The Trouble With Being Superman

Superman i i

Christopher Reeve in Superman II, from 1981. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
Superman

Christopher Reeve in Superman II, from 1981.

AP

He can outrace a locomotive, leap tall buildings in a single bound and bend steel with his bare hands.

But he's kind of boring. Superman does amazing things, but his secret identity — mild mannered reporter — is deliberately dull.

What's more, he's invulnerable, which can make him tough to relate to.

Glen Weldon writes about comics for NPR's pop culture blog, Monkey See. He takes issue with the idea that Superman's a bore.

Weldon says people who dis Superman, calling him names like "the big blue boyscout," tend to prefer a different type of superhero.

"These people tend to like characters like Wolverine," Weldon tells NPR's Neal Conan. "Wolverine's whole schtick is the the disembowling of others," so "if you're comparing him to someone who guts and fillets bad guys, yes, then Superman's a little bit different."

But Weldon prefers to look at Superman a different way. He reminds us, "he's a hero. He's the thing to which we aspire. He does the right thing."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Everybody knows he can outrace a locomotive, leap tall buildings in a single bound and bend steel with his bare hand, but let's face it, America's greatest hero is boring. I know, I know. He does amazing things, but his secret identity is boring on purpose, mild-mannered reporter, and even when he's wearing tights, it's hard to humanize Superman. Well, of course, he isn't human. That's one problem. The other, of course, is that he is invulnerable which can make it hard to relate.

Last month, DC Comics dispatched the man of steel on a walk across America. The gimmick is that readers get to nominate their hometown for a walk on so long as it lies within 50 miles of his planned route. He's hoofing it east to west, first stop, Philadelphia.

So this gives us an opportunity to examine the character of Superman. Let us appeal to the writers in our audience. How would you humanize Superman? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation also on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Glen Weldon writes about comics for NPR's pop culture blog Monkey See and joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

GLEN WELDON: Hey, Neal. Great to be here.

CONAN: Boring, do you agree?

WELDON: I do not.

CONAN: No?

WELDON: Most empathically do not. The people who kind of call him boring, the big blue boy scout, bland vanilla, these people tend to like characters like Wolverine. Now let's remember that Wolverine's whole shtick is the disemboweling of others. That's his whole superhero thing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

WELDON: So, yes, if you're comparing him to somebody who guts and filets bad guys, yes, then Superman is a little bit different. But the other way to flip that is, you know what, he's a hero. He is the thing to which we aspire. He does the right thing. And, you know, I like vanilla.

CONAN: You like vanilla.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yet, there are - we'll talk more about Superman, specifically. Batman has got a lot of depths to his character. Superman is, eh, one layer.

WELDON: Okay. I will grant you that it's tough to relate to him because he is the ultimate trust fund kid, right?

CONAN: Yeah.

WELDON: He inherited everything. He's not just this kid at campus tooling around with a Porsche. He had everything handed to him.

CONAN: Doesn't even need the Porsche.

WELDON: Exactly. Batman has to work. Spiderman, The Hulk, they had it thrust upon them.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

WELDON: But - so he is very tough to write. You're absolutely right. He's very tough to write because you have to make him relatable. The people who focus on the man in Superman tend to get it right. The people who focus on his powers and all the cool things he can do tend to make him pretty sort of remote and not engaging.

CONAN: I don't know if you read the graphic novel "It's a Bird," which came out, what, a year or so ago.

WELDON: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: Couple of years ago maybe. But - Steven Seagle, I think, is his name. And he is a comic book writer writing about his problems as he inherits the book of Superman. There's a lot of else involved...

WELDON: Yeah.

CONAN: ...but part of the problems is he's wrestling with how do I deal with his character?

WELDON: Right, exactly. It's tough. But Superman is perhaps the most grounded of all those superheroes. He has this - his shtick is the homespun Midwestern values, his Ma and Pa Kent. He also happens to be married to Lois Lane.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

WELDON: A lot of other superheroes aren't married. So in terms of wanting to connect to people, he's got the easiest time of it, which is one reason I'm not sold yet on this new storyline.

CONAN: Oh, in this new storyline, he is - well, the one thing everybody knows about Superman is he can fly.

WELDON: Yeah. So they've taken that away. Now, I get why they're doing it. Now in the last year in the books, we haven't seen him, for example, in the super suit.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

WELDON: Because when you have an icon like this, you have to kind of mix it up so that when people will once again see him in the super suit, they'll get that charge. There he is. That's Superman.

CONAN: Oh, yeah.

WELDON: So for the last year, we haven't seen him in the super suit. Now, he's back in the super suit but they're going to take away flying. I get what they're doing. But, man, this storyline, it's just started. It would be unfair to criticize yet. But what it really - the problem I'm having with it is that - is the triggering thing, the thing that kicks it off.

Now, in six month's time, if the storyline is great, it doesn't matter how - what kicked it off. Here's what kicked it off, and you tell me if this makes any sense at all to you.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

WELDON: All right. Superman is away from Earth saving the planet as is his want. That's what he's - he does. That's his shtick.

CONAN: Steering asteroids around.

WELDON: Exactly. He comes back home, lands - lands in the middle of a crowd. A woman comes up to him says, with a photo, waving a photo at him, Superman - this is a picture of my husband. He died because you weren't here to save his life. She says, if you were here, you could have seen his tumor with - his inoperable brain tumor, by the way...

CONAN: With his X-ray vision.

WELDON: ...with your X-ray vision, excised it with your heat vision and save the surrounding - what? What do you - what? I mean, he's not a neurosurgeon. He's Superman. Flood, fire, famine - that's what he does.

CONAN: Bridges.

WELDON: Bridges, exactly, as in the movie. So this idea that he would feel guilty and take this as an excuse to kind of go on walkabout...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

WELDON: ...I don't know. I just don't buy it.

CONAN: And there is, apparently, there's gimmick where, I guess, reader involvement, interactive, all of that sort of stuff...

WELDON: Yeah.

CONAN: ...and nominate your hometown. He's walking, I think, through Illinois, Iowa, on his way west and then up through the Pacific Northwest, where he will finally end up. But you can nominate your hometown. They started, obviously, in Philadelphia, which may have been the writer's hometown, though apparently it's your hometown and they may have made a mistake.

WELDON: Yeah. Well, there's - first thing is the Pennsylvania -Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the south side. I don't think we call it the south side.

CONAN: I think it's the south side of Chicago.

WELDON: Exactly.

CONAN: There's a South Street.

WELDON: There is a South Street. There is - yes. The South Philly, maybe that's what they mean. But the funny thing is it's kind of a whistle stop tour. He got the cheese steak. There you go. That's pretty much what Philadelphia is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELDON: I don't see a lot of - the city, sort of, permeating the comic, but maybe it will come.

CONAN: It's interesting, though, Superman in - you'll excuse me - what passes for the real world, he used to inhabit Metropolis and Smallville.

WELDON: Mm-hmm. Right.

CONAN: The real world was not an element here.

WELDON: Right. Well, this whole storyline here by J. Michael Straczynski, who has written lots of movies, lots of books, good comics and bad - he wrote a great Aquaman story not too long ago, which is tough to do. It's about taking the super out of Superman. It's about exposing the man. Again, that's a great thing to do.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

WELDON: Yeah. But he's - to do so, he's pairing him up with things like cancer, within the thing. He saves - he talks a woman off a ledge, so suicide. That's another one.

CONAN: There's another one.

WELDON: Drugs, you know, he brings up some drugs dealer stashes in Philly. My personal philosophy is that you don't make this character, who flies around, normally, in bright red boots, anymore relevant by pairing him with things like cancer. You actually make seems less relevant. So it's a - it's just a philosophical difference.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Glen Weldon is with us who blogs about comics for NPR's pop culture blog, MONKEY SEE. And let's go with Tim(ph), Tim with us from San Francisco.

TIM (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

TIM: I just like to say I'm a long-time listener, first time caller. But I wanted to bring up - if maybe you can make Superman a bit more vulnerable. You know, he had this kryptonite which is his, you know, his enemy or his downfall, as a superhero.

CONAN: And it comes in a rainbow hue.

WELDON: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TIM: But if he - as a human, you know, there are things that a lot of people fall to, like drugs and alcohol. And I know there was a movie that came out, "Hancock," and he seems very similar to the Superman character, but he was a drunk...

WELDON: Mm-hmm.

TIM: ...or whatever. But, I mean, if Superman wasn't able to make it because he was, you know, drunk...

CONAN: As opposed to dealing with other people's drug problems by burning up the meth stash, maybe he could struggle with his own limitations and vulnerabilities, Glen?

WELDON: Yeah, maybe, maybe. I will say that superheroes have had to deal with drug problems in the past. Didn't say...

CONAN: Going back to the breakthrough issues back in the '70s when they finally violated the comics' code and published the stories that involved drug lines.

WELDON: I knew you'd be all over this, yes. In fact - and what that does is tends to make a very earnest story, a very sort of special episode of Superman, you know, that kind of thing. So it has to be done carefully, but it can be done. It's an idea.

CONAN: All right. Tim, thanks very much. Get to work on that.

TIM: Thank you. Have a good one.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Phil(ph) in Lebanon, Tennessee. To make Superman more relatable, he needs to be powered down to the levels he started with in 1938, where, indeed, he was only leaping tall buildings with a single bound, not circling the planet fast enough to make it go back in time.

WELDON: Absolutely. In the '70s, they tried it. They took - he was depowered by, I think, about a third, because before - up to that time, he could twist the planet out of its orbit. He could go back and forth in time just flying really fast. So they realized that that was just -he had really silly powers at that time, too. He had super-ventriloquism, super...

CONAN: Super - I missed super-ventriloquism.

WELDON: Yeah, the super-ventriloquism.

CONAN: Help. Let me out of the box.

WELDON: Well, see, what happens is, he got so powerful that they couldn't make stories about what he can do. So they had to make stories about him trying to keep his secret identity. So the entire book kind of shifted over to Lois and Jimmy, because they had to make stories about them, because they were the only humans around.

CONAN: What was interesting, Jack Kirby, one generally recognized as a genius, he did some bad books, too.

WELDON: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: But, nevertheless, when he went over to DC, after his famous defection from Marvel, he did a Superman book but it was Superman's pal, Jimmy Olsen.

WELDON: It was deeply, deeply weird but awesome.

CONAN: Awesome.

WELDON: It was wonderful. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CONAN: But he did some deeply, deeply weird stuff, too.

WELDON: Yes.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some - another caller in. This is Brandon(ph), Brandon with us from Cincinnati.

BRANDON (Caller): Yes. I'm a person that somebody asked, a literature teacher. I teach high school literature and I also teach literature course to college students. And we really focus on this - the progression of the classical hero, the Beowulf, the Odysseus, that is almost superhuman, godlike in many ways; and this modern idea of the antihero, the very much - the "Dark Knight" perspective. And it seems that my students seemed to recognize the problem with Superman is that he isn't human like you guys are talking about. And it sounds like this push to try to make him more and more human is almost seen as too much, like people are trying too hard to say, no, no, no, he's Superman. He's not a man. And when you take those powers away from him, people can see through it because they're used to the original Superman.

WELDON: Mm-hmm.

BRANDON: They're used to that. We need that classical hero idea. But we also realize that that's impossible. And another thing I'd like to say is, thinking about him trying to save somebody with a tumor or something, that's almost elevating him almost Christ-like, Messianic to you can save anyone, but then there's pity that you can't actually save everyone. You can't go in and take out a person's tumor, which brings about this human pity. It just - it seems like it's almost too much.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, in a way, that's I think what you were getting at, Glenn, that he is the hero, not the anti-hero.

WELDON: Right, right. And you have to kind of meet the character where he is. And the thing about reading comics is that everybody has a Superman in their head.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

WELDON: And your reaction to a storyline like this one, it has a lot to do with how, you know, how comparatively good it is, how good the writing and the art is, and how closely it matches that Superman in your head. This guy doesn't match mine, but I'm going to read it and I'm curious to see how it turns out. But, yeah.

CONAN: Do you get comics for free?

WELDON: I don't, no.

CONAN: Oh.

WELDON: Now, wish, wish, wish. Sometimes, the company will send me one or two, but no, I wish I did.

CONAN: Brandon, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. We're talking about Superman with Glen Weldon, who blogs about comics for NPR's pop culture blog MONKEY SEE. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from Carac(ph). Superman represents in every man who rises to occasions where courage and virtue are required - therein lies his greatness. He is a chivalrous man who represents the best in all of us. We are all common men who can reach greatness - therein lies his humanity.

WELDON: There you go. That's nicely said.

CONAN: That's nicely done. I'm not going to agree with it, but it's nicely done.

WELDON: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to, this is Vince(ph), and Vince with us from Farmington Hills in Michigan.

VINCE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

VINCE: I think that a good way to humanize Superman more and really any of the superheroes in the whole DC universe, is to sort of ratchet down the villains in it as well and humanize them as a starting point. Because, I mean, even though a lot of them are also extraterrestrial - I mean, when Superman fights Darkseid, at one point in order to get rid of Darkseid, he has to take him to the edge of the universe. And then the writers just bring him back in later episodes.

And I think that toning them down and humanizing them would help to humanize the characters, because they would have to deal with more of the human experience in their enemies, as well.

WELDON: Mm-hmm. Well then, you should really read the series that just started now, starting with "Superman 700" because that's exactly what this - I think that's the organizing principle here is to kind of take out the brainiacs and super suits and just kind of tell human stories.

It does seem to me like it's going to be kind of repetitive, as he kind of goes from town to town, fixing people's problems instead of running -kind of like "The Fugitive," except instead of running away from a one-armed man, he's running from himself.

CONAN: Self. Oh, oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Vince, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

VINCE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - let's go to Reggie(ph), Reggie with us from Kansas City.

REGGIE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

REGGIE: Yeah. I was thinking that Superman is more human than we think he is, because the fact that he wants to be, and his powers make him to where he's able to do things that we can't do. However, the way that he handles himself. He...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

REGGIE: ...won't kill anybody.

CONAN: It is true. He was sent here in a rocket, but he stays here by choice.

WELDON: Exactly. You know, a really important thing happened in '86 when they kind of rebooted the whole Superman thing, got rid of all the sort of whimsical elements, which I happen to love. Before, Clark Kent was a put-on. Clark Kent was his disguise. The real guy was Superman and he put on this fakey-fake disguise, and it was kind of really - he was making fun of us, really. He was trying to - he was kind of exaggerating us weak mortals.

But in '86, John Byrne decided the real thing is Clark. Clark's the real guy, Superman is the disguise. And that has kind of really affected the way these stories get told. And that kind of really - it really gave the character some ballast that really works for him.

CONAN: Hmm. Reggie, thanks very much for the phone call. I appreciate it.

REGGIE: Thank you.

CONAN: We can't leave, Glen, without noting a great loss in the world of comics this past week, Harvey Pekar...

WELDON: Yeah.

CONAN: ...the "American Splendor" creator.

WELDON: Yeah. And it's ironic, we're talking about Superman who was created by two people from Cleveland, two guys from Cleveland. He, the character Superman, kind of transcends his origins. The whole idea is he's bigger and larger than life. Man, Pekar really embraced Cleveland. He was Cleveland. You know, I have friends in Cleveland and the whole LeBron James thing just didn't faze him at all.

This is a loss to them, because they never saw LeBron James walking down the street. They never saw LeBron James at the local deli, they saw Harvey and they got to know Harvey. He was really - it's a terrible loss.

CONAN: People, I think, know more the movie than necessarily his books. If you had to send somebody to read Harvey Pekar for the first time, where should they go, do you think?

WELDON: Oh, start with the one with - the very first thing that he had illustrated for him by Arcrom. It's quintessential. It's exactly the -it says what he's doing. It's his - laying out a mission statement there, saying, I am going to tell small human stories in comics. I'm not going to use this enormous special effects budget that I have just by virtue of having it. I'm going to tell stories about two people in a room talking.

CONAN: Glen Weldon, thanks very much for your time today.

WELDON: My pleasure.

CONAN: Glen Weldon blogs about comics for NPR's pop culture blog MONKEY SEE at npr.org. There is no oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from the ruptured well beneath the Deepwater Horizon for the first time in 12 weeks. Details on that later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Stay tuned for more on that.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'll be back on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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