The tears of Doctor Doom Superheroes battling the mainstream

Dylan was really horrified to learn that he’d let so much time slip past, so much essential cultural history. Forget what you thought you knew. The Silver Surfer, for example, was a situation you couldn’t really understand if you came in too late.

— Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude.

Superhero stories don’t just draw on their own conventions in search of novelty, they also absorb those of other popular genres. Horror, crime, mystery, science fiction and teen drama are all mined for variation and novelty (14). TV series Smallville (2001–) finds new ground in showcasing Clark Kent’s teenage years, long before he donned his cape and moved to Metropolis. Clark struggles with his unstable, kryptonite-affected powers as often as he does with the inevitable fallout of teenage romance.

Reshaping the Superman mythology into teen drama is fitting, since adolescence is inextricably linked to the superhero. Scott Bukatman characterises the superhero body as obviously adolescent: fluid, transforming, rupturing (15). Teen heroes like Clark offer a different resonance to the adult audience, as “who among us has not been tempted by the desire to stay adolescent, to keep the journey incomplete?” (16).

As Ian Gordon explains, nostalgia looms large in superhero stories – especially for characters existing for the entire lifespan of many of their fans (17). This means that a show such as Smallville plays with the “nostalgic desire” of older fans who are drawing on potentially decades of experience with the Superman mythology, spanning all kinds of media (18).

The seemingly simpler retellings of these characters found in television and film boil down plotlines and casts to manageable levels, allowing easy access for the casual viewer. They also tend to ignore the deconstructive tendencies that now filter through their comic counterparts (19). Yet the pleasures of a text like Smallville – beyond the wide-eyed teen drama and occasional special effects sequence – also result in its adoption of aspects of the self-referential storytelling mode of its comic book inspiration (20). Previous experience with the Superman mythology allows the viewer to skilfully negotiate different texts and references. Comic fans will recognise playful shifts in ongoing continuity or new versions of old characters, while mainstream audiences will recognise actors from their previous Superman-related roles when, for instance, Christopher Reeve appears as a wheelchair-bound scientist.

Ndalianis’ analysis of Smallville concludes that authenticity is no longer a valid issue: “Once entering the Superman array you have no lesser or greater claim to authenticity, as each new form simply creates its own variation out of previous signs in the Superman universe” (21). While comic books are the source material for these new adaptations in new media, it’s the comics that often adjust their own continuity to better fit around introduced variations. Spider-Man shoots webs directly from his wrists in Raimi’s Spider-Man: Spidey was adjusted accordingly in Spectacular Spider-Man #20 (2004). Smallville shows Clark and Lex as childhood friends before becoming sworn enemies in Metropolis, and current comic continuity reshapes history to allow that to have ‘always’ been true in the retold origin series Birthright (2003). Wonder Woman #4 (2007) even reinstated the twirling-into-costume transformation made famous by Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV series. The weight of mainstream memory can overwhelm the claim of comics to textual primacy.

There are other important shifts when a hero moves from the safety of sequential art to the big screen. In the Spider-Man films, alter ego Peter Parker is suddenly more human than ever before, collapsed into the physical flesh of star Tobey Maguire. Having a real-world celebrity under the mask inverts one of the fundamental rules of the superhero universe: it renders the supposedly secret identity more famous than the costumed alter ego. Filmic superheroes are thus constantly tempted to tear off their masks to reveal their illustrious faces, and the previous pencil-and-ink depictions can’t compete with human flesh. Celebrity alter egos arrive publicly marked, whereas the comic book Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker are secretly marked and known only to the reader (22).

Real actors, animating these characters, also require real costumes. The difficulty is that superhero outfits tend to look ridiculous when exposed to actual physics, fabrics and daylight. Mainstream audiences seem less willing to accept some of the everyday impossibilities of comic books. The tagline of Superman: The Movie assured us that, yes, “you’ll believe a man can fly” – but will we also believe a man would wear his underwear on the outside?

Hey, maybe even the geniuses at Marvel Comics knew you were in hell. Didn’t matter, didn’t help, because you weren’t allowed to know it yourself, not really. There wasn’t any connection between you and the poor, helpless kid in Omega the Unknown, not that you could permit yourself to see.

— Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude.

When realism begins to pick at the ludicrous seams of the superhero’s world, it opens a fissure between the ordinary and the spectacular. Many contemporary superhero texts use this to slam home the impossibility of the latter. The recent, moving campaign for the Australian Childhood Foundation shows a young boy preventing his would-be abuser from entering his bedroom by gently resting one super-strong finger against the door. Text appears: “Unfortunately, abused children don’t have superpowers.” (Cue Smallville’s theme song: ‘Save Me’.)

Joseph Torchia’s 1979 novel, The Kryptonite Kid, is entirely formed of a child’s letters to Superman. The tragedy is there from the very first page:

Dear Superman. It’s me again. Remember I wrote you a letter a long time ago and you never wrote back? … We never miss your television program on TV and that’s why we think you should write us a letter this time (23).

More recently, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (2003) tells the story of Dylan Ebdus, growing up in Brooklyn. It’s peppered with superhero vocabulary: crack cocaine is “ghetto kryptonite”, the forbidden shapes of a girl’s body are “the Negative Zone” (24). Here, though, the unexpected isn’t that superpowers are impossible; it is that they do exist but in this realistic setting. The young protagonist obtains a magic ring that lets him fly. He tries to become ‘Aeroman’ but is never quite spectacular enough to step into the heroic identity. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne’s calculated ordinariness lets them disappear into a crowd when not in costume (25) but Dylan is marked by ordinariness alone, never successfully able to find the freedom to fly in Brooklyn. The novel becomes – as the blurb on the back cover attests – the story of “what would happen if two teenage boys obsessed with comic book heroes actually had superpowers: they would screw up their lives”.

It’s not just other media that inject realism into superhero stories. Realism has trickled into comic books, too. Superhero audiences are growing older, with disposable incomes to match, and modern comics now use what were once considered children’s characters to tell adult stories (26). Titles like Watchmen aren’t just more overtly self-reflexive, but also self-consciously ‘mature’, with stories that bring to the surface, for example, long-suspected links between superhero costumes and sexual fetishes. Classic superheroes have had to find new ways to justify long-standing conventions: it’s more and more difficult to believe that simple eyeglasses can fool all your loved ones into thinking you’re someone completely different (27).

As adult anxieties become more pronounced, and generic reality collides with everyday reality, the struggle for authenticity becomes more violent. In a now infamous black-covered Amazing Spider-Man #36 (2001), Spidey dealt with the very real aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. While the narration tries to explain why heroes can stop every tragedy in their fictional universe except this one, we see villainous Doctor Doom shed a tear. The narration continues: “Because even the worst of us, however scarred, are still human. Still feel. Still mourn the random death of innocents.” Yes – evil monarch, mad scientist and mass murderer Doom cries at these deaths. This makes no sense within the fictional framework of the Marvel Universe, but the writer, J. Michael Straczynski, says that “if you actually believe that attention should not be paid to a real-life disaster because it’s been done in the comics, then you do need to move out of your parents’ basement” (28). Unlike all of Doctor Doom’s other crimes – carefully catalogued in the memory of the stereotypical ‘basement-dwelling’ comics fan – this attack really happened. The distinction is clearly marked by the incongruous and impossible tears of Doctor Doom.