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Book Review: The Ages of Superman: Essays on the Man of Steel in Changing Times

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The Ages of Superman: Essays on the Man of Steel in Changing TimesRemember the essays you wrote in high school? The ones for which you were assigned a topic and a certain number of double-spaced pages of text, all backed up by laborious MLA Style notes and bibliography? No, I’m not actually asking you to recall the subjects of any such essays. You’ve almost certainly forgotten them by now, whether your high school career ended last year or last century, and you almost certainly learned nothing from them.

But you certainly remember the experience—searching through primary texts, looking for sentences to paraphrase and occasionally quote until you’d hit your word count, made your point, and awaited your grade.

At its worst, The Ages of Superman: Essays on the Man of Steel in Changing Times—one of many books to pop up in the past year or so in celebration of Superman’s 75th birthday, and to synergize with his return to cinemas this summer—embodies that process, evoking the (lack of) style and (lack of) lasting importance of those high school treatises to a tee.

And yet—at its best—The Ages of Superman contains exactly the sort of scholarly analysis and meaningful discussion that America’s Sun God and favorite fictional foster son truly deserves.

Superman Says: You Can Slap a Jap with War Bonds and StampsUnfortunately, it’s front-loaded with the former, the homework-style assignments. I’ll set aside the numerous typos and typographical inconsistencies that plague the Kindle Version of the book (the basis of my review), because they may well be absent in the ridiculously expensive paperback version. Even forgiving those issues, though, it’s difficult to trudge through the collection’s first three entries. “Superman Says You Can Slap a Jap!” The Man of Steel and Race Hatred in World War II by Todd S. Munson; Supervillains and Cold War Tensions in the 1950s by Lori Maguire; and Kryptonite, Radiation, and the Birth of the Atomic Age by Peter Lee all suffer from being mere laundry lists: the first simply churns out examples of anti-Japanese racism in Superman comic covers and cartoons of the era; the second and third mostly regurgitate redundant citations of stories in which radiation and the radioactive remnants of Kal-El’s home world played a central role in the plot. None of the three offers any real analysis, and the third in particular is an exercise in non sequitur.

Ciclón-el Superhombre image via tebeosycomics.blogspot.comIf not for the intriguing title of the fourth essay—Truth, Justice, and the American Way in Franco’s Spain by Louie Dean Valencia-García—I probably would have set The Ages of Superman aside. But thank goodness I didn’t, because this piece in and of itself is worth the cover price for the way it casts the Man of Steel in a completely different light. Contained within are a number of revelations (for this lifelong Superman fan, at least). For example, when the character first appeared in Spain, his costume was re-colored to match that of the Spanish flag, his name was changed to Ciclón, el Superhombre, and his comics were soon banned because—even in his Hispanicized form—Superman was viewed as subversive and counter-normative by Franco’s fascist government. Mind = blown.

The aspects of the comic that the government found subversive are almost as fascinating as the fact that they did at all: Superman’s dual identity, his lack of proper machismo (HA!), and “Luisa” Lane’s bravado and challenge of acceptable gender roles, despite her lack of Superman’s powers. I’m merely scratching the surface of this brilliant essay, but it’s one that anyone with an interest in Superman, comics in general, diverse cultural perspectives, or life under a fascist dictatorship absolutely must read. Combined with another recent book—Grant Morrison’s Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, which provides amazing insights into the thoughts of writers working under the draconian Silver Age Comics Code Authority—I can honestly say I have an entirely different perspective on this period in Superman’s history.

I wish I could say that the collection maintains that same brilliance from there on out, but the conclusion of Valencia-García’s wonderful contribution marks the beginning of a veritable roller-coaster ride of quality and relevance.

Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane No. 124Thomas C. Donaldson’s essay on the incredibly important topic of comicdom’s deplorable sexism and the reaction to feminism in the early ’70s—The Inflexible Girls of Steel: Subverting Second Wave Feminism in the Extended Superman Franchise—is a White Knight battle in search of a damsel in distress.

Donaldson forces the facts to fit his topic throughout the essay, culminating in the strong insinuation that the female-centric titles Supergirl (1972-1974) and Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane (1958-1974) were canceled as either a backlash against or an abandonment of a failed feminist experiment on the part of DC Comics, and that the characters’ relegation to the new Superman Family title suggested “submission to patriarchal authority.”

To reach that conclusion, he completely ignores the fact that sales of those titles weren’t strong, that Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen was canceled at the same time, and that the titles were combined because of the popularity of DC’s 100 Page Super Spectacular format. That’s just one of many clues that Donaldson is either swimming in entirely unfamiliar waters, or is merely blinded by his own ideology (an ideology I wholly embrace, by the way—I just don’t feel the need to bend the truth to support it).

The equally important topic of race relation is handled much more gracefully, and with none of Donaldson’s contrarian mind-reading, in Christopher B. Zeichmann’s Black Like Lois: Confronting Racism, Configuring African American Presence. In this piece, Zeichmann isn’t looking for a bad guy, but does a wonderful job of encapsulating White America’s (including DC’s writers’) ignorance of the Black Power movement at the time, and the awkward, unintentionally insulting, insensitive stories that arose from that ignorance.

Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore, the Sandman SagaThe next two entries in The Ages of Superman —Jason M. LaTouche’s Red, White and Bruised: The Vietnam War and the Weakening of Superman and Paul R. Kohl’s The Struggle Within: Superman’s Difficult Transition into the Age of Relevance—not only cover the same era, but the exact same story arc: Denny O’Neil’s “Sandman Saga” from 1971. Kohl’s piece is by far the better of the two, in that it examines the story in the full social context of its time, whereas LaTouche’s piece devolves into such overly specific and overreaching allegory that it’s hard to take seriously.

From there, the book jumps forward to the Reagan/Byrne years, with three essays—”It’s Morning Again in America”: John Byrne’s Re-Imagining of the Man of Steel by Daniel J. and Morgan B. O’Rourke; The New “Man of Steel” is a Quiche-Eating Wimp! Media Reactions to the Reimagining of Superman in the Reagan Era by Jack Teiwes; and More Human than (Super) Human: Clark Kent’s Smallville and Reagan’s America by Michael Smith.

The first, except for its astute observation of the epideictic rhetorical style in both Reagan’s “Morning Again in America” commercial and Bryne’s ’80s Superman revamp, is best ignored. It’s a tenuous stretch at the best of times and Ivory Tower wankery at the worst.

Superman: the Man of Steel by John Byrne

Teiwes’ piece is much better, in that it explores the ignorant, often right-wing mass media reaction to a misunderstood press release outlining DC’s intentions for the revamp, and remains firmly in touch with both the comics and the uproar surrounding them. Incidentally, in dissecting the ridiculous backlash, it also sums up so much of what is so wrong with so many of the other essays in this book with the line, “There is essentially no direct engagement with the actual material.”

That’s definitely not the case with Teiwes, though, who not only demonstrates a complete understanding of what Bryne was trying to accomplish with his “modern” Clark, but beautifully dissects the rantings and ravings of Bryne’s critics, proving that there were, in fact, uninformed, bloviating, loudmouthed assholes before the internet was a thing. Still, it’s striking just how internet-like the attacks collected here actually are; Teiwes digs up several formal screeds that could have been pulled straight off of the current Man of Steel IMdB boards, if not for their proper grammar and passing understanding of punctuation.

The third of the three Byrne/Reagan essays, More Human than (Super) Human: Clark Kent’s Smallville and Reagan’s America, is even better. In fact, it’s everything the first was trying to be, and although he does indulge lengthy (and interesting) asides on 9/11, George W. Bush, Huck Finn, and the Jerry Todd series of youth novels published between 1923 and 1940, Smith makes a genuine and meaningful connection between Byrne’s Man of Steel and the social and political mood of the era. And in trying to get to the bottom of why Superman needed to be revamped in the first place, he makes the spot-on observation that it isn’t Superman’s godlike powers that have, at times, made him so hard to empathize with while remaining inspirational and aspirational, but rather Clark’s “…decency and authenticity. His Smallvilleness.”

The next grouping of essays in The Ages of Superman centers upon the Death and Return of Superman storyline. The “Triangle Era” of Superman: Continuity, Marketing and Grand Narratives in the 1990s by Matthew J. Smith starts off strong, although it’s more a history of continuity in the ’90s Superman titles (and numerous other comics) until somewhere in the middle, when Smith seems to realize that he’s supposed to be writing a scholarly analysis with some connection to world (or even comics) history. From that point on he tries, unsuccessfully, with no tangible justification, to shoehorn an explanation of how the rigid cross-title continuity of the years following the end of Cold War was some sort of affirmation for Americans that “the greater narrative that had guided them through that protracted struggle had been justified” and that the end of the trend at beginning of new millennium has some connection with Americans’ “begrudging recognition that the world was full of fragmented, often competing narratives.”

Barf.

The Death and Return of Superman OmibusSearching for Meaning in “The Death of Superman” by Joseph J. Darowski could likewise have been titled Stretching for Meaning…, in that it’s plagued by a conflation of causation and correlation, and ends up being the one essay in the entire book that I simply couldn’t bring myself to finish. The fact that the author of this essay also edited The Ages of Superman certainly makes the book’s overall unevenness all the more understandable.

Death, Bereavement, and the Superhero Funeral by José Alaniz, on the other hand, is another highpoint for the collection, and is probably my second favorite piece after Valencia-García’s treatise on Superman in Franco’s fascist Spain. Not merely an exploration and analysis of the “Funeral for a Friend” arc, it’s also a wonderful analysis of the perceptions of and attitudes toward death, both personally and as a cultural phenomenon, and paints a beautiful contrast between “the authenticity of private grief” and “the cynicism and theatricality of public mourning.” Even when detouring into ruminations on the media’s influence over the mourning process, and the public’s uneasy, often ironic relationship with the news media, this superbly written paper remains firmly anchored to the story of the comics. It even touches upon the religious connotations of the Superman myth than any fan of the character will have been waiting for throughout the entire book. Truly, I wish that editor Joseph J. Darowksi had given this essay to the other authors (and relied on it himself) as a benchmark to aspire to, because it did what few other chapters in the book could: it sent me digging through the long boxes in my spare bedroom to explore this story once more, in an entirely new light.

Superman: Red SonSadly, The Ages of Superman only comes close to that level of insight once more in its remaining pages, and Superman and the Corruption of Power by Stefan Buchenberger isn’t it. It’s a mostly successful piece, in which the author explores Superman’s goodness by contrasting the character we all know with alternate reality stories in which he (or his equivalent) is corrupt. But—as evidenced by one note in particular—Buchenberger doesn’t seem to have a thorough-enough understanding of the character’s history.

This Isn’t Your Grandfather’s Comic Book Universe: The Return of the Golden Age Superman by Jeffrey K. Johnson is definitely one of The Ages of Superman’s better essays, but not one of its very best. This metatextual analysis of the original Superman’s return in Golden Age Superman in Infinite CrisisInfinite Crisis does a good job, though, of exploring why each different era’s Superman must be both “constant and adaptable”—both relevant to modern times and conversely a symbol of tradition—neatly encapsulating the message of the entire collection.

John Darowksi’s In a World Without Superman, What Is the American Way? by contrast seems like a missed opportunity. The conceit of the essay is that to understand what “The American Way” really means in Superman stories, we must look at the stories in which the character is either removed from action, from the world, or entirely from the continuity in which he belongs. But Darowksi never really sells his premise convincingly, and although a handful of astute observations make it worth reading, one gets the sense (correctly or not) that he isn’t really a dedicated fan of Superman specifically, either, but rather searching the texts for examples to illustrate his point. Most notably, he ignores the quintessential story of Superman’s absence from and return to action, Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ epic Elseworlds tale Kingdom Come.

Superman 701 "Grounded"I wouldn’t say that the editor saved the very best for last in The Ages of Superman, but the book certainly ends on an incredibly high note with Randy Duncan’s Traveling Hopefully in Search of American National Identity: The “Grounded” Superman as a 21st Century Picaro. An analysis of Superman’s “Grounded” walk across America post-New Krypton, the essay does an impeccable job of comparing and contrasting the yearlong story arc with the tradition of road stories, digs a bit into the whole question of whether Clark, Kal-El, or Superman is the real personal—as famously opined upon in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2—and in the process, he really gets to the root of what the American Way actually means. And in doing so, he cuts straight to the heart of what Superman really means.

TL;DR: Taken as a whole, The Ages of Superman: Essays on the Man of Steel in Changing Times is an incredibly uneven collection with more good essays than bad, but if you’re looking to get the most bang for your entertainment buck and cover much the same ground, I would recommend Glen Weldon’s vastly more consistent Superman: The Unauthorized Biography instead, along with the amazing aforementioned Supergods by Grant Morrison. If you’re just looking for a pass or fail grade on the assignments collected within the pages of The Ages of Superman, though, here’s my take, as a lifelong Superman fan, comic book geek, and lover of footnotes and bibliographies:

  • “Superman Says You Can Slap a Jap!” The Man of Steel and Race Hatred in World War II—Skip it.
  • Supervillains and Cold War Tensions in the 1950s— Skip it.
  • Kryptonite, Radiation, and the Birth of the Atomic Age—Skip it hard.
  • Truth, Justice, and the American Way in Franco’s Spain—Worth the cost of the book by itself.
  • The Inflexible Girls of Steel: Subverting Second Wave Feminism in the Extended Superman Franchise—Kill it with fire!
  • Black Like Lois: Confronting Racism, Configuring African American Presence—Definitely worth reading.
  • Red, White and Bruised: The Vietnam War and the Weakening of Superman—Skip it.
  • The Struggle Within: Superman’s Difficult Transition into the Age of Relevance—Read it!
  • It’s Morning Again in America”: John Byrne’s Re-Imagining of the Man of Steel—Skip it.
  • The New “Man of Steel” is a Quiche-Eating Wimp! Media Reactions to the Reimagining of Superman in the Reagan Era—Definitely read it.
  • More Human than (Super) Human: Clark Kent’s Smallville and Reagan’s America—Essential reading.
  • The “Triangle Era” of Superman: Continuity, Marketing and Grand Narratives in the 1990s—Skip it.
  • Searching for Meaning in “The Death of Superman”—Fail.
  • Death, Bereavement, and the Superhero Funeral—Read it, cherish it, share it with friends.
  • Superman and the Corruption of Power—Decent, but not essential reading.
  • This Isn’t Your Grandfather’s Comic Book Universe: The Return of the Golden Age Superman—A-
  • In a World Without Superman, What Is the American Way?—Toss a coin.
  • Traveling Hopefully in Search of American National Identity: The “Grounded” Superman as a 21st Century Picaro—Absolutely a must-read.
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