[22 November 2013]
Nostalgia is a seductive pleasure these days, but I worry about what it means for the ongoing health of comics. What keeps a comics collection, especially a superhero comics, from becoming another Greatest Hits album, just a wormhole to the past?
Leafing through Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years and its companion Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years pulled me through one faded-out cultural moment after another. Lois as a wise-cracking tough girl in a cropped bob and Casablanca trench who gets herself into scrapes to get the story. She loves Superman’s strongman escapades as he defeats murky figures from gangland Metropolis with names like “Pockets.” His stunts are just one step away from vaudeville sideshow acts. He’s always lifting a railway car overhead or picking up grown men under his arm and flying around with them. WWII-era Superman kidnaps Hitler and Stalin and forces them to stand trial in Geneva. Total wish fulfillment—gee, wouldn’t it be fun to beat up Hitler?—1960s Superman plays tough against atomic force fields and aliens while he fends off Lois, who suddenly would do anything to get his ring on her finger and retire to the suburbs. His slicked back hair and newspaperman suits are just a step away from Mad Men, a show that also trades heavily in nostalgia for an era many of us have never experienced but now streams onto our televisions in a glamorously sordid version. It’s heady, all this access to the past.
The thing is, nostalgia has a way of allowing us to be anywhere but where we are. The ’90 explosion in comic’s popularity was also a moment when comics expanded in all directions in terms of genre and genuine engagement with the zeitgeist. This is part of why comics are once again a mass medium. But there also has been a rise in our fascination with anything vintage, including collecting comics, which I’m not so sure is good for comics. Nostalgia is a problem if we want the medium to remain relevant to the NOW rather than disappearing infinitely into the past. Pure history is the enemy of comics because it reduces them to the artifact of a cultural timeline instead of giving them the ongoing relevance of a great work of art, and an iconic superhero like Superman is particularly vulnerable to nostalgia. It’s unfortunate in that sense that DC Comics has chosen to present the work in these two anniversary collections in roughly chronological order. The timeline becomes a bit of a time machine instead of a way to find more universal moments in the strip’s rich body of work.
It’s no surprise then that Superman and Lois feel the most real to me at the beginning of the strip when it is not yet aware of itself as being located on a timeline. Before the demands of managing perpetual fiction and timeless characters morphed and re-morphed their personas according to whatever was trending in popular culture. Their world was a lot simpler than the Superman universe later becomes—a more organic fit for the heroics of Superman, who comes off in these early storylines as just a fantasized extension of the good guy who steps in and makes things right, a classic white hat figure in the palpably east coast urban neighborhoods of Metropolis. The villains are thugs, not supernatural despots with alien brains. Lois still looks like the young figure model they originally hired, a woman by the name of Joanne Kovacs with an incandescent flapper beauty who later married Siegel. Lois’ portrayal in the early strips has the glow and light of a portrait of a real person. Superman is still playing Clark as a shy man, much as Siegel and Joe Shuster reportedly were in real life, with secret powers that can’t be detected with the naked eye. This strikes me as a classic outsider’s fantasy, the sense that there is more power lurking within a person than the way others are perceiving and treating them, and it remains the resonant core of the Superman world, this issue of the twin identity and the protection of that core self.
That protection of his secret self never does entirely make sense to me as presented in the strip. Why would living full-time as Superman pose such exposure to attack by the criminal element? Surely with his x-ray vision and other super-abilities, he would easily be able to frustrate such attacks in order to gain the freedom of living in the open. We get various versions of this rationale throughout the seventy-five years, one of the earliest being in the 1940s when his foster dad makes a deathbed request that to fight criminals best, he must hide his true identity. It’s pretty common for superheroes to have secret identities of course, but it feels particularly pat for Superman who after all at various points in the continuity can withstand an atomic explosion. Once the Fortress of Solitude is introduced, it makes even less sense since he holes up in his mountainside safe house to rest anyway. There’s something else going on here. The importance of keeping his true identity a secret has more to do with the characterization of Superman—the experience of overcoming other’s false characterizations of our abilities that he offers us readers.
Lois is let in on his secret self more and more over the years, something that also feels like a giant timestamp marking where the country was at in terms of gender relations. For much of the strip, Lois knows two different men, his passive Clark Kent façade and his true self, the powerful daring champion. The reasoning goes that if he married her and revealed his secret, he’d either have to give up crime-fighting or she would become a weak point for him, an Achille’s heel that could be used against him by the underworld. It’s worth mentioning that there are imaginary out-of-continuity stories where Lois and Superman do get married, or where he lives as Superman on Krypton with a gorgeous actress. But in the timeline suggested by the anniversary collection, Lois is constantly trying to both catch him as a husband and catch him out. A lot of the tension in these episodes comes from him trying to keep her at bay. In the rather romping storyline, “The Romance of Superbaby and Baby Lois,” Lois gets bonked on the head and turns into a “ruthless female” who tries to blackmail him into marrying him. He brings her to his Fortress of Solitude. “There’s no need to conceal the location of your fortress from me NOW! After all, I’ll soon be your wife!” It turns out, of course, that the only reason he invited her in was to trick her out of his promise to marry her. It’s a relief when I get to the 1986 continuity reboot after Crisis on Infinite Earths, and Lois is a strong witty woman who cares about her career as much as her love life again.
The balance in power between Lois and Superman in the late ‘80s becomes at this point a lot more real for the modern reader. There’s something in there that feels right about the nature of intimacy in a less traditional model of relationship. Though he still keeps his identity a secret, Lois is not trying to catch him out, and she is not put off by Clark’s less alpha male way of carrying himself, creating an odd sort of love triangle as she begins to care for them both. By the early 1990s, we see Lois love Clark as he is, and Superman let his true superhuman power be known to Lois. However there’s a way in these moments also feel like a wormhole. Lois’ short coif and power lunches and snappy back and forth with Superman in the ‘80s gives way to a chiseled beauty with layered hair that snuggles with him on the couch and talks superhero business with him. As good as it is to see them pulling together as a couple, there’s such a specifically targeted ‘80s and ‘90s vibe that the shift in personas feels tacked on for marketing purposes, a way to reorient the continuity of the strip so as to avoid becoming dated.
There’re a few of those moments where the strip’s attempt at engagement with the socio-political climate of the day becomes just ridiculous. It’s particularly bad in 1972’s “Must There be a Superman?” he’s a little introspective in this one which comes after Julius Schwartz took over as editor of the Superman universe and added more human aspects to his character, which make him a little neurotic. An alien tribunal plants an idea in his head that he might be harming Earth by protecting it too much, and suddenly he’s afraid he may have played Big Brother too often. When he intervenes in a farm owner’s assault on a young Mexican farmworker, he scolds them about abandoning their strike. This is so much the opposite of how Cesar Chavez and the real United Farm Workers of America won wider legal protections for workers as to be condescending. There was no white savior guiding them to action. Superman lectures them: “You don’t need a Superman! What you really need is a super-will to be guardians of your own destiny!” The real union organizers knew this already. Superman is essentially superficial to their struggle, and the result on the page is nothing short of stupid.
The most genuine engagement in the sociopolitical climate of the day that is collected here is found in a storyline of Alan Moore from 1985, “For the Man Who Has Everything”. An alien intruder has given Superman a present that turns out to be a fungus that sucks onto your chest and transports you to your heart’s desire, For Superman, this turns out to be living out the life on Krypton he might have had if his home planet had not been destroyed. We see him raise a family with a statuesque blonde actress, Lyla Lerrol, and work at the Institute of Geology. However, there’s a lot of dystopic things afoot in Krypton: drug addiction and immigration issues are on the rise, conditions in the slums are worsening, and Superman’s father is a bitter, discredited scientist who is involved in an fascist group looking to take over the government to revive “Old Krypton.” There’s a deep suspicion voiced of groups that seek to unify behind a nostalgic nationalist vision. This potential for totalitarian groups to dominate a splintered and desperate populace is both born out historically by the rise of the Nazi party in post-WWI Germany and seemed at the time eminently possible in a Cold War-era politics dominated by Thatcher and Reagan. And yet it’s entirely organic to the storyline, which is essentially about escaping such nostalgia by defeating the large yellow alien who enticed Superman.
As the world has grown more complex, it has grown less plausible for Superman to be able to solve problems of political and economic oppression with his strongman stunts. He made more sense as a “champion of the oppressed” in the original world he was conceived in, when Hitler was seen more as a bully than a demagogue. 2001’s “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” places Superman in Tehran battling some supernaturally gifted terrorists who believe in ultra violence. In the opening scenes, he gives lip service to not intervening in the political struggle, though of course he’s soon needed to defeat the terrorists. He participates in the civil disobedience as an equal, a step forward from the paternalism of the ‘70s strips, but there’s still something tacked-on about it. He is not integral to the real political fight referenced here, and in that way, it’s not really his story. There are other comics that do a better job at addressing those realities, most of them not superhero books, such as Joe Sacco’s long-form comics journalism masterpiece, _Palestine_. Facing up to the pressure to remain relevant as an ongoing fiction in a changing world doesn’t have to mean inserting Superman into various situations in the current sociopolitical climate.
This kind of superficial participation is basically nostalgia waiting to happen, a timestamp marking the strip’s place along a giant timeline whisking us back to various moments in our shared past, but it does not help the comic to remain relevant to the Now. Superman is hugely evocative of an imagined American childhood, whether it was ours to experience or not. But that’s not all the series has to offer us: the series feels most timeless when it portrays Superman’s enormous power hidden under a shy and misleading exterior, the twin core of his self as he advances through the years.