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Superman's identity crisis

June 25, 2006|Gerard Jones | GERARD JONES is the author of "Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book" (Basic Books) and a member of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto.

When Superman returns to the big screen after a nearly 20-year absence, it will be to a vastly changed movie landscape. During his last tour of duty -- the Christopher Reeve cycle -- he was still the only

comic-book superhero to have enjoyed the full, big-budget Hollywood treatment. Now, after five Batman movies, three X-Men films, a couple of Spider-Mans, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Daredevil and a small army of others, he'll be just another face in a super-powered crowd.

Will the first and most elemental of superheroes be able to reassert himself as the paragon of the form, the hero that every other elastic-wrapped champion of justice can only yearn to be? Or will he be perceived as merely one more franchise along the entertainment superhighway? Or worse yet, will he come off as too simple, too old-school, even too corny for today's hero-savvy crowd?

There were costumed crime-fighters in the newspaper funny pages and on radio before Superman appeared. There were interplanetary travelers with astounding powers in science fiction stories. But until Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster unveiled the last son of Krypton in 1938, no character had pulled together the whole package of superhuman powers, skintight costume, double identity and lifelong battle against evil. Before him, hardly any product of the shaky new comic book medium sold more than 100,000 copies. Within a year, Superman was selling more than 1 million. Within another year, he'd become a star of radio and movie cartoons, inspiring dozens of imitators and creating an industry.

He also was the simplest and purest of his type. Primary colors. No mask. The most basic little-kid wish-fulfilling powers. A superman from birth, who used "Clark Kent" as a pretense, rather than a man with all the idiosyncrasies of normality before being transformed.

And that name! Superman! From there, superheroes could only become more elaborate, more specialized, less perfect variations, shadows distorted on the wall of Plato's cave.

Not that he was always so morally or emotionally simple. In the early days, Siegel and Shuster allowed him a cruel sense of humor as he dangled thugs off skyscrapers to make them talk or tricked Lois Lane with humiliating pranks. They tossed him up against wife-beaters and crooked mine owners as well as mad scientists. But as would-be competitors such as Batman and the Human Torch staked their turf among the grimier city streets and the grayer areas of heroic behavior, Superman found his greatest success with a good-humored smugness and an ethical system as primary as his costume's palette.

For a while, that was all to his benefit. By the 1950s, the initial superhero fad had blown through and Superman was the last commercial success still standing. The George Reeves TV show institutionalized him as an icon of wholesome juvenile entertainment. Then the decade turned -- and what else did pop-culturists do in the '60s but throw caustic and ironic counterpoints at whatever had looked most reassuring in the '50s?

Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the other creations of the new Marvel comics (the chief rival to Superman's DC Comics) were everything the Man of Steel wasn't: jealous of their fellow heroes, unsure they were doing the right thing, driven as much by vanity and anger as by purer motives and generally feared and loathed by the masses whom they regularly snatched from the maw of annihilation.

Teenagers loved them, for what teenager doesn't glory in feeling tormented, incomprehensibly complicated and cruelly misjudged? They sneered at Superman as the commander of what Marvel's editor, Stan Lee, called "the Bubblegum Brigade."

Modern comics fandom was born, and whatever hero wanted to stay on top of the market had to swing with the times. Batman, despite decades of emulating Superman, was oddball enough to turn dark and edgy and stay on top of the market. Efforts to retrofit Superman would never pay off so well. His publishers would try killing him, resurrecting him full of vengeful rage, even letting him grow a beard (the last-ditch effort of the nice, suburban white guy who wishes he could develop an edge -- just ask Al Gore). But in the eyes of the world he would always be the old-style one, the simplistic one. Maybe it's just that name. Or maybe it's that we need a cornball against whom our current favorites can look hip.

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