Radio speaker: Boys and girls, your attention, please!
Roman: This is 99% Invisible.
Radio speaker: Presenting a new exciting radio program featuring the thrilling adventures of an amazing and incredible personality!
Roman: I’m Roman Mars.
Radio speaker: Faster than an airplane, more powerful than a locomotive, impervious to bullets! Up in the sky, look, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!
Roman: I’m willing to concede from the get-go that I might be wrong about the entire premise of this story. But Superman has never really worked for me as a character. I prefer the more grounded Marvel comic book characters like Spiderman, who lived in real cities and had human thoughts and feelings. Superman is basically invincible, unrelatable, and oozed establishment. Even though I really love the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, it contains a perfect example of why I don’t really dig the character. This is a 25-year-old spoiler alert. But at the end of the 1978 movie, all the greatness of that film is nearly undone by the fundamental flaw of having a character that is all-powerful when Superman flies around the Earth backwards and turns back time
Glenn Weldon: First thing we got to get clear is that he is not Cher, he doesn’t turn back time at the end of Superman I.
Roman: That’s Glenn Weldon, author of, Superman, The Unauthorized Biography, grasping for an explanation.
Glenn: It’s been long established in the comics that if he flies faster than the speed of light, he goes, he travels in time. So that’s exactly what he’s doing except he’s just spinning round and round the earth really, really fast. So, the reason everything goes backward is not because he’s actually spinning the earth backward on its axis, making time go backwards, we’re just watching him traveled back in time. We’re seeing it through his eyes. So that’s what’s going on there.
Glen: This is my wack-a-doo theory that I’m gonna stand by firmly, despite the fact that there’s some stuff in the in the movie that kind of contradicts it, I still plow ahead further.
Roman: This music that I’m talking over is from the Superman movie soundtrack. Do you know what it’s called? It’s called, Turning Back the World. I’m teasing Glen Weldon because I feel like I know him because, in addition to being the unauthorized biographer of Superman, he’s also a panelist on NPR’s pop culture, Happy Hour Podcast, which is great. It comes out on Friday, I listen to it on Friday. So, I got in touch with Glen because I thought if I can’t appreciate Superman as a character, maybe I can appreciate him as a design, a supremely, successful design. The first thing Glen told me is that I need to dispense with this notion that Superman should be relatable.
Glen: The thing you have to understand about Superman is that he was never intended to be the character that we identify with. He’s not a hero like Batman. He’s not a hero like Spiderman who have foibles and psychological hangups that we recognize and empathize with. He’s not the hero we identify with. He’s the hero we believe in. It’s different, he’s an inspiration. He supposed to be better than us. That’s right there in the name. He’s called Superman for a reason. He exists to say, “We can be better. We can achieve these ideals.”
Roman: There are so many things that the creators of Superman Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, got right in the design of Superman from the very beginning. The first thing they got right was being first. First to market. It is difficult to pinpoint which character qualifies as the first superhero. It’s Gilgamesh or Hercules or the Phantom or the Clock. It’s worth looking into the Clock, but Superman is certainly the first of a type that dominated popular culture from the moment he debuted in 1938, and the idea was simple.
Glen: Well, he was created to be basically a circus strong man, that’s that’s where the design of the costume came from, and that’s what Siegel and Shuster intended. He was just like us, only bigger, stronger, better. He could do everything that we could do, only do it more. That’s where the Superman idea came from. It’s very simple. That’s why this character stuck around because the iconography is simple, red, blue, and yellow. Even the colorblind can see red, blue and yellow, that’s important. You have to keep everything about this character as simple as possible. He couldn’t fly at this point. He didn’t have any of the other sensory powers. He was just a guy that Siegel and Shuster would drop into the middle of a scene with a bunch of thugs and they would try to attack him and he would shrug them off. This was the engine of the story. This is where the adventure, this is where the fun of those early stories came from, just him showing over and over again that he was stronger than everybody else.
Roman: So when it came to the fundamentals, Siegel and Shuster just nailed it. They did, they created something great and everyone knew it. But as Superman endured they had this fantastic public R&D period.
Glenn: They just keep upping the ante. They kept making him bigger and more powerful. And started throwing in all these other…or trying to, they should have trying throw in all these other powers.
Roman: Some of which worked, some of which really didn’t.
Glen: One of the first weird powers he had early on, was the ability to contort the muscles of his face, to change his appearance and pass himself off to somebody else. Now, that doesn’t square with the iconography of a guy who’s really better than us, who can just do what we can do only more. So it went away because it’s not the power of a superhero, that’s the power of a villain, kind of adopting somebody else’s disguise so we can go undercover. It’s just not doesn’t square with him.
Roman: When you have powerful enough iconography, you can make missteps like that and it doesn’t have a lasting effect.
Glenn: The other powers that took are things like, super hearing and supervision, and telescopic vision, X-ray vision. These things are about traits that we possess that just get boosted. That’s what this character is about. Later on, of course, we get things like super hypnotism and super-ventriloquism, certain products of an age of comics, called the Silver Age of Superman, when things got really weird. It happens to be my favorite era of this character, because things just get bananas and Superman has become so powerful at this point, that the focus starts to shift away from him on to Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, the people around him, the super dog, the super monkey, the super cat, the super horse, all these other things around him. He becomes the patriarch of this extended family of people in blue long johns.
Roman: But beyond the comic book superfan, none of that stuff filtered too far out into popular culture and stuck around. The one power that did develop later that got folded into the very core of the character was flight.
Glen: Originally he could just jump around. And on the page, that’s fine, you see him in midair, but as soon as the Fleischer animated shorts came along, the very first couple, he jumps around like that, and it looks dumb. He looks like a flea, it just doesn’t work. So very soon after that on the radio show, the sound of him jumping around became a suspended sound of the wind noise. So it was clear that he was flying through the air defying gravity and that’s what happened in the Fleischer shorts. But it took the comics a long time to agree that yeah, okay he can fly. Because again, the thing he could do was be better than us but this idea of somebody being able to hover in midair was just too much of a break initially from the kind of grounded, relatively grounded stories that Siegel and Shuster were telling.
But, once he did take to the air, once he did become capable of flying and defying gravity, that became the thing that he’s identified with. The tagline of the 78 film is, “You will believe a man can fly” because there’s something primal about that. There’s something that man has always wanted to do and so we got this guy in brilliant blue long johns and a flying red cape who can do it. !nd that’s what we look to him for, that’s what we recognize in him now today, but it wasn’t always the case.
Roman: As you go through the history of Superman in Glen Weldon’s book, you find a character that adapts in strange ways to reflect the zeitgeist and anxieties of the time. But certain qualities get written into Superman’s DNA that forms the real basis of what makes Superman, Superman, and it has nothing to do with the way he looks.
Glen: Ultimately, what I found over the course of the writing a book is that a lot of this stuff comes and goes. The red shorts can come and go, the spit curl goes away, that comes back, he gets a different costume, he gets this weird electrical blue costume in the ’90s, everything cycles. It’s not what he looks like, even though that is considered the iconography of this character. Nobody looks like that makes him Superman. It is what he does and why he does it. Number one, he puts the needs of others over those of himself and B., he doesn’t give up. So, those two elements, If either one of those two elements are missing, our brain instinctively rejects it. It doesn’t feel like a Superman story for some reason.
Roman: Which makes telling compelling and nuance Superman stories pretty difficult, but Wheldon argues that nuance is not what Superman is about.
Glen: We’ve reached a cynical age where we don’t trust altruism and that’s what he’s there for. He’s there to represent it. He’s there to say, here’s truth, here’s what it looks like here’s justice here’s what it looks like, here’s compassion which is a big part of him. And also, you know, he’s called The Man of Tomorrow because that’s been part of his DNA from the beginning. He’s called the Man of Tomorrow long before it was called the Man of Steel. It was his original nickname basically because he helped point the way to the future to say, “Here’s what we can be.” “Here’s, if we’re better to each other and better to ourselves, here’s here’s what we can do.” It’s easy. I’m a pretty cynical douche bag in most of my life in this one area about this character. I don’t know, I believe in him.
Roman: 99% Invisible, is Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to [Jazz Getner?] from the NPR for recording Glen Weldon for us. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KLAW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.