WIUM Tristates Public Radio

More Powerful Than a Locomotive

Jun 26, 2013

When “Man of Steel” opened, the latest re-booting of the Superman story was met by indifference, relief or scorn, but change is one of the few constants in the universe of heroes, especially the comic-book variety.

Few heroes of Superman’s stature remain static. As the Last Son of Krypton is reborn again under the guidance of filmmaker Zack Snyder, hard-core fanboys, nostalgia-steeped Baby Boomers or the culturally curious all might benefit from realizing that different versions of the Big Blue Boy Scout are as endless as the diverse takes on King Arthur, from Alfred, Lord Tennyson and T.H. White to George Romero’s “Knightriders” and the SyFy Channel’s “Merlin.”

Credit DC Comics

Most contemporary comic-book superheroes – like most folklore or fairy tales, from Robin Hood to Ulysses, “Star Wars” to “The Lion King”  – use universal symbols and stories that author (and George Lucas influence) Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey,” a pattern to the narratives: A hero ventures forth from the ordinary world into a place of wonder and danger; amazing forces are encountered, a mentor helps, and a decisive victory is won: the hero returns from this quest with the power to help his people.

From countless books to TV’s “Lost” and the multi-media Harry Potter, there are slight deviations. For example, mentors could be Kal-El’s biological or adoptive father or Captain Marvel’s wizard; there’s Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben or Batman’s butler Alfred. Still, some basics remain consistent. That’s why a re-boot or a “modern” version (think “Robin Hood – Men in Tights,” doubting purists) help reach new audiences.

This year is the 75th anniversary of the publication of Action Comics No. 1 with Superman on the cover, and the 80th anniversary of the very first comic book, Eastern Color Printing’s “Funnies On Parade,” a free promotional booklet of original works featuring newspaper characters such as Mutt and Jeff, and Joe Palooka. A comic book, of course, is a magazine made up of visual images and text systematically placed as to convey a tale, usually with narrative structure and recurring characters. The late, great comic artist and industry icon Will Eisner (who created The Spirit) defined comics as “sequential art …, an art and literary form that deals with the arrangement of … images and words to narrate a story.”

Many media were quick to pick up on comics’ characters. Max & Dave Fleischer in the 1940s produced 17 quality Superman theatrical cartoons; radio broadcast “The Adventures of Superman” from 1940-1951;  movie serials included cinema’s first superhero in 1941, Captain Marvel, followed by “Batman”  in 1943, just four years after his comic debut, the character arguably derived from Zorro – created by Chillicothe native Johnston McCulley), “Captain America” in ’44, and “Superman in ’48, starring Kirk Alyn); TV’s “Adventures of Superman” followed in the ’50s starring George Reeves, reportedly conceived in Galesburg, where his mother, Helen Lescher lived for a time), and the camp Batman series and movie (’66).

But few feature films were tried until 1978’s “Superman: The Motion Picture,” which established the genre as commercially viable and critically acceptable. Now, there seem to be a few superhero movies a year, keyed this summer by “Man of Steel,” directed by Snyder from a story co-written by Christopher Nolan and partly shot in Illinois. Starring Henry Cavill in the title role, the 143-minute “Man of Steel” co-stars Amy Adams, Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner. The story is more universal than a remake, much less a sequel. A boy realizes he has extraordinary powers and is not from Earth. As a young man he journeys to discover his roots and purpose here, but his journey is interrupted – or focused – when he must accept the mantle of hero to save the planet. He becomes a symbol of hope for humanity.

A lot of comic superheroes were orphans or had father issues, which is true of many of our best stories. Moses is left adrift on the Nile, Darth Vader comes clean, Batman sees his parents murdered, Indiana Jones has to cope with his dad, then being a dad; reconciliation happens. Also, in both the 1978 and 2006 Superman films, Superman was depicted as Christ-like, with Jor-El as a God figure. Jor-El casts out Zod; Superman/Kal-El’s spacecraft resembles a star, like Bethelhem’s; Martha Kent couldn’t have a child (like John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth, or Abraham’s wife Sarah). Clark leaves Smallville and travels to “the wilderness” where he interacts with his father; one of Jor-El’s recordings says to Kal-El, “I have sent them you … my only son.”

In print, superheroes changed with the times. Batman/Bruce Wayne’s corporation became a pioneer in green technology. Clark Kent traced the Kent family to Kansas abolitionists and he left the struggling Daily Planet (although villain Lex Luthor has always been part ruthless capitalist and part fascist empire-builder).

It’s a cliché because it’s true: The more things change, the more they stay the same. “Up, up and away!”

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.