Man Of Tomorrow: Superman, Orson Scott Card And Me

Feb 17, 2013
Originally published on February 17, 2013 5:00 pm

Glen Weldon is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Monkey See.

Let's make this perfectly clear at the outset: I don't work for NPR, and what I'm about to say doesn't represent NPR. I'm but a lowly freelancer they're dumb enough to publish a bunch, and what I say now I say as me, which is to say:

1. An inveterate Superman nerd, and

2. A gay dude.

DC Comics has hired Orson Scott Card to write the first two issues of a new digital-first Superman comic. I won't be reading it.

It will be the first piece of Superman-affiliated pop culture that I will bypass in my 45 long and geeky years on this planet, and I am a man who saw Superman IV: The Quest For Peace in the damn theater. (Jon Cryer as Lex Luthor's bitchin' New Wave nephew Lenny! Superman repairing the Great Wall of China by STARING AT IT, because suddenly "spackle-vision" is evidently a thing he's got now! A banana-yellow villain in a gold-lamé codpiece!)

(... Okay, the codpiece was pretty rad, actually.)

Why will I be giving Card's Superman a miss? Three reasons:

First: Card isn't just a guy whose opinions I happen to disagree with. Trust me, the comics industry is rife with writers, artists and editors whose politics I don't share, who hold views they're quite public about in interviews and various internet forums, and I would defend — to the mild inconvenience — their right to hold those views. This isn't about that.

Card is different. Card is an activist. He sits on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, an entity entirely devoted to attacking and defeating marriage equality and spending millions of dollars lobbying to do so.

(One comics site has warned that boycotting Card's Superman book represents the kind of thinking that "leads to witch hunts." OK. I mean, I generally associate the term "witch hunt" with innocent people getting falsely accused and pressed to death by stones, not with one hugely successful millionaire bigot having to explain to his accountant why a side-project made an infinitesimal amount less money than he'd hoped it would, but let that go.)

Second: If Card were writing any other character — Ant-Man, Matter-Eater Lad, Batroc the Leaper — even a high profile character like Iron Man, whom he did write for a while — you wouldn't see this reaction.

Because Superman is different.

Superman is not just a superhero. He's the superhero. He created the very concept of the superhero, and everything that's touched on that concept for the past 75 years — we are talking vast swaths of popular culture — exists because of him. Regardless of how you feel about Superman and superheroes, you can't deny the cultural impact the character has made, and continues to make. Why, someone could write an entire book on the subject. And call it Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, say. And have it published by Wiley on April 1. And make it available for pre-order now.

The third reason I'm skipping Card's Superman is to me the most central, and most personal, and it has less to do with how popular Superman is, and much more to do with who he is. And what he stands for.

Superman is an ideal. He represents our best self. That's what he's for.

He's not the hero we identify with — that's what Spider-Man is for. Spider-Man worries about rent, and girlfriends, and his sick Aunt May still, again, some more. In him, we see ourselves as we are.

In Superman, we see ourselves as we hope to be. It's right there in the name — he's not "Pretty Good Man" or "Doesn't Suck Man"; he's Superman. He personifies our noblest ideals, ideals we believe in, and strive for, but only inconstantly attain: Truth and Justice, but also Fairness and Compassion.

He is a man born with tremendous gifts, who could do anything he wants. Anything at all. And what he chooses to do, first and always, is to help others.

In Action Comics #1 from 1938, Siegel and Shuster slapped together a one-page origin story in which he discovers his powers. We don't actually see him in the baby-blue longjohns until the very last panel of this introduction.

But when we do see him for the very first time, these are the first words that appear directly below, the first epithet applied to this newly-minted creation as it was unleashed upon the world:

Champion of the Oppressed.

There it is, coded into his creative DNA from the very beginning: He fights for the little guy.

And that's why this bugs me, and why I'm not the least bit curious about what Card's Superman might be like.

DC Comics has handed the keys to the "Champion of the Oppressed" to a guy who has dedicated himself to oppress me, and my partner, and millions of people like us. It represents a fundamental misread of who the character is, and what he means.

It is dispiriting. It is wearying. It is also, finally, not for me.

One of the other nicknames that accrued to Superman right away – that predates "Man of Steel" by a good amount – is "The Man of Tomorrow." And much of his early iconography bears a distinctive Socio-Realist, Diego Rivera vibe: a lot of burnished golden sunrises, eyes raised to the horizon, gazing into the future.

Because that's where he lives, Superman. And that's what he says to us: We can do better. We can be better, to ourselves, and to each other.

Hey, DC Comics? Be better.

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You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound...

LYDEN: Superman is making headlines this week, but not for rescuing Lois Lane. The series publisher, DC Comics, hired Orson Scott Card as a writer on the first chapter of the digital comic book. Card is an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, and some readers are upset that he now holds the keys to the Superman character.

Joining us to discuss this now is Glen Weldon. He's a blogger here at NPR, and also the author of the upcoming book "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography." Glen, welcome.

GLEN WELDON: Thank you very much. Great to be here.

LYDEN: So why the choice, do you think, of Orson Scott Card?

WELDON: Because he's a name, I think. He wrote a book called "Ender's Game," and he's very well-respected by those fans of that book. But let me speak as both a "Superman" nerd and as a gay dude. The reason why I think this is causing the controversy it is - Orson Scott Card isn't just a guy whose opinions I disagree with, because there are lots of people like that writing comics. And I would defend, to the mild inconvenience, their right to espouse those views. What's different here is that Orson Scott Card is an activist. He is a member of the board of the National Organization for Marriage, which spends millions of dollars to attack and defeat marriage equality.

LYDEN: Is there any reason to believe that Orson Scott Card will project his own values and religious beliefs on this character?

WELDON: I'd be surprised if he did, only because DC protects the character so much. They really keep a tight rein on what this character can and can't do. Back in the day, I used to follow the characters I loved from book to book. Now, I - and many people like me - follow the writers we love from book to book because genre is genre; and it has its tropes, its cliches. But within that, you can have a great "Superman" story and a lousy "Superman" story.

LYDEN: How much influence does one individual writer, though, have over this entire character which, as you say, is absolutely archetypal?

WELDON: Well, it depends. Basically, what happens in terms of the character is that a writer comes along, picks up the character, plays with it a while, then puts it back in the toy box. So Orson Scott Card is going to come along, do whatever he does, go away; the character will endure.

LYDEN: Is there more diversity amongst superhero comic book characters than there would've been when you were a kid?

WELDON: Oh, sure. There's more racial diversity. There's a lot more sexual diversity as well. It's great to see a gay character standing shoulder to shoulder with Captain America. But visibility is step one. Independent, underground comics and certainly manga - Japanese manga - have been way down this road, doing more than just showing gay people but actually exploring their lives in a nuanced and sometimes challenging way. The world of comics should look more like the world outside it - I think that's progress. But it's only a first step.

LYDEN: DC Comics released this statement to respond to the criticism over hiring Orson Scott Card. Quote, "The personal views of individuals associated with DC Comics are just that, personal views, and not those of the company itself." Do you think that people are just projecting politics onto something that's meant as entertainment?

WELDON: Sure. I mean, you can project onto him whatever you like. But comics are supposed to be fun, and the character of Superman doesn't really buy into petty politics. He's bigger than that. When he started out, he was a New Deal Democrat. He was somebody who challenged the status quo. The very first words in Action Comics No. 1 - it was written in 1938 - you see the words "champion of the oppressed."

One of his nicknames is "The Man of Tomorrow" because he is an ultimate progressive character. He says, "We can be better than we are, if we look out for the people who can't defend themselves."

LYDEN: Glen Weldon is a blogger here, at NPR. He's also the author of the upcoming book "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography." Glen, thank you for coming in.

WELDON: My pleasure.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Possessing remarkable physical strength, Superman fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice, disguised as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter, Clark Kent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.