Wednesday, August 22

Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero (2012)

By Larry Tye

The first day we were back in our offices after the summer, during what's called “On-Call Week” (I keep telling them, “I'm not that kind of doctor!”), one of my senior colleagues – a US historian – came to my office and said he had something to show me. In his office he presented me with this book, which he said he had received a few weeks ago, and during his reading he kept telling his wife, “Kent would really like this book!” He was right about that. He loaned it to me, and I finished it last night. It is perhaps the best single book I've ever read on the greatest hero of 20th-century American pop culture, and a great introduction to a genre of story-telling that, as evidenced by the majority of the posts in this blog, I have loved since childhood and will continue to love until the day I die. The author neatly places each within the changing contexts from the era of their conception, the 1930s, all the way until the present, when although the comic-book medium itself is but a shadow of its former self, at least in terms of sales, the granddaddy of all superheroes himself remains a cultural icon recognized and loved not just in the US but all around the world.

Probably the best “mission statement” summing up Tye's purpose is contained in the “Acknowledgments,” where he recounts his and his agent's proposal of yet another book on Superman to his publisher:

“There are endless books on Superman, I explained [having just cited the round number of 200], but most are sociological surveys or picture books, or deal exclusively with the comics, TV shows, or some other limited aspect of his expansive, multimedia career. None is a full-fledged account that approaches him as if he were human, which he is to tens of millions of fans who have followed his loves and deaths, reinventions, resurrections, and redemptions. The fact that he is ethereal lets us fill in our image of Superman from our own imaginations. Our longest-lasting champion, I said, offers a singular lens into our deep rooted fears and our enduring hopes” (pp. 301-2).

In the preface, “Endurance,” Tye lays out his approach and outlines his basic themes as well as discussing what brought him, a childhood fan of Superman in 1950s and '60s comics and the George Reeves television show, to this project after several decades and other writing projects. One theme that he returns to time and again is the role of absent fathers in the lives not just of the hero himself but his various creators, from Jerry Siegel himself whose father died during a robbery to actor George Reeves who did not even know his father. Another is how the character of the hero changed through time, adapting to the zeitgeist of successive ages in American society while maintaining a certain core essence. This last seems very pertinent to the 2011 “DcnU/New 52” revamp which has reimagined him in ways that echo the crusader for social justice of the original 1930s stories in an age which hauntingly resembles the Great Depression. Finally, throughout but especially in the third chapter, “A Matter of Faith,” Tye keeps his eye on the spiritual, religious, even metaphysical aspects of this creation of two Jewish boys in Cleveland, Ohio, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, which gave birth to a genre, an idea, and even an ideal.

The comprehensive history of Superman in all his genres and manifestations is told in eleven chapters, necessarily weighted toward Siegel and Shuster's original idea and development, their struggles to find a publisher, and how their creation so quickly got away from them, taking on a life of its own that would make fortunes for so many others which Siegel and Shuster had virtually no share in until very near the ends of their lives. That foundational story takes more or less the first half of the book, five chapters covering the 1930s and '40s and culminating with the very aptly named “Superman, Inc.” I had never realized how after that point, ca. 1950, the character's history could be divided into ages very roughly corresponding with the passing decades: The 1950s, “The Deadly Truth,” dominated by both the virtual death which some might call murder of the comic book industry itself and an expanding popularity of Superman wrought by the 1950s Adventures of Superman television show starring George Reeves – whose death in 1959, officially ruled a suicide, has been ever since shrouded in mystery with a strong suspicion that it might be called murder. The 1960s, “Imagine This,” in comic book history usually termed the “Silver Age,” when Superman was under the editorship of the controversial Mort Weisinger and a propensity for the rather redundantly titled “Imaginary Stories.” The 1970s, when a changing society saw the comic book industry beginning a long, slow though ultimately accelerating, hemorrhaging of readers even as Superman hit the silver screen in a big-budget motion picture starring Christopher Reeve, which would make us all “Believ[e] a Man Can Fly” and solidify the iconic image of the Man of Steel that dominates to this day. In an effort to clean house, so to speak, and revivify a slowly faltering comic book industry, the 1980s saw the first radical reimagining or “reboot” of the character (along with much of DC Comics) in an attempt to take the Man of Tomorrow “Back to the Future.” The early 1990s saw emerge from an offhanded, almost joking comment at a DC Comics editorial summit one of the cataclysmic events in the fictional life of the superhero – his death – which struck the world's psyche almost as deeply as the death of any “real” person. Similar to my own early-childhood memory of learning of the assassination of JFK (I had just turned two at the time, but I do still remember it, or at least how deeply it impacted my mother) or the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger – or the terrorist strikes of 9/11 – I can still remember the moment when I learned that Superman was dead! Even though, a life-long comic book fan I knew that in comics no death is forever. That story was followed within a couple of years – yes, of course, he came back! – with a change in the status quo long-time fans probably never thought would happen, when Superman married Lois Lane. Hence the 1990s chapter title, “Till Death Do Us Part.” And finally, even as the comic book industry's decline reached crisis proportions (although that word, “crisis,” has its own peculiar connotation in DC Comics continuity), a new reconception of the character's formative years, as a teenager and young man in Smallville – where there was to be no “tights or flights” but rather a down-to-earth exploration of Clark Kent's difficult coming of age as an outsider trying to fit in but developing a keen awareness of a higher destiny – brought the character to a new audience for the new millennium even as the periodic estrangement between Superman's creators and the company that brought him to the world in all his different manifestations itself reached crisis proportions and a full-blown, years-long, no-end-in-sight legal battle. The one good thing that looks to have come out of that long, drawn-out dispute is the unearthing of all kinds of invaluable historical documents going back to the very beginning and including such things as unpublished memoirs by Jerry Siegel, voluminous correspondence between the various parties, and even the original contract by which Siegel and Shuster sold away all rights to their character for $130. That last chapter is punnily entitled, “Tights and Fights,” and includes brief mention of the latter-day, 2011 “revamp” mentioned above.

Throughout, Tye maintains a engaging narrative that brings the characters alive for the reader, giving insight into the troubled pasts of Siegel and Reeves – the absence of their fathers as mentioned above – as well as the radically different personalities involved in the various creations and recreations, imaginings and reimaginings of Superman through the decades. He is sympathetic to all parties, but does not gloss over their failings, and a couple of major players to not come out well at all. Siegel's second wife Joanne Siegel, for one; Siegel himself, for another, to a certain degree. For a son so keenly feeling the loss of his father early in his life, he treated his own son by his first marriage quite shabbily. He even manages a balanced treatment of the man who, in my opinion, bears unconscionable blame for killing an all-but-concluded resolution to the lawsuit a decade ago, by which time, of course, Siegel and Shuster themselves were gone, and the battle had fallen to their heirs – from whom lawyer Marc Toberoff has finagled a deal which will give him control of Superman and all rights to the character should his legal manipulations prove successful. As you can see, Tye's account does not change my opinion of this man.

There is much more I could write about this book. If you love Superman, if you love comic books in general, or simply if you are interested in American history and pop culture during the previous century into the beginning of our own, it is absolutely essential reading.

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!

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