Glen Weldon, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography (2013)

superman the unauthorized biography

Author: Glen Weldon

Title: Superman. The Unauthorized Biography

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 352

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.

superman and 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 😉

superman mullet

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.

superman imaginary story

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.

Score: 8/10

22 thoughts on “Glen Weldon, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography (2013)

  1. Great review. If I cared enough, I’d probably try to seek this out for one of my few non-fiction reads of the year.
    However, I’ve sampled enough Supes to know what Age of Superman I liked and that age is far gone. I agree with the author that Supe’s evolution comes from the culture though.

    How did you ever come across this and what made you pick it up?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks 🙂

      I think I noticed it on the shelf in my library… The cover is quite fetching, the blue sky and a bit of Superman’s cape 🙂 Once I saw it I had to read it; I’m actually very interested in the relationship between the superhero genre and the culture in general and that seemed like exactly the right thing.
      I think you’d enjoy it – except for a few moments that would send you frothing at the mouth 😉 – Weldon paints the picture as he sees it, obviously. But it’s a really solid read, and gives a bit of clarity to the mess DC had made in recent years…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I appreciate Superman’s importance, but still can’t bring myself to enjoy his stories much. Encouraged by Lashaan’s review, I’ve acquired Superman For All Seasons, and I’m going to read it soon, but am I ready for a solid volume of non-fiction about him? Maybe, it might actually be more interesting than the source material, I often find it to be a case with some important, popular movies.
    It seems to be a history of, simultaneously, Superman and USA. Is he a bit of a Forrest Gump ;)?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Superman for All Seasons is very good indeed. It could have been really great sans Toxin, which IMO is completely unnecessary. But it’s a very particular graphic novel and not representative of Supes, I dare say.
      I think you’d enjoy this book for a variety of reasons, history being just one of them 😉
      And yes, he’s sort of Forrest Gump – except he never went to Vietnam 😛

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a fantastic review. Much like yourself, I am a Batman-lover more so than a Superman fan. I can enjoy his comics, they just don’t wow me as much as Batman, Nightwing or the newer versions of Aquaman.

    I do have a friend that loves Superman, so I may well get him this for his birthday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks a bunch!
      I’m partial to Bats, and a Nightwing fan as well – though for some reason I can’t stand Titans; maybe they remind me too much of adolescent X-Men… 😛
      It sure seems like a thoughtful present for a Superman fan – it’s not only pretty interesting and full of fun facts, it also looks nice in this blue hardcover :).

      Liked by 2 people

        • Huh, I need to get to it eventually if you recommend it – though I’m kind of put off by the trailer… And most of DC shows were a horrid experience for me (I didn’t manage to last through even one episode of Supergirl or Arrow, and Flash as well…) – in that I’m much more of a Marvel fan, especially Daredevil and Punisher 😀

          Liked by 2 people

  4. Wonderful and thorough review, Ola. I like that the author explores Superman’s evolution to the point where we’re able to contextualize it with politics and American identity, because that’s really some of the most important elements that affected Supes transformation over the years. I learned a lot about it through the 80 Years of Superman volume I read a couple of months ago, although it was structured differently hahah

    Do you plan on checking out the author’s latest book called something like The Caped Crusade? About Batman this time of course? I’ve seen that one more often than this Superman biography hahah I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that one too!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Lashaan!
      I do intend to read Weldon’s take on Batman – though I suspect I’ll be less forgiving when I do, cause it’s Batman 😉 Still, this one was a pleasant surprise, so I’ll be actually looking forward to it 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, I’ll always choose Bats over Superman, though admittedly recent DC stories about Batman make me doubt the sanity of their management (not to mention the creators of these stories ;))
      I recommend this book to anyone with interest in the superhero comic world – I’d say Superman is the main focus of the book, but at the same time serves as an entry point to the whole cultural phenomenon. It’s really interesting, and even if you’re not that much into Superman you may probably find lots of intriguing facts.
      Thanks a lot! 🙂

      Like

  5. Pingback: Mark Millar, Leinil Yu, Superior (2013) | Re-enchantment Of The World

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