March 29, 2005

What ever happened to the heroes?

The original wool outfit worn by George Reeves on the black-and-white episodes of The Adventures of SupermanThe question is more than just the name of a cool old song by "The Stranglers". Every so often, I wonder where our heroes come from and where they go when their stewards pass on.

I think I have been a fan of fantasy and sci-fi almost since I was old enough to read. This is where my mythical heroes first tended to come from. Batman was the first Superhero comic book I remember reading back around 1972. As I grew up, Batman's simple toughness, lack of super powers, and driven humanity appealed to me more than some big-time invulnerable superhero. I felt gypped by Superman. I couldn't relate to him and I resented him a little, mostly because he was so all-powerful. However, as I got older and was exposed to more Superman through television and then through Action and Superman comics, I began to appreciate him more.

I also learned about other God-like beings from older mythic stories, or from other modern fiction. Everything comes from something else - there is no true originality - nothing is created in a vacuum. By the time I was 12, I began to understand the parallel between Superman and Jesus Christ. The famous 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve made this theme apparent to me when Marlon Brando's Jor-El says "and that is why I have sent you, my only son." There is a resonance in this modern mythic superhero, kind of how the exploits of Hercules must have thrilled readers thousands of years ago.

A 1998 book called Superman: The Complete History does a wonderful job of illustrating the genesis of this character and his development over the past 60 years, but also brings the subject down to earth, describing the humans behind the character, and showing reincarnations in various commercial media.

Originally created by Toronto-born artist Joe Shuster and Cleveland-born writer Jerry Siegel, Superman is probably the most globally-recognized modern fictional hero around today. This fame and success did not come overnight however. "The Complete History" describes in detail how the teenage duo of Shuster and Siegel spent years unsuccessfully trying to get their favourite creation published as a newspaper strip and then as a comic book. During this time, Shuster and Siegel's original concept underwent continual refinement and rethinking. The idea evolved from a somewhat Nietzchean idea of "The Superman", a human adventurer with superior intellect and indomitable willpower (but who is still otherwise a human being), to a version based more in science fiction, where Superman is actually from another world - part of a race of highly advanced beings with great physical powers. In this version, the baby (originally unnamed and later called Kal-L) descended to Earth in a spaceship to become the world's greatest protector and hero.

(Over the years, the character Batman seemed to boast more Nietzchean qualities, being credited with an indomitable will, keen intellect, powers of deduction, and also being a perfect physical specimen, expert martial artist, etc.)

Humanity and Superhumanity

What I find the most interesting about the history of the Superman character are the stories of the humanity and frailties of the people connected to him. I don't want to short-change the incredible contributions of later Superman artists including Curt Swan, John Byrne, or Alex Ross, but I've decided to focus more on the TV and movie incarnations here, although "Superman: The Complete History" deals with representations of the Man of Steel equally well in almost all media.

With the death of actor Christopher Reeve in 2004, we were reminded of the tenuous connection between humanity and superhumanity. We watched while the actor replaced his physical strengths with what seemed like an invulnerable will to survive and rehabilitate, and were inspired as he created greater awareness and funding for spinal chord research. Robin Williams said of his friend that he went from being Superman to being Buddha.

A previous generation went through their own evaluation of the line between man and myth when Superman actor George Reeves died under mysterious circumstances in 1959. "The Complete History" describes Reeves' fame as Superman, his frustration at how the role had limited his acting career, and how he had devoted himself to living up to the part, for the sake of his young fans.

Once, when onstage as Superman, a young fan pointed a pistol at Reeves with the intention of seeing a bullet bounce off Superman's invulnerable chest. Reeves convinced the kid to put the gun down by calmly telling him that the ricocheting bullet might hurt someone. That's a heroic move in itself.

It disturbed me to see closeups of George Reeves tattered and slightly marked-up Superman costume. It underscored the travails of a normal man who had probably done his best to keep a fantasy alive. Closeups of Christopher Reeve's Superman costume look similarly down-to-earth.

Maybe the seemingly-super fabric looks so plain because we really want the cotton to stay pulled over our eyes, like how a child idolizes a parent, elevating them above all others, only to later discover their human weaknesses, like going through your Dad's closet and discovering his secret identity, but realizing too late that the costume had been the only thing stopping those bullets the whole time.

It's difficult to take the first time the fantasy breaks down in the face of real life. All the same, we try to believe that a man or woman can fly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I dug the Stranglers song way back when. A buddy of mine and me really liked the invocation of the old lefties like Trotksy. He ended up dead in Nicaragua. That was 20 years ago. I think of him when I hear that song. That's what heroes are about: lost dead souls whose lives are no longer subject to the drudgery of the everyday routine. Angels really.

Good blog dude but don't be afraid to get an attitude. It's a way of standing out from the crowd.