Old-Timey Superman: The Book We Need

I’m gonna spend this week’s Superman Thought on proposing a book I’d like to be reading (and would love to be writing). Over the past decade, DC has had some success making a book based on the Batman ’66 series. I’ve said before how the Superman show from the 50s failed to become as iconic for its star’s cast as the Adam West shows did for Batman’s villains, so a show continuing that series wouldn’t be as much fun if it stayed true to only that source.

But what if we didn’t limit ourselves to just that show? What if we also drew from the Fleischer cartoons of the 40s, and the serials that predated the Reeves show? Heck, let’s even draw from the radio show. Suddenly we have source materials with much more character and vibrancy. I propose that the show could be called Old-Timey Superman*.

Like the Batman ’66 show, Old-Timey Superman could tell simple stories done in an issue or two and free from the continuity of other books in the franchise. With those sources, the stories would be noir-tinged giving the book a style unlike most of the other Superman stuff around these days. For our visuals, I think it would be best to use the cartoons as inspiration as much as possible, but for characters who didn’t show up there we can take what we need from the other sources. Luthor never appeared in the cartoons, but he was in the serials. Bill Henderson and Candy Meyers from the radio have no visuals but the Reeves show provided them. Using all the sources together, we’ve got ourselves a little world as rich as Batman ’66 but different enough to be its own thing.

While there are a handful of villains from the radio show I think deserve a comeback, this would be a fine place to start it, it would also be fun to take characters who have only appeared since those days and create Old-Timey versions of them. Can we imagine what General Zod or Doomsday would be like if they’d debuted in the 40s cartoons? I’d sure like to.

If someone starts a petition demanding that I get to write this, I’m on board.

*That title is not a serious suggestion, but everything else here is.

The Angriest Emoticon Superman Ever Fought: Funnyface

There’s been a lot of confusing decisions made in the publishing history of Superman. At some point during the era we now call the “Silver Age” of comics, it was decided that the stories that occurred in the “Golden Age” no longer applied to the “real” history of Superman. But rather than say they never happened at all, it was decided they happened to the alternate universe Superman of Earth-2. Flashforward a couple more decades and they decided that the Silver Age stuff was getting too cumbersome as well, and that included not only the Silver Age “Earth-1” Superman, but the Earth-2 stuff as well. They did a big reality-rewrite called the Crisis that changed everything around and set things up the way they wanted them now. Similar events have happened since and it’s all needlessly complicated.

One of the ways that this screwed over Superman is that it took away a lot of his Golden Age villains. I’m going to use today’s Superman Thought Victim, a villain called Funnyface, as an example. Funnyface was a villain who opposed the Golden Age Superman. All the way back in Superman #19 he appeared. When the Earth-1/Earth-2 split occurred, he was shunted to Earth-2. Fair enough. He was pretty much forgotten, so it didn’t matter too much. But then, in the late 70s, they decided to start telling new stories about the Earth-2 Superman! Neat, I’m in! (is what I would have said if I’d been reading/born). Occasionally these stories would bring back Golden Age villains, and indeed Funnyface got a comeback story in the early 80s. Funnyface returned, and so did the potential for more returns. But then the Crisis happened. Suddenly the Golden Age didn’t have a home. But Funnyface did return after that. In their new cosmology, DC decided that there had been a team in the 1940s who fought crime (the Justice Society, I believe it was) and then they did a story about that team fighting Funnyface. It was actually a complete retelling of his first appearance with Superman and Lois’s roles filled by a whole team of superheroes*. Somehow, because of all the ridiculous alternate Earth juggling, Funnyface had ceased to be a Superman villain and had become a Golden Age villain. That’s not fair! Make those guys fight their own darn villains! (A more prominent Superman villain, the Ultra-Humanite, went down this same path and that’s much worse, but I will get to that in the future.)

Anyway, to cap that Dumb History lesson, I just want to say that Funnyface ought to make a comeback. Here’s his deal: He’s a frustrated artist, who was probably not very good and was definitely not successful. He developed a way to make characters from comic strips come to life, though he couldn’t get it to work on his own drawings. He used it to summon a bunch of villains from the funny pages and have them do crimes for him. In his second appearance, he used an artists sketch of another villain to make that villain work for him (and that villain had actually been Superman in disguise, so basically Superman had to fight a duplicate of his fake identity). Funnyface, therefore, is a minor variation on Mxyzptlk-style reality warping. In fact, given the chance, I’d tie Funnyface’s powers to the Fifth Dimension**.

But that’s basically why I think he’d be useful. He can provide the wackiness of a Mxy story, with some twists. There are tighter parameters for what he can do, he isn’t omnipotent like Mxy, but we also aren’t tied to a specific ending the way we are with a Mxy story. And it keeps Mxy appearance from becoming less special, and allows for a more vindictive villain than Mxy ought to be.

A handful of Funnyface ideas that someone could steal from me if they wanted:

  • Funnyface brings to life a villain that is more cunning and powerful than he is. This especially works if its a villain from Warrior Angel, the comic Clark read on Smallville.
  • Funnyface uses a storyboard from a fantasy movie to swarm Metropolis with orcs and rule as their chief.
  • Funnyface brings to life a drawing of Superman, drawn by Lois, to save the day when real Superman is in trouble. This one works best if told from the Duplicate Superman’s POV, I think.
  • Funnyface steals valuable items at a comic convention and brings to life various villains from the comics around him, which can be used to comment on the genre.

Anyway, that’s enough for this week. Get on this, DCEU.

*It is valid to say that those two are worth a whole team of heroes.

**It occurs to me I haven’t explained what the Fifth Dimension and Mxyzptlk are yet in any of these posts. If someone were following this and didn’t already know Superman stuff, they’d be so confused. Good thing I’ve no readers.

What To Do With Lana Lang?

Lana Lang was basically a derivative of Lois Lane. I mean, when they decided they wanted to tell stories about Superman in his youth, they introduced another love interest to complicate his life, who had the same initials. Lana did eventually come to be her own character though, and became one of Clark’s closest childhood friends, alongside Pete Ross. That makes her a handy character to have when flashing back to his upbringing or whatever, but what can we do with Lana in the modern day?

I consider it telling that there is no iconic version of Lana Lang’s adult life. In the Pre-Crisis comics she became a television reporter and worked with Lois and Clark. Post-Crisis she married Pete Ross. In the movies, she stayed back in Smallville until Clark brought her to Metropolis. On the 90s cartoon she got into the fashion industry. On the show Smallville, she got powers and left town or something. In more recent comics, she actually became the hero Superwoman. Basically, there is no consensus on how to use Lana after Clark is grown and Lois comes into the picture.

Well, I’m on board with her becoming a superhero. Lana, like most of the cast, spent a large portion of the Silver Age gaining temporary super powers, but unlike the rest of the cast, she doesn’t have a defined role elsewhere in the mythos, so there’s no shame in latching onto that. If I’m saying that Jimmy is a representative in the story of someone being inspired by Superman to help the world, Lana is that in the past tense. She’s been inspired and, through whichever contrived means, has also gained superhuman powers. Time to get to work.

In the hypothetical run I’m creating, in which the rest of the DC Universe doesn’t exist, we’re going to want other heroes around to help out during the big events. Lana can be that.

It’s worth noting that, in her recent book, she was in a romantic relationship with Steel. I don’t have enough interest in that relationship to care yet if it stays or it goes, but at the very least it would help keep Steel around.

Timebomb the Exploding Man

Timebomb is not on anyone’s list of top ten Superman villains. Nor on anyone’s top hundred, probably. Mostly, I don’t think anybody remembers this guy exists. His appearances between two comics in the 90s, both of which were about him being trounced and arrested, add up to about five pages. But there’s just enough there that I think he could be spun into something more.

Now, who is Timebomb? He’s a supervillain with very little known motivation. His powers are exactly those of Marvel’s villain Nitro. He can explode himself (or parts of his self) and then reform himself.

I’ve said it before, but I think we need to grow a rotating cast of minor villains who can be used to populate Metropolis’s criminal underworld. Timebomb is pretty perfect for that. He is exactly the type who can be seen in crowd scenes in prison or who can be hired by some mastermind criminal to serve as muscle.

But can such a nonentity as he be given a personality? I think so. Working with the theme of being a “time bomb” I’d make him a guy with anger problems. That’s a trait that could be used in a serious story, but can also be easily condensed for use in short comedic appearances. And the very typical villain desire to prove how tough he is suggests a guy who values violence as a masculine trait. There’s something to contrast against Superman himself.

If I continue my letter grading that I’ve done for previous villains, I think we need to bring Timebomb up to the C-list of Superman villains.

The Black Men of the Daily Planet

Last week I covered Ron Troupe, who has a bit of a reputation for being “the black guy” of the Daily Planet. And certainly if a named black man is going to show up in a scene at the Planet these days, it’s probably gonna be Ron. But he’s not the first nor the only. (This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, it’s just me rambling on a topic, same as always.)

The earliest attempt to add a black man to the cast of the Daily Planet that I know of happened in the 70s with a man named Dave Stevens. He had about a dozen appearances in those days, but was forgotten. I do actually think the character should return, but I’d write him as a politician, not a reporter, and that’s something I’ll write about some other day when I’m more willing to give away actual plot ideas that I have.

More significant than another reporter is the owner of the paper. There have been many depicted owners of the Daily Planet, most either actively criminal or complete nonentities. To me, Franklin Stern is the most interesting of them. Like Ron, Stern came to be in the 90s, when the books were consciously working on their diversity. He has had less longevity than Ron, but he was played by James Earl Jones on the Lois and Clark show and that counts for something.

In the comics, Perry and Franklin were long-time friends (though that isn’t true on the show from which I’ve taken the image) but they disagreed on a lot of things, including sometimes, how the Daily Planet should be run. As I’ve said, I want the journalism to be a focus of the Superman books, and I also think it is a cliche when the Planet is bought out by a villain (Luthor, usually) just for cheap drama. I want my drama more nuanced. Stern is a good man, but he can still disagree with the main cast and provide obstacles for them. Let’s use that.

The attempts to add a black woman to the Daily Planet cast have had less long-term success and are, I think, potentially more interesting. I intend to cover that more fully some day, when I’ve got more research done.