Bizarro is Superman… only a little more bizarre

Here’s the one about how I prefer my Bizarro, I guess.

The thing I feel about Bizarro is that he is doing the opposite thing on purpose. It’s a choice. I don’t like it when Bizarro is some cosmically-opposite version of Superman, I prefer the term they originally used, Bizarro is an “imperfect duplicate” of Superman. He’s not “Reverse Superman” or “Mirror Superman” or something like that. He’s “Bizarro Superman”.

I’ll accept the weird power inversions, I guess. I don’t require them, but if people want him to have flame breath and cold vision or whatever, sure, that’s cute. But saying that, personality-wise, Bizarro is just backwards version of the protagonist doesn’t do it for me. It’s much more compelling to me if Bizarro came into being, wired differently (“imperfectly” by someone’s standards) than his clone-brother. He tries to get by in the world, but he just can’t get it right. Things don’t make as much sense to him as they seem to to everyone else. He would be like his more popular sibling, but it doesn’t come natural to him. And people just don’t accept him in that role. He gets frustrated, he acts out. And THEN he decides if he can’t be like Superman, he’s going to be as unlike Superman as possible.

It’s a tragedy, his rejection of Superman. It’s a shame, it’s a shonda, but it’s a choice. This gives Bizarro both more agency and more poignancy, I think. It also gives him room to think about how he wants to be Superman’s opposite, and change his mind about things. All in all, I just think it makes him more interesting.

And, for the record, I don’t think of Bizarro as a “villain”. He’s a supporting cast member whose circumstances cause him to sometimes fight Superman. Bizarro is like Superman’s younger brother who is kind of a mess. That’s what I want from him.

Superman and Luthor = Frenemies?

I’ve said a lot of things about a lot of Superman villains on this little site of mine, but I don’t think I’ve said much about his most iconic villain: Lex Luthor. I think the concept of Lex Luthor as a nemesis has reached the world at large. I’m sure I could think of some little ways to improve on Luthor’s usage as a Superman foe, but honestly, once they expanded his mad scientist role to include all the evil capitalists that Clark fought in his early days, they got what I needed from him. Maybe I’m less concerned with him being the “smartest human on Earth” (I think such superlatives are a poison to the superhero genre) and I know I like him to be a little bit goofier than many readers, but in general I think we’re getting good Luthor most of the time.

But one thing that I’ve found controversial even among Superman fans is whether or not Clark Kent and Lex Luthor should be friends who tragically became enemies? I always preferred when they weren’t.

It’s one of my least favourite things when creators think superheroes have to have personal connections to their enemies for the sake of drama. And Superman especially! Superman shouldn’t need personal connections to a problem to want to solve that problem. And anyway, Superman has too many enemies with personal connections anyway! Brainiac is a space-faring baddie who once captured a city right off of Superman’s homeworld! This time it’s personal! General Zod (and most of the Phantom Zone criminals as well) is actually from Superman’s homeworld and maybe even knew Superman’s father! This time it’s personal! It’s a crutch and I don’t care for it.

It also bugs me that Superman just happens to grow up with the kid who goes on to be one of the richest and smartest businessmen in the world? It strains credibility and makes Clark less of the everyman they wanted him to be when they made him a smalltown boy.

But it’s surprisingly popular considering how rarely it’s actually been the status quo. It came about during the Silver Age, and I am acutely aware that Silver Age concepts seem to grow back any time they are removed. A lot of the time I’m in favour of the Silver Age concepts coming back. It was also the case in the live action Superboy television show, but compared to the various movies and show’s where it hasn’t been the case, that show can’t compare. The comics did away with it in the 80s reboot, but it has swung in and out with different revisions of continuity. Of course, the biggest reason for the popularity of this setup today is the show Smallville, which was about young Clark and Lex. That show did run for a decade, so it’s got a generation of Superman fans who like the friends setup.

And I don’t know. I don’t like it, but at this point I’m kind of just accepting it. I don’t know if either of the currently-running Superman shows have Clark and Lex as former friends or not, but if they do, I’ll just accept it.

Here’s what I think we need to do to make it acceptable for Lex and Clark to have been friends: We need Superman to have other nemeses who are as important as Lex but are not This Time It’s Personals. If I accept Brainiac and Zod as being slightly personal, let’s get at least three more who have no personal connection to Clark or Superman before they met as foes. As I’ve said, the Terra-Man is a good criminal inversion of some Superman tropes, so let’s put him on the list. But also, let’s finally give the Ultra-Humanite a chance to shine. I’m sure I’ll do a post about them sometime, but yeah, they were Superman’s big foe before Luthor came alone, so let’s get that back.

Or, of course, there’s always Tal-Var.

Superman III is Cyberpunk

In a sprawling urban city, a talented hacker tries to steal from a MegaCorp, but gets caught. The company owner sways the hacker to his side with promises of wealth. Together they hijack and weaponize a satellite and, with the hacker posing as a member of the military-industrial complex, they even try to use a narcotic-based poison to bring down a crusading hero who stands in their way. During their plan to build a giant supercomputer, one of the corpos is turned into a killer cyborg. The hacker ends up leaving the MegaCorp and helping the hero.

Okay, Superman III isn’t actually cyberpunk enough to be called cyberpunk, really. But I’ve amused myself by referring to it as such before and I’ll probably do it again.

What I will say is that the hacker character in the movie, Gus Gorman, should come back. I say we keep him as close as possible to the character as seen in the movie. He’s talented with computers but has trouble making his way in a corporate world, so he does thing underhanded now and then. He probably came afoul of Superman at some point, but Superman can tell that prison isn’t a solution, so he and Gus become allies. Sometimes Gus’ll get in over his head and maybe some criminal types will want to harm Gus, so Superman can save the day. There are definitely times when Superman (or Lois or Jimmy or anyone) might need the aid of a hacker, so he can be brought in for that stuff. I’d be wary of making him a clean-cut good guy, but in a world where Superman is a champion of the oppressed, Gus would be on that list.

Supergirl Had A Show

It’s several years late, but I have finally managed to finish watching the Supergirl show. Now is as good a time as any to do a post about my thoughts on it.

Now, I have to be honest first of all. I didn’t love the show. It’s definitely a show I would not have watched if it had not been a part of the “Super” franchise, as it were. But that fine. That was also true about Smallville. That was also true about the Superman movies that have come out since I was a child. That is also true about the currently-running Superman live-action show (on which I am similarly years behind). I don’t feel like I was the target audience for this show, so I never felt too insulted by how it wasn’t doing what I wanted, but it did do plenty of things I didn’t like. Some of the things that annoyed me the most:

  • They brought Jimmy Olsen into the show. When this was first announced, I saw people on the Internet complaining that this Jimmy was buff and handsome and confident, not the little dweeb that Jimmy often is. I argued against these people, saying this was a Jimmy who spent a decade working alongside Superman, so it makes sense that he would be transformed by that (they also complained that Jimmy was Black, but I didn’t feel the need to argue with them about that, because their opinion on that was self-evidently dumb). But then the show never really did anything good with Jimmy. It was a real waste of a version of Jimmy Olsen we don’t usually get to see.
  • Speaking of the supporting cast, they almost all get turned into superheroes. This is something I’ve complained about happening in all superhero stuff these days, but it always irks me when the stories suggest that characters only have value if they can get in fights. If that’s how we judge people in superhero stories, I don’t agree.
  • Another thing this show does that most superhero shows do now is to have the hero working with SHIELD. Sure, they don’t call it SHIELD, but it is basically SHIELD. Why is every superhero with a SHIELD now? Stop it, superheroes.
  • The SHIELD on this show is about fighting alien threats, so the show eventually settles into a worldbuilding situation that treats aliens the way Buffy The Vampire Slayer treated demons. They’re just regular people who exist in a little subculture around town. I don’t hate the setup (apart from Kara working with SHIELD, as I say), but most of the times the aliens are just TOO human. This show aspired to have aliens as cool looking as Star Trek. Usually, it treats aliens as if they are just humans with super powers, and those powers can just be turned off, as if human is actually the default state and those powers aren’t biological necessities to the aliens, they’re just extra stuff that isn’t actually needed.
  • Characters from non-Super-related DC stuff was ubiquitous. Martian Manhunter is there from the beginning and, honestly, he works well enough that I could almost forgive it if there weren’t all the crossovers with other ongoing shows I wouldn’t watch without being paid. And there’s even a big continuity-rewriting crossover in the middle of the run, and if the show can’t maintain its continuity for six seasons, why should I be invested in anything that happens? But it was done more as a gimmick reference to DC comics than anything.

This show was for people who look at the way the superhero genre is today and thing “Yes, I like this.” And that sure isn’t PDR.

But there were things to like about the show and it may be better for me to focus on them a bit. First and foremost: Melissa Benoist in the title role. She’s pretty much perfect in the role. Personally, I would list the show’s depiction of Supergirl as a weak spot above, they too often just try to plug her into Superman/Clark Kent roles without letting her be her own thing, but Benoist does such a good job with it, I simply can’t consider her to be even slightly a weak spot here.

The show also does spend time on the kind of social justice and political stories I actually want in my superhero stories. They do it both in allegory, in which bigotry against aliens is used to show the evils of racism, but also they deal with issues like actual racism and feminism and stuff too. A lot of times the actual results can be clumsy, but at least they’re trying. With the state of things, I’ll take what I can get.

There were other things I liked about the show, but I feel like every one I bring up will come with some downside and I don’t want to bury the show in negativity. It was fine, probably great for the intended audience, and mostly I’m glad the show happened. I will even give it this compliment: I may go back and watch episode again (but certainly never the whole show).

The First Africans In Superman

I have found something incorrect about Superman… ON WIKIPEDIA!

I’ve noticed mistaken information about Superman on Wikipedia and other fan-written websites before but have generally taken it in stride. This time, I feel compelled to do something about it. While doing research for my most recent Superman versus Bigots article I found this claim on the Wikipedia page for Vathlo Island (the part of Krypton that has Black people):

This is false, but I admit that I don’t know enough about Wikipedia’s rules for editing to just delete the false statement. I know they have rules about “original research” that I don’t actually understand, but I also know that I need some sort of proof of my claim. They have a citation link to an article backing their claim, but even THAT website doesn’t say that the Kryptonian from Vathlo Island is the first Black character. That website says that the Superman comic didn’t have an African American character until the ’70s, then goes on to talk about the Black Kryptonian as a separate entity, which Wikipedia’s editors failed to catch.

So what can a PDR do? Well, maybe I can’t just edit the Vathlo Island article, but I can at least provide the ammunition needed to rectify its mistake. Black people who appeared in Superman’s book prior to issue #234: Here we go:

  • A) During the first year of Superman’s book there are adventures involving several different dark-skinned tribes, most of which are made up of people given trappings of American native groups. But one group, from the presumably-fictional Pogo Island, do bear an appearance suggestive of African descent. I would not cite them as first Africans because we simply don’t have the truth of their origin.
  • B) A Black train porter is seen in Superman #27. The big red lips aren’t good, but this man looks human, which sadly is a victory for a Black man appearing in a comic from 1944. Realistically, this man could be cited as the first “African American” in Superman.
  • C) In Superman #33, the hero goes to “the exotic port of Massua on the Red Sea” and encounters a number of African people, both civilians and pirates. The art is not particularly flattering to them, unfortunately, but I am glad that we see enough of them to be given the complexity that there are good and bad ones, that they’re not just a single monolithic society.
  • D) In Superman #49, some men, presumably Africans, are seen in silhouette carrying Lois Lane in a palanquin for some reason. We never learn why they carry Lois or who they are and never see more of them than this. I’d not really say this one counts.
  • E) Superman #50 has some Africans who are employed by a rich white hunter, and they do all the work and the hunter takes all the credit.
  • F) In Superman #59 we have more Africans employed by another white hunter. This time they are here to provide one of those scenes where the “superstitious natives will go no further” which isn’t as cool as the previous appearance.
  • G) There’s quite a gap until Superman #93, where we find that an African village has been constructed in a Metropolis park for educational reasons. There is a man there who may or may not be a statue, I honestly can’t tell (he appears in two panels and is standing the exact same way in both), but either way is a representation of an African figure within the comic at least.
  • H) Superman #110 gives us superstitious spear-wielding natives living in a “faraway land” that may not be explicitly identified as African, but the group is definitely treated the same way all the previous tribes have been so far: population for an exotic backdrop for an adventure, but barely actual humans.
  • I) At Superman’s funeral in Superman #149 there is more than one Black man visible, which is our first instance of a Black man who isn’t an “exotic tribesman” since that train porter way back. This means 1961 is the point when we finally have Black people in backgrounds in Metropolis more regularly. Among the others seen at the funeral are “world leaders” who may represent African leaders or something.
  • J) There is a single Black child among a crowd of children given a lift by Superman in Superman #153. I assume desegregation of schools has hit Metropolis.
  • K) Some African natives find a chunk of Kryptonite in Superman #173. Oddly, though they appear in three panels, we never see any of their faces. I don’t know why. After a couple of Black people in Metropolis, we’re thrown back to exotic tribes.
  • L) Some dark-skinned natives see Superman stopping a missile in sky in Superman #197, a story being reprinted from Action Comics #282).
  • M) Some Africans are among the many over the world following the race between Superman and the Flash in Superman #199. They are relatively modern, but they do use drums to communicate.
  • N) There is a Black man among the steel workers on strike in Superman #208.
  • O) A single Black child is seen in a class among some other school kids in Superman #218.
  • P) In Superman #219 we once again have a single Black youth among a group. This time they’re playing in the water sprayed by a fire hydrant opened during a heat wave.
  • Q) By Superman #225, there are Black people just showing up in the crowds around the city. There are couple of them spread throughout the issue.
  • R) And again, in #228, there are Black people in the backgrounds around the city, watching Superman do whatever he is doing in the story.

There we go. That’s all I could find. It’s certainly possible I missed some, but it’s also certainly a higher number than the zero that Wikipedia claimed. For posterity I must also note that I ignored several appearances of Egyptians, who are African but are not depicted as dark-skinned in the comics in the way that the Vathlo Island post is clearly talking about. This includes also ignoring depictions of the Sphinx, whose face I assume is based on some ancient Egyptian who could, for all I know, be dark-skinned. Furthermore, the information I’ve gathered here does not include people appearing in advertisements, or gag strips, or educational material in the issues that is not part of a Superman story. I saw examples in each of African or African American individuals, but they were not what I was there for.

And I also want to make it clear that this data comes only from the comic magazine entitled “Superman” because the wording of the claim only drew specific attention to that book. Superman stories have also appeared in places like “Action Comics“, “World’s Finest Comics“, and “Superboy“, and I’d also count books like “Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane” and “Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen” as Superman books. Each of these books told hundreds of stories with Superman and I’m sure plenty of those involved “primitive” tribes and witch doctors as well until the 1970s came and they started peppering Black people into backgrounds. I’ll note further that the Superman radio show, the cartoons from the ’40s, and the show starring George Reeves all had African characters from various parts of the offensive representation spectrum (somehow the show managed it best in an episode that included a villain in blackface).

Some further thoughts: Obviously this is not a good amount of representation for Black people in Superman over those decades. There’s not one Black person among those A to R that I would classify as an actual “character”. There are no names, only a handful have lines, and they almost never actually matter to the story in which they appear (something also true of the Kryptonian scientist in Superman #234 whose appearance started all this). But I didn’t go into this hoping I’d find out that the magazine had secretly diverse beyond our previous imaginings. I don’t think superhero comics are as diverse in representation as they need to be even now, let alone before the fight for civil rights. And furthermore: There is not a single face listed above I feel confident in saying is a Black woman. Maybe one of the two in the very last image, but even then I can’t be sure. It’s no wonder it has been so hard for creators to establish a Black Woman of the Daily Planet when it took decades to get a Black woman as a mere extra in there.

So, maybe we can change that one line on Wikipedia now that we have an article to cite, but what would be more important would be to keep expanding representation of not just Black people, but all kinds of people, in our popular culture. It can be done, but to do it we actually have to do it.