Apr 25, 2012

What can Superman teach you about writing?

What can they teach you about writing? Anniversary Edition
Read Part One HERE

Part Two:

My mother worried that I, her impractical son who wanted to be a writer, might not survive in this dog-eat-dog world.
Joe’s mother worried, too, about the future of Joe who as a child had drawn pictures on the bedroom wall and wanted to be an artist.
— Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman

The original Superman was a villain.
With great power comes great willingness to abuse it. Among the traits that make Superman truly super, you’ll find his humility and self-control. He’s no braggart, nor is he a chump -- Clark’s human parents did a good job, as far as comic-book parents go.

Mind you, being a parent in a comic book is one of the most dangerous occupations ever, especially if your child is super-powered. I guess Smallville is so utterly boring a place -- why, it might even be the fictional American equivalent of Weston-super-mare -- that no super-villain would want to go there. But I shall rein in my rambling pen/keyboard/bag of screeching weasels and proceed with the subject at hand, which is Superman.

Superman was created in the 1930s, a time of social turmoil and international unrest, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Like Captain America, he would enjoy the pleasure of punching Hitler in the face.

Superman is an alien that looks like a human being, so he dresses up like one of us to further the illusion that he is one of us. As Bill observes in Kill Bill before Bill is killed, Batman and Spiderman have to put on masks in order to be recognized as Batman and Spiderman, but Supes needs to take off his own mask for people to acknowledge his godlike persona.

There’s one major problem with Superman -- yes, you guessed it. Too much power, too few limitations. Which is why kryptonite, the one element that can harm Kal-el, has over the years been unfolded into an appalling number of varieties. It’s like feature creep, except with imaginary metals or rocks or crystals or whatever kryptonite is supposed to be.

I’ll be honest with you, Superman is the hero I love to hate. He’s too good, too perfect, and way too easy to write as a Divine Boy Scout. But that doesn’t mean we can’t all learn a lot from him. Superman is a test for writers, as it’s damn hard to write a good Superman story, let alone a brilliant one.

Some have got what it takes.

So, what can Superman teach you about writing a story, novel or play?

As usual, we’re going to look at symbols and semiotics. Not just because it’s fun, no no no. You see, the more you know about symbols, the more you understand that symbols are an indispensable part of any good writer’s arsenal.

The Colors

Why is Superman’s hair black?

Black is wisdom. It is also connoted with imperial power. The undeniable connection between Superman and the temptations of empire is explored in the landmark graphic novel Red Son, in which the Superman we know and love is reimagined as a Soviet superhero. Eventually, Superman becomes a benevolent dictator and fixes all that is wrong with the world. Lex Luthor holds out as president of a beleaguered United States, a capitalist wreck of a country[1] which finds itself running out of allies faster than you can say “metahuman cold war.”[2]

Art by Alex Ross

Note that the shield worn by an older,
wiser Superman as first seen in Kingdom Come
does away with the color yellow. 

More black represents added wisdom and

 Why does he wear a blue suit?

Blue is connoted with truth -- and now overwhelmingly associated with the male gender.

In his Dictionary of Literary Symbols, Michael Ferber writes that “blue is traditionally the color of heaven, of hope, of constancy, or purity, of truth, of the ideal (…).” Ferber goes on to explain that, to the ancient Greeks, blue was the color of mourning -- so it might be said that blue-clad Superman wears funereal blue to honor his ancestors, long turned to dust.

Why is the S-shield red on yellow?

Red is a martial color, whereas yellow is jovial. Whatever is martial comes from the god Mars, and what’s jovial, solar, energetic, comes from Jupiter. The god, not the planet.

We now turn to John Michael Greer’s Encyclopedia of the Occult, which tells us the Yellow Ray was the third of the Seven Rays, which were (are?) the basic creative energies of the universe. “[I]t corresponds to the Buddhist concept of ‘skilful means,’ the adaptation of all available resources in the quest for enlightenment,” writes the Archdruid of the AODA.

When you put all the colors together, what do they mean?

Blue is dominant -- therefore, if blue stands for ‘truth,’ then that is Superman’s dominant semiotic/ideographic motif.
Red is too prominent in the god-hero’s Kryptonian[3] threads but, to speak plainly, without all that red, Superman might look something like this:

Dr. Fate: Great character, terrible costume.

By combining the three primary colors I discussed above, Superman’s iconic figure embodies truth (blue), forceful action (red) and longevity (yellow). He is the Icarus that cannot die. Superman flies under his own power, and closeness to the sun only makes him more powerful. The cape doesn’t melt like wax, you know.   

A Superman Is Known 
by the Company He Keeps

Cover to the Trinity graphic novel. Art by Matt Wagner.

Superheroes are cosplay for the gods in your mind. These vast, mysterious and obsessive forces haven’t really gone away; they just change the way a dead body sinks into the earth and new life blossoms from decomposing matter.

Superman is part of an informal trinity, something which people who don’t read comics may not be aware of. Anyone with more than a passing interest in mythology will recognize the gods wearing these masks.

Superman: Apollo, Zeus, Hercules, Osiris/Lazarus, Marduk
Wonder Woman: Diana, Artemis, Tana, Athena/Minerva, with a sprinkling of Atalanta, Sekhmet, Ninhursag
Batman: Pluto/Hades, Mercury/Vulcan, Dionysus, Erra, Nergal  

The Greek Diana was a moon-goddess who, like so many others, had the stars for companions. Now, let’s take a closer look at Wonder Woman’s uniform.


Batman pretty much lives in a cave. Forget the mansion. The Wayne mansion means nothing. If Batman could, he’d do away with the mansion altogether. Batman is subterranean. Like Hades, he’s got all he needs underground… Except for a Persephone. Methinks there’s only one woman for Batman, and she hasn’t been written yet.

And Superman, he flies: how paradoxical, this biped who is not bound to the Earth, who defies gravity.

In the end, Superman is a deity in fancy dress. His Apollonian connection with the sun is more than explicit. The Osirian undercurrent was finally confirmed in the 1990s when he died and came back from the dead. Yeah, yeah, he was just thrown into some kind of Kryptonian hibernation. I call shenanigans. The original storyline was called “Death of Superman,” not “Superman’s Restful, Two-Year Nap Among the Seemingly Dead.”

Superman died and came back from the underworld. This is a resurrection story. In fact it is the resurrection story we’ve been telling for a few thousand years and there’s no glossing over that.

The Superman-Batman-WW triad echoes the old pagan trinity, that of the Goddess and her two children/consorts:

  • Superman is the sun-god, summer, harvest, the fruitful half of the year
  • Batman is the elder god of death, the seed slumbering under packed snow, the barren half of the year, presiding over waning days and waxing nights
Together, they’re Wonder Woman’s symbolic ‘husbands,’ as neither Superman nor Batman fully represent the divine male aspect. They must vie for the Goddess’s affections together, because day/night/death/resurrection can only exist as pairs. 

Art by Alex Ross

“Superman obeys the Talmudic injunction to do good for its own sake and heal the world where he can. 
Siegel and Shuster had created a mythic character who reflected their own Jewish values.”
— Blair Kramer

It's no accident that artists so often depict Superman holding up the Daily Planet globe.
Superman is the twentieth-century Atlas

Alt-Supermen or,
How I Learned to Stop Worrying
and Love Me a Superman Clone

Apollo & Midnighter

Apollo’s name is self-explanatory. His body, like Superman’s, works as a solar battery. Apollo can also fly; cleave a Skyrim mammoth in two with an energy blast (OK, I made that up); and punch the hell out of whatever needs getting the hell punched out of it. ...What an utterly dreadful sentence that was. Let us forget about it.  

Midnighter shares Batman’s fixation on fighting crime one shovel hook at a time -- he’s mostly a guy who thinks with his fists. Or batons. Whatever. He punches a lot of people and seems to enjoy it. What can I say? Ah! I know. “Loose cannon.” “Psycho.” “Danger to himself and others.”

Being married to each other, Apollo/Midnighter take the Superman/Batman bromance to the next logical level. Apolloman and Batnighter need and complement each other like day and night, light and dark… You know this dichotomy, you’ve seen it a million times.

The Sentry

Did I just hear someone say "knockoff"? No?
Maybe just my imagination, then.

Left: Art by Adi Granov.
Right: Art by Jae Lee and José Villarrubia.

The most powerful being in the Marvel Universe, Robert Reynolds, is afraid to set a foot outside the house. Whatever’s still human about the Sentry is afraid of all the power he wields.

One major difference between the Sentry and Superman is that the Sentry suffers from comic-book style dissociative identity disorder. His other personality is the Void. Now there’s an interesting parallel with Clark Kent -- because Clark is a blank of Superman’s creation. Clark is performance art. Clark is a character created by a character. Chew on that for a second. His name might as well be Blank Kent.

(And if Superman’s hard to write, Kent is even harder.)  

Dr. Manhattan

Art by Dave Gibbons

The ultimate almighty sad sack who is as fascinating as he is insufferable. He treats his wife like shit because, let’s face it, given his mental and matter-bending powers, she’s no better to him than a housebroken gerbil. Which is pretty darn bleak.

Manhattan is something of an indictment on Superman and the whole concept of superhumans. It is hard for most human beings to empathize with, and even harder to recognize personhood in non-humans.

Size matters. When something is smaller than you, somehow it seems less important. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about killing a cockroach.

From Manhattan’s point of view, we are all cockroaches. So he moves to Mars where the collective chattering of mankind won’t bother him. How wonderful for the rest of us.   


Art by Alex Ross

I know it was Alan Moore's idea, but...
Counterparts for Krypto & Supergirl?
Too much. Too much. 

When the supremely awful Rob Liefeld invited Alan Moore to write his Superman knock-off, Moore said, “Welp, you just have to realize your comic’s not very good to being with.” The English pen-mage would only work on Supreme if he could chuck out everything that had been done with the character.

Unsurprisingly, Moore’s run did much to elevate Supreme’s status as a fictional character. Not difficult, if you consider that Supreme’s standing before that was less than zero, at least to this writer.

And if you think I’m being mean, that’s because you’ve never suffered through a Rob Liefeld comic.

These super-powered characters show you just how wrong an omnipotent being can go. No less important, the stories they appear in serve as proof that silliness is a very, very hard thing to avoid when the rules of your fictional universe are too flexible and loose.


More power to you, Lois! I'd rather kiss Dracula, too!
Or drink a four-pint jug of Treponema pallidum!

On comic-book parenting: Batman’s parents were terrible, wandering the grimy backstreets of Gotham looking to get themselves killed. They got their wish. Spiderman’s were even more terrible: they died before Spiderman readers, and Peter Parker for that matter, even got to meet them.

How awful is that? Not as awful as Donald Duck’s harebrained (duck-brained?) progenitors, who abandoned a poor lonely egg by the roadside, which would later be picked up by Donald’s… uncle?

Where in hell do Huey, Dewey and Louie come from, and what exactly makes them Donald’s nephews? By the way, Donald has a sister called Dumbella, who ships off her ducklings and then simply forgets about them. Or -- this is more likely -- all the writers and animators at Disney forgot about Dumbella because a) Dumbella is obviously a single-use moniker and b) Back in the 1930s everyone was either drunk, crazy, or both. I mean, watch a couple of episodes of Boardwalk Empire and you’ll see what things were ramping up to.

On Kryptonite: If you pay too much attention to these things you wake up one morning, it’s 6 degrees centigrade and raining outside, your cat is dead and your vegan girlfriend took off with a wall-eyed Colombian pool cleaner. None of which has happened to me, but never, ever put your fannish tastes ahead of a human being who loves you. 

Happy 45th Anniversary, Superman! by Jerry Siegel ||  The aptly-named Superman Supersite || Wayne Boring, the definitive Superman artist

[1] I’m not making a political point, I’m summarizing the plot. That’s all.
[2] But why? Why would you want to say “metahuman cold war”? More importantly, can you say it in mixed company without advertising yourself as an environmental hazard?
[3] Microsoft Word didn’t recognize the word Kryptonian. I thought coders & software developers were all supposed to be comic-book fans! Ach, my faith in humanity is hereby diminished.

Another breathtaking tableau from Kingdom Come. Go and get the damn thing already.

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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