June 16, 2010

Death of a Superman

Today marks the anniversary of the death of George Reeves - the Superman of the 1950's TV show. He was found naked, face up on his bed at home with a gunshot wound, from a 9mm Luger, to the head. The death was ruled a suicide, and while there have been various theories about the "truth" of his death there has never been any concrete proof of wrongdoing. It seems likely he was a man immensly depressed and saw his career going nowhere outside of Superman.

And that got me thinking a little bit about the character of Superman.

The Last Son of Krypton is, of course, an icon. You'd be hard pressed to find someone who
doesn't know who Superman is. He's the first true superhero, ushering in the trend of crime-fighters in tights with fantastic powers that continues to this day. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster back in 1932 (it was also the anniversary of the release of Action Comics #1 earlier in the week), Superman is many things to many people. For some, he is the ultimate outsider; the last survivor of a doomed planet. For others a farm raised boy-scout paragon of virtue, illuminating our potential. For others still he is an adolescent power fantasy wreaking havoc. Superman is all of these things, and more.

Having said that, I've never really been a fan. Sure, that S shield is known by everyone from here to Timbuktoo. The majority of his super-powers - strength, invulnerability, flight - are all the default for any new super-hero created. He even popularised wearin' your underpants on the outside. But he never really clicked for me (except for the undies on the outside thing. I did that). I think, and there's likely a lot of people who agree with me, he's too super. He's too perfect. When almost all other super-heroes have some sort of flaw, be it powered or character-wise, they're much easier to identify with.

What are Superman's weaknesses? Not many, that's for sure. He doesn't even have a sidekick people can mock and make suggestive references about. What about magic? Sure, why not? Kryptonite? Ahhhh, yes, kryptonite. It has permeated the public consciousness almost as much as the Man of Tomorrow himself. In fact, it may hold equal measure as Achilles heel in describing someone's weakness. But these are weaknesses introduced after the fact, specifically introduced so the character would have some sort of weakness.

But aside from those two, he cannot be harmed. The man can fly, move mountains, deflect bullets and rescue your kitten from a tree. Which, true, is what Siegel and Shuster were going for. They were two Jewish sci-fi geeks from Cleveland scrabbling around for a way into the funny books. Siegel's father had been shot and killed in a robbery years before, and the perpetrator never caught. It's not hard to see why their most famous creation can deflect bullets. But it makes it hard to relate to him. It's easier to identify with Peter Parker, where his costumed crime-fighting as Spider-Man caused him more grief than plaudits.

It will be interesting to see which interpretation Christopher Nolan "godfathers" the new Superman towards. He's apparantly interested in getting to the core of the character again; something I felt was missing from Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. His vision was too slavishly devoted to the Richard Donner originals (not too surprising I guess, as he worked with Richard Donner's wife Lauren Shuler Donner on two X-men movies) and hadn't realised the characters had moved on since then.

George Reeves, of course, was never "my" Superman. The Superman I knew was Christopher Reeve, all American boy-scout. Failing that it was George Newbern (voice actor in the Superman animated series and Justice League). I never picked up an issue of the book, I knew the character form other media and general pop-culture awareness. In fact, the first Superman comic I ever read was The Death of Superman back in the '90s. Killed by Doomsday, and not Lex Luthor?! What the hell was that?! There was no historical resonance with that. Just like kryptonite, Doomsday had been created merely as a way to kill Superman. And everyone knew that was a sales gimmmick; there was no way the Man of Steel would be gone for good. In fact I learned more about (and was subsequently more interested in) the character from the excellent Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones, which details not only the creation and impact of Superman but all the events leading up to the creation of the comic book.

But hey. Here's to George, one of many to wear the tights. Superman is dead. Long live Superman. What are your thoughts on Kal-El/Clark Kent, the Man of Tomorrow and Last Son of Krypton?


  1. Andy, change your link text colour. At the moment it's Grey on Black, and that sounds like a really bad porno.