How great is it that Superman is the first and best superhero? Some might invoke the name of pulp icons like Doc Savage, Nyctalope or The Phantom here, but it was really Superman who synthesized the elements of pulp action and science fiction into the bright four color world of capes and cowls. He defined it, but then, in one of the best quirks of fiction, he didn’t fall into the dustbin of history; Superman became the most famous of the lot. He started with a bang (that’d be Krypton) and kept going strong for 75 years…which Glen Weldon, who does comics for NPR, has brought together into a nice, readable biography: Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. The history of Superman, behind the curtain and the Man of Tomorrow himself, from comics and radio to television and film.
For me, there is a 1,000 pound super-gorilla named Beppo in the room that needs to be addressed. It is hard to come out with a non-fiction book about comic books and not have someone mention Grant Morrison’s bestselling Supergods. As I mentioned in my Invisibles review, I adore Morrison; Supergods was probably my favorite book of 2011. That said…who cares? Morrison’s book is one part comic book history, one part comics through the lens of biography and one part psychedelic philosophy. Weldon’s book is…well, the whole thing is actual Superman scholarship. The books are about the same medium, but they don’t have the same things to say, and that’s good!
A better comparison is to Larry Tye’s Superman: the High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, because both books tackle the same basic outline of history. What Weldon does better than Tye is…well, draw you in. The subject matter of who wrote what, when, for which editor? Could easily just be some tough meat to chew. Another “relative” of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography would be Tom De Haven’s Our Hero: Superman on Earth. Where Tye’s book is dry, De Haven’s is more opinionated; he feels free to editorialize, so to speak. Weldon walks a tightrope between those two poles; informative without being a laundry list, narrative without being contrived.
One thing Weldon steers well clear of—wisely, I think—are the legal issues between DC and Siegel and Shuster. That frees up a lot of hearsay, legal punditry and dogma space to talk about the evolving character of Superman and the people breathing life into him. I never get tired of hearing about how Bud Collyer used his voice talents to differentiate between Clark and Superman. It just makes me think that Kevin Conroy deserves more appreciation for his Batman work. And in turn it makes me think about George Reeves adding a bit of backbone to Clark Kent because he spent more time in a tie than in tights.
Which ultimately makes me think about Christopher Reeve, of the slouch and the smile, and how he synthesized the whole thing into a perfect blend. He squares his shoulders and suddenly…Superman! Brandon Routh’s Superman and Clark Kent are just Christopher Reeve cosplay, you know? Weldon doesn’t leave out the people behind the scenes, your Mort Weisingers and Julius Schwartzes, Kirby’s faces being redrawn or the Silver Age of apes and red kryptonite. In fact, Weldon follows the bottle city of Kandor almost totemically, tracking the evolution of the ages through that symbol. From the weird to the realistic—what Weldon calls “Vivisecting the Unicorn.” It fits.
I do have to quibble with something here though: the Death of Superman. Oh don’t get me wrong; Superman’s death at the hands of an EXTREME! ultraviolence dope really got under my skin, at the time. The thing is…in retrospect it is pretty brilliant. Superman dying at Doomsday’s hand is sort of…perfect. A dorky spikey monster that seems to have stepped out of the ‘roid rage grim n’ gritty comics of the Nineties is the perfect thing to “kill” Superman in retrospect; it embodies the Totally Macho Schmucks that were flooding the market. The thing to remember: Superman didn’t stay dead. He shrugged it off. Doomsday and Superman is a conversation that Kingdom Come articulates with Superman and Magog. Sure, guys with names like Darkefyre or Bloodfrag sold oodles of comics but Superman always comes back on top. He never gives up. He’s Superman. That’s what he does.
Mordicai Knode used to dye his hair blue-black when he was younger, because that is the color of Superman’s hair. He wishes the current Superman would put on some pants. You can follow him on Tumblr and Twitter.