Mindy Newell: Star Child
Well, this morning (Sunday, June 2, 2013) I was doing my usual routine, sipping tea at the breakfast table, working on the New York Times Sunday crossword and listening to NPR. (Yeah, I’m a media multi-tasker.) NPR’s Studio 360 series “American Icons” was about to start. It turned to be a rebroadcast of a program that originally aired on July 6, 2007.
And today’s icon was…
I didn’t remember hearing the original broadcast, and I’m guessing the station chose to rerun it because Man Of Steel is about to be released. At any rate, being a comic geek, I was delighted. Commentators included Margot Kidder, Jack Lawson, Bryan Singer, Michael Chabon, Jules Feifer, and Art Spiegelman. It touched on many areas – of course Siegel and Schuster and the shitty way they were treated by DC (NPR never reins in its guests, which is why I love it!), the relation of Superman to Jewish mythology and the immigrant experience, the history of Superman in the media, from the comics to radio to the dynamic Fleisher Studios animated movie shorts to television to the big screen – although there was no conversation about Man Of Steel, since it was a rebroadcast from just before Superman Returns was released.
Even though it is an old program, the content was still relevant – proving their point that Superman is an American icon. And the producers did their homework. A section that I especially liked was the discussion of Superman: Red Sun (by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Killian Plunkett. The prestige format mini-series, which hit the bookshelves in 2003 and was later collected and released as a graphic novel, was published under DC’s Elseworlds imprint, and explored this particular “what if?” scenario: What if Kal-El’s rocket from Krypton had landed in the Ukrainian farmlands during the Cold War? What if Superman wasn’t raised to fight for truth, justice, and the American way, but – as Millar wrote – “the Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact?”
This led to a really cool conversation on totalitarianism, fascism, World War II and the Nazis, and the use of Superman during that time as a propaganda tool by the American government to promote American ideals and values. As fellow columnist Robert Greenberger wrote here at ComicMix on December 7, 2009 , “a special edition of Superman…was produced for the U.S. Army. The Army had a problem at the time – they were drafting thousands of men a year, but many of them had no education to speak of, with large swaths of them functionally illiterate, and they were expected to operate complex machinery pretty quickly. They had to learn how to read, and fast. The troops also needed cheap and portable entertainment, something that could be carried through the battlefields of Europe and Asia. So with the cooperation of National Periodical Publications, the forerunner to DC Comics, this edition was produced by the War Department with simplified dialogue and word balloons. Hundreds of thousands of copies were distributed to GIs, and it helped them learn to read and to pass the time. And of course, copies of the comics were handed out to kids in faraway lands, as gestures of goodwill.”
The guests also discussed Superman and his role as the ultimate superhero, someone who has the power to do either enormous good or enormous evil. Either way, isn’t his decision to act at all, to interfere in the lives of the mortals beneath him, that of Nietzsche’s “übermench,” who will decide the fate of society?
IM-always-Not-So-Ho, Studio 360 did a great job dissecting what it is about the Kryptonian that makes him an American icon, and I totally recommend going to the NPR website and either streaming it or downloading it for podcast for your listening pleasure.
Williams’ score is still playing.
What really strikes me as I sit here, scenes from the movie replaying in my head – the oh-so-cool opening with the kid reading a comic and the camera zooming in on the Daily Planet as it transitions from comic page to “reality,” Superman rescuing the cat from the tree, of course Superman’s first rescue of Lois (“You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!”), the finale with Superman flying in orbit around the Earth and Christopher Reeve looking at us and smiling as he zooms off camera – is the impressive way that Williams leads the music from a grand, baroque science-fiction scenario (Krypton) to the down-to-earth gentleness of the Kent’s farm to the majestic sweep of the Kansas prairies as Clark follows his destiny to the romantic, impossible reality of Superman in Metropolis.
This is the Superman I love.
This is Superman. An American icon.
TUESDAY MORNING: Emily S. Whitten
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis