Glen Weldon is a non-fiction book chronicling the fictional history of the Man of Steel in comic books, radio, TV, theater, music and movies. Mr. Weldon is a contributor to NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour and author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography.
Q. As you mentioned in your book, Superman is not “just” a hero, but also a symbol. This is not a marketing ploy but a status which the fan base bestowed upon him.
Why do you think that is?
A. Some of it comes down to timing: His status as the first true superhero sets him apart, ensuring that he’ll always be the ideal other heroes get measured against. He created an archetype that persists to this day. But if World War II hadn’t come along — which transformed him from an outlaw hero in the Batman/Shadow/Zorro mold to a patriotic symbol — who knows if he’d be seen as the icon he is today? People needed a hero to help them localize the anxieties of wartime — to show them that Good always triumphed. It’s a lesson that imprinted itself onto the collective consciousness of the country — and the world — and still hangs around.
Q. Have you been a lifelong Superman fan or did you just read 75 years of Superman history as a preparation for this book?
A. I’ve been doodling the Superman s-shield on foggy bathroom mirrors, in the sand at the shoreline, and in the margins of notebooks for as long as I can remember. I devoured reruns of the George Reeves series in the cape my mom made me until it frayed into strips. My grandmother made me a Superman outfit by dyeing a thick gray sweatsuit blue (well, bluish-gray anyway; but she tried, bless her). And I made every action figure I owned — be it Spider-Man, Luke Skywalker, or Batman — assume the classic Superman flying pose. And I was ten years old when I saw Superman: The Movie, and that was it. I was hooked for life.
When it came time to write the book, it just so happened that several decades’ worth of the primary texts — the comics themselves — were already stuffed into my closets, and those of several friends. With one conspicuous exception: The joyless, punishing tone that overtook comics in the 1990s chased me away; I didn’t start reading them again until 2000 or so. So in researching for the book, I had to scrounge from friends’ collections and reprints to fill that gap in my knowledge. That, frankly was the hardest work involved in the book. Because: Hoo boy, that era is Not For Me.
Q. There are many people who argue that comic books are American mythology. Do you agree or disagree?
A. To call these characters modern myths is a handy shorthand to use, and it’s essentially true, but I do worry that it overstates and oversimplifies the case a bit. In the sense that they’re archetypes who reflect our cultural obsessions, fears, hopes? Sure. No question. In the sense that they’re universally recognized figures who exist as metaphors that allow us to engage with abstract concepts like justice, heroism, selflessness, hope? Well, we gotta be careful with “universally,” there. With the big guns like Superman, who’ve pervaded the cultural consciousness, you’re on firm ground. But if I started talking to my sweet silver-haired Aunt Fay about what, say, Red Tornado represents, it, um … would not go well.
Within the circle of geeks like me, yes, they’re icons with easily definable traits and characteristics – a lingua franca. But of course reality television is composed of archetypes as well – just ones that speak to the worst parts of us, as opposed to the best.
That’s a long way of answering your question with a “…. sort of?”
Q. Over 75 years there were many storylines, large and small, which involved Superman and some even changed the mythology. How did you decide which ones to keep and which ones to ignore for the book.
A. It was very important for me to look at everything I could get my hands on that had already been written about the character. And it was equally important I not write a 350-page Wikipedia entry. So I looked for elements that recurred, decade after decade — the parts of the character that truly endured, even as the culture shifted around him, and his origin got tweaked, his persona evolved, his powers fluctuated, etc. And what I found was that he’s always been an ideal — not the hero we relate to, but the hero we emulate, we believe in. He’s better than we are — that’s what he’s for. It’s right there in the name. He shows us how to be better to each other.
Because his motivation hasn’t changed a bit in 75 years, and it’s the simplest of them all: He’s a hero. He’s selfless, and he perseveres.
I wasn’t particularly interested in the behind-the-scenes stuff — the lives of his writers, editors, directors, screenwriters. Instead I was fascinated by how the public perception of a character who’s been handed down for 75 years shifts over time. How he reflects the culture around him, and how he informs the culture. That meant I couldn’t spend 13 pages on how awesome a concept Krypto the Super-Dog is — though I firmly believe it to be a hell of a lot of fun — but I could cite Krypto as a key component of the Silver Age’s increased emphasis on emotionalism — particularly the primal, Freudian emotions of early childhood: A boy and his dog. Choke! Sob!
Q. What are the challenges of book promotions in the social media age?
A. Well, I love Twitter. Just love it. In fact, it got me the book gig. I was writing about comics for NPR and using Twitter to link to those pieces … and make a lot of dumb fish puns. The guy who became my editor at Wiley tweeted me to say he liked my NPR stuff, and asked me if I’d be interested in writing about Superman’s history in time for his 75th anniversary. Throughout the process of writing, I mentioned (okay, agonized over) it on Pop Culture Happy Hour and on Twitter. I came to see Twitter as a kind of writing exercise — can I tell a dumb Dad joke in 140 characters? It was a great break from the book, from long-form writing. And I developed a teensy base of people who came to know my writing voice. Doesn’t mean they’ll buy the book, of course, but they can’t miss the fact that it’s coming out.
Now that the book’s out I’ve been doing everything I can — writing for various outlets, making appearances –anything I can do to pitch myself. This, alas,is the new normal. Most of the appearances I’ve made I got through Twitter or via my Tumblr. I’ve also connected with lots of readers that way — if they tweet me something nice about the book, I’ll tweet them something about how terribly insightful and attractive they are, and how I can tell that they smell good. Meanwhile I’m getting a real sense of the book’s readers as a group of idiosyncratic, thoughtful individuals, not simply a number on a Bookscan spreadsheet.
If I didn’t harbor such a pitched loathing for Facebook, I’m sure I could connect with folks that way. But to me, Twitter’s about language — about polishing a joke until its as good as you can get it — and Facebook is about people. People yelling their reflexive reactions and lunch photos at one another, more specifically, which: Bleah. Not for me.
Shameless plug disguised as a wise ass question: Why do you love ManOfLaBook.com so much and often visit the website?
Wise guy answers: I have been faithfully reading Mano Flab Ook, which of course is Walloon for “Hand Fat? Gross!” or, more colloquially, “My Hands Are Covered in Beef Tallow!” since the late 20s, in its original incarnation as a broadsheet distributed on street corners by teams of Belgian hobos, who famously slathered their extremities in beef fat to protect them from the rough wind. I must say, I still miss Slimy Dan’s award-winning opinion column, “MY BRAIN IS FULL OF BUGS BUGS BUGS GET THEM OUT,” and hope for the return of my favorite feature, “The Vaguely Disquieting Adventures of Li’l Desiccated Monkeyface,” which as you know was discontinued in 1964 when it’s creator ran into that spot of unpleasantness with the war crimes tribunal.
Thanks Glen, good luck with the podcast and looking forward to read more of your work.
Zohar – Man of la Book