“Brief, Disconnected Notes On An American Mythology
I’m not a superhero fan. I had to learn the subgenre when I began writing for the States. I’ve had to learn to read them. Now, I can appreciate some of them. Not many, it has to be said… but some. The one I always wanted to like was Superman.
Superman is a uniquely American icon, and the first true myth of the electronic age. One special facet to it is that it began as a myth told to children by children. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster were youths when they created Superman, a far cry from today’s handful of twentysomethings and carloads of middle-aged men who give today’s children their superheroes.
(Perhaps this is why, to me, a strong adult atory told with Superman would seem curiously inappropriate — and, conversely, the 20th Century social nightmare given inky form that is The Batman seems to me strangely inappropriate as figure of children’s tales.)
Superman, then, is the agent of modern fable — the most compelling fable the 20th Century gave us. Soap opera is unworthy of him, and, as has been proved many times, is not big enough to contain him and the central concepts of his story. At the heart of myth and legend is Romance. That is not the same as the weak, whiny demands of soap opera that begin with “characterisation” and crap on with demands for ever more levels of “conflict”, “jeopardy”, “ensemble writing”, “tight continuity” and all the rest of that bollocks. These things are unimportant. Many of them just completely get in the way of the job at hand. SUPERMAN requires only the sweep and invention and vision that myth demands, and the artistry and directness and clean hands that Romance requires.
SUPERMAN is about someone trying their best to save the world, one day at a time; and it’s about that person’s love for that one whose intellect and emotion and sheer bloody humanity completes him. It’s about Superman, and it’s about Lois and Clark. And that’s all there is. That’s the spine. That must be protected to the death, not lost in a cannonade succession of continuing stories.
That’s what, in the continuing rush to top the last plotline, I see getting lost.
I understand, accept and even to an extent agree with what’s going on; The SUPERMAN creators are trying to keep the books vital, keep them moving, keep those sales spikes coming. But they seem to me to be getting away from the sheer wonder of the Superman myth.
(The single title that does seem to be hewing to the line I’ve just scratched in the sand is Mark Millar’s charming and energetic SUPERMAN ADVENTURES.)
What SUPERMAN must avoid is genericism. It must live up to its billing. The comics must crackle with invention and mythic power. They must always resolutely be of Now, be utterly modern — if not utterly of Tomorrow. They must thrill and frighten and inspire and give us furiously to think.
Crucially, they must not simply offer us a parade of costumes and odd single name/titles. There must be stories where something important is at stake. Something worth saving, be it the life of a human, the soul of a city, the fate of a world, or the future of a child.
Mike Carlin always characterises the ongoing thrust of the Superman titles as the “Never-Ending Battle”. Those battles must have stakes beyond those of smacking about this month’s new costume with an odd name.
(Superman tackles natural disaster and human crime. It’s his belief that nothing else falls within his purview. War and the politics of famine, he feels, are part of human government, and so not his place. He will not interfere in the growth of the human race, as much as it sometimes breaks his heart.
He merely, obliviously, shows the human race, by example, how to be great.)
Now, it may not surprise you to learn that, well, I think this is a crock of shit!!! Time to overstate my case!!!
The only mythical figure any superhero bears any resemblance to is Sisyphus–a dude who didn’t really come into his own until the existentialists got a hold of him around the same time that Superman was created.
What’s all this drama-queen ranting about “Romance” and battles with huge stakes? Come on! Either you die, or you wake up tomorrow and add a day’s worth of experiences to the treasure chest of your life. And superheroes aren’t any different from you. If modernity has taught
us anything, it’s that no icon stays in place without the aid of a discursive power play (no wonder Geoff Klock is so fond of discussing Ellis in the same breath as Harold Bloom!). And here we have our confirmation–right John, Dave, and J.W.?–Warren Ellis is a reactionary!
Our “Heroes” are always in motion–there’s no way to get a glimpse of them in their essence by pulling away the rug of “melodramatic incident”–“Superman” is everything that ever happened to the character (or will happen to him)–nothing more, nothing less.
Superheroes were made for soap opera–in fact, I would suggest that it’s the only appropriate way to make use of these figures!! Soap Opera is twentieth century romance! Hawthorne (Blithedale), Melville (The Confidence Man), and (especially!) Dickens transmuted the Romance from a teleological form into a cyclical one. Pulp (or “pulpish”) modernists like Hammett, Chandler, West, Hemingway, Dawn Powell, S.V. Benet, etc. pushed this insight further–and the superhero genre is the apogee of “epic episodicity”. At their best, these are the greatest “hymns to process” ever created! Sure, the Golden Age heroes were tinged by questy Knights of the Round Table-style Romance, but Marvel blasted that clean off of the genre in the sixties, and DC quickly followed suit. This is where Morrison (and Gruenwald before him) differs most strongly from the other great (superhero) writers of our time (Moore, Miller, Ellis, I guess, etc.)–Morrison’s narrative thrust is always centrifugal, while the rest of the “superheroes for adults” masterpieces have operated centripetally.
Good Afternoon Friends!