Sunday, 8 July 2012

Sweet Superman: The Legacy of Christopher Reeve


Recently on Twitter comics writer Gail Simone retweeted a fan who expressed a preference for a "sweet, naively optimistic" Superman. This tweeter is not alone in her desire to see a "sweet" Man of Steel. Yale Stewart's Little League, a webcomic featuring cute, saccharine, mini versions of DC heroes is gaining a lot of attention, and one of the main criticisms of DC Comics' recently revamped 'New 52' Superman is that his cockiness and arrogance is out of character and that Superman should be more humble. But has Superman always traditionally been such a nice and humble gent? I would argue that "sweet" is a relatively recent interpretation of the character and that "cocky and arrogant" is a far more traditional way of depicting Superman.


Fans of DC Comics' recent Superman reboot, as seen in the pages of Grant Morrison's Action Comics, have argued that Morrison has returned the character to something resembling his Golden Age roots. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman, as seen in early issues of Action Comics from the 1930s, was a particularly cocky fellow and whether he was forcing foreign nations to stop warring with each other or threatening to kill individuals if they didn't stop gambling, the Superman of the 1930s was always arrogantly imposing his will on others. In a similar fashion, Morrison's Superman has been seen dangling corrupt businessman off of buildings and laughing at the efforts of the police to capture him. It would seem then that the comparison of Golden Age and New 52 Superman is an apt one. But I would go a step further and argue that the depiction of Superman as "cocky and arrogant" is not limited to these two eras.

Rags Morales' Superman, featured in Grant Morrison's Action Comics

Golden Age Superman lasted roughly throughout the 1940s and was followed by the Silver Age Superman of the 1950s and 1960s. Silver Age Superman was, quite frankly, the very definition of arrogance. It was quite common for this Superman to abuse his mighty powers and employ them in the execution of some cruel prank played on Lois and Jimmy, his defenceless mortal chums. And Silver Age Superman wasn't above using mind controlling devices to bend the will of his foes, such as the time he devised an "anti evil ray" to eradicate evil impulses across the globe. But these characterisations were a lot of fun and can easily be dismissed as typical of the un-sophisticated comic book story-telling of the era. What about 1970s Superman?


There was a big streak of arrogance running through Superman during the 1970s and the early part of the '80s. In Superman #233 (1971) Denny O' Neil rendered all Kryptonite ineffective and Superman couldn't have been happier! It was left to Clark's boss Morgan Edge to ponder the ramifications of a completely indestructible super-being, because Superman was too busy showing off. It later took the presence of a power leeching sand duplicate from another dimension to take Superman down a peg or two.  In Superman #247 (1972) Superman has to be taken down a further peg by the Guardians, who show Superman that he may be interfering with human history just by existing. In DC Comics Presents #27-29 (1980) Superman arrogantly steals a macguffin from the Martian Manhunter by force and then attempts to cross into the afterlife to rescue Supergirl. As a result he has to be taught a lesson in humility by the Spectre.


In all these instances (and more) Superman learns humility, but it is usually a lesson that comes from some outside force, not some innate humility on Superman's part.  So what happened to change things?

Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve happened!

Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve have probably influenced the characterisation of Superman more than anyone else in the past three decades. In Donner's 1978 movie, Superman, Reeve portrays Superman as an extremely humble and, yes, sweet character.  It really works. The humility that Reeve brings to the role is a big part of what makes his Superman such a likeable character. Also, Reeve has to deliver some lines that even in the context of the film could have appeared corny. For example, when Superman tells Lois that he's here to fight for truth, justice and the American Way, she laughs at him. But Reeve delivers the lines with such humble sincerity that it's Lois' cynicism that seems daft.

Reeve gave such a definitive performance that it wasn't long before his influence permeated the comics portrayal of the Man of Steel. This became particularly prevalent when John Byrne revamped the character in 1986. After 1986, Superman was always considering the limits of his power and his right to impose it on others.  In one late eighties story, after being forced to kill, Superman decides off his own back that he's too much of a menace to remain on Earth and exiles himself in to space!

Superman by Jerry Ordway

There have been many interesting stories featuring this new humble Superman but in the past few years this portrayal has grown a bit stale and it's possible to argue that the depiction of a humble, good natured Superman has been taken too far. For example in Infinite Crisis (2005) we saw a Superman who was so humble he was almost crippled with doubt. In that story Geoff Johns had Batman famously put Superman down with the line "The last time you inspired anyone you were dead." Wonder Woman meanwhile was busy accusing Superman of being a naive idealist in response to his criticism of her actions in killing Max Lord. As it happens Greg Rucka wrote the perfect resolution to Superman's doubt in the pages of Adventures of Superman, but if you had just read Infinite Crisis you would have just seen Superman doubting himself with very little resolution. J. Michael Staczynski's recent storyline in Superman, 'Grounded', had the Man of Steel so shaken with self-doubt that he embarked on a walking trip across America to reconnect with the common man. To my mind one of the major flaws in JMS' tale was the fact that self-doubt-Superman was a concept that had been done to death by the time 'Grounded' began. (There were of course other flaws in the story.)

This then is where Christopher Reeve's "sweet" and humble Superman has led us. Reeve's depiction worked at the time but I would argue that in sticking too slavishly to his interpretation for far too long DC Comics led the character down a creative dead end. By the time 'Grounded' finished a change was long over due and thankfully a change was exactly what we got! The Superman we've been seeing recently in the pages of Morrison's Action Comics doesn't spend any time worrying over the right thing to do, he does what he feels in his heart is right. It really is a breath of fresh air to see a Superman that is so full of confidence and, yes, arrogance too!

So, yes, Superman can be sweet and naively optimistic and it can work. But let's not pretend that he's always been that way. And let's remember that too much sweetness can be bad for your health, even if you're Superman!

Yale Stewart

1 comment:

  1. Very true. My first exposure to Superman really was the movie. My thing was even at that young of an age it just didn't seem to me to be proper that someone with that much power would be so sheepish, regardless of their upbringing, people have a natural arrogance in them

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