Thursday, May 26, 2016

It Stands For Hope

I have never been quiet about being a huge comic book and science fiction/fantasy fan, and I don’t expect I ever will be. One of the reasons I have always been so dismissive of the elitist elements within our own community - and we do, unfortunately, have them - is because those same kinds of elitists have spent most of my life telling me that the literature I love doesn’t count as literature because it doesn’t meet some kind of arbitrary standards. It seems to me that, if you can introduce an idea into the public conscious by means of entertainment and have that idea still be shaping public perception generations later, That must be meeting some pretty worthwhile standards. If it doesn’t meet “the right standards,” I’m not entirely certain why anyone would care about those “right standards” in the first place.

The entire point of an idea is to spread. I can shout “Eureka!” In my bathtub all day long, but if my idea isn’t going anywhere, if it isn’t changing anything, it isn’t actually doing anything. Granted, there are times when an idea that changes the thinker alone is more than enough but, unless you are writing a diary, that’s not generally the purpose with anything remotely classified as literature. The written word revolutionized the world because of its ability to spread ideas. By that understanding, any idea that continues to propagate through its written medium across multiple generations must be doing something right.

Take one of the largest and most enduring ideas in comics: Superman. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and first published in 1938, Superman is arguably the single most recognized comic book character anywhere in the world. Many people who have never read a single comic or watched a single show will see that S and know right away what it stands for. Even better - to my way of thinking, at least - is that so many of those people will know what it has evolved into standing for. Of course, if you know your comic book history, you know that it was originally an S, just as it appears to be. There was no big thought put into alien alphabets or anything of that sort at the time. The character’s name was Superman, so his creators put an S for Superman on his chest. It was really that simple. Over time, though, the stories and ideas grew more complex, and later readers and creators both wanted something more than the simple and obvious. The shape of the S and its surrounding shield was stylized and given a specific appearance, and that appearance was declared to be an alien character, which happened to resemble an S in the Latin alphabet but was actually the Kryptonian character for the word “El,” Superman’s family name. Then even that was taken a step further. Just as the family names of most people you know have a meaning behind them, it was decided that there was a meaning behind El as well, and that meaning would be inseparably associated with the character of Superman, himself. “On my world, it means ‘hope’.”

While it is a relatively recent enhancement that his symbol means hope, I don’t think there is anything new about the idea that Superman, himself, stands for hope. I believe that has been a central element of the character since the very beginning. This is a man who, in modern interpretations, is among the most powerful heroes - or just beings, whether hero or not - on the planet, a man who could easily take matters into his own hands and compel actions to his liking in so many ways, but is far more known as an inspiration. He leads by example, and by example shows people that they can be great.

I think Grant Morrison distilled the essence of the character perfectly in a small speech given in the miniseries All-Star Superman (with Frank Quitely), and lifted almost verbatim for the movie Man of Steel:

“You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations.
They will race, and stumble, and fall and crawl....and curse....and finally....
They will join you in the sun, Kal-El.
They will stumble, they will fall.
But in time, they will join you in the sun.
In time you will help them accomplish wonders.”

In the hands of a lazy writer, Superman could do it all, but no one would read his stories because they would be boring. No conflict and no drama. In the hands of a skilled writer, though, Superman is Superman, whether he has his powers or not, whether he uses his powers or not. He is not Superman because of what he can do, but rather because of what he shows us that we can do.

Superman is about hope, and, if you ask me, there couldn’t be a better idea to spread. Maybe that doesn’t reach the status of literature, but it works for me. I’m for almost anything that helps to spread hope, and if I can have fun with it, even better. How’s that for an idea worth spreading? Having fun with hope! Imagine the possibilities. I think I’ll go read a comic book now and enjoy some good literature, and I hope you have enjoyed this little diversion.

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