Friday, November 24, 2006

In the comment section attached to 'Christmas Doesn't Come Early...' we were talking about fictional characters, and whether any one in comic books has changed as much as Doctor Who.
Andrew Stevens asked
Producers have fiddled around with the edges of the character (and this has been done to the Doctor, I believe, more than literally any other character in the history of fiction), but the Doctor has always stood for justice.
Although I agree with his point, I am slightly tempted to reply: 'Er...Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, Alfred Lord Tennyson, T.H White, Marion Bradley.'
Phil Masters wrote.
But what perhaps makes (Batman) such a strong, almost archetypical figure is that the core myth has never changed much. The same goes for Superman, but not so much for other (less durable) DC superheroes. 'Saw his parents killed in front of him as a child; swore revenge on all criminals; perfected himself to achieve this'. 'Last son of a doomed, super-advanced planet; sent to Earth by his parents; raised by good, rural folks, then travelled to the big city'. If either character ever lost those cores, they'd be doomed.
Well...
'Last son of a doomed, super-advanced planet.'
Unless you count Kara, Mon-El, Zod, Jax Ur, the Super-Menace, several thousand inhabitants of the bottled city of Kandar and various animals.
'Sent to Earth by his parents; raised by good, rural folks'

Unless you go by the radio version in which he arrived on Earth as a full grown man and immediately got a job with Perry White. (Hence 'Strange visitor from another planet' rather than 'Rocketed to earth as a baby'.) Was Smallville mentioned in the George Reeve version?
I'm not being a fan pedant. Well, obviously I am being a fan pedant, but the fact remains that what we see as the 'irreducible core' of these characters came about by a process of evolution. It changes. People who like folk songs say that each singer changes the song a little before he passes it on, so an authentic folk song is the work of many hundreds of musicians: no single composer can reproduce that style. I think that this is also true of characters like 'Superman' and 'Doctor Who'. Good as the early episodes were, you can't say that 'Doctor Who' was created by Sydney Newman: he's the product of every writer who has ever worked on the series. This is also true of Superman and Batman. Less so of Spider-Man and Mr. Fantastic: Marvel comics is more inclined to treat old issues as Holy Writ: new writers do not so much contribute to the evolution of The Fantastic Four as provide a midrash on the work of Rabbi Jack.
A lot of fans said that John Byrne had radically changed the irreducible core of Superman when he decided that Ma and Pa Kent were still alive. (In a sense, they are right: it was a powerful part of the original myth that both Jor-El and Jonathan Kent existed only in Superman's memory – where they acted as, for want of a better word, a super-ego.) Yet everyone now accepts that Superman has a wise old earth mother to bake him apple pie and give him advice when he's in trouble. It was taken for granted in Superman Returns: but for 40 years of continuity, it wasn't true.
It was also said that when Byrne made the antepenultimate son of Krypton kill the three Phantom Zone criminals he violated the irreducible core of the character -- that Superman had a Code Against Killing. I've just been reading the reprints of the Silver Age Superman, and I have to admit that they are terrific fun. If I had grown up with them I might very well have thought that John Byrne's super-yuppie was simply not Superman. But now he is.
Superman's costume and insignia remains fairly constant, and so, on the whole, do his powers. (He can fly, he's strong, he can see through walls.) But the personality of the guy in the costume changes beyond recognition. I just listened to one of the old radio stories in which some small time gangsters are extorting protection money from Jimmy Olsen's mother. One episode begins: 'Having given the hoodlum a thrashing, Superman...'. You couldn't imagine the nice-as-pie Silver Age character doing that. Neither is he the 'Stranger in A Strange Land' that Kirby tried to make him, or the demi-god who Alan Moore put in Swamp Thing. ('I mean, how many atoms are there in the atmosphere?' 'Would you like me to count them for you?')
It would seem to me that the Irreducible Core of Superman is actually Clark Kent, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. (Jimmy started out on the radio: but he migrated to the comic pretty rapidly: I'm sure Nick will tell me the issue number.) Fortresses of Solitude may come and go; Smallville, Jor-El and Superdog may vary in importance, but every version of Superman has been built around those four characters. Their personalities are malleable -- Lois is no longer an uberbitch; movie-Clarke is a complete klutz where radio-Clark is super-competent But their relationship never changes: Jimmy admires Clark and Superman; Lois loves Superman but looks down on Clark; Clark loves Lois.
The question of whether you have one character called Superman or several different ones is rather interesting. It is perfectly true that the 1940s Superman, the one who fought gangsters and Nazis, is now said to be the Superman of Earth-2, while the one from the 60s, the one who used to be Superboy and had a dog called Krypto, was the Superman of Earth-1. But this was an after-the-fact explanation of the changes that had crept into the character: no-one woke up one morning and said 'Let's re-invent Superman from the ground up' – there was simply a process of gradual change.
In the 1960s, Jack Kirby (along with some dialogue writer whose name I forget) created The Fantastic Four. He included a character called The Human Torch. Now, there had certainly been a previous character called the Human Torch, a war-time android who could burst into flame. The new version was a 1950s teenager who could burst into flame. There was connection between the two characters apart from the name and the superpowers; and Marvel made no real attempt to present the old 1960s character as sharing a 'brand identity' with the 1940s one. This wasn't 'a new version of an old character', it was more 'Jack leafed through some old comics and spotted a venerable character which gave him the idea for a new one.'
A bit later, Jack (with the same assistant) introduced a character called 'Captain America' into the Avengers. This Captain America was said to have been a superhero in World War II, and to have been frozen in ice for the intervening 20 years. Now, there had indeed been a 1940s character called Captain America. He did indeed fight the Nazis, and his real name, like that of the 1960s version, was 'Steve Rogers'. Does this mean that the 1960s Cap is the same person as the 1940s Cap in the same way the the Sherlock Holmes of 'A Study in Scarlet' is the same person as the Sherlock Holmes of 'His Last Bow'. Or should we say 'Captain America was a new character. He had a back story which involved fighting Nazis in the World War II, just as Mr Fantastic has a back story which involved fighting with the French Resistance. But the new character is not the same character that appeared in those 20 year old long out of print comics. What would that even mean? The new character happened to share a few plot elements with the old one.' But there is no question that Kirby's assistant used the fact that Captain America was a 'revival' of a famous old character as a Unique Selling Point for the new comic.
Come to that, the Buscema-Lee version of 'The Silver Surfer' has no real connection with the superior Jack Kirby version: Lee took the look and feel of Kirby's design and created a new character around it. I certainly don't feel any obligation, when reading the Fantastic Four 48-50 to think 'The Surfer is lying, of course. He knows perfectly well what 'love' and 'eating are'. And he is only fooling about fancying Alicia. His True Love is waiting for him on his home planet, and he's only been travelling with Galactus for a few months.' (Yes, there are fanwank rationalisations of this, which usually involve Galactus taking Norrin Radd to Anchorhead and having his memory wiped. I don't believe them any more than you do.) But the Lee version is the famous one, the one everybody knows: the nonsense about Zenn-La is part of the irreducible core of the Silver Surfer whether I like it or not, and people on submarines sometimes have fist fights about it.
From '63 to cancellation, Doctor Who was a continuous 'tradition'. No-one ever said 'let's wipe the slate and start again'. Doctor Sly had virtually nothing in common with Dcctor Bill; 'Survival' 4 was not recognisably the same programme as 'Unearthly Child'. But the change had happened incrementally. The grumpy but lovable old man in the 'Gunfighters' is not the scary misanthrope of 'Tribe of Gum' (or whatever we have to call it now) but you would be hard pushed to say when he changed. 'Power of the Daleks' could have been a Hartnell story; 'Spearhead From Space' could have been a Troughton story; 'Robot' very nearly was a Pertwee story. Each producer passed the torch onto the next producer; each producer inherited scripts and script editors from the last one. RTD has been the first producer to have had to actually re-light the torch and try to get it moving again. He isn't inheriting an on-going series, but looking back on an old one. What he is doing is much more like creating a 'new' Captain America than adding one more issue to the infinitely long sequence of gradually evolving Superman stories. The fact that there was an 'old series' is very important to the new one; just as the fact that your Dad might have read a comic called 'Captain America' was an important part of the overall poetic effect of Avengers #4. Otherwise, why have Sarah Jane or K-9. Why have Daleks? Why mention Time-Lords? But the old series is something which we are looking back at and commenting on; not something which we are adding a new chapter to.
That said, I am unhappy with SK's claim that Doctor Who is a null concept, that anything with 'Doctor Who' on the label is part of Doctor Who, and that we can't really discuss Doctor Who any more than we can discuss the square route of Tuesday or the philosophical convictions of Tony Blair. When a new TV series labels itself with the title of an old one, then surely one of the things which it is doing is inviting comparisons, claiming to have picked up the torch or to be continuing the tradition. Supposing I say 'The new Jackanory completely misses the point of Jackanory,' (and I think it is the sort of thing that I am quite likely to say). I am not making a null-comment. I am saying 'I remember a TV programme called Jackanory in which well known actors spent fifteen minutes reading to children from a book. I think this was a very good format, because it encouraged children to read and because the human voice is an intrinsically powerful tool for story-telling. I don't think that the new programme, which appears to involve adapting books into cartoons is nearly such an interesting format. And I think that today's kids would still go for the old format, particularly if your started by reading from some modern popular kid's; books, possibly ones involving wizards and boarding schools.' The BBC is not doing anything morally wrong by applying the brand-name Jackanory to its new cartoon show: if they want to, they can create a post watershed adults only comedy show and call it Crackerjack. But I'm at liberty to point out that they are trying to imply that the new programme is something like the old one, whereas in fact, it isn't.
If you create a new version of Sherlock Holmes, then you are positively inviting readers to say 'This is very faithful to Conan Doyle's original text' or 'This is very interestingly different to Conan Doyle's original text' or 'This is a very funny hatchet job on Conan Doyle'. I agree that 'This book is written by someone who doesn't know Holmes; he seems only to have seen the Basil Rathbone movies; and he doesn't seem to know that there weren't any thatched cottages in Victorian London' doesn't exhaust the things that you could say about the hypothetical book. You might well say 'It's nothing to do with Holmes, but it's quite a clever whodunnit.' God knows, there are things to say about Jackson's Ring cycle apart from 'It isn't very faithful to Tolkien' (such as 'For God sake, you should have grown out of belch jokes when you were at primary school.) But comparing it with the book is one thing that a reasonable person might reasonably do to a film which says Lord of the Rings on the tin.
Neither Doctor Who nor Superman has an unchanging, irreducible core. But this is a long way from saying that there are no themes, styles and genre conventions which enable us to describe a particular cluster of narratives tropes as Doctor Who stories; and therefore to meaningfully discuss (and respectfully disagree) about which are 'good Doctor Who stories' and which are 'bad Doctor Who stories'.
It is true that in such a very long established tradition, you can find an exception to almost any statement. If I say 'The name of the character is The Doctor', you can say 'In Part 2 of War Machines' he was called 'Doctor Who', as he was in the the dutero-canonical Docotr Who In And Exciting Adventure With the Daleks; the apocrphyphal TV Comic and the downright heretical Doctor Who and the Daleks movie. ' But if I write a Doctor Who story and ignore the 'War Machines', I am not simply turning my back on evidence which doesn't support my cause: I'm following a whole string of predecessors in the Great Tradition. There is a narrative consensus to repress 'War Machines' from our textual consciouness. (Don't tell anyone, but this is how the faithful treat all other sacred texts as well.)
If I had been asked 'What is the unifying feature that makes Doctor Who Doctor Who' I probably wouldn't have said 'justice'. I would have been more likely to say 'Wherever he is, he's an outsider, an alien; he always brings a fresh, unexpected perspective to the world.'
Maybe 'strange visitor from another planet' would have done the trick. Here's to the next 43 years.
Torchwood sucks, incidentally.


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32 comments:

Abigail Nussbaum said...

When a new TV series labels itself with the title of an old one, then surely one of the things which it is doing is inviting comparisons, claiming to have picked up the torch or to be continuing the tradition

I'm not sure the producers of the new Battlestar Galactica would agree with you. A significant portion of their marketing effort, especially when the show was just starting out, seems to be given over to disassociating themselves from the original, 1978 series.

Torchwood sucks, incidentally.

Oh, God, does it ever.

Andrew Stevens said...

Okay, Mr. Rilstone, you've got me. The Arthurian characters have indeed been fiddled with more than the Doctor. I was trying to constrain myself to a constant format like Doctor Who (1963-1989) which is why I was willing to grant comics like Superman or Batman but not Arthurian legends or similar situations (e.g. Holmes stories written post-Conan Doyle). You've convinced me, however, that I'm probably making a not very meaningful distinction. So I retract my claim for the Doctor's uniqueness on that score. (I will still argue that he's the best and most unique character ever to appear on television, but since that's clearly just a mere opinion, nobody would bother to try to change my mind.)

By the by, I believe the change in the first Doctor can actually be spotted. The transition occurs during (the sadly lost) Marco Polo, though it had been gradually occurring in all three stories before then. At the beginning of Marco, we're still not sure we can trust him completely. By the end of Marco, the Doctor is still irascible, but a magician clearly on the side of good. (One could even argue that Hartnell's minute long giggling fit at the end of episode 1 of Marco was a sign of the Doctor's embracing the absurdity of the universe.) At the beginning of the next story, The Keys of Marinus, he expresses regret at not being able to help Arbitan (though Arbitan blackmails him into helping anyway). He'd have to wait until The Time Meddler at the end of Season 2 to become the undisputed hero of his own show, though.

As Ms. Nussbaum points out, Battlestar is a problem. I have often wondered why they didn't just create their own show around the same basic idea rather than rebooting it. The cynic in me wonders if it's because the creators knew the first show was stunningly bad and were inviting comparisons because they figured whatever they did would look good when compared to that garbage. (Battlestar's original concept was a good one, but they weren't actually allowed to use it.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Actually, I might have drawn the line one episode earlier: the big reconciliation scene between the Doctor and Barbara at the end of "Beyond the Destruction at the Edge of the Spaceship Inside Disaster". All the tension of the previous twelve episodes has come to a head, Barbara has turned on the Doctor and told him very clearly that he's an old git, and it has obviously cost him a great deal to admit (albeit indirectly) that he was in the wrong. This is, depending on how you look at it, a logical bit of character development moving the crew's relationship forward, or the moment when the series jumped the shark. The first of many.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, certainly. Edge of Destruction was written precisely to make that transition because the relationships established in the first thirteen episodes were clearly unsustainable long term. (You'd always be wondering when the Doctor was just going to abandon them somewhere.) The Doctor still strikes me as fairly misanthropic at the beginning of Marco Polo (particularly in his fit of pique near the end of episode 1), but this has more or less completely vanished by the end of the serial, particularly after finding something of a kindred spirit in the aged Kublai Khan. The misanthropy has become simple grumpiness in subsequent stories such as The Aztecs. But I certainly don't object to placing the transition in Edge of Destruction (or whatever we're supposed to call it) instead.

By the way, I never meant to imply that justice is the central facet of the Doctor's core character, just that it was an example of such a constant. Most of the time, the Doctor is a paragon of all four of the cardinal virtues and probably at least two of the theological virtues as well (not sure about faith; it depends on how it's defined). I didn't want to hinge my argument on prudence, temperance, or fortitude, though, because I knew I'd have early Colin Baker or early Hartnell thrown in my face. Plus I thought justice sounded better than "never cruel or cowardly." I certainly agree with your "outsider" idea; it even applies on those occasions when he has returned to his own planet. Of course, your formulation, while more correct for most of the media, can't survive the heretical Peter Cushing movies whereas I'll bet mine can survive every incarnation of the Doctor ever, unless you count the Valeyard. (Of course, now somebody's going to refute me with some fan-fiction in which the Doctor hunts down and kills all of his ex-companions one by one.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I have often wondered why they didn't just create their own show around the same basic idea rather than rebooting it. The cynic in me wonders if it's because the creators knew the first show was stunningly bad and were inviting comparisons because they figured whatever they did would look good when compared to that garbage.

Actually I suspect the reason is much more prosaic. Something about the original BSG concept struck Ron Moore as interesting and he wanted to put his own spin on the premise. To write his own show around the same idea would have been to invite accusations (justified ones, in my opinion) of plagiarism and copyright infringement. In order to tell his own version of the BSG story, he had to keep the BSG name.

ian said...

"If I had been asked 'What is the unifying feature that makes Doctor Who Doctor Who' I probably wouldn't have said 'justice'. I would have been more likely to say 'Wherever he is, he's an outsider, an alien; he always brings a fresh, unexpected perspective to the world.'"

Good point.
Must disagree on the "boy scout" aspect of Earth - 1 Superman being "typical" for him, however: "epic strangeness" would propably be closer, and, indeed, is something the concept is obviously suited to. The equation of physical with moral strength seems disturbingly WWII - period to me (one of Mr. Sims few sane observations).

culfy said...

Actually I suspect the reason is much more prosaic. Something about the original BSG concept struck Ron Moore as interesting and he wanted to put his own spin on the premise. .

Which, to be honest, is what Will Shakespeare use to do in the days before strictly enforceable copyright laws. (Hmm, that King Leir is a good idea, but doesn't go quite enough in its exploration of the nature of love and the narrow gap between man and animal). I can imagine early Elizathan Marketing of "Shakespeare's Bold New Imagining of Measure For Measure.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ms. Nussbaum, well, it's not possible to copyright plot ideas, just particular arrangements of words and names. Farscape was very close to a reboot of the Blake's 7 concept and I don't think I've ever heard anyone accuse them of plagiarism (and I'm not doing so now). Of course, the Terry Nation Estate probably did look into it. Personally, I suspect the property came first. I.e. whoever had the rights to BSG was looking around for someone to remake it and Moore thought it seemed like an interesting idea. He does claim to have been a fan of the old show and feels (correctly, in my view) that the makers of the original weren't allowed to make the show as dark as its concept promised. Of course, he did put his own Frankenstein spin on the show. (The Cylons were not created by man in the original, but by some long-dead race.)

But I was just being flip in my post. As my wife pointed out, making a remake provides a buzz that a new show can't easily generate on its own, thus boosting initial ratings. That's why Hollywood is so fond of remakes, even though they never do them particularly well.

Phil Masters said...

Unless you go by the radio version in which he arrived on Earth as a full grown man and immediately got a job with Perry White.

Blimey, is that right? I'd call that stretching the thing somewhere near and beyond breaking point. But one notes that this wasn't absorbed into the comics-based kernel of the myth, and I think that if there is something archetypical about Superman, the childhood has to be part of it.

And yes, you're right, "Last Son of Krypton" is a meaningless advertising strapline which I shouldn't have taken at all seriously, and which has been invalidated by a string of desperate writers - but it's probably fair to say that better writers have recognised every other Kryptonian survival as damaging the heart of things, and periodically pruned away those growths.

(Apparently, one of the draft scripts for the most recent movie had Krypton turn out to have survived. Now that would have been a mistake.)

It's probably also safe to guess that lighter, more child-friendly iterations of Batman have de-emphasised the horrific double murder scene from his childhood. But have any of them ever scrapped it altogether? Batman, being a self-made hero, needs a powerful motive the way that Superman doesn't, quite.

(And part of the interest in that character is the way that he's turned a personal quest for revenge into something bigger - or into a complete deranged obsession, depending how you look at it. His parents' actual murderer may appear from time to time, but he's generally a small-time thug; his relative triviality is actually quite important. The biggest mistake that the first Keaton movie made was identifying him with the Joker, turning the whole thing into a simple personal revenge-quest which was then actually wrapped up by the end of the film.)

Superman's costume and insignia remains fairly constant, and so, on the whole, do his powers. (He can fly, he's strong, he can see through walls.)

If one is really playing the fan-pedant game, one might observe that the last wasn't always entirely true. There was a reason why he used to leap tall buildings in a single bound...

Supposing I say 'The new Jackanory completely misses the point of Jackanory,' (and I think it is the sort of thing that I am quite likely to say). I am not making a null-comment

No, and I think that's fine (and I might well agree with you). The danger comes with fans who say "The new Jackanory isn't Jackanory." That's null-commentary, and diverts what might be a moderately important or interesting debate into pointless semantic games. At worst, it's a delusional denial of reality, and, well, it makes the fans look rather stupid.

NickPheas said...

Jimmy started out on the radio: but he migrated to the comic pretty rapidly: I'm sure Nick will tell me the issue number.

Nick is more likely to point out that you're just as capable as looking it up on Wikipedia as he is.

Blimey, is that right? I'd call that stretching the thing somewhere near and beyond breaking point. But one notes that this wasn't absorbed into the comics-based kernel of the myth, and I think that if there is something archetypical about Superman, the childhood has to be part of it.

There is now. It was much less a factor then. In 1938 (Action Comics 1) they're not even named. In 1939 (Superman 1) there's a two page sequence in which Superman arrives on Earth, is adopted, is orphaned and goes to work on the Daily Star.
The use of Ma and Pa Kent as characters doesn't really start until the first Superboy stories in 1944.

The radio show dates from 1940. And is often great fun. Highly recommended.

Mags said...

Andrews Stevens said...The Arthurian characters have indeed been fiddled with more than the Doctor. I was trying to constrain myself to a constant format like Doctor Who (1963-1989) which is why I was willing to grant comics like Superman or Batman but not Arthurian legends or similar situations (e.g. Holmes stories written post-Conan Doyle).
What about Robin Hood? With the Arthurian cycle there is a core singular narrative there: Arthur unites the people against the enemies of Britain, only to be brought down by his best friend shagging his wife and his bastard son of his sister leading the enemy.
In contrast Hood doesn't have that. There's set pieces (the archery contest, robbing the taxman) and a core definition of character (robs the rich to give to the poor) but everything else is up for grabs. The saracen member of the gang is a very new addition to the myth (starting with Nazim in Robin of Sherwood, then Azeem in Prince of Thieves and now Djac in Robin Hood) but even Marion has only been part of the story for half of its life. Robin, beyond his credo, varies according to the telling. Robin of Loxley or Robert, Earl of Huntingdon? Native outlaw or returning warrior? Square-jawed hero (1950s tv), mystical defender of England (1980s tv), PTSD drop-out (2000s tv)?

Andrew Rilstone said ...
Torchwood sucks, incidentally.
I feel I am a traitor to Who in preferring Hood, it's true. Hood is daft and drops anvils but it actually has more coherent character development and more pretty boys with feathercuts so is more entertaining. Not necessarily better, just more fun.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Blimey, is that right? I'd call that stretching the thing somewhere near and beyond breaking point. But one notes that this wasn't absorbed into the comics-based kernel of the myth, and I think that if there is something archetypical about Superman, the childhood has to be part of it.

Jor El puts him into a space ship as a baby, but he somehow grows up on the journey to earth. The first radio episode is a surprisingly fully developed version of the last days of Krypton. (Jor El goes to the council, the council don't believe him, he urges them to build spaceships and migrate to earth, they refuse, he puts his son in in his protoytpe space ship, the planet blows up.) A this point, I think that all had been shown in the comic was a single frame of Kal-El rocketing away from an exploding planet. We are still working with a version of Krypton where everyone has Superman-like powers; the stuff about light gravity and yellow suns didn't come in until until much later. Oh, and Krypton is a counter earth, on the other side of the sun, which makes the Kryptonite thing more plausible.

Listening to the radio episodes, one rarely thinks "This is very strange; why isn't Superman referring to Ma and Pa Kent every third line?" The things which strike me as strange are Superman's tough-guy persona; his willingness to use violence; and his social-crusader morality, as well as the rather "pulpish" feel of the stories.

I would guess that Ma and Pa Kent became an important part of the mythos only when the Superboy prequel was created. The recent "Essential Superman" reprints are interesting in this respect: Jonathan and Martha Kent, Superboy, Jor-El, Lara and Krypton appear so frequently in flashbacks, time travel strories and "imaginary tales" as to be virtually members of the supporting cast: much more important and well-characterised than Perry or Jimmy. And "Superbaby", "Superboy", and "Superman" are almost three seperate characters: Clark doesn't say "Oh look, that's me as I was ten years ago" but "How can Superboy be here, considering me and Superboy are the same person." (This version of Superman was very definitely rocketed to earth as a toddler from the planet Krypton: Superman seems to have fairly clear memories of his birth-parents.) Which brings me to:

And yes, you're right, "Last Son of Krypton" is a meaningless advertising strapline which I shouldn't have taken at all seriously, and which has been invalidated by a string of desperate writers - but it's probably fair to say that better writers have recognised every other Kryptonian survival as damaging the heart of things and periodically pruned away those growths.

Now, you see, here I think that you are just wrong. At any rate, you would have to say that pretty much everyone who wrote Superman stories (including Jerry and Joey) from, what, 1958-1986 didn't really understand the character, and, incidentally, that Legion of Super-heroes was an historical deviation. But for 30 years, this was the recieved version of the character; the increasingly intricate Krypton back-story was what the comic was about. And even post-Crisis (and, not that I care anymore, post-Infinite-Crisis) characters like Krypto and Supergirl keep popping up again.

I now think that Krypto the Superdog was an inspired archetypal creation. The middle-aged man in the big city thinks back to his childhood in the country, and to his beloved and childhood pet. And when he whistles, his pet comes back to him, because he didn't die, but flew off into space and is now playing in the stars. The lonely little boy knows he is differently from everyone else, and, even though he has the best adoptive parents you can hope for, knows that his birth parents are long dead. He vaguely remembers Mom and Dad and a beloved pet he had as a toddler in the Old Country....and then, one day, that pet comes to him and looks after him through all his wondrous childhood. The actual stories are largely shit, but it's a damn fine archetype.

The biggest mistake that the first Keaton movie made was identifying (the killer of Batman's parents) with the Joker

From the trailer, it looks horribly is Spiderman 3 is going to say that Sandman is Uncle Ben's killer, which is just wrong.

If one is really playing the fan-pedant game, one might observe that the last wasn't always entirely true. There was a reason why he used to leap tall buildings in a single bound...

I did say that some of this stuff took a while to settle down. He is certainly flying (or leaping in a very controlled way) within the first few weeks of the radio episodes, hence "Up, up....and away", and in, I think, all but the very first cartoon. Which issue of Action Comics does he stop leaping and start flying? Within the first year, I would guess.

No, and I think that's fine (and I might well agree with you). The danger comes with fans who say "The new Jackanory isn't Jackanory." That's null-commentary, and diverts what might be a moderately important or interesting debate into pointless semantic games. At worst, it's a delusional denial of reality, and, well, it makes the fans look rather stupid.

I think that your mistake here is to pay too much attention to the literal content of the words, and not enough to the language-game which is obviously being played. If a football fan says "We are going to Wem Ber Lee" he means "I hope very much that the team which I support wins the Football Association Cup this year", regardless of whether he himself has a ticket to see the match, and, indeed, if it is being played at Wembley Stadium. If the Daily Mail says "Sring Em Up" it means "We think that the criminal justice system is slightly too lenient on certain kinds of criminals", not "We want our readers to form lynching parties." "Jackanory isn't Jackanory" means roughly what I said in my last posting. More precisely it means A: "Jackanory (the TV series launched in november 2006) is different from Jackanory (the TV series which ran from 1965-1996)" and B: "I wish that it wasn't". Which may be valid or invalid, but it is perfectly intelligible.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I feel I am a traitor to Who in preferring Hood, it's true. Hood is daft and drops anvils but it actually has more coherent character development and more pretty boys with feathercuts so is more entertaining. Not necessarily better, just more fun.

I have to admit that I think that this weeks (Hood) was a genuinely good story. One could slightly see the construction lines when Jack used the acid to try to get out of prison, but since I didn't spot what ending this was setting up, I shouldn't complain.

Although there was a certain familiarity to the idea of the hero confronting the person who Did A Bad Thing during the Big War and completely losing it, to the point where all his friends say You Are Just As Bad As He Is. Mercifully, Sir Guy didn't feel the need to say "Exterminate" at any point.

Andrew Stevens said...

No, and I think that's fine (and I might well agree with you). The danger comes with fans who say "The new Jackanory isn't Jackanory." That's null-commentary, and diverts what might be a moderately important or interesting debate into pointless semantic games. At worst, it's a delusional denial of reality, and, well, it makes the fans look rather stupid.

I hate to disagree with Mr. Masters (that is, of course, just something I say to be polite - I obviously love to disagree with people), but we all know when fans say that they're really saying something like what Mr. Rilstone was saying, just less precisely. In the earlier thread, I mentioned Love and Monsters as having been singled out by some fans as "not Doctor Who." I disagree with them, but I know what they're saying. That's certainly my opinion of the Cushing movies. You can insist all you want that I have to somehow accept them as Doctor Who, but I just ain't gonna (probably because they don't match Mr. Rilstone's formulation of the "core" of the Doctor's character, though I had never consciously realized that before). If that's a delusional denial of reality or if it makes me look stupid, so be it.

I do not actually believe in the Whoniverse (for the reasons Mr. Rilstone gave in his excellent open letter to the BBC) and I don't give a fig about Doctor Who continuity. Nevertheless, I find books like The Discontinuity Guide great fun (a "delightfully loony work of scholarship" as Mr. Dicks called it in his introduction) and there just isn't any way you can integrate something like the Cushing films. We can argue about whether UNIT dating can actually be reconciled in any way (or whether one can actually pinpoint the year of birth of Christ), but some people seem to quite enjoy trying. Unlike S.K., I see no harm in allowing them to do so. Now, if fans started writing the entire 1963-1989 run out of the canon, then we'd all agree they've gone too far. If lots of them did this (presumably because RTD gave them a significant reason), there'd have to be a schism in Doctor Who fandom and we'd all have to ascertain ahead of time whether one was a "Universalist," an "Old Testament," or a "New Testament" fan of the show. I am reactionary enough that I'd certainly be an "Old Testament" fan if it reaches that point. So far, it hasn't and so I can remain in the "Universalist" church, saving my condemnation only for "Cushing heretics" (both of them).

Mags said...

Mercifully, Sir Guy didn't feel the need to say "Exterminate" at any point.
He was probably still thinking about the fact that, had he lost that ring, he'd have had to use the time machine again to pop forward and buy another from Accessorize. Not only is Guy a bastard, he's a cheap bastard who's bought a paste ring from a high street store...

Andrew Stevens said...

Again, Mr. Rilstone and I were responding to Mr. Masters's point at the same time, hence the duplication in my post and the one two above it by Mr. Rilstone.

Andrew Stevens said...

Comments are disabled on the Superman post, but I note it was written by Schuster and Siegel who were Jewish. Mary happened to have been, at the time, the perennially most common female first name in the States. (Nowadays, it's always something like Ashley or Emily, though Michael's popularity for boys remains nearly unchallenged, briefly dethroned by Jacob recently after decades of dominance.) My understanding is that Mr. Kent was named John in some version where Mrs. Kent is named Mary. I always thought their first names were Pa and Ma. Of course, it's quite possible that Schuster and Siegel were consciously trying to tap into Christianity or had simply internalized it by being raised in a Christian country.

Phil Masters said...

The radio show dates from 1940.

Early as that? One learns something every day. Okay, its influence on the canon is going to be more important than I thought.

The recent "Essential Superman" reprints are interesting in this respect: Jonathan and Martha Kent, Superboy, Jor-El, Lara and Krypton appear so frequently in flashbacks, time travel strories and "imaginary tales" as to be virtually members of the supporting cast: much more important and well-characterised than Perry or Jimmy.

Rather contradicting the idea that the Perry/Jimmy/Lois/Clark relationship has to be part of any "essential kernel", of course. Which, on reflection, I probably don't buy anyway.

That workplace group is doubtless essential to any version of the Superman story which develops a continuing soap-operatic, character-driven strand, and hence to the survival of long-running comics or TV series; and it can be used to provide a bit of light relief in movies and so on; and it's doubtless strong in the fan consciousness. If one holds that Superman endures mostly because of its appeal to wimpy teenagers who are rejected by attractive women and pushed around by authority figures, but who do have one or two pals of their own age or a bit younger, it's certainly going to be rather important. If, on the other hand, there's something "mythic" about Superman - something that gives it resonance beyond the unhappy-teenage-geek market - then it's surely something about Superman as the ultimate immigrant, the demi-divine figure come down from the heavens. At which point, His (sorry, his) parentage becomes a bit more important than his co-workers.

Or, to put it another way - my entirely intuitive and unresearched guess is that, if you asked some random non-comics-fans what "Krypton" was, many would mention the link; many more than would recognise the names "Perry White" or "Jimmy Olsen".

On the other hand, even more would probably recognise the name "Lois Lane", at which point it all gets complicated again...

I think that your mistake here is to pay too much attention to the literal content of the words, and not enough to the language-game which is obviously being played.

Possibly. Let's just say that I thing it's an unfortunate rhetorical device which should be used with care at most, if only for tactical reasons. It permits the other party to say "Oh yes, X is X; it says so on the front, it's using the registered trademark, and umpteen million people encountered it under that name". Which isn't just block-headed literal-mindedness; it's often making a perfectly valid point about objective and subjective views of X, and about the image that non-devotees are entitled to form of X.

(And saying that only devotees are entitled to an image of or opinion on a subject is something else to avoid. Only experts may be able to perform detailed analyses, but that's not the same thing.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I take your point... but as a matter of fact, Jimmy - Lois - Clark - Perry have been fairly prominantly featured in every version of Superman, whereas everything else have varied in importance. (I take it that "Smallville" is a re-imaginig of "Superboy" and therefore slightly different.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

John and Mary and Jonathan and Martha are, at any rate, both "J and M" names. Jonathan was the best friend of King David, and John was the beloved discipe, and "Martha and Mary" go together. Which proves that, er...

There is probably a point that Siegal and Schuster could have chosen contemporry, fashionable names like Clark, Jimmy or Perry or Lois or Lana for Superman's parents, but instead went for names with an old fashioned, Biblical ring to them.

SK said...

I don't think I was claiming Doctor Who was a null concept, so much as a broad one -- too broad to make any generalisations on the order of 'Doctor Who is about X'.

(This applies to Davies, who seems to think that Doctor Who is about alien invasions and bases-under-seige, as well as to internet commentators).

I was just trying to head off an ultimately fruitless discussion where a lot of noise and heat was generated on a question without an answer.

If someone were to say 'the new Doctor Who isn't Doctor Who', and could support that by showing some significant way in which new Doctor Who is unlike old Doctor Who I'd listen; but that is, I submit, a different to cherry-picking bits from old Doctor Who to support a particular thesis.

If one person says 'The Doctor is like X' and the other person says 'no, the Doctor is like Y' and the actual fact is that the Doctor is sometimes like X and sometimes like Y... isn't it helpful to point out that this is the case, rather than letting the two go at each other's throats, each citing the cases that agree with them and unable to see why the other doesn't see how right they are? Easier to try to short-cut things by saying 'you are both right: he is a man and he is God'.

Louise H said...

While the actual content of this thread mainly escapes me (apart from the new DW and RH bits- I was suitably amused about the paste ring), I do wonder if the differences here are partly to do with remake versus sequel.

Obviously RH, Battlestar Galactica and First Knight are remakes, Dr Who and Torchwood are sequels and the various Superman things seem to be remakes of certain incarnations and sequels to others.

Jackanory is probably a remake, but could be argued to be a sequel, (and I believe that the basic premise of reading the words of a book out loud rather than acting in a serialisation of that book is going to be retained so I think it's still Jackanory with more pictures.)

A sequel is tied into its predecessors and in that sense I think it is quite legitimate to complain about changes in the Doctor. But a remake is starting again and would seem to have a perfect right to pick and choose among the ideas of its predecessors. The Arthurian stuff like First Knight shows how little of the archetype you need to pick up and run with.

Mike Taylor said...

I was just trying to head off an ultimately fruitless discussion where a lot of noise and heat was generated on a question without an answer.

Boy, did that ever misfire :-)

Can we please start all being a bit harsher on Torchwood, now? Even the good episodes are disappointing; and the bad ones ... Yeesh.

ian said...

"The actual stories are largely shit, but it's a damn fine archetype."
Much the same can be said about the Bottled City of Kandor.
Earth 1 Superman tried to balance his alien Kryptonian and mundane Kansassian backgrounds: he called upon both Rao, Lighter of the Sun and that obscure Earthly divinty, the "Great Scott". By and large, the current "Earth Prime" version seems to be, well, supressing something.
I know that trying to impose too rigid a structure on something not designed to be that way - something episodic, with several different writers, say- can be stifeling: but one of the advantages of an tradition is that one can actually build on it to make something better, or at least intrestingly new.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Is the post-post-Crisis Superman now said to be on Earth Prime? There's something else I didn't know.

Sam Dodsworth said...

ian:
The equation of physical with moral strength seems disturbingly WWII - period to me (one of Mr. Sims few sane observations).

Actually, I think that probably comes from Muscular Christianity, which would make the WWII period very much the tail end.

Gavin Burrows said...

Bloody hell, was it me who started all this? Sorry, everyone!

Andrew Rilstone said:
…the fact remains that what we see as the 'irreducible core' of these characters came about by a process of evolution. It changes. People who like folk songs say that each singer changes the song a little before he passes it on, so an authentic folk song is the work of many hundreds of musicians: no single composer can reproduce that style. I think that this is also true of characters like 'Superman' and 'Doctor Who'…

…Neither Doctor Who nor Superman has an unchanging, irreducible core. But this is a long way from saying that there are no themes, styles and genre conventions which enable us to describe a particular cluster of narratives tropes.


Not only do I absolutely agree with this, it’s a metaphor I’ve often used myself in other places - so I’ve no excuse for not using it up till now! The problem with my suggestion of an ‘irreducible core’ is that it can lead to another notion - that any changes the characters are put through must be either a) harmful and heretical or b) minor and irrelevant. But if all you’re doing is just serving up the same basic ingredients over again, don’t expect people to keep coming back to eat in your cafĂ©.

To pursue the folk music analogy further, people into folk music sometimes take the approach what they have is something ‘authentic’ which must be preserved in its original form as closely as possible. Others takes the basic tunes and themes of folk music, but play about with them in a much more cavalier fashion, and mix them in with more contemporary themes. You do the second one if you want an audience.

It’s especially true of ephemeral media like comics and TV shows that they should say something about the times they come out of. But they need to do the double. If they don’t simultaneously find some fresh route back to the characters’ source they just appear fickle and faddish. (I may just be hopelessly nostalgic to call those media ‘ephemeral’, of course.)

Of course you are at liberty to change some of the core concepts of a character. There’s only really two limits. 1. You can’t change all of them in one go. 2. The weight of tradition is against you. Sometimes people have broken traditions and we’ve all found we’re the better for it. But, for example, the tradition that the fast lane of the M4 is not the best location for a football match is a longstanding one, partly because those who break it don’t tend to stick around for very long.

It’s also true that once a tradition has been usurped, its replacement quickly becomes the new tradition and everyone soon imagines it’s been around forever. (For example, Mags imagining Robin Hood’s rob-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor thing being a “core definition of character” – sorry, but no!)

When this works well it works very, very well and when it works badly it’s horrid. Giving Spider-Man six arms or making him a clone was horrid. But when it works it not only makes for better stories, but looking back gives you a barometer of the times they went through. The early Superman is resolutely bluecollar, a farm kid who travels to the big city, doffs corrupt mine owners and the like. The later Superman is white collar, and more loathe to dirty his fists, but is still defined very much by his physicality. His opposition to Lex Luthor is the pure body versus the scheming mind.

Andrew Stevens said...

Here is something that baffles me a little. In my early 20s, I hung out with a lot of people who were comics fans. I'm reasonably sure I never met anyone who was actually a Superman fan (Jerry Seinfeld aside). Batman, Spiderman, the X-Men, sure, but never Superman. Considering that he has frequently stood for "truth, justice, and the American way," why on earth do I find him so much more popular on a blog frequented primarily by the English? Is this just another riff on a prophet being not without honor, save in his own country? Or is it that you folks are all comics scholars who feel that you have to study Superman in order to really understand the evolution of comics?

Gavin Burrows said...

You might have to substitute 'sad nerd' for 'scholar' in my personal case, but otherwise you're on the money.

For most of my youth, Batman was the only exception I'd make to my Marvelite loyalties.

Andrew Stevens said...

Now, that's more in keeping with what I'm familiar with. Almost all the comics nerds I used to know were devoted to Marvel and disdained DC, with Batman (particularly post-Frank Miller) being the one exception.

Of course, Superman is a towering monument in comics history, but almost everybody agrees that he was just too powerful to be interesting. We used to joke about how the Legion of Justice was always getting bailed out by Superman unless somebody had some Kryptonite, in which case the Legion of Justice got so panicked they'd call out all those heroes you hadn't seen in months like Hawkman.

I happened to look up Superman online and found an interesting article in New Scientist which purported to show that Superman is not a good role model because he's too good. In the study, they asked certain subjects to list the characteristics of Superman and others to list the characteristics of superheroes in general. Later, they were given the opportunity to volunteer for a fictitious community programme. Those who were asked about Superman volunteered much less of their time. The theory is that the people who thought about Superman compared themselves to him and found they couldn't possibly measure up, so they despaired of doing good in general. I'm not convinced I buy this (the article gave me no numbers and I find many such studies are statistically dubious - psychology, in particular, is infamous for reporting positive results with a tiny r^2), but it's a plausible theory.

James said...

And "Superbaby", "Superboy", and "Superman" are almost three seperate characters:

I believe this is actually the origin of the character Wonder Girl; she was supposed to be Wonder Woman as a teenager, but the writer (Bob Haney?) didn't know that and assumed that she was a Robin-like sidekick, creating a distinct existence for her.

Is the post-post-Crisis Superman now said to be on Earth Prime? There's something else I didn't know.

Nah; the current DC Earth is called "New Earth" and is distinct from Earth-Prime. There is one character in the DCU who is from Earth-Prime; that tiresome little whiner, Superboy-Prime.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said:
Almost all the comics nerds I used to know were devoted to Marvel and disdained DC.


Well, of a generation. Marvel comics of the Sixties ‘invented’ continuity, which in the long run turned into something of a poisoned chalice but doubtless drew in the nerds.

But by the 80s, Marvel was disdained by fans over the Kirby art controversy and DC had Alan Moore and Frank Miller. It’s probably swings and roundabouts.