Thursday, October 6, 2016

Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, by Glen Weldon (2013)

A few weeks ago, we looked at Glen Weldon’s delicious The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.  We enjoyed it so much, we moved onto Weldon’s earlier book on the world’s first superhero, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography.  With Batman, Weldon had hoped to put nerd culture into some type of larger perspective; his Superman book is less ambitious, but more focused and successful a production.  If you are a Superman buff, it is highly recommended.

We here at The Jade Sphinx have always much preferred Superman to his darker counterpart.  This is a prejudice we suspect that Weldon shares, as his book on Superman is relentlessly amusing, affectionate and reverential.  Superman’s creators, Siegel and Schuster, says Weldon, saw their creation as quite simply, the ultimate American: a Gatsby who’d arrived on a bright new shore, having propelled himself there by burning his own past as fuel.  The Old World could no longer touch him, and now it was left to him to forge his own path.  Throughout the book, Weldon’s prose seems charged with a powerful nostalgia for a simpler, and perhaps wiser, America.  One that still believed in heroes and other symbols of hope; and, we suspect, one where childish delights were viewed in perspective by adult fans, and not with the soul-crushing scrutiny of today’s Perpetual Adolescents.

One of Weldon’s strongest passages concerns science fiction writer Larry Niven’s 1971 essay on the possible outcomes of Superman having sex with Earth women.  The essay, Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex, made excruciating (and amusing)  conclusions, and it can still be found and makes for great reading.  But Weldon places this now 45 year old work in contemporary perspective:  The gag, of course, is the deadpan, painstaking manner in which Niven lays out his thought process.  This is where you end up if you take this stuff too seriously, he seems to say: killer sperm from outer space.

Looking back on Niven’s humorous essay today, it’s impossible to see it as anything but a chilling harbinger of the high-level weapons-grade nerdery that would seize comics in the decades that followed.  All too soon, legions of fans and creators adopted Niven’s let’s-pin-this-to-the-specimen-board approach and proceeded to leach humor and whimsy and good old-fashioned, Beppo the Super-Monkey-level goofiness out of superhero comics, leaving in their place a punishing, joyless, nihilistic grittiness.

Weldon sees Superman as an ever-changing figure, who always reflects a constantly evolving America.  The New Deal crusader of the late 1930s is different from the patriotic boy scout of World War II, and very different indeed from his Jet Age counterpart.  What Weldon sees as the core of Superman is not his persona, but his motivation.  And that is, simply, that Superman always puts the needs of others over those of himself, and he never gives up.  That is the definition of a hero.

Weldon also posits that Superman has long ago transcended the various media that deliver him to us: he has become an idea that is bigger than the comic books, cartoons, TV shows and movies that feature him.  It is an idea that has weathered 75 years, and Weldon predicts that will last at least another 75 more.

It is this protean quality that makes Superman much like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula or even Ebenezer Scrooge: each generation can find something new and vital to say about him, and, in doing so, say something about their own era.

Fortunately, Weldon is also laugh-out-loud funny.  We had the giggles paging through most of this book.  Here he is on the sexy aesthetic of Legion of Super-Heroes artist Mike Grell: Detractors have dinged Grell’s designs for their Ming-the-Merciless collars, bikini bottoms, and pixie boots (and that’s just on the men) – and it’s true that in some panels, Legion HQ crowd scenes seem more like the VIP lounge at Studio 54, but his designs made the book look like nothing else on the shelves.

Here he is on Superman writer Marv Wolfman’s prose: Wolfman proceeded to slather on the pathos, gilding the emotional lily so fervently it makes Dickens’s death of Little Nell read like an expense report. 

It would be hard to imagine a better guide through Superman’s complex history, and we look forward to hearing from Glen Weldon again.

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