May 2, 2012

What can Superman's Friends and Foes teach you about writing?

What can they teach you about writing?Anniversary Edition, Part 3 
Read Parts One and Two

Part Three
Fake Supermen, Real Enemies, 
and Lois Lane, Who is Insane

Superman has been around for a long time – 3, 4 generations or so. How does a character stay popular for that long? I mean, why Superman and not The Shadow?

Change. Change is the reason. Superman has evolved and found ways to stay fresh. I have my Superman, you have yours, and ten-year-old kids will have their Superman which is unlike yours and mine but still recognizable.

Superman has found himself reflected on a dozen shattered mirrors. Let’s pick up some of those shards right now, shall we?

Top, left to right: Eradicator version 1, Eradicator version 2, Steel (John Henry Irons)
Bottom, left to right: Cyborg Superman, Ultraman

True Disciples, 
or just Pretenders to the Superthrone?

When a god-king dies, there’s the problem of succession. Following the Death of Superman, several challengers stepped up to the plate: Eradicator, Cyborg Superman, Superboy and Steel.

Last week, I pointed out the symbolic importance of color in Superman’s outfit. Note that each alt-Superman conveys different meanings through the language of color.

Eradicator & Cyborg Superman aren’t true blue. The first version of the Eradicator, before he eschewed the 4-color scheme for a striking black & red look, had to wear protective yellow specs as he was too sensitive to yellow sunlight. Which is to say that, metaphorically, he couldn’t handle the truth, nor could he see the world as it really was. His sight was impaired. Readers would soon learn that the Eradicator was a sentient machine which at times believed it was Superman.

The cyborg also begins with a little more blue in his outfit until black and red overtake his color scheme.

So in both cases we have black (wisdom or knowledge) and red (egotism, aggression, vitality) conquering the tempering influence of blue. Remember what you read last week? Blue stands for truth.

Without the balancing powers of the color blue, all we have is calculated, violent action. The means justify the ends and all that. Now, what major power was it that decked its elite corps in red & black?

Moving on.

Bizarro is just silly.

This is where Bizarro lives, just because.

Superboy is too boring to exist. Let's just forget about him.

The Superman depicted in Red Son, however, was anything but boring.

Steel (John Henry Irons) was another pretender to the throne while Superman hibernated. [Read: “was dead and buried.” Literally.]

Of all the quasi-Supermen, Steel appeared to be the most concerned with truth and justice, although his character biography states he was a scientist who developed an extremely powerful weapon and then worried about it falling into the wrong hands. From the Wikipedia article: “[John Henry Irons] eventually became disgusted when the BG-60, a powerful man-portable energy cannon he had designed, fell into the wrong hands and was used to kill innocent people.

Because killing non-innocent people is totally cool. You know, there was this Canadian weapons designer and all he really wanted was to design big huge guns. Like really big and huge. Like ridiculously huge. So ridiculously huge that he ended up working with Saddam Hussein, whom we all agree was a rather unpleasant individual, yes? Whose male children/serial rapist demon-spawn loved to have women dragged kicking and screaming into their black limos?
(Now consider that John Henry Irons was more or less in the same position and you’ll see why I can’t sympathize with the character.)

Anyhow. There’s one way comic-book ethics reflect the real world.
Steel manages to stop the people he was working for, and gets the nod of approval from the Man of Steel himself, so that counts for something.

What else can I say about Steel? Though I find his origin morally repulsive, the character did not deserve that cheapskate, uninspired movie adaptation.

Oh, and as for color, Steel is practically monochrome. This is neither too imaginative nor stimulating, given that Steel was the first ‘canon’ African-American Superman. The original suit design hides his face. Look, dealing with race is as complicated as you’re going to make it. As a white man, I wish no-one had felt the need to obscure/whitewash John Henry Iron’s features. But they did and we’re all a little stupider for it. Never mind that later designs change that.
What Are Enemies For?

Batman’s adversaries all reflect aspects of the hero’s powers and psyche; the same can be said of Superman’s foes.

Superman fights Brainiac.
Lex Luthor & Brainiac

The Modern Age Brainiac is one Vril Dox, whose name is, shall we say, not too distant from Lex Luthor’s.

Let’s see. The pseudo-scientific element and/or medium, Vril, was a kind of Odic force or prana, a vital energy which pervaded all organisms. At any rate, vril is a vitalist concept. Vril is also related to the concept of virile, which is to say manly and vital. Wait, wait -- don’t draw your PC dart gun on me just yet. (I have a PC dart gun too; I call her Josephine.[1] So as you see we are all friends here.)

“Dox” reminds me of that funny little morpheme in orthodox, heterodox, paradox… Now, as I’m sure you know, “dox” comes from doxa, the Greek word for belief or popular opinion which, at one point – and this is crucial – suffered a shift in meaning and became another word for “glory.”

So Vril Dox is either the “strongly opinionated one” or the “manly/virile opinion,” i.e., an intellectual force that will brook no opposition.

This is the connection between Brainiac and Luthor. It’s not just that both like to wear invidious green and imperial purple; it runs deeper than that.

Let’s take a moment to consider Lex’s name now. Lex is Latin for law. Luthor points directly to Martin Luther, the reformer.

Lex is anything but a conformist. He is, in fact, an advocate of radical reform and his program for social transformation includes –surprise, surprise– a world without Superman. A world without popes or alien godlings.

Obviously, as Luthor exists in a shared universe, some writers will portray him as outright villainous, while others will give him more nuance. But it may be that Lex Luthor is the greatest hero in the DC Universe, fighting to liberate mankind from the moral tyranny of a self-appointed savior. As Luthor’s reasoning goes, while Superman is around people will be lazy and complacent, expecting Big Blue to solve their problems for them.

At the very least Luthor is an awesome bad guy. That alone is worth something.

Both Lex Luthor and Vril Dox/Brainiac are hyper-intellectual and plugged into an incomprehensibly vast datastream. One is human, the other certainly not, but they are both thinking machines. Their favorite tactic, at least in the Modern Age of Comic Books, is playing mind games with their greatest foe, Superman.

Kal-El is the perfect, and perfectly moral man of action; Luthor and Dox are perfect super-intellectual and amoral men of thought.


The alien Doomsday is Superman without a conscience; without an intellect, even. But there are other parallels: They are both orphans and refugees. Superman’s home world is no more, yet he was lucky enough that he was raised by a loving family. Doomsday, however, is the ultimate reject. Designed to be an unstoppable killing machine, he can’t claim kinship with anyone. There is no “Doomsday species” out there. The guy can’t even speak.


Ultraman hails from an antimatter universe. He is powered by kryptonite. Ultraman heads the literal opposite of the Justice League, which he calls the Crime Syndicate of America. The Crime Syndicate’s motto is Cui bono? (“Who profits?”)

Superman would turn into Ultraman if he turned his back on the world and used his power to exploit rather than protect it.

Lois Lane
The Sad, Sad Plight of Women in Comics

Kate Beaton's take on Lois as ruthless career woman.
Click here to read the rest of the comic.

Lois Lane is SuperWoman. I’ll be damned if I can remember where I read it, but there’s a story where Superman ponders the relative merits of the two, ahem, marriageable ladies who are closest to him. To the best of my recollection, Superman’s interior monologue runs something like this:

“Diana may be the most formidable woman I have ever encountered, but Lois is the most compelling.”

Yes. Compelling. That was the word.
And I wonder: Just how good is Superman's memory?

It’s easy to claim that the Silver Age of comics didn’t happen. O frabjous day! O Confuzzling Era of Mods and Gonsters! A thousand schools of idiocy were allowed to flourish and oh, it was truly an aeon for the fabulous.

For example, this happened.
And this.

“And you will have a ‘wife’ and ‘children’!
You will give them the human names of
Transistor, Circuit Breaker and Shitty McPoopyface!”

Worst of all was the way writers handled Lois Lane, especially in her very own title. See, Lois is an independent, resourceful career woman. Lois is as tough as they come. And she dreams big, you know? She’s so fiercely heterosexual that only the most physically powerful male on Earth will qualify as a mate.

Lois is Superman’s equal – what she lacks in brawn, she makes up for in brains.

Except… Except when Silver Age journeymen put her through the meat grinder of collective insanity. I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves:

How ironic! There is no irony anywhere in that statement, Ms. Lang!

Also: "Mrs SUPERMAN???"

Lois, you...

...admirable fruitbat.

Does the horse part look terrified to you? It does to me.


Which says a lot more about Clark than it does about Lois.

To be fair, the Silver Age Superman had toxic waste for brains.


Look, Superman is this super chill dude who flies at superluminal speeds and still bothers to save kittens stuck in trees. His parents are dead, his girlfriend is a werewolf, his cousin rides a super-horse that wants to do X-rated stuff to her, but stuff all works out in the end. The dude abides.

Superman’s like every nerd’s power fantasy, with his Fortress of Solitude (a magical basement) and his screamingly awesome toys.

Superman is Clark Kent. The reason Kent is so awkward around everyone is, well, Kent lacks confidence. I mean, seriously. I do think that Clark Kent is more than an act for Superman. Deep down he wishes he were a klutz. Without Kent in the picture, Superman would be forever stuck in super-mode unable to dial down all that superness. Sounds kind of exhausting, eh?

I could sit here and talk Superman all day long, but --

[1] After this Josephine. Because I didn’t want to leave you wondering.

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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