Because I live in a small town and my options are limited, I recently found myself at a large store that we’ll call Mal-Wart. I intended to get in and out but in spite of myself whenever I’m in a place like this my instinct is to browse. The lofty half of my brain says it’s because I’m an explorer, the realistic half says because I’m a consumer. Regardless, I needed a basketball so I had to go to the area right in between the action figures and the guns. (No, I’m not kidding, but won’t be commenting further on that actuality.) The former drew me in, and quickly my girlfriend asked, “Why are we looking at toys?”
“Nostalgia, that’s why! You have no idea how much time I spent in places like these as a youth.” Seeing as there were no Beast Wars era transformers available, I quickly lost interest, but boy was there a lot of Superman crap for sale. And yes I do mean crap. A term which pains me because I don’t think our boy in blue is crap, but I think part of me just has yet to realize how corporate Superman truly is.
I recently listened to Paul’s excellent chat with writer Glen Weldon about his upcoming Superman “biography.” And one thing that struck me was that while the author was willing to admit that Jerry and Joe were utterly screwed by their publisher, Superman was only successful, in part, because of the publisher’s aggressive marketing of this innovative character. To think that this marketing strategy has continued relatively unabated for 75 years straight is nothing short of astounding. There are few analogs to be made short of religious icons, and I’m just not willing to go there.
The comment my girlfriend made while looking at all these different action figures was, “So is this one supposed to be the evil Superman?” I can hardly fault her for her confusion as the action figure in question had a red and silver suit with the main purpose of the action figure being the ability to beat things with a street light when you squeeze his legs together. Again, I’m not kidding. And that wasn’t even the dumbest action figure I saw.
The prize for dumbest action figure, although it really was a race to the bottom, had to be the action figure that boasted a relatively normal looking Superman (normal by his new red shorts-less standards), but seeing as they may have been too boring for children they decided to give him a GIANT SPINNING WHEEL. Yes, those are the exact words on the packaging, and sadly a quite accurate description of the accessory accompanying the toy. I took a photo thinking, “This is so dumb I must document it” while hoping it would be the last of our encounters with a mismanaged Man of Steel until…
Moments later we walked past two giant plasma television screens playing some of the original Timm-verse Superman Adventures at a frame rate so high you could literally see the transition from drawing to drawing. And the sound was off so you couldn’t even hear Tim Daly. Suffice it to say, it didn’t do the quality of the show a lot of justice.
As an aside, if you’re confused as to why the frame rate of a television set could affect a cartoon, allow me a bit of science. Your computer screen is not a continuous display, it refreshes many times a second, updating with each change made as you operate the machine. At around 60 herz, which means the screen updates 60 times every second, your eye can no longer perceive the flicker from refresh to refresh, making the screen looking like a smooth display, which is good.
Animators are fully aware of this limit to our biological systems, and thus draw frames of cartoons that more or less match that frequency so they can minimize the number of frames they have to draw while still convincing our eye that fluid motion is taking place. If you have a TV that allows you to up the frame rate, you can really screw with that perception of motion, and instead of getting a scene where Superman flies smoothly across the scene to save Lois, you see multiple images of Kal-El jerking across the screen in what looks like stop motion animation. This is all without even considering that the animation was never meant to be displayed in HD, mere inches from the human eye, doing zero justice to the legitimate craft of the studio which produced a truly amazing show that inspired this writer as a younger man to appreciate one of Warner Brothers more profitable properties.
So we left the areas of toys and gadgets to grab some marshmallows the size of a child’s head because it’s summer and therefore s’mores. I thought, being in the food section of this mart-most-mega, that I would be free from the affronts of a poorly misunderstood icon, but then I found this:
Yes, what you are seeing is a frozen extra-large ultimate meat pizza, proudly displaying Superman as a means of enticing the buyer to over-consume carbs, meat, and salt; while at the same time buying advance tickets to a Man of Steel screening back in the same electronics department that was in the midst of butchering some excellent animation. Needless to say at that point, I was flabbergasted.
We complain often that the stories in comics are hampered by Superman’s status as an ‘icon.’ Meaning that the corporate overlords can’t afford to allow creators to innovate, but I, for one, hadn’t realized just how ubiquitous the use of the ‘S’ had become to peddle literally everything under our brazen yellow sun. Call it selective naiveté, but I thought there might be at least a shred of respect left at the corporate level for a hero whose corpus of work I so admire. I feel like we’re all holding our collective breath that the new movie might, just might, qualify as art, while ignoring just how far Superman has been reduced in nearly every other sphere of our world, and that kind of sucks. I want the new movie to be great, but I also really don’t want Superman trying to sell me pizza. If he’s supposed to be an ideal to strive for, he should be doing better.