Forget the Brooding ‘Man of Steel’, Here Are Five Ways to Have Fun with a Lighter, Brighter Superman

Retro Remote doesn’t usually revisit a topic – there’s far too much pop culture rattling around in history’s skill tester for that – but last column’s paean to Superman, “Superman and the War Against Anachronism” was uncharacteristic enough to possibly require a follow-up. It’s the mission of Retro Remote to focus on the specifics of pop culture whenever possible (usually an episode rather than a series), so last column’s broad discussion of Superman as a character just didn’t contain enough historical pop archaisms and antiquities to keep Retro Remote’s jalopy cranked.

As such, the following list is something of an addendum to last column’s ruminations on (super-)character traits. After all, for all the stern bombast I may have to offer about Superman, it’s tough to deny that part of the character’s appeal – something that’s intricately connected to his much-maligned invulnerability – is the sheer dizziness and playfulness that the character can sometimes offer. Even the way that Superman simply occupies space can be filled with verve and energy.

Retro Remote’s “office” (more accurately described as a room-sized DVD storage space with a bed and a laptop crammed into it) has a couple of old ’40s Sunday newspaper full-page Superman “funnies” on one of the few bare patches of wall. The actual strips aren’t that good, but the way that Superman is somehow in an entirely different gravity-defying pose in each panel (and mid-conversation) overrides the static nature of the plot and story. It may be narratively dull, but it sure is energetic.

That sense of childish energy is part of what gives an extraordinary longevity to the character. Despite much popular wisdom, art and ideas don’t need to be limited by gravity and realism, so Superman can be a fun vehicle for abstract and just plain weird explorations. Gritty and “realistic” (ha) may be trendy terms, but they’re hardly the only modes of representation to the artistically engaged and eclectic.

Naturally, the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, was more concerned with surly brooding than Superman’s more endearing traits (the tone of the film could have been completely changed had the soldier towards the end described Superman as “nice” rather than “hot”!). This being the Internet, a list of more enjoyably goofy ways to enjoy the classic Man of Steel seemed to be the only proper response.

Some of the more obvious examples have been left out: the wonderful first season of the George Reeves TV series, The Adventures of Superman, the exciting and stylish Fleischer cartoons of the ’40s, all those Silver Age comics where Superman is clearly being a dick, and the first couple of movies with Christopher Reeve are too well-loved already. Hopefully there’s an entry or two here that will be something new for fans and non-fans alike, particularly those after a less-brooding Man of Steel. So, as a reminder of some of the more way-out absurdity and dizziness that Superman can provide, here are five perfectly dopey ways to enjoy Superman.

5. Superman: Origins of a Superhero

One of the great things about Grant Morrison’s amazing All Star Superman mini-series was the seemingly effortless way that it melded the chaotic and neurotic insanity of Silver Age Superman comics with the warm, ethical simplicity that the character had developed over the following decades. Morrison is known for some pretty weird stuff in modern comics, but said himself that he couldn’t come close to the kind of unbridled strangeness that weirded its way through ’50s and ’60s era pages. One of the weirdest, highlighted by Morrison, was “Superman’s New Power!” from Superman #125 (November 1958).

Though the cover implores me not to reveal the secret of Superman’s NEW power, I think the statute on limitations for spoilers has probably expired by now. Superman’s mystery power: that’d be a miniature version of himself that shoots out of his palm to take care of business for him. That’s pretty handy stuff, but it also leaves Superman kinda… sad. Silver Age Superman may have been a bit of a lunkhead, but he needs love too, dammit, and bite-sized Superman is stealing his mojo. Supes doesn’t actually even control the lil’ guy – he just seems to respond to Superman’s subconscious intentions, or maybe just does whatever he wants. Sheesh, Superman doesn’t even get to make conscious decisions about saving people any more!

This was enough to make Grant Morrison realise, while writing All-Star Superman, that he still had a long way to go before he could explore the full potential of Supermandom:

“My first issue, for instance, has a new power for Superman and I thought I’d come up with something, well… not bad… then I just read — yesterday in fact — the story ‘Superman’s New Power’ which appeared in Superman #125 from November 1958. And guess what Superman’s new power was in the ‘conservative’ ‘50s. That’s right — it’s a teeny-tiny little Superman who shoots out from the palm of the big Superman’s hand and does everything better than Superman himself, leaving the full-size Superman feeling redundant and worthless. Holy analysis, Batman! It’s mindbending, brilliant and eerie work. This is what it would be like if Charlie Kaufmann wrote and directed the Superman movie and it’s far from goofy or childish, it’s genuinely affecting and slightly disturbing to read Superman saying stuff like ‘Everyone’s impressed except ME! Don’t they understand how I feel — playing second fiddle to a miniature duplicate of myself…a sort of SUPER-IMP?’

And people think I’M weird ? I %$%$^ wish I was weird like this! I wish pop comics today had the balls to be as poetic and poignant and truly ‘all-ages’ again, and a little less self-conscious. I feel a little ashamed for not even daring to think of a magnificent tiny Superman who makes the real Superman feel inadequate every time he springs from his hand. Those kinds of stories were like weird fever dreams and they sold millions and millions of copies every month.” — Grant Morrison in Newsarama‘s “All-Star Superman #1 Preview”.

Susan Sontag makes a similar case for the relevance of this kind of unchained excess in her 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp”, which discusses various bits and pieces of pop culture like Italian super-hero spectacles and Japanese science-fiction films: “in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy – and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.” Perfunctory realism is one thing, but these kinds of fantasy fever dreams offer all kinds of psychoanalytic joys.

You can embrace some of that issue’s irresponsible fantasy at the CSBG Archive, “I Love Ya But You’re Strange” (Brian Cronin, 17 February 2013).

But that’s not quite weird enough. That weirdness gets stretched just a little further by one oddball piece of media, a recording of the story in “Superman: Origins of a Superhero”. Retro Remote isn’t sure exactly where this recording came from, so can only assume it spontaneously shot forth from someone’s fingers, giving form to some unbridled inner-neurosis without permission from the superego.

Sure, Superman has been transposed to audiobook form plenty of times, but this one is essentially a straight, earnest reading of the text directly from the pages, with no real changes to the stolid dialogue to suit the audio format. Superman talks like a cartoon anvil-headed strongman further emphasising the not-designed-to-be-spoken dialogue and, for some reason, the title announcer speaks r-e-a-l-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y and with some weird toy voice-changer modulation.

Even better, the announcer’s second function seems to be to provide the sounds effects himself: “Wham! Pow! Ow!”. Not one to leave any moment for drama untapped, even the concluding lines are delivered with oddball alien emphasis: “The! Ennnnnnd!“.

“Superman’s New Power” is weird enough as it is. This straight audio reading of the comic only heightens that insanity.

“Superman’s New Power” from “Origins of a Superhero” is clearly too spectacular to be on YouTube, but the Amazon preview should give you enough of a taste to consider dropping $0.99 on an mp3 download of a weird Freudian super-earnest super-fever-dream.

4. The Crash Test Dummies, “Superman’s Song”

Speaking of taking Superman seriously, nothing does that more effectively than Canadian group The Crash Test Dummies’ 1991 single “Superman’s Song”. I refuse to research this song in case I discover that the band and/or listeners don’t take it as seriously as I do. I suspect that plenty of people might roll their eyes at lines like “Superman never made any money / Saving the world from Solomon Grundy”, so I’ll include it in this list primarily to cater for those cynical shells of human beings whose souls are probably made of red kryptonite.

Those who continue to mock the fact that “hey Bob, Supes had a straight job” should back off and instead turn their ridicule to….

3. Supermen dönüyor (1979) aka “The Return of Superman” aka “Turkish Superman”

The Crash Test Dummies told us that “Superman never made any money.” I have no idea if “Turkish Superman” ever made any money. If he did, it presumably should have been seized under international copyright law.

Speaking of international versions of Superman that I don’t understand, I have no idea what this song, “Superman”, by Russian singer All Pugacheva is about:

I do, however, enjoy the cover.

2. Australian Superman

Unlike his Turkish brother, Australian Superman was actually “official”. I take this to mean that Superman’s brief stint in Australia is officially part of the character’s canonical history. Given that the US and Australian series aired concurrently, this suggests that Superman had one of those secret second-families that seemed to be much easier to arrange pre-Facebook. Presumably, US Lois and Australian Lois didn’t even know the other existed until the formal will-reading after the infamous “Death of Superman” storyline.

This was an Australian re-do of the excellent US Superman radio series – the same scripts were used, but with Australian actors. About a thousand episodes were apparently made, but only a few are generally circulating (unlike the large collections of the US series). Presumably the rest are locked away in the Australian National Film and Sound Archive (who have released about four episodes on various CD compilations).

In any case, while the US Superman is exciting and action-packed, with Bud Collyer giving what should be seen as a contender for a definitive performance of both Superman and Clark Kent (not always an easy combo), the Australian Superman (based on the recordings available) had a little more of the laconic colonial attitude about him. “Down! Down! Down!” Collyer shouts in the first episode of the US series, adding a verbal energy and tactility to the radio adventure as he darts towards land. It’s easy to to imagine kids of the time listening in rapt attention to his every syllable. Leonard Teale, on the other hands, intones “Down…down….down” in a kind of sing-song, somnambulistic drone. Just as amusing is the Australian narrator’s insistence on emphasising the first syllable of Superman: “SUP-pah-man”.

1. Atom Man vs Superman (1950)

Kirk Alyn may not be the greatest Superman, but he’s possibly the cutest. That’s cute in the “adorable” sense, not necessarily the “attractive” sense. Appearing in two Columbia 15-chapter serials, Alyn was a dancer before donning the cape and seems to want to hold his poses and demonstrate his poise with every super-action. Even better, he always looks quite pleased with himself whenever he pulls off a landing. Alyn is the smilin’est Superman yet, in an era that hadn’t quite established Supes as a beacon of pure, undiluted friendliness.

Adding to the serial version’s sense boyish naiveté is one of the best “call to greater duties” moments ever to appear in a Superman story. Ma and Pa Kent see great things in their little Superbaby and when the time is right, they decide to have a talk with Clark. This would be fine, if Clark didn’t appear to be in his 30s when they decide that the time is right; Clark is lazily sitting at the dining room table reading a book in a suit. The glance Ma and Pa Kent exchange before telling Clark to embrace his destiny is less “now is the time” and more “is this guy ever going to move out of our basement?” The look of momentary bewilderment on Clark’s face as Pa announces that they need to have a talk is completely recognisable to every 30-something moocher who realises the game is up.

To be fair, Clark accepts his future role without much fuss. This would also be fine if the scene didn’t then immediately cut to Clark leaving the house with a couple of suitcases while the narrator informs us that “shortly after this, Clark’s foster parents passed away”. Wait, what? How “shortly after this”, exactly? The fact that Clark clearly hasn’t made his first steps towards becoming Superman yet suggests it was reeeeeal “shortly after this”. Like, immediately. I guess asking Clark to move out might not have been the best plan of action after all.

The other joys of the Superman serial are too numerous to mention. Superman using x-ray vision by leering straight into the camera is still one of the creepiest things even seen on film, and the sudden octave drop in his internal announcements that “this looks like a job for Superman” rivals even the narrator of the Australian Superman radio series for dubious phrasing decisions.

The first Superman serial from 1948 runs out of actual story around chapter ten, so the last five chapters are variations on people going in an out of buildings, tying up the people inside, and setting things on fire.

The 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs Superman, however, is non-stop madness, with Superman facing both a reformed (pshaw!) Lex Luthor and a mysterious shiny-helmeted villain: Atom Man! Chapter titles such as “Superman meets Atom Man” and “Atom Man Tricks Superman” prove to be admirably precise, although I’m not sure I remember a heat ray in “Atom Man’s Heat Ray”. The final chapter title, “Superman Saves the Universe”, is also suspense-destroyingly accurate.

As well as all this meeting and tricking, Atom Man hurls Superman into the “Empty Doom”, which seems to be a kind of high-tech filing cabinet that somehow contains the entirety of outer space.

Superman battles synthetic kryptonite, repeatedly lands from flight with a look of pure joy on his face (thanks to liberal use of stock footage), and runs through barn walls that have conveniently pre-drawn Superman outlines on them. He also turns into a cartoon when he flies; Retro Remote chooses not to mock this, finding it about the same level of ridiculous as most modern CGI.

Jimmy Olsen might have it worse that Superman. Not only is he knocked out repeatedly over the course of the 15 chapters, presumably facing serious long-term concussion issues, he also ends up in a car that, the moment it drives into a conveniently-labelled “bombing range”, is immediately targeted by an overhead jet. Everyone accepts these events so readily that it’s a bit odd when, in a late chapter, a bystander seems confused when Lois makes a reference to Superman being trapped in Atom Man’s Empty Doom. The rest of the characters are so unperturbed by the events, I was kind of glad to see that someone else wasn’t necessarily keeping up.

Full episodes of Atom Man vs Superman aren’t currently available on YouTube, but it is available on DVD in a set that also includes the original 1948 serial.

For those worried about the fate of the glitter-helmeted Atom Man, rumour has it that he made his return decades later in WCW wrestling as The Shockmaster.