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Friday, February 12, 2016 

The trouble with how to script the Man of Steel

The Atlantic wrote about Superman's history and the problems with how to write him. It's an article that is honest about some of the problems the Big Blue Boy Scout's been dogged by for years now, but there's still some where it falters. At the beginning:
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison and the artist Frank Quitely accomplished it in eight words and four panels: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
There's just one little problem: the whole genre's grown out of its original format into other forms while leaving the original guise behind to rot and decay, because the modern owners have no respect for the properties they've been entrusted with. They only care about superheroes as a wellspring for movies and merchandise.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable. 2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.

Behold! I give you the problem of Superman. It’s a problem that has less to do with the character himself and more to with DC Comics, which found itself stuck with a flagship character it thought needed fixing. In trying, it broke him nearly beyond repair.
Here, they're a lot more honest about what sales are really like, and that's a plus. Most other news sources have been making a laughingstock of themselves by acting as though even 150,000 a month is something incredible, when truly, it's not. And the writer does acknowledge the illogical tendency to blame a fictional character instead of the writers for the boring stories that have come to a head in modern times. It's that kind of approach, IMO, that's giving comic book readers a bad reputation.

But, there's also some shortcomings in here, such as the following:
[...] He’s an immigrant driven not by tragedy but by an unshakable sense of right and wrong and a desire to fix the world for the less fortunate—a battle that can never end.
They're correct about the motivations. And they also note that what really counts is Kal-El's devotion to justice, rather than just simply his superpowers. But they're decidedly wrong to say he's an "immigrant". His original planet of Krypton was on the verge of destruction, and his parents transported him to Earth in order to save his life, and use his powers in the future for the better of the planet where he'd grow up. That's not so much a case of "immigration" as it is a case of being a refugee from disaster. To say he's an immigrant is the unfortunate result of political correctness that apologists for mega-leftism are going by in their attempts to justify welcoming in potentially dangerous interlopers, as seen with all the infiltrators from Latin America and middle eastern countries over the past decade.
Superman was so popular in the 1940s that his comic was adapted into a smash-hit radio show, which itself proved popular enough that it helped bring down parts of the Ku Klux Klan. Before long, he was the biggest comic-book character in the world. But Siegel and Shuster, exploited and cast aside by the company whose fortunes they had made, saw barely a dime of the profits. Away from his creators and under DC’s management, Superman changed from a rabble-rousing populist into a bland icon of the establishment, cycling through the same sets of adventures every few years: a hero with nothing better to do than devise elaborate pranks to play on Lois Lane. Despite the gloriously silly super-science of Silver Age Superman, with its time-travel, transformation rays, and bottled cities, the engine rusted under the hood.
He may have changed, but that's the editors and writers' fault. Some of those Silver Age stories are admittedly frustrating because not all of them age well (Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane #59 from 1965 has a story written by Otto Binder that's decidedly offensive and in poor taste, and proves it's not "only comics". Even in comics, morale has to take some precedence), but I'd be a lot happier if the reporter would just name names, and say whether he thinks editor Mort Weisinger, who was in charge of the Superman titles at the time, and whoever the assigned writers were, screwed up with the characterization. Under his oversight, Lois did not always have the best personality traits, and was depicted as more of a jerk than any other leading lady in the Silver Age. The characterization for the ladies under Julius Schwartz's oversight wasn't perfect, but was still way ahead of what Weisinger had for Lois.

Something else the writer overlooks is that Jerry Siegel was still working for DC at the time and wrote some of those Silver Age stories, so in all due fairness, wouldn't he be as guilty as the rest of the crew of watering down his own creation?

When they bring up how DC tried to catch up with Marvel by making their cast more anti-heroes, they say:
DC responded to Marvel in halting steps during the 1970s by refashioning many of its characters to be a little more quarrelsome and a little less aspirational. Some, like Batman, easily made the switch. Others, like Flash or Wonder Woman, were reinvented to varying degrees of success. But with Superman the company routinely stumbled, worried about messing up its star hero.
Say what? They completely disregard how Schwartz made an effort after taking full oversight of the Superman titles in 1971, to improve upon the storytelling by making the characterization more palatable and any slapstick at the time was not presented as outlandishly as what came before. It's funny they mention quarrelsomeness, because that's what Supes and Lois were doing during the Silver Age! In that case, is it all that new? During the Bronze Age, however, the Superman-Lois relationship saw improvements and became less childish rivalry between sexes, as any arguments they could have at that point shifted to a more believable level.
In 1971 DC hired Jack Kirby, the architect of Marvel Comics, but instead of assigning him the main Superman book, it put him on a spin-off, Jimmy Olsen. Even as Kirby was cranking out concepts that would become pivotal to the DC Universe, the company had other artists redrawing his Superman in the house style. It assigned the Batman writer Denny O’Neil to tell more modern Superman stories, but rolled back his changes as well. As the comics landscape shifted, Superman remained either purely superheroic or continued to lean on the endless, increasingly tired triangle of Lois, Clark, and Superman. DC had typecast its flagship character as a company man, and no amount of multicolored kryptonite or super-pets could change that.
No, no, no. Here, they overlook any and all relationships Supes had with Lana Lang, and even mermaid Lori Lemaris. And there were probably a few other ladies as well that I haven't managed to research or memorize. Those don't count?

When the mid-80s Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot comes up, they say:
For a while, things ran smoothly, but Superman couldn’t quite seem to shake his stodgy reputation. Despite Byrne’s reboot, the comics’ sales again flagged, rising only in the 1990s with a series of increasingly desperate stunts. DC married Clark Kent and Lois Lane. It killed Superman and brought him back. It split him into two different bodies, one red, one blue. Each event brought diminishing returns. [...]
Has it ever occurred to them that it wasn't necessarily because people weren't interested in the reinventions, but rather, because the crossovers were taking a toll on storytelling? Indeed, the company wide crossovers may have hurt DC more than Marvel, mainly because almost every one of them seemed intended for killing off various minor characters, all because they were supposedly useless. The worst part of all that is that the company made mistakes similar to those made with Superman: they were acting like the superpowers matter, not the devotion to justice.
The problem DC faced was this: You can’t fix something if you’re not sure where it’s broken. One of the issues halting a successful reinvention of Superman is a shift in the nature of the comics market. Since the 1980s, the dominant trend in the industry has been specialty comics shops replacing newsstands as primary distributors. Given this change, companies like Marvel and DC have focused their marketing toward an ever-dwindling market of adult fans, darkening their characters in an attempt to keep the interest of a readership desperate for mainstream respectability. In effect, adults were colonizing young-adult narratives and warping them in the process—an early example of what later occurred with Michael Bay’s legendarily crass Transformers films.

In one of the uglier paradoxes of the superhero-comics industry, characters who were devised to entertain children soon became completely unsuitable for them. Leaning into this trend in an effort to entice new adult readers, DC largely abandoned its strengths as a publisher of optimistic, bizarre superheroics and fumbled for an edgier identity. Aspirational characters were hit hard by this change—Wonder Woman in particular has suffered nearly as many reboots as Superman, the latest of which has cast her as the bloodthirstiest of her Justice League coworkers, her trademark lasso of truth traded for a sword.
I'm glad somebody's willing to bring up the key issues in the downfall of superhero comics. And Bay's Transformers movies were pretty embarrassing too. Now if they'd just start citing more individual examples and the writers/artists/editors responsible, then they'd be telling a lot more. We shouldn't have to all go to too much trouble ourselves to learn the mistakes made with each and every superhero title, and it's not just flagship heroes who matter. Even minor ones do too.

Unfortunately, the article fumbles again with a liberal leaning:
[...] Many of the innovative Superman runs of the past decade, including Joe Casey’s short-lived attempt to position the character as a pacifist, were either quickly rolled back or derailed by editorial interference. Promising new approaches, including a radical late ’90s pitch by the modern comics superstars Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, and Mark Waid, likewise went unexplored.
Oh good grief. Turning Superman into a pacifist is no improvement, and would be no better than the story where he gave his US citizenship. I wouldn't be surprised if Morrison and/or Millar would've written similar stories, had they been given the chance, and Waid probably would've too, if his talent were going downhill at the time. Why not stories where he helps fictional worlds suffering from problems similar to what the real world faces today in metaphorical form? That would've made a perfect alternative to writing stories where he ends up in the middle of real life situations accompanied by writing angles that only insult the intellect. The weird thing is that in a way, despite earlier stories about pacifism being canned, they've turned out quite few similar stories since, so maybe they should consider that it's ultra-leftism and too much biased politics that's undone Superman.

There's plenty of reasons why superhero comics have been ruined. It's a shame if they're not willing to recognize all of them.

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  • From Jerusalem, Israel
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