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Author Topic: The lesson the O'Neil years can teach Superman  (Read 3610 times)
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JulianPerez
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« on: April 27, 2006, 08:12:05 AM »

I give Denny a lot of crap, mostly because he deserves it. I mean, remember that issue where a race of aliens gave eternal life to Aaron Burr so he can save their civilization? What next? A Jim Aparo BRAVE AND THE BOLD where Batman teams up with Gore Vidal?

What happened to the utterly awesome comics Wunderkind that wrote such mindblowingly cool and fun books like HAWKMAN AND THE ATOM and the JUSTICE LEAGUE where they fight living suns? Denny O'Neil is the Danny Bonaduce of comic books: a cute little child actor that grows up to be a snaggletoothed drug addict.

But there is something of value to be taken from every single period, something important that we can learn from even the worst comics ages.

The lesson that Superman can learn from the Denny O'Neil years?

Kryptonite turning to iron and Superman's reduced power level aside for the moment, Dennis O'Neil asked a totally correct question that deserves an answer. He was not wrong in asking why does Superman matter? Why is he relevant?

The answer hit me when watching THE COOLER, a terrific movie about William H. Macy as Bernie, a loser that is so unlucky that casinos use him to knock down high rollers by having Bernie be near them. His unluckiness changes, however, when an attractive but down on her luck girl played by Maria Bello starts to warm up to him.

There was a scene where casino boss played by Alec Baldwin threatens Maria:

    ALEC: I can make you disappear like THAT! And not one f***ing person would miss you!

    MARIA: BERNIE WOULD![/list]

    THAT, friends, is what Denny can teach Superman, how Superman can be "relevant:" his belief that every single person has value.

    I'm not advocating Denny O'Neil type stories where Superman saves a homeless man from a mugger or comes to the rescue of hookers from their pimps. Superman is fundamentally a science fiction adventure character. He is an alien, he has weird powers, there's a sort of vague 1930s esque art deco futurism about the concept, and heck, even his "costume" was just meant to be something that looked futuristic and FLASH GORDON-esque. Superman is a cosmic character, the universe is his backyard. You can't have him fight Rupert Thorne and the Tobacconists' Club and have it make sense. At the same time, what Dennis was looking for is something future writers ought to look for as well.

    So, to answer Denny's question: why is Superman relevant? THIS is why: because when Alec Baldwin mentions that nobody in the world cares, Maria Bello can say that Superman DOES.

    Why does it bother people when Superman behaves badly as Clark Kent did in that SMALLVIlLLE story where he chooses someone to die to save his girl Lana? The reason is because 1) it conflicts with Superman's characterization, but 2) also because there is something fundamentally inclusive about Superman. Something that triggers a strong sense of identification.

    Siegel and Schuster discovered the adventure character equivalent of the formula for Coca-Cola. It isn't that Superman has incredible power. It isn't that Superman cares about everybody in the world. It's because of BOTH THESE THINGS TOGETHER. Mark Waid "got" the character in his "Identity Crisis" when someone says to Superman in the body of a boy that "I wish you WERE Superman. Then those guys wouldn't treat us this way." This is a much more powerful statement perhaps than Mark Waid intended.

    This is why STAR TREK has such an unreal fandom among undersocialized teenagers: the characters in TREK are friends and like each other. There was a situation of warmth that existed on the Enterprise. Fry in FUTURAMA once defined it best in this nakedly honest confession where he explains why he likes STAR TREK:

      FRY: "When I was young, I felt like I didn't have any friends. Star Trek made me feel like I did." [/list]
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      nightwing
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      « Reply #1 on: April 27, 2006, 02:00:03 PM »

      Quote
      So, to answer Denny's question: why is Superman relevant? THIS is why: because when Alec Baldwin mentions that nobody in the world cares, Maria Bello can say that Superman DOES.


      Yes, and anyone who can save us from Alec Baldwin is a hero indeed!  Cheesy

      Seriously, while I usually shy away from applying messianic analogies to Superman, they do seem to keep presenting themselves, and I think Supes provides in a secular way what Christ does for his believers; that ray of hope you suggest...that notion that no matter how bad things get, no matter how low we may feel, one person will always care, and luckily he's a person in a position to actually help.

      This is an important aspect of the Superman mythos, I agree.  A lot of modern comics fans dismiss  the pre-Crisis version of Superman because, being invulnerable and super-powerful, nothing he does can be truly heroic (as opposed to Batman, for example, who's mortal and theoretically could be hurt or killed).  But for me the basic point of Superman is that with all he *could* do, with no real barriers to indulging every selfish whim and pushing the rest of us around for laughs, Superman instead devotes his talents and powers to mankind.  That's a powerful message, really, if you're open to it.  Sure some bitter souls out there will think, "I'm not Superman, so what can I do about the world's problems?  Let him handle it."  But others would "get" it; they would think, "If a guy as powerful as Superman can take the time to help people out when there's nothing in it for him, the least I can do is chip in where I can, too."

      This isn't even a hypothetical scenario.  In our own world, a world where Superman exists only as a fictional character, he's nonetheless inspired many, many people over the years to do all sorts of wonderful things to help others.  Just think how much larger an influence he would be if he was actually physically here with us.


      Quote
      This is why STAR TREK has such an unreal fandom among undersocialized teenagers: the characters in TREK are friends and like each other. There was a situation of warmth that existed on the Enterprise. Fry in FUTURAMA once defined it best in this nakedly honest confession where he explains why he likes STAR TREK:


      FRY: "When I was young, I felt like I didn't have any friends. Star Trek made me feel like I did."


      Ha.  That reminds me of a Sunday strip in "Funky Winkerbean" way back in the 80s (when it was funny).  Crazy is staying in some sort of halfway house or group home, I forget, and the counselor finds him reading a comic book on the front porch (geek that I am, I immediately recognized it as X-Men #137).  Their exchange goes something like this:

      COUNSELOR: A comic book, eh?

      CRAZY:  Yeah.

      COUNSELOR:  I used to love those.  You know, when I went away to college, I was really lonely at first.  It was a big town and I didn't know anyone.  Then I went into a drug store and saw some comics on a spindle rack and it was like seeing old friends from home.  You ever feel that way?

      CRAZY:  Nah, I just buy 'em for the ads.  Did you know you can buy glasses that see right through people's clothes?!
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      JulianPerez
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      « Reply #2 on: April 28, 2006, 12:32:18 AM »

      And that's another thing I've wondered, that maybe somebody more up on political science can tell me: what is it with liberals and Aaron Burr? Denny O'Neil had him save a civilization, and supposedly Gore Vidal also is wrapped up in this founding father's mystique.

      Quote from: "nightwing"
      Seriously, while I usually shy away from applying messianic analogies to Superman, they do seem to keep presenting themselves, and I think Supes provides in a secular way what Christ does for his believers; that ray of hope you suggest...that notion that no matter how bad things get, no matter how low we may feel, one person will always care, and luckily he's a person in a position to actually help.


      Very well put. I too, am made anxious by comparisons of Superman to religious and mythic figures (you don't have to have Superman attempt the Twelve Labors of Hercules - just have Superman be who he is and the comparison to myth will speak for itself).

      But I would agree that the reason that Superman's concept works is the same reason that many people find Jesus and Christianity attractive; not because the two are similar, but because they work for the same reason. The both can have that effect on people, that it makes people respond with a sense of identification.

      Okay, granted, it's not that simple: Superman has had great writers and great artists over the years, excellent movies, and so forth that are very much a part of Superman having staying power in the public mind (who KNOWS why Pink Floyd has so much staying power in pop culture whereas the equally talented Blue Oyster Cult have not had as much?).

      Quote from: "nightwing"
      Ha.  That reminds me of a Sunday strip in "Funky Winkerbean" way back in the 80s (when it was funny).  Crazy is staying in some sort of halfway house or group home, I forget, and the counselor finds him reading a comic book on the front porch (geek that I am, I immediately recognized it as X-Men #137).  Their exchange goes something like this:

      COUNSELOR: A comic book, eh?

      CRAZY:  Yeah.

      COUNSELOR:  I used to love those.  You know, when I went away to college, I was really lonely at first.  It was a big town and I didn't know anyone.  Then I went into a drug store and saw some comics on a spindle rack and it was like seeing old friends from home.  You ever feel that way?

      CRAZY:  Nah, I just buy 'em for the ads.  Did you know you can buy glasses that see right through people's clothes?!


      Ha ha ha! That's beautiful.
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      Johnny Nevada
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      « Reply #3 on: April 28, 2006, 02:23:25 AM »

      Quote from: "JulianPerez"
      And that's another thing I've wondered, that maybe somebody more up on political science can tell me: what is it with liberals and Aaron Burr? Denny O'Neil had him save a civilization, and supposedly Gore Vidal also is wrapped up in this founding father's mystique.


      I'm a liberal, but don't think about Aaron Burr much in day-to-day political readings (and more likely to read Molly Ivins than Gore Vidal, though respect him...). :-)

      Re: Funky: Heh... that story sounds way more lighthearted than Funky nowadays (a pretty depressing read half the time)...
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      Russell
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      « Reply #4 on: June 04, 2006, 01:33:19 AM »

      Great stuff that I'll turn in my head for days as per usual, Julian. Thanks.
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      alschroeder
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      « Reply #5 on: June 08, 2006, 07:07:36 PM »

      Nevertheless, where O'Neil got it WRONG was having Superman pitying himself for "only" having the Hulk's strength and super-leaping ability, Quicksilver's super-speed, and super-senses.  No matter how much of a comedown it was for the Silver Age Superman, it was extremely hard for a reader to empathize with, since we have NO powers.

      Oh, and a bestseller about Aaron Burr came out in the mid-seventies, a biography that O'Neil obviously read, painting him in a new light.---Al
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      Al Schroeder III, former letterhack (met his wife through Julie Schwartz' lettercolumns) of MINDMISTRESS http://mindmistress.comicgenesis.com---think the superhero genre is mined out? Think there are no new superhero ideas?

      Think again.
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