Saturday, May 08, 2010

Superman Sunday Saturday: Origins (Part 3)

Sorry for the late post, folks. It's been a long week, and I've alternated between "too busy" and "too sick" to get it finished. I've been working on it all week, though, which means it's extra long and probably quite rambly. Check it all out below the fold!

Update! In the interest of keeping this series as accurate as possible, I'll be making edits when I come across mistakes or new information. The original text will still be preserved, albeit struck out. In this case, I've added a bit more information about the science fiction aspects of the Superman comics.

Last week's installment gave us a detailed look at the science fiction behind Superman's origins. Today, we'll come back down to Earth a bit, as we look at the origin in "Superman" #1 and, for the very first time, meet Ma and Pa Kent.

There are two things to keep in mind as we take a look at this issue. The first is that, at this point, there have been essentially no science fiction aspects to Superman's comic book adventures. Since Action Comics #1, the sci-fi has been limited to that first panel of the rocket leaving (the unnamed) Krypton. Superman' adventures have focused on corrupt politicians, fatcat businessmen, opposing generals, and even an attempt to rig a football game. The closest the comics had come to any other science fiction elements was the introduction1 of the Ultra-Humanite, and even then he just who mentions that a scientific experiment had given him super-intelligence and uses a couple of hi-tech devices (specifically, an car that can turn invisible and a machine that encases Superman in a block of crystal). I don't know enough about the comic book/comic strip landscape of the time to fully understand why Siegel and Shuster chose to confine the exploration of Superman's alien heritage to the newspaper page; it may be that sci-fi comic strips were well-established ("Buck Rogers" had been running for ten years, "Flash Gordon" for five) and the duo wanted to tap into that audience, while the young medium of comic books was home mostly to pulp adventure heroes and funnies (where Superman was already an oddity) and they didn't want to stretch the audience's suspension of disbelief. But I don't know with any certainty.

The second thing to keep in mind is that, until now, Superman has not had a solo title. "Action Comics," despite Superman's status as the breakout hit character, was an anthology series, and Superman's adventures were presented alongside those of Zatara the Magician; Scoop Scanlon, Five-Star Reporter; and Marco Polo, among others. "Superman" #1 is the first time that the Man of Steel gets a book all to himself. Good or bad, the issue is mostly reprinted material from stories in "Action Comics" #1-4 (along with a neat prose adventure). There is one story which gets expanded for the reprint: The opening scenes of "Action" #1. You'll recall that Superman's origin was originally given only a single page, and "Superman" triples that. This allows, most strikingly, for a big splash panel of Superman's rocket leaving Krypton (which is mentioned by name for the first time in the comic books).
Clark sure looks sharp in that sweater/shirt combo.

That splash panel is still the only mention we get of Superman's birth planet (well, sort'll see). But what follows that by-now-familiar scene is something heretofore unseen. Rather than a "passing motorist" who found (and in the strip, rescued) the baby in the rocket, the infant Kal-L is discovered by an elderly couple, the Kents.

This is our first glimpse of Superman's adoptive parents. We'll see their ages and appearances fluctuating wildly over the next seventy years, and the circumstances of their discovery and what happens afterward will change considerably too. We don't have much detail here--Pa doesn't even get a name!--but what we do get gives us quite a bit of insight into why Superman is who he is. And perhaps it's my bias as a modern Superman fan, but I think understanding Clark Kent's origins provides a better understanding of who Superman is than knowing what Krypton was like.

Mary2 and Pa take baby Kal-L to the orphanage, demonstrating here that they have completely usurped the role of the "passing motorist" from the previous origin stories. On one hand, I'm glad this is the case. The motorist is an unnecessary character, and I don't think he's restored in any subsequent version of the origin. On the other hand, his omission removes a pillar of the reasoning for taking the baby to an orphanage. Now, there's still the justification that the Kents are elderly, and that it would be suspicious for them to suddenly have a child without some sort of adoption process, but I'm surprised that there wasn't an intermediate version where the "passing motorist" takes Kal-L to the orphanage and the Kents are just the lucky couple who pick him up.

By the way, I think this might be the first retcon in superhero comics history. Make a note of it.

The next panel is another familiar scene, Kal-L wreaking havoc in the orphanage, and sadly we've lost my favorite element of that bit: the doctor whose glasses fly off at the sight. It's a shame; I like that bit of slapstick. Incidentally, Kal's lifting a dresser instead of a chair now; I suppose that's probably heavier and more impressive.

The next panel brings the Kents back to the orphanage, where they decide to adopt Kal-L after all. "We couldn't get that sweet child out of our mind," says Pa. For as long as the orphanage is a part of the Superman backstory (spoiler: it fades out considerably as we approach the modern age, making a brief resurgence in "Smallville"), different details get brought in regarding why the Kents left the child, and why they later came to adopt him (and were allowed to do so by the agency). No real rationale is given for their dropping Kal off in the first place, but I don't think one is really needed: what else do you do with abandoned infants? It's not specifically said that they are considered too old to adopt (something which occasionally happens in other versions). But the adoption agent's reasons for allowing the Kents to take the child often revolve around the reason given here: the kid is a menace, and no one knows how to deal with a super-strong infant.

It's also interesting to note something more basic here. Recall that this is still fairly early in the days of comic books (though comic strips as a medium had been around for quite some time), and one thing that hasn't quite gelled is the formatting of the speech and thought bubbles. Sure, the speech bubbles look relatively similar to those today (though 1930s comics sure seem less reluctant to use periods than 1960s comics), but thought bubbles don't even exist! The concept is there, but characters' thoughts are just included in their speech bubble, enclosed in parentheses, quotes, and em dashes (a veritable punctuation overload). Strangely enough, the dashed-line bubble for whispering/asides does exist already.

The next scene is our "Uncle Ben moment," where Mary and Pa set Clark's future in motion. Now, this version of the origin is still relatively short--just two pages of story--so this scene of parental advice is pretty compressed. It's clear that this panel is intended to justify both Superman's strong moral character and his double-life. So, Pa provides the practical point: "You've got to hide [your great strength] from people or they'll be scared of you!" Naturally, this is the origin of the mild-mannered Clark Kent persona, the reason he maintains a secret identity. Mary provides moral guidance and purpose: "But when the proper time comes, you must use it to assist humanity." And so begins the story of Superman, champion of the weak and oppressed.

There are two things I really like about this scene. First, it shows that the admirable qualities of Superman are a matter of upbringing. Stories of heroes often skip over the childhood; it's not the exciting part of the hero's life, and it can often ruin a character's mystique to show them in their formative years (see also: Michael Myers, Anakin Skywalker, Wolverine, etc.). Still, when we miss out on a person's childhood, we miss out on a lot of what makes the person who they are (they're called "formative years" for a reason). In the orphan-strewn world of superheroes, having parents who take an active role in shaping the hero's moral code and life philosophy is still something of a rarity.

The other thing I like about this scene is that it not only establishes Clark's foster parents as good and influential people, but it makes them more important than his birth family--who at this point, have only appeared in the comic strip--right off the bat. There's no "his brain has evolved beyond the desire for power or the urge to discriminate" or "a message recorded by his scientist father played as he traveled to Earth, subliminally instilling in him the desire to do good deeds and help others," or even "his alien physiology allows him to see the auras around all living things, causing him great mental anguish if he sees a living being come to harm"3. No, instead Superman's a hero because of the "love and guidance of his kindly foster-parents." Instead of a mythical, epic, science-fictiony explanation, we get "his parents raised him right," which is about the most down-home salt-of-the-Earth American motivation ever.

Knowing what comes later, I almost put the word "midwestern" or "country" in that hyphen-loaded sentence above, but there's actually no indication of where Clark grew up. In fact, the next page shows him as a child, leaping from rooftop to rooftop among skyscrapers.
You'd think Superman might bring this up when Batman gets all broody.

Here, we run through the development of Clark's astounding powers. The last two times we saw this sequence, it said rather specifically that he found he could do these amazing things "when maturity was reached." Now, that's changed, and the powers developed "as the lad grew older." It'd be five years before this slight change germinated into full-fledged Superboy stories, and by that point the "development" angle was mostly gone. Still, we see a young Clark jumping across rooftops with a smile on his face.

That smile--the "delight" Clark feels as a result of his abilities--is something else I really like about this expanded origin. This isn't an angsty character; Superman in these stories is downright cocky. Golden Age Superman is the kind of guy who smirks. While I'm glad that his attitude has mellowed somewhat in the intervening decades, I think the "delight" is a pretty core part of Superman's identity. He's shouldn't be the kind of superhero who broods and grieves. When it comes right down to it, Superman enjoys his abilities, has a great life, and knows just how lucky he is. That gets lost now and then, but as far as I'm concerned, Superman's natural state should be flying, with a smile on his face.

That being said, the examples have remained relatively consistent for the last year. Superman can leap over tall buildings and forward an eighth of a mile. He can lift tremendous weights (this time a car, instead of a girder), outrace a train (a "streamline train" now, rather than an "express train"), and still, nothing less than a bursting shell can penetrate his skin. I like this latest panel, because so far the origins haven't tried to picture Superman's invulnerability. The doctor here, having broken six hypodermic needles on Superman's skin, isn't quite as funny as the orphanage doctor with the spring-loaded glasses, but the scene comes pretty close. Clark's casual, smirking "Try again, doc!" is a perfect, succinct example of his cocky, flippant attitude in these days. Those of you who think Superdickery was a Silver Age innovation are about twenty years too late.

In the next panel, we learn sadly--though not unexpectedly, given the Kents' advanced age--that Clark is an orphan twice over. Their deaths strengthen his resolve to help people, and so Superman is created. This is significant for the same reason that the "as the lad grew older" is significant, because it's an explicit statement that Clark became a superhero as an adult, ruling out the Superboy who would debut barely five years later. What really surprises me about this is that it means "Man of Steel" was less radical in its changes than I previously thought. I didn't realize how much of it was just restoring an older status quo.

Finally, we get to the titular hero, in a panel that's fairly identical to its previous incarnations. It does show that Superman is gradually becoming more well-defined, in terms of color scheme and costume design.

After this page, there is a little new story material, redrawing and expanding the beginning of the story from Action Comics #1. The rest of the book is reprinted, with the exception of a short prose story and this page:
Why does Krypton even have roads?

It follows from a similar justification back in "Action" #1. There's the same "scientific" justification of Superman's powers by comparison with the proportional strength of ants and jumping ability of grasshoppers, and the same point that Kryptonians had evolved to "physical perfection." Gone, as above, is the note that the native powers of Kryptonians developed when they reached maturity. The key innovation is in the all-new panel on the right. I'm not sure why Earth is orange, or why something like Saturn is so nearby, but this page provides us with the first-ever instance of the idea that Superman's powers derive from more than just his genes. Krypton is considerably larger than Earth, and consequently has a greater gravitational pull4, which "assists Superman's tremendous muscles in the performance of miraculous feats of strength." This addition to the justification for Superman's abilities demonstrates (for the first time) that Superman on Earth is, in fact, more powerful than a normal Kryptonian would have been on Krypton (which is still described as a world of supermen). This paves the way for later justifications (i.e., the yellow sun), which will further widen the chasm between Superman's abilities and those of his native people.

The last panel gives an optimistic view of the potential future of humanity, that one day the Earth "might be peopled entirely by Supermen." History gives that statement a darker connotation, and while I'm sure fascist groups and eugenecists might have used that kind of language at the time, it would still be several months before the Nazi invasion of Poland made that kind of sentiment more palpably ominous on a worldwide scale.

Well, that's a downer. Next time is somewhat more positive, as we delve into Superman's first foray out of the medium of comics. Tune in tomorrow, Superfans!

1. In "Action Comics" #13, released probably a month or two after this issue, as near as I can tell. That issue is dated June, 1939, while "Superman" #1 is "Summer, 1939." "Action Comics" #14 contains a house ad for "Superman" #1, which gives the latter a release date of May 18th, 1939. This, combined with what we already know from earlier considerations, suggests that "Action" #14 was the May issue (and contains a little bit more sci-fi content).

2. What is it with the name changes of Superman's mothers? First Lora, now Mary?

3. But I'm getting about 64 years ahead of myself.

4. There's some quibbling I could do here, though it has little to do with what's actually on the panel. Suffice it to say that Krypton must also be significantly denser than Earth.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List


SallyP said...

Well that's a nice and succinct summing up of some of the Superman mythos. Thanks, Tom, I've never read these, and it's amazing really, how the core concept has held up so well.

Bill S. said...

I'm really enjoying this series quite a bit. It's interesting to me to see how the origin evolved.