Posts Tagged superheroes

A dream of flying

Miracleman 2014 #1This week I got to read the first chapter of a truly legendary comic (insert cliche story hook here).

Imagine two of the greatest comics writers pouring their twisted genius into an epic tale, one that redefines what people think about superheroes. Yet the story is lost, and never finished.

Miracleman is that book. A revival of a British superhero from the 1950s (originally called Marvelman, and based on Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel), the title was resurrected by Alan Moore in 1982, and passed on to Neil Gaiman before its publisher went broke.

More than a decade of legal wrangling ensued, putting Miracleman at the center of an intractable copyright dispute, even by the standards of an industry that seems to thrive on litigiousness.

The battle ended earlier this week when the first reprinted issue–published by Marvel Comics–hit the stands. Gaiman will also get to finish his original story, an event that may be without precedent in the comics world.

So what’s the big deal?

In the Digital Age, it’s rare to be denied access to information or media, but since Miracleman was locked down in the 1990s, it’s been off limits until now.

The feeling was a lot like reading about a new sports car in a magazine, but never being able to drive it.

Any work by Alan Moore (or Neil Gaiman) is worth reading, but Miracleman is legendary because of Moore’s unhinged reconstitution of the superhero. It probably won’t be uplifting (no pun intended) but it promises to be as radical and unusual as anything with panels and word bubbles can be.

It all begins with a man who dreams of flying. For better or worse, that dream is about to become reality once again.

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A Superman for no seasons

Man of Steel posterHopes are high that Man of Steel, which opens today, will do the impossible and be a genuinely good Superman film in the modern sense, but I’m not so sure.

It’s not that I doubt the acting talent of Henry Cavill, or the directing talent of Zach Snyder. I just think they’ve got the wrong Superman.

“What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society intended?” Jor El asks as the camera focuses on a butterfly stuck in the chain of a swing in the trailer. Subtle.

As far as his biological parents are concerned, baby Kal El’s biggest problem won’t be dealing with the reality of being an orphan from a dead world, it will be growing up in one that’s too limiting.

As the trailer continues, the disembodied voice of Jor El encourages his son to be an example for humanity to strive for. How? Humans can’t shoot lasers from their eyes.

Obviously, a character that’s been around as long as Superman is open to interpretation but, so far, this version seems more like an Ayn Rand character than Superman.

The two most important elements of Superman are his powers and his background. The powers are self explanatory, but Man of Steel has changed Superman’s background for the worse.

Yes, he was born on Krypton, but he was rocketed to Smallville, Kansas as an infant. Raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, he was imbued with American values, not Kryptonian ones. He’s just as ignorant as the rest of us, he can just outrun a speeding bullet.

Superman isn’t an alien emissary sent to enlighten humanity; he’s a naturalized immigrant who just happens to have superpowers. He has the same values as the majority of people; he’s just in a position to act on them.

And while Superman has many amazing powers, super philosophy isn’t one of them. Throughout his career, he’s been more than happy to defend the status quo. Remember “Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”

Even in his more rebellious days during the 1930s, Superman’s ideas about social problems tended to conform to his human readers’. His ideas of social justice fit comfortably with FDR’s New Deal, and the only he time he intervened on a global scale to stop a non-super threat was when he dragged Hitler and Stalin to the League of Nations in a bid to prevent World War II (DC probably doesn’t consider this story canon).

In fact, Superman’s passivity has earned him more than a little ridicule from fans. His reputation as the “Big Blue Boy Scout” is so resilient that Frank Miller even turned him into a government lackey in The Dark Knight Returns, blindly following the orders of a Reagan-esque president.

Superman may be the original superhero, but the lack of conflict in his story has made it hard to keep him appealing to comics readers or moviegoers. Forcing Superman to confront the people he protects will definitely add conflict to the story of Man of Steel, but at the expense of his original characterization.

If the movie is anything like the trailer, this new, more alien, self-righteous Superman won’t be a good substitute for the one lifting a car on the cover of Action Comics #1.

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Superman: one blogger’s essential reading list

Action Comics 122 coverSuperman may be the first superhero, but he’s also one of the least popular. From his spit-curled and square-jawed visage to his ability to move faster than a speeding bullet, Superman is the perfect defender of justice. That also makes him perfectly boring.

In an age of sophisticated comics readers, and the wonderfully conflicted and nuanced heroes they demand, the guy known as the Big Blue Boy Scout doesn’t have much to offer.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

Growing up, I always preferred Green Lantern and Batman to Superman, but over the years I’ve found a few great stories that even the most jaded nerd will enjoy.

In honor of the premiere of Man of Steel, here are five depictions of Superman that helped me take him seriously. Hopefully they’ll give you a new appreciation for the Metropolis Kid too.

Superman and StalinSuperman: Red Son

If you’re having trouble taking a guy who wears blue tights and a cape seriously, this might be a good place to start. You don’t have to love Superman to find the idea of turning him into a Soviet dictator entertaining.

In this re-imagined tale, Kal-El’s rocket lands on a Soviet collective instead of the Kents’ farm, leaving him to grow up under the wing of that other Man of Steel, Joseph Stalin.

The concept isn’t just amusing, it’s well-executed. Writer Mark Millar rearranges the entire DC Universe around Superman’s change of allegiance, with tweaked versions of familiar characters both real and historical.

Justice LeagueJustice League

For some reason, DC has always been able to produce great animated versions of its characters. Justice League (and the expanded Justice League Unlimited) is a case in point.

Predictably, Superman becomes the de facto leader of the team, but he actually seems like a good choice for the role. He’s cool and affable, not just a strong man with a rigid Henry Manly-esque sense of honor.

Putting Superman amongst his superhero peers also takes him down a peg. With Batman, Wonder Woman, and others around to question some of his not-so-super judgment calls, we see that the Man of Steel isn’t infallible.

Superman vs Captain MarvelKingdom Come

Like Red Son, Kingdom Come out-of-continuity story, but it’s grimly realistic. In the near future world of Kingdom Come, the perpetual battles between superheroes and supervillains are starting to wear on humanity, and Superman is called on to reign in both sides.

This is Superman when he’s done playing nice; he’s not just enforcing order, he’s creating it. It’s a more serious focus on the character that focuses on the decisions that are normally glossed over in his quest for truth, justice, and the American Way.

If that’s not enough, there’s also spectacular artwork by Alex Ross and an epic fight between Superman and Captain Marvel, which is highly appropriate given the two characters’ intertwined history.

Superman 705 panelSuperman: Grounded

It’s not necessary to read all of Grounded, the last story arc before Superman was redesigned for the “New 52,” just the first four issues. They focus on Superman taking a walk across America, meeting real people and real problems.

After Kryptonian survivors prove they can’t live happily ever after on Earth in War of the Supermen, ordinary humans are starting to resent Kal-El’s presence. After all, even with Superman around, the world is a pretty terrible place. Plus, he causes a lot of collateral damage.

Comics sometimes have trouble addressing real world issues, but Grounded does better than most. It shows the obvious dichotomy between the existential threats that superheroes regularly deal with and the more mundane crimes they often don’t have time for.

Grounded also highlights an important truth about Superman. After rescuing a child from an abusive father (in issue 705), he tells police that the only thing needed to stop the abuse was,someone, anyone, with a pair of eyes, a voice, a phone and ten cents’ worth of compassion.” Like anyone else confronted with such a situation, once Superman knew it was happening, he knew what needed to be done.

Superman’s reflexive do-gooderism can be annoying sometimes, but here it works. We see that Superman has the same sense of right and wrong as most people; he’s just in a better position to act on it.

All-Star SupermanAll-Star Superman

Of course, what really makes Superman great isn’t his corn-fed characterization, it’s his powers. Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman throws out origins and conflicts, and just focuses on Superman using his superpowers to do amazing things.

In this out-of-continuity story, a fatal radiation exposure leaves Superman with one year to live, and he decides to make the most of it. He performs 12 Herculean labors, including answering the Unanswerable Question and curing cancer.

Sometimes it’s nice to see Superman being just, well, super. After all, that’s what made him, and the entire superhero genre, when he first flashed his “S” symbol on the cover of a comic 75 years ago.

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Why a Nietzschean superman values humanity more than humans

Doctor ManhattanIt’s not often that a superior being reminds you about why it’s great to be human. As we wade through our daily lives, we tend to notice the negatives: confusion, irrationality, uncontrolled emotion, physical frailty, the list goes on.

That uniquely human trait known as “consciousness” might seem to override these foibles, but the rise of big data is making it seem like what Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan would call a “highly overrated phenomenon.” Luckily, the Doctor is in.

In Watchmen Manhattan, a super being with God-like control of matter, along with the ability to teleport, fly, and grow into a giant, hides out on Mars after being accused of giving his colleagues cancer. He teleports his former girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter, herself a superhero called the Silk Spector, to Mars to convince him to save humanity. In the end, he convinces himself.

Manhattan sees things on a big scale (he finds erosion entertaining), so he’s more aware than most people of the unlikelihood of a specific human individual coming into existence.

“To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air into gold… That is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle,” Manhattan says. It’s particularly true of Laurie, whose mother had sex with her (absent) father even after he tried to rape her.

The whole speech is very dramatic, and definitely worth a read, but what does this have to do with data?

Sometimes I wonder if people think they can override human uniqueness with data, that if they acquire a large enough sample size, they can accurately predict human behavior.

I made the mistake of going to a psychology lecture in college. The visiting professor, apparently a well-regarded expert in the field, said his experiments had determined the level of autonomy an individual exhibits in a given situation.

I’m not a psychologist, but that seemed a bit odd. Doesn’t extrapolating what people do under controlled circumstances run counter to the nature of, well, autonomy?

Some might point to the wealth of data from uncontrolled circumstances that is available to researchers. Data: A Love Story is about how an Internet trend analyst constructed the ideal online dating profile by data-mining sites, and found herself a fiancee by systematizing her dating preferences.

Since I’m not very good at math, I guess that means I’ll never find true love online. Or maybe the future isn’t that dismal.

It’s true that Netflix can make good movie recommendations, but can an algorithm really account for the infinite number of variables contained within each individual consciousness?

By definition, data tells us what people have already done. As long as they keep doing the same thing (which, admittedly, they probably will) that’s fine. But what happens if someone changes their behavior? Or everyone?

Humans are subject to physical needs and social stimuli, but they are not programmed to act a certain way. As Dr. Manhattan points out, each person is one of a nearly infinite amount of possible combinations. It’s important to remember that.

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Green Arrow loses his sense of humor

More Fun Comics 91Superheroes have conquered the silver screen, something that no one who saw the first Superman movie serials or Captain America starring Matt Salinger thought would ever happen. Joss Whedon and Chris Nolan are the masters of the universe, but where can superheroes go from there? Television of course!

I was very excited for Arrow because it would finally give Green Arrow a little recognition, and because if it turned out to be good, I wouldn’t have to wait two years for another fix. However, it seems like the producers of Arrow are paying too much attention to blockbuster superhero films.

Arrow is dark, literally. Most of the action takes place at night, and the moody lighting means it’s sometimes difficult to see which bad buy “The Hood” (this T.V. Green Arrow needs an image consultant) is pummeling.

It’s not to say that the fights aren’t bad or undramatic, they are just out of character. The comic book Green Arrow (at least the one I know) is a bit more jovial. He’s a peace-loving hippie who cracks jokes, annoys Green Lantern, and has a beard. What happened to that guy?

The new Oliver Queen is scarred (mentally and physically) from his time on a (mostly) deserted island, and is obsessed with a quest for vengeance and redemption.

The television show’s darker Green Arrow is probably the result of an identity crisis. Oliver Queen’s alter ego has always been a rip-off of two characters: Robin Hood and Batman. The Robin Hood parallel goes without saying, and Green Arrow is often described as “Batman with a bow and arrow” because, like Bruce Wayne, he’s a rich guy with no superpowers and a sense of justice.

Arrow’s Ollie tries really hard to be Bruce Wayne. He’s got a secret base in an old warehouse and, like Bruce, he feigns aloofness to distance himself from his alter ego. Ollie may have gone too far, though: Bruce maintained control of his company, giving him resources that could be used in his war on crime. Ollie abdicated in a public display of fake drunkenness.

It’s not surprising that the people writing Green Arrow want him to be more like Batman than Robin Hood; only one of them wears tights. The connection was also downplayed in Green Arrow: Year One, where the costume starts out as a mossy piece of sailcloth that a marooned Ollie wears as a babushka.

So the television Green Arrow is very different from the comic book one. Is he better? I think the change is a bit drastic. Batman works as a dark character because he has always been that way; Green Arrow hasn’t.

Will no one take a more lighthearted Oliver Queen seriously? I don’t know, but not every superhero can be a brooding creature of the night, especially a guy who dresses up in bright green and hunts bad guys with a bow.

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Superheroes in the real world

Green Lantern figureMort Weisinger had a problem. The executive in charge of National Periodical Publications’ (aka DC Comics) most prized property, Superman, was being called out by Albert Einstein. An MIT class had sent Weisinger a letter from Einstein, who said that no one, not even Superman, could fly faster than the speed of light.

No problem, Weisinger though. He convinced science fiction legend Isaac Asimov to draft a reply. “Professor Einstein’s statement is based on theory,” Asimov said. “Superman’s speed is based on fact.”

Comic book fans are often accused of having a fragile understanding of reality, but the flip side is that, aside from their otherworldly powers, superheroes have always been grounded in the real world. Why else would Einstein feel the need to play cosmological traffic cop with Superman?

The superhero comic book genre is built on an important conceit. Just as people who enjoy Broadway musicals need to take for granted characters’ tendency to break out in song and dance, so readers of comic books need to assume that their favorite heroes live in the real world.

It all began with Superman. The first superhero may be from another planet, but he grew up in a typical American town and lives in a typical American city. The only difference between Superman’s world and our world is the man himself.

The existence of utterly fantastic beings in an otherwise realistic world creates many paradoxes, and comic book writers have been dealing with them since Superman first took flight in 1938.

When the United States entered World War II each hero (through his or her writers) had to decide whether to enlist. DC’s near-omnipotent pantheon could have ended the war in five minutes, which presented a problem. That’s why most of the DC heroes stayed stateside; Clark Kent feigned poor eyesight to give Superman an honorable way out, while the Justice Society of America feared the corrupting influence of the Spear of Destiny.

DC’s rival Marvel Comics, created a hero specifically for fighting the Nazis. In his debut issue, Captain America socked Hitler in the jaw, a moment of catharsis for his Jewish creators whether it ruined the illusion or not.

Since then, comic books have tried to address real-world political issues, from racism in Green Lantern-Green Arrow to privacy and national security in Marvel: Civil War. Just like World War II, the trick to getting these political comics to succeed is acknowledging the problems of the real world without having superheroes intervene in a totally unrealistic way.

What about the superheroes themselves, though? In theory, they are real people under their masks and capes, and they should do what they do in a somewhat plausible way.Thor figure

Since he has no powers, Batman is a popular candidate for an ultra-realistic treatment. In Batman: Year One, Frank Miller had Bruce Wayne go on a practice mission in street clothes, driving a stock Porsche instead of the Batmobile.

This approach helped inspire Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman films. Particularly in the first two movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, plausible explanations are given for Batman’s methods and technologies, and those of this enemies. The Batmobile is a discarded military prototype, and the Batsuit is made of Kevlar body armor.

However, even Batman has his limits. No matter how realistic he appears to be, he’s still a vengeful billionaire skulking around in a cape and cowl, and that, unfortunately, does not exist outside of comics.

“Once a depiction veers toward realism,” Miller said, “each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre.”

Giving a superhero a realistic environment and realistic equipment isn’t enough, which brings us back to the person under the mask, and on to the Marvel movie universe.

Marvel’s movies are not as focused on realism as Batman Begins, but they still strike fans as authentic. That’s because the characters themselves are realistic.

Green Lantern and ThorWormholes may not be a convincing explanation for Thor’s arrival on Earth or his powers, but he reacts to everything the way a real person would. When confronted with the victorious Avengers, Thor’s brother, Loki, doesn’t shake his fist and twirl his nonexistent mustache, he just says, “I think I’ll have that drink now.”

That is the superhero conceit in action. The characters may be super soldiers, irradiated monsters, and gods, but they live in the same world as readers and viewers and thus act the same way.

That’s why the laws of physics don’t bother fans of Superman. His powers might be impossible, but he is not.

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Grow up?

Avengers-InvadersThis is the Ilium Gazette’s 100th post! If anyone actually reads this, thank you for taking the time. Now, on to business…

I’m very thankful for the fact that no one has ever told me to grow up. I’m a college graduate who reads comic books and watches cartoons, so I’ve been expecting a cold dose of adult reality for awhile. It hasn’t come, and that’s fine with me.

Adulthood made more sense when I was in kindergarten. Adults worked, worried, and generally put their own happiness aside for the betterment of their families and society in general. Now, things seem more complicated. Many supposed adults act like selfish children, while others work hard and get nothing but scorn and misery in return.

I guess real life can be pretty unsatisfying and unfair, which is why I want to hang on to immaturity as long as possible. I’m not trying to shirk responsibilities; I’d welcome the opportunity to get out there, get my career going, and make even a microscopic impact. I just wish real life was more like science fiction.

Being the captain of the USS Enterprise sounds tough; how do Kirk and Piccard stay so cool while facing down Romulans with no shields and a warp core ready to explode? Yet their lives are much easier than the average American’s. They may be going up against hostile aliens, but at least they know what to do: attack! defend! whatever! There is no relativity in Star Trek, which makes every decision obvious.

The nerd world is also a world of idealism. Most superheroes do what they do with only slight justification. They have superpowers. They are good people. They do good things. Done. It’s only in the real world that people need a reason to be good.

These characters, with their brightly colored costumes and corny dialogue, have always been paragons of good, and I’ve tried to follow their example as best I can. I known that we’ll probably never live up to our own myths, or build a future like the one in Star Trek, but it’s nice to dream.

Reality isn’t black-and-white, but people seem to use that as an excuse for gratuitously selfish and callous behavior. When I need a break from that, I open a comic book. After all, maybe it’s maturity that sucks.

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