Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Deconstructing Superman

"Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in 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 neverending battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way."

“What a nice man! Of course, he’s Jewish.” – Superman II


Way back in 1932, Canadian artist, Joel Shuster, and American writer, Jerry Siegel, started to create a powerful comic book icon. The two friends, living in Cleveland, Ohio at the time, conceived of a super human character based on cultural icons and myths of their Jewish heritages to become the archetype superhero character: SUPERMAN. Over the years Superman developed and while working for Detective Comics they made the character the lead in a new title, Action Comics. History was born. Almost seventy years ago, at the end of the depression, America needed a hero to battle the growing threat from overseas and the economic low tide over most of the country.

From a planet many light-years away came a savior, a gift from a dying world.

In the generally accepted origin, Jor-El, a high ranking diplomat and scientist from the planet Krypton had been trying to convince his fellow leaders that the giant red sun at the center of their solar system was about to go supernova. Of course, like most diplomats and politicians, they ignored the sage advice of a respected individual and chose to do nothing, forbidding Jor-El from revealing what he found. Secretly, Jor-El was building an ark for his family to escape but when events came much quicker than he originally expected, Jor-El sent away his son, Kal-El, in a smaller pod so that he could fly at the speed of light to a distant planet, just forming its own civilization. Jor-El saw that the inhabitants of that new planet had great potential. He also knew that they would eventually need a great hero to help them find their way. Predicting that he’d gain super strength because of his alien genetic make-up and the mysterious effect the yellow sun had on Kryptonian biology, Jor-El sent his only son to Earth. Then, Krypton died in a supernova explosion. The only remnants of the great civilization were baby Kal-El, speeding toward Earth, and irradiated pieces of the planet spread out in all directions of space.

Thousands of our years later – but thanks to Einstienian Physics, it is only days or weeks to baby Kal-El – the pod, carrying the boy who would be Superman, crash lands on a roadside in Kansas. Luckily, Jonathan and Martha Kent, a farmer and his wife, find the baby and take him in as their own, naming him Clark, Martha’s maiden name. Throughout the years, as Clark learns his great power he also learns the morals and values of his adopted parents. While in most timelines, Superman starts out fighting crime in Smallville, Kansas, as Superboy, the comics industry likes to screw around with histories from time to time and it is currently unclear if a true Superboy existed, at least to this geek.

Still the basic premise is intact. Superman moves from Smallville to Metropolis (New York City in disguise) and becomes a reporter for the Daily Planet. Taking on the persona of a bumbling fool, in direct opposition to the confident and charismatic Superman, Clark tries to live among humans as a normal man. The relationship between Clark and Superman has taken many turns over the years as the comics, television and film versions differ in their treatment.

Sometimes Clark is seen as the “real” person and Superman the secret identity. Sometimes, Clark is simply a cover story for the great Superman so he can walk among normal men. And at times neither are the real person and the only real identity is the small-town, farm boy, Clark Kent, son of Jonathan and Martha. The dichotomy of personalities can be useful in certain storylines as a weakness to Clark/Superman/Kal-El as the invulnerable man can still be hurt emotionally. While there have been instances that this is used against the comic character, it is best used in the Smallville television series, especially by the young Lex Luthor. In the movies, Lex Luthor and the three Kryptionian convicts led by General Zod, also used Superman’s love of humankind against him. While Kryptonite can kill Superman, his compassion for humans is a huge emotional weakness.

Superman, the Prophet.

Many have criticized Superman’s godlike powers in limiting the ability to tell compelling stories. In the 1960s and early 1970s this led to a decline in readership. Comic lovers turned to Marvel comic’s more human characters like Spiderman. DC tried to remake Superman into a weaker character in the 1980s and 1990s to bring him down a notch but most people see the invulnerable character with super strength and abilities as the iconic Superman they love. Eventually the tide turns and reader fall in love with the original Superman again.

The mythos of Superman, created by two Jewish kids from the city streets of Cleveland, embodies some of the origins and strengths of their culture. Superman’s life spans not only the galaxy but America as well, from rural Kansas to urban Metropolis. Biblical characters like Moses also mirror Superman’s story. He is a powerful child send from danger by his parents to help the masses of weakened and troubled victims of oppression and evil. There is also the element of the Golem story in Superman’s own as he is the protector that all the world wished for. I’ve heard that Kal-El is the Hebrew translation of “Power of God,” “Voice of God” or “All of God.”

Calling Dr. Freud!

If you could get Superman on the couch you’d have a lot to talk about. Not only does he have either a split personality or identity issues, he also has a problem with his parents. First, his biological father is somewhat of an enigma to Kal-El. He understands why his father sent him away in the ultimate sacrifice but he is only a ghostly image, sometimes a computer embedded program giving sage advice across the millennia or sometimes a metal image implanted at birth with information about his natural home. Although his father was a brilliant scientists and leader of Krypton, his mother was no less a persona in his life. Instead of joining young Kal-El in his capsule to safety Lara decides to stay behind, dying by her husband’s side and also giving her baby a better chance of surviving the long journey. He truly never knew his parents because of their great sacrifice. They are spirits, imagined, yet real.

Then there is Jonathan and Martha Kent. In some storylines, both his parents die and in some only Jonathan dies. In any case he loses one or both of his adopted parents. As both Kal-El and Clark Kent, the man knows true loss. He is constantly seeing his parents leave him to the world on his own, trusting that the world will take care of him, as much as he’s entrusted to take care of the world. Perhaps fear of loss, fear of lost love is what motivates Superman. His parents sacrificed greatly for him, so he returns the favor with selfless service to the world, albeit at the cost of great personal pain.

As a grown man (one that wears tights) Superman becomes, once again, a new incarnation of himself. Madonna is good a reinventing herself, but Superman is the true champion of personal transformation. He is alien, orphan, small town boy, orphan again and then superhero and in one final incarnation he becomes a weak, pitiful character in Clark Kent. In this way he can see how the other half lives yet again putting himself in great personal pain. He knows that he is Superman but will someone love him as a regular guy? As Clark Kent, mild mannered reporter?

Think of the richest guy you know. Think of Bill Gates. He’s like Superman. He’s a geeky, mild mannered tech guy, but he has this huge corporation and more money than all the people you know, and all the people they know, combined and then some. He has astronomical wealth. This is his superpower personality, richest guy in the world. Now, take away all that wealth. Do you think that his supermodel wife sees him at the end of the bar, pocket protector, loose fitting clothes and all, thinks to herself, what a great personality and slides over to him? Not in this world! But he can’t know what people would think of him because everyone knows Bill Gates and everyone knows what he’s about. So what’s a billionaire to do? Adopt a secret identity and see how everyone treats him. Just like Clark Kent except Bill Gates takes off his glasses to be normal.

In a mock therapy session Superman goes to see Sigmund Freud:

“Tell me about your parents?” Sigmund says in a deep Austrian accent.

“Which ones, doc?”

“Your real parents.”

“Well, I really don’t know who they are. I mean I have the parents who gave birth to me on Krypton, Jor-El and Kara but besides that I really don’t know much about them. Then there are my Earth parents, Jon and Martha Kent. They raised me and taught me my values. Who are my ‘real’ parents? Jor-El and Kara or Jonathan and Martha?”

“Oy Vey, vat a pickle you’re in. No vunder your carry that blankey around with you.”

“Blankey? You mean my cape.”

“Cape, blankey… It’s all the same. You use it as security against the real world. So much confusion in your life.”

“Yeah, well you don’t know the half of it.”

“OK. Vell, tell me a little about how you feel about your Kryptonian parents abandoning you?”

“They didn’t abandon me, they send me away to safety.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s vat Moses said too.”

“Moses didn’t have X-Ray vision.”

“That’s true. Good point. So you have any guilt about your parents?”

“What do you mean?”

“Vell, your Kryptonian parents died and you survived. Survivor guilt perhaps.”

“Hmmm. That’s a good point, doc.”

“Then your Earth parents had to hide out on that farm because with your powers, the government might take you avay from them. They were stuck in small-ville. Literarily.”

“I don’t think that…”

“Then let’s talk about why you are here? Do you have bad dreams? Do you wet the bed? Are you having sexual dreams about your mothers?”


“Sorry, I must ask.”

“I don’t have those types of problems.”

“Everybody has those types of problems.”

“Well, there is this one girl at work. I can’t stop thinking about her.”

“Vat is her name?”

“Lois. She’s beautiful and smart and a real pip, you know what I mean.”

“She’s got moxy!”

“Right, moxy. She’s a tough city girl. She doesn’t let anything bother her.”

“How many parents does she have?”

“Two, I think. I never asked.”

“And why are you so attracted to her?”

“She knows who she is, you know what I mean? She’s her own woman.”

“And does she feel the same vay about you?”

“Well, she doesn’t really know me like this at work.”

“Explain, please.”

“At work I’m a different person.”

“Go on.”

“I wear glasses and kind of act dopey and clumsy. She doesn’t like me at work. She only likes me as Superman.”


“Yeah, and I’m afraid she’s only into me because I’m all big and strong and invulnerable.”

“You are afraid she is idolizing your outward traits. Like, hero vorship.”

“Exactly. And I never really get to talk to her because she doesn’t like to talk to Clark at work and whenever we get together when I’m Superman it’s usually because Lex Luthor has her tied to a chair in a sinking boat or with a bomb about to go off.”

“I see. So you are conveniently unapproachable.”

“I guess. I never thought of it that way.”

“I think I know vat is wrong with you.”

“What is it, doc? What’s the matter with me?”

“You have multiple personality disorder by the fact that you have different identities depending on vat situation you are in and who you are vith. And you have a god complex. You also have commitment issue stemming from the loss of your parents. You do not vant to get close to anyone because you are afraid of loosing them.”

“You think so?”

“Sure. I also suspect you have depersonalization disorder and social anxiety. That is why you adopt different personalities to hide your true self from the world. Your repressed conflict over your parents’ abandonment and deaths are expressed by your multiple identities in your relationships. You act like different people to confuse your friends so that they never get too close to you, never know your real self.”

“Great Scott! What should I do, doc?”

“I’m recommending Paxil.”

If it wasn’t for the superpowers, this guy could be Woody Allen, another great Jew. In other words, Superman is a Jewish Superhero, guilty and neurotic. That’s not too far off considering his beginnings. Even in the real world he was rejected many times before he found a home at Detective Comics.

Shame on DC.

In the real world things don’t always work out the way we’d like. For Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, things didn’t work out that well at all. Sure, they created the greatest superhero in the world. You’d think they were millionaires! They’re not. We’ll they weren’t because unfortunately they both passed away a few years ago.

We’ll work backwards. On July 30, 1992, Joe Shuster died at the age of 78. On January 28, 1996, Jerry Siegel passed away. Luckily these men narrowly avoided dying of abject poverty; of course this was not the case all along. Around 1975 Joe Shuster, suffering from a life-long eye problem was mostly blind and living with a relative was, for the most part, poor. At the same time, Joe Siegel, while slightly more successful than his partner, having written for various comics over the years including Marvel’s The Human Torch, brought a campaign to the public to make the world aware that he and his creative partner were receiving no royalties or payment for creating the Superman character. Warner Brothers, owners of DC Comics, eventually gave the pair a $35,000 pension for life and full medical benefits, a small pittance compared to the multiple millions the company made on the Superman enterprise over the years. One of the few compensations that was made in the case was that from then on, the Superman franchise would forever carry the “Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster” tag line. Apparently this made them happier than the money.

What got these two into this situation? Well, as common practice in the early comics era, the publisher retained all the rights to the characters their artists created. When Superman became a phenomenon, Joe and Jerry earned a modest salary for their employment at DC. In the Forties they won a sizable lawsuit for the time for their creation, still a small portion of the proceeds DC made off the character. Then they won rights to the Superboy character in court, which they then turned around and sold. After that they were no longer employed by DC. If you look back, a company with morals would have somehow shared profits with these two for creating the biggest icon of all time in the comics business. Perhaps a good stock plan or a nice royalty-sharing program. Even a half of a percent would have been enough to help these guys out. Granted the company did promote and continue the Superman line successfully without the contribution of these two but a little compensation out of heart would have been nice. Even to this day, despite the required moniker, DC makes little fanfare of their relationship to Jerry and Joe. I guess if my company treated employees that poorly in the past, I’d hide the fact as well.


Inspired by not only Superman the comic hero but also the two men who created him, Michael Chabon wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay. There is no doubt the story about two Jewish kids who create their own superhero, the Escapist, is based on the Superman creators.

There have been many others to follow but like the favored son, the ultimate athlete and the dashing, charismatic, leading man, Superman is the one all others who come after aspire to. Even if it’s only to be as different from Superman as possible, he pervades all of comic-dom. He is the one true American hero!


Sunday, July 16, 2006

Umm Hello time...

Next year?

Umm Hello? Like, I'm there:


Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Canticle for The Grocery List Guy...

There are many places on the Internet to waste time, but this is one takes the prize. It is a collection of grocery lists that some guy found. He began collecting them in the nineties and at some point the Internet became savvy enough to accept his collection as a website. I’m torn about this site. On the one hand, it’s hysterical and on the other, it’s just plain, sad. But, then again, imagine if we had a collection of thousands of hand-written notes from people who lived two thousand years ago.

You can imagine how fascinating that would be!

If you ever read the book, A Canticle for Leibowitz, this is familiar. In that book, a post-apocolytic society on Earth vows to simplify and then proceed to destroy all books because they blame science for the nuclear holocaust. Liebowitz, a Jewish engineer, converts to Catholicism and starts a cult to preserve knowledge. (I guess A Mitzvah for Liebowitz just didn't have the same zing as Canticle.) They save books, calling it booklegging. In the story, hundreds of years later, a monk finds a storage of hand-written notes by Liebowitz himself, one being a grocery list reading, “pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels–bring home for Emma.” The monks see this as a miraculous discovery, the original writings of a potential saint. Though it causes problems since the miracles are so bountiful that it threatens Leibowitz’s sainthood.

I’m not sure if this site is all that important. If this guy becomes beatified because of it then I’m in the wrong business. As for time wasting, it’s like watching the status bar on your computer tick by as you copy files or download illegal music. (Which I never, ever, do, by the way.) While you know that there are so many better ways to spend your day, like say, working, it’s quite therapeutic. Gen X never had it so good.

Try it out for yourself but if you get fired because your boss is an unironic old fuddy duddy, don’t come to crying to me.

The Grocery List Collection.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Crazy Diamond Shines No More...

Syd Barrett one of the original, founding members of Pink Floyd has died at the age of 60. Although he left the band a few years after he helped form Pink Floyd he remained an influence on major rockers such as David Bowie who has said Barrett had a “major impact” on him. He was known as an innovative and experimental guitarist inventing the signature sound of Pink Floyd and stretching the boundaries of music at the time. He named the band after two names on the liner notes of a Jazz album by Blind Boy Fuller and the improvisation of Jazz was a major influence on his style and sound. The band set itself apart from acts of its day like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones because of their sound.

Though he wrote most of the hit record “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” in 1967, a generation of fans who came to know Pink Floyd through records like “Dark Side of the Moon,” and “The Wall,” never really knew his music. Ironically, the album “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” was recorded in a studio right next to where the Beatles were recording their seminal psychedelic album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” at the same time. Piper became a critical and commercial success in England, but not so much in the United States.

The album “Wish You Were Here” was written as a tribute to Syd Barrett by his band mates. Syd suffered from mental instability probably brought on by his use of LSD. Syd is said to have visited Abbey Road studio while Pink Floyd was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” a song from their 1972 album, “Wish You Were Here.” Syd was said to have been overweight and had shaved off his hair and eyebrows. He also held a toothbrush in his hand and proceeded to brush his teeth by holding the brush still and jumping up and down. Most of the band members didn’t recognize him at first but when they did, they were brought to tears by his condition. That meeting influenced the scene in the movie, “The Wall,” where Bob Geldof shaves his hair in the mirror.

Barrett spend the last of his years in Cambridge, England living in his mother’s house. He was rarely seen except on a few occasions and he did not like to be reminded much of his past musical roots. There, he began to paint and garden frequently.

The members of Pink Floyd made sure that Syd received his royalties from his contribution to the band’s original albums. He led a reclusive life after leaving the band releasing only two solo albums and an album of unreleased material in 1988.

Some have said he suffered from schizophrenia but more like he had a condition known as Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism. The death of his father when he was eleven years old also may have contributed to his mental condition. Although these mental deficiencies were prevalent and contributed to his declining condition the psychedelic experiences, fame and drug use were most likely catalysts to his decline.

Many have shown interest in Syd Barrett’s life and work. Multiple artists including David Bowie, REM, Soundgarden and The Smashing Pumpkins have covered his songs. Johnny Depp has also shown an interest in a movie about Syd Barrett’s life.

Syd Barrett died on July 7, 2006 of a diabetes related illness.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Hello. My name is Lon. And I'm addicted to Netflix...

As many of you know I am a huge fan of Netflix. It is one of the few (very few) services I will promote on my blog that I don’t get paid for. One of the reasons I love it is because it’s one of those ideas that is so elegant the universe just had to think it up eventually. Think of those by-mail music-ordering clubs from Columbia House or BMG? Remember those? When you would pick off a selection of cassettes that you wanted, ten for a penny? Then the company would send them to you in the mail. If it wasn’t for the fact that the remaining contract was so absurdly expensive, those could have ruined my music shopping experience forever.

Let me ‘splain.

Starting about Junior High School I began to become a music connoisseur. Before that, I listened to all types of music and I loved it all, but some recessive music gene kicks in around 12 or 13 years old. I see it in my own son. I’d get lost in Record World for hours just browsing the music categories. Back then it was all about records. I could flip through hundreds of records mentally listing those I thought looked interesting. It was a history lesson in vinyl in every bin. I’d look at the album art, the liner notes, and the song lists… If I had a question about one of the artists, I’d seek out one of the sales associates and ask questions. Like some in the fine art community peruse the galleries, I was a music browser. I had to be discriminating because I had very little dough to spend. If my purchase wasn’t careful, I’d end up with a clunker, so I took my time. Not to say I didn’t go out on a limb once in a while. Some albums I bought just because of the cover art.

This was how I discovered The Cult, Billy Idol, Metallica and others before ever hearing them on the radio or in my clique. I was a shopper. My mother could get in a whole season’s worth of clothes shopping at the mall and I would still be only halfway through the store when she came to retrieve me. Record World was like a built-in babysitting service.

When I got a little older I began to discover the joy of reading. Around high school, I added another addiction to the mix: Books. This was before Borders and Amazon. I could only get my fix at B. Daltons or Walden Books. They were the perennial favorites. There were small local bookstores but being the suburban teen that I was, my life revolved around the modern town center, the mall. A trip to the mall would have to include an hour in each store, which I could do very easily. Again, having to be very discriminating, my purchases were of very choice books.

You would think that as the years passed I would outgrow this little addiction. Not true. As a matter of fact, with the passing years, my browsing grew. When I got my license, I could drive myself to any record or bookstore I liked and spend hours just looking around. Still, to this day, if I step into a bookstore or music store I know that I am not getting out of there in less than an hour if I’m not in a hurry. It’s like a time vortex. Those stores sucked hours from my life. I walk out, blinking in the painful sunlight, like some cave creature, pasty and waif-thin from my sojourn into the heart of my addictive darkness, with a plastic bag of music or books to add to the ever-growing pile. My junk is media.

Ever since I saw the original Star Wars, I was hooked on movies. Not just Science Fiction but every type of movie. Adventure, Romance, Drama, it doesn’t matter. I love films. But, until a few years ago, collecting movies was just too daunting a task to take on so I relied on rental places for my fix. I could, again, get lost in a local video rental store or Blockbuster just as easily as in any book or music store.

The trifecta of entertainment bliss: Movies, Books and Music. Ahhh, heaven.

I never got into buying and collecting movies on VCR tape like some other people. I just found tapes unwieldy and not easy to categorize. Too fat, too clunky, to plastic-y and just too breakable. Then G-d invented DVD and I was a changed man. Where before, my movie collection consisted of the original trilogy of Star Wars and the Queen-soundtrack Flash Gordon, now I was free to collect at will.

And I did.

My DVD collection is not as impressive as others, but it is better than average. Only, something was different. $9.99 movie bins, I could handle, but if I wanted to collect whole seasons of my favorite shows, well, that was just too damn expensive. I mean, how can I justify spending seventy bucks per season for Quantum Leap? Or Star Trek? What about all the shows I missed, like Babylon 5 or Stargate? The only moderately priced television show, of which I own every episode of every season, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But after spending hundreds of dollars on that, I was tapped. I couldn’t do it anymore. How can I watch TV if I can’t pay the electric bill? It was a conundrum.

Then came Netflix.

This was a lifesaver. The selection of movies and television shows is immense. They almost always have anything I want and they have the newest releases right away. Boy do I sound like a commercial. But it's true. For a small fee per month I have unlimited viewing. The mail service is exceptional and I never have to wait more than two days for a film to be shipped to me. It has destroyed the thrill of browsing my local Best Buy or Circuit City. I used to enjoy shopping in those places. Now I find myself, sitting in the parking lot wondering why I was about to go in. If I don’t have a specific reason to be there, a specific item I need to pick up, what's the point? My DVD browsing days at the brick and mortar stores were over.

But the best part of the Netflix service: The Queue. This is a great idea. I have literally hundreds of movies queued up. Hundreds! Probably more than 300! I surf their site for movies anytime I think or hear of one I’d like to see and queue it up. The queue is god. The queue is king.

Long live Queue.

And if I get a movie that I didn’t particularly like, I just return it and I don’t feel like I wasted my money. There has never been a service that is matches my love and addiction to browsing for titles with my diversity of tastes and selections. Imagine the same thing for other media. Imagine a place where for a very tiny fee you could go in and take out books, read them and then return them. Not only that you can get new ones as soon as you return the old ones. More than that, the selection is virtually unlimited. Can you imagine a place like that?!?!?!?