The Tal-Var Venn Diagram

In a recent post on Twitter, I posted a venn diagram saying that Tal-Var should be considered one of Superman’s biggest foes alongside the likes of Lex Luthor, General Zod, and Brainiac.

The joke here is that I’d chosen an obscure villain who had appeared in a single issue of Jimmy Olsen’s comic and tried to elevate him to iconic with specious reasoning. Nothing in there actual comments on the quality of any of the villains, it just says stuff about them. If I wanted to declare a fourth-most important villain to Superman, I’d put the work into making the Ultra-Humanite the one. (It has even been pointed out by a friend that if you take the diagram I’ve made and replace Tal-Var’s name with Mr. Mxyzptlk’s almost all of it still applies, though I’d not call him a “villain” traditionally.)

So that diagram is just me being stupidly obscure for what could almost be called a joke, but just barely. But it did occur to me that over here on the ol’ Book of PDR I try to regularly put together my “Superman Thoughts” so why waste the thing on a Twitter post? I do have actual ideas for how I’d use Tal-Var.

The deal is that he is an otherdimensional baddie who likes to come to our dimension and be a jerk. Okay, working with that, I say posit that Tal-Var’s natural form might be some strange unknowable dark god kinda thing and that the Kryptonian-looking shell is merely adopted for coming to this realm and fighting the likes of Superman. Then I’d go a little more controversial: I’d keep Tal-Var as a Jimmy Olsen villain, rather than moving him directly into Superman’s gallery. That’s right, I think Jimmy Olsen should have his own villains. Superman can still fight them and stuff, but let Jimmy have some fun for a change.

Another One Where I Complain About Hope

I’ve mentioned this one before, but I gotta write something, so I might as well get back to complaining about how I don’t like Superman being about “Hope”. And to get more specific, I’m gonna talk about a story from the “Future State” event a year or so back.

I don’t have the energy to explain what “Future State” was, but the story I am particularly gonna talk about is about a future when Superman is missing and a young woman goes on a pilgrimage to Smallville and meets up at a meeting with a bunch of people who had been saved by Superman over the years. They share their stories about how Superman saved them and feel bad because they assume he’s dead.

Some kid says Superman is about hope, PDR complains.

The main character is not happy with these survivors. She thinks it’s shameful that they’ve given up hope that Superman is still out there. PDR is not happy with these survivors because they got saved by Superman and it seems like all they took from it was that Superman sure is great and we need him to be around forever. Unlike main character (whose name I have not committed to memory), I don’t care if these people think Superman is dead.

I have to be clear, these Future State issues do point out that Superman’s supposed “giving us hope” was accomplished via doing good acts. The main character says she was helped by a story he wrote as Clark Kent and she says of Superman: “If his powers had never come, he still would’ve been what he was. He’s just have saved people in different ways.” She’s clearly saying that Clark’s actions are the good thing here. But she also says “We didn’t call him Superman because of what he can do! We called him Superman because of who he is!” and that’s where the argument fails for me.

I agree that it isn’t what Superman can do (his powers) that makes him special. But I do think it’s what he actually DOES do that makes him Superman. I don’t like the idea that Clark is just inherently a good person and he is a symbol of whatever whatever good stuff. If any one of those people at the meeting said “Superman saved me, which made me realize I should be helping other people, so that’s why I became a teacher or doctor or whatever” then I’d respect them. I don’t care if they’re full of hope. They could be utterly hopeless and working to do good and I’d respect the hell out of them. That would be keeping Superman’s spirit alive whether he is alive or not.

I don’t know, I feel like I’m repeating myself and not making my point any clearer. I don’t know that it can get any clearer. This story was by the guy who is still writing the main Superman book and he has continued to weave “Hope” into his stories. The run has been popular on the Internet circles I travel in, so I feel bad that I mostly only comment on the flaws I see in it. But just remember this isn’t just a flaw I see in this run of comics, it’s a flaw I see in the entire public perception of the character! That’s… better… right?

Perfecting Kelex

If you only casually know about Superman stuff, it is entirely possible and understandable that you don’t know who Kelex is. Kelex is essentially Superman’s Alfred, but since Superman is a more sci-fi concept than Batman, Superman’s butler is a robot, so he’s also kind of Alfred and the Bat Computer all rolled into one.

As with anything in Superman’s long history, there are contradictory explanations of Kelex, but there’s enough in common that we can basically distill it down to this: Kelex is a Kryptonian robot that belonged to Kal-El’s parents before that planet exploded. Through some manner or another, Superman acquired Kelex decades later on Earth and the robot now lives in the Fortress of Solitude to take care of things around there and perform scans and stuff.

This is all well and good. I like Kelex, even though most of his appearances consist of him either floating around the Fortress to make it look cool and futuristic, or being destroyed to show how powerful some threat is.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. Here’s what I’d do to give us a perfect Kelex:

Kelex Was In Kal-El’s Spacecraft:

When we first learned the origin of Superman, we saw young Kal-El’s parents desperately trying to save their son while their planet fell apart in minutes. Over the decades stories have added to that simple concept by suggesting that Jor-El, Superman’s father, had had years of setup for this. Sometimes we’re told he’d scouted out planet Earth (or even visited it). He had sent out test rockets with dogs and monkeys. He’d made plans for what his son would do on Earth and so on and so on.

I hate all of that stuff. I like it when saving the baby in a rocket is an act of desperation by people who just couldn’t make the world listen to reason in time. They tried other ways to save Krypton for years and this is not something they were ready for. Now they have maybe ten minutes to save the kid via rocket, and that’s it. And maybe they need an AI in the rocket to keep life support systems in the running and steer it away from stars or whatever? And maybe they improvise by using the AI from the household robot? This works a lot better for me.

(Incidentally, I remember reading a script for one of the failed Superman film projects over the years (maybe it was Flyby?) and it included an AI on the ship called K. The movie was never made, but I felt this justified my preferred method of getting Kelex to Earth. I legitimately don’t remember what happened to K later in the script, though, so for all I know they turned him into Brainiac‘s stooge or something.)

Kelex Taught Clark About Krypton:

Most of the most prominent tellings of Superman’s origins have Clark learning his origins from some sort of AI recreation of his father that was included in a crystal that came in the rocket with him. I don’t like that. In part, it’s related to my complaint above about Jor-El having accomplished way too much in what should have been far too short a time. But it just isn’t my preferred origin for Superman. Maybe it’s because I’m such a fan of the Golden Age Superman who didn’t know or question his origin much until he was an adult, but I like teenage Clark to be uncertain where he came from, let alone have a whole talking encyclopedia devoted to his origin. It also bugs me that the Jor-Elogram origin also tends to serve as a replacement for Clark going to university and I like Clark to be a student.

Here’s what I’d do: We have Kelex’s AI in the ship and perhaps he is damaged in the crash. Kelex is inactive for decades while Clark grows and becomes a superhero who doesn’t know his origin. At some point he learns of Kelex and activates it. Kelex becomes a sort of super-teacher from Krypton then, but isn’t an omnipotent repository of all Kryptonian knowledge, but rather a household robot that was damaged in a rocket crash. Kelex and definitely lay down the basics, reveal the name Kal-El, explain who his parents were, what happened to the planet, but Clark and Kelex will have to work together to learn more about what the lost world.

* I should clarify, I don’t mind Clark having AI simulacra of his parents at the Fortress when he’s an experienced hero who has been through hundreds of fantastical adventures. By that point in his career, those should be one of the most mundane things in the Fortess. I just don’t like it being a factor in his origin.

Kelex Never Calls Clark “Master”:

I think this is just something some writers like, having robot servants call the people they work for “Master”. Superman, as I prefer him, should never allow anyone to call him “Master”. I won’t say this is one that Kelex is always shown to do, I’ve seen him use “Kal-El” as well, but it has happened and I don’t care for it.

Kelex should have a protective attitude toward Clark, as if he’s a robotic aunt who is cooking for a child they used to babysit, but in no way should Kelex act like a slave of Kal-El. Even an employee relationship goes too far for me. They may not biologically be family, given that one isn’t even biological, but they are family. One of them just happens to like taking care of the Fortress of Solitude an awful lot.

Kelex Is Friends With Natasha Irons:

At some point in the 2000s there was a running joke in the comics where Natasha Irons upgraded Kelex’s program so that it would use contemporary urban slang. The main joke was that we were seeing an uptight robot talking “street” and that’s not how they usually talk. But it also gave Kelex a friendship that wasn’t related (directly) to Kal-El. I don’t know that Kelex would enjoy going out on the town (Kelex may, in fact, not enjoy leaving the Fortress at all by nature), but having a friendship with a tech-based superhero genius is an opportunity to socialize. I liked it a lot and want it back. We don’t need the “street” talk thing to continue, but it could. As long as Kelex has someone to talk to.

Kelex Doesn’t Get Along With Jimmy Olsen:

I just think it’d be funny if Kelex sees Jimmy and all his foolishness as a bad influence on Clark. That would amuse me.

This has been a long one. Maybe those four things won’t perfect Kelex, but I feel like they’re a good start. Look how Alfred is now this father figure who raised Bruce Wayne and serves as a father figure to him. Then remember that for the first four decades that wasn’t an aspect of the character. Until the 80s, Alfred was just some guy that full-grown Batman hired to butle his lonely mansion. If Batman’s Alfred can move from that to such a prominent role, then Superman’s equivalent character can be made into something really great.

Brainiac, the Space Genius Jerk

Brainiac is one of Superman’s biggest villains, but he’s one I’ve not invested a lot of thought into. For a long time I had no good idea of how to really have Brainiac as a contrast for Superman, but that turned out to be obvious: Brainiac is really smart sci-fi jerk who thinks that being smart gives him permission to do whatever he wants and therefore he acts like a sci-fi jerk. That’s actually a really good villain for Superman and I don’t deny it.

Sometimes I suspect the creators aren’t quite sure what to do with Brainiac either. When he was retooled from just being an alien jerk to being a alien jerk computer, I feel like that was an improvement (and it was pretty much done for legal reasons anyway). But one change to the character I absolutely do not like is one I have seen praised on the Internet. In the 90s Superman cartoon (and on Smallville as well, I think) Brainiac is a computer program that originates on Superman’s homeworld of Krypton.

So there’s now probably a whole generation for whom that is the version of Brainiac they’d first think of, and still more from other generations who like the idea. Well, I don’t care for it. Here’s some reasons why:

Superman Doesn’t Need A Personal Connection To Fight A Supervillain

One of the primary reasons that superhero writers like to tie a villain to the hero’s origin is because it makes things “Personal” for the hero, heightening the dramatic stakes. Anyone who has paid attention to my rantings and ravings about the superhero genre for the last few decades will know that I hate when stories think superheroes, especially Superman, need to have “personal stakes” to oppose supervillains. In fact, if every villain a superhero fights is a personal grudge match, that isn’t being a superhero, that’s just having fights about your own stuff all the time. There’s a place for that kind of story, sure, but I don’t think that place is in Superman comics. I’ve argued many times that Superman should just do superheroing because it is the right thing to do.

Anyway, since the inception of the character of Brainiac has had connection to the Superman’s history: Brainiac once captured a whole city from the planet Krypton and still has it in a bottle! That’s certain to get Superman’s attention. But it isn’t personal, it’s just what Brainiac does. Brainiac has captured hundreds of cities from planets all over space and Krypton was just one of them, nothing special to Brainiac, no matter how special it is to Clark. I think Brainiac being cold and aloof and disinterested makes for a better alien computer jerk than if he’s specifically invested in Superman.

(And, as an aside, we’ve already got all the Phantom Zone criminals as Krypton-related villains for Superman if we need those.)

We Have Eradicator For That Now Anyway

The idea of a Kryptonian computer program that goes bad and becomes and enemy of Superman was already someone else’s shtick when they gave it to Brainiac. The Eradicator is a Kryptonian device that has gone on to gain a humanoid form and appear as a villain or ally to Superman when a story needs it. Eradicator may not yet be an especially engaging character, but he has a prominent role in the comics from the Death of Superman era, so he will continue to be a recurring presence in Superman stories from now on. Maybe he’s not iconic, but he shows up and that’s half the work toward becoming a classic character.

So if we give the Kryptonian computer role to Brainiac, we’re going to have a redundancy when Eradicator comes along. We don’t need two of ’em.

It Makes Outer Space Feel Smaller

If Brainiac joins the Phantom Zoners and Eradicator as being villains from Krypton then it really starts to seem like ALL of the villains are from Krypton. Space is vast! If everything that happens in it revolves around one dead planet, we’re really underutilizing what space has to offer. But if we let Brainiac have planet Colu, we have a whole other world we get to play with. Coluan culture can become a source of story ideas. You can introduce other Coluan characters or locations on the planet to visit.

I’m not a particular fan of the Legion of Superheroes, but that series gave us Brainiac-5, a Coluan descendant of the supervillain who is a hero. Brainiac-5 is a popular character and he’d make less sense if Colu is out of the picture.

Krypton’s Death Is More Meaningful If It Was Meaningless

And what bugs me most about tying Brainiac to Krypton is that it implies he’s involved in its destruction. I don’t like when the destruction of Superman’s homeworld is actively being caused by any individual or organization. It works best when the planet is doomed by natural causes and the inaction of its people to act. It we say the destruction was actually intentionally caused by Brainiac it is less about the failure of Kryptonians to solve the problem and more about just a supervillain. That’s less good. But I can’t stress enough that I feel that way about ANY villain who destroys Krypton, not just Brainiac.

Anyway, this was more than I intended to type on this topic. I could come up with more, but I think I’ve made my point. You’re welcome to like the idea of Brainiac being from Krypton if you want. You’d just be wrong. There’s no shame in that.

They Missed The Chance To Have A Good Superman Game

I’ve occasionally put thought into how I’d want a Superman video game to be made. I’ve been doing so publicly on this site since at least 2018, when I declared that with today’s technology the best option would be to actually do a Jimmy Olsen game. And, indeed, I still think that a Jimmy game would be an excellent way to go, but this week I read this post about a real undeveloped Superman game, working under the code name Blue Steel. Seeing the admirable effort they put into the project, I think that they could have actually had a decent game on their hands a full decade before I started weighing in.

Impressed though I am with what they show us, there are, as always, nits I can pick. It saddens me at how quickly they became excited about character-based ideas and using investigative journalism as an aspect of gameplay. That would’ve been exactly what I wanted! That could have been the start of something beautiful. But their game, they were told, have to be an action-filled super brawl game. It’s exactly the kind of decision I consider a major problem with the superhero genre, but I can understand. Video games, especially back then, are more limited than other media, so focus on the fighting and maybe we can do the fighting well, right?

But even within the superhuman brawling concept there are things I don’t want here. Mostly, it’s the focus on Darkseid. I’ve beaten this one in repeatedly, but I don’t want Darkseid in my Superman, nor general DC Universe characters like Solomon Grundy. My ideal Superman game would be chock full of Superman characters and not have to rely on other franchises. This can easily be done!

I’ve already discussed the kinds of mook enemies Superman would be able to beat up in a game like this. But what matters here is the bosses and the other superheroes. Blue Steel was intended to have a multiplayer mode in which players would choose their character and have superhuman brawls. It sounds neat. Note that Livewire is prominently featured as an opponent in the game, but is not on the list of playable characters, so I assume the “Brawlers” were intended to be of a certain level and not have powers like hers, which are perhaps too complex to easily put into a game like this.

By my count there are thirteen playable Brawlers listed on the page about Blue Steel that I would choose to excise from the game (most of them Darkseid-related, of course). To prove there are still enough Superman characters to work with, I will now offer up a list of twice that many options for replacements.

  1. STEEL: This one feels like a no-brainer. If you’re going to have Lex Luthor around in his power suit, why not have the superhero with the power suit and cool hammer. And, Bonus, there’s John Henry Irons and Natasha Irons. That’s two more characters and you’d really only have to design the moves for one.
  2. MALA: Okay, the game already has Clark, Kara, Zod, Ursa, and Non. There are easily a dozen more Kryptonians who could be added, but I don’t want to rely on that as a crutch. I have picked Mala to represent this group because I like her and she isn’t necessarily aligned to Zod, so it would offer more nuance in the story.
  3. TOYMAN: Toyman is a classic Superman villain even though many people don’t seem to like him. He’s not often seen as a “powerhouse” kind of villain on the level of the other Brawlers on this list, but y’know, he’s been seen in mechs. Why not just make the mech smaller and come up with a cobbled-together toy-themed power suit? It may not be the direction I’d take the character in stories or television, but for the sake of this game, I’d love it.
  4. MONGUL: He’s a popular Superman enemy and basically brawling is his whole deal. He may not do much for me, but he’s even been in Superman games before, so it’s pretty much a given for him to be there. Bonus: Recent comics have fleshed out his Warworld with a lot more characters who could be brought in as well, though I’m limiting myself to characters who would have been available when Blue Steel was being developed.
  5. MASTER JAILER: An underutilized classic Superman foe, the Master Jailer could easily be given moves that focus on either immobilizing opponents, or grabbing them with a chain and pulling them closer like Scorpion. Bonus: His daughter has taken up the name Snare to do pretty much the same thing, so let’s get her in there too.
  6. CLAWSTER: The big tough mutant who, I have said, is a necessary addition to Superman games could shine in this field. Brawl, Clawster, brawl.
  7. DRAAGA: Draaga, like Mongul, is basically an alien gladiator. I don’t know that he offers anything especially unique, but he’s another prominent Brawler from the franchise who seems like an easy inclusion.
  8. ATOMIC SKULL: The Atomic Skull has one of the best names in comics and we’d be pretty stupid not to let him into the game.
  9. MAXIMA: Alien warrior woman. Perfect for this game. Bonus: There’s more than one technically, if we wanted more than one.
  10. ROCK: He’s a big guy made out of stone who hates Lex Luthor. Works for me.
  11. NEUTRON: An energy based Superman foe who can fight on the level of the Brawlers in this game.
  12. REACTRON: Just another villain who can fight on this level.
  13. RAMPAGE: She’s like the Hulk, but she’s a scientist who Superman knows.
  14. TIMEBOMB: I’ve already said this guy needs to get used more. With the destructible environments of the game, he’d cause a lot of damage.
  15. SILVER BANSHEE: Flies, has sonic and/or magic attacks, cool skull design. Keep it coming.
  16. AMALAK: An alien who hates Kryptonians with a passion and devotes himself to killing them. Decent for the Brawling, but could be a focal point for the story (could even come with an army of alien soldiers).
  17. ANNIHILATOR: Another supervillain I’ve discussed before. He can hold his own against Superman, so he’s clearly able to Brawl on this level. Bonus: Annihilator Jr.
  18. WHIRLICANE: A personal favourite, Whirlicane has the power of both the whirlwind and the hurricane! He may not traditionally be the type to take punches from the likes of Superman, but just say he can cushion himself with a field of wind around him or something. And let him shoot lightning. Easy.
  19. HI-TECH: Another supervillain I have mentioned before, she has a robot body that could easily put her on par with the Brawlers in the game.
  20. METALLO: I get that the Blue Steel designers probably avoided Metallo because they were avoiding using kryptonite and Metallo is a kryptonite-powered cyborg. But he’s also one of Superman’s most recognizable foes who also just happens to be perfect for fights like those this game offers. If you don’t want to bother programming it so some characters are more weak to kryptonite attacks than others, just make sure his chest beam shoots out with enough force and energy that it would clearly hurt anyone.
  21. MR. MCTAVISH: If we’re working in Metallo, we could basically the same powerset to make Mr. McTavish, the kryptonite-powered robot from the ’50s show. This should only be done if you’re willing to have him look like a boxy ’50s robot. If you’re too cowardly to do that, you don’t deserve Mr. McTavish.
  22. TERRA-MAN: Superman awesome space cowboy foe. He’s less of the Brawler type and more a gunslinger, but I’d love for him to be included nonetheless. Within the game, his weapons aren’t really that functionally different than heat vision or whatever. There’s no reason to assume he can’t hold his own in a super-fight. We’ll just assume he left the horse at home.
  23. BLACKROCK: There have actually been a lot of different takes on Blackrock, as it is not an individual but an identity that has been used multiple ways over the years. No matter what, it’s a supervillain design that could be worked into the story and provide another Brawler for the game. If anything, the lack of existing specific lore means it is a more malleable concept to work within the context of the game.
  24. THE GALACTIC GOLEM: It may actually be above the level of the rest of the Brawlers in the game, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s an interesting design and could be used as a final boss or something in the story.
  25. BIZARROS: The real Blue Steel game was going to include the Bizarro Superman, but it’s important to remember that there can be more Bizarros as well. Bizarro Supergirl, Bizarro Steel, Bizarro Clawster. Some would have different powers, but some could really just be palette swaps for other Brawlers.
  26. KRYPTO: Yes, the Super-Dog himself. I recognize that there would probably have to be a few changes to gameplay if you’re playing as a dog, but honestly I can’t see it being that many if the mechanics of the game are just brawling and fighting. A dog can do as well as any humanoid man, surely. Bonus: You could use those same mechanics and include Lex Luthor’s super-powered dog Destructo as well.

So there we go, twenty-six options for playable characters who would be fun to play in a Superman game and I didn’t even have to be exhaustive, let alone dip into the well of the New Gods. Somebody send this list back in time to Blue Steel people, and while you’re there make it so that game didn’t get cancelled, I guess.