Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Has Superman fandom become a religion?

I'm going to start this article by talking about my atheism, but please don't let that put you off. I promise there will be no smug Ricky Gervais memes, no patronising Dawkins quotes, and definitely no bloody "spaghetti monster"!

I was discussing my beliefs with a Christian friend a few years ago and she told me sympathetically that she found it sad that I didn't have anything to believe in. I explained that I didn't see it as a loss of anything. By accepting that there's probably nothing afterwards then surely the only reason to exist is to make life on Earth suck as little as possible, not just for yourself but for others too.

If there's no God then all we have is each other. Also, by not being tied to one religion a person is free to explore other religions and their texts, other cultures and philosophies. A person can learn so much more about humanity and morality, and can apply to his or her life the lessons that are relevant to his or her place in history. They can do the right thing, not because they are promised Heaven, or threatened with Hell, but because it's the right thing to do. (Okay, sorry, I think I saw that on a Gervais meme once, but just try not to picture his smug face when you read it.)

I'll admit, I don't always do the right thing, and I'm not currently pouring over the world's religious texts to learn how to make a paradise on Earth. I'm actually just sitting in my pants moaning on the Internet about atheism and Superman. But the point is, there's no void in my beliefs, I have something to aspire to.

So what does this have to do with Superman?

Recently on Twitter, a prominent comics creator has been arguing with just about everybody else on the Internet over whether Superman should kill or not, and specifically whether the ending of the movie Man of Steel, where Superman kills General Zod, means that the movie features an "invalid" or "inauthentic" version of Superman. Other creators have backed up his views. As far as they're concerned the "real" Superman doesn't kill and any version that does should be considered an "Elseworld", I.e an inauthentic, alternative version of the character.

My own personal view? For the record, I too believe that, generally speaking Superman shouldn’t kill. (If you're interested, Greg Rucka’s Ruin arc in Adventures of Superman, from about ten years ago, puts forward the case for this view better than anything else I've ever read. I urge you to check it out, if only because it's a brilliant story.)


There are exceptions!

In my opinion the death of Zod works in the context of the story that Man of Steel is telling. It is depicted as a heroic act that takes it's toll on Superman and it is made very clear that there is no other choice. Zod is depicted as such an enormous, unstoppable threat that chucking him back in the Phantom Zone would have felt like a cop out. Killing Zod is the difficult option for Superman, not the easy one, and the film makes that clear.

Another exception is the oft-cited, late '80s story by John Byrne where Superman kills Zod (what's he got against this guy any way?). Now let's be clear, that story is rubbish. However, it led to a bunch of other stories that were quite frankly amazing, as Superman learned to live with the consequences of his actions. I thoroughly recommend Superman: Exile as an example of this.

The point is while I generally believe that Superman shouldn’t kill, I'm flexible, because it's entertainment, it’s not the word of God.

Creators like the one mentioned above are obviously entitled to their opinions, and I respect their passion. But there's something about the vociferous way this creator insisted that Superman should never, ever kill under any circumstances that made me think that he found the idea blasphemous.

Which brings me to a different creator, one who has made very clear that he is a gigantic Superman fan. Tonight on Twitter this creator stated that he considers The Iron Giant to be the greatest Superman film because of the way the main character is inspired by the story of Superman to perform a heroic act. Of course, I have no problem with this, the creator can like whatever he wants. But I find it very interesting that he regards this film so highly based on it's depiction of what he calls "the moral influence" of Superman.

Superman's ability to inspire is by this point intrinsically tied to the character, there's no denying that. It's an aspect of the character that I myself love a great deal. But the aforementioned creator's reason for ranking The Iron Giant as the greatest Superman film is a good example of the importance that fans frequently place on this aspect of the character, above all other aspects it seems. We are, after all talking about a film that doesn't actually feature Superman here.

The emphasis on the "moral influence" of Superman seems very religious to me. It's great that Superman inspires people, he should inspire people, but when Marlon Brando's Jor-el said "They are a good people Kal-el, they wish to be, they lack only the light to show them the way" I doubt he actually wanted anyone to go knocking on doors spreading the good news about Krypton.

These creators' Tweets are fairly typical of a large number of online Superman fans in my experience. Dogmatic insistence that their interpretation of the character is the correct one and an emphasis on the inspirational aspect of the character above all else. Stuff like this is the reason I gave up Christianity and became an atheist, but it seems I've just turned my back on one Saviour only to have another one thrust upon me!

But just because it gets on my heathen tits, is it really that much of a problem if Superman fans are slightly more Evangelical than other fans? Perhaps not, although I do wonder what new fans of the character who started with Man of Steel think when they come online and see their favourite comics creators telling them that their Superman isn't the real one. And could the fetishisation of Superman's inspirational qualities also turn away new fans? After all, nobody likes getting preached at all the time.

I also wonder how all these fans and creators with such rigid, dogmatic views of the character will affect Superman creatively in the long run. If the consensus is that Superman can only be done one way, how can the character grow and evolve in order to survive another 75 years?

All this is unsubstantiated speculation on my part. This is mostly a personal bugbear of mine. Of course, it's not for me to dictate what is and isn't the correct way to be a Superman fan (even though that's kind of what I'm doing. I know, I'm a hypocrite.) But this kind of fandom is a particularly difficult one for me to get involved with, and it can make me feel a bit isolated from my fellow Super-fans. That's one thing that religion does give you - a sense of community!

All I know is, I love Superman, I'm inspired by Superman, but I don't want to worship Superman.

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