When Superman wasn’t so super
Superman is one of the great enduring characters of all time.
He’s appeared in comic books, on radio, in cartoons, in novels, in movies, in videogames, and on Broadway.
Everybody knows about him, right?
Well, what you know may be very different from what people who met Supes when he first came out knew.
He followed Doc Savage, and there are some notable similarities: they are both named Clark; Doc Savage was the Man of Bronze, Superman was the Man of Steel; Doc was actually called a “Superman” in advertisements; and they both had a Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic Circle (Doc’s was first).
However, although I’m a big Doc fan, Superman certainly stands apart and has achieved his vastly greater fame justly.
Doc was human…Superman was not, and that’s a major part of his character. He is the “Last Son of Krypton” (well, not really, but mostly). The fact that his world was destroyed, that he is a stranger on this planet…that’s been part of his mythos.
Doc does have good genetics, but his “powers” come from effort and discipline. Superman is super due to his alienness. That doesn’t mean he isn’t heroic and doesn’t suffer, but it’s a very different path.
Probably the most iconic thing about Superman is that he flies…but he didn’t at first. Remember the old line? “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” Not fly over them…leap.
Apparently, that flight ability came when the Fleischers were making their Superman cartoons in the early 1940s. Supposedly, they asked for it partially because it was easier to animate, and partially because, well, it was cooler. 🙂
I think that’s one of the really key ingredients to Superman’s success.
He was never seen as inviolable, as some sacred static form that couldn’t be changed. The owners of the character have always allowed changes from outside, and some of them have become solid parts of the idea of Superman in the public mind.
For example, I would guess that one of the most commonly referenced things is Superman’s world is kryptonite. This substance, part of Superman’s home planet, is his weakness. You’ll hear people describe something as someone’s kryptonite…a more modern equivalent of an Achilles’ heel. It’s the one vulnerability in an otherwise superstrong person.
You know where kryptonite came from?
Not from just wanting to “de-deify” Superman. Initially he wasn’t all that hard to stop: oh, bullets might bounce off his chest, but a plane hitting him could knock him out of the sky. Later on, Superman did become so powerful it got kind of silly…he could move planets with no effort.
It was in 1943 that the substance first appeared in the canon…in the radio show. It may have existed in unpublished form before that, but the story goes that it was introduced so voice actor Bud Collyer could take an occassional break. 🙂 How else could you take the Man of Steel out of the picture…um, program, given it was radio?
Is that a definition of great art? That others add to it?
Shakespeare has been adapted so many times in so many different ways. West Side Story. Forbidden Planet…
But those are adaptations, not additions. People don’t go to the Royal Shakespeare Academy and expect to see Robby the Robot.
People, though, do expect to see Superman fly in the comics (and he does). They expect him to encounter kryptonite (and he does). In fact, that was one of the main ways the Smallville TV series producers wanted to put a spin on the Man of Steel…have him not fly (the rule was, “no flights, no tights”).
Now you know, of course…that wasn’t new, it was old.
Fanboys often complain when adaptations tweak the original…oh, the gnashing of teeth when Spider-Man’s web-spinning was going to be organic in the Sam Raimi 2002 movie! It took away Peter Parker being a science geek…except it didn’t. Dudes, the guy was bitten by a radioactive spider and can pick up a car! “Spidey sense” and wall-crawling were scientific, but a web-spinning organ wasn’t? He was still a geek, he just didn’t make a completely unprecedented chemical breakthrough…and then never really invent anything else that worked again. 😉
I do think the willingness to incorporate the good creative ideas of others is part of what made Superman the worldwide figure he is today. Art isn’t always cooperative, nor should it be. But Superman isn’t just art…he’s a business.
Perhaps, sometimes, businesses need to recognize that no product is perfect…
Leaping tall buildings is great…but maybe, just maybe, flying is better.
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog.