NPR's Glen Weldon On Superman, Gay Super-Heroes, and Muscle Queens In The Hall of Justice

A few years ago, I happened to stumble upon NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the PCHH crew not only covered the standard topics of television shows and movies, but also made time for books and more importantly, comic books. On top of this, the man responsible for this corner of the pop culture universe was Glen Weldon. After months of regular listening to Glen's sharp and at times sassy commentary, I was also happy to hear that Glen was playing for our team.

In addition to his regular articles for NPR's pop culture blog Monkey See, he's been an outspoken critic of Orson Scott Card. I encourage you to read his excellent response to the OSC/Superman kurfluffle here. Most recently, Glen's penned Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, a tome outlining the Man of Steel's cultural history, from the dawn of the Golden Age to his recent incarnation in The New 52 and this year's summer blockbuster. I had the privilege to chat with him and pick his brain about the book, gays in comics, and a few other current topics.


Patrick: What about Superman made you write Superman: The Unauthorized Biography?

Glen Weldon: When I was 9 years old, and icthyosaurs swam to dark and turbid seas, I came across a copy of THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES, edited by Jules Feiffer, in a bookstore. (This was the Dial Press paperback edition, printed in 1977; the original hardback came out in 1965 and I’m not that old, okay?)

It’s an oversize book of reprinted Golden Age comics, and it features Shuster’s Superman on the cover. I read and reread that book thousands of times, struck by how much more rough, dark and dangerous its heroes seemed than the milquetoasts on the stands in the 70s. (And, if we’re talking Golden Age Hawkman, how very much sexier.)

The Superman I met in that book (from Action #5, I believe) was a scrapper, an uncouth man of action, nothing like the genial “That’s right, Timmy!” beat cop Superman I knew from Super Friends. And reading Feiffer’s hilariously cantankerous essay opened my tiny young mind to the stories behind the stories, the meanings and metaphors that superheroes embody – stuff I’d never really thought about.

I’d always had a soft spot for the guy – the Superman s-shield was the first thing I learned to draw, and to this day I find myself absently scrawling it on foggy bathroom mirrors, in the sand at the seashore, or on notepads during particularly dull SEO meetings.

When an editor at Wiley who’d read the stuff I’d written about comics for NPR and other places reached out to me to ask if I’d write him a biography of Superman in time for his 75th anniversary, I was happy to do it. But I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just writing a great honkin’ Wikipedia entry.

That’s when I remembered those Golden Age stories, the raw feel of early Superman, and decided to use the book to document what’s changed about the character, and what those changes say about the culture around him. I also wanted to explore the essential aspects of him, the stuff that doesn’t change – and ask why it doesn’t.

PY: Superman: The Unauthorized Biography covers the Man of Steel's history from his inception in the late 1930s to right up before the release of this summer's film of the same name. Is there any point in Supes's history that you would have liked to explore more and if so, why?

GW: I do love those Golden Age adventures, before the godlike powers kick in. There’s just something pure and kind of hilarious about them, when he’s clearly just a dude in tights hopping around, racing trains and bending steel bars like it’s going out of style.

But for me, the Silver Age, particularly the explosion of ideas that consumed the first six years (1958-1964) of Mort Weisinger’s 12-year tenure as Superman editor, is some of my very favorite stuff.

Because it’s just...bananapants, is what. Unfettered imagination matched to the very primal emotions of young kids: *CHOKE!* *SOB!*

Unsophisticated? Sure. But god is it fun. Aliens, time travel, red kryptonite, super-dogs, super-cats, super-horses, super-monkeys, super-babies, Bizarros, goofiness piled upon goofiness, because it could. Because kids ate it up. Because it was bold, colorful, glorious fun.

In the original draft of the book, I wrote about Krypto...rather a lot. I mean, he’s kind of the harbinger of the Silver Age, as far as Superman is concerned, but mostly he’s a dog in a cape. Which is, let’s note, empirically awesome.

There were plenty of times, writing the book, when my unabashed love for a thing (Lori Lemaris) fought a pitched battle with my authorial need to find a through line, to pick examples with meanings that resonated over time, or could be seen as indicative of a given era or trend in storytelling. So, all the stuff about Krypto’s membership in the Space Patrol Canine Agency (the SPCA! Come on!) had to go. Alas.

PY: Given that Superman has been evolving and adapting to American culture for 75 years with varying degrees of success, I think it's safe to assume that he'll be around for years and probably decades to come. Would you care to venture on what type of character he'll be in, say, 10 years from now?

GW: One of the themes of the book is the difference between the CHARACTER of Superman – the property owned by DC/Warners who’s been constantly iterated, retconned and rebooted for 75 years – and the IDEA of Superman, which saturates the cultural ether.

The IDEA of Superman – the Superman that exists in the head of my sweet, silver-haired Aunt Fay – has nothing to do with the comics, anymore. It’s shaped entirely by the movies and television shows. As a result, it’s bolder, simpler … cleaner, in a way, unfettered by years of backstory.

For example, the CHARACTER of Superman has killed before. I could cite comics chapter and verse on the instances where he’s taken a life – and how that decision gets dealt with (or, in the case of Golden Age, bruiser-in-tights Superman, doesn’t get dealt with at all).

But the IDEA of Superman is a guy who never kills. Until MAN OF STEEL. Now, to millions and millions of people around the globe, that’s going to be a part of his idealogical makeup.

Snyder and Goyer did it purposefully, in an attempt to darken the character so they can fit him into the shared universe of the Batman films.  And to make him more “relevant.” We’ll see if it takes. I suspect, given the movies’ powerful effect on Superman as a piece of the zeitgeist, that it will.

PY: As a gay man and comic book reader, what types of connections do you find between super-heroes and LGBT culture?

GW: I can’t speak for LGBT culture, but for me, superheroes: 

  1. Embody – very literally – principles of fairness and justice, and
  2. They do so with a distinctive, image-driven sense of style, and also
  3. They are crazy hot.

Now granted, said crazy hotness conforms to a very narrow physical ideal. One that’s impossible to live up to, and that stigmatizes difference. Sound like any culture you know?

Put it this way: I bet Flash and Green Lantern spend their downtime standing around the Hall of Justice having the same interminable muscle-queen conversations about reps and cardio and creatine powder that so many of us have gutted through.

But superheroes are in a very real way about the body. In a great 2008 New Yorker essay, Michael Chabon pointed out that the superhero costume, as we commonly know it from comic books, isn’t made of fabric. It’s an illusion, a colorist’s trick – skin colored bright blue or red or yellow – which is why seeing even an impeccably made superhero costume in real life can never quite capture the look.

It never occurred to young, tow-headed, cheek-of-tan me that comics were a way of checking out hot muscley dudes – that they were essentially chaste nudist mags with punching. But I recently went back and read some old Nightwing and Flamebird stories from the 70s Superman Family book, in which Van-Zee rocks a tank top, short-shorts and a headband like he’s just stepped off the set of the “Let’s Get Physical” video. And I remember being especially drawn to Kurt Schaffenberger’s Superman over that of other artists – because Schaffenberger drew him as matinee-idol handsome.

So, uh, yeah.

PY: Do you think there will ever be a "Gay Superman?" Meaning, do you think there will there come a time where an out gay superhero will attract the following and iconic status of Superman?

GW: Superman created the superhero archetype, so I’d be very surprised if any character – even wildly popular ones like Spider-Man and Batman – ever attracts his following and iconic status.

It’s great to see smart, progressive writers and artists in mainstream superhero comics (Young Avengers, Batgirl) dealing matter-of-factly with LGBT characters. But we’re still struggling with basic representation. And that’s a shame, because just getting ourselves represented in a given genre isn’t an end in itself – it’s the beginning of engagement. 

Indie books, art comics, “literary” comics and manga are light-years ahead on this, telling nuanced stories about three-dimensional LGBT characters – often in a less-than-flattering (read: realistic) light.  That’s the stuff I’m excited about.

Don’t get me wrong; I love superheroes, and I’m glad to see some LGBT characters in the mix. And you could argue that one superhero comic that gets LGBT themes in front of a historically homophobic fanboy community will have a bigger net impact on awareness and acceptance than 100 sensitive, exquisitely-wrought indie stories.

PY: As you point out, Lois Lane wasn't always a "strong female character." Until the late 1970s and 80s, she was frequently attempting to trap Superman in marriage, and this may be due to the way writers characterized women in general. More recently, DC Comics came under fire for their depiction of women during the initial phase of their 'New 52' relaunch. What's your take on female characters in comics, particularly those from the two main superhero publishers? Could DC and Marvel do a better job representing women?

GW: She started out pretty great – she was a gutsy, independent, tough-minded reporter for the first few years. But then she fell in love with Superman, and went from Rosalinde Russell to Doris Day. 

The rampant sexism of those Silver Age stories can be understood, but not forgiven, if you remember that those comics were written for very young boys who thought girls were yucky. Today, however, when they’re written for middle-aged dudes like me, there’s no excuse for the lingering cloud of reflexive misogyny that hangs over mainstream superhero comics.

Look: I understand the impulse to ogle an, um, hyperbolically-drawn comic book character. I mean, I read Hercules. But when male artists draw male characters, basic rules of anatomy get obeyed – rules those same artists willfully ignore when drawing women. That’s where the brokeback pose comes from – the industry’s willingness to accept something that’s clearly fucking psycho as sexy.    

As for how they’re written, well. I kind of love the Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman and Batgirl books, right now. Drops in the ocean, granted. And I miss books like Power Girl and Supergirl: Adventures in the 8th Grade – a great comic you could press into the hands of a young girl with confidence, like Molly Danger and Princeless – two wonderful series you should be reading right now.

But yeah, DC and Marvel. More women, on and off the page. Like, yesterday.

PY: Any comics that you're currently reading and would like to recommend?

GW: I’m not gonna say anything I, and people like me, haven’t been saying forever: Saga, Hawkeye, Daredevil, Batman, Manhattan Projects, Wonder Woman, Young Avengers, Fantastic Four, Prophet, Chew, The Sixth Gun, Morning Glories, Locke and Key, BPRD, the ones I mentioned above, and sixty or seventy that don’t occur to me at the moment.

PY: Any books or other projects on the horizon?

GW: Writing a book for Simon and Schuster about the rise of nerd culture, in which I argue that Batman was a catalyst for the “mainstreaming” of comics, superheroes, and nerd culture in general. It’s not a deep dive into the history of Batman, but it does ask questions about Batman’s appeal, and why it was books like Dark Knight Returns, Year One and Killing Joke that escaped the comics shops and found their way into the hands of non-nerds.

In the meantime, I’m using as a kind of visual companion to the Superman book, illustrating lots of examples of classic storylines that I either cut or only glancingly refer to in the book.

on June 28, 2013