Since the debut of Superman in Action Comics in 1938, fans have been thrilled by the adventures of the Man of Steel. In his book Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, comic book geek Glen Weldon explores the evolution of the superhero in comics, radio and small and large screen.
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NEAL CONAN, HOST:
A week ago, Superman turned 75, and ever since his debut in the first issue of "Action Comics," we've thrilled to the adventures of the Man of Steel.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Up in the sky, look.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's a bird.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's a plane.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's Superman.
CONAN: In a new book, comic geek Glen Weldon explores the evolution of the superhero in comics, radio and small and large screen. We want to hear from you today. Who is your Superman? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Glen Weldon blogs about comics for NPR's pop culture blog MONKEY SEE, and reviews comics for npr.org. His new book is "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography." He joins us here in Studio 42. Nice to have you back on the program.
GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Thanks, Neal. It's great to be back.
CONAN: And I think you write in your book that your Superman, or the one that really speaks to you, is the one drawn by Curt Swan, I guess, back when you were, well, a presumably impressionable youth.
WELDON: Yeah. I was drawing the Superman S in every fogged up bathroom mirror and every time I go to the beach since I was a very young kid. So his Superman, who is sort of endearingly square, is the Superman that I grew up with, yeah, the '60s and '70s.
CONAN: Yeah. And in another part of the book, you ask: Why has a schmuck like this endured for 75 years?
WELDON: Well, when you think about it, he is every entitled, trust fund kid who kind of comes roaring into the parking lot with a sweater around his neck flapping in the breeze. He has - everything that he is is a product of his genes, his birthright. So what is it about this character that makes him endure for 75 years? Well, some of is that he's a very heavily licensed nugget of intellectual property, but a lot of it is he is a symbol. He inspires. He's not the hero with whom we identify. He's not Batman. He's not Spider-Man. He's the hero in whom we believe. He's an inspiration.
CONAN: And it is also that he has that alter-ego.
WELDON: Right, exactly. And that is the way in for the character. Now, different people have interpreted it different ways. For most of his existence, Superman was the real guy, and Clark Kent was a dodge, was something that he kind of put on to fool people and blend in. But in the middle of the '80s, they inverted that. And all of a sudden, in a very Reagan-era move, the - Clark Kent became the real guy and Superman the pose, something he would put on so that Clark Kent could get some me time, so he wouldn't be assailed by the public all the time.
CONAN: And a switch also in the central relationship in the book, Clark and Lois, because Clark previously helplessly pursuing Lois, who treated him as a churl...
CONAN: ...and silently snickering because he was really Superman. But then it is Clark who's waiting for Lois to recognize him as his true self.
WELDON: Right, exactly. And that's something - he really stacked the deck against poor Lois there. She couldn't win. And there was this weird, masochistic kink to the whole triangle, where he is just making fun of Lois, and then kind of pointing up Lois to be a fool, all the while hoping that she will sometime, somehow see through his disguise. It was very weird.
CONAN: We want to get some callers on the line, because everybody - as you point out, everybody has some Superman that they grew up with that speaks to them. And we want to hear which of those incarnations speaks to you today. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with Tom, and Tom's on the line with us from Coral Gables - Coral Springs, excuse me.
TOM: Hi. Yes. Silver-age Superman. I was into the stocky - the thing that used to gotten to me was that hairstyle with that big curl that he had in the front.
TOM: And he was able to - he was clear, and he gave me hope, and it was very clear these people that he was fighting. Where I started drifting away was when he went into the '60s and started having these social issues and the angst, and then things like Bizarro World and Mxyzptlk and crazy stuff, and that's when I was like, no, no. I wanted him to fight villains and right, you know, and right wrong.
TOM: Him and Charles Atlas.
TOM: I wanted to be available to have vice grip and have people not kick sand in my face. And for 10 cents, I could learn the secret of having a vice grip and just making people just reek in pain.
CONAN: Well, Tom, we're glad you learned the vice grip and that there is a trail of people writhing in pain in your wake. Thanks very much for the phone call. It's interesting. He mentioned Charles Atlas. These are two characters that go way back, Superman and Charles Atlas.
WELDON: Absolutely. 75 years ago. He was a strong man. He was a circus strong man in circus tights. That's where the whole outfit came from, inspired by that and also by Flash Gordon. But the '60s and the '50s he's talking about, so-called silver age, is a time of deep weirdness. And if you are a fan like me, that is the era of crazy ideas like Beppo the Super Monkey and Krypto the Superdog that really - I love those without irony. I love them unreflexively and without irony because it's just absurdism.
CONAN: Bizarro World the most absurd of them all.
CONAN: Everything is backwards in Bizarro World.
WELDON: Everything is backwards in Bizarro World. There's a very simple logic to those stories, and they're strung together by gags. They take baths in dirt. It's very simple, but it really appeals to the kid in you.
CONAN: And it is interesting. He mentioned the social issues that you say - in fact, Superman started as sort of a New Deal Superman.
WELDON: He actually was. He was a New Deal Democrat through and through. He was a bully to the bullies. His first couple of years of existence, he was our protective, hot-headed big brother. He went after anybody who would step on the rights of the honest American working man. And he was actually pretty brutal about it. It was World War II, which kind of softened all his hard edges and turned him into patriotic symbol.
CONAN: Here's an email from Joe in Pierre, South Dakota. OK. My date of birth is 1953. So stupid though it was, the old Reeves' "Superman" TV series, I know of no man my age who can't recite the intro. Well, we don't have the intro for you. We played a bit of it before with (unintelligible). But any case, here's a bit of the clip from the TV series of the 1950s.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Superman.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Am I glad to see you.
JACK LARSON: (as Jimmy Olsen) Really, Superman, you could've come in through the door.
GEORGE REEVES: (as Superman) Well, this seemed a little more spectacular.
WELDON: Yeah. It was a great series. And, you know, it was made at this incredible pace on the ultra cheap. And, you know, these special effects are today underwhelming, but there's something honest about them. There is a certain sense of constantly iterating and reiterating. He keeps rescuing Lois and Jimmy from kidnappers every week. And that actually crossed over into the comics. The comics wanted to be seen as an extension of the television show because the same people were in charge of both. So that meant that the comics for a while there in the early part of the '50s where he kept going up against jewel thieves and bank robbers. And the comics page has this amazing, unlimited special effects budget. So once the television show ended, they felt they could go crazy.
CONAN: Let's go next to David. David's on the line with us from Boston.
DAVID: Hi. Thank you. One of the things I studied, one of the things I've done my dissertation on is superheroes in American culture. And I've seen how Superman has radically changed - maybe not radically changed but has greatly changed in the past 75 years despite the fact that he has to look and appear always fresh, always new.
I'd really love to ask your guest about the role of heroism in Superman. You mentioned that, of course, he started off as sort of a New Deal crusader, then became something of a red-blooded all-American fighting the Nazis, all the way up to a living story. Grant Morrison recently wrote him as the living embodiment of story and imagination. I wonder if you want to comment or say something on the role of heroism. You said, I think, earlier that Batman is who we identify with, but Superman is who we aspire to. Do we identify with the role or the concerns or the conflicts of heroism that appear in Superman?
WELDON: Well, one of the things I came across as I was writing this book is that a lot of people have an idea of this character as boring, as the ultimate boy scout, as goody-goody, as not relatable, as too powerful. So when I took a look at this character the course of the 75 years, you see that everything about this character changes except for one thing, and that's his motivation. His motivation is at once the simplest of all motivations. He's a hero, which means, A, he puts the needs of others over those of himself and, B, he never gives up. Simple but it's the hardest to unpack because it's an unquestioned kind of heroism that has driven him for years and years.
But either one of those two elements is missing from a Superman story, we rebel. It just doesn't feel like a Superman story. It's one reason that I would argue that the 2006 Superman film, "Superman Returns," feels a little off. It has this disconnect at its heart because he - that film starts with him going away from Earth to find his people, which is something he would never do. Superman would not abandon us. Spider-Man would. Spider-Man has many times. That's what he is. He's human. So the idea of heroism as this thing that motivates us and that's the thing that drives him, that's what a lot of people would say, well, that's what makes him boring. I would say it would make him very difficult to write.
DAVID: Is part of that, in your opinion, partly because of the baked-in part of his origin that he is an immigrant or this is an adoptive experience? I know that another scholar, Danny Fingeroth, wrote a book, "Disguised as Clark Kent," that part of this appeal to heroism or this call to heroism comes from his being from elsewhere but embraced here.
WELDON: Right, the ultimate immigrant. Absolutely. That's certainly a central part of the character that also has been there from the very beginning. It's - what I think it is, is when you have this character who has this unquestioned heroism, you have to look at the central conflict of this character. What is the thing that really motivates him? He wants to save everybody. And even he, even this character, can't do that even with his amazing powers. And some of the most important and enduring Superman stories, like the Morrison stories, deal with the fact that he wants to do this thing that even he can't do, coming to terms with the limitation of even his amazing abilities.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, David.
DAVID: My pleasure.
CONAN: I hope you're taking notes.
DAVID: Of course.
CONAN: So long. We got this wonderful email with a picture attached from Amanda. It's her, I gather, husband and kid: Very cute. My two Supermen happened upon this poster and took a photo and it is, well, he's not wearing an S on his chest, but rather a Nike Swoosh. But nevertheless in the Superman pose.
WELDON: Close enough.
CONAN: We're talking with Glen Weldon about his new unauthorized biography of Superman. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this email: I am 23 and never followed Superman. When I was growing up in the '90s, I felt there were better movies, comics and shows about Batman. I also know my friends were more fans of Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man. Superman was just never a presence for us. Do you think there's a cultural imperative for younger Americans who might not have exposure to Superman to seek his story out? Will something be lost if we continue to lose exposure to this famous character? Peter.
WELDON: Well, the '90s were a time of a lot of bad things happening in comics. In one case - in this particular case, Superman was killed and came back to life with a mullet. So all kinds of bad things.
WELDON: It was a bad time for us all. But, yeah, Batman - the '80s started with Superman films, very successful Superman films. But they ended with Batman films, because for whatever reason, Batman was a character that felt more attuned to the times. I do think that when it comes to the cultural saturation of this character, the films have more power. So right now, for better or for worse, with this "Man of Steel" film coming out this summer, an entire generation of people - of kids, especially, who never really paid attention to this character - will have their image of this character shaped, for good or for ill, by this next film. So I'm watching it very closely.
CONAN: This is from Dean Wilstead(ph): Thanks for covering this important milestone. I'm not typically a celeb watcher, but Dean Cain as Superman made me a fan, such a fan, in fact, that I loosely based the character on him in one of my novels. Got to love those abs of steel.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN")
TERI HATCHER: (as Lois Lane) You're asking me out?
DEAN CAIN: (as Clark Kent) Yeah. You know, like, on a date.
HATCHER: (as Lois Lane) A date? You mean, like a real date, where I take out my good perfume, the one that I got after I saw "Love Affair," the good one not the remake, and I put a dab behind my knee, I don't even know why.
CAIN: (as Clark Kent) Yeah. I guess that's what I'm saying.
HATCHER: (as Lois Lane) Well, that's - well, I just don't - I don't know to say.
CAIN: (as Clark Kent) Well, most people either choose yes or no.
CONAN: The old Lois would've chose: You spineless worm.
WELDON: Exactly. Exactly. She went through a lot over the course of her career, as well. She went from being sort of Rosalind Russell hard, brass-tacks kind of reporter, to becoming Doris Day in the '50s and '60s, where she fell madly in love and was lovesick for Superman. The - "Lois and Clark" was a really smart adaption of the Superman legend, where they basically turned it into a romantic comedy, turning it in - infusing it with a dose of "Moonlighting" and "Remington Steele" to kind of take it out of the classic realm of the fan boy. There was so plenty of fan boy stuff in there, but it was also really smart, funny show.
CONAN: And we are getting a lot of emails like this one that just say: Christopher Reeve. It was absolutely the first name that comes to our mind.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE")
CHRISTOPHER REEVE: (as Superman) Good evening, Ms. Lane. Thank you very much for finding the time for this interview. I realize there must be many questions about the world would like to know answers to. So it's become important to me to have close relations with the press. You really shouldn't smoke, you know?
MARGOT KIDDER: (as Lois Lane) Lung cancer?
REEVE: (as Superman) Well, not yet. Thank goodness.
WELDON: And that is a clip from the screen test, which is actually online. You can find that. It's actually Christopher Reeve's screen test for the seminal scene of that film, "Superman: The Movie," where he and Lois have their first real encounter. And there's something about that - his performance. He brought something that nobody had before, which was a calmness. If you take a look at that film again, and I spend some time on the film in the book. You take a look at that film again, and you see that he is completely in his skin.
He's dressed weirdly, but he doesn't show it in his eyes. And Lois Lane - Margot Kidder as Lois Lane - is a frayed nerve, the very neurotic '70s. And as soon as she comes up against that baby blue steel look of his, she calms down and she finds herself. It's a really smart approach to the character.
CONAN: We can all take, well, great heart that there was one incarnation of Superman that really went absolutely nowhere, and this was "Superman: The Musical."
(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY, "SUPERMAN: THE MUSICAL")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good night. Sweet dreams. So sorry to mess up your plan. But now you know. Pow. Don't fool around. Wham. Pow. With Superman.
CONAN: Presumably an attempt to, well, cash in on the Batman craze of the '60s.
WELDON: Actually, yeah. In the '60s, it was a Broadway musical, didn't last very long, but it got some good reviews. In the '70s, they revived it on television, and that's the thing you can find on YouTube. Don't seek it out. It's terrible. It's awful. But they just revived it in New York City for a limited run. Went and saw it. It was actually a lot of fun.
CONAN: What about "The Man of Tomorrow"?
WELDON: "The Man of Tomorrow"?
CONAN: Yeah. The Superman of tomorrow.
WELDON: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. That's - you mean, the "Man of Steel" coming up?
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah.
WELDON: That's something I'm really, let's say, cautiously optimistic about.
CONAN: Cautiously optimistic.
WELDON: Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: You've seen the trailers.
WELDON: The trailers are what's making me the optimistic part. The cautious part is Zack Snyder, who kind of makes video games.
CONAN: Superman, of course, stars in those, as well.
WELDON: It's true.
CONAN: There's no medium he has not starred in, including in his unauthorized biography called "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography" by Glen Weldon, our guest here in Studio 42. Thanks very much for being with us. Good luck.
WELDON: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.