Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Apocryphal Superman: Humorist Mark Russell's look at a hero who's less super and more man

Superman is the first and most well-known superhero. Everyone knows all about him, how his parents sent him to earth in a rocket ship to escape the destruction of Krypton, and how he’s dedicated to fighting for truth, justice and the American way.

And how much Superman enjoys bowling. That his worst enemies include Lex Luthor, Dr. Simius, robot criminals, leopards and circuit judges. That his best friend is Aquaman, but that they’re currently not speaking to one another over a disagreement regarding democracy versus monarchy. And, of course, that Superman once turned a yellow Labrador retriever named Ketcham into Superdog using Kryptonian science, but he had to put him down when he proved to be a greater menace than the crimes they fought.

Sound about right? If not, you obviously haven’t read Mark Russell’s The Superman Stories, a self-published, 48-page prose parody about Superman. It’s a comedy, but an existential one—Russell purposely, even gleefully gets most of the details of Superman’s fictional life wrong, from the name of his best friend back in Smallville to Superman’s growing problems with loneliness, alienation and anger management.

It’s a comedy and a parody, but it’s also a story of existential panic and, by tale’s end, a story with an important lesson about human nature. And Kryptonian nature. And Kryptonian/canine hybrid nature.

Or, as Russell puts it, it’s a novella “kind of about Superman suffering from stressed cop syndrome.”

Russell calls Portland, Oregon home, and, when not working at his day job, is a cartoonist and humorist, who self-publishes The Penny Dreadful. His work has also appeared in McSweeney’s and Too Much Coffee Man Magazine, but in the wake of the release of the new Superman story that is Superman Returns, I wanted to know more about his super-work.

Can you tell me a little bit about the origin of The Superman Stories, and why you chose to explore Superman like this as opposed to some other superhero. Is this sort of look at Superman’s life inherently funnier than it would be if you were dealing with, say, Batman or Spider-Man?

Other superheroes may or may not be funnier source material, I don’t know. The reason why I’ve latched onto Superman is because he is so powerful and iconic.

I got the idea to actually to start writing The Superman Stories after watching an episode of the old George Reeves TV show. It was about these mobsters who got the bizarre idea to dress up like robots in order to rob banks.

I immediately thought, “Bad idea. If Superman thinks you’re a robot, he’s liable to tear your head off without realizing it’s just a costume.”

It occurred to me that while Superman has all these godlike physical powers, his power to make good decisions or understand what’s going on around him really isn’t any better than yours or mine. Which is a scary proposition, if you ask me. This disparity kind of lies at the heart of a lot of the problems Superman encounters in the book.

The note at the beginning refers to “the good-natured people at DC Comics.” Have you ever had any interaction with anyone at over the existence of The Superman Stories?

I have not. In fact, I put that bit of appeasement in there in hopes of avoiding such contact. Kind of like how someone who comes face to face with a man-eating kodiak might pet it nervously on the head and say, “Nice bear!”

Do you think the fact that these are prose stories in a little black and white ‘zine instead of comics-comics helps differentiate them from their Superman?

I think so. I’m approaching Superman as a literary character rather than as a comic book character. And legally speaking, I think my work constitutes parody and thus is protected free speech, but I’d hate to have that opinion tested in the expensive battlefield of jurisprudence. It’s never really been a big ambition of mine to become a First Amendment martyr.

What about fans of Superman’s? Have you had any negative reactions from that quarter?

I get a few people who are irritated by the liberties I’ve taken with the Superman canon. You know, someone who wants to argue about whether or not Superman keeps extra capes around the house, things like that. But most people seem to understand that mine is not a traditional depiction of Superman.

It occurred to me when reading that note that if Superman were a real person, one wouldn’t have to be so careful about potential legal repercussions—it seems much easier to parody real public figures than fake public figures, even though someone like Superman or Mickey Mouse are much more popular and well-recognized than someone like the president or the pope.

Well, for one thing, Superman is somebody’s intellectual property whereas somebody like, say, Abraham Lincoln is not. You can write a book accusing Lincoln of being a serial killer who made time machines out of the buttocks of his victims. Nobody’s going to sue you. But also in terms of the public’s imagination, I think it’s easier to make a sacred icon out of something that’s obviously fake.

Would you be able to pick Krishna out of a lineup if not for the fact that he’s blue? Christ spent most of his time talking, and said some wonderful things, but would anyone care if it weren’t for his magic tricks? The less real a figure seems, the easier it is to make an enduring icon out of them. And once such an icon has been established, you mess with it at your own peril. Write that book about Lincoln and write a similar one about Mickey Mouse and see which one gets you the most angry letters.

As you noted in your introduction, there are some pretty big differences between this Superman and traditional Superman lore, like there not being any Clark Kent, for example. Were these differences all more or less conscious ones on your part, or did some just stem from ignorance of the minutiae of Superman history?

I did embarrassingly little research. I worked largely from my memories of Superfriends cartoons, old comic books and the black and white TV show. Most of the differences between the Superman of my book and traditional Superman lore result from the fact that I’d simply forgotten so much. And this was partly intentional. I didn’t want to do much research because I wanted to avoid being too tied down by the holy scripture, if you know what I mean.

One difference which was entirely intentional was the lack of a Clark Kent alter ego, which never made much sense to me. Britney Spears could put on a beekeepers’ outfit and she’d still get mobbed by fans the second she stepped out the door. The notion that a world famous and damn near omnipotent guy like Superman could put on a pair of glasses and a bad gray suit and simply melt into the crowd just struck me as ridiculous.

I’m currently at work on a sequel and there’s a part about how Superman once tried to forge a separate identity in the form of Clark Kent, but it was a miserable failure. Kind of like when Garth Brooks tried to perform under the name Chris Gaines. Nobody bought it.

It seems these differences only add to the humor of things too—like, it’s just inherently funnier to hear a couple having a discussion about their relationship, and Lois referring to her partner as “Superman” instead of “Clark.”

Yeah, that too. There’s also a brief moment in the sequel where his parents tell him that calling him Superman makes them feel weird.

I was struck by how deep things get in The Superman Stories, like Superman’s lecture from a circuit judge about the nature of evil and the bits with God and Heaven and Hell near the end. When you began the project, did you see it as something that would occasionally get existential, or did it start out as a sort of a gag thing and veered that way on its own?

As a boy, I grew up on Superman comics and the Bible. It was easy to get them mixed up. Just as God always seemed like a superhero to me, Superman has always had these deep theological and moral implications.

Does being all-powerful make you worthy of veneration, even if you do some crummy things? If you have absolute power, is it better to use that power to make things right, or to refrain for fear of becoming a tyrant? I’m not sure that I have a snappy answer, but those are the kind of questions I wrestle with when I think about Superman, God, politics or the law.

You wrote in your introduction that as a kid being punished at recess, you’d wish Superman was there to secure justice for you. Having thought about what Superman would really be like if he were real, do you now find yourself glad there is no Superman? Would we be better off with or without Superman, do you think?

I think we’re probably better off without Superman. He’s certainly better off without us. As much as he might like us at the moment, eventually he would get sick and tired of human beings. I feel that way sometimes and I am one.

Superman would go through periods of depression, despair and cynicism, as we all do. And during those times we’d just have to hold our breath and hope he didn’t do anything rash.

Of course, if I found out that there was a comet hurtling towards Earth from which only Superman could save us I might very well change that answer.

You mentioned that you’re working on a sequel? Can you tell me anything about that?

Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane undergoes some changes. Lex Luthor starts working out in order to compensate for his lack of hair. The supernatural storyline continues. God, who sees Superman sort of as the popular, good-looking, varsity-quarterback son he never had, asks Superman to take Jesus under his wing in hopes that Superman’s manliness and derring-do will rub off on him a little.

To get a copy of The Superman Stories, you can send $4 to Mark Russell at 3148 SE Salmon Ste #C, Portland, OR, 97214, or click to

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