is where Superman made his first appearance in a short, quickly taking over as the title’s principle character until eventually it became a Superman title.  With Superman came success in the comics publishing industry, innumerable costumed hero/mystery man titles followed, and a genre was born.   DC Comics in deference to this history has refused to end Action’s run as it has so many other venerable titles, and the extraordinary milestone of issue 900 has been reached.  That fact alone is monumental in publishing and DC Comics is to be commended for it.

Under such circumstances, anniversary issues have become big events for those few remaining titles whose runs continue.  Anniversaries are marked not by publication dates, but by issue number.  Decades ago publishers pushed publication of issues so far ahead of the posted dates to aid in marketing that the dates are virtually ignored.  Hence any issue with an even hundred number is an anniversary issue.  Arrayed around this post are images of the covers of Action Comics 100, 200, 300…900.  As you can see, in the earlier years such issues were fairly normal, but as time progressed they have become “events.”  It should also be mentioned that Action Comics is far from the only Superman title, but it is the oldest, the originator.  If you are interested in others, please check this out.

As such issues began to gain in importance and recognition they took on the aspect of the retrospective on the character or perhaps the creative teams that had worked on the title.  In the 1980′s, as the collector’s market really began to develop, such issues became events – often marking major transitions in the character, and in more recent years marking a “reboot” in the character.  (For the completely initiated, a “reboot” is a reinvention of a franchise – think the most recent JJ Abrams Star Trek movie.)  Reboots often allow for similar story telling transitions as ending a title and coming up with a new one, so the buying boost achieved by this newer practice can be replicated.

Synopsizing the various hundred issues of Action Comics has proven to be difficult.  Many of them pre-date my life, let alone my comic reading, and are well beyond my means to add to my collection.  This link gives a synopsis of every Action issue since the mid-80′s (there’s that magic date again) but I simply could not find data any earlier than that.  However, this information when combined with the covers depicted here should give the reader a good idea of the transitions that have taken place over the decades.  Most especially notable on casual viewing is how much darker the images have become as time as moved forward, and it is highly notable in 900.

And now a different strain of background.  DC Comics is, and has been for quite some time, owned by Time-Warner.  It has been considered the most “corporate” of the comics publishers.  Major competitor Marvel is also very corporate, but until it was acquired by Disney a few years ago, it was small potatoes as a company (though usually beating DC in sales) compared to the Time Warner giant.  When Disney bought Marvel, there was much trepidation (and the jury is still out) that such would spell the end of the great story telling at Marvel.  Think about it, when was the last time you saw something really creative with Mickey Mouse?  Disney has been far more interested in preserving and protecting its iconic character than it has been in telling new and better stories about/with Mickey.  Many feared the same fate awaited Wolverine, Spiderman and several other iconic Marvel stalwarts.  They certainly felt like such had happened at the corporatist DC with it’s big three – Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

This has, over the years, made it hard for these titles to draw the best creative teams.  In the early 90′s when Todd MacFarlane rebooted Spiderman to the point that Marvel added a new Spidey title featuring MacFarlane, but not giving him profit participation, MacFarlane took a walk and went independent.  This problem was compounded as the cross-title publishing trend took hold (story arcs that cross multiple titles, thus meaning plots are handed down to the creative teams from a coordinating editorial board rather than allowing the creative teams to actually create.)  Superman, iconic to begin with, has suffered the most from this trend.  Not to mention the fact that as the most powerful hero ever it’s hard to create genuine conflict for him.  Supes has been for a couple of decades now, pretty moribund.  Sales have been reasonable, it is after all Superman, but creatively it has suffered.

With this background, it is unsurprising that with Action 900, the publishers and creators would want to do something to shake off the iconic mold and try and make the character once again interesting.  Consider the by now oft quoted words he speaks as he renounces his citizenship, “I am tired of having my actions construed as instruments of US policy.”  It literally drips with the desire to shake off the bonds that have constrained the character for my entire lifetime.

But that raises two essential questions.  Firstly, what is wrong with such constraints, and secondly, should not some icons be left iconic?

The fact that such constraints are viewed as bad is, as comics always are, reflective of our culture generally.  However, in my opinion that is a sign of creative laziness, not real creativity.  Consider an analogy to science.  Are the laws of physics to be considered constraints?  Can an engineer on a whim decide that electrons now carry a positive charge and therefore make a computer on entirely different principles?  Of course, not, and yet the creative nature of what engineers have been able to accomplish is extraordinary, revolutionary even.

At the turn of the 20th century, people began to ponder if Newton had pretty well figured everything out, and there was little left for science and engineering to do.  And yet, very creative people (not artists certainly, but creative nonetheless) have worked within the constraints of the laws of physics to transform the world in ways unimaginable in 1900.  There is much that could be done with Superman inside the constraints placed on the character by its iconic nature and its corporate worth.  In all the flotsam that has emerged under the Superman name in these last decades, there has been some very good work.  In can continue.

Should not some icons be left iconic?  Consider the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.”  In it, Jimmy Stewart, playing Ransom Stoddard – a US Senator,  attends the funeral of a little-known rancher in his home town.   Stoddard has achieved this lofty perch doing much good for the territory-come-state in the process, by being know as the man who shot Liberty Valence, bringing the first real justice to the then territory.  When the press asks Stoddard why he would attend such an unnoteworthy funeral, he tells them the true story of who shot Valence, and it was the character he had come to bury, not himself.  Yet, the press did not print the story saying, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  In other words, Stoddard had done so much good as the man that shot Liberty Valence, that only harm could result from breaking the legend.

I indeed think that is the case when it comes to Superman and US citizenship.  Supes is iconically American and he has over the decades done so much good in raising American spirits.

It was barely a decade ago that he did so much to honor the true heroes of 9-11.  He was a war hero in WWII.  He has rallied the troops and the nation on many, many occasions.  He stands for the best that is the United States of America.

This move is another move away from the idea of American exceptionalism, and it is an important one.  But I also think it is temporary.  They have tried to break the Superman mold before, and every time he seems to be pulled back into it.

Our nation is much the same.  We have been pulled into the darkness many times, but we have emerged a better stronger place.

I got into comics because of that dreadful Batman television series in the 1960′s.  I was a kid – it worked.  But in discovering comics, I discovered a whole new world of things, and I discovered history.  The WWII exploits of Captain America (another iconic character currently gone horribly awry) were formative in my understanding of the nation and my place in it.  Maybe those people that pick up Action 900 will have the entire world of Superman opened up for them.  Maybe they will look not just at Action Comics 900, but at the decades of Superman product and they will discover the patriotism and goodness that has defined this nation historically.  They will create demand for Supes to rectify this outrageous slight.  The publishers will readily follow if it means sales.

One of the nice things about pulp culture like comics is that nothing dies, it just gets recycled.  It’s time to stop reading Superman, but it will only be for a short while.

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