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Author Topic: the boy scout myth  (Read 9733 times)
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India Ink
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« on: September 02, 2011, 07:10:07 PM »

I think the boy scout myth (the familiar refrain that "Superman is a boy scout") is a product of the 1980s. Because I don't see any evidence of this thinking before then.

How it developed I'm not sure--and I haven't done any research on this, so I'm just relying on memory--but it probably started in the fanzines (and in talk around the comic shops) just before the reboot--as a way of justifying why the Man of Steel needed to be rebooted; i.e. Superman is too much of a boy scout ergo he must be rebooted to have more of an "edge."

The thing is I don't see that Superman acted like a boy scout before the reboot--I'll get to that in a bit.

AFTER the reboot, two things stand out in my mind that label Superman as a boy scout. One is the way he acted in Frank Miller's Batman : The Dark Knight--the four part prestige format series that has since been identified as "Dark Knight Returns." Especially in the fourth part, where Superman and Batman have their final battle. Superman seems to be a quasi-fascistic agent of the government, always doing the "right thing" which in this case means doing extreme right wing actions to support authority.

Let me rush to point out here that boy scouts are not known to be fascists. It's only in the hip parlance of comic book fandom that "boy scout" and "fascist" seem to have been confused. And Superman's respect for authority is only one attribute--there were other attributes that created this sense of Superman as a "boy scout" in the 1980s.

Miller was writing his Dark Knight prior to the release of John Byrne's Man of Steel--so we can only conclude that his version of Superman is based on the classic Superman; however, I think I am not alone in believing that his version of Superman is an extreme caricature that does not correspond to any Superman that we had seen up until then. At best it's a "what if" version of the Man of Tomorrow--what if Superman headed down a road of extreme allegiance to a corrupt government. But Miller's Superman is not very well fleshed out--he's simply a one dimensional deus ex machina in the final part of the Dark Knight.

John Byrne's 1980s Superman was much more fleshed out. Like Miller, though, he shows Superman being in cahoots with the American government--in the Legends mini-series, where the Metropolis Marvel seems to be on friendly terms with President Reagan.

Moreover, by playing up Superman's connection to Smallville--which is now in the American mid-west (instead of not far outside Metropolis, as had been the case in classic continuity)--and his connection to his 'American Gothic' style parents. And by maintaining that Clark is the real person (he didn't even know he was from another planet until he grew up). Byrne keeps up this idea of Superman as a good ol' boy with homespun American values. A boy scout.

This is the curious thing--Byrne's Superman seems much more of a boy scout than he was in the pre-reboot times. It's hard to see how Byrne actually gave Superman more of an edge, insofar as his characterization went.

Earlier I said that I don't think Superman acted so much like a boy scout before the reboot. What I mean is Superman during the first four decades of the character was written by urban, witty men based in New York. They gave him a certain amount of their own ironic view on the world.

Later critics of the classic Superman, who grew up after these times, have a hard time understanding this Superman. To them, he seems overly manipulative, sometimes unfeeling, and omnipotent. But this version of Superman is more comprehensible if you see that the writers are writing irony. It's important in this kind of writing that we appreciate things that are hidden from others. Or in some cases, the reader doesn't know what the characters know. There's a lot of pulling of strings to get the right effect. Sometimes Superman is used to pull those strings. Sometimes it's another character. Sometimes the reader is invited into the manipulation, sometimes the reader is kept out. But the whole point is some kind of clever display. It's like watching someone spinning a lot of plates on the Ed Sullivan show. If you admire such feats (as I do), then these stories are very satisfying.

In any event, the Superman in such adventures, despite having grown up in the town of Smallville, is not a small town hayseed. He's a cultured individual who has travelled the cosmos, speaks thousands of languages, and he has a very elevated conception of the world. He remembers Krypton and he's contacted many different civilizations throughout his life. He's really a city boy--in a magnified sense.

That's not to say city boys can't be boy scouts, too. But in the pejorative sense in which comic book fans mean "boy scout," the classic Superman doesn't really fit the category.

It's true that he was sometimes friends with presidents--but he also acted according to his own code, going against government dictates when he felt the need to do so. If he's an authority figure, he's an authority unto himself. His code of conduct is a unique philosophy that he has worked out for himself, given his great power. It's not a code of conduct that any world government aspires to.

Even in the 1970s, when characterization was much more up front in stories, Superman reflected the kind of well-educated urban sensibilities of his writers and editors. Clark's job as a television anchorman put him in the position of a cosmopolitan, at the very centre of Metropolis society. His intervention in the lives of others was tempered by a sense that he had to leave people to make their own decisions and control their own destinies. Even in the way that Superman used his powers, he often chose to be clever rather than heavy-handed.

The "boy scout" label was, I believe, a 1980s invention designed to rationalize any change made to the character. And it continues to be a label that is invoked whenever someone wants to justify yet another alteration of the character. But it's an empty label. Whatever changes that are perpetrated are just as likely to intensify a sense of Superman as a "boy scout." Because the character has been stuck with it. So readers presume Superman is a boy scout and then look for any evidence they can find to support that belief. Once this label was created, it became Superman's albatross.
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India Ink
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« Reply #1 on: September 03, 2011, 03:47:09 AM »

Without a doubt, "Dark Knight" had a big influence on the rebooted Batman and Superman, which in my view was a bad thing:  A big part of DK's power was in seeing what the traditional 70s versions of the characters had turned into - but after Byrne's MoS and Miller's Batman Year One, there was no more character evolution in DK's backstory - Superman and Batman had just always been that way.

As far as the "Big Blue Boy Scout" thing, my memory is that both the characterization and the term were inventions of Dark Knight Returns, but I'm no longer sure on that.
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« Reply #2 on: September 03, 2011, 12:37:34 PM »

My thoughts on the subject:

http://supermanfan.nu/main/?p=1824

Short version: support you local scouts and use modern comics to line your bird cage.  Unless you really like your bird.

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« Reply #3 on: September 08, 2011, 01:18:12 PM »

the whole thing about Superman being a bit of a doofus/boy scout seems to come out around crisis. Though Byrne's version wasn't that bad it just seemed to get worse as DC hired Marvel fans to write superman.

Now nothing against Marvel fans but they hate Superman. So they try to write him as they imagined he was (which is to say "sucky")
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India Ink
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« Reply #4 on: September 09, 2011, 05:00:40 AM »

Yeah, like I said in my original post, I think the "boy scout" idea is a myth created in the mid-80s. But it never goes away. It remains this boogeyman that writers and editors continually revive so as to take pot shots at it--and suggest that somehow their version is different from that 'bad old boy scout.'

What prompted me to post this topic was reading a Newsrama interview with Grant Morrison--which had been linked to elsewhere on this forum--in which he says "Nobody has much faith in their elected leaders in the same way that they did. We all have a lot more cynicism and a lot more doubt about the people who are running our lives than we did when Superman was a 'Boy Scout.'"

And that just sets me off, because Morrison should know better. In that interview he makes these two dimensional assertions about past incarnations of Superman. But he himself knows there was a lot more depth to Superman than what he suggests. And he ought to know that this kind of boy scout never really existed--at least not in the 60s.

But it's not just him who does this. Everybody does it. So it's kind of hard to see how it will be put to rest. Even if Morrison's version of Superman isn't this purported boy scout. The myth still has teeth and will be repeated for more years to come. When you repeat a lie long enough it takes on the veneer of truth.
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India Ink
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« Reply #5 on: September 12, 2011, 07:53:10 PM »

While I reject the notion of the "bad boy scout" as a kind of myth that's been manufactured by fans and pros alike, I recognize the "good boy scout" that nightwing talks about. The good boy scout is the real sense of what I think of as a boy scout--not the limited definition that the naysayers have imposed on the rhetoric, which equally offends traditional Superman supporters and true boy scouts.

And unlike Grant Morrison, I think that the good boy scout was always a part of Siegel and Shuster's creation. I believe it was their intention to establish a character who would stand for certain moral principles and inspire his readers to good civic action. While Superman challenged the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats in local and national government, he supported the ideals of America--as Jerry and Joe did, being children of immigrants who came to America with a belief in the dream of life, liberty, and justice for all.

Very early in the Superman comics, Siegel and Shuster had set up the Supermen of America--which was a kind of quasi-boy scouts organization intended to promote Superman stories and products, to be sure, but also as a pubic service for the inspiration of boys across America (and in fact beyond her borders). Superman encouraged these boys to be active and to do good things for their community.

Even the early stories have Superman doing this kind of thing. The idea of Superman as a crusader for social justice and the idea of Superman as a boy scout are not mutually exclusive--they are one and the same.

To do this kind of surgery on Superman--to remove the social crusader from the boy scout--is to do violence to Jerry and Joe's concept.  Superman may have been brutal sometimes in the execution of his mission (though I don't believe he was the brute that people paint in revisionist history), yet his actions were tempered with a kind heart. His primary concern was to champion the downtrodden--and in the Depression, children had often been the greatest victims.

I came across the poem by Langston Hughes "Let America be American Again" (written in 1938) and I found in its irony something that could apply to Superman. Superman is really fighting for an ideal that was never entirely realized, yet it's a dream that he has--or rather his creators have. A dream where every man and woman has equal standing. It's ironic that a man with the greatest power is working to give power to those that don't have it. But that's the Superman story.

It reminds us that one can be ironic and yet sincere. We shouldn't confuse this with sarcasm. Irony was always an aspect of Superman--from his winks to the reader to his choice of secret identity to his mythic nature as both the most aliens of aliens and the most American of Americans.
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India Ink
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« Reply #6 on: September 13, 2011, 05:56:04 PM »

Quote
And unlike Grant Morrison, I think that the good boy scout was always a part of Siegel and Shuster's creation.

Let me say this about that (channeling Vaughn Meader).

I don't know that Morrison really believes Superman ever deserved the "boy scout" label, or that he necessarily agrees it's a negative.  But his job right now is to promote a book, and a key aspect of marketing any Superman product these days -- unfortunately -- is to acknowledge this perceived weakness and put people's minds at ease.  It's like that long period where you could only sell a Batman book or movie if you said, "Don't worry, there's no Robin in this one."  Morrison may or may not think Superman was a "boy scout" (in the fanboy insult sense) but he knows that's the perception a lot of folks have, and he needs to assure them it does not apply to his version.  It's easier than telling those people they were wrong in the first place.

I don't necessarily see it as an indication he will make Superman any less the hero.  Superman is what he is, and if he's ever going to work at all, he has to behave in a certain way. Ultimately it all comes down to semantics; how do you pitch old-fashioned concepts like altruism, integrity and idealism to a generation taught to value self-gratification, distrust of authority and rank cynicism?  In the end, they -- like anyone else -- respond positively to characters who act heroically, it's just that they're too cool and hip to sign onto lofty ideals.  The trick is to find a way to be a "boy scout" and "cool" at the same time.

I liken it to the "Bond Girl" phenomenon.  Everyone likes to poke fun at Bond girls as vapid bimbos in bikinis, and with every film the producers and actresses like to say "this one is different...this character is more Bond's equal....this character is an atomic scientist..."  or whatever.  And in the end they all end up in a bikini, grabbing Bond's arm and screaming for help.  On the one hand, we're embarrassed by the Bond girl archetype but on the other hand we feel cheated if we don't get it every film.  Sure she's bra-less under that tight halter top, but it's okay, she's a nuclear physicist." 

This is Morrison's tightrope walk, as well; write a heroic Superman who stands for something important without making today's readers feel embarrassed to believe in heroism or higher ideals, things they all cherish even if they dare not admit it to a roomful of their peers.

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« Reply #7 on: September 13, 2011, 07:53:18 PM »

I do agree that it's a mistake to trust Morrison's word. He's always working an angle. Unfortunately too many bloggers pull out quotes from Morrison from one interview or another and present it as his genuine belief. They miss the point that in his Scottish accent he's often using an ironic tone and you can't really trust that this is his true meaning.

If the guy could really express everything he means just through holding interviews, there would be no need to write comic books.

My reaction isn't really to Morrison himself--my reaction is to the reaction he usually generates on blogs, which seems gormless and unconsidered.

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