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Why is Superman so popular?

By Prem Panicker in Los Angeles
July 04, 2006 15:26 IST
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There is a general -- and generally erroneous -- belief that Superman was the first of the superheroes. Lee Falk's Phantom preceded him, as did The Shadow, and Doc Savage.

It is just that when the Man of Steel finally landed on Planet Earth, he cast such a long shadow in the popular imagination that it was as if he invented, and typified, the genre. Or rather, that his natural parents -- author Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster -- did.

The two high school friends from Cleveland, Ohio, after many initial rejections of their idea and even an attempt to market their own creation through a mimeographed fanzine, finally landed up at the door of Detective Comics (DC) who, at the time, were looking for a likely character for their start-up series, Action Comics.

Siegel and Shuster sold the rights to their character to DC for the reportedly negligible sum of $130 -- and Superman, debuting in Action #1, took off like a rocket, so much so that the joke doing the rounds was that the 'S' emblazoned on his chest should have been changed to '$'.

Ironically, those dollar signs didn't rub off onto Siegel and Shuster who, even as their creation grew to outsize proportions and spawned franchises of his own, slipped deeper into destitution.

Halfway through the 1970s, film producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, on behalf of Warner Brothers, signed a deal to produce two big budget movies on the Superman legend. At this point, illustrator and activist Neal Adams lobbied on behalf of the character's creators; DC and Warner bowed to the pressure and established a pension for Siegel and Shuster, and began naming them in all subsequent comics and movies as the original creators (a tradition that continues with Superman Returns, where Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are prominently acknowledged in the opening credits).

Meanwhile, the flame changed hands many times; its current keeper is Paul Levitz -- comic book writer, editor, and president of DC Comics, who took over the top job after an apprenticeship as vice-president in 2002. Excerpts from a conversation:

Brandon Routh in Superman ReturnsHas the movie, to your mind, stayed true to the comic book character you are custodian of?

The most direct ancestor of the movie is very clearly the first two movies starring Christopher Reeve -- that is clearly Bryan's (director Bryan Singer) moment of passion about the character.

There is a wonderful science fiction historian named Sam Moskevitz, who wrote that the golden age of science fiction is 12.

I believe that if you are talking of readers, that is true not just for science fiction, but for all genre fiction -– there is this golden moment of imprint, and you can see that Bryan walked in on the movie at that age and it had magic for him, and he has remained true to that spirit and carried it forward.

Those movies were, in turn, very firmly based on the comics -- so it all carries through in a linear passage, but it is built one apart from the other, each adding nuance and texture to the iconography.

In recent times, we have had director Christopher Nolan doing Batman (Batman Begins, 2005), now Bryan Singer doing Superman Returns. Are you rolling out the Hollywood young guns, are they coming in to revitalise the superheroes and make them relevant to the next generation?

I think many of the best comic book movies have been made relatively early in their directors' careers -- I think Tim Burton (Batman, 1989; Batman Returns, 1992) represents that trend too, if you think back to when he made it, he had done a few movies before, but nothing of any real significance.

I think the studio's focus has been to get someone who would bring to these films an enormous passion, and no sense of having been there before. It is fascinating to have gone back to back with Chris and Bryan, who share the characteristics you talk of, but are extraordinarily different directors in every other way.

Chris wanted to do as much of Batman Begins on film as possible; Bryan immediately leapt into the new digital technology and said he wanted to do his movie with this new, state-of-the-art set of cameras.

Again, Chris is very script-driven and focuses on the written word; Bryan is very visual-driven – yet both of them have had extraordinary success in bringing their passion to the movies they made.

A still from Superman ReturnsWhat sort of impact does the release of a movie of this kind have on the comic franchise?

The impact really is that it creates a new generation of people who love the character. Comics in America have a fairly modest audience, certainly by comparison with say manga in Japan, which is pretty much universally read, or the successful brands like Asterix in Europe, which has a massive following.

We view ourselves both as comic book publishers and as keepers of legends, and when you have characters like Superman and Batman that were there before you, that were loved before you, that you loved yourself as a child, your first responsibility is to see that they live on for another generation beyond you, and a great movie is one of the most powerful tools for doing that.

Is that where the business lies -- in bringing new readers to the fold?

It is great business for us because we are part of the movie as the license holders of the characters. We run the merchandise and can tie a publishing programme into it as well. Hopefully, some of the time, it brings new readers to the comics but, most of the time, films don't have a major effect that way.

You did say comics have limited readership as compared to some other countries, but the characters are hugely popular on film -- so why is the superhero so popular in America?

I got into this discussion with a bunch of international cartoonists a couple of years ago, when they were coming through New York on a tour. We went back and forth on it, and my conclusion was it is fundamental to the American myth of ourselves, that how you use your power is the important choice you make.

I think the superhero represents that step in American cultural iconography.

I can be anything I want to. I can be a superhero -- I don't know if that is true in America, I think it is more true of America than most countries of the world, in terms of the ability to change class, occupation, where you live; we are less tied to where we start than most nations. So, if I can be a superhero, the issue of what I do with my gifts matters most. Will I use my gifts to make the world a better place, or to benefit myself? Those are fundamental American debates that the superhero metaphor works to define.

Tomorrow: Don't forget to read Part 2 of the interview: 'It is not the motivation of Spiderman doing well that made us do Superman now'

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Prem Panicker in Los Angeles