When Words Collide

Wed, May 20th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: May 20th, 2009 at 4:16pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US

The First and the Best of Them All

Superman keeps popping up in my CBR writing, and I can't seem to keep him at bay. Last week I jumped into the pages of Absolute Superman: For Tomorrow (although, to be fair, I did end up talking about my on-again, off-again Jim Lee crush), and I spent many thousands of words explaining the timeline of Grant Morrison's Superman in a series of articles a few months back. And we can't forget my celebratory look at the "Final Crisis" finale and my huzzahs for "All-Star Superman." Plus all those reviews of the individual issues of "Superman" and "Action Comics" that are too numerous to mention.

Superman. Can't seem to shake him.

But how could I? And why would any of us want to? Superman is the foundation for superhero comics as we know them, and there's no escaping the character's influence on the genre that we all enjoy. Comics existed before Superman, sure, but as so many Superman stories have pointed out over the years, in a world without Superman, we would have been forced to create him (then again, those "Superman" comics tend to have a pro-Superman bias and may or may not be totally reliable).

But here's the thing about Superman: he keeps trying to fight us.

You probably have no idea what I mean by that, so let me back up a bit and explain my Grand Nemesis Theory.

The Grand Nemesis Theory states "a greatest challenge for a hero is his thematic opposite." It's not a particularly original theory, and you can read your Jung and your Campbell and see the battle with the "Shadow" (the psychological construct, not the guy played by Alec Baldwin that one time) and you can pretty much refer to any children's adventure book and/or fantasy story to see the theory in action. But that doesn't make it less true.

And an addendum to my Grand Nemesis Theory states "oh, yeah, and usually we get lots and lots of guys who are the thematic opposite just in case we are slow to pick up on the obvious."

Spidey vs Old Guys

Take, for example, Spider-Man. As originally presented, the socially-awkward teenage hero fought a series of arrogant old dudes. Doc Ock, the Green Goblin, Kraven, Sandman. Vulture. These guys were everything Peter Parker was not. They were age and self-importance while he was youth and self-consciousness. And they were his greatest enemies. Now, Spider-Man is older, magically-divorced, and more confident, so his opposite would be someone young, magically-married, and hesitant. It doesn't make sense for a hero to pound on someone like that, so we get a bunch of retreads of the old classics with a twist: not Green Goblin, but Menace, who's a girl! And Kraven, who's also a girl! Girls are opposite, right?

Anyway, you can see how the Grand Nemesis Theory demonstrates why Spidey's villains don't work as well as they used to.

And if common wisdom is added to my Grand Nemesis Theory, and we consider that a hero is only as good as the villains he or she faces, that also goes a long way to explain why Wonder Woman has never been able to sustain a high-selling comic book series. What would Wonder Woman's opposite be? Is it Cheetah, because Wonder Woman is not dressed in a cat costume and she is? Or because Cheetah is sneaky and Wonder Woman is straightforward? Or maybe Dr. Psycho is Wonder Woman's perfect nemesis, because he's (a) a man, (b) short, (c) physically weak, and (d) ugly? When Dr. Psycho is the best shot you have at a perfect villain, you might want to stick to hanging out with I-Ching and practicing your go-go kung-fu dance moves. Because Dr. Psycho is no Darth Vader.

Batman's an interesting case study for my Grand Nemesis Theory. His villains are his opposites but they also represent bits of his fractured psyche. It's no surprise that Morrison set "Arkham Asylum" inside Batman's head when you have a rogue's gallery who seem to spew from the darkest depths of Batman's subconscious. Batman is mentally unstable but driven to maintain order, so his greatest nemesis is a man who is mentally unstable but driven to inflict chaos. The Riddler is Batman's puzzle-solving side, reflected in a funhouse mirror. Catwoman reflects his repressed sexuality. Etc, etc, etc. They can be what Batman is not, because he will not allow himself to unleash those aspects of himself. It would signify a loss of control.

With such clear opposites bound up in such psychological melodrama, Batman's lengthy popularity is no surprise. He has such great nemeses.

The Mindscape of Bruce Wayne

But as I said at the beginning, this is about Superman. And Superman has a very different set of nemeses. Unlike Batman, he doesn't battle physical embodiments of his inner demons. No. Superman, the first great costumed hero, fights a never-ending battle against a series of foes far more unusual.

Because the villains that Superman fights represent that most irrepressible bunch known as comic book readers.

Now before you get all offended, keep in mind that I read at least as many comics on a weekly basis as anyone in their right mind ever should. And just because Superman battles these foes who represent the facets of comic book fandom doesn't mean that Superman hates us. Not at all. Superman loves everyone, and he just wants us to become better people -- to overcome our clichéd behavior and make the world a better place.

But it's an inescapable truth that the classic villains of the "Superman" comics reflect the comic book readers themselves, or I should say: ourselves. And each villain represents a different segment of the fanbase.

Mr. Mxyzptlk, for example, is the bratty, annoying fan. The message board "troll" or the comic shop yuckster who taunts out of a sense of cruel fun. Inevitable banished to his own dimension (or banned from the website or kicked out of the shop), this type of character returns to his sad home life and spends his free time plotting how best to annoy once he's given another chance.

Bloodsport, a lesser Superman villain, and one of the more contemporary ones, represents a relatively recent trend in comic book fandom: the gore hound. This type of fan thrills when Superboy Prime tears limb from limb and eagerly anticipates the day when every mainstream comic book reaches the aesthetic heights of Tim Vigil's "Faust." This fan loves comics now more than ever, though he can't understand why anyone would want to buy something like "DC: New Frontier" with its "cartoony" art.

Byrne on Mxy

Bizarro is the contrarian, the fan who will disagree with whatever notion tends to prevail in the common wisdom of the day. "Supergirl, the Fortress of Solitude, and now Krypto?" laments the Bizarro fan. "Give me John Byrne's reboot any day!" This is, of course, the same fan who would have complained about Byrne's reboot when it originally appeared. "Lesser powers, Pa Kent alive, and round glasses?" the Bizarro fan would have said in 1986. "Give me my Weisinger Superman!"

Doomsday is the fan who needs a shower.

Brainiac is the fan with the encyclopedic knowledge of continuity. This fan enjoys comics as long as they compute with previous information, but anything that doesn't follow the logic of what has come before will raise his ire. The Brainiac fan is also an obsessive collector, keeping his "bottled cities" (i.e. bagged and boarded comics) for personal research purposes and/or tiny trophies of his obsession.

General Zod is the fan who plans elaborate strategies atop the Warhammer table and finds some time for reading comics on the side. Honestly, though, this fan spends more time in the back room (a.k.a. the "Phantom Zone") than he does reading superhero comics. Too many deployment schemes to plan. Too many troops to decorate.

Parasite is the fan who sucks the life out of the room. The depressive, mopey Eeyore-without-the-charm type who predicts doom and gloom on the entire comic book industry. "$3.99 per issue?" the Parasite fan says. "That's the end of the floppy as we know it. The comic book industry will implode within the year." This is the same fan who doesn't actually spend any money on comics, but downloads them illegally off the internet. He's a true leecher.

Toyman seems like an aspect of the Brainiac fan at first, with his obsessive tendency to hoard and collect, but the Toyman fan specializes in DC Direct figures, Heroclix, and statues sculpted by Randy Bowen. Often, the Toyman doesn't even know all that much about the comics stories, doesn't follow writers or artists, but just collects according to some arbitrary theme, like action figures based on Jack Kirby designs, or Heroclix figures from Gotham City. The Toyman fan fully expects to sell most of his collection on ebay someday.

Lex Luthor Shows No Mercy

And, finally, who can ignore Lex Luthor, Superman's greatest nemesis and the most dominant comic book fan archetype of all. This balding, selfish, know-it-all fan decries the Dan DiDio regime and demands Joe Quesada's termination. The Luthor fan knows what's wrong with the industry, what's wrong with the editorial coordination from the top down, and what's wrong with every panel of Mark Bagley's art on every page of "Trinity." The Luthor fan often reviews comics and writes weekly columns on the internet because only he can pass judgment on the quality of superhero comics in America today.

Superman can never completely defeat any of these archenemies because as long as he exists in comic book form, there will be these fans who read about his adventures. Their comic book counterparts may be imprisoned, exiled to the Fifth Dimension, or thrown into the sun, but the fans will survive to read again another day. But that's what makes Superman the greatest hero of them all: he keeps fighting the good fight, keeping the the superhero ideal alive, even in the face of impossible odds.

And this Bizarro-Brainiac-Luthor fan is reassured by that.

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

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, superman, spider-man, batman

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