Superman: Corporate Icon

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?”

squeeze-legs“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 wheel did actually spin, I tested it.

The wheel did actually spin, I tested it.

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:

Eat it or you won't be super!!

Eat it or you won’t be super!!

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.


Ryan Haupt did not intend to get so preachy, but it just happens sometimes. Hear him preach the word of knowledge in his podcast Science… sort of.


  1. My favorite corporate tie-ins I’ve seen for Man of Steel: TWIZZLERS and SEARS, which has signs in its stores saying to look for SEARS in Man of Steel. Yeah, I’ll get right on that. Check it:

  2. Ryan, this is my pet obsession of the week. Let us talk at length about all the boxes of Twizzlers and Cheez-Its exhorting me to be a Man of Steel. Let us talk about the picture of the Ideal Man on this cup I got at the Hardees drive thru, a cup designed to hold easily 40 oz. of liquid corn syrup. It fascinates me.

  3. I’m not surprised by this, Iron Man had the same kind of pizza/movie ticket deal. Comic companies have to make money, which means they have to be creative with how they do it. I guess the comics don’t cut it so the crappy action figures, the ads, the movies, the toothbrushes, the underware, its all meant o help them stay afloat.

    I remember when “Batman and Robin” came out, there was lots of stupid stuff to buy for it which I take to mean how far Bats had fallen in terms of bankability. The less an icon is worth, the more crap is made hence everything Ryan just described at Wal-Mart. That’s just my theory anyway.

    Speaking of, did Wal-Mart and WB team up for MoS or what? Besides Hardy’s I think most of the marketing for MoS has been tied to Wal-Mart. I’m pretty sure WB had to beg and barter to get people to take on Superman for marketing, he’s kinda fallen out of the public eye and conscious. Hopefully that changes and soon we get a kick-ass cartoon in the vein of YJ or GL:TAS.

  4. When I was a kid growing up in the 90’s, I remember all the lame versions of Batman they kept pumping out with each TV show and movie. My favorite is still bright neon yellow scuba suit Batman! Nothing strikes fear in your enemies heart like the color yellow!

    Look at these toys they made for Batman and Robin:

    Battle Board Batman
    Wing Blast Batman
    Laser Cape Batman
    Neon Armor Batman
    Rotor Blade Batman
    Hover Attack Batman
    Ice Blade Batman
    Snow Tracker Batman
    Heat Scan Batman
    Thermal Shield Batman
    Ambush Attack Batman
    Battle Gear Bruce Wayne

    When Ironman came out, I saw the same lame concepts. I think one of the conceits you can have with billionaires is that they can afford things like Ice Blades, Hoverboards and Neon Armor. Poor Clark Kent is, well, poor. So he has to use what he can find, street lamps, tires, etc.

    Looking at that Pizza Box, it’s striking how boring the lower half of his body is. That picture is crying for the red undies.

  5. Grant Morriso: writer and prophet. I’m pretty picky with my son’s licensed products, and none of this shit would make the cut. What sort of ads did they have for the movie in Wal-Mart’s comics section? Oh wait. At least there was pizza!

  6. I agree that commercialism of Superman at this level is crass, though not at all new. And yes, it is sad. I’ve yet to listen to the podcast of the writer the Supes biography, yet I’m reminded of The Maximortal by Rick Veitch. That story didn’t hold back and fucking brutal when it came to depicting Superman’s creation. Worthwhile reading I’d say.

  7. But isn’t thatwhat they always do, with these kinds of movies? It doesn’t bother me all that much, to be honest. Its all spotlight time for a character I really love and as long as WB makes a gazillion dollars off of him, we will get more movies and comics.

  8. …just walk away, sniff that stuff too long and end up with cancer…corporate-a-go-go.

  9. “Spaceballs: The Flamethrower!”