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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Russell Keaton

Man of Steel

There have always been two flavors of superhero: Marvel and DC. When my dad was reading comics in the 40s, Marvel (AKA Timely) threw anti-heroes into DC’s original, and so much blander. good guy mix. When I was reading comics in the 70s, Marvel put out the sophisticated stuff, DC the embarrassingly childish. My twelve-year-old son reads the occasional comic now but mostly takes his superheroes in movie form like everyone else in the 21st century. But Marvel and DC are still the reigning flavors. Only these days Marvel Entertainment tends toward the comically playful, Warner Brothers the pretentiously somber.

Look at Iron Man 3, an incoherent but highly entertaining comedy. The slapstick moment in The Avengers when the Hulk punches Thor after teaming up to fight alien invaders made me snort so loudly I embarrassed my teenaged daughter. Dark Knight Rises on the other hand, not so much with the uncontrollable laughter. Ditto for Man of Steel. Is that a bad thing? Well, it means my wife writhed in her seat for 143 minutes, tweeting updates of her torture. My son at least enjoyed the fight scenes.

I’m not a big Zack Snyder. 300 enraged me, Watchmen bored me. But Man of Steel I can mostly live with. Except for the shot after shot after World Trade Center-inspired shot of collapsing New York. When the hell did the 9/11 get downgraded to CGI fodder?

But aside for the drone Superman downs in the epilogue because the government keeps trying to invade his privacy, Snyder isn’t interested in the War on Terror. He, like so many recent superhero writers, is stuck in World War II. General Zod is this month’s Hitler reboot. If a field of human skulls is too subtle a Holocaust allusion, Superman spells it out: “You’re talking about genocide.”

There’s been some internet kvetching about the damage the movie does to old Superman mythology. Ignoring a few four-winged dragons, I disagree. For all his pretentious somberness, Zack Snyder gets Jerry Siegel. Superman was born to battle eugenics, and eugenics is what Man of Steel is most about.

Snyder’s Krypton isn’t a luckless ice planet dying of old age. It is the pinnacle of selective breeding, a planet whose inhabitants have taken the reins of evolution and engineered themselves into a race of violently amoral ubermensch. They breed scientifically, culling only the so-called best from a gene pool Registry. As one of Zod’s sidekicks quips: “Evolution always wins.”

Siegel said as much in Superman #1: “Superman came to Earth from the planet Krypton whose inhabitants had evolved, after billions of years, to physical perfection!” In Superman’s newspaper comic strip premiere, Krypton is “a distant planet so far advanced in evolution that it bears a civilization of supermen—beings which represent the human race at its ultimate peak of perfect development!” How can aliens represent the human race? Easy. They’re not aliens. The original Krypton was Earth:

“In his laboratory, the last man on Earth worked furiously. He had only a few moments left.

“Giant cataclysms were shaking the dying planet, destroying mankind. It was in its last days, dying . . .

“The last man placed his infant babe within a small time-machine he had completed, launching it as—

“—the laboratory walls caved-in upon him.

“The time-vehicle flashed back thru the centuries, alighting in the primitive year, 1935 A.D.”

That’s the script Siegel mailed Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton in the summer of 1934. After drawing a few test scripts, Keaton turned him down, and Siegel crawled back to his high school pal Joe Shuster.

But his Superman wasn’t from a galaxy far far away. He was barely even scifi. After the German invasion of Poland and France, William Marston wrote that Siegel “believed that the real superman of the future would be someone with vast power who would use his invincible strength to right human wrongs.” That phrase, “the real superman of the future,” is literal. The Superman was the stated goal of eugenics.

Krypton’s Registry, the Codex of the genetically fit that General Zod wants so desperately, that’s literal too. American tycoon John Harvey Kellog (yes, you’ve eaten his cornflakes) and his Race Betterment Foundation started it back in 1915. Long Island’s Eugenics Registry Office opened in 1910, advocating the prevention of unfit breeding through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, sterilization, and “euthanasia.” The committee recommended every American smallville have its own gas chamber.

By the time Siegel was writing, Germany had adopted that American model and was expanding it into Auschwitz. That’s the Krypton Siegel was fighting against. His Superman was literally the Nazi Superman, plucked from the eugenic future and redirected to fight the superpowers who evolved him.

So I get why Snyder’s take is light with the laugh track. But didn’t we already win World War II? I wouldn’t mind a history lesson–in fact, yes, let’s please correct all the U.S. History textbooks that have conveniently written out the U.S.’s leadership in the eugenics movement.Eugenics was still taught in high school biology classes even while we were at war with the movement’s ultimate champions. A Superman fan in the late 30s and early 40s would have gotten Siegel’s allegories. But of the millions who saw Man of Steel opening weekend, how many registered anything but a Dark Knight-esque scifi romp? We should understand General Zod as more than just some alien supervillain. He’s us. He’s America’s darkest potential. I’m not sure even Snyder knows that.

I don’t necessarily object to Hollywood using the Holocaust and 9/11 to rake in profits. But I do expect something in the trade. Maybe some sly introspection? A little under-the-current thought-provocation on the socio-political issue of the film-makers’ choice? Instead, we get more destruction, a Superman who indifferently pulverizes his own Smallville and Metropolis during his ubermensch slugfests. Are we really not supposed to think about the collateral body count in the convenience stores and skyscrapers? There are a lot of reasons not to laugh during this movie.

I was being partisan as kid when I duped myself into thinking Marvel was so much more sophisticated than childish DC. Maybe I’m still duping myself. Marvel Entertainment has no trouble cranking out its own brand of pretension. But superheroes remain a goofy genre, endlessly championing CGI fight spectacles over story and character.There’s a rather low, Hollywood-imposed limit to what such a movie can do. Zack Snyder’s somber palette and frowning ubermensch (did I mention the Christ motif?) aren’t pushing any of those boundaries. Neither are the members of the cheerier, Joss Whedon team. But when I go to my smallville theater to watch some guy in a cape, I prefer to come out giggling.

superman laughing

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A) Earth

B) Mars

C) a planet opposite Earth on the other side of the sun.

(Sorry, “Krypton” is not an option.)

If you went with “B” (a good multiple choice technique since test-makers have an unconscious tendency to “hide” correct answers), you apparently have read Jack Williamson’s 1929 short story “The Girl from Mars.” Superman creator Jerry Siegel read it in high school. The “Lost Planet” of Mars, like Krypton, explodes, but not before its scientists save their race by launching unborn offspring to Earth. Siegel must have skipped over the bit about fertilization and gestation, but one of the adopted Martians “was brought up by a farmer,” providing a seed for Superman’s origin.

If you went with “C,” you’re a radio fan. When Allen Ducovny and Robert Joffe Maxwell adapted the star of Action Comics for a radio serial in 1940, they located Superman’s home planet in our own solar system, but hid it from Earth’s view. Siegel jettisoned artificial insemination, but the radio team tossed out childhood too. Their Superman steps out of his rocket fully grown.

If you went with “A,” you’re with me. After Joe Shuster burnt the first draft of Superman, Siegel approached comic strip artist Russell Keaton to illustrate a rewrite. The script resembles what would become Action Comics #1, only instead of Krypton exploding, Earth “was in its last days, dying” as “the last man placed his infant babe within a small time-machine” and launched it to “the primitive year, 1935, A.D.” The child’s “physical structure was millions of years advanced.” The Man of Tomorrow was literally the man of tomorrow.

He was also literally “superman,” Nietzsche’s vision of mankind’s evolutionary future. What Nazi Germany was marching toward. Siegel co-opted eugenics, the product of an explicitly pro-Aryan, anti-Semitic pseudo-science nurtured in the U.S. and championed in Germany, and turned it against itself. After Keaton drew sample strips, Clark becomes the adoptive son of Sam and Molly Kent who realize they have a “duty to train him . . . so that he will use his super strength to help those in need of assistance.”

The genetic child of the German future would be nurtured by the loving parents of the American present.

Take that, Ubermensch.

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Jonathan and Martha Kent are dead. Superman writers Grant Morrison and George Pérez killed Clark Kent’s adoptive parents for the latest history-altering DC reboot. Fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Kent (unlike Spider-Man’s immortal Aunt May) are no newcomers to the afterlife.

Before the first DC reboot in 1986, the Kents were strictly flashback characters for Superboy stories. Before writer-artist John Byrne resurrected them, the elderly couple had always passed quietly away before Clark assumed the adult role of Superman.

In fact, they dropped dead specifically to spur their orphaned son to greatness:

“The passing away of his foster-parents greatly grieved Clark Kent. But it strengthened a determination that had been growing in his mind. Clark decided he must turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind. And so was created — Superman!”

My parents achieved a similar goal through less melodramatic means:  they sent me to college (the alien planet my daughter will launch toward in four years).

For Batman, Bob Kane replaced the Kents’ flower-strewn gravesite with murdered-before-his-eyes corpses, but the narrative logic is the same. Apparently dead parents are very motivating. Plus it’s hard to be a hero when Dad’s king of the castle and Mom’s still packing your lunches.

It’s a crusty old plot (for starters check out Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Spring-Heeled Jack). So belated kudos to Byrne for breaking it. Even if it did mean the Kents’ Metropolis visits got a bit too regular.

The doting Eddie Jones and K. Callan embodied them in the mid-nineties Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, and when Annette O’Toole and John Schneider assumed their Smallville roles in 2000, they couldn’t even bother being “elderly” anymore.

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are up next (Superman: Man of Steel began shooting in August). I’m rooting for director Zack Snyder to team-up with Pérez Morrison and knock them off early. Or at least (please) Costner.

Glenn Ford dutifully died of a heart attack out in his field of dreams back in the 1978 Superman. Scriptwriter and Godfather author Mario Puzo gave Mr. Kent an offer he couldn’t refuse, but not Phyllis Thaxter. She lived on to be reincarnated by Eva Marie Saint in the 2006 Superman Returns. The original widowed Mrs. Kent awards go to Frances Morris in the 1950’s Adventures of Superman TV and Virginia Carroll in the 1948 Superman film serial that launched the TV show.

Perhaps there’s a case to be made for the necessity of only killing father figures (consider Spider-Man again and his Uncle Ben), but during Superman’s first decade neither of the Kents was a target of narrative manslaughter. In fact, neither of them particularly existed.

When Superman first appeared on TV in the early 40’s as a Max and Dave Fleischer cartoon, the Kryptonian had never been adopted by any Smallville couple. He grew up in an orphanage after being plucked from his rocket ship by an unnamed motorist.

The Fleischers weren’t the first to cut that particular narrative corner. When Superman had premiered on the radio a year earlier, he stepped full-grown from his capsule, no Kents in sight then either.

Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel didn’t pen Superman’s radio and cartoon incarnations, but he was no fan of Clark’s foster parents himself. When he and Joe Shuster flew their Man of Steel to daily newspaper syndication in 1939, they replaced them with that same orphan asylum and passing motorist.

The Kents didn’t exist for the first year of Action Comics either. They were shoe-horned in for Superman No. 1, a reprint of previous adventures with a few pages of new, editor-mandated material. The first comic book reboot. Clark’s institutionalized childhood was swapped for “the love and guidance of his kindly foster-parents.” The passing motorist was now named Mr. Kent who, after dumping that alien baby at the orphanage, returns with his wife to reclaim him (“We couldn’t get that sweet child of our mind”).

The Kents were never Siegel’s idea anyway. When Joe Shuster flung the rejected first draft of Superman into the fire, Siegel begged Buck Rogers artist Russell Keaton to replace his partner. Keaton also replaced Siegel’s scripts. There are no Kents in his 1934 summary. They debuted in Keaton’s unpublished sample strips, a fleshed-out version of the adoption story Siegel recycled and condensed for Superman No. 1.

Jerry Siegel’s own origin story is closer to Bruce Wayne’s. His father died in an armed robbery in 1932. Jerry was 18. Was it less painful to pretend that his father had never existed? I’m 45. I don’t want to imagine the stories I’ll tell myself after my parents’ deaths.

Siegel continued to live with his widowed mother to became the permanent baby of the family, trapped at home under her protective wing while he watched his siblings fly off. He dreamed up Superman a year later. Would he have preferred the accelerated adulthood of orphanage life over such loving guidance? Probably not. But Superman was a daydream. An escape. A superhero doesn’t like anybody telling him what to do.

Probably George Pérez and Grant Morrison don’t either, but they’re working under the firm and loving guidance of their editors. DC, like Siegel, wants to snip the apron strings early and send their Superman flying solo.

So rest in peace Jonathan and Martha. See you at the next rewrite.

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