Sun February 17, 2013
Man Of Tomorrow: Superman, Orson Scott Card And Me
Let's make this perfectly clear at the outset: I don't work for NPR, and what I'm about to say doesn't represent NPR. I'm but a lowly freelancer they're dumb enough to publish a bunch, and what I say now I say as me, which is to say:
1. An inveterate Superman nerd, and
2. A gay dude.
DC Comics has hired Orson Scott Card to write the first two issues of a new digital-first Superman comic. I won't be reading it.
It will be the first piece of Superman-affiliated pop culture that I will bypass in my 45 long and geeky years on this planet, and I am a man who saw Superman IV: The Quest For Peace in the damn theater. (Jon Cryer as Lex Luthor's bitchin' New Wave nephew Lenny! Superman repairing the Great Wall of China by STARING AT IT, because suddenly "spackle-vision" is evidently a thing he's got now! A banana-yellow villain in a gold-lamé codpiece!)
(... OK, the codpiece was pretty rad, actually.)
Why will I be giving Card's Superman a miss? Three reasons.
First: Card isn't just a guy whose opinions I happen to disagree with. Trust me, the comics industry is rife with writers, artists and editors whose politics I don't share, who hold views they're quite public about in interviews and various internet forums, and I would defend — to the mild inconvenience! — their right to hold those views. This isn't about that.
Card is different. Card is an activist. He sits on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, an entity entirely devoted to attacking and defeating marriage equality, and spending millions and millions of dollars lobbying to do so.
(One comics site has warned that boycotting Card's Superman book represents the kind of thinking that "leads to witch hunts." OK. I mean, I generally associate the term "witch hunt" with innocent people getting falsely accused and pressed to death by stones, not with one hugely successful millionaire bigot having to explain to his accountant why a side-project made an infinitesimal amount less money than he'd hoped it would, but let that go.)
Second: If Card were writing any other character — Ant-Man, Matter-Eater Lad, Batroc the Leaper — even a high-profile character like Iron Man, whom he did write for a while — you wouldn't see this reaction.
Because Superman is different.
Superman is not a superhero. He's the superhero. He created the very concept of the superhero, and everything that's touched on that concept for the past 75 years — we are talking vast swaths of popular culture — exists because of him. Regardless of how you feel about Superman and superheroes, you can't deny the cultural impact the character has made, and continues to make. Why, someone could write an entire book on the subject. And call it Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, say. And have it published by Wiley on April 1. And make it available for pre-order now.
The third reason I'm skipping Card's Superman is to me the most central, and most personal, and it has less to do with how popular Superman is, and much more to do with who he is. And what he stands for.
Superman is an ideal. He represents our best self. That's what he's for.
He's not the hero we identify with — that's what Spider-Man is for. Spider-Man worries about rent, and girlfriends, and his sick Aunt May still, again, some more. In him, we see ourselves as we are.
In Superman, we see ourselves as we hope to be. It's right there in the name — he's not "Pretty Good Man" or "Doesn't Suck Man"; he's Superman. He personifies our noblest ideals, ideals we believe in, and strive for, but only inconstantly attain: Truth and Justice, but also Fairness and Compassion.
He is a man born with tremendous gifts, who could do anything he wants. Anything at all. And what he chooses to do, first and always, is to help others.
In Action Comics #1 from 1938, Siegel and Shuster slapped together a one-page origin story in which he discovers his powers. We don't actually see him in the baby-blue longjohns until the very last panel of this introduction.
But when we do see him for the very first time, these are the first words that appear directly below, the first epithet applied to this newly minted creation as it was unleashed upon the world:
Champion of the Oppressed.
There it is, coded into his creative DNA from the very beginning: He fights for the little guy.
And that's why this bugs me, and why I'm not the least bit curious about what Card's Superman might be like.
DC Comics has handed the keys to the Champion of the Oppressed to a guy who has dedicated himself to oppress me, and my partner, and millions of people like us. It represents a fundamental misread of who the character is, and what he means.
It is dispiriting. It is wearying. It is also, finally, Not For Me.
One of the other nicknames that accrued to Superman right away – that predates "Man of Steel" by a good amount – is "The Man of Tomorrow." And much of his early iconography bears a distinctive Socio-Realist, Diego Rivera vibe: Lots of burnished golden sunrises, eyes raised to the horizon, gazing into the future.
Because that's where he lives, Superman. And that's what he says to us: We can do better. We can be better, to ourselves, and to each other.
Hey, DC Comics? Be better.