Superman Through the Ages



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THE NEW BARDS

An Introduction by
Elliot S! Maggin

In the waning moments of the twentieth century, the super-hero is Everyman.

Look at the way we live: traveling over the Earth at astounding speeds with unimaginable ease; communicating instantly at will with people in the farthest corners of the globe; engineering economies, driving environmental forces, working wonders.  If a person from only a hundred years or so in the past could look in on our lives, that person would suppose that we were not mortals, but gods.  He would be bowled over by what the most ordinary among us could do with a car or a light switch or an automatic teller machine.  This is the way many of us have always looked upon our super-heroes - as though they were gods.  Our person from a lost century would be wrong about us, of course, but no more wrong than we are about our heroes.

In the story that you hold in your hands, Mark Waid and Alex Ross tell us that our proper response to the inexorable march of progress that has brought us to this place and time in the history of civilization is to find a way to confront it responsibly.  Not modestly.  Not unself-consciously.  Not with faith in a power greater than ours to descend from the sky and set things right despite our best efforts to screw up.  We have an obligation to know who we are and where we are and what we can do.  We have an obligation to understand the ramifications of the things we do, and to choose to do them - or not - with our eyes open.

This is what Kingdom Come is about.

As I write this, I am completing a novel - about a hundred thousand words, one strung after the other without pictures other than the occasional new free-standing illustration by Alex Ross - called Kingdom Come.  It is an elaboration in prose of the story that follows.  In order to write it, I, like Mark and Alex, have to believe in heroes.  I do.  I believe in Superman.  For real.  I really believe in Wonder Woman, so help me.  I believe in Santa Claus.  I believe that men have walked on the moon.  I believe that every Passover Elijah the prophet comes over for a sip of wine. I believe in metaphors.  Metaphors are real.  That is why the Scriptures are composed not only of the proverbs and prophecies that Pastor McCay, in the pages that follow, spouts in involuntary reflex; but that is why those Scriptures surround and embrace those pronouncements in stories - the allegories and metaphors - that teach us our values.  Here before you is a clash of good against evil, of course, but more than that.  There are clashes of judgement, clashes among different interpretations of what is good and of what is justice, and clashes over who is to suffer the wages of the evil born of our best intentions.  This is a love story.  This is a story of hatred and rage.  This is the Iliad.  This is the story of how we - we ourselves; you and I - choose to use whatever special powers and abilities we have, when even those powers and abilities are only a little bit beyond those of mortal men.  This is a story about truth obscured, justice deferred and the American way distored in the hands of petty semanticists.

Super-hero stories -whether their vehicle is though comic books or otherwise - are today the most coherent manifestation of the popular unconscious.  They're stories not about gods, but about the way humans wish themselves to be; ought, in fact, to be.  They're the successors to the stories that once came from the hoe-down and the campfire and the wandering bard.  We - all of us - come up with these stories all the time around dorms and carpools and along cafeteria lines at work and at school.  Here's one:

I have a friend named Jeph.  You know Jeph.  I was maybe nineteen or twenty and he was maybe twelve or thirteen and I was a student at this college and Jeph's stepdad was a big muckamuck at the college and stepdad and I made friends.  I went over to stepdad's house for dinner one day and Jeph and I got to talking there about our mutual love for super-heroes and their stories.  We came up with a nifty story over mom and stepdad's dinner table.  See, I'd just sold my first comic-book script, a Green Arrow story called "What Can One Man Do?" and I had a problem.  I had a meeting soon with Julius Schwartz, the Bard of Bards, to see whether I was a one-trick pony or I could do this sort of thing again.  I had to come up with a hit-it-outta-the-park idea for a Superman story or else spend the next three years in law school.  I guess I told Jeph a few of my ideas and I guess Jeph told me a few of his.  And Jeph came up with this thing he called "Why Must There Be a Superman?" It was about the Guardians of the Universe planting a new idea in Big Blue's head.  The idea was that maybe, in his zeal to preserve life and ease the path of the human race, Superman was keeping ordinary everday good humans from growing on their own.  Maybe he was killing the butterfly by helping it out of the chrysalis.  Not for sure, but just maybe.  That was Jeph's idea.

So I went to Gotham, to see the Bard and I had maybe a dozen little germs of ideas packed under my scalp.  I'd try this one on him.  I'd toss him that one.  I'd pitch him another one. Some of them he liked; some of them he didn't.  Some of them inspired ideas of the Bard's own; some of them made him snort or snore.  By the end of a couple of hours - they were a loud, intense couple of hours, as hours I spent with the Bard of Bards always would be - I was emotionally exhausted and still he wanted to hear more.  So I dredged up this idea about what might happen if the Guardians came calling on Superman with the tiniest little criticism of how he was doing his job.  Now you're talking fresh stuff, the old man let me know.  He got excited.  He yanked people in from the hall and made me repeat the idea for them.

I called the story "Must There Be a Superman?" and Saint Curt and Murphy drew it and it made me happy and I put words in Superman's mouth pretty much steadily for the next fifteen years and never went to law school.  And I swear I did not have a clue where the idea had come from.  Who knows where ideas come from anyway? I didn't remember - still don't remember, in fact, but I believe Jeph - until Jeph told me about his contribution years later. Like twenty or so years later.

Jeph has never suffered, I don't believe, for my inconsiderate oversight, and in fact has always been my friend.  He's done well, too.  With his buddy Matthew he wrote the first great super-hero movie of the modern period, Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and lots of other great stuff.  And one day later on I was editor of Jeph's first comic-book series of his own, an eight-issue masterpiece with Tim Sale called Challengers of the Unknown.  Now he writes for Hollywood and he writes for DC and Marvel and he's happy and he's still my friend, and now I get to make this right too.

Today there are new bards and new stories.  Not long ago Mark and Alex went to Gotham to see Dan Raspler - who, it seems to me, was just a smart, ambitious kid last time I saw him and now he's a big muckamuch like Jeph's stepdad - to sell Dan on an idea about what the world would be like if all the super-heroes were to retire and their children, grandchildren and successors generally turn out to be schmucks.

The theme of "Must There Be a Superman?," that icon of another life, is the theme that the new bards of Kingdom Come continue. Maybe complete.  It is about the time in the lives of Superman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Batman and the others, when they learn that they are not gods.  And it is about the time in their lives when finally they learn that despite their limitations they must be potent and responsible anyway.  Now is the time in the life of the human race when all of us need to learn these same things.  That is why this story, despite its garish primary-colored clothing, is an important one.

The heroes of fable and fact to whose virtue we all aspire, are not only colorful people leading vivid lives; they traditionally understand the value of human life in all it's places and conditions. But real-life heroes, unlike many of the icons we have created, also understand human dignity and human immortality, and these are concepts that are lacking in, for example, Superman's education.  Heroes especially need to understand the value of the things of a life: its artifacts, its ideas, its loves.  It is the markers you leave along that road that define you.  It is the trees a man plants, the children he raises and the stories he tells that signify his life.  It is the palaces a people build, the heritage they inspire, the art they create that makes their civilization.  I've been trying to tell Superman for years that he mustn't just save lives, has has to spit-polish the real estate too.  He's never understood that.  He never got it until Mark and Alex told him, finally, and for that I'm proud of them.

In Kingdom Come, Mark and Alex draw a dichotomy between the human race and what we call the metahuman race.  It is the source of conflict throughout the story.  And the story's synthesis is the realization that this distinction is false.  As clearly as another hero, Mahatma Gandhi, asserted that he is a Hindu as well as a Muslim - as well as a Christian, a Jew or a Buddhist if that becomes appropriate - so do we learn here that the most ordinary among us are heroes, and the most colorful and vivid among us are quite ordinary and flawed.  It is a conclusion to which our new bards lead us as elegantly and precisely as Socrates led us through an argument or Pythagoras led us through a geometric proof.

Even super-heroes need to grow.  We know that now.  When you read Kingdom Come, you will too.

If we were to peek in on the lives of the people of the Earth in generations to come, surely we would think we were gazing upon Olympus.  And of course, again, we would be wrong.  They are only our children, our grandchildren and our successors who will surely stride the Earth as titans in those days, wearing our own features and our own shortcomings.  They are our messengers to that resplendent future.  And they will bring with them into their time whatever values and iconography that we have to offer them today.  Here in the pages that follow is an admirable start.  To site the sentiment of another old friend whom I miss (And if you travel west anytime, Alan, come find me, will you?):  This is an imaginary story....aren't they all?

Elliot S! Maggin
Where the Wind Hits Heavy
New Years, 1997


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