The Myth of Superman

From the June 2006 Wired:

About a decade ago, Alvin Schwartz, who wrote Superman comic strips in the 1940s and ’50s, published one of the great Odd Books of our time. In An Unlikely Prophet, reissued in paperback this spring, Schwartz writes that Superman is real. He is a tulpa, a Tibetan word for a being brought to life through thought and willpower. Schwartz also says a Hawaiian kahuna told him that Superman once traveled 2,000 years back in time to keep the island chain from being destroyed by volcanic activity. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t, but it does sound like a job for Superman — all in a day’s work for a guy who can squeeze coal into diamonds. Schwartz then tells of his own encounter with Superman in a New York taxi, when he learned firsthand that Superman’s cape is, in fact, more than mere fabric.

An Unlikely Prophet brings up an important question about Superman: What makes people want to meet him so badly? It’s tough to imagine a similar book about, say, Green Lantern or Captain America. Superman is different because he doesn’t really belong to the writers who’ve created his adventures over the last 68-plus years. He has evolved into a folk hero, a fable, and the public feels like it has a stake in who Superman ‘really’ is. Schwartz quit writing Superman because his bosses were telling him to put in things that he thought were out of character. That was admirable, but really, the specific stories we tell about Superman — the what-happened and what-he-did — don’t matter that much. Superman transcends plot. We retell his tales because we wish he were here, real, to keep us safe.

Everyone knows the Superman story: rocketed to Earth from the distant planet Krypton just before it explodes, raised by a loving Kansas couple, possessing powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, defends the city of Metropolis — and the world — from evil. His real-world origin is more humble: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish kids from Cleveland, created him as a character in a newspaper comic strip. But the strip didn’t sell, so they reformatted it and flipped it to a publisher hungry to buy content for one of the first comic books. When the story appeared in the premiere issue of the anthology Action Comics, kids went crazy for it, as if there had always been a Superman-shaped hole in the world and it now was filled.

It’s a classic American success story on a couple of levels. Two outsiders create a new art form, and Superman — an alien in a strange land — takes off. “Given the nature of the US, it was only natural in the 1930s for our new hero to be the ultimate immigrant,” says Bryan Singer, director of the new movie Superman Returns. “I’m an only child, adopted, and as a kid I identified extraordinarily with that aspect of Superman. The scene where the Kents decide to keep him always touches me.”

Of course, baby Clark has a special destiny. He’s literally empowered to be our salvation, endowed with all the basics — flight, strength, invulnerability — plus the wildcard powers of super hearing, heat vision, x-ray vision, and supercold breath. He used to be even more incredible; before a radical overhaul in the mid-’80s, he could move planets and run faster than the speed of light. His cape was infinitely elastic and never tore. He had super-hypnotism. In the 1978 movie, he turned back time. He’s not a superhero; he’s a demigod.

What’s important, though, is how Superman uses these powers. Compared to most A-list comic characters, he has almost no memorable villains. Think of Batman, locked in eternal combat with nocturnal freaks like the Joker — or Spider-Man, battling megalomaniacal weirdos like Dr. Octopus. For Superman, there’s pretty much only bitter, bald Lex Luthor, forever being reinvented by writers and artists in an effort to make him a worthy foe. Superman’s true enemies are disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, jet planes tumbling from the sky, enormous meteors that would crush cities. Superman stands between humanity and a capricious universe.

Singer’s movie hasn’t yet screened in its entirety, so no one knows what he’s going to add to the myth. The few minutes of the film that outsiders have seen (watched with a chaperone, on a DVD that gets shredded after viewing) look good, a spiritual successor to the Richard Donner films from a quarter-century ago. The special effects will be flawless. But Singer’s Superman is bound to be less interesting than his Clark Kent. Of all the relationships at the heart of the myth — Superman and Lois Lane, Superman and Jimmy Olsen, Superman and his adoptive parents — the most important is the one with his alter ego.

In 1959, Jules Feiffer did a classic cartoon about that dynamic. In it, Superman “pulled this chick from the river” and, after being briefly subjected to her Freudian questions about his motivation for rescuing people all the time, he quits. He settles down and spends the rest of his life pretending to be human — going to work, watching TV. In less than a page, Feiffer encapsulates the internal war between Superman’s moral obligation to do good and his longing to be an average Joe.

Other heroes are really only pretending: Peter Parker plays Spider-Man; Bruce Wayne plays Batman. For Superman, it’s mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent that’s the disguise — the thing he aspires to, the thing he can never be. He really is that hero, and he’ll never be one of us. But we love him for trying. We love him for wanting to protect us from everything, including his own transcendence. He plays the bumbling, lovelorn Kent so that we regular folks can feel, just for a moment, super.
–Neil Gaiman & Adam Rogers


Balticon Schedule

The schedule for Balticon 40, which takes place from May 26th to 29th at the Baltimore Marriott Hunt Valley Inn, has been posted to the Balticon website, (http://www.balticon.org/program.html) and is available as a PDF (http://www.balticon.org/B40pocketfinal.pdf)


Coraline Film News

From the Laika news release:

LAIKA Entertainment has cast Teri Hatcher, the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award-winning star of the worldwide television phenomenon “Desperate Housewives,” to voice a dual role opposite Dakota Fanning in its first animated feature film, Coraline. Focus Features has worldwide distribution rights to Coraline. LAIKA, Inc. president/CEO Dale Wahl and Focus CEO James Schamus made the announcement today.

The stop-motion animated feature with CG effects has been adapted by LAIKA supervising director Henry Selick from Neil Gaiman’s international best-selling book Coraline. Mr. Selick is directing Coraline, and LAIKA Entertainment’s director of story Mike Cachuela is co-director of the feature.

Coraline is a LAIKA Entertainment production in association with Pandemonium Films; Pandemonium president/CEO Bill Mechanic and LAIKA Entertainment’s Mary Sandell are producing the feature, which is in production at LAIKA’s Portland animation studio. The popular music group They Might Be Giants will provide songs for the film.

In Coraline, a young girl (Ms. Fanning) walks through a secret door in her new home and discovers an alternate version of her life. On the surface, this parallel reality is eerily similar to her real life — only much better. But when this wondrously off-kilter, fantastical adventure turns dangerous and her counterfeit parents try to keep her forever, Coraline must count on her resourcefulness, determination, and bravery to get back home.

Ms. Hatcher will voice the role of Coraline’s Mother, as well as the role of Other Mother. The two-hour second-season finale of “Desperate Housewives” aired nationwide Sunday night (May 21st). Ms. Hatcher’s book “Burnt Toast: And Other Philosophies of Life,” published by Hyperion, debuted this month at #4 on The New York Times best-seller list and is now at #10 on USA Today’s list of best-sellers.

Mr. Wahl said, “We’re delighted that one of television’s most popular stars is joining this unique and exciting project. Teri’s presence will provide the perfect maternal counterpart to Dakota’s Coraline.”

Mr. Selick, who joined LAIKA as supervising director in 2004, directed the stop-motion/live-action “James and the Giant Peach” and the stop-motion animation classic “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which will be re-released this fall in a digitally re-mastered 3-D version. He also directed the animation sequences in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”

Mr. Cachuela is a renowned storyboard artist, designer and animator. With stints at Pixar and Skellington Studios, he has been the storyboard artist, animator, or conceptual artist on many of the seminal animated films of the past decade, including “The Incredibles,” “Toy Story,” and “Antz.”

Mr. Gaiman has achieved a cult following in the worlds of comics and fantasy and children’s literature, through his acclaimed and popular novels. Coraline, inspired by his own daughter’s sense of adventure, was published by HarperCollins in 2002. The novel has been translated into 30 languages and won a host of honors, including the prestigious Hugo Award.

LAIKA, Inc. (www.laika.com) is owned by chairman Phil Knight, who is also co-founder and chairman of Nike. In addition to Coraline, LAIKA Entertainment is in pre-production on “Jack & Ben’s Animated Adventure,” a CG-animated family film which tells a story of survival, brotherly love and grand adventure set in the animal kingdom. That film is written and directed by Jorgen Klubien, a veteran storyboard artist and designer whose credits include “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “The Lion King,” “Toy Story 2,” “A Bug’s Life,” and “Monsters, Inc.” The company recently purchased the rights to one of the U.K.’s current best-selling children’s novels, writer/illustrator Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters.”

Throughout its history, the company has won two Academy Awards (out of five nominations); eleven Emmy Awards; eleven CLIO Awards; three London International Advertising & Design Awards; five Mobius Advertising Awards; two Cannes Lion International Advertising Festival awards; and honors from the New York International Film & TV Festival, Annecy Awards, Annie Awards, and the World Animation Celebration Festival.

Bill Mechanic and Pandemonium’s initial production, “Dark Water,” was directed by Walter Salles (Focus’ “The Motorcycle Diaries”) and released last year. Mr. Mechanic executive-produced Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” starring Colin Farrell and Q’Orianka Kilcher, which was also released last year.

Pandemonium’s current films in development include “The Wrong 9-Year-Old,” with Paul Feig directing; “Torso,” with director David Fincher attached; and a project with director John Woo.

Focus Features (www.focusfeatures.com) is a motion picture production, financing, and worldwide distribution company committed to bringing moviegoers the most original stories from the world’s most innovative filmmakers.

In addition to Coraline, upcoming Focus Features releases include Woody Allen’s “Scoop,” starring Allen, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, and Ian McShane; Allen Coulter’s “Hollywoodland,” starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane, and Ben Affleck; the untitled film directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Tim Robbins and Derek Luke; Shane Acker’s animated fantasy epic “9,” produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov and Jim Lemley & Dana Ginsburg; Kasi Lemmons’ “Talk to Me,” starring Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor; and David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” starring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts.

Focus Features is part of NBC Universal, one of the world’s leading media and entertainment companies in the development, production, and marketing of entertainment, news, and information to a global audience. Formed in May 2004 through the combining of NBC and Vivendi Universal Entertainment, NBC Universal owns and operates a valuable portfolio of news and entertainment networks, a premier motion picture company, significant television production operations, a leading television stations group, and world-renowned theme parks. NBC Universal is 80%-owned by General Electric and 20%-owned by Vivendi.


From the May 23rd Oregonian / Associated Press:

Teri Hatcher, who plays a ditzy but adoring single mom on TV’s “Desperate Housewives,” has signed up to play a mother with considerably more nefarious qualities in the first feature film from Laika Entertainment, Phil Knight’s Portland animation studio.

In Coraline, adapted from a children’s novel by Neil Gaiman, Hatcher will provide the voice of both the mother and the “other mother” of the young girl for whom the book is named, Laika plans to announce today. The other mother, a sinister reflection of Coraline’s real mom, seeks to trap Coraline for some dark purpose.

Child star Dakota Fanning has already agreed to play Coraline in the film, due out sometime in 2008. Last week, Laika announced that it will partner with Focus Features to distribute the movie.

Nike founder Knight acquired the former Vinton Studios in 2003 and renamed it Laika last year. “Coraline,” to be directed by Laika supervising director Henry Selick, is the first of two films in the early stages of production at the Northwest Portland studio.

Hatcher first became popular playing Lois Lane in the 1990s Superman TV show “Lois & Clark,” but her scatterbrained character Susan Mayer on “Desperate Housewives” made Hatcher a star.
–Mike Rogoway

Additional coverage appears in Reuters / The Hollywood Reporter.


Review – Sandman Papers

From the May 23rd PW Comics Week:

…By far the most serious of these new releases is Fantagraphics’ The Sandman Papers, edited by Joe Sanders ($18.95 paper, ISBN 1-56097-748-5). This is a collection of academic essays concerning Neil Gaiman’s now classic Sandman comics series, and demonstrates the intellectual depth that comics can achieve as literature.

Whereas many other comics professionals might resist literary analysis, Gaiman contributes an introduction in which he welcomes it, acknowledging that academics can make valid discoveries about his work of which not even he was aware.

As one might expect, several of these literary critics are fascinated by Gaiman’s use of Shakespeare. The subjects range over a wide territory, from Orientalism and the use of Asian dress to the depiction of lesbian and transsexual characters to connections between SandmanSandman readers via personal appearances and his blog. and the works of Jorge Luis Borges, even to Gaiman’s interaction with

Sometimes the essayists betray insufficient knowledge of the comics traditions Gaiman draws on. For example, B. Keith Murphy argues that Alan Moore’s Watchmen is a gothic horror story “disguised as a superhero comic” since, among other reasons, he unconvincingly claims Ozymandias is based on Jekyll and Hyde. (So what about the Hulk?)

On the other hand, the essays often illuminate mysteries in Gaiman’s works. For example, Sanders provides a revealing reading of Gaiman’s graphic novel Mr. Punch, and insightfully compares Shakespeare’s attitude toward the uses of storytelling in Gaiman’s Sandman to that of characters in two other Sandman tales, Calliope and even A Dream of a Thousand Cats.

Most of all, various essayists anatomize Sandman’s overarching theme of the inevitability and necessity of change, in the world and in one’s own life.

The essays do not necessarily fully answer the questions they raises, but as Gaiman says in his introduction, this book is a starting point for further analysis. The Sandman Papers is not for casual readers, but it will reward Sandman aficionados willing to explore further. Of these new books about comics, this is the only one that genuinely deepens one’s understanding of the comics themselves.
–Peter Sanderson