Author: Glen Weldon
Title: Superman. The Unauthorized Biography
There’s one main reason for my recent incommunicado, and it’s life. Unpredictability of life has been discussed extensively elsewhere, so I’ll refrain from wallowing in self-pity and/or bragging and instead take care of the topic of this post :).
Superman. The Unauthorised Biography by Glen Weldon is a hefty book, worthy of the enviable long life of one of the most famous comic book characters (he’ll be 81 this year!). I freely admit, I have never been a rabid fan of Superman, nor even a dedicated one. Superman just seemed too super, too powerful and too idealized to engender any warmer feelings in me – especially in comparison to the morally ambiguous, brooding character of Batman.
But Weldon’s book, impressive in its thoroughness, fanboyish love and respect for the source material, actually got me to appreciate Supe’s character and – especially – his cultural significance, predominantly for the American society.
Weldon does a great job in linking Superman’s many transformations throughout his long, adventurous life to the changes within the U.S. – cultural, political, social as well as economical. I especially appreciated his take not on the changes in Superman’s abilities, though they were many and varied, but on the changes of Superman as a symbol, a culturally significant figure – from a very Robin Hood-esque type of vigilante to a responsible citizen fully devoted to hassle of normal life, nearly without the need of using superpowers, to a father figure of the Reagan’s era, to an older brother/cousin type of character relatable in his very Earthly endeavors (a private life, a wife and a child), and these un-Earthly as well (the plight of Kandor, for example). For example, as Weldon summed up Superman’s transformation in the Silver Age,
The process of becoming a symbol smoothed Superman’s rough edges and shaped him into something safer, more trustworthy. His social conscience morphed into boosterism. His sardonic smirk became a genial grin. Once hunted as vigilante “mystery man,” he now began working alongside the police […]. There was a war on, so the time for social crusades was over. Where once he agitated and chafed against the status quo, Superman was now determined to reinforce it.
The psychological and environmental changes go hand in hand with physical transformations, and various Superman’s creators left his mark on Supe’s visage, changing it to their own tastes and attempting to keep him relevant for the evolving public. Even Superman’s terrible mullet is discussed in depth, as well as various changes in his musculature 😉
Weldon doesn’t forget to describe the anti-comic book crusade of dr Wertham, the social transformations in the American society, from WWII and Korea to the Vietnam War, babyboomers consumerist choices, various political earthquakes, as well as the economic and personal decisions at DC concerning the fate of Earth’s favorite Kryptonian (for the title of Earth’s favorite alien he’d probably contend with E.T. and I’m not that sure even Supes could win with E.T. ;)). Even the famous rivalry with Marvel is mentioned (and, as a true fanatical believer, Weldon heavily weighs in on the side of DC).
The author’s choice of a chronological narrative has been a very good one, as it allowed the readers to track the various mutations of Superman and understand their origin. Weldon is thorough in his job: alongside various comic books he describes also the more and less successful radio and TV series, movies and even museum exhibitions and merchandise dedicated to Superman. He analyses Supe’s midlife crisis of the 70., the complex relationship between Clark Kent and Superman’s halves of personality, Superman’s death and the subsequent many beginnings and origin tales of the whole DC universe – and he arrives at some interesting, if sometimes controversial, conclusions. Such as this:
Superman has evolved over the years […] but the nature of that evolution is a function of the culture that surrounds him, not something that grows out of his character.
Or this, at once heartfelt and critical, ashamed of his undying professed love for the character and yet unable to remain objective – probably, in the end, revealing more about himself than about the subject of his writing:
He was the first and the best, and although one of his two creators was born in Toronto, he is powered by a uniquely American fuel mixture: part wish-fulfillment, part noble ideal, part garish hey-look-at-me spectacle.
There’s no denying, however, that Weldon touches upon something important in his biography of Superman – and other superheroes ruling the imagination of the American nation. Through the analysis of Siegel and Shuster’s creation Weldon attempts to get a peek at the psyche of the American society – seeing in Superman the realization of the majority’s dreams and worldviews, he shows the Big Blue Scout as a mirror, reflecting the many changes in the American identity and aspirations throughout the 75 years of the character’s life:
It’s telling that when Superman’s writers gave themselves license to dream up anything they could, they invariably dreamed the American dream of the fifties, opting for the normative closure of marriage and family, of keeping house, cookouts, campouts, and, ultimately, a peaceful retirement. Most of Superman’s Imaginary Stories, whose very reason for being was to explore how radically the setup could get upset, ultimately offered their readers assurance that Superman would remain forever an Eisenhower Republican, and the status would remain comfortably, quietly, permanently quo.
Weldon’s Superman: The Unauthorized Biography is a good, fast, engaging read. It’s by no means flawless, and even I, far from being a Superman-pro, caught some clear mistakes. I’d also be happy to discuss with the author some finer points of his analysis – but that’s the mark of a good book in my opinion, if it moves you enough to think and argue details 😉
All in all, if you are unfamiliar with the longest-existing superhero character, it’s probably better to start elsewhere. Weldon’s book can be quite arcane at times, mercilessly shuffling the readers through decades of Superman’s history in one chapter, happily wallowing in minutiae or demanding a pre-existing knowledge about certain facts. Still, I guess that nobody in their right mind would start their superhero adventure with a 352 pages long biography (without illustrations!) of a fictitious comic book character anyway 😉 So for those who already know a bit about Superman and would like to learn more – about the fate of his “fathers”, Siegel and Shuster, about the subsequent various creators and their – often clashing – visions, about the cultural background of Superman’s existence, etc., or simply want to find their bearings in the ever faster changing DC universe with its multiplying new beginnings and internally contradictory storylines :P, this is definitely a recommended book.