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Rant #218
(published March 17, 2005)
Our Superman, Ourselves; my realization upon reading the Superman is a Dick archive
by Morgan Johnson
I hate Superman. I have ever since I started reading comics fifteen years ago. And in fifteen years, I have read a lot of comics.

Every Wednesday for the past fifteen years I have found myself in a comic shop. In Roseville it was Comix Corner at Masonic and Utica. In Ann Arbor I frequented the Underworld, on South University street. And now that I live in San Francisco I shop at Comix Experience, which is widely considered the best comic shop in the country. It's three blocks from my house, clean and well-lighted. These are important things.

In my fifteen years of buying and reading comics, I can count the number of issues of Superman that I have bought on one hand. And one of those issues was the one where he dies, back in 1992, and everyone bought that so it doesn't even count.

The problem I've always had with Superman is that he is dull, invulnerable and unchanging. He has changed in the past, sure, but he is too iconic to hold any change for long. There have been times when he had long hair, a different costume, different powers or was even dead. But in the end he returns to being the same dull character.

Without threats or danger nothing tests him. To paraphrase Pat Mills, it's heroism with a condom on. He's as boring as a soft-focus jesus: forever perfect, all powerful and forever.

But still, to many he is the face of comics. I have a superman lunchbox. I have a superman tshirt. I even have a superman pillowcase that I use regularly. But it's not because I love Superman, it's because I love comics. And when I look at Superman I don't see Jesus-in-a-cape, I see a symbol of comics.

At least I did. And then I read the Superman is a Dick archive.

The archive is a series of scans of the covers of Superman comics from the 1950s and 1960s. And it is hosted by the National Lampoon. The covers are real—though they may seem staged, fake or impossible. I've seen a lot of them before but I had never before looked at them all as a gestalt til now.

And here is what I realized: Superman may be dick, but he is our dick. He is America's own particular jerk. And he is us.

Nina Auerbach wrote a literary examination of vampires a few years back called "Our Vampires, Ourselves." In her book she shows that the way Vampires are portrayed in literature at any given time show you what the culture at that time thinks about sex and death. Prof. Eric Rabkin has a term for this when it occurs within a specific book, he calls it the "parametric center." It's when the way a certain thing, Superman for instance, gets portrayed in different ways through the course of the novel, and the way that thing is portrayed shows the cultures reaction to it.

Which is fancy talk for saying that Superman reflects what we, as a culture, think of masculinity and authority.

I had thought that Superman never changed, and that is still partly true as the raw facts of Superman never change (except for the Crisis, and Byrne's re-launch but those are two small events in a sixty year history): he's from Krypton, allergic to Kryptonite, grew up in Smallville Kansas. And his supporting cast is largely stagnant: Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lana Lang, Pete Ross, etc. What does change, of course, is the presentation of Superman over time. A fact about comics that is easy to forget is that they are always being written, and with a few notable exceptions they are always being written by different authors. So Superman stays the same—boring, invulnerable, in love with Lois, etc.—but the way he goes about everything and the stories that he is involved in are always different and always being written.

And, it bears mentioning, Superman is always being written by men.

Here is what I think: the Superman is a Dick archive is a sort of snapshot of masculinity at the time. And apparently masculinity in the fifties was all about being a dick.

1950s Superman couldn't ever let anyone upstage him. He always had to be in charge, be in control. So when Pat Boone shows up and can sing really well, Superman gets jealous and angry and stops him from singing.

The biggest threat to Superman's masculine authority is Lois Lane. Think back to america in the 1950s. We'd just come out of the war, and were just getting into another war in Korea. Women had been called upon to go to work in massive numbers for the first time ever, really. And now that the war was over and the men were back the women were expected to go right back into the kitchen and to get barefoot and pregnent post-haste. This of course chafed many women's collective bums, and life has been different ever since. Lois is the quintessential woman trying to make it in a man's world, and succeeding. She is smarter than Superman. She's a better reporter than his alter-ego, Clark Kent. And she does it all without super powers. She is 1950s Superman's arch-enemy. And the very thing that threatens his masculinity so greatly.

Proof? You want proof? I have proof coming out of my ass.

Witness Superman attacking Lois as the prosecutor of her murder trial. Or superman forcing Lois to marry a very ugly man because she spurned his advances. Or forcing Lois to live the Cinderella fairy tale, in which he is the handsome prince, to get to be with him. Or when he locks her up in prison. Or howabout when he calls her stupid for not realizing he was Clark Kent, even though he has gone to incredible lengths to keep it secret from her. Or howabout when he almost kills her, undoubtedly to show her how powerful he is.

All of these examples are from the "Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane" comic. This was a comic starring Lois, shot from her perspective and written by men. Men looking at the women around them, the culture around them and writing these scenarios.

Superman's "pal" Jimmy Olsen (who at some point may have actually become Supes' adoptied son) also got his share of tough love from big daddy Superman. Like when he gave Superman a crappy Father's Day gift. Or when he fought Aquaman to the death, at Superman's behest. Or say when he was forced to live in the shittiest apartment ever. Jimmy is Superman's son, and biggest fan. But he's also the weakling, the also-ran. The timid non-masculine man who is there to be mocked, ridiculed and forced to marry monkey brides. Even when he learns the truth, Superman's dick-ness trumps him.

He also fucks with Batman from time to time.

The thing of it is that I know, in the end, that he probably had good reasons for doing some—definitely not all—of these things. They all worked out in the end with his dick-ness being a clever ruse that is revealed in a Scooby-Doo/Twilight Zone way at the very end. But that doesn't change his methods. Regards of the ends, Superman is being a dick. He is deceitful. He assumes that he knows what is best and acts upon it without ever talking to Lois, Jimmy, etc. He is acting the strong role of masculine authority of the time. Father Knows Best. He is the Man. etc. He loves Lois, so it's his manly duty to protect her, regardless of what she wants, right?

Oh yeah, and being Mr. Masculine Authority of 1950s, we can be pretty sure he would've been a big racist, too.

Here's a question for you: Does Superman do anything heroic in these examples? No. Not really. He uses his powers to manipulate those around him into being dependent on him and into worshipping him. Of course, these are only a selection of the covers, and for every issue where Superman tries to get Lois fired so she'll be a good little hausfrau for him, there are five that show him smacking the shit out of Lex Luthor, Brainiac or Metallo.

Contrast all of this with the Superman and Lois Lane of today. They love each other. He's "out" to her. He supports her career and still looks after her in his super way. They are partners as suredly as Batman & Robin. But that sounded a lot gayer that I meant. The point remains. Masculinity, nowadays, is difficult to define but there are certain qualities we can ascribe to it: strength, courage, sensibility, etc. The idea of masculine authority that Supes used to represent is dead now, because we (as men, I'm talking to my XY brothers out there now) are no longer so afraid of sharing power with women, with being bested. The idea of manliness we have now is a far more moral and compromising role than it used to be.

Compromise is not a bad thing. It's necessary for anyone older than 17 to exist in this world. It certainly beats blackmailing your girlfriend so you know what she's thinking. Or murdering her so no one will know she turned you down for a date (and if you click through on any of these links, make it this one). It's probably also a better thing to earn someone's love, instead of convincing them that unrequited love made you kill yourself.

One of the things that comes through clearly on these covers, and that gets pointed up by the archivist—is that whenever Superman is exercising his authority over his wife or son he looks ecstatic. Like he could imagine nothing better than fucking with Jimmy's homework to show how smart he is, or by making Lois fail to show how strong he is. (Yeah, I know they aren't really his wife or son, but that's how they play so that's what I'll say.)

So the 1950s, if Superdick was any example was a time when men acted tough, but were terrified of competition at work and terrified of the changes in women's roles, They compensated for their fears by adopting take-charge be-a-dick attitudes. These, truly, are the "family values" that so many conservatives hunger for. But what happened to Supes after the 50s, was he still a dick?

Well, no. No he wasn't. The 60s were, as the saying goes, a time of upheaval. Authority—especially masculine authority—was ridiculed and distrusted. So witness the ridiculous Superman of the late sixties, when authority was severely untrustworthy. And just kind of weird. Without a solid idea of authority, he just floundered. While the culture at large was experimenting with drugs, free love and the whole hippie thing Superman was constantly getting dosed with bizarre variants of kryptonite that resemble nothing so much as a serier of bad trips.

The seventies Superman who was always exploring, discovering and on "far-out" trips. Wondering where he'd come from. While the 1970s Lois was examining America's new social conscience.

In the 80s Superman was relaunched twice. Once when John Byrne retconned him (a comics neologism for "retroactive continuum," in essence the entire history of the comic was reset to day zero, and the series restart entirely.) and another time after DC had their mega Crisis on Infinite Earths event, which simplified the chaotic and muddy continuum of all of their books. Did masculinity get a re-launch and retcon in 80s? Was that where yuppie-dom and all of the short-sighted "greed is good" and "Me Generation" bullshit came from?

As Americans we have a notriously poor memory for history. So the relaunch of Superman makes perfect sense to us. History is messy, boring, complicated. Why not just reset the whole thing? I'm sure many americans would love that. Get rid of the embarassments of the past, of our hundreds of years of exploitation and general dickishness. The retcon/reset/relaunch of Superman is what happens when a new writer looks back on the horrible past of Superman and just says Fuck It. I don't care. Which pretty accurately describes the actions of the Reagan Democrats in the 80s.

In the nineties, the state of Superman was in flux. He was always being: reinvented, dying, growing his hair long and essentially going through the same mid-life crisis that the Boomers were going through. He even had a big arc called "identity crisis," just to spell it out nice and clear. Was his death and rebirth in the mid-ninties symbolic of a death and rebirth of masculinity? Probably not, but it's fun to say. And it does dovetail with the rise of the Christian Evangelicals, the Promise Keepers, Newt Gingrich's Contract with America.

Now, in the 21st century, we have a new Superman tv show: Smallville. Culturally we are in a period glorifying children and youth. But on Smallville, Clark isn't Superman yet. He hasn't developed that far, hasn't earned it. He doesn't believe in himself enough to be a hero. And he lacks role models.

What if I have the correlation backwards? What if it isn't popular ideas of masculinity and authority that influence Superman's character and stories, but what if the stories written for him shape us as men (again talking to my XY brothers here). What happens then?

Since the 1930s there have been men somewhere in America writing the story of Superman, sometimes a dozen men at a time working furiously and against crushing monthly or daily deadlines. Men either knowing or unknowingly shaping our ideas of what it is to be a man. Did they know what they were really doing?

If it were up to you to write the future of masculinity, to pick up a pen or lay fingers on a keyboard and inscribe the future on every Y chromosome, What would you write? What ideal would men live up to, if you could write it? Could you do it, or would the pressure be too much?

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