Character Spotlight: Defending Superman

Hey everyone, Flobo here!

As it is one of my more visited posts, most people who read this blog know how much I DISLIKE the Caped Crusader  in Batman, click the link to allow me to count the ways. Today (since I’m such a DC comic junkie) I want to do the Herculean Task in defending the Man of Steel while discussing what it all means for your writing. Ready? Let’s do this.

Superman’s new “Relaunch” costume is amazing. It kind of makes forget about his red undies..

When most people (especially those who are not comic fans) think of the word “superhero” (Sidenote: A joint trademark from DC Comics as well as Marvel) they think of Superman, or a variation thereof. You know, super strength, flight, and a cool costume is all part of spectacle. Seriously, a web image search for the word superhero yields a bunch of Superman Clones. The Reader’s Digest version of the story goes like this: Last son of a dying planet, young Kal-El is shipped to Earth Moses-style and is adopted by a young couple living on a farm in Smallville Kansas. There, after learning about the customs of his adopted home-world, he becomes Superman in his adult age, a champion for the people he’s sworn to protect. He’s got strength, speed, invulnerability, ice breath, heat vision, and a moral code that we all could look up to. He was all about truth, justice, and the American Way!

And all was well.

Ask a comic book fan (or any fan of entertainment) about “Supes” and they would roll their eyes. “He’s too goody-goody,” I would hear some say. “He doesn’t get hurt,” others would chime in.

The latter isn’t quite true, because classically Superman was vulnerable to kryptonite as well as magic, and this doesn’t include the limitations lead inflicts on his X-ray vision (or a red sun on his powers wholesale). You could argue that Superman’s popularity came with the public’s perception of the country of which he landed. In the golden and silver age of comics, public opinion of the USA was pretty positive. We were established as a World Power, and the era of Pax Americana was in full swing. The conflict in Vietnam started a change with the public questioning our leaders about the decisions the government made. Of course this wasn’t the first time John Q. Public had issues with Uncle Sam, but  this was the television age (before the Internet and Social Media) where dissenting opinion could be broadcasted nationwide. What happened to media in general was that there was more and more cynicism added to the works of the day. For the record I’m not saying this is a “bad” thing, but for example “Taxi Driver” would NEVER would have been made as a television movie to follow “Leave It To Beaver”. Comics were no different, and we saw a rash of new characters with flaws and challenges that made Superman look like a cartoon character in comparison. The public at large were aware of the legend but didn’t find him “relatable”. It would be like trying to convert people into worshiping Zeus all over again. Guys and dolls raised eyebrows  at the “American Way”.

Another Superpower: Breaking Up large blocks of text

I think the people at DC Comics are trying to remedy this problem in the new line of Superman comics, but don’t take this post as an outright advertisement or anything like that. To me, there’s always something about Superman that people tend to overlook. Here is a child that got shipped to a far off land, and not only was he accepted by the public, he became a hero and role model for the denizens of Metropolis. This hits home for me as a first-generation American. Contrary to popular belief, America is the land of opportunity, but not promises. Success is not guaranteed, but I always pulled from Superman’s journey to “the top” as a sign of the possibility of social mobility in this country. Beyond that, Superman is damn near invulnerable but his struggle is more about how much influence does he inflict on the people he protects. You show up to handle every single conflict, and people depend on you to handle all of their problems. Do the opposite and pull back completely, and folks will lose faith (if not succumb to the situation at hand).  In the cartoon “Justice League”, Superman was chided by his teammates for not trusting them to handle a crop of bad guys, where as good ‘ol Supes claimed that his invulnerability served as the best “human shield” for the brunt of most attacks.

You just can’t win.

As a writer, one of my many challenges I have to do deal with is making heroes and villains entertaining. In the case of Batman, I would say it is very easy to write a story for a vigilante who puts on a cape because his parents death made him all weepy. Superman, from a writer’s standpoint is a tad more interesting. The questions I ask (What can bring down a superhuman? How much force should he use? How to make an entertaining story without destroying the character’s integrity?) are intriguing jumping off points, especially the former. Superman is prime to be one of my favorite character types in that he could be an  anti-villain. It’s one of the hardest types to pull off, but I think those kinds of stories are the most interesting. Having a character doing something that is considered good, but having other characters react to it as if it were evil is the stuff magic is made of. There are some comics that follow this route, and those are the most engaging. Then as a writer, to be able to turn that back on the audience, (e.g. showing how flawed their moral codes are) would just make me giddy. It’s always your goal as a writer to offer some sort of spectacle for someone’s hard earned cash, and that is definitely one way to do it.

For those of you who write characters in a series, we’ve talked before about making your characters “evolve” throughout each volume. In essence, your main characters have to “grow” or change. Sometimes however, after a couple of entries your characters may become “too big for their britches” and a reboot (or “back to basics” or “life-altering event”) is necessary. Like the creative teams on Superman, you are going to have to decide which aspects of your characters you want to keep, and which new elements you want to introduce to keep your heroes and your stories fluid.

Just don’t forget to remove the red underwear…

As always everyone, Happy Writing.

–Flobo