June 29, 2010

Superman goes walkabout

A new storyline is about to begin in the SUPERMAN comic book:

Superman to Visit Small-Town America—And You Can Invite Him to Your Town!

Does your town have a story to tell? Superman could be a part of it.

By John R. PlattFor the next 12 months, Superman is going to be criss-crossing America, and if you're lucky, he could be visiting your town.

It's all part of a year-long storyline called "Grounded" that starts later this month in Superman No. 700. As part of the celebration for this anniversary issue, DC Comics will send their famous blue-clad superhero "through the streets, roads, highways, homes, farms, suburbs and inner cities of America."

The goal is to tell stories where Superman isn't fighting super-villains but meeting the real heroes and finding out about the real issues facing towns across the country.
Superman could visit a reservation too. Here's how:Do you think your town has a story to tell? Just send DC Comics an essay (75-1000 words) saying why. But don't delay. The contest opens July 1, but it ends on July 12.Comment:  Natives, write an essay on why Superman should visit your reservation. It would be great publicity for your tribe if he did.

Man, I could knock a story like this out of the ballpark. Superman involved in a human drama on the rez. Or a murder mystery. Or a supernatural thriller. Or a standard clash with a super-villain. Too bad they aren't looking for story ideas or guest writers.

So Superman will spend a year walking across the US to discover the nation's heart and soul. No word on whether he'll spend an equal amount of time walking across Africa or Asia--you know, where large numbers of nonwhite people actually need help. Or if he'll have time to fight world hunger, poverty, or disease while catering to America's middle-class angst.

It'll be interesting to see the race and class of the characters featured. I suspect there'll be a lot of heartwarming stories about people who need a job, a heart transplant, or a loan to save the family farm. And not a lot about, say, racial tensions between whites, Latinos, and Indians in Western border towns.

This reminds me of SUPERMAN: PEACE ON EARTH, when Superman took his first and last stab at addressing world hunger. He actually dropped in on a Navajo elder in Monument Valley for a couple panels. Alas, Supes gave up the effort after a minor setback or two. He decided teaching a few American kids how to farm was better than alleviating famine in some African country whose name he couldn't pronounce.

Below:  "Yes, I'm named for the Nietzschean Superman who decides right and wrong for himself. What's your point?"

What's a superhero to do?

I just read the aforementioned SUPERMAN #700. Superman has been off in space, and when he returns, people complain that he doesn't seem to care about Joe and Jane Average. The central drama occurs when a woman slaps him for not being around to diagnose her husband's illness with his x-ray vision.

Does she have a point? Superman could save a lot of lives if he devoted himself to medicine. But he wouldn't have much time to stop natural disasters, bank robberies, or the occasional mad scientist. What should his priorities be?

In the real world, superheroes would do cost-benefit analyses of how best to use their powers. Stopping cataclysms such as an alien invasion, a meteor strike, or a killer tidal wave probably would come first. After that, you could argue that a powerful superhero should start tackling large-scale projects. Stop the threat of nuclear proliferation. Overthrow tyrannical governments. End civil wars. Find a cure for AIDS. Replant vanishing rainforests. Clean up ocean pollution. Develop alternative energy sources (e.g., build satellites to relay microwaves from the sun). Etc.

Why doesn't Superman do any of these things? Because like most Americans, he lives in a cocoon of white privilege. So do the writers, editors, and publishers who tell his stories. They prefer escapist fantasies where political and social problems don't exist. Where the toughest decision they have to make is whether to spend $100 on comic books, video games, or other luxuries.

The whole genre of superhero comics is kind of a joke. Its divorce from reality is why it appeals mainly to nerds and fanboys and not adults (especially women) who appreciate literature. For every WATCHMEN or DARK KNIGHT RETURNS there must be a hundred series such as WAR OF THE SUPERMEN, DARKEST NIGHT, SECRET INVASION, BRAND NEW DAY, RED HULK, and so forth and so on.

For more on the subject, see DC's "Green, Pink, and Blue Characters" and The Seminal Moment in GREEN LANTERN #76.

Below:  "Sorry, I won't have time to save lives in Africa or Asia for the next year or so. I'll be too busy strolling across America to assuage my feelings of white, middle-class guilt."


John Lees said...

Some of the points you make about why superheroes don't eliminate world hunger or overthrow tyrannical governments are quite interesting and thought-provoking. It is a crucial logic hole amongst the world-level superheroes that various writers have tried addressing in interesting ways.

Mark Waid had a decent stab at addressing the impossible expectations placed on a superhero's shoulders with "Irredeemable". The story covers a thinly-veiled Superman analogue called The Plutonian going off the deep end and embarking on a massive killing spree. We have a flashback in one issue where Qubit, a fellow superhero, asks The Plutonian, "All that power, all that responsibility – what does that feel like?" Then at the end of that issue, The Plutonian annihilates the entire country of Singapore. In one chilling moment that says a whole lot about what it’s like to be a superhero, he tells Qubit to choose 10 people to save before he must leave the rest of Singapore’s citizens to die. Qubit chooses his 10, then is forced to watch as The Plutonian murders scores of innocents in front of him, the ones he chose not to save. The Plutonian then lets Qubit and his chosen 10 escape, coldly stating, “That’s what it feels like.” Answering Qubit’s earlier question at last.

I wish that Alan Moore's run on "Miracleman" wasn't so hard to track down, as what I've read about that sounds pretty fascinating. Basically, as you propose here, Miracleman decides he's wasting his time tackling petty crime, and so goes about trying to fix the world's problems and tackle corrupt governments. But as he interferes more and more on the socio-political global stage, he enters into a slippery slope that eventually leaves him ruling the entire world himself in a benign dictatorship, as he has lost faith in the human race to be able to do the job themselves.

J. Michael Straczynski himself tried covering some similar beats in his early "Thor" work, with Thor visiting New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and embarking on a Medicine Without Borders (its something without borders, I forget the name) aid relief expedition to Africa, and basically underlined Thor's inadequacy in dealing with such complex problems, and how the real heroes were the regular people who devoted their lives to helping wherever they could. And Straczynski also wrote the famous 9/11 issue of "Amazing Spider-Man".

I'm sure there are other examples out there if I took the time to look them up. It's been a while since I read it, but I'm sure "Kingdom Come" touches on the idea. But yeah, whatever inventive way a writer might address the issue, the core point is that superhero stories (mainstream ones, at least) inevitably fall within the action genre, and so the expectation is for explosions and fighting bad guys rather than tackling important social issues.

So, while of course I don't know if it will succeed in practise, kudos to J. Michael Straczynski in theory at least for daring to try something a little different with the most iconic superhero in the world.

Rob said...

WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT RETURNS both address political issues, of course.

I've read MIRACLEMAN, KINGDOM COME, and the first volume of IRREDEEMABLE. I hear THE AUTHORITY covers some of the same ground. I'd also recommend D.P. 7, ASTRO CITY, and CONCRETE for superpowered characters interacting with the real world.

The one book fans of this subgenre should read is Mark Gruenwald's SQUADRON SUPREME maxi-series. To me it's the definitive take on what would happen if superheroes tried to address the world's problems.