Sunday, April 14, 2013

It's History...It's Biography...It's Superman!

ISBN-10: 1118341848
ISBN-13: 9781118341841
Published: John Wiley & Sons
Pages: 352
Language: English
I came to Superman: The Unauthorized Biography with a number of biases. For one, I am a long-time listener of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour program, on which the author of this very book, Glen Weldon, serves as a regular defender of genre work and all manner of strange nerdery against the sometimes monochromatic attitudes of fellow NPR staff members-- no offense, Linda, Stephen, and Trey! Second, I am the kind of comic books fan who takes them very seriously and will shout at you if you call Watchmen a graphic novel. Third, and finally, while I enjoy many of his comics and the Richard Donner films, I have no great love for Superman as a character. I much prefer the broodier, morally murky Batman and take particular, quasi-sadistic pleasure in the regular beat-downs he has served the Big Blue Boy Scout in the comics. However, as Weldon's book proves, ignoring Superman's long, fascinating history and shifting symbolic importance would be a true crime.

The central thesis of Weldon's book is that Superman is not merely a static character, but has instead changed over time to suit the desires and anxieties of different eras. Weldon identifies only two core character traits that define The Man of Steel through every (faithful) iteration: he puts the safety of others above himself and he never gives up. This built-in simplicity made it possible for Superman to start out as a roguish power fantasy and morph into a living embodiment of patriotism during World War II, a Jesus-like figure of compassion during the Christopher Reeve years, and even a painfully out-of-touch, mullet-sporting relic in the nineties. Superman is a truly American myth, and any understanding of America's cultural history would be incomplete without factoring in The Last Son of Krypton. So, even if you can't tell Kal-El from Mr. Mxyzptlk, Weldon's book serves as an informative primer for any Super-newbie, and a fascinating close-reading of Superman's body of work, full of revelations for even the Super-fan.

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