Sunday, 17 June 2012

Is Superman Boring? A response to Will Leitch's "The Most Mundane Man in Metropolis"

Superman: Not boring

The Wall Street Journal has recently published a review of  Larry Tye's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero entitled 'The Most Mundane Man in Metropolis'. During the course of the review Will Leitch argues that despite his enduring popularity Superman is fundamentally a "pretty darned boring" character. Mr. Leitch isn't the first person to make this assessment of the character but it is an assessment that constantly leaves me baffled.

Mr. Leitch begins his review by stating that:
"Since 1938, (Superman) has worn the same outfit. He has worked the same job. He has hung out with the same people. He has even kept the same haircut, except for a month or two in the 1990s, when a few strands poked out a bit behind the ears, an offense for which Superman can be forgiven, considering that he had recently died."
A fair point perhaps, but this is a charge that can be levelled at most mainstream superheroes (with some exceptions) and is not something that is particular to Superman. It's the nature of such characters that they'll never age or change in any significant way. If Mr. Leitch is looking for this in his fiction then fair enough, but he won't find it in mainstream superhero comics. You may think this is a problem (I don't) but it's not a problem that is unique to Superman.

To be fair, Mr. Leitch does go on to acknowledge that there are other characters in popular culture that have found themselves in a similar frozen state in regards to development. Strangely however, Mr. Leitch is okay with them. 
"Superman is a fictional character who, by his very nature, cannot change, which would be fine were he a supervillain bent on global domination, a tortured ad man facing dramatic cultural change at the end of the 1960s or simply a wisecracking rabbit. But Superman can't change in a specific, creatively crippling way: He must be absolutely perfect at all times. He cannot lie, he cannot kill, he cannot pirate music. He cannot be anything other than the ideal beacon for us all to aspire to be, to admire from below."
I don't see Superman's "perfect" nature as particularly "creatively crippling". Superman can still face adversity and temptation. He can still find himself in situations where lying, killing or even pirating music seem like the only options open to him. In fact in 1988 John Byrne actually wrote a story where, faced with no alternative, Superman is forced to kill. But Byrne's story is the exception. For the most part I find that the entertainment in a Superman story comes not from seeing Superman questioning his values and forced to compromise everything he holds dear, but from seeing how Superman holds true to his beliefs and finds an alternative to lying or killing. Greg Rucka gave us a perfect example of this during his 2004-2005 run on Adventures of Superman. Wonder Woman finds herself in a situation where she has to kill in order to save more lives. Superman is left wondering what he would do in that situation. What would be the right thing to do? Of course Superman eventually finds himself in this situation and, in an immensely satisfying moment, he finds another way!

You could argue that, Byrne's story not withstanding, of course he's going to find another way, he's Superman, so where's the entertainment? That's true but we also know that Batman's going to escape every death trap he's caught in. We know that Sherlock Holmes is going to catch the criminal. Does that make these stories boring? Well they might very well seem boring to Mr. Leitch, and fair enough, but once again it's not something that's unique to Superman.

Mr. Leitch continues;
Superman is always saying that he is a shining example of what humans can be, but we humans know better: He is the embodiment of what we are not and never were. He is a lack of frailty personified. He can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but we can't relate to that. A vigilante like Batman, who wants to put a fist through some creep's face, that we can understand.
I would argue that Superman represents what we could be a lot more than he represents what we are not. We're never going to leap tall buildings but we're all going to find ourselves in a situation where lying, cheating or even putting "a fist through some creep's face" is the easiest thing to do. We're never going to be as powerful as Superman but we're all likely to find ourselves in situations where we have power over someone or something. Superman is the depiction of a person who consistently strives to find an alternative to lying, cheating or killing. A person who will never abuse his power over others. And we're all capable of following his example, we don't need his powers to be that person! I find that truly inspiring and quite frankly, not the least bit boring.

Leitch ends his review by stating;
 As is the case with Mr. Tye's book, Superman is a black hole at the center of every story. Because he is invincible, because he can do everything better than anyone else can do anything, you run out of things to do with him.
So let's get this straight. He's invincible. He can go anywhere. He can fight any foe, from bank robbers to gods. And Mr. Leitch thinks that there is only a certain amount of things to be done with this character? Don't get me wrong, Superman has certainly been in the hands of writers who have failed to take advantage of the character's potential. But we're talking about a character who lives in the North Pole in a cave with an intergalactic Zoo. A character who's childhood friends live in the 31st Century. A character who owns a dog who wears a cape and chases asteroids! In the past ten years alone Superman has rescued a million of Earth's inhabitants from the Phantom Zone, fought the zombie version of an older version of himself from a parallel universe, adopted a super-powered son, battled a sentient, tyrant sun, journeyed to the cube shaped Bizarro World and fought a Bizarro Justice League, saved the Earth in the 31st Century without the use of his powers, seen his home planet restored and then destroyed again, and saved the Universe by singing.

And Mr. Leitch is bitching because Superman's not allowed to tell lies or punch baddies in the face!?

Now that's boring.