Monday, May 2, 2011

Dear Superman: Please grow up (again)

[Note: Yes, I know Osama bin Laden is dead. This blog was written earlier. And frankly, my colleague John Konecsni at A Pius Man has more to say about it, now that he's done swearing under his breath that he's out a good villain. For now, my view is this: bin Laden is dead. Confirm the corpse’s identity, treat it with the respect he never gave us, and then act like the civilized nation we sometimes remember we are. He’s dead. Justice is served, as much as it will ever be. Now on to helping the living.]

As pretty much everyone on the internet has heard of late, the latest news item from the world of Superman comics has the Man of Steel renouncing his U.S. citizenship. The reasons aren’t as complicated as you might think: Superman shows up to peacefully support anti-government protesters in Tehran, the Iranian government interprets his presence as an act of war on the part of the United States, and Supes renounces his citizenship because he’s tired of having his actions linked to U.S. policies (and vice versa) and because “truth, justice and the American way [isn’t] enough anymore.” He is now a stateless, global superhero.

Leaving aside some of the more practical questions (since he presumably doesn’t have a Kryptonian passport, can he now enter any country on Earth without being a literal illegal alien?), I can’t help but be annoyed by this.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t really care whether Superman’s a U.S. citizen or not. I support the right of any human being (or humanoid, or reasonable facsimile) to renounce their citizenship as they choose, and to take citizenship in any country that will have them. I think it’s a bloody stupid idea sometimes, but I support the right to be harmlessly stupid because, well, if humans can’t be stupid then they pretty much can’t do anything. But from a storytelling perspective, I think this move is a bad one.

Within about ten minutes of hearing the news, I had pretty much distilled my reaction down to one sentence: Did Superman leave his competence somewhere, and can we give it back to him?

There has been a string of stories in DC Comics over the last decade or so that have steadily chipped away at the image of Superman as a hero who knows what he’s doing. Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis had Superman either consciously allowing members of the Justice League to magically  lobotomize supervillains or just being too dumb to figure out what was going on and stop them. Succeeding storylines had Superman being mind-controlled by the villain Maxwell Lord, forcing Wonder Woman to kill Lord in order to save Supes; Superman taking a year off to get his head straight after screwing too many things up; and Superman taking a year-long walking journey across America to “reconnect” with the people he nominally protects, after failing to cure cancer (?!).

Most of these storylines, including the citizenship arc, appear to begin with Superman making a horrifying mistake of one kind or another, and then spend the next four to twelve issues dealing with his agonized guilt over the error in an attempt to seem “relevant” to mere-mortal readers. Once in a while, this kind of story is interesting, but after six or seven straight years of this stuff, I’m beginning to wonder if Superman hasn’t been replaced by Bizarro, given better grammar, and left to wreak havoc on our world. Seriously, it seems like the guy can’t do anything right. And it bugs me.

Here is what bothers me most: Superman has been a superhero for pretty much his entire adult life. Most DC Comics editors hew to the policy that, in any given story, he’s been flying around in tights for “about ten years” in comics time. Think about that. Do cops and firefighters ten years into their careers suddenly start making rookie mistakes? Is the ten-year mark the point where we normally expect human performance to drop off? No. In most species that learn and remember what they learn, we expect individuals to get better over time at things they do a lot, unless their physical or mental capacities degrade. Musicians get better as they train, unless they suffer damage to their minds or bodies. Athletes improve until age or injuries catch up with them. We expect poets and artists to produce better and better work, or at least plateau, unless something stops them. And nothing, as far as we can tell, has stopped Superman. So unless he suddenly turns out to have Kryptonian Alzheimer’s or something, it makes no sense for him to suddenly make a string of colossally stupid mistakes. He’s Superman. He’s been Superman for a while now. If nothing else, he should have basic coping skills for being Superman.

I realize I’m in danger of a hypocrisy charge here, what with my own John Lawrence being a Superman analog and, as longtime readers of my stories about him know, not exactly perfect himself. (For one thing, he’s a powers snob, looking down on Rae and Trevor because they can’t fly or punch through walls.) But the fact is, John Lawrence only works as a character because Superman is a competent superhero. Superman’s recent string of screwups makes John Lawrence look pretty good, and that annoys me. Because while I gleefully deconstruct Superman from time to time with old JL, I can do that only because I first put a real Superman analog into the Masks universe.

Believe it or not, there is a long history of superheroics in the Masks-verse, going back at least as far as the Roman Empire. (Really. Why do you think my main character has a superhero name in Latin?) The era of tights-and-flights superheroism really got going in the early 20th century, and by the time the 1920s rolled around, the Black Mask was doing his thing in L.A. in imitation of earlier mysterymen in New York. By the 1930s, he was picking up superhero allies, including Eagle Eye, and a bunch of super-types were active in World War II and after. And while there were many well-known heroes in the U.S. and Europe, and later all over the world, in the succeeding decades, there was one who really defined the archetype. Before him, people argued about whether costumed heroes were a good idea, and they did it pretty much whenever a well-known hero botched something. But after Ascalon, there was always a quick end to that argument, because everyone agreed that he was the real deal.

Art by Nicole Le
On the sliding scale of comic-book time, Ascalon first appeared in the world of Masks about forty or fifty years before Rae and Trevor met. He was young then—late teens, early twenties—and not altogether sure of himself, but he was powerful and idealistic and passionate about doing the right thing. He had the standard superhero power package, what Aaron Williams refers to as the FISS set: flight, invulnerability, speed, and strength. This was because he was also an energy projector—he could produce blasts of violet energy, sometimes from his eyes but more often from his hands and occasionally, when things got really bad, in something like a full-body explosion. He used the energy to power a fast metabolism, to perform feats of strength, and to make himself bulletproof and fly. Most interestingly, it enabled him to “sidestep” or move from one place to another without crossing the intervening space. (The best guess is that this is how he ended up on Earth as a child, but where he started from he doesn’t know.) When he wasn’t too tired, he could take people with him, eventually enabling him to transport an entire superhero team to and from a battle.

Ascalon was never very open about his origins, mostly because he didn’t remember them. His earliest memories are of being about three years old, in an orphanage in Colorado, and being hungry—his alien metabolism couldn’t digest most Earth foods. He was in significant danger of starving to death until he met an eight-year-old prodigy who figured out one of the few foods he could eat: apples. The strange boy was soon adopted by a childless local couple who happened to have an apple orchard, and he grew up with your basic wholesome values. He also met that prodigy again a few years later, when the young man was embarking on his own career as a cape-and-gadgets hero named Sinister. The two became close friends, worked a lot of cases together, and eventually formed the nucleus of a superhero team with a third hero I’ll get around to describing at some point. Pretty much everything you expect a big-name superhero to do, Ascalon did—battling alien invasions and killer robots, leading a team, intervening in humanitarian crises—and Sinister was right there, backing him up whenever he didn’t have his own disasters to deal with.

And then Ascalon disappeared. About twenty years before Rae and Trevor met for the first time, about ten years before something wiped out all the superheroes in Los Angeles, Ascalon simply vanished. Other superheroes stepped up to deal with his usual disasters, and some searched for him—but even Sinister couldn’t find any trace. Some people said he’d finally found his homeworld, and gone back to it; some said his archenemy had finally gotten the better of him; some said he’d just decided it was time to retire. Either way, he was gone. And the world got a lot darker without him.

Art by Derrick Fleece
So when a young orphan boy discovered he could fly, and project golden energy fields, there was only one thought in his mind. He put on a cape and tights and set out to be the next Ascalon. It’s what makes the basic concept of the superhero work, even in stories where superheroes screw up—the notion that somewhere out there is a superhero who does get it right, at least most of the time.

So until I get enough Masks stories written to really establish Ascalon, it would be nice if Superman would grow the heck up and get back to saving the world.


  1. Well put together. Wonderfully done ... and I don't say that just because of the shoutout. I like it. And I didn't know half of the collection of stupid mistakes Superman has pulled lately....

    And, damnit, I'm out a bad guy. :)

  2. Poor baby ... you'll have to create original villains like the rest of us! :)

  3. Heh. Been there, done that. Though if all of al-Qaeda is shut down soon, then I may be in trouble.

    However, I should also note: Nicole's artwork is getting so much better, and it was fairly kick-ass to start with. You should give her a pat on the head from me, and maybe some more food for bribery.