The Upside Down: Is Polygon Making the Case for Superman?

 

 

 

Who would’ve thought a site as pretentious as Polygon can be would make a case defending what the Man of Steel was built on? But, that’s what they seem to do here, with the only question being whether their argument has anything to do with writers like Brian Bendis and Greg Rucka being the most recently assigned, since at least 2 pictures from their work appear in this op-ed? Well, let’s take a look:

 

Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, beginning the Golden Age of superhero comics. The last child of a dying planet was sent to Earth, developed incredible powers and vowed to use them as a “champion of the oppressed.” In just a few pages, he saved an innocent woman from being executed, protected a victim of domestic violence, confronted a corrupt politician, and rescued Lois Lane from a gangster.

His adventures would become far grander over time, leading generations of writers across comics, radio, TV, film, and games to put their own spin on the Man of Steel and his many enemies and allies. Yet while the genre that Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster pioneered has never been more popular, there’s been endless hand wringing about where their creation fits in.

 

I’m afraid it’s disputable whether the whole superhero genre still retains popularity in the sense they seem to suggest. Until recently, it did prove lucrative as movie material, but as comics, it’s never been worse. I think it’s also worth noting that, while some liberals try defending politics in today’s comics by using earlier stories as a shield, the difference is that years before, no matter what the leanings of the people in charge during the Golden/Silver/Bronze/Iron Ages, they were a lot more subtle in their approach, and recognized why issues like spousal abuse and drug addiction were serious matters that hurt society, unlike today’s selective leftists who either won’t tackle these particular issues, and if they do, it’s only to paint rightists as those who’re supposedly ignorant.

 

Where they are right is that a certain segment of decidedly phony fandom makes too much of a fuss over how the Man of Steel is handled, and where he fits into the scheme of things. They write him off centuries before he debuted as “boring”, “lame”, as if he were a real life person, not having the weaknesses they supposedly want him to have, and lacking in personality, not unlike the same whines they made against Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, and look where it got him as a character. But worst of all, they refuse to base any of their arguments on the merit of the finished product. That’s what brought down many famous creations now suffering the misfortune of belonging to corporate ownerships.

 

This isn’t a new dilemma. Superman’s luster arguably began to really fade in the late ‘80s thanks to the double whammy of Frank Miller portraying the character as a Reaganite patsy in The Dark Knight Returns and the disastrous final Christopher Reeve Superman film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987. When Tim Burton brought Batman to the big screen just two years later, it was almost guaranteed to illustrate the idea that Batman was cool and edgy and Superman was boring and lame.

DC Comics was so desperate to bring some life back to the character in the ‘90s that writers killed him off, made a bunch of different versions of him, brought the original back to life, and took away his normal powerset to give him energy powers instead. While Superman: The Animated Series was solid, it was nowhere near as stylish or influential as Batman: The Animated Series. Superman Returns fizzled while Batman Begins set a new standard for DC Comics films, for better and worse. Meanwhile, Disney’s success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe made Warner Bros. less willing to take risks that might further reduce the value of its big name heroes.

 

 

 

They’re talking mostly about movie and TV related items here, but a point can certainly be made that everything possible was done to dwarf Superman’s status as opposed to Batman. This despite how the Masked Manhunter’s world is built on far less sci-fi elements per se than the Man of Steel’s. And if Miller’s DKR was an attack on Reagan, that was just as dreadful as how Miller’s very miniseries wound up setting the tone for what would come not only in later Batman tales by the turn of the century, but also much of the DCU. The grim-and-gritty era ruined much of comicdom.

 

There are arguments to be made that Superman’s time has passed. More than 80 years after his debut, the world of superheroes is more diverse than ever and newer characters also deserve the spotlight. But Superman shouldn’t be written off. There are solutions to all the problems that fans and creators have, and addressing them shows that Superman and the ideals he stands for are just as relevant today as they were in 1938.

 

The only reason Superman’s time “passed” is because of the bad job they’ve been doing in writing/art for over a decade now, pushing agendas at the expense of entertainment value. But notice how they actually state the superhero market is more “diverse” than ever. Depending how you view it, they’re admitting all the characters of different racial and LGBT background their fellow SJWs pretend were never conceived before have been brought about. And of course there’s solutions to alleged problems: all you have to do is distinguish between the real and phony fans, and know that the real ones wouldn’t make such a scene over what angles work best for Supes; they’d be concerned about storytelling merit. Polygon’s writer proceeds to make a point that it’s not like Supes is “too powerful”:

 

Yet no matter what powers you accept as canon, the strength of any given superhero has always been flexible based on who is writing them and the context they’re in. […]

You can quibble with this assessment by pointing out restrictions on these other characters — like that Iron Man needs to be in his suit — but the MCU suffers from classic superhero power creep. Armoring up became progressively easier for Tony Stark to do over the years, to the point that it was even more trivial than Clark Kent needing to find a phone booth to swap clothes in. The best writers see Superman’s strength as an opportunity rather than a problem, using him like Thor to tell epic stories involving aliens and mythological figures that can provide a suitable challenge.

Superman also has numerous other restrictions on his power beyond the basic — and admittedly kind of lame — vulnerabilities of Kryptonite and lead shielding. Superman has no more resistance to magic or mental attacks than any other superhero, he’s fairly weak to anything energy related, and his powers disappear completely if he’s not in the vicinity of a yellow sun. These limits have been creatively exploited for plenty of stories that don’t boil down to two super strong, super tough characters wailing on each other until one of them eventually wins.

 

 

 

I must decidedly disagree with the “admittal” that being vulnerable to Kryptonite is “lame”, which is where the article does teeter dangerously in favor of the phonies. By that logic, even the most acclaimed children’s books would be “lame”. But, they’re correct that, in past decades, Superman was depicted as vulnerable to magic, for example, and if he were in a red sun universe, or exposed to red solar radiation, that could weaken him. And that’s what a considerable number of PC advocates overlook, deliberately or otherwise. If you wanted to write a great story where the Man of Steel is challenged by formidable magic, you could do it. All that’s needed is creative talent, and the sky’s the limit. On the topic of Supes supposedly being “too good”:

 

Superman has dismissively been called the Big Blue Boy Scout because he’s such a do gooder. He’s folksy and kind, balancing dealing with natural disasters and supervillains with helping ordinary people with mundane problems. He cares for lost and forgotten alien animals in his Fortress of Solitude. He always wants to see the best in people. He famously fights for “truth, justice, and the American way.” (The “American way” bit, by the way, was a post-war addition to the intro of his radio show, not a transplant from the comics.)

That last part has particularly been subject to criticism, leading many people to imagine Superman’s wholesomeness is just as hollow as American exceptionalism. There have been a huge number of works portraying Superman as outright evil, while Zack Snyder’s version of the character was an aloof figure who was told by his mother than he doesn’t “owe this world a thing” and didn’t seem to feel remorse for leveling most of a city or snapping another Kryptonian’s neck.

These stories aim to make the character more realistic or subversive, but they fail to recognize that Superman’s morality is meant to be just as idealized as his physique. He’s an aspirational figure, representing the best of what America and humanity itself can be. He puts restrictions on how he exercises his power much like so many people have shown they are willing to limit their own freedoms in order to limit the spread of COVID-19, or to spend their time and money in ways that benefit others rather than just themselves.

 

 

I’d say the critics must surely be the most leftist leaning PC advocates with a dismissive view of anything American, or no interest in trying to improve the state of the USA so it’ll at least come close to being exceptional. Just look how they’re hell-bent on tearing it down now, if we consider how badly California governor Gavin Newsom’s running things, ditto NY’s Andrew Cuomo. The whole point of Superman, as noted, was supposed to be a figure whose beliefs we could at least admire, and aspire to emulate, yet all these phonies do is worry about making him more “realistic”, which by now has become offensive.

 

The real world is filled with examples of powerful people acting selfishly and cruelly, using all of America’s flawed systems to their advantage. Superman is subversive precisely because he stands in opposition to the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He believes that justice should apply to everyone equally, which is why one of his greatest enemies is Lex Luthor, whose powers are just being smart, wealthy, well-connected, and usually careful enough that it’s hard for Superman to pin any crimes on him. Finding the evidence is often the job of Superman’s alter ego, though he has his own set of problems.

 

You know, I sure hope they’re aware Joe Biden’s acted that way, otherwise, I don’t see the point they’re making. His son Hunter is currently under FBI investigation for illegal activities with China and Ukraine, so I hope they recognize that, if they do agree justice need apply equally, then the same standards must apply to Democrats involved in shady activities too. Now, on the topic of secret identities:

 

…The concept of a secret identity is an inherently old fashioned one, which is why the MCU has pretty much abandoned them and some versions of Superman have unmasked him. The Superman and Clark Kent divide is particularly silly given how little of a disguise is there.

Yet again the realism isn’t really the point. What Clark Kent represents is a concerted effort by a powerful alien to fully integrate himself into his adopted home. Some might argue that Superman is wrong to spend any time as Clark Kent because he’d be of greater use to humanity if he was saving lives, but by that argument doctors also shouldn’t be allowed any recreational time. Being Clark lets Superman understand and appreciate the people he’s trying to help.

 

 

I don’t agree that the minimalist disguise of glasses is “silly”. But they’re correct realism isn’t and shouldn’t be the sole driving force of the stories. Again, it’s the story quality that matters. Especially when you consider how today’s writers aren’t even interested in “realism”, and only use it as a smokescreen for their twisted ideas of what Superman should really be. However, where the article really takes a turn for the worst is when they make a negative allusion to Trump:

 

Clark Kent wasn’t written as Jewish because of the amount of anti-Semitism present in America at the time. As time went on, the immigrant metaphor fell away and Superman became just another white man in a sea of superpowered white men. Zach Snyder even moved so far away from his Jewish origins that he used him as a Christ figure in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Anti-Semitism is on the rise again today thanks in part to a president who accuses Jews who don’t vote for him of “great disloyalty,” so now could be a time to make that connection more overt.

There are other ways to update Superman’s origin story for the times. HBO’s Watchmen did it beautifully through the origins of Hooded Justice, the setting’s first superhero. Like Kal-El, Will Reeves is spirited away by his parents from a doomed home in hopes that he might survive. But in this case that home is not a dying planet but a city assaulted by white supremacists. The metaphor is made even more overt when he sees the parallels to his story in the first issue of Superman and decides to put on his own cape soon after.

 

Would those white supremacists they speak of happen to include Antifa? After spotting the paragraph, I doubt it. They certainly don’t seem interested in complaining about a leftist presidential candidate who said “you ain’t Black”, when he spoke about Blacks who don’t want to vote for him. This is where Polygon goes off the rails instead of keeping their arguments apolitical, but then, it’s not like such leftists sites ever understood the advantages. I’m also not accepting the idea that Watchmen makes a good template for updating. The following doesn’t help either:

 

Similarly, the Superman of Justice League: Gods and Monsters was raised by Mexican migrant workers, growing up among the suffering experienced by the undocumented. Considering the popularity of fresh, more diverse spins on popular characters like Miles Morales/Spider-Man and Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, this could be a perfect incarnation for expressing the themes of finding home and fighting for the oppressed that Siegel and Schuster originally envisioned.

 

Wow, so a cartoon suffers from leftist propaganda? Oh, what am I saying, of course cartoons are just as vulnerable to heavy handed politics as anything else. I’m sorry, but if they’re proposing that the forced politics behind the Morales and Khan characters makes the best template for updating Supes, that’s the wrong way to do it. The right way is to just allow Superman to be what Siegel and Shuster created him as, keep politics subtle without being insulting, make distinctions between the best and worst ideologies you could allude to, leave room for sci-fi elements of the best kind, and that way, you have a good escapist fare that can make you think without being lectured to. On which note, how funny they say this at the end:

 

Superhero stories are a form of escapism, allowing us to imagine what we might do with the ability to fly and the courage that comes from being bulletproof. Yet the best of them also explore what it is to be human and our relationship with power. As the first, Superman represents the genre in its purest, most idealized form. While his popularity and influence may have faded in favor of darker heroes, he just needs to step back into the light of our yellow sun to regain his strength and save the day once more.

 

Well at least that’s talking some sense. But then, shouldn’t they realize the Muslim Ms. Marvel can’t be escapism if it’s built on such disturbing ideologies, serving as a propaganda tool for the Religion of Peace? It’s been cancelled of recent anyway, and I’m sure they know it was never a very big seller. And if Superman’s popularity faded in favor of darker written heroes, that’s because of only so much indoctrination in favor of darkness that adds up to nothing but pretentiousness.

Shortly after the above Polygon op-ed was posted, there came the following one, citing their choices of the best 8 Superman stories of all time, and I think the following is at this point an egregious example:

 

Kingdom Come brings Superman low by killing Lois Lane and the rest of the staff of the Daily Planet and turning Kansas into a radioactive wasteland. It’s a haunting story, made even more eerie through Alex Ross’ painterly art style, which emphasizes every wrinkle and gray hair on its aging heroes as they struggle to find meaning and hope.

It’s a story that has only become more relevant with time with its anti-immigrant “heroes,” critiques of fascism, and emphasis on the power of unity and reconciliation over punitive justice. It’s also an indictment of the casual violence and destruction that dominates so much modern superhero media, a reminder that restraint and forgiveness can be the greatest shows of strength.

 

No kidding, KC’s an indictment of violence in superhero comics? Well why must all come at Lois, Smallville’s location and the Daily Planet staff’s expense? I’m sorry, but upon further evaluation over the years, this story, which the producers of the Injustice: Gods Among Us game must’ve been influenced by, is decidedly overrated, and takes more away from what makes Superman work than serve to deliver what the Man of Steel was built on – optimism and inspiration. And if I understand correctly, it built on the notion of making heroes out to look more like “fascists”, to say nothing of anti-immigrant in almost every way? Well, I guess this is one DC item of its sort I’m glad I never bought for my collection, because I can’t embrace its grime-laced vision. It’s definitely close to an example of all the needless stories depicting Superman as evil. They also cite Kurt Busiek’s Superman: Secret ID, from 2004:

 

True to the story’s name, writer Kurt Busiek largely turns his attention to the dilemmas involved in choosing to maintain a secret identity, starting with Clark as an isolated, lonely teen dreaming of the ways the school bullies and his secret crush would view him differently if they knew what he could do. What begins feeling a bit like a Spider-Man story told through a different lens continues to develop along with Clark himself, examining how a character with such a big secret and so much power would relate to the woman he loves, the U.S. government, and his children.

 

And why do I get the strange feeling allusions to the US government would be just as tasteless in this one, based on how far Busiek fell due to his leftist positions? There’s plenty of reasons I find the mention of government here just as discouraging.

Superman as a concept built on optimism is just as relevant today as before. It’s just a matter of assigning writers who don’t worry about petty issues like ability to relate and personality, so long as the action and character interactions are engaging. But Polygon, despite making a seeming argument in favor of this, has dampened their op-ed with divisive politics and an unclear stand on whether secret IDs and certain powers are “silly”, when they’re decidedly not. However you look at this, Superman is part and parcel of the science fiction genre, as are the characters related to his franchise like Supergirl, and to act like a fusspot over ambiguous positions like “realism” only takes away from the entertainment value one could bring to the table if they just concentrated on the primary goal of offering a decent escapist fare.

 

 

Originally published here.

Avi Green

Avi Green was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. He enjoyed reading comics when he was young, the first being Fantastic Four. He maintains a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy of facts. He considers himself a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. Follow him on his blog at Four Color Media Monitor or on Twitter at @avigreen1

JUST KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON