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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why am I a Superman fan?

I am a Superman fan. I wasn't always, though. I felt the same as most everyone else until I read Kingdom Come.

Yes, Superman is powerful. I admit that is part of the appeal for me. When reason fails and some d-bag just won't stop pushing, it is gratifying to see Kal-El lay the smack down, in exactly the same way as it is to watch Bruce Banner Hulk out on some New York cabbies.

The appeal that Superman has for me is obvious on the surface. I am a big guy who enjoys being strong. There are people in my life who look up to me. There are people in my life that I protect. As a Native American, I even relate to the whole “Last of my people” angle.

But there is something else at work here. To me, the best Superman stories are about the other side of power. Specifically, the responsibility of power. Spider Man stories (especially in the Raimi films) the mantra is repeated, "With great power comes great responsibility". That is all well and good, and in my opinion, Superman is the only hero who actually lives up to that.

Whoa there, fanboys! I know Superman was a racist propaganda whore for a long time back in the day, with posters like, "Superman says: Slap a Jap for America!" and that kind of tripe. As far as I'm concerned, that's not Superman. Not MY Superman. Superman is one of the oldest characters in literature, let alone comics, and he has been through a lot of writers and iterations. MY Superman is the one in Kingdom Come, in All-Star Superman, and the WB animated series (including the Justice League).

My Superman is powerful. Really, really powerful. So powerful that very few villains truly challenge him. That's okay, because the villains aren't the real challenge. The real challenge is the power. How easy would it be for Superman to simply take over? Couldn't he just get rid of every villain in the world in like an hour or so? There have been more than a few "what if" and "Elseworlds" stories addressing exactly that, and let me tell you, it doesn't take much. Basically, if he wanted to be the only living super person, he could be, and in a kind of frighteningly short period of time.

But he doesn't. He never does, and he never would. Every time he does anything at all, he exercises full personal control, because one moment's distraction could hurt or kill a nearby squishy human.

That is a bit extreme, and actually unrealistic, because who has that kind of control? Well that's kind of the point. No one does. Except Superman. Don't worry about it. It will never happen. He's friggin Superman, dammit, and he doesn't make those kind of rookie mistakes. Which brings me to my next point...

Superhero Role Model
This makes Superman a role model. Not just for readers, either. Every hero in the DC Universe looks up to him, and for good reason. Even those who resent him will not deny that he sets the standard of conduct, proficiency, professionalism and leadership. In some cases, his standard is so high that it causes feelings of resentment in the insecure.

On top of all that, Superman is a hero. What is a hero? A hero is the one who makes the sacrifice for others. If it was necessary, Superman would absolutely give his life for a squishy human. No question, no hesitation. He seldom needs to even consider it, because he's damn powerful, but everyone knows it.
"But wait!" you say, "Don't do it, Superman! Your life is worth so much more than that squishy dumb-ass about to get run over because he was texting instead of watching where he's going. It's not worth it!"
You know what? Yes it is. And THAT's why he's a friggin hero and we are just schlubs working jobs. Because that squishy dumb-ass has kids or a mom or a beagle or something somewhere, or even if he doesn't, it's worth it because every single human life is precious to Superman. We compromise our values all the time because we convince ourselves it's for the best or we don't see an alternative or maybe just because it's convenient. Not Superman. Not ever. Even without his vaunted power, his integrity, worthiness and admirableness are beyond reproach.

So yes, he is godlike, because he represents an ideal to be aspired to, but which cannot be attained by humans. He is not a human with special gifts fighting against injustice. He is an otherworldly superhuman who could destroy us all, but instead serves humanity as a protector, a role model and a leader. His alter ego is a bumbling human meat sack, not the other way around. These things all make Superman unique, and for me at least, not at all boring. Indeed, all the more compelling.

I have borne the responsibility of leadership before. Most of us have. It is not easy to do it right. It is easy to resort to bullying, aggressive and petty behavior, because it is seen as an easy path to the goal. When the heat is on, it is all too easy to take the low road and power through a group project by coercing and manipulating others with our "authority", by being inflexible, stubborn and "decisive" and by dominating our coworkers and subordinates with our superior knowledge and experience. The thing is- and we all know this- that's not leadership.

Having more experience, more education, more money, more social status, being older or being a business owner; these things put a person in a leadership role, but none of those things is leadership. What is it? Many people with far more education and erudition than I have tried to define and identify the "X-Factor" that makes leadership happen, and I am not going to try here.

All I can say is that you know it when you see it, and a good writer can show it in a good character. The Best Buy tv sales guy in the Zack Snyder remake of Dawn of the Dead had it. Dick Winters in Band of Brothers had it it (as did the real Dick Winters, I expect). Captain America has it. Superman has it.

When I was young and full of beans, I was in the military, and I saw it there. Once. In four years, serving with dozens of NCOs and officers in positions of leadership, I only met ONE MAN who had that unmistakable quality. It had nothing to do with his rank or time in service or what ribbons and medals he had on his chest.

In my opinion, this aspect of Superman is most clearly depicted in Kingdom Come. Superman had given up. Ridiculous, I know, especially after all I just said. It was an "Elseworlds" scenario, so bear with me. He had his reasons, and he had given up, and so had all the others, to some degree. Many continued to seek justice, protect and serve, but they did it alone, and only in their specific areas. Younger generations of supers, without any role models, ran rampant and roughshod, battling at will against each other and caring nothing for either property damage or human losses.

When things got bad enough, and Wonder Woman was finally able to get Superman to get back in the game, things changed. Immediately. The Alex Ross illustration of his glorious return, as a stern father comes home to his misbehaving children, is moving. Well, I had a stern father, so it resonated with me.

The point is, Superman is not just a powerful superhero. He is not just an icon of American propaganda. He is not just a big, dumb boy scout who's too stubborn or too stupid to change his old fashioned ways and realize that he should start killing villains who really, really deserve it.

Superman is a god, in an academic, mythological sense. He is an idol, representing mighty aspirations worthy of admiration. He is an archetypal paragon of the ideals of humanity, nobility and responsibility.

That is why I am a Superman fan. If I am going to believe in something, I don't go halfway. If there is an ideal, I go for the top. If there is a religion, I aim for the truth behind and underneath it. When I admire a superhero, I choose the one that even the other superheroes look up to. Humanistic comic supers are important, and I enjoy them as well, if for different reasons. For a role model, though, I don't see how you can look anywhere else but to Krypton's Last Son.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Great Characters, Part 6 of 6. Dynamism and Conclusion.

            This last question is unlike the others. It asks not about the character, but a final consideration for you as the player of that character. This question is simpler than the others, but is no less important.
            Do you want your character to change?
            By change, of course, I mean as a person. Is your character going to stay who they are as a person through the ordeal of their adventure? Will they find redemption when they finally defeat the enemy?
            Will the dragon slayer come to respect dragon kind, or will they remain an implacable enemy?

            The answer to this question is something that you should share with your GM, so that together, a transformation can be created for the character. This can be a change of role, a characters retirement, orbuying offa certain hindering quality.
            A character changing in this way is called metamorphosis or sometimes apotheosis. Those are fancy Greek words that mean your character has come full circle, and has reached the end of a journey.
            That doesnt mean that the game ends. It is the best time to do so, if that is your wish, but a hero can always embark on another journey.

            Answering even some of these questions will improve the complexity of your character and make for a more enjoyable role playing experience. You will feel as though you know the character as a person, and you will care about what happens to them. More importantly, you will want to see them grow and improve.
As you guide your character to accomplish their goals and see their dreams fulfilled, you will experience a feeling of accomplishment much more fulfilling than adding up experience points or getting a bigger gun.
That feeling is called catharsis, another fancy Greek word (they were smart guys) that signifies an emotional or spiritual purging.

That is why we play role playing games. It is a rare board game or video game that can provide catharsis to a player, and if it does, it is still a lesser form of it, because it has occurred from observing someone elses character.
By developing a complex, flawed character of your own, and playing them through their personal journey, you experience the second best catharsis that exists in this world.
The only way to experience a better catharsis is to do it yourself, in your own life. I can't help you do that, but I have hopefully helped you improve the quality of your role playing experience.