The groom wore tights: profile: Superman

Can a superhero settle down? What about truth, what about us?
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The Independent Online
While events in Britain have prompted fresh debate on the issue of celibacy in the Catholic priesthood, an event in America has raised similar concerns. One question is: must a priest devote himself to saving his flock? Another is: must a superhuman enemy of injustice devote himself to saving the world?

Today, after a relationship that has lasted 58 years, and left neither of them looking a day older than they did when they met, Superman is to marry Lois Lane. That's all very well for her, but how many banks will be robbed, world dominations plotted and natural disasters left unaverted, while the Man of Steel is on his honeymoon? How many buildings will burn to the ground because the Last Son of Krypton is too busy picking out curtains at Habitat to extinguish the conflagration with his superbreath?

And there are more personal considerations about the contrasting physiologies of the Kryptonian and the Earthling. What about friction burns? And what will happen to the mother when the unborn superbaby kicks?

Still, engaged couples always have their difficulties, and Superman is not the first superhuman to get hitched. He flies down the aisle behind Spiderman and even the Incredible Hulk. (DC Comics has commissioned the designing of a real dress, just as Marvel, its rival, did when Spiderman tied the knot.) Unlike characters in almost any other form of fiction, the protagonists of American comic books appear at least once a month, and can continue to do so for decades. Every now and then they need a new twist, a new way to throw up stories and grab publicity. Most drastically, Superman was killed in 1992 (not wholly unexpectedly, he was brought back from the dead soon after), and he has, in his time, teamed up with Supergirl, Superdog, Supercat, and Superhorse.

Maybe Superman requires more of these twists than most of his costumed colleagues. He is, in essence, a bit boring. Compared to Batman, say, he's a square: clean-cut, honourable and lacking in mystery, not the kind of superhero you'd want to go out for a drink with. And as he is well- nigh invulnerable, there is very little that can make him work up a supersweat.

These are the very elements that make him the archetypal superhero, the template for an entire genre that has sustained two multimillion dollar publishing companies. But his continued popularity lies in his being recognisably human - by the standards of flying aliens with laser-beam eyes, at least.

A crucial component of Superman's appeal (which was copied and embellished by Spiderman, among many other comic characters) is that when he's not wrapping iron rods around villains, he is in his secret identity of Clark Kent. This mild-mannered reporter on the Daily Planet, Metropolis's biggest- selling quality daily, is a bespectacled nerd, condemned in the first ever Superman story as "a spineless, unbearable coward" by his glamorous colleague, Lois Lane. She, in turn, hankers after the hunk in the long, red cape, the blue bodysuit, and the underpants worn over his tights. For your average comic-book reader - an adolescent male - this is an irresistible fantasy: the girl I love may sneer, but if she only knew what powers I hide beneath this geeky exterior....

It was the fantasy of two bespectacled teenagers named Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. In Les Daniels's lavish, loving and witty history of DC, he describes how these friends from Cleveland printed their own science- fiction fanzine at high school, and how Siegel wrote a story in it called "The Reign of the Super-Man", illustrated by Shuster. In this incarnation the eponymous character was a villain with psychic powers, but the pair used the name again when they invented a flying crime-fighter. This Superman was refined until he had all the elements which have been copied by thousands of comic creators ever since, but which remain synonymous with their earliest owner: a costume with a long cloak; a secret identity (named after Clark Gable); and the fight for truth, justice and the American way.

Even those who have never picked up a comic in their life recognise these traits. They are part of modern mythology, to the extent that if you mention Superman a lot more people will think of Clark Kent than will think of Friedrich Nietzsche. Perhaps this is only fair. At the very time that the philosopher's ideas of an bermensch were being adopted by Adolf Hitler, two Jewish boys were dreaming up an updated Golem, who would protect the underdog, not persecute him.

And yet, Spiegel and Shuster's creation, which they intended as a newspaper strip, had to survive four years of rejections before it was finally picked up by DC Comics. Superman was first seen hauling a car over his head on the cover of Action Comics issue one, a copy of which sold for 10 cents in June 1938, and sold recently for $137,500. As Siegel predicted at the end of the first story: "And so begin the startling adventures of the most sensational strip character of all time."

JUST before the far-off planet Krypton blew up, wiping out its surprisingly human-looking inhabitants, Jor El and Lara placed their infant son, Kal El, in a specially prepared capsule and blasted him out into the universe. The spacecraft crash-landed on Earth, specifically in Smallville, USA, where it was stumbled upon by the Kents, a childless old couple who raised the strange arrival as their own son, despite his alien origins rendering him faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. They kept these powers secret from the world until Clark was ready to to help others and to battle wrongdoers. And if the going got tough, Superman got tougher, acquiring the capabilities of flight, X-ray vision, and whatever else Spiegel deemed was required.

What a concept. And one that Spiegel and Shuster signed away to DC comics for a sum between $130 and $165. When DC started the spin-off comic, Superboy, without consulting the original creative team, the pair sued the company with very limited success, and were never to see more than an infinitessimal fraction of the fortune that Superman has amassed.

As early as 1939, the Man of Tomorrow was given his own daily newspaper strip; in 1940 came a radio programme (which introduced both Jimmy Olsen, his youthful pal, and Kryptonite, the glowing mineral that could rob him of his powers); in 1941, a cartoon; in 1948, a film serial; in 1953, a television series, starring George Reeves; in 1966, a Broadway musical; and in 1978, the first of the four Superman movies, in which Christopher Reeve played the definitive screen Superman.

The latest television series started in 1993. With the working title of Lois Lane's Daily Planet, this programme would take the emphasis away from impossible exploits, and onto the humorous interaction of the newspaper employees. It would be part-soap, part-sitcom, and centre on the ridiculous ironies inherent in the eternal triangle that had at its angles the mild-mannered mother's boy; his self-centred but lovely rival; and the superhero whose true identity she doesn't suspect. By the time the show aired on the ABC network, it had the more conventional title of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. In Britain, the Christian names are omitted. None the less, the series relies less on action and special effects than on Moonlighting-style sexual tension, ably provided by Dean Cain, an ex-American footballer - and an ex-boyfriend of Pamela Anderson - and Teri Hatcher, a goofy pin-up worshipped by the tabloids, and who is now breaking into the movie business.

It is, at best, a sparky and resourceful show, although I still can't work out how the Daily Planet comes out daily when its work is done by four people: an Elvis-obsessed editor; two reporters who are supposedly the best in the country but who almost always operate as a pair; and a boy who has to run errands, make the tea, and take photos of Superman in action, so presumably must be in the office on work experience.

Just as the programme was getting stale, Clark Kent proposed to Lois Lane and, when she accepted he revealed his double life. "If you stand for truth and justice," says Mike Carlin, DC's executive editor, "you can't begin a marriage with a lie." According to Carlin, the wedding was planned in the comics before the arrival of the television show. Lane and Kent were engaged in 1990, but when the programme was scheduled, the makers of the comic decided to postpone Superman's nuptials so that they could happen simultaneously in both media. Their delaying tactic was Superman's (temporary) death.

Following this "crimp" in their engagement, and Lois's understandable cold feet, the course of true love ran smooth. Their wedding is shown today on American television, and then in a 96-page comic book published on Wednesday. Lex Luthor, Superman's arch enemy, makes an appearance, says Carlin on the phone from New York, "but Lois Lane's father is the big villain of the storyline, just like in real life".

But what about the time our hero has to take out from vanquishing evil to pick out the curtains? "You know," sighs Carlin, "Superman's parents, Ma and Pa Kent, are pretty good at helping out around the house, so I'm sure they'll be able to get some curtains. You reporters worry about some odd things."

Huh. He may know me only as a reporter. Little does he know that whenever danger threatens the innocent or the oppressed....