DENNIS O’NEIL: A Superman For Our Time
When we’re in a somber mood, which is an easy kind of mood to be in these days, we hope that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were not prophets. Joe and Jerry were, of course, the creators of Superman, and way back in 1938 they told what’s become known as Superman’s origin story.
Surely you’re familiar with it; it’s been retold and edited and redacted and emended and amended and recast in comics, in movies and books and on television, and probably video games, for these past 68 years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some earnest young writer is, at this moment, reworking it yet again. But in the event your long-term memory is gebollixed for some reason, I’ll give you the trading card version.
Jor-El, a scientist, tells the poobahs of his civilization on the planet Krypton that their entire world is soon to disintegrate. The poobahs refuse to believe him and – oops – the darn world does blow itself to bits. Jor-El does manage to get his son away in a spacecraft before the final blooey. The kid lands on Earth and becomes a mighty champion of justice, etc. etc.
If I were to rewrite this familiar story, I might consider making Jor-El an environmentalist who’s worried about, let’s say, global warming. And maybe, in this version, the poobahs are politicians who take Jor-El’s carefully reasoned and scientifically unimpeachable work, which Mr. El has presented in the form of a document, and had someone with negligible scientific credentials edit Mr. El’s writing so heavily that it’s meaning is altered.
I mean, my suggested revamp isn’t really too far from the original, is it? What’s scary is that it isn’t far at all from some recent real-life history. And that’s why, despite my great respect for Messrs. Siegel and Shuster, I hope they’re lousy prophets. Remember how their story ended? The poobahs insisted they were right and Jor-El was wrong, despite plenty of contrary evidence, and – Blooey!
If we were to redo, once again, what Joe and Jerry began with, we might consider expanding it to allow a look at the poobahs. The trick in doing this kind of thing is to ask, if these fictional characters were real, what kind of people would they be? Not conventionally “evil;” at least, they wouldn’t think of themselves as “evil;” no one does.
But arrogant, certainly: so sure of their own unchallenged superiority that they feel they don’t have to listen to, much less heed, anyone else. And prisoners of their own egos, which would not allow them to admit ever, being wrong. And not only greedy, but able to rationalize their greed, if there were a profit to be made from their acts.
All that would congeal into deep, impenetrable ignorance. Not lack of education, nor stupidity, but ignorance, which, in this context, we might define as a refusal to acknowledge the truth that’s available to them.
I’d like to read that story. In a comic book, not in a newspaper.
RECOMMENDED READING: The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins.
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles.
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