Laura Liddell Nolen grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where she spent lots of time playing make-believe with her two younger brothers. They supplemented their own stories with a steady diet of space- and superhero-themed movies, books, and television. The Ark is the direct result of those stories.
The Ark won a SCBWI Work-in-Progress Award and is Laura’s first novel. Find her on Twitter @LauraLLNolen
Postmodern storytelling is all about retelling. It’s about the why. Back in the day, comic books presented a situation and expected the reader to accept it as the way the world is. If The Hero was fighting impoverished rebels, for example, no one questioned how they got their expensive, state-of-the-art weapons. On to the story!
These days, endless examination of “the way the world is” is the story. Those rebels got their weapons on the black market, and if you squint hard enough, some of their weapons probably have American serial numbers.
For the past several decades, comic books have sprinted headfirst into the postmodern era, confidently and consistently shattering the status quo of their own universes and, by extension, storytelling across popular media.
But Superman hasn’t changed. He presses forward, as incorruptible as ever, in spite of the grittier-than-sandpaper reincarnations of his fellow Justice Leaguers and Marvel counterparts. So what sets him apart?
I. Postmodern heroes don’t always win.
Look at Spider-Man. He’s the world’s most popular superhero, and it’s not hard to see why. Supes and Spidey may have a lot of things in common, but Spider-Man’s writers had far more groundbreaking moments, starting with the slap heard round the world in 1963: Spider-Man’s fourth-ever appearance, and his first fight with Doctor Octopus.
I use “fight” in the loosest possible sense. Spidey was defeated easily, but Doc Ock didn’t stop there. He lifted Spidey, arms pinioned, and slapped him fully across the face before tossing him out a window. This single moment of humiliation sparked decades of self-doubt and is the first of many episodes in which Peter Parker asks himself, “Is this the end of Spider-Man?”
Always before, when The Hero lost the moment, he went on to win the day. Not so for Spidey, whose story progressed to ever-darker depths of anguish, including the deaths of Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy, both of which he was indirectly responsible for. It’s also a possible reason why he’s sold more merchandise than Superman and Batman. Combined.
Yes, Superman “died” in 1992, but I’d argue this was more about selling comics than anything else. His sales were way down by then. Gwen Stacy’s death in particular provided years of pathos for an already-conflicted Peter Parker, but the endless angst that characterizes Spider-Man is notably absent in the Superman stories. His “losses” aren’t really losses because they don’t stick with him or impact his story in a meaningful way.
II. Postmodern heroes don’t follow the rules.
Batman is everyone’s favorite cowled vigilante. He famously opposes Superman’s crime-fighting methodology, especially Supes’ tireless commitment to upholding the rule of law, because he believes the government is hopelessly corrupted. Batman follows only the rules he sets himself. One rule in particular: no killing.
Superman, for his part, is just trying to do right by his adopted home planet. He doesn’t want to be a god; he wants to be a tool for justice. That’s why he constantly allies himself with the government. In the postmodern era, obsthat’s a weakness. It’s naïve. It’s also likely to be the plot of Batman vs. Superman: The Dawn of Justice.
Batman, on the other hand, is relentlessly dark, and not just since Christopher Nolan’s epic movie trilogy. Consider, for example, The Killing Joke, a 1988 graphic novel, in which Batman and the Joker are practically blood brothers in spite of their purposes being perfectly at odds. In it, Batman endeavors to “save” the Joker, to get him help. To make him normal. But the Joker only wants to torture Commissioner Gordon into madness, to show that his insanity is normal, given the right circumstances. (“One bad day.”)
The two archenemies end up sharing a laugh at the futility and brokenness of everything, even after the horrors and atrocities the Joker has committed. It’s graphic and unflinching and everything Superman is not.
III. Postmodern heroes aren’t necessarily men.
You guys, we’re getting a Wonder Woman movie. Not all at once. That would be crazy. But eventually. After she’s been introduced from the safety of the male-led Justice League.
Look at Wonder Woman’s history. Even though she began as an undeniably progressive character, she wore manacles as part of her barely-there uniform and frequently ended up hogtied. And especially in the 1960’s, she was forever being rescued by her male associates. Is it any wonder she was less beloved than the boys?
For the record, I like when heroines show some weakness. I don’t see it as a sign of misogyny at all. In fact, it’s more the opposite: a strong writer is going to use her flaws to make her a fully-developed person. Fully-developed people sometimes cry. They sometimes lose a fight.
For the same reason, I’m not trying to argue that every female character needs to know karate and defeat men twice her size all the time. But Wonder Woman isn’t human; she’s the daughter of Zeus. At least, she has been since D.C. revamped her origin story in 2011. She’s also a trained warrior. So it makes sense that she could fight effectively alongside the men on behalf of the greater good.
She’s come a long way already, is what I’m saying. And I am nothing but optimistic about her future.
But where does all this leave Superman? He’s not a woman, and he tends not to lose his battles. Most tellingly, he’s still doggedly following the rules.
One of director Quentin Tarantino’s finest moments occurred in Kill Bill Vol. II, in which Bill makes the Clark Kent speech:
What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak. He’s unsure of himself. He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.
It’s brilliant. It’s one of my favorite moments in any movie, ever. It’s also wrong.
Clark Kent isn’t just a mask; he’s a protective measure. He’s bumbling because Superman isn’t, and he wants to throw the villains off his scent. But far more importantly, Clark Kent isn’t Jonathan and Martha Kent’s son.
He’s never clumsy or cowardly in front of his own mother. Why would he be? Superman is the same boy she loved and worried over and sought to protect.
He was raised by the Kents, not the Kryptonians. He’s incorruptible because of his value for human life, which he learned from his adopted parents. The Last Son of Jor-El was barely an orphan for an instant before the Kents took him in.
The other superheroes have become relevant in the postmodern era either by changing, in the case of Batman, or because they are a direct product of it, like Spider-Man. But the crucible of disillusionment following the Vietnam War from which postmodernism emerged had no effect on the Man of Steel. He’s the same as he ever was.
The real world hasn’t become more demented, or anguished, or gray, but comic book storytelling has, and that’s a good thing. The fascinating changes brought about by postmodernism are a perfectly suited challenge for the Man of Tomorrow.
Superman is relevant because he doesn’t change: he watches as the rest of his world does. He’s our lens for observing and understanding postmodernism. And he is who he is because of us, not because of Krypton. That’s why Superman, an all-powerful alien, is perhaps the most human of us all.