When Words Collide

Thu, September 4th, 2008 at 2:11pm PDT | Updated: September 9th, 2008 at 6:05pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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ELLIOT S! MAGGIN'S NOBLE HUMANITY

Superman has been rife with different interpretations over the years--from the bullying but good-hearted strongman of the Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster days to the zany science-fiction god of the Mort Weisinger era to the lost son searching for belonging in the current Geoff Johns incarnation -- but perhaps none has been as overtly political, or inspirational, as the Superman of Elliot S! Maggin, the man who wrote Superman with such enthusiasm he ended up with an exclamation point in his middle name.

Elliot S! Maggin

Actually, the exclamation point thing was a typographical error that stuck, but before we jump into Maggin's Superman stories, it's worth considering why the error occurred and why the exclamation point lingered throughout his career. As Maggin himself reports, the reproduction back in the early 1970s was so bad that periods would often fail to show up on a comic book page, so writers constantly ended sentences with exclamation points. If you ever wondered why characters in the Silver Age and early Bronze Age shouted their dialogue, it's not because they were incredibly excited about their superhero exploits -- although surely they were -- but, rather, the cheap printing on the page favored bigger punctuation marks. They were shouting so they could be heard over the static of the pulpy newsprint, and because Maggin was so accustomed to typing exclamation points instead of periods, he accidentally put an exclamation point after his middle initial on a script submitted to editor Julie Schwartz. Schwartz, amused by the typo, declared that Maggin would be credited as "Elliot S! Maggin" from then on, and the exclamation point has remained ever since.

It's tempting to say something like, "If anyone deserved an exclamation point in his name, it's Maggin!" But that's not entirely true. Sure, he filled his Superman stories with important social commentary, and he would weave his political beliefs into his stories, but he was not a bombastic writer of propaganda. Nor was he particularly interested in exhilarating plot twists or moments of shocking spectacle. He was more interested in exploring what it means to be a hero in a world filled with social injustice. He was more interested in describing the way Superman fit into society. He was more interested in ideas and characters. Maggin deserved his exclamation point, but it may be the quietest and most profound exclamation point you've ever seen.

Elliot S! Maggin's disappointing grade on a class assignment became a classic comic book

Like many of his era, Maggin was a comic book fan before he became a comic book writer. And, like his peers of that late Silver Age/early Bronze Age period, he felt the need to tell more relevant stories -- stories that dealt with social injustice and political issues of the day. Unlike the pioneering work of Denny O'Neil, Maggin's stories didn't drag his characters down to Earth to explore these concerns. He didn't all of a sudden change established characterization to fit his thematic agenda. Instead, he found ways to explore socially relevant issues through the characters as they were. And instead of lamenting the problems in the world, he optimistically demonstrated solutions. Real solutions, not large-scale political changes, but ways each individual could do their part for the betterment of civilization. And no dramatic foil was more effective at inspiring readers about the potential of humanity than that extraordinary visitor from another planet, Superman.

Maggin didn't launch his career with Superman, though. His career began with a college assignment. The writer wanted to show the power of the comic book medium as a political tool, and he submitted a script -- an original Green Arrow script entitled "What Can One Man Do?" -- to his professor. Even before his career started, Maggin was fascinated by the intersection between politics and superheroes, and when this college assignment only received a B+, Maggin submitted the script to DC Comics in an attempt to prove to the professor that it was a professional piece of work. How even publication by DC would somehow render the professor's grade inaccurate, I'm not entirely sure, but Maggin sent it to the company anyway, and it ended up getting passed along to Neal Adams, who not only recommended that DC publish the story, but agreed to draw it himself.

"What Can One Man Do?" appeared as a backup story, smack in the middle of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams legendary run on "Green Lantern/Green Arrow." In the story, published in "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" #87 in late 1971, Oliver Queen realizes that there are too many problems in the world for him to handle. He can't possibly donate to every worthy cause, he can't possibly stop every injustice, and when the story climaxes with an angry mob, he doesn't even know who he's supposed to be stopping. The story ends with Queen deciding to run for mayor, realizing that political leadership is far more effective than shooting guys with trick arrows if you're looking to bring about social improvement. The Oliver Queen-as-mayor plotline wasn't picked up for decades, but Green Arrow had decided to pursue an active political career all the way back in Maggin's first story.

Maggin credits Jeoh Loeb for suggesting an idea that became "Must There Be a Superman?"

But "What Can One Man Do?" wasn't just the launching pad for Maggin's prolific career in comics (by his count he's written over 500 stories), it was also the thematic template for the bulk of his work that followed. He didn't duplicate the plot -- none of his other characters quit costumed crimefighting to take political office -- but he did continually revisit the question about what a single person could do to affect change, and in the case of his first Superman story, what a single person might do that would unwittingly restrict positive change.

For "Superman" #247, released only one month after his first Green Arrow story, Maggin wrote "Must There Be a Superman?" The genesis of this story has become more famous in comic book circles than the content of the story itself. According to Jeph Loeb, the story concept was his idea, as a teenager, sitting at his parent's dinner table with Elliot Maggin. Maggin was a friend of the Loeb family, and young Jeph threw out the idea of a story involving the Guardians of the Galaxy and the role of Superman on Earth. Maggin admits that the story might have come from Loeb's suggestion, and willingly credits Loeb even if he doesn't remember exactly what was said at the dinner table that evening. But even if the spark for the story came from Loeb, it's a Maggin story through-and-through.

In "Must There Be a Superman," the Guardians implant a shred of doubt into Superman's psyche. Literally. They use their super-science to inject the notion that Superman might be hampering the growth of the human race. It's a plot contrivance that sets up the heart of the story, a tale in which Superman wonders whether or not he's doing more harm than good. As he says--or thinks--in his thought balloons in the issue: "For years I've been playing Big Brother to the human race! Have I been wrong? Are they depending on me too much... too often... ?" Superman even begins to realize that instead of being a superhero, he's been more of a super-fascist: "I decide what's right or wrong," he thinks, "and then enforce my decision... with brute strength!"

This type of self-assessment was rare for Superman at the time, and it's still rare. Without the Guardian's implanted suggestion, it probably never would have occurred, for Superman has been constantly portrayed as confident in his pursuit of goodness. In "Superman" #247, his doubt nearly overwhelms him, but with a purpose. Maggin makes Superman question what he does--and makes him consciously decide what needs to be done to achieve maximum goodness for humanity, not just for himself.

It's the same type of thinking we saw in the Green Arrow story, where the individual must set aside a personal code of right and wrong to consider the larger social forces at work. Superman's new goal, as outlined in "Must There Be a Superman?" is to inspire people of the world to take responsibility for themselves -- and he shifts from super-fascist to super-libertarian as he becomes embroiled in a struggle between migrant workers and an unjust work system. When the workers, living in poverty, as Superman for help, he replies, "What I'm going to do is -- NOTHING! NOTHING AT ALL! Whatever help you claim you need--must come from yourselves!"

Yet Maggin complicates Superman's new political stance even further, by immediately throwing an earthquake into the plot. When the workers' homes are destroyed, Superman realizes that he can't completely ignore their cries for help, but he wonders how he can teach them a lesson about self-sufficiency if he swoops down and rebuilds their homes. Superman helps them, but he also reminds them that they don't need to wait for him to come and rescue them from every conflict: "You don't need a Superman!" he says, "what you really need is a super-will to be guardians of your own destiny!"

Maggin's paradigm of social responsibility -- of the need for each individual to take action on his or her own behalf, and the behalf of the greater good -- is clearly outlined in the story. His Superman, conflicted by the seed of doubt, is not a super-savior, but rather a super-MAN. A single individual who can inspire and aid, but should not be relied upon. If civilization waits for help from above, it will stagnate. Change and growth can only come from within, according to Maggin.

Maggin channels Kurt Vonnegut

Elliot S! Maggin went on to write dozens of Superman stories, most of which downplayed the political subtext in favor of strange adventures and superhuman melodrama, but his Superman rarely resorted to fisticuffs. While other incarnations of Superman would punch their way to victory, Maggin's Superman would often act as a problem solver -- a sort of cosmic social worker, who would see the root of the conflict and act upon that, rather than on the opponent's face. In "Action Comics" #443, when faced by a seemingly unstoppable crew of villains -- Queen Bee, Brainiac, Gorilla Grodd, Sinestro -- and a captive Justice League, Superman outwits his opponents preemptively, using a "Kandorian brainwave machine" to make the citizens of Earth treat Clark Kent like Superman and Superman like Clark Kent. The reversal of the normal social roles baffles the villains, especially the computer-minded Brainiac, and allows Superman to free his teammates and save the Earth.

In "Superman" #274, Maggin gives us a DC version of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who, curious about how his newest novel should end, sets up Clark Kent in a scenario reminiscent of his novel to find out what happens to him. Ultimately, Superman saves the Earth through great effort and personal sacrifice, leading to a climactic scene where Superman walks by the story's villains, leaving them unscathed but humiliated in the face of his grand heroism. The caption boxes read, "As a hero among heroes trudges out, crushing the doomsday trigger almost as an afterthought... he leaves behind three awed humans who know not whether to kneel or simply cry in his presence... for this they know! They are in the presence of greatness!" Superman's willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, his unabashed selflessness, has reduced the villains to emotional jellyfish. And he never even had to throw a punch.

Maggin's Superman comics were always limited by the format, though. He couldn't delve too deeply into the psyches of his characters, into their worldviews, in single-issue stories. It was still and era when comics were targeted at kids (making the moralizing all the more influential), and he had to include some action scenes in every issue -- along with a beginning, middle, and end. So, as fascinating as his version of Superman was, it was bound by the conventions of the medium at that time. Therefore, if you're looking for Maggin's ultimate word on Superman's morality and the forces of social change, the best place to look -- the most elaborate examination of the Maggin approach to superheroics and society -- are his two Superman novels: "The Last Son of Krypton" and "Miracle Monday."

The long out-of-print "Superman: Last Son of Krypton" novel

"The Last Son of Krypton," originally devised as a treatment for a Superman movie -- the one later written by Mario Puzo (with more than a little behind-the-scenes help from Maggin) -- presents the most fully formed portrait of Superman's world that has ever been committed to prose. Originally published in 1978, the novel features a convoluted plot which brought back an obscure Space Minstrel from an early Maggin "Action Comics" issue, dealt with the relationship between Luthor and Superman, and showed that Jor-El's original plan called for Albert Einstein to raise the boy he sent to Earth. The plot's not the main draw of the novel, though, and though it builds to a thrilling climax and Superman, as customary in Maggin-penned stories, solves the problem with his ingenuity rather than his fists. The main draw of the novel is the portrayal of the duality between Superman and Luthor.

In Maggin's novel, Superman is explicitly described as an inspiration to the planet. Just as we have seen in Maggin's comic book stories, Superman makes the world a better place through his example, first and foremost, and his method of inspiring others to achieve better. The word count of the novel gave Maggin more room to directly state these kinds of observations about Superman: "His crusade against crime, his awesome feats to minimize natural and man-made disasters, inspired millions of people to enter crime prevention, conservation, medical research, and similar fields... Every other human aspired to be him. He brought with him the birth of an age of humanitarianism on Earth; he reawakened the hope for peace."

Luthor, on the other hand, is portrayed as the ultimate egotist -- a man who creates his identity in relation to what he perceives as a potential imbalance: "For every social force, Luthor thought, there is an equal and opposite social force to balance it... Therefore, Luthor had to do all he could to make life difficult for Superman. Not to do so was equivalent to trying to repeal Ohm's Law or Pauli's Exclusion Principle. It was Luthor's duty to the Balance of Nature." Luthor is the anti-Superman because that's what the world needs. It's not about good and evil, he convinces himself, it's about balance. Yet he's wrong, according to Maggin's stories. It's not about balance. It's about progressing forward--shifting toward a better world. Luthor, with all of his technical innovation and genius-level intellect, does nothing to improve the life of his fellow mortals, and by opposing Superman, by standing in his way, he keeps society stagnant.

The long out-of-print "Superman: Miracle Monday" novel

Earth is saved from corruption by the end of "Last Son of Krypton," and when Maggin returned with another Superman novel three years later, he raised the threat level significantly. In "Miracle Monday," Superman must defeat Satan.

The antagonist in Maggin's second Superman novel isn't called "Satan" in the text -- at least not often -- but the same demonic figure that we call "The Devil" is named C. W. Saturn in "Miracle Monday." There are other plot trajectories in the novel, featuring Luthor, again, and a time-traveling historian from the future (Kristin Wells, who would later, in comic book continuity, become the Superwoman of the future--in stories written by Maggin himself), but the main through-line of the novel is the test of Superman's morality at the hands of Satan.

One could argue that Maggin had been building to the inevitable conflict between Superman and Satan for years. If Maggin's Superman was the man of perfect virtue -- an inspiration to all humanity -- a mythic force of goodness in the world -- who else would be able to oppose him with equal and opposite force? Not Luthor, who dreamed of being the anti-Superman but was more of a roadblock than a reverse counterpart. No, it had to be Satan, and like all of the other Maggin-written Superman stories, this one would have to end without a fight scene.

The climax is thus: Satan, or C. W. Saturn, has set up a situation where Superman must kill Kristin Wells, an innocent, in order to save the rest of humanity. "What Saturn was interested in doing," says the narrator, "was not destroying life and liberty, but destroying innocence... And if Superman killed Kristen Wells in order to stop her reign of terror, then it was Superman, along with all he stood for, that was destroyed." Satan wants the ultimate prize: the soul of Superman.

Instead of fighting, Superman does nothing. By not killing Kristen Wells, by not compromising his values, Superman gains control over the Devil. Satan only wins if you let him into your heart, the story implies. If you resist the temptation to evil, you cannot be controlled by it.

Maggin, in his final major Superman story -- there were plenty of others written, but "Miracle Monday" was the thematic climax of everything he'd done since "Must There Be a Superman?" -- confirms the morality of his Kryptonian protagonist, and the morality of humanity as well. Without blasting away with heat vision, or throwing a punch, his Superman has prevailed against the ultimate evil. His status as super-savior is confirmed.

Ultimately Maggin's exploration of morality and goodness -- and his constant question: What would Superman do? -- influenced a generation of Superman readers, not least of whom was Mark Waid, whose work on "Birthright" shows a heavy Maggin influence. And Maggin himself, while still maintaining a part-time career as a freelance writer, would later go on to become an educator and a prospective politician, running for Congress in New Hampshire.

I'll let Maggin have the last word here, in an excerpt from his 2008 political "manifesto" in which he connects the dots between his work on Superman, his work in the political arena, and his fellow Americans: "It makes me very sad to see a generation of Americans coming of age, many of whom are never exposed in the public forum to traditional American values: doing right for its own sake, being responsible to a common spiritual authority, striving to create a world where opportunity truly is equal for all and where all of us -- even the jaded -- consider integrity a virtue."

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the writer of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the recently-released "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes." More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  elliot s maggin, superman, green arrow

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