Thursday, August 14, 2008

Supermonth: Supertropes I Hate: Soul-Vision

I'm told that I have Elliot S! Maggin to blame for this trope. Apparently, some passage in Miracle Monday inspired Mark Waid, in "Superman: Birthright," to give Superman the ability to see the souls auras of all living things. We'll get back to that momentarily.

In theory, I like Elliot S! Maggin. The idea of having an exclamation point in your name is simply awesome, and I dig (the first) Kristin Wells, the Superwoman from the future--especially her costume. In practice, though, I don't think I've ever read any Maggin Superman stories that I've really enjoyed. Everything I've read from him seems to me like it takes itself way, way too seriously. And the idea that "Kal-El" translates roughly to "Star Child" is a bit too end-of-"Neverending Story" for my taste.

And yet, just yesterday I bought Miracle Monday at a used book store, thereby completing my collection of Elliot S! Maggin Superman novels, neither of which I've read. Yet. I think I'll be hitting up Tom DeHaven's It's Superman before I get to the Maggin stuff.

So, Mark Waid gave Superman the ability to see this amazingly beautiful aura around all living creatures, and he hated to see that aura snuffed out. Consequently, he was a vegetarian.

Now, here's where I start having a problem: plants are living, too. They're just as alive as animals. Why wouldn't they have an aura? What about bacteria and fungi? What gives animals the special soul-aura that makes them inedible? Would he see an aura around Medphyll or Mogo? Or Red Tornado? The kingdom of Animalia represents a relatively small portion of living things, especially in a universe as densely populated as the DCU. The whole concept fails out of the gate.

But my bigger problem is a thematic one, one that plagues so much of "Birthright." John Byrne may not do much right, but his Superman was conceptually more "man" than "super." He was (technically) born on Earth, his costume was designed by his human family, and his decision to become a superhero was borne out of his rapport with humanity and desire to help people.

Waid, on the other hand, ramped up the alien aspect of Superman's character. He made Clark more of an outcast loser than he had been in decades (perhaps more than he ever had been), Superman's costume came from his alien parents, and as the biggest punch to the gut, his rationale for helping people was more or less borne out of his alien ability to see their souls, and not wanting to have to endure the ugliness of watching souls go poof. This kind of thing really distances Superman from the humanity he struggles so hard to achieve and maintain, and that's a damn shame.

And the worst part of all of this is that every time I think the soul-vision idiocy has been shoved mercifully back into the bottle, it crops up again in-continuity, where Superman assures Lex Luthor or Superboy that they do, in fact, possess souls (which, apparently, means that they're living animals. Whoop-de-flibbity-doo). It hasn't shown up recently, certainly not that I've seen post-OYL, so I hope above hope that Busiek and Johns and the others working on Superman comics have recognized what an asinine idea this is, and have consigned it to the dustbin of stupid powers along with super-hypnotism and rebuild-the-Great-Wall-of-China-vision.


Will Staples said...

The thing I disliked most about Birthright was what it did to Pa Kent. Pre-BR and Post-BR Jonathan Kent are completely different characters in both personality and appearance. Continuity quibbles aside, though, I hated how he and Clark now had a strained relationship.

The greatest thing about John Byrne's run in my opinion (and proof that even a broken clock is right twice a day) is that Clark had a loving and open relationship with both his parents, making him an even greater foil for both Batman and Wonder Woman. So now that Pa is a gaunt, emotionally closed man (who will apparently die in the upcoming Brainiac story arc), I think part of the Superman mythos has died with the friendly little old man he used to be.

I don't know who first said it, but I like the idea that while Superman got his powers from Jor-El, he learned how to be a hero from Jonathan Kent. With Birthright's retcon, that's no longer true.

Will Staples said...

Oh, and It's Superman is nothing at all like Superman as we know him, but it's a good read all the same. I recommend it.

Justin said...

I enjoyed the alien aspect of Superman. One thing that gets mentioned a lot is the "immigrant" aspect of Superman, and that isn't played up a lot. But they did it really well in Birthright. Everything from the curiosity about his legacy, to recognising his culture through his costume, it is all very much part of a good immigrant character.

Soul vision is silly though.

Jason said...

I always saw Birthright as the big, dumb action movie version of Superman's origin, and I really pay it little mind. Man of Steel was the version that came out when I was a kid, so I guess that'll always be canon for me, despite the jerk that Byrne is these days.

Anyhoo, I'd definitely recommend It's Superman, it's a hoot. I may need to grab that at the library tomorrow and give it another read.

LurkerWithout said...

I'm pretty sure Medphyll is killed during his appearance in Starman. But I don't have the issues from that story arc so I can't check. But if so I'd guess he won't have an aura any more...

But yeah, Aura Vision for Superman is pretty stupid...

Rao said...

Yet again, like in your post on Superventriloqism, you don't realize that this abililty is rooted solidly in real world--disputed--physics theory. look up vi vernadsky.

And furthermore, the idea that Superman can see the energy fields that correlate to life is completely consistent with his thematic tropes. Superman is merely a sci-fi character. He's a modern day Ameircan myth in sci-fi trappings.

That's why Byrnes superman will never be a legitimate incarnation of the character. He made Superman from a myth into a Marvel character reminicent of Spider-Man.

Tom Foss said...

Will: Totally agreed.

Justin: It's one thing to have the "immigrant" aspect, it's another thing to have the "outsider alien barred from assimilation" aspect. The former is Superman, the latter is Martian Manhunter--to a degree, anyway. Birthright made Superman an unwelcome outsider in nearly every aspect of his life.

Lurker: True enough; still, Medphyll was from a whole planet of plant people, and there are others like Swamp Thing and Floronic Man floating about out there. And then there are folks like Blok or Shrapnel or Girder who are all "living" amalgamations of various non-meat substances. Does soul-vision reveal their life force?

Rao: 1. Super-ventriloquism wasn't rooted in real-world physics. There's a big difference between being able to make a cone or column of localized sound in a room, and being able to transmit sounds with pinpoint accuracy across a city, with no interference from obstacles. Sound is not light; it doesn't work the same as a laser, certainly not on large scales.

2. There's a very large difference between "real world" physics and "disputed" physics.

3. Looking at Vernadsky's Wikipedia entry, I don't see anything about animals giving off special invisible soul-energy. I see some vague stuff that sounds like it's trying to map determinism onto evolution, but that's pretty far from being able to see souls.

4. Which brings us to the point that there's no scientific basis to support the existence of the soul or anything like it. Dualism has been soundly refuted by modern biology and neurology. So, I don't see how "Superman can tell Superboy that he has a soul, 'cause he can see it" is rooted in anything even remotely associated with real-world physics.

5. And furthermore, the idea that Superman can see the energy fields that correlate to life is completely consistent with his thematic tropes.

I disagree, for one. While I'm all for the monomythic, messianic aspects of Superman, his power set usually doesn't extend into the mystical and metaphysical. In fact, they tend to stick to the physical--flight, strength, senses, not seeing souls.
For two, you miss about half the damn point, in that the definition of "living things" given in the story (implicitly) is utterly flawed, since it only seems to apply to animals. There are five other kingdoms of living things on Earth, and Superman has colleagues who belong to at least three of them.
And for three, you miss the other half of the point, in that it trivializes Superman's motivation for helping people. Suddenly, it's not because he feels it's his responsibility, or because of the love and camaraderie he feels for his adopted planet, it's because he can't stand seeing animals die.

6. Superman is merely a sci-fi character. He's a modern day Ameircan myth in sci-fi trappings.

How does that support your point at all? Okay, so he's a sci-fi character...since when is "the soul" a sci-fi concept? Seems to me that's typically a fantasy trope. What is it about a sci-fi American myth that makes "seeing souls" a sensible ability?

7. He made Superman from a myth into a Marvel character reminicent of Spider-Man.

Have you ever read Birthright? The whole damn thing is about what an outsider Superman is, how everyone hates him as Clark Kent and how everyone distrusts him as Superman. It's about how his adopted homeworld rejects him and his tragic past keeps coming back to hurt and haunt him. Byrne's Superman was beloved, mostly happy-go-lucky, had a loving family and a general sense of optimism. Which one sounds more like "a Marvel character reminiscent of Spider-Man" to you?

LurkerWithout said...

Rao you just got schooled. SUPER schooled...