Superman: The Flawed One
Conflict. What creates credible stories? Conflict does. What fuels conflict? Well, character flaws may contribute. External forces may contribute. Inner turmoil and struggle may play a part. But that all adds up to conflict. The more emotional scars your hero carries around with him/her the better chance you will have to write an endless barrage of story arcs. That is one of the clear reasons I like Batman and his Gotham City. Both are flawed to the bone. It is a ying-yang (give-take) relationship as the two "characters" attempt to make sense of each other.
Ever notice how ALL the Batman characters have psychological hang-ups? That is why whenever Batman 'arrests' them, most go to Arkham Asylum (the Mental hospital) instead of jail. Bob Kane's creation daringly puts into the light for cross-examination those things that most societies leave to lurk about in the dark. Judge for yourself; Batman has not ONE superpower. Yet he is wildly popular. Fans are attracted to this grim, mentally fractured character. He has known the ungiving pain of personal loss through witnessing the death of his parents. This one act has driven him to a bizarre future, because he couldn't forgive himself for letting his parents die. Batman is a self-tortured soul. His greatest enemy is himself.
Next, try out Marvel's Wolverine of X-MEN fame. He is a hero/anti-hero that has quite a strong fanbase also. Why? He isn't even cute. He isn't tall. He usually isn't even friendly. Were he real, it is ever doubtful that he would sign autographs. He is a brute and a killer. Not very admirable qualities for most of us. However, Wolverine's appeal lies within his many flaws. His life has been long, and very messed up. He has been used, lied to, and taken advantage of. People he trusted have failed him, others have died because of him.
Being drawn to characters rich with anxieties and deep-rooted problems helps us, the readers, cope with our own day-to-day dramas. In the simple escapism of comics we feel safe spending time with characters that on the surface seem fantastical. But deep down they are not so unlike us at all.
That is why, although I haven't read his books in some time, I am NOT a Superman fan. In my opinion Superman has too much going on for him to make an enjoyable character. He worked well as a post-war hero in the forties and fifties. He was an oddity then. With so many comics in so many mediums today, Superman has become commonplace.
As I always tell people, my perception of Superman is--he is the ultimate boy scout. I find that boring. He has far too many powers, and far too many good-willed supporting characters. If he needs to get away from it all, he has his retreat, "the Fortress of Solitude". All too perfect.
One of Superman's few flaws is his origin. Having come from another planet he knows little of, is a good story angle. But the Krypton idea alone is not enough to keep the red-caped-one going. I mean it is difficult to ever feel sorry for someone who can: Fly, has super-cold breath, has laser-eye beams, is super-strong, has super-speed, has acute hearing, has X-ray vision, and the rest. His very design is theatrically overboard.
Comics artist Alex Ross has called Superman the ultimate "failed Christ" figure. I guess if you approach him from that idea, more psychological baggage is revealed. But is it enough? I do like the idea of a being that everyone looks to, to "save the day", yet he couldn't save his parents, or his homeworld. There is some depressing irony there. A certain amount of angst can stem from the crushing weight of the 'doomed homeworld' revelation. But to have a depressed Superman running around doesn't really have much appeal. Superman's very longevity as a character has made him nearly too big, too iconic. People get upset when you , as a writer, try to shake the well-established foundations of an iconic character. When there is a routine order to a character or his given situation, people know what to expect, and it is comfortable for them. That is why television sitcoms do so well. The thick-skulled T.V. writers cleverly mask tired, rehashed plotlines that we have all seen many times before (classic example: 'The Loveboat', is the same as 'Fantasy Island', which is the same as 'Murder She Wrote' plot:little known or semi-retired actors starring in little vignettes that revolve around the central story). The public clamors to the stale stuff, which in turn results in more of it! Go figure.
With a hero like Superman, if you don't shake-up his very foundations, to make him half-way interesting and more human, what you get is lifeless, tired, dull retreaded story-arcs. And while new Superman fans may be enjoying these stories the first time around, long-time readers are cringing at every reprinted word.
Now, DC comics, in attempts to revive the character of Superman and bolster lagging sales, usually dives off the deep end, in the wrong direction. (Just ask Dan Jurgens, former Superman writer that was fired because he couldn't muster better sales for Supes.) Killing Superman may have been thought of as a bold move during the Doomsday storyline, but it was hardly original. Superman had been "killed" over twenty times before. On top of that, DC then splits Supes into four equally dull characters. Don't believe me? Try sitting through Shaquelle O'Neil's starring movie "STEEL". It was based on the black, John Henry, type of Superman post-death offshoot. Watch that sorry movie and tell me it isn't lifeless. After that, turn to the source material, the comic, which is equally as tired.
Then DC tried splitting Superman into two energy clones, one red, one blue. It was a weak coat of paint over an already weak character. Add into the mix that the artwork for that story-arc was unbelievably poor.
To make Superman a viable character today, he can no longer live in Nostalgia-land. He needs to be pulled out of Metropolis of the 1950s and into the real world with the rest of us. His costume definitely needs updating. I hear all the Golden-Age of Comics Fans groaning, but it is true. Do you still wear the same clothes from several decades ago? Of course not. Then why should Superman? The new design doesn't need to be over-the-top, just well done.
Next, you must take Superman down a few notches. (If any of these ideas have already happened to Supes, then I am sorry for listing them here. But I haven't collected Superman titles for a long time.) To make Superman more human you need to kill off his current love interest, and leave her dead. He needs to lose his great job. He needs to have his powers fail him right when he needs them the most. He needs to lose some powers, permanently. He needs his reputation ruined by misdeeds, mistrust, and so on. He needs to get kicked out of the Justice League. He needs to see his Fortress of Solitude permanently destroyed. If we can put Superman through these distressing situations and see him emerge slightly worn-down; if he comes out of it as damaged-goods; we can rejoice in the fact that he DID come THROUGH these things. He didn't give up. Yes, he would be more average, but we would be able to finally relate to Superman, the flawed one.
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