Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Burden of Icon, or Erik Josten Shrugged, or Only A Man In A Funny Red Sheet

So this post started for me when I saw Superman Returns last night. This isn’t a review of the movie; I've got that to do, too, but it'll have to wait until I see it again, because I saw it in IMAX from the third row, and about all I'm qualified to write about the film at this point is that Brandon Routh keeps his nose hairs trimmed. But this isn't a review of the movie, and it's not really about the movie, either. The movie is just where it starts.

Where this post started coalescing in my brain, about 24 hours, give or take, before it slammed full-force into me as I was going downstairs just now to get a Pepsi from the bodega across the street, was the scene where Superman rescues Lex Luthor's girlfriend after Lex cuts her brakes. (By the way, for those of you who haven't seen the movie, the last sentence was probably where you wanted to stop reading.) After Superman stops the car, in the process posing for a recreation of the cover of Action Comics 1, he asks her if she's all right, and she babbles something about heart palpitations to get him to fly her to the hospital, because it's all a distraction so Lex Luthor can steal some kryptonite from the Museum of Natural History. He buys it, and he takes her in his arms and tells her to hold on tight.

And brother, she listens. I honestly felt embarrassed for Parker Posey, the actress in question, for having to do that on camera. (And I'm a guy who regularly watches Internet porn without feeling a shred of embarrassment for the people involved, so that oughta tell you something.) Brandon Routh, for his part, looked completely innocent. As well he should; after all, he is Superman.

And that's where it hit me. He is Superman. Routh's performance can be distilled into those three simple words, which nevertheless say a whole damn hell of a lot about the creative process when dealing with iconic characters, so much so that I had to sit down and write this blog post about it, so we'll be coming back to it later.

That takes me to my next thought, a realization that I am embarrassed has escaped me in the five years I've been reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels: When Pratchett writes Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, he's writing Superman as a cop. Which in turn leads me to my next thought: Does Pratchett know he's doing that? For all I know, and for all the text tells me, he's writing King Arthur as a cop. But the Superman comparison is no less valid, and not just because of the inherent and intentional similarity between the two icons, or between all three characters. It's not just because of archetype that I say Carrot is Superman, it's because in the part of me that knows who Superman is -- not Jung's collective unconscious, but my personal conscious that tells me red, blue, yellow and a spit curl equals Superman -- there is a perfectly-shaped outlay of Carrot Ironfoundersson that's slipped it's way in there because Carrot fits that description as well. (By the way, if you have no idea who the hell Carrot is, slip out to your local bookstore this week and buy a copy of Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, or The Fifth Elephant, the three Watch books that paint the fullest portrait of who Carrot is, and why he's the Hero Ankh-Morpork needs.)

Carrot is commentary on an icon; it therefore follows that he could not exist without that icon. And he could also not exist if that icon did not have such conscious power over us. The books would not work if we were unable to look at Carrot and not see Superman, and smile and get the joke. Carrot touches the place in our hearts where we know Superman, just as well as we know our own parents and lovers. Superman is a part, not just of our cultural makeup, but of our emotional makeup. We love him so.

And that's what makes him such a bitch to write.

For just as much as Superman exists in my heart, he exists in the heart of everyone else who loves him. And that's a damn lot of people. It comes with the territory; with idols there must also be idolaters. And to write him successfully, not just in terms of selling the next issue of Action, but in terms of being able to live with myself afterwards, I would not only have to reach down into the part of my heart where he lives, pull him out, and put him on display, I'd have to reach into everyone else's heart, too. What I put on the page will be what everyone who reads it will feel that I feel that they feel about Superman. (I realize that sentence is a bitch-and-a-half to parse, but go back and do it, because it's important.) It's okay if I show them things they feel that I didn't know they feel, but if I show them something they don't feel, that's the exact opposite of what they feel, I might as well walk through the campus of Yeshiva University dressed like Hitler, because I'll probably piss fewer people off. This is visceral, this is primal, this is fucking with people's emotions, and they do not like that.

And it's that way with every great icon in the book. Beyond Batman, Green Lantern, et al., to Holmes and to Conan and to Arthur and to Chuchulain and to Kawakami Gensai and to Jesus and on and on and on and holy spit, what the hell am I thinking wanting to get into this business?

So you'll understand if I now take people who look down their noses at writers who write for established characters and universes about a million percent less seriously. I mean, I understand the creative and developmental need to work on your own characters. I'm writing a novel with my own characters now, and beating myself up worse than any middle school bully ever did over how well I'm relating their world that's inside my head, and how believable it's going to be to your world that's outside it, and I'm having the time of my life doing it, and I've already got four more ideas waiting their turn in line. (By the way, Morts, I'm gonna need your help on the next one if I'm not going to offend your entire religion, so just be waiting for the call.) But man, you're talking football and I'm talking soccer, and that's all there is to it.

When Grant Morrison said his goal was "to be worth of Superman," he wasn't being the funny, self-effacing comic book nerd-cum-writer; he was deadly serious. I can't imagine a more sacred trust a society can lay on a person than the stewardship of its heroes. I can't imagine a more daunting task than knowing your work is going to be held up by mythology scholars centuries from now, and judged either a vital part of the mythos or a hapless Campbellian cul-de-sac. This novel I'm writing now, the worst that can ever happen is it gets published, the contemporary audience gives it a collective "meh," and forgets about it. How infinitely worse is it for that audience to give a collective "meh," remember it, and continue giving that "meh" generation after generation, until the end of human history? Is it any wonder the publishing industry has the highest percentage of alcoholism out of any business in the world?

My point is this: The next time you see Morrison, or Chris Claremont, or Peter David, or Kurt Busiek, or Geoff Johns, or anyone who's devoted their creative time and energy to someone else's characters, before you start in on him, give the guy a knowing look, and a handshake, and maybe, if he's receptive, a little hug. He could probably use it.

1 comment:

Jeff Brady said...

Very well said, Mike. And it was easier to parse that sentence than you think it is.