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Mar. 27, 2005

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Why Is Superman Ripped?

Why, "Drooling" D.K. asked me recently, does Superman have such a muscular physique?  Why, in other words, is he "ripped"? 

Think about it.  Superman is super-strong, right?  But he isn't Batman super-strong.  He isn't Spider-Man super-strong.  Superman is really, REALLY super-strong.  Take, for example, the movie Superman starring the late Christopher Reeve.  In the climax, Supes flies down into the San Andreas Fault and literally lifts the state of California on his shoulders!  The state of California!  From time to time, whether on the radio, TV or in the comics, he was called upon to heft everything from foundering steamships to collapsing skyscrapers to hurtling comets.  (I loved the idea that Superman's Fortress of Solitude didn't require a complicated security system to keep villains out.  The key to the front door was just so humongous, no one but Superman could have lifted it!)  Again, in Superman: The Motion Picture, to save the life of Lois Lane, he reversed the direction of the Earth's spin.  For pity's sake, the man could move a planet!  Surely it could be said his strength is virtually infinite.

So why does he have, as they say, "muscles on his muscles"? 

Are we to assume that if his muscles were smaller, he would...what?  Be only "semi-super-strong"?  Mathematically speaking, infinity divided by any number equals infinity. (Trust me on that one.  Half of infinity is still infinite.  See?)  Since his strength with big pecs is infinite, then wouldn't his strength without big pecs still be infinite?  Or, in practical terms, if he can move a planet with his present physique, would he "only" be able to move a slightly smaller planet if he "let himself go"?  And would we notice the difference?

Having asked that question, "Drooling" D.K. then pointed out an even more interesting corollary.  How did Superman get those big muscles in the first place?

Think about it.  We build up muscles by exercising, by exerting ourselves and working up a sweat.  But if your strength is infinite, how can you "exert" yourself?  Bench pressing three hundred pounds is nothing to someone who can lift the state of California on his shoulders.  And bench pressing the state of California surely can't be all that hard for someone who can move a planet.  And on, and on, and on...

But surely the final proof lies in the evidence presented by Supergirl, Superman's cousin from the defunct planet Krypton.  (Or, at least, she was his cousin once upon a time.  I have no idea what their relationship is in the present comics continuity.)  Don't get me wrong, she's a fine, fine looking lady.  But she isn't built like Superman, is she?  She doesn't look like a body-builder.  And yet, if she isn't as strong as Superman, there certainly can't be too many circumstances where that difference would be manifest.  She is still "Supergirl", even without bulging biceps.

The bottom line is, there is no connection between Superman's muscles and his super strength.  One doesn't depend on the other.  At best. those muscles must be an affectation.  And how Superman was able to produce those muscles when, by definition, it is impossible for him to "work up a sweat" remains one of those mysteries which, like the final box office take for Coming to America, may never be known.

All this was by way of lead-in to talking about the recent editorial by comics important person, John Byrne, over at where "Drooling" D.K. Latta works as a contributing reviewer.  (And he earns a little ka-ching every time someone even looks at one of his reviews, know what to do.).  Bryne is frequently frothing about something, but in this editorial, he was in an especially Cujo-esque mood.  He had seen the ads for the computer-animated comedy, The Incredibles, and he was not a happy camper.  The Incredibles, he felt, was yet one more attack, by Hollywood, upon his personal raison d'être -- superheroes.

One more, you say in surprise?  Attack?   Raisin d'wah?

That's right -- attack.  Bryne feels that ever since the campy 1960s Batman TV series set the tone, Hollywood has persistently (and perversely) refused to treat superheroes with anything other than contempt.  Good natured contempt, but contempt all the same.  From the Bam-Biff-Pow of the Batman series to the over-weight hijinks of The Incredibles is a short road, littered along the way by the bones of many a failed send-up.  And Byrne was just a tad sick of it all.

Now, I'm afraid my initial reaction to Byrne's reaction was less than sympathetic.  I haven't seen The Incredibles (but then, neither had Bryne), but the ads had me rolling on the floor.  The Incredibles looks very funny and, more importantly, its purpose seems to be to have fun with the concept of superheros, without quite crossing the line into outright mockery.  What could be wrong with that?  Wasn't Byrne getting a little paranoid?

Where Byrne sees The Incredibles as being the unholy off-spring of the campy Batman series, I find it more properly owes its pedigree to the general trend in superhero comics -- starting at least with the so called 'Marvel Age' revolution in the 1960s, and continuing with such high points as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen -- the trend, that is, to portray superheroes as they would really be, in the real world.

It is easy to see that, however seriously superheroes are treated by their artists, they remain improbably isolated from any number of real world influences, from aging to sickness to tax returns to hemorrhoids. When did Wonder Woman ever have to go to the toilet?  There's nothing wrong with portraying superheroes as somehow cut off from such real world influences. but you can only go to the same well so many times before you start looking for a different well.  And so, since at least the sixties, every now and then someone tries to "reimagine" superheroes by presenting them as they would "really" be, if those real world influences did apply, affecting those superheroes just as they affect us mere mortals.  And, like it or not, you can't present superheroes in that light without skirting dangerously close to parody. 

In the case of The Incredibles, we have a Superhero forced to contend with aging, and all that comes with aging, not the least of which is an enormous sagging beer belly (what we Canadians call "Molson muscle") that makes it increasingly difficult for him to slip into his skin tight costume.  Is this a respectful attempt to portray superheroes as they would really be -- or is Byrne right and this is a nasty rejection of the whole superhero idiom, the equivalent of flipping the bird at Superman.

I don't have an answer to that.  But on reflection, I realized I could understand why John Byrne couldn't see The Incredibles in that light.  To me, it is funny, yes, but the humour stems from its truthfulness.  At most it is a little harmless fun.  What's wrong with that?

Everything -- if, like John Byrne, you have devoted your entire life to drawing superheroes.  We all want to believe that what we do with our lives matters.  Artists especially so.  Byrne has been working in the comics business a long time.  He has worked on some of the biggest titles, both drawing and writing.  Sure, the lion's share of those stories were probably little  more than excuses to show guys in tights hitting each other.  But many were attempting to be something more complex.  They were trying to touch the reader emotionally, the same as any novel or any movie might.

Take, for example, the famous "Dark Phoenix saga".  When I first became interested in comics as a kid it was when I picked up a copy of The Uncanny X-Men drawn by John Byrne.  It was his precise art work that caught my attention but, as I continued to buy X-Men comics, I found myself caught up in the story of "Dark Phoenix", a tragedy woven thrugh countless issues, extending over many months.  Jean Grey was one of the X-Men known as Marvel Girl, but her telekinetic powers kept growing and growing, and that power proved a corrupting influence as all power does.  With a nudge from a super-villain, Marvel Girl became the godlike and dangerous Dark Phoenix.  Her super-powered friends tried to help her, but, like a hopeless alcoholic, she was caught in a spiral.  In the end, Marvel Girl reasserted herself just long enough to take her own life, to save the lives of her friends.

Say what you will about comics, the "Dark Phoenix Saga" was, if you'll pardon my French, some serious sheet.  It was the sort of story which sticks with you your whole life.  And, while Byrne didn't actually write it, he drew it and was involved in the brain-storming that brought it to glorious life.  Imagine how it must feel to have been a part of something like that.  There was a Twilight Zone episode about a street vender who has to make the ultimate sales pitch in order to save the life of a dying girl.  It was called "One For the Angels".  That was what the "Dark Phoenix Saga" was -- one for the angels.

So, yeah, I guess I can understand why Byrne feels such dismay when he sees an ad for something like The Incredibles.  For many years, there was no doubt Hollywood seemed incapable of presenting superheroes in anything other than the Biff-Bam-Pow mold.  And though recently there have been several attempts to tell more serious superhero stories -- for example, The Hulk, Daredevil, Spider--Man 1 and 2 -- I still think they are setting the bar way too low.  Worse, even when the movies present superheroes in an adult, serious way, reviewers still see this as "a pleasant surprise" given that the movies in question were based on comics., which, as everyone knows "are for kids".

Every now and then, it seems, a comic book will transcend the stigma of the art form, catching the eye of the literati and launching a brief flurry of praise -- serious comics like Maus, which used cats and mice to allegorically depict the Nazi Holocaust. Then we will see the inevitable slew of magazine articles each beginning with: "Biff-Bam-Pow!  Comics aren't for kids anymore!" 

And yet, such praise just makes the situation worse for guys like John Byrne.  Because Byrne didn't make a Maus.  He didn't tackle the Holocaust with an allegory about cats and mice.  His stories were about Superheroes, and pointing out that the super-villain Magneto was motivated by his brief imprisonment in a Nazi deathcamp when he was a child is more likely to provoke a chuckle of derision than a Pulitzer Prize.  Because, even as comics are said to be maturing as an art form,  the superhero comics continue to take a beating. 

So, imagine if you're in John Byrne's shoes.  You're at a party and a pretty girl asks you (and believe me, married or not, you don't want to look stupid to a pretty girl), "What do you do for a living?"  What do you tell her?  I draw superheroes.  I drew the Dark Phoenix Saga.  I've spent my life doing that and I'm damn proud of what I do because I touch people emotionally, in ways that will stick with them their entire lives.

Sure, you could say that.  And you know what the pretty girl would say?  "Superheroes?" she'd say, as if mulling over a word she'd never heard before and didn't expect to run across again any time soon.   Then, as if thinking she had come up with the perfect response, she would smile brightly and out it pops.  A little pearl of wisdom.

"What? -- You mean, like ... The Incredibles?"

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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