The always-funny, always-insightful Ty Templeton (@tytempleton), a long-time favorite creator in CouchGuy’s Pantheon of Heroes, had a Bun Toons offering this week that gave me the usual laugh — and then caused me to pause to think. Check out the ‘toon before I continue. (Hint: If you haven’t read Ty before you read me, you are doing it in the wrong order.)
Bun Toons: Other Comics Get The Man of Steel Makeover
Like Ty, I enjoyed Man of Steel but like Ty I do see a trend toward making our heroes just a little less caring and concerned about the civilians around them. The “code against killing” that was once the staple of the four-color superheroic genre has been slip sliding for a long time. DC certainly don’t start the trend. (Marvel’s most popular character by far, for decades, has been Wolverine. Need I say more?) But the level of destruction shown in Man of Steel brings a sharper focus on it because Superman has always been the very paragon of the kinder, gentler superhero trope.
I point back at the popularity of Wolverine as being an important indicator of this sea change. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight refocused Batman in a similar direction after the TV series had made him a total goody-goody. Another DC favorite anti-hero, Lobo, is all about desensitizing us toward random violence.
But when Superman himself has to escalate the mindless destruction to get a decent movie made, I suppose we have to pay attention. But it isn’t comics that is promoting caring less and punching more. It’s us.
This is where Wertham and his ilk always got it wrong. Comics don’t shape the readers nearly as much as readers shape the comics. Our comic heroes promote our ideals, and those ideals shift over time.
During WW2, the primary ideals were patriotism and personal sacrifice for the freedom of our own nation and others. During the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s comics reflected our optimism for the future and a desire to create a better society through organized efforts within and between nations. Into the 80’s and 90’s, people lost faith in their government as an agent for change, and more and more often saw political and religious organization as an anchor rather than a lever. Comics reflected these changes, lagging behind the universal shifts just enough to never be seen as anything more than a conservative view-from-behind of change already occurring.
As we moved into the more self-centered ideals embraced by our culture during the late ’90s and into the 2000s, so did our comic heroes focus more on their internal dilemmas and less on solving the big problems we, as readers, used to care about. Superheroes are wish-fulfillment fantasies, and mostly we wished to preserve and perhaps improve our own personal status quo.
A change in the attitudes toward Superman indicates how far this has gone. Remember, superheroes are a time-delayed reflection of our own mass mind. Today, to be successful with a mass audience, even Superman must choose between abstract ideals and today’s survival. Once he stood for abstract concepts — Truth, Justice and The American Way. Even as he became more conflicted (reflecting our own conflicts between ideals and reality) we wanted him to stand up as the Best of Us.
I think some of the compromises Superman makes in Man of Steel, however, scared us all just a little bit. He reflects our mass mind as viewed from behind. I don’t think some of us were ready to realize how far we have fallen.
Today, have we come to the conclusion that we don’t care so much about his ideals, his commitment to the common good, or his restraint in the exercise of his power? Are we already too comfortable with the exercise of unlimited power — as long as it doesn’t step directly on our house?
We used to want Superman to save the world. Are we now ready to say, “Screw saving the world, Superman! Save my ass!”? We’re comfortable saying that to others around us to whom we have given power. “I don’t care what you do,” we tell them. “Steal what you need, break the law, bind our freedoms, destroy anything you need to destroy and kill if you must — just protect me and mine!”
As I said, I enjoyed Man of Steel and I’m glad it has been so successful. But like many of my fellow fans who grew up as Superman fans, I’m a little uncomfortable with what that success says about us — about me.
Maybe we should be uncomfortable. Maybe that discomfort is the way Superman — the inner Superman in us all — is telling us to turn around before it is too late.