Ah, the suspenseful period when the latest Comic-Con is over but the badges for the next one are not yet on sale. In honor of this special time of year, here’s a review of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, by Glen Wheldon.
This book has a lot of scope, covering comics, radio, TV, and film, from the origin of the comic up to, but not including, the movie Man of Steel. It works because the author ties everything together by constantly referring back to what he considers to be the core elements of Superman. In his words, they are:
1. He puts the needs of others over those of himself.
2. He never gives up.
Weldon's premis is that when stories stay true to these two traits, the stories work, but when they stray, the stories ring false.
I’m not a huge Superman fan, but I found this book to be wonderfully entertaining as a study of the changing comics industry through the years and as a study of how pop culture has changed. I had thought of Superman as a character who is pretty much always the same, but he’s actually changed a lot. Superman started off in 1938 as a wise-cracking guy who was “A bully to bullies”, overpowering thugs and corrupt people in power with his might. He was also a wanted man, being a social leftist who did things like destroy a row of tenements in order to force the mayor to fund decent housing. It wasn’t until WWII broke out that he became the symbol of American patriotism, standing alongside the same police force that once hunted him as a “masked vigilante”.
The book is funny as well as informative, as when it points out the over-abundance of foreshadowing on one page as technically being “five-shadowing”. And although it may sound odd to quote something from the acknowledgements page, I adored this line: “I expect my hard-working copy editor, Lisa Burstiner, will remember the difference between “Mxyztplk” and “Mxyzptlk” for the rest of her days, poor woman”.
I’m forever grateful to this book for clearing up a few mysteries. For instance:
Why wasn’t Superman in the Army (I mean, what reason was given in the comics)? Answer – Clark failed his vision test, because he was so eager to pass it that he accidently used his X-ray vision to read the chart in the adjoining room.
What’s with the disguise? Answer: Clark is unconsciously using a low level of hypnotic power, and that’s why people don’t see through his disguise.
- Where can I hear all about the times when Superman has been a total jerk to Lois, Lana, and all his friends? Answer: superdickery.tumblr.com
My one criticism is that this book has no illustrations. Let me repeat – this book, which is almost entirely about visual art forms, has no illustrations. This means that if I want to see what Superman looked like in the 1990’s I have to go look it up (it involves a mullet). I am deprived of seeing a drawing of early Lex Luthor, who had hair. I don’t get to see Lois after she turned black in an effort to expose racism, and I don’t get to see the different versions of Krypton, and I fell so very, very deprived. I hope there will be a special illustrated edition someday – soon, please. All that Googling is hard work.
(NB: Glen Wheldon does have a Tumblr page which features, among other things, many of the illustrations he refers to in the book.)
In short, this was a fun and informative book, it was entertaining and funny and interesting, and I don’t think you’d have to be a fan of comics to enjoy it. Of course, there’s lots about Lois to fill your romance quota – did you know that one time Superman split into Red Superman and Blue Superman, and one married Lana and one married Lois, and Jimmy Olson married Lois’s sister? It was a big group wedding. And in most of the non-canon stories, when writers can imagine any scenario they want to, they almost always have Superman end up married to Lois and raising kids in the suburbs, although sometimes they’re the suburbs on Krypton – just to shake things up.