On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Guest Host: Christina Bellantoni
Seventy-five years after he first appeared in comics, Superman continues to occupy a unique space in the American cultural imagination. But even though Superman’s been a constant presence in comics, radio and television, his ethos has consistently shifted to suit the evolving needs of American audiences. Author Glen Weldon joins us to explore what Superman can teach us about the American psyche, from the days he spent fighting slot machines to the release of this summer’s blockbuster flick, “Man of Steel.”
- Glen Weldon Author, "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography" (Wiley, 2013); Contributor, NPR
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS NewsHour sitting in for Kojo. Few fictional characters are as ingrained in American culture as the iconic superhero, Superman. He's been a fixture of comic books, radio programs, TV shows and blockbuster films ever since he first appeared in the pages of Action Comics No. 1, 75 years ago.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIBut through it all Superman himself has been anything but a fixed idea and his evolution is a lot more profound than the subtle changes to his faster-than-a-speeding-bullet super powers and the more recent decision to ditch his signature red underpants.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIThe writer Glen Weldon says you can actually trace the arc of the American psyche through Superman's adventures and that the stories of each generation reflect the fears, hopes and values of the audiences they were written for at any given moment.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIAnd Weldon joins us now to explore what we can learn about our collective identity from Superman from the days he crusaded against the scourge of slot machines to those who stood tall for truth, justice and the American way. Glen is the author of "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography". He covers pop culture and comics for NPR where he also contributes regularly to the blog MonkeySee. Welcome.
MR. GLEN WELDONThanks Christina, great to be here.
BELLANTONIThank you, so from the day that Superman burst on to the scene first in action comics...
BELLANTONI...April 18, 1938, a big day. Does this reflect how America has changed?
WELDONSure. I mean, when he started out, a lot of the stuff that we now see him as, a lot of the stuff that we kind of assume he is, you know, he's too powerful. He's boring. He's the big blue Boy Scout. He's not relatable. All that stuff wasn't there yet.
WELDONHe was a much different character. He was kind of a social reformer in many ways. He was kind of an activist and his targets, the people he went after, were people we would now consider part of the 1 percent. He did have kind of a progressive agenda.
WELDONHe went after corporate fat cats and crooked politicians and manufacturers who made unsafe goods that put people in danger, basically anybody who stepped on the rights of the American workingman was his target.
BELLANTONIAnd did this inform us about who we are as Americans?
WELDONWell, his changes do because he is a mirror to the culture. He changes as the culture changes. The thing is he's a very flattering mirror because he reflects our noblest ideals, truth, justice, compassion. He is a very flattering mirror because he shows us how we want to be.
WELDONHe says to us, you know, his nickname was the "Man of Tomorrow" long before it was the "Man of Steel" because he represents the future. He represents what we can be if we're better to each other. He says, here's the way, I got this.
BELLANTONIAnd what drew you to Superman so strongly from the beginning? Is this the superhero that you've been reading about and watching since you were a kid?
WELDONYeah, actually writing the book a lot of the, what we call primary texts, were already on my shelf, comics because I've been reading them since I was a very young kid. I've been drawing the Superman "S" on bathroom mirrors for as long as I can remember. It's the first thing I learned how to draw.
WELDONBut this book was actually a work for hire, an editor at Wiley reached out to me because he'd read some of my NPR stuff and he said some nice things about it and he wanted me to just do a biography of Superman in time for the 75th anniversary.
WELDONSo I started doing that and I wanted to demonstrate, you know, his reach, how far he's reached into the culture, how much he's saturated the culture consciousness so I started to document every song that mentions him, every reference to him. And I realized I was writing a Wikipedia entry and we already had one of those.
WELDONSo I went back and I thought to myself I'm not really a historian. I'm largely a book critic so what I can do is story. I can analyze story and figure out what works and what doesn't. So that's kind of how I tried to find the through line for the book, which was, what about this character has changed over 75 years? And what has stayed the same? And what do both of those things say about him and what do they say about us?
BELLANTONIAnd what has stayed the same? And we were taught to, even about this truth, justice and the American way was not always part of it. But what are those core values of Superman?
WELDONTwo things, the only thing that's not changed at all in the 75 years is his motivation and that's the simplest motivation of all. It's a hero's motivation which means, A, he puts the needs of others over those of himself and, B, he never gives up.
WELDONYou take away either two of those things, either one of those things and you don't have a Superman story. You have something that doesn't feel right because that's the thing that drives him. Everything else, the spit curl, the red underpants, the cape, the costume, everything about him can change and it often has for good and for ill, over the years. But if those two things are in place you've got yourself a Superman story.
BELLANTONISo you can join this super conversation with Glen Weldon who is the author of "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography.". Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org or of course get in touch on our Facebook page or tweet us @kojoshow.
BELLANTONIWhy do you think Superman's been such an enduring part of American pop culture for the past 75 years? Let us know. So, so many generations of Americans know Superman as a defender of American-ness. In his earliest days this guy was a social reformer in tights who fought to preserve the status quo. What were the ideas that shaped this early version of Superman as an outlaw hero, a champion for the oppressed?
WELDONWell, it was exactly that. I mean, Siegel and Schuster, his creators, decided that they wanted somebody to be a bully to the bullies, to be. He was actually, his relationship to us changes over the years and at the very beginning he was our protective older brother. He fought for us and he threw all those.
WELDONYou know, and he came up against things like, as you mentioned, he went after things like slot machines and reckless drivers. He went on a lot of crusades and there was an element of moral outrage to him that was very real.
WELDONAnd he also as I said, went after a lot of establishment figures to kind of say you are not trusting the working man. You're not fighting for the working man, in the right way and all that goes out the window when World War II hits because he has to change from being somebody who challenges the status quo to somebody who has to become a patriotic symbol. He has to reinforce it.
BELLANTONIAnd even sell war bonds?
WELDONAnd sell war bonds and tell people to plant victory gardens. Now he didn't actually go and fight the war. On the cover you see him, on the covers of the comics back then you see him fighting Nazis all the time but in the stories he never did because the writers, the editors at DC were very sensitive that they didn't want to trivialize the sacrifices of the American GI.
WELDONSo instead they had in the comic strip, they had Clark Kent go to enlist and get so excited about fighting for his country that he used his X-ray vision accidentally to read the eye chart in the next room and was labeled 4F so he had to stay home. He was labeled 4F and stayed home.
BELLANTONIThere's a lot of deep psychology in that.
WELDONIt's just -- you can unpack this stuff for days.
BELLANTONIAnd one of the covers you describe in the book it has him, you said, arm in arm with a few GIs and he's talking about how honored he was to visit military bases. I mean this is someone who was really rallying America around the cause.
WELDONThat's exactly right. And there's so much patriotic imagery from that time. I mean it becomes very hard to separate the red, white and blue from the red, yellow and blue. His cape and the flag become one.
WELDONSo he started the war as a children's hero and he ended the war as an American icon.
BELLANTONIWhat are the best Superman stories? What thread do they start to carry with them?
WELDONWell, in my opinion, you know, I am very sensitive to this charge of he's not relatable. He's too powerful. I can't relate to him like I can relate to Batman people say. I've heard that many, many times. Batman or Spiderman, they're relatable.
BELLANTONIThey have flaws.
WELDONThey have flaws, but here's the thing, Christina. Superman is not the hero we relate to, he's the hero we believe in. He's better than us. He's inspires us so some of the best Superman stories don't shy away from the fact that he can do all kinds of things and has these amazing powers. They actually steer into that skid.
WELDONAnd some of the best Superman stories I've read in my voluminous research for the book deal with the fact that he wants to save everyone. You know, this is fiction writing 101. What does, you take a character and you deny your protagonist what he wants for most of the book and then you give it to him at the end. That's conflict. That's story.
WELDONBut what Superman wants is the thing he can never have. He wants everyone to be safe. He wants to protect everyone. So if you think about it there's actually something kind of tragic in that. There's him dealing with his limitations even though those limitations are much greater than ours. They're huge. He can do almost anything but he can't do the one thing he wants which is to save everybody.
BELLANTONIAlways, do you find any significance to his famous weakness of Kryptonite, the environmental meteor from his home planet that was destroyed?
WELDONWell, the really interesting thing is that it was introduced in a story that DC refused to publish Kryptonite was, because the story that Jerry Siegel wrote had him revealing his identity to Lois Lane and DC Comics at the time was like, nope, can't do that.
WELDONBut the guys who wrote the radio show found that old script and decided that they liked the idea. So they took away the whole revealing the secret identity to Lois thing and kept this notion that this rock, this meteor not only weakens him but it also tells him who he is.
WELDONThat's how he finds out as a character that he's from planet Krypton. Before that he didn't know. He just knew he was super powerful. So let's unpack this for a second. So this object from your past can literally kill you so it can represent sort of a toxic nostalgia if you want it to or it can represent this survivor guilt perhaps.
WELDONBut what this thing is, this toxic remnant of your past not only can kill you but it also tells you who you are. It's heady stuff.
BELLANTONIYeah, I would definitely say so. Another, when we talked about sort of the slumlord that he didn’t want to have being able to, have poor housing and all of that. He also, he trapped a rich coal miner. His friends were having a party in the coalmine. He trapped them in there and caused a cave-in.
BELLANTONII mean, this was not always a nice benevolent Superman...
BELLANTONI...you know, just telling criminals that they needed to improve their ways.
WELDONYeah, this is the pre-World War II Superman. This guy had an edge to him and he was the outlaw hero as you say and especially in those early goings he was kind of a jerk and pretty violent. And the thing was that Siegel and Shuster were so enamored of this idea that he was so much stronger than everybody around him that they just kind of plopped him into these situations.
WELDONAnd the engine of the story, the humor of the story came from, look how strong he is. Now that lasted like two years before people started going, I don't know. Let's goose this up a little bit. So during World War II he kept getting more powerful and more powerful and more powerful like a power (word?) because it's just -- they keep wanting to tell bigger and bigger stories because they realized they couldn't keep having goons come up to him and say, gee he's strong.
WELDONSo yeah, but one of the things I do in the book is I take a real hard look at that first year. There are only 12 very brief stories in that first year of Superman comics because that's what kids were responding to by. They were selling millions of copies because kids were keyed into that for some reason.
WELDONSo I really took a hard look at exactly what it was. There's a lot of stuff in that very early going on that we don't recognize today. He spent a lot of his time as a master of disguise. That kind of went away because that's not a thing a hero does. That's a villain thing like trying to infiltrate people. That's not really. That doesn't really square with the Superman that we know.
WELDONHe also had the superpower that didn't last very long where he could contort the features of his muscles of his face and change his face so he could again go undercover.
BELLANTONII think I saw that in a "Mission Impossible" movie once right?
WELDONExactly, that's exactly right, so it doesn't really square with this bigger than life Superman. He's like us but better.
BELLANTONIWell I could talk about the early comic books very, for all ends of time but what you saw, as it became more popular, not just with kids as with adults, it transformed into radio and you say that that changed everything.
WELDONYeah, radio introduced a lot of things. Radio introduced Kryptonite of course. It introduced more or less Jimmy Olsen. It kind of introduced a lot of. It introduced flight in a way because before that he could just jump one eighth of a mile but the radio program introduced this wind noise which was clearly not a guy just jumping around.
WELDONIt was clearly somebody flying through the air and that changed how the comics dealt with him as well and eventually that's what we got. You know the radio show was really, really interesting because it captured something that didn't that the comics couldn't.
WELDONThere's a Bud Collier, was the guy who played him on the radio and he played both Superman and Clark Kent and in the comics you can't get that transition. You can see somebody ripping off their clothes but on the radio show you can hear Bud Collyer using that kind of high-pitched tenor when he's talking to Lois and then when he's changing to Superman it's a moment of transformation that really grabs people.
BELLANTONIAnd we're actually going to get a chance to listen to this excellent moment.
WELDONOkay. What we got there is the flight sound. Kind of a very silly flight sound.
WELDONA very big whoosh. But what I was talking about with the transition is he kind of goes from a boy to a man. This looks like a job for Superman, drops it down. And that's the moment that captures something, that kids could feel like could emphasize with.
BELLANTONILet's hear that.
BELLANTONIPuberty all in one moment.
BELLANTONIWe are going to continue this conversation after a short break, but you can weigh in. Tell us what Superman represents to you. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Email email@example.com. I'm Christina Bellantoni. We'll be right back.
BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS News Hour sitting in for "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm talking with Glen Weldon, author of "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography," also with NPR. And you can join our conversation about Superman, 1-800-433-8850. Send us Tweets to @kojoshow. Get in touch on our Facebook page. We've got all kinds of callers and Steve in Arlington, Va. wants to tell us about his childhood experience with the man of steel. Thanks for calling, Steve. You're on the air.
STEVEGreat. Thanks for taking my call and I'm thrilled to be talking about one of my favorite heroes. Just briefly an anecdote, but then I have a question about something that happened later in life. You know, I was so enamored with the whole Superman hero. I used to run around my house probably at age six or seven with a dishtowel around my shoulders pretending like I could actually jump off the upper stairs and fly around the basement or something or other.
BELLANTONII don't think you're alone there, Steve.
STEVEI'm sure. More directly a question. In graduate school at MIT I had a Russian class. And the professor was also enamored with Superman and use a text that was produced by a couple Russian teachers from Harvard where Superman was the storyline. And (word?) is the Russian word, which means super person. And it was all about truth, justice and the American way all in Russian. And I thought that was quite an interesting twist on using this story.
STEVEAnd I was curious first, whether or not you knew of that. And also a question is how well do you know the full opening monologue from the TV show. That was one thing the professor and I loved to recite to each other.
BELLANTONIYeah, and in fact, let's listen to that.
ANNOUNCERFaster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. Look, up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superman. Yes, it's Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands. And who disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way. And now another exciting episode in the adventures of Superman.
WELDONThere you go.
WELDONYeah, well, it's interesting. I wasn't familiar with that work that you talk about there. But there is a graphic novel called "Red Son." And during the '80s and '90s there was a thing called else worlds where they would take characters from the DC universe and say, what if? And Mark Miller wrote "Red Son" which is a what if Superman's rocket had landed in Russia. And it's an alternate take on that. It's kind of interesting. It plays with -- but this notion of the American way was something that was tacked on during World War II. Before that in the radio show, it was basically truth and justice. He fought for truth and justice.
WELDONAnd then after World War II -- I'm talking immediately after World War II, the American way thing left because he started to be -- they started to write stories for him for the radio where he was fighting for racial tolerance. And in fact the opening introduction ended with, Superman, defender of law and order, champion of equal rights, valued courage as fighter against the forces of hate and prejudices.
WELDONSo American way has gone in and out over the course of his career when we need it, like during the '50s and the Cold War when we needed it again. The television show put it back in but it's gone in and out.
BELLANTONIAnd after September 11 we saw a new evolution with Superman there.
WELDONCertainly, we did.
BELLANTONISo at the American way you had -- during World War II you had him fighting Hitler and Mussolini. You also had the War Department censoring some of these Superman comics. Tell us about that and sort of the first appearance of the A Bomb in comics.
WELDONSure. Well, I mean, there were characters either on the radio show or in the comic -- I'm sorry, I can't remember quite right now -- but there were storylines about nuclear fission and radioactive elements. And the War Department, which read everything before it went out, came to the DC offices and said, you know what? Maybe this whole radioactive isotope stuff is stuff to maybe talk about not now. Maybe we'll push that until after the war is over. So a lot of stories about atomic elements came out in 1946 and 1947 because those stories had been censored at the time.
BELLANTONIAnd so of course Superman entered a sort of weird period as well during the 1970s. So tell us a little bit about what we saw Superman go through in that time when America was going through its own weird period.
WELDONSure. Well, you know, in the '60s, that's called the silver age of Superman. That's when things get bananas in terms of just pure flights of fancy. But the '70s is when DC started looking over its shoulder at Marvel who was writing more grounded superheroes, who dealt with things like girlfriends and rent and sick Aunt May and all that kind of stuff. And they felt they needed to make this, in my opinion, doomed attempt to find relevance with these characters.
WELDONI think these characters come from a place of fantasy, Superman especially. And when you try to grid him up and make him react to things like racism, sexism, drugs, poverty. You don't bridge the distance between his world and ours. You just make it wider. You shine a big old spotlight on it. But they try. They took away a lot of his powers in the '70s so that he could be a little bit more relatable. They had Lois Lane transform herself into a black woman so she could go undercover into the -- Metropolis' ghetto and expose real stories. All this stuff was incredibly well intentioned, but really hand fisted. It just didn't work.
BELLANTONIWell, you can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. Will in Coatesville, Pa. wants to talk about Superman's reaction to villains. Hi, Will.
WILLHi, yes. I was calling -- I wanted to bring up the what's known around the internet as the world of cardboard speech from one of the more recent animated series. I think it was actually the Justice League cartoon. But as Superman's beating up on -- Superman is fighting Darkseid and the whole Justice League is in on this, you know, climatic battle.
WILLAnd, you know, it looks like Darkseid's about to, you know, win but then Superman punches him, you know, through a few walls. And he starts going on this speech about how, you know, he lives in a world of cardboard. You know, everything around him is so much weaker than he is. He has to always hold back. And, you know, there's a loneliness associated with that. And then he -- you know, now he's against an opponent where he actually gets to cut loose and he starts, you know, punching him through buildings and all that.
WILLBut I just -- that seems to have a lot of resonance these days with the sort of need to be restrained in everyday life. And then, finally in a sense, you get the chance you can actually let loose and be a little super.
WELDONRight, right. No, I think you've keyed into something that's a big part of this character. He's not about violence. He's about protecting people from it, at least theoretically. Not necessarily a man of steel but that's who this character is. He can do anything. That's the power of this character. He can do anything he wants. And what he chooses to do is look out for us and say, I got this. So yeah, that's a very powerful moment and I think it's the end of the Justice League series where he's saying, I can now take the gloves off. I can now do this thing.
WELDONOther writers have dealt with something like that. There's an Allen Moore story called "The Man Who Has Everything," which sort of touches on that where we glimpse a Superman who is not holding back, where we glimpse the terrific power that he never taps in on because he has to contain himself so much. So, you know, there's something about this character that really speaks to a lot of different aspects of the American psyche. We got our noblest ideals, we got our predilection for violence and our attempt to restrain it. And also, you know, our spectacle, our love of garish spectacle. He's basically a firework -- a July 4th firework in tights.
BELLANTONIWell, tell us which version of Superman is your favorite. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Send a Tweet to @kojoshow. I'd like to talk a little bit about Lois Lane.
BELLANTONIShe has evolved quite a bit. You know, as a female journalist I've always sort of identified with her. But reading your book I learned that actually in the beginning she was someone who was viewed as writing feature stories. They would send her to put a distinctive feminine touch on a story.
WELDONThat's my favorite.
BELLANTONIHow did she change?
WELDONChristina, they sent her -- in the second issue they send her to cover a war in South America and give it the distinctive feminine touch, whatever that means. But she started out as writing sob stories. She was a reporter who gave a human interest angle to things. But very quickly that went away and she just became a really great -- early on I'm talking about now -- a really great brave, brassy, together reporter. Especially in the Flesher animated shorts where she, you know, gets in danger because she's being so brave.
WELDONI mean, it's kind of tough not to be in danger when giant robots are rampaging through the city so it's not like she's imperiling herself and she needs rescue. It's that she's doing something really brave. But something happened during World War II, especially right after, which is kind of the rosy -- the riveter effect where she was awesome. And then as soon as the GIs came back her whole career took a much more domestic turn. They changed her persona and her characterization to become much more infatuated with Superman, obsessed with getting him to marry her, and also trying to figure out his secret identity.
WELDONBecause, again, he was getting so powerful that they couldn't really write stories about him very easily. So they needed to kind of shift the focus away onto Jimmy Olsen, onto Lois Lane, onto the people around him. And they needed to give her something to do. And unfortunately what they did was they transferred her from Rosalind Russell in the front page into Doris Day in everything.
WELDONSo she becomes this very domestic high-bound woman figure who defines herself by her relationship with Superman. It's a little sad.
BELLANTONIAnd it sounds a little sad. And in fact, she was, you know, clamoring to get her own scoops and trying to elbow Clark Kent out of the way. And you write about this sort of love triangle between Clark and Superman and Lois, sort of they're thinking she's a fool the whole time, right, because she's in love with Superman. Clark's in love with her and none of them ever end up together until of course the evolution when they end up married.
WELDONSure. Well, you've got to remember this was written -- created by two young kids. They were high school students who were nerds who were hankering for the pretty cheerleader types who were all obsessed with the football players. So this notion of a very weird masochistic triangle where Clark loves Lois, Lois loves Superman, Superman can't give Lois the time of day, all to kind of show -- all to kind of point out the fact that Lois is not seeing what's right before her eyes. It appeals to a very young kid sort of mentality, sort of one that feels resentful I guess of girls.
BELLANTONIWell, we've got Ulysses in Washington, DC who has some thoughts on alter egos for our super heroes we're discussing. Go ahead, Ulysses.
ULYSSESWell, thank you very much for having me. First thing that I wanted to mention in response to something another caller said. There's a story -- I can't recall who wrote it at this instance -- it's called "What's so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?" in which Superman is fighting a group called the Elite. And we really get an opportunity to see what he is capable of but what he restrains himself from doing.
ULYSSESThe other point that I wanted to make, when I was younger I would talk with friends about some of the contrasts between Superman and Batman. Now at the time we thought that Superman was the real character and Batman was the one who was made up with Bruce Wayne being the actual person and Clark Kent being the persona that Superman created. But today it seems that it's just the opposite where Clark Kent is who Superman identifies himself as actually being. And Batman is who Bruce Wayne actually identifies himself as being, with Bruce Wayne being the made up character.
BELLANTONIThere's definitely products for a psychologist, right?
WELDONOh, absolutely. And this seesaws back and forth. For the first, oh, 50 years or so it was clear that Superman was the real guy and Clark Kent was the pose and he was, you know, put on an air of being meek and mild. And then in 1986 John Burn recreated the character -- they rebooted the character and he flipped the switch. He said, Superman's the real guy -- I'm sorry, Clark Kent is the real guy and Superman is his public face.
WELDONAnd just, Ulysses, the comic you're mentioning -- I'm looking at page 274 of "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography," I mention that particular story you're talking about, "What's so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way" because it is revealing. It does point up something about how Superman is different from a lot of the other heroes that were dominating comic book stands at the time (unintelligible) it comes from Action Comic 775, March 2001 in which Superman says, anger is easy, hate is easy, vengeance and spite are easy. Lucky for you and for me, I don't like my heroes ugly and mean. I just don't believe in it.
BELLANTONIYou can also join our conversation. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Like Jennifer in Alexandria writes in about what makes a superhero. She says, "I don't really understand why some people need superheroes to be fallible or for them to be relatable. Batman's 1 percent jerkishness or Spiderman's adolescent insecurities don't make them more appealing to me as heroes. I admire heroes not because they're like us, but because they're something we aspire to." It goes right to your point, Glen Weldon.
WELDONKind of does.
BELLANTONISo is there a generational gap between Superman -- you've sort of got this evolution. You had kids that loved it once. Now it's sort of come back into the cultural lexicon for adults.
WELDONWell, I mean, there's a difference here. Superman and his fellow heroes in the DC universe were created for very young kids. They were read by GIs during World War II, but they were created for and written for very young kids. When Marvel came along -- and they created the heroes like Spiderman and The Hulk and the Fantastic Four, they were especially written for adolescents. And they were doused with adolescent hormones and concerns that young kids don't have, like guilt and nobody loves me and am I doing what I should be doing in the world, all that kind of stuff.
WELDONSo there is a sense that the DC heroes have a unquestioned altruism. And Marcel heroes are a little bit more quote unquote "adult." All that's changed now because the writers keep going back and forth between these things. There's really not much of a difference in terms of the two universes right now because DC has adopted the sort of Marvel approach of humanizing its heroes by giving them these fallibilities.
BELLANTONIAnd you're heading to Comicon next week.
BELLANTONIAnd I'm curious, you must be very good with the trivia obviously. One of the things I liked a lot about the book is you get at these little details about, you know, when the Daily Star changed its name to the Daily Planet without much fanfare.
BELLANTONIWhen certain characters, you know, from Superman's home planet changed their names just slightly in that evolution. How important is that sort of ethos in that culture of what you know about who was on what cover and what you're trading and when you can buy. How much does that play into the actual story?
WELDONWell, I mean, there's -- one of the themes of the book is that there's the idea of Superman and there's the character of Superman. Nerds like me are all about the character of Superman and we memorize and we kind of pour over like Talmudic scholars -- nerdy, nerdy Talmudic scholars. We just pour over this -- and it keeps getting rebooted and revamped and all kinds of crazy things happen to him.
WELDONThat doesn't affect the idea of Superman, which is what you a non-nerd have in your head and what my Aunt Fay -- my sweet silver-haired Aunt Fay has in her head. It's an idea that's bigger. It's pure. It's a guy who looks out for us. He's got the suit. It's a simpler idea and it's more powerful, I would say.
WELDONAnd, you know, the comics have lost their ability to affect that sort of idea of Superman that exists in the cultural consciousness because only people like me read them anymore. It's the movies and the television shows which really affect and change this kind of pervasive notion of Superman.
BELLANTONIThat is the perfect segue for me to say that coming up right after our break we are going to talk about the big screen, and of course, Christopher Reeve, so beloved to so many people. I'm Christina Bellantoni sitting in for Kojo. We'll be right back.
BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS News Hour sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Glen Weldon about Superman, the man of steel, and his book, "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography." You can weigh in to our conversation. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com, and also send us tweets to @kojoshow. Saul in Arlington, Va. has a provocative questions that leads right into a clip we're going to listen to. Go ahead, Saul.
BELLANTONIOh, we've lost Saul, but he wanted to ask, wouldn't Superman be considered today an illegal alien, and we have this clip sort of going at this civil rights moment that Superman was going through that we'll be playing in just a second. We'll go to Shelly in Bethesda, Md. You're on the air. You have a question about the World War II era. I think we can go back to Saul. Sorry, we're having some trouble with the phones here. Saul, are you there?
BELLANTONIYou have a question about how Superman would be considered today?
SAULYes. Wouldn't he today be considered to be an illegal alien?
BELLANTONIIn fact, we will have a clip for you in just a second to sort of get at this -- this moment. Glen Weldon, how do we see Superman evolve here?
WELDONSure he would. You know, that's one of the reasons he has an appeal, an enduring appeal, is because he is the ultimate immigrant story. He came, you know, tired, poor, huddling masses, and he yearned to breathe free. And he is somebody who kind of -- yes, he has a tremendous amount that was given to him, a certain amount of entitlement in the form of superpowers, but he is somebody who has adopted America in a way, and that's certainly something that the comics have played with a lot.
WELDONHe has been given world citizenship in the past. You know, the UN has said, you are a citizen -- you are now officially a citizen of the world. Interestingly Clark Kent is an American citizen.
WELDONSuperman not so much.
BELLANTONICitizen of the world. Well, we've got a clip. This is Bud Collier's radio Superman from the 1940s series.
BELLANTONIWell, that definitely says...
BELLANTONI...say a lot, doesn't it?
WELDONIt really does.
BELLANTONISo this, you know, you've written in the book about Bud Collier and how you think he was such a transformative figure in this, but also Christopher Reeve. He equals Superman for you. So as we transition to the big screen, we get this email from Dave writing and saying, he grew up with Christopher Reeve as Superman, the late seventies and early eighties. He says he's a grown man now, but when he sees this on TV, "that is what I wish I looked like, what I wish I acted like, what I wish I could do for people. He was and always will be Superman for me." I mean, that's a big thought.
WELDONYeah. People of my generation -- I mean, I was 10 years old when that movie came out, and it grabbed me, and it's -- there's so much that Christopher Reeve brought to the role that hadn't been in it before, specifically a sense of calmness. It was the seventies. It was an anxious time. Everybody was popping Valium and Lois Lane, as played by Margot Kidder was kind of a frayed nerve. What Christopher Reeve's Superman said is basically with this -- by projecting their air of somebody's who's so comfortable in his skin, even though that skin happens to be blue longjohns, he basically says, I got this, let me take care of this.
WELDONThat calmness is something that a lot of other people who played the role before never bothered with, because they wanted to be more sort of take charge kind of people. He let you kind of come to him in a way. It was really new.
BELLANTONIVery all-American. We have a clip from the classic scene from the 1978 film "Superman." This is Margot Kidder as Lois Lane.
BELLANTONIOh, that's just great. I got to say. So we have Dean in Owings, Md. on the line. He has a bet he'd like to settle with his friends. Go ahead, Dean. Your question for Glen Weldon?
DEANHi. Good afternoon. I have a question that has haunted me my entire adolescent life, and that is, who is faster, Superman or Barry Allen as the Flash?
WELDONOh, boy. Well this has -- this has fueled many a debate in comic book stores and elsewhere. I think if you go back and read those actual races in the Flash comics and also in the Superman comics, they would race each other for charity, and of course they would not -- they would kind of let each other win, and the answer was never forthcoming. So if the text doesn't surrender the answer, I think we can sort of extrapolate, you know, the thing is there -- his powers and abilities wax and wane with whoever is writing them.
WELDONAnd that's just a function of him being a corporate owned property. He's a piece of intellectual property that somebody picks up out of the toy box, place with for a while then puts back. And so, you know, I can't give you a definitive answer because there's so much different answers over the years.
BELLANTONIWell, and let's fast forward to modern day Superman. Obviously "Man of Steel" is in the theaters. I actually saw it Friday night to prepare for this segment.
BELLANTONII liked it. I don't know. But what did you make of it, around what does it take for an actor to so clearly define what Superman is supposed to look and act like on screen. I mean, can anybody be Christopher Reeve?
WELDONWell, you know, a lot of people who played the role have explained about typecasting, because A, you're in that suit. It kind of seers itself into the public's consciousness, and B, they usually cast unknowns. So everybody who's played the role, who at least put on the tights has complained about typecasting, and Christopher Reeve fought this with other films like "Monsignor" and "Somewhere in Time," but even he was heard to complain about it.
WELDONSo I think Cavill does a great job in "Man of Steel." I think he projects something besides just bland white breadedness, which is what you need to do. He has a sort of rye sense of humor, and a knowing quality to him, which I think elevates the role a little bit. So yeah. It's tough to cast, and there's such a human cry about casting the role that everybody gets -- there's even more intensity and even more attention on him even before he even says a word. We're all so invested in that process. So I think he knocked it out of the park though. I think he looks great.
BELLANTONIYeah, definitely does. I would agree with that. And the Lois Lane character is sort of at the middle of that evolution.
BELLANTONIShe's strong, but also definitely is in love with him.
WELDONYeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, they down played the romance a little bit. I was totally fine with that, to give her more to do, which you desperately need to do. They also made her smart, and they kind of dispensed with -- I don't want to spoil this, but they kind of dispensed with the romantic triangle in a way that I thought was really intriguing. It kind of -- it's a tenant of the character. You kind of dispense that stuff at your peril, but they did it and I thought it worked. That part of it, at least.
BELLANTONIAnd one reason may be why, there's a piece out there by Jase Peeples in the Advocate talking about this new adaptation of the film, "Man of Steel," being seen as a gay allegory for modern times. So it's dealing with themes of bullying, and representing secrets, embracing who you really are. I mean, is this the last evolution of Superman?
WELDONWell, you know, I mean, we can impute all kinds of things onto this character. I think the screenwriters were desperately seeking something like that. We have almost a Matthew Shepherd scene with him up against a fence. I mean, there's a lot of imagery here. There's a lot of Jesus imagery in this movie too, that it really kind of hits with, I think, kind of a heavy hand, but yeah. I mean, there are -- this character exists on a metaphorical level, so he exists that we can kind of see ourselves in him no matter who we are.
BELLANTONIAnd, you know, there's definitely been a lot of questions about whether other superhero tales of gay allegories, and sort of what the superheroes are from what they wear to how they act, but it goes to that civil rights, civil justice.
BELLANTONISo we've got Shelly, I think, now back on the line from Bethesda, Md, wanting to talk about World War II era Superman. Go ahead, Shelly.
SHELLYI was wondering if the author agreed with a recent portrayal in a play, who's name I forget about Superman, the script having been written by two Jewish guys, that Superman would save the Jews in World War II, that he could knock out the Nazis, and that maybe he even portrayed kind of a super Jew.
WELDONOh, no. I've certainly heard that interpretation before, and I think maybe -- was the play that you're talking about, was that at the JCC?
WELDONYeah. Okay. I didn't see it. Unfortunately I was writing the book at the time and I couldn't get away to see it, but yeah. There has been a lot of speculation, and in fact, if you go back and read Siegal's diary, you can see that some of this motivation is there. There's a really good look that delves a little bit more into those two people, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster, and their motivations, and their backgrounds. It's out now, called "Superboys" by Brad Ricca.
WELDONMy book's more about the cultural impact of this character, and there had been so much written about Superman's ties to Jewish identity, several books by Danny Fingeroth, that I kind of said this (unintelligible) doesn't have much to add to that particular debate, but I can tell you that Brad Ricca's book is really great on that, and Danny Fingeroth's too.
BELLANTONISo what do you think we can learn about our collective psyche and our values by study superheroes like Superman? Give us a call, 1-800-433-8850. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, get in touch with us on our Facebook page, or send tweets to @kojoshow. One of the things I got from reading your book, Glen Weldon, "The Unauthorized Biography of Superman," is that it seems that in maybe things can be a little more creative in the comic books than they can on screen or on radio. It seemed like there was a lot more ability for them to be fantastical with that story.
WELDONSure. Well, you have no special effects budget at all on the comic book page. And certainly during the sixties, which is when this -- an editor by the name of Mort Weisinger decided he would imbue these books with very Freudian young kid emotions and just make everything big, and that's when you get the matching of very young kid imagination. Because he kept asking his own children, and the children in the neighborhood what they wanted to see Superman do, and they would say, I want there to be a supermonkey. I want there to be a supercat, a superhorse, a super -- I want there to be bizarros.
WELDONAnd so all this weird stuff, which I think is sort of banana pants and just gleefully goofy, which is my -- frankly, my favorite era of this character. I love this stuff, unironically -- it's not snarkily, I just think this is just pure fun, pure imagination, is just such great stuff. Again, once we get more photorealistic, and once we start to kind of put tethers onto this character and make him more grounded, whatever the heck that means, then we take some of that impulse, that joy, out of the character.
WELDONThis character is not Batman. He doesn't brood. He's not grim and gritty. He's a symbol of hope, and he inspires, and when you lose that, I think you lose a big part of who this character is.
BELLANTONIWhat's your favorite comic book in the modern era?
WELDONYou know, there's book called "Saga." It's not a superhero book. There's a book called "Saga," which is by Brian K. Vaughan, and it's fantastic. It is space opera. It's big, it's huge, and I'm not alone in saying this is a great book. It's been said a lot. There's a book called "Prophet" that I like, which is very, very weird. In the superhero realm, "Young Avengers" is great. "Hawkeye" is a great book by Matt Fraction which is taking a superhero character and saying what does he do in his off time. It's really fantastic.
WELDONAnd "Wonder Woman" of all things. They're taking a sort of mob mentality to the book and just having her deal with all of these Greek gods and goddesses as if they're mob families. It's a really intriguing way to take this character that nobody really has known what to do with in a long time.
BELLANTONIDefinitely putting those all on my list. So you mentioned opera, so I just had to use this as a good transition. We do have a clip from "Superman: The Musical." This was February 1, 1975. The plot from this was modified from the Broadway version.
BELLANTONIYou need some jazz hands at the end of that.
WELDONYikes. Yikes. Okay. So there was a 1966 original Broadway production of that musical. It didn't last long because it got a reputation as a kids' musical, children's theater. But it was honest. It was charming in its way. That clip we just hear was from the 1975 television version as you said, which really just took it and tried to make it funky, and you can hear that kind of waka-waka-waka-waka, kind of very 1970s stuff going on which is just terrible. They missed the point of the entire thing.
WELDONRecently, City Center in New York restaged it as in the original sixties version and it's a lot of fun. It turns out -- it's kind of cheesy, but you embrace the cheese.
BELLANTONIWell, that sounds like Superman on the whole. Glen Weldon. The book is "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography." You're also with NPR. Thank you so much for joining us. Now, you will be at Politics and Prose right here in Washington D.C. on Saturday, July 14.
WELDONSunday, July 14.
BELLANTONISunday, July 14. Sorry about that.
WELDONYes. No problem.
BELLANTONI5:00 p.m. That will be Sunday at 5:00 p.m. That's at 5015 Connecticut Avenue Northwest, Politics and Prose. Go see Glen Weldon. Get a copy of his terrific book, and thank you very much for joining us talking about the "Man of Steel," Superman, everything that he represents about America.
BELLANTONII'm Christina Bellantoni. I have been sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi today. Thank you very much for joining us, and thanks for having me.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.