Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

World of Krypton

August 6, 2008

I’ve been reading the recently released “Superman: The World of Krypton” trade paperback, and it’s drawn into sharper relief some of the feelings I’ve had about how Krypton has been depicted over the years.

Krypton was mentioned for the first time in Superman #1 (1939), and for almost fifty years thereafter it was expanded upon, revisited, and revised until it was as vibrant and intricate as any fictional world had ever been.  You had the history of Kandor and its abduction by Brainiac; you had the invention of the Phantom Zone by Superman’s father, Jor-El; you had the destruction of Krypton’s moon, Wegthor, by the evil Jax-Ur and his subsequent imprisonment; you had wondrous places like the Gold Volcano and the Jewel Mountains; and you had the doomed love story between Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van that was surprisingly affecting given how comics were written at the time.  In fact, much of this embelishment came directly from Jerry Siegel, during the short period of time that he returned to work at DC in the 1960’s.

But then Crisis on Infinite Earths happened, and DC decreed that Superman should be the last survivor of Krypton.  No exceptions.  That meant no Supergirl, no Krypton, no Kandor, and no Phantom Zone villains.  Drastic as this was, it still would have been possible to accomplish without throwing out the entire history of Krypton, as it had been gradually built up for decades.  But John Byrne, who was tasked with reinventing Superman following the Crisis, decided to give readers an entirely new version of Superman’s homeworld.  Now, Krypton was a cold, emotionless, sterile place, where people lived forever but never interacted face-to-face, and where children were conceived in birthing matrices through no direct involvement of their parents.  Thus, when Jor-El sent his son to earth, he did it not just so Kal-El could escape Krypton’s destruction, but also in the hopes that Kal-El could live in a society that still had the concepts of love and joy.  Superman’s being sent to earth, in this interpretation, is portrayed as being a positive thing independent of Krypton’s imminent doom.

But the story doesn’t work nearly as well this way, in my opinion.  The destruction of Krypton is supposed to be one of the all-time greatest tragedies of the universe.  The death of Superman’s parents, whose love is so great but who die long before they deserve to, is supposed to be heart-wrenching.  And that’s how it was for decades, until Byrne gave us Krypton that seemed like it deserved to die, and a Jor-El and Lara who only met for the first time minutes before their deaths.

And then there’s the circumstances of Superman’s birth.  Originally, of course, he was born on Krypton, and lived there for the first few months of his life.  In Byrne’s version, though, Superman’s “birthing matrix” is what is jettisoned to earth, the result being that he is not actually “born” until Jonathan and Martha Kent find him in the cornfield.  As Superman proudly declares at the end of Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries, that makes him a human and an American, not an alien.

But Superman is supposed to be an alien.  Sure, he was raised by humans and tends to think and act like us, but he’s not one of us.  That’s the great irony of the character, that an alien can represent the epitome of what humanity could be.  And that’s the great tragedy of the character, that no matter how much he wants to be one of us and finally fit it, he isn’t and he can’t.  He disguises himself as bumbling Clark Kent so that he can live among us, but he forever feels apart from us.

And, like almost all adopted children, Superman wants more than anything to know what it would have been like to grow up on Krypton with his birth parents, and live that other life.  Not that he wishes things had been different, necessarily; he loves the Kents and thinks of them as his parents.  But he forever feels the sense of loss that comes from being the last survivor of a great culture, and not really knowing what that culture meant or how best to carry on its memory.

That’s who Superman is.  And, thankfully, that’s the Superman that DC is giving is these days, as written by Geoff Johns, Kurt Busiek, James Robinson, and Grant Morrison.  The “Byrne Krypton” gave us a lot of great stories, but for my money, it missed the mark in the most fundamental ways.

Musings on Batman

July 23, 2008

So a little movie opened this weekend.  You maybe heard about it.  It’s about knights or nights, or something.  There’s something about the dark in there, I remember that much.

No, but seriously, “The Dark Knight” is out, and it’s clearly going to be the biggest movie of the year.  Haven’t seen it yet myself — hope to soon — but I’ve followed the production and the press surrounding it enough to know what kind of movie it’s going to be.  I can tell you two things with absolute certainty: it’s going to be really good.  And it’s going to be really dark.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course.  Batman was created as a dark character, he’s been written that way pretty consistently for the last twenty years or so, and he’s been portrayed that way in media since Tim Burton’s movie in ’89.  These days it seems like you can’t play Batman in movies or on TV, even in animation, unless your voice causes grown men to crap their pants with fear.

But my favourite Batman in movies or TV is Kevin Conroy, and he didn’t always play it that way.  Conroy’s Bruce Wayne was haunted and brooding, yes, but he was human.  Especially by the time the Justice League series rolled around, Conroy’s voice had evolved to the point where he didn’t sound like a gruff, growling loner, but rather a man — a hard-ass, maybe, but it never sounded like a put-on or an act.  Conroy’s Batman was a real person first, and a quote-unquote dark avenger second.

Christian Bale’s Batman, by comparison, barely sounds recognizable as a human being.


I’m reminded of these things as I see new promo art for the upcoming Batman: Brave And The Bold cartoon.  It promises to feature a kinder, more kid-friendly Batman, and the art style certainly seems to bear that out.  While I haven’t checked the message boards to see what fans are saying about the series, I would bet that very few of their comments could be repeated in polite company.  “Batman has to be dark!”, they would shout!  “He’s supposed to be a bad-ass!  He shouldn’t be nice to people!”


But this is the attitude DC Comics adopted for a while, and they eventually thought the better of it.  DC Comics superheroes — the big guns especially — need to represent the best of ourselves.  They need to inspire us, to make us want to better ourselves.  They should make kids want to become good, moral people that give of themselves and help others.  They’re our modern mythology, and myths are supposed to teach us things about our own lives and help us live them in better ways, after all.

I can’t see Christian Bale’s Batman accomplishing that, can you?

I’m reminded of what Denny O’Neil has often said about Batman: there have been many different versions of Batman, and all of them are correct.  Batman reinvents himself with every decade because he, like Superman, like Wonder Woman, needs to speak to all of us, now, in the present.  Every generations of kids needs their own version.  My dad had the George Reeves Superman, I had Christopher Reeve, today’s kids have Brandon Routh.  My dad had Adam West, I had Kevin Conroy, and today’s kids should be allowed to have Batman: Brave And The Bold.

If you try to shove the entirety of Batman into the square hole of the violent, vicious vigilante, you’re doing a huge disservice to a hugely important character.  If a kid wants to laugh with Batman a little, I think we should let him.

Even Bob Kane knew that Batman needs to smile.