Ralph’s Jet-Pack Theory, Muhammad Ali and “Last Son”

Ralph knew the secret: a jet-pack.

“It’s true. They said it on the news. That’s how they made him fly,” he told us, several times over, often breathlessly. Like the rest of us, Ralph was ten-years-old at the time.

That week in December, 1978, all we wanted to talk about in the schoolyard was Superman: The Movie. None of us had seen it yet, and all our conversations revolved around the rumor that Christopher Reeve actually flew in the film, which had been sparked by the movie’s iconic tag-line: “You will believe a man can fly.”

Ralph was an authority on such things. He had told us about how KISS put their blood into the ink of their comic books, and how the band’s name stood for Kids In Service of Satan. He loved that band, had posters of them on his wall when the rest of us were too scared to even look at their albums in the window of Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street. He was the only kid in school who played the tuba.

Ralph had red hair and freckles. He wasn’t the biggest kid, or the smallest. He had a loud voice, a puzzling sullenness, a short temper. He often kept his distance. He favored tomato soup and Oreo cookies (not at the same time), knew exactly when to crush crackers into the soup, and had the perfect technique for separating the Oreo halves–so he told us.

He was the first kid in our gang who knew how they made Superman fly in the movie. On this issue he would accept no argument. By the end of that week, a lot of kids were sick of hearing his jet-pack theory.

During Friday’s recess, when it seemed one of the genuinely mean kids was going to beat Ralph up, my friend Marc and I decided (unconsciously, I think) to diffuse the situation. Marc suggested a variation on Ralph’s theory that involved super-flatulence, which he illustrated by pretending to fly around the schoolyard while making the appropriate sound effects.

He flew to me, and like a relay runner passing the baton, I took over, running headlong and full speed into a large snowbank. Even the teachers laughed at that. So, I did it again, and possibly a few more times after that. My head hurt, and there was snow in my jacket, but schoolyard harmony had been restored, however briefly.

Even for ten-year-olds, we spent an inordinate amount of time in the snow that year. The previous year had seen an epic blizzard hit the region, and we were waiting for a repeat, hopefully while we were outside.

A couple of months prior to the release of Richard Donner’s Superman movie, another classic had captured my attention: the giant-sized comic book, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. By coincidence, my favourite song from 1975-78 was Johnny Wakelin’s “Black Superman (Muhammad Ali).”

That song, along with a few other contributing factors (Rocky in 1976, Star Wars in 1977 and TV specials like Battle of the Network Stars and Circus of the Stars), primed me for the one-two punch of the big comic book and the bigger movie. What made it even better was that Ali won his heavyweight championship back in September 1978. He was a real-life superhero.

For at least two days a week that fall and winter, I spent hours reading and re-reading that comic book in the W.H. Smith bookstore in the Toronto Eaton Centre, along with Beano and any other comics they had in stock. Even though I loved them, I rarely collected a specific comic book series (excepting Charlie Brown, Tintin and a few indispensable others) . Why would I, when I could sit on the floor of that bookstore all evening?

Along with pretty much everything else, that changed as I hit my teens. I collected all sort of comics in the ’80s, although I still found it difficult to continue with any particular superhero series. It’s a problem Douglas Wolk describes well in his book, Reading Comics:

“[P]icking up a superhero comic book … if you’re not already immersed in that world, is likely to make you feel simultaneously talked down to and baffled by the endless references to stuff you’re already supposed to know. But immersion in that world isn’t just what they require; it’s what they’re selling. Contemporary superhero comics aren’t really meant to be read as freestanding works, even on those rare occasions when their plots are self-contained.”

I had also drifted towards Marvel over DC in my childhood and teens. I was attracted to Marvel’s “hodgepodge of pseudoexistentialist folderol,” as Christopher Sorrentino describes it in “The Ger Sheker” (from the anthology, Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers). Superman was too much of a “big blue boy scout,” as he’s often been called.

The Greatest…dodges a punch

Superman comics caught my attention again in the ’90s with the “death of” storyline, but I lost interest in the saga that followed. There were also the Superman “meta-comics” (Wolk’s term), such as Alan Moore’s Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and Grant Morrison’s recent All-Star Superman. Excellent as they are, I don’t think of them the same way that I think of the mainstream Superman stories of my childhood.

“Metacomics may pay lip service to being universally comprehensible, but they’re really aimed at what I call ‘superreaders’: readers familiar enough with enormous numbers of old comics that they’ll understand what’s really being discussed in the story,” Wolk writes.

Recently, DC Comics reprinted that Ali comic, and as I read it, those schoolyard memories came back in a rush. Then, a friend suggested Geoff Johns to me as a superhero-comics writer that I should look into. I had read more about Johns than by him, but, flush with fond memories of my love for superheroes, I looked for a starting point for reading his work. When I found a collaboration he did with the director of Superman, The Movie, Richard Donner, I thought the coincidence was too strong to ignore.

A five-issue mini-series that ran from 2006 to 2008, “Last Son” captures much of the wonder I remember feeling when I read Superman comics in the ’70s. The story involves the famed “Phantom Zone” and a mysterious child who lands on Earth much the same way Supes did. Soon, Clark and Lois (who are married–when did that happen?) adopt the child and name him Chris. There are appearances by Bizarro, Jimmy Olsen’s super-signal watch, and other elements I remembered from my bronze age readings.

The story by Johns and Donner approaches meta-comic territory, with all of these nods to classic Superman motifs and characters. Even the title recalls the ’70s: the novelization of Donner’s movie (by Elliot S. Maggin) was titled, Last Son of Krypton.

One significant difference: the issue of child abuse plays a large role in this story, and the way it’s handled here feels much more modern than anything from the ’70s. Plus, Adam Kubert’s artwork is splashy, angular and decidedly 21st century.

However, above all that, there’s one moment in particular that elevated this comic for me, on par with re-experiencing the Ali fight story. In it, Superman is teaching Chris how to do various super-things, and sitting cross-legged while he does so. He’s also floating a few feet off the ground. Finally, apropos to nothing Superman has been talking about, Chris asks, “How do you do that?”

Maybe it’s because Chris is around the age I was when I last remember loving Superman stories, or maybe it’s because he looks a little like Ralph did in 1978. Either way, my first thought upon reading that line was, “It’s a jet-pack.”