Thursday, September 27, 2012

Man of Paper: Why We Care About Superman at All

Here we are once again, Internet. Now that paper season is starting to get underway, I think I'm finally starting to hit my groove with this semester so with any luck this will be the latest post I make for a while. Right now I'm going through a bunch of really awesome classics that my school wasn't cool enough to make me read and a few others that I'm kinda meh on but still should probably have read just for the sake of knowing them. All-in-all it's a pretty good time. I'm feeling like I can start feeling justified for calling myself a Literature Major, a thing that was really hard to do a year or two ago when most, if not all, of my classes had nothing to do with my major. Some of you could probably relate to the feeling you get when you explain that yes, you're a [blank] major who has done absolutely nothing even kind of relating to your major that year. College is kind of whacky like that.

"Can't I just write you a five page essay on the sun as a metaphor?" --Me, one year ago
So while I'm also caught up in all this work, I'm trying to do more analysis on games as well. To that end, I've started playing one of the more classic (If a bit cult) examples of storytelling in games, Earthbound, by suggestion of a friend. I've only very lightly dusted it so far but it looks like there's much more to it than it's let on so if there's any weight to what I've heard about it, expect a deeper look at that. I've also been playing the good-golly-gosh out of some of those Humble Bundle games, Dustforce and Rochard especially, and also loving the ever-loving-heck out of all those free soundtracks (which I am actually listening to now, as I write).  Humble Bundle is still going on by the way, so if you're in the market for some cheap-as-almost-free games, they've added four more games (With soundtracks!), now unlockable at the average of $6.15 as of the time of this writing. Charity!

Okay, time for post now.

Man of Paper: Why We Care About Superman at All

So this week I'm exploring one of the powers I have now that I'm poll-free; covering topics that I knew would be good, but couldn't come up with a sexy enough headline to push through the polls (Another weakness with that poll structure). Specifically, we're talking about Superman. I like Superman, I really do. As a character he's got some insane historical value and has gone a long way towards both forming and being formed by several successive generations after his creation. It's kind of popular these days to eschew him on the grounds that he's an uninteresting character and to a point, I agree with that. I've already gone on at length about how Batman is a deeply flawed, multi-layered character who subconsciously abuses and manipulates everyone around him and that's fascinating to us, as humans. We love to see that sort of stuff both for A) the notion that people can rise to extraordinary heights after intense personal tragedy and B) people can fall to extraordinary depths after an intense personal tragedy and Batman, being Batman, has done both at once for our own entertainment. 

By comparison, Superman's driving motivation is that he was...born in Kansas. 

So to that extent, okay. I'll agree, Superman doesn't have nearly as many interesting character qualities that are intrinsic to himself. If you met him in real life, you might even be put off a little about how boring he was. You wouldn't say it within a hundred mile radius of him because superhearing, but the point stands.

There are a lot of people though who have taken this further to say that he isn't interesting at all, that there's no point in reading a Superman story because we all know how it's going to end; Superman is going to be really strong/fast/durable/laser-y and win the day in the name of good, old-fashioned morality. I don't buy that. I don't buy that one bit even though, yeah, that's how a lot of them end. Generally speaking however, I find that anyone who says this hasn't read much Superman, if they read many comics at all and I really don't like to be exclusionary here, of all places, but you really need to understand a few things about this character and the medium he resides in to make that kind of judgement. Some of the absolutely most engaging, compelling stories I've ever read, in our out of comics, either focused on Superman or else included him heavily (a-la Justice League)

Superman could be referred to as a "High-Gloss" character. That is, he's got a very shiny, uniform exterior that  is very flashy but isn't exactly surprising many people. On the surface, these sorts of "Whatever, he always wins" criticisms are true, jarringly so. He really does find the absolute best way to end things almost 100% of the time, with the fewest fatalities possible and often with just the right measure of justice doled out. If you're just skipping to the end though then you're probably missing the point of the entire thing. Part of the appeal to Superman is that he often finds these sorts of solutions where before one couldn't be found (a-la Red Son, Which I will be referencing a lot). What goes on before the ending and, indeed, behind the scenes, is normally a lot, a lot more interesting than the resolution by itself, something a lot of popular storytelling doesn't prepare people for. Not that it's a bad thing, just not a structure you don't normally see. 

These are a thinking man's stories, is what I'm getting at here.
One of the points I made in the Batman post was that, by himself, Batman isn't nearly as interesting. If you strip away Jim and Barbara Gordon, Alfred, Robin, and the Joker then you're effectively left with a wealthy psychotic who puts on a Halloween costume every night to go assault petty criminals. In the same but even more exaggerated way, Superman would be completely boring without his supporting cast; Lois Lane, Jimmy Olson, Lex Luthor and yes; even the rest of the Super Family. The reason for this is that they are both relatively flat characters; Batman is pure revenge and Superman is pure morality. You hear that term used negatively a lot, flat character, usually referring to films or stories in which all the characters simple don' much. This is a relatively common problem in storytelling because dynamic characters are hard to construct and creating a story full of flat ones, while easier is like building a brick house with no mortar; it looks stable but will collapse at the slightest provocation. 

It's popular to argue that Superman has no weaknesses aside from KyrptoMcGuffinite and, stripped from any sort of introspective context like more modern stories are more likely to have, this is a relatively easy argument to make. What people forget is that, even though Superman was always the one who made stuff right again, it was his friends (and enemies) who occasionally fucked it up. He was the flat character, he had one response to everything "Fix it" just like a lot of people tend to imagine how morality breaks down on a very simple level. What came interestingly wasn't that his fixed it but how, especially when loved ones were on the line. In a sense, that was one of his greatest weaknesses; the people around him who couldn't fly, the ones who went splat if they hit the ground at terminal velocity. They were the whole reason he existed and also the ones who caused him the very most pain. His loved ones weaken him insofar as they exist as a constant potential fail state for them, they get into stupid messes and losing them could very well mean the end of Superman. His enemies weaken him in challenging that moral fortitude and the best ones do so in ways that can't always be answered with a simple "Fix it."

What it breaks down to is that dynamic (or 'round') characters will change over time, they are different, usually more mature people by the end of the story and may be almost unrecognizable from their expository counterparts. Flat (or 'static') don't change and remain relatively from beginning to end, the excitement usually coming from when a static character has to take on a dynamic challenge and their foundations are compromised. How much precedence any one story gives to one or the other depends entirely on the story itself, though generally it's seen as 'easier' to make your dynamic characters your protagonists leaving your flat characters to the supporting roles. In cases like Batman, Superman, and...actually now that I think of it a LOT of DC super heroes, that's flipped meaning that the supporting cast is pretty malleable while the leads change very little, if at all. What's the reason for this? Well...

First though, kittens. That was a long set of paragraphs with a lot of basic writing theory and not many jokes so some of you might need a break. 
First, let me ask you a question; why are zombies interesting? They're clearly the star of the show, don't even kid yourself. You're not drawn to a zombie movie because the poster talks about a roiling human drama about survival, teamwork, and betrayal, you go to the zombie movie because motherfucking zombies, They're pretty much the only group besides Nazis that it is universally okay to shoot at. You go because you wanna see zombies eat people and then subsequently get shot with varying degrees of badasses holding the guns. So why do we care about them? Is it purely for the gore and blood and impossible headshots? Not at all. We can treat zombies as one, massive, moaning flat character and, in this capacity, zombies stand (er, well, shuffle) for something, be it faceless consumer culture or the iniquities of man or whatever you wanna just shove on in there. Zombies are the faceless monoliths of man's anxieties about man, they are the other that is ourselves and by typifying these anxieties in an undead, unstoppable mob, we can examine how the dynamic character of humanity reacts to these conditions. By, metaphorically, making humans fight for their lives against the most inhuman parts of us, the story attempts to distill pure humanity, for good or for bad.

How does Superman relate to this? Just like zombies are pure evil, Superman is, himself, a metaphor for pure good, pure morality and in the same way zombies act as the backdrop for human interaction, so does Superman. Because he's such a flat character he's open to many interpretations through many storytellers and many audiences, he's so broad and so blank that you could ask a hundred different people what Superman means and you might get fifty different answers. Because he lends himself to such divergant interpretation, he sort of acts like a canvass on which to paint some larger questions like "What is morality?" "Is one morality more valid than the other?" and "Can what is good ever be decided by one man?"

One of the better examples of this is Superman: Red Son, in which the man of steel grows up in Russian Communism rather than American Capitalism. This radically changes the story of Superman, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, and many others as the moral values Superman stands for have changed, not fundamentally; he still believes that every life is worth protecting, but with the sort of oversight the USSR was fond of, it means that 'protection' goes a lot further than saving old ladies from muggers and stopping trains. What results is an exploration into one of the major contradictions found in Superman's 'Perfect Morals' both in the sense of "What if they were different morals?" but also the question of how much of enforcing morality is just fascism? Essentially, it ends up being a critique not only on the Communist government but government on the whole when it engages in idealism. 

There's another, much shorter, comic done by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal which explores the sort of impact a Superman would have on our world. Without spoiling too much, it basically comes to the conclusion that the most efficient way for Superman to save the world would be to turn him into the world's most cost-efficient power generator. It is technically the "Most Right" thing to do because he saves countless lives from hunger and poverty but in the process he loses his superherodom and probably neglects a bunch of immediate emergencies in the process.

In this way, Superman the blank slate becomes the mirror in which we see a part of ourselves. Now, I'll grant you that there's been a lot of Superfluff over the years, especially during the crazy silver-age "We're just going to make up whatever power is convenient to the plot and take lunch now" period.

Yeah...Rainbow hula hoops of doom. That happened. Also see; Superman the abusive father.
Try to remember that Superman came out on the heels of the depression; back then people didn't generally have the time (or the education) to break down esoteric topics like "What is right?" In this case, he was very much an icon; we loved him because he could always do what we couldn't and he would always help the little guy, it was escapism in its truest and most desperately needed form. At the time, this was all we really needed from him, a hero to see us through our troubled times and that's all he was, sometimes in the most fantastic, silliest ways possible. After we became better off, we didn't need him in that way as often and so we began examining him, who had become our universal, secular symbol of pure good and all the flaws and outdated lattices that came with him. He became a portal into the mind of times gone by and into the very foundations of ourselves.

That sort of historical insight that Superman offers has a lot of interest for people because for a while, Superman was THE thing. There was a good, long stretch where whenever the question of "Superman or Batman" came up, the answer was almost always Superman. There was a stretch where it wasn't even a question at all. A lot of research has gone into why such a character had resonated with so many people so strongly and continues to resonate with new generations to this day. 

In a funny way of looking at it, he is our Herkales (Hercules for everyone else), a paragon representing what we hold most dear, culturally, while exemplifying the flaws in that obsession. In the case of the Greeks it was warfare and with it came uncontrollable rage. In America it was equality, justice, and freedom and looking at it now, I think we're still unpacking what the flaws in that are, glaring as they may sometimes seem. 

As a character, he has his flaws. There are a lot of easy ways to write a Superman story that end up being, at best, mildly entertaining but ultimately unfulfilling. Still though, as a character he is not without his merits and, indeed, still has great purpose in aiding our own cultural introspection, a thing I think a lot of people could stand to do a little more often.

Thank you, goodnight.

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