We’re in the third year of the New 52 and the second Man of Steel movie is coming down the pike, so this contemporary incarnation of Superman probably isn’t going away any time soon. It’s even beginning to show up in the merchandise and marketing, fighting for shelf-space with the classic Superman look. It’s still Red Pants on fruit snacks and party supplies, but Tin-Plated Tights is making headway with the toys and vidya games. If this were comics, they’d call this a “Clash of Titans” …
I didn’t expect it to bother me, to be honest, my interest in modern mainstream comics is nil and I’m not skint on older material which I can happily revisit if needed. A few months back, though, Target had a Justice League banner on display featuring the new52 incarnations of the characters and Superman in his molybdenum onesie, the first time I saw the new costume “in the wild”. It made my heart ache.
There’s an inarticulate and histrionic type in fandom who scream “my childhood has been raped!” every time their pre-adolescent idols are changed in the slightest (even if only cosmetically) but while they grate on my nerves with their constant sense of outrage and surprise, I also sympathize with them. They’re confronting an unfortunate mortal reality, possibly for the first time, that one day they will have to leave the room and their exit may go unnoticed.
It’s a reality of growing older – the next generation will have their own popular music, their own movies and books, ethics and culture. They’ll pave over our favorite stuff, cherry-picking a few things from the previous generation but mostly starting from scratch. All the perfect versions of important ideas which we carry around in our heads will be overwritten by the next generation’s perfect visions of important ideas, just like we did to the generation before us, and somewhere in there you confront the idea “Will anyone even miss me when I’m dead?”
Of course, this generation AND ours are being served by corporations, the only entity we “allow” to create the official canon of what we arguably ought to consider folk tales. This makes the changes all the more distinct and oftentimes shocking, because it’s in a corporation’s best interests to revamp whole franchises in a single go, to sidestep and disallow the evolution of an idea. There’s not a lot of looking back and saying “and in this way, Transformers became the story it is today,” but rather you can pinpoint a date on a calendar and say “And this is when the reboot was launched.”
For Superman, the point of the reboot was apparently to make him “cool” (as determined by a passel of middle-aged, middle-class mostly white men, no small percentage of whom keep showing up to publicity events wearing baseball caps, for God’s sake). They had to jettison all the uncool stuff – the red pants, the glasses, the spitcurl. Make him lean, get some alien armor on him, make everything darker, give him a wolf, wolves are cool, I’ve seen ‘em on tee-shirts.
The thing about Superman is I’m not sure he’s supposed to be cool. For all of his power, he stands for the everyman, he represents the underdog; Clark Kent is a working slob, a nine-to-fiver with a crush on the office hottie and still wearing the same sorts of clothes he wore when he was a teenager. He wears glasses, he grew up on a farm. If you want cool, go see Batman, that guy’s in charge of things, he represents authority. Batman’s old money, landed gentry, he’s combing pussy out of his bat-beard, he’s got a sweet ride, even his dog is badass. Batman can afford to be cool. Superman’s dog is a mutt who chases hot dog-shaped promotional blimps, cool isn’t in the cards.
The contemporary incarnation of Superman is familiar to me, even intimate. I remember him, he was the version my friends and I made up when we were in college, staying up til four in the morning to talk nonsense about dumb shit, drunk or high or self-impressed with our own intelligence. We were nineteen years old and embarrassed to like Superman, so we took it upon ourselves to make Superman cool. We got rid of the underpants, darkened his costume, diminished the Clark Kent role, lost the glasses. We made him bleak, decided he would shun human company. We spent hours justifying his super-powers, his flight was telekinetic and sometimes debris would fly alongside him. We tossed out his morality – if he had to kill, well, he had to kill. Lord, we even declared that his costume was Kryptonian armor.
I can prove it, I still have the drawings, only we stopped short of transforming Superdog into a Kryptonian War Hound. Well, sort of – we decided that Comet the Super Horse was now a Kryptonian War Horse. He grazed in the pastures of the Phantom Zone. That was one of mine.
I don’t regret any of those ideas, I’m not even embarrassed by them, but I do recognize that we were missing the point of the character – Superman’s not a shiny new Lamborghini, he’s a Mustang with a squeaky CV joint and leopard print seat covers. It makes him better to let him be imperfect, a little goony, ridiculous, uncool, unfashionable, awkward – like people are, basically, to make him more like us, so we can better imagine what it’s like to be more like him.
All of which is off the table for the foreseeable future, I suppose, if not forever. Superman’s getting Batmanned right now, and you can’t really blame his legal owners for trying to capitalize on the latter character’s success. I can’t think of the last time we went a year without a Batman cartoon on TV or a Batman movie in theaters, or with no line of Batman toys on the racks. Superman’s not been as lucky or persistent in the marketplace over the last three decades – personally, I like to imagine that’s because he’s more successful as an idea than a possession, but I have a feeling that’s one of those perfect concepts I have about the character which will disappear with me down into the dirt someday.
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