Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Strange Visitors from Another World (MAN OF STEEL Reviewed)


I have a bad habit of mitigating flaws with movies I want to love. Particularly with big genre blockbusters, the carefully orchestrated hype mechanism does its job on me almost every time. Despite my efforts to remain objective and cautious and keep my expectations in check, I almost always walk into an anticipated extravaganza with unreasonably high hopes. And it’s not just me; It’s a common malady in geekdom.

Inevitably, as the story unfolds onscreen, I get wrapped up in what I’m watching, being dazzled by the spectacle while abandoning all critical objectivity. Even after I leave the theater, my wishes for a great cinematic experience can overwhelm anything my subconscious is trying to tell me about what I actually just saw. It happened with BATMAN. It happened with SUPERMAN RETURNS. It happened with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and most recently, albeit just briefly, with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.

With MAN OF STEEL, though, despite my oft-(some would say monomaniacally)-stated affection for the title character, I made every effort to not get my hopes up, and for the most part, I was successful. Unlike last time, I didn’t gather a big group to go see it (just my pal and fellow Superman aficionado, Gary). I braced for the worst. Which is a good thing, because MAN OF STEEL may be the most polarizing adaptation in the character’s 75-year history… How you feel about it says more about your feelings towards the superhero genre, and, moreso, the character of Superman than it does the film itself.

For those of us who so, SO wanted to love this latest adaptation of the first true superhero, the movie is an enormous mixed bag that causes no small amount of consternation. The good is pretty darn good, but the bad… is horrifically bad.

On the upside, the cast is almost uniformly excellent. Henry Cavill is easily the best Superman since Christopher Reeve’s iconic standard-bearer. He plays the role with understated fortitude and charming nobility, while still being able to believably kick ass when the need arises (and, spoiler alert, it does). As Lois Lane, Amy Adams (one of my picks for the role when Kate Bosworth proved inept) strikes the perfect tone: smart but headstrong, intrepid, and a little bit reckless. While I never liked the idea of Lois knowing Clark and Superman were one and the same in the comics, it totally works here, and I’m curious to see what comes next with their relationship.

Both sets of parents do a nice job, despite the treacly speechifying that makes up most of their dialogue. And while they barely have anything to do (aside from dodging debris), the rest of the Daily Planet staff seems to know their stuff. Michael Shannon as General Zod wisely chooses not to replicate Terence Stamp’s scene-chewing theatrics, but ends up seeming—despite lots of shouting—a bit detached. Still, he gives the villain a chilling, self-righteous malevolence that would make Dick Cheney proud.

I thought that the science fiction aspects of the film worked really well. Drawing from John Byrne’s vision of a cold, sterile Krypton (where natural childbirth is an ancient concept), the movie managed to make an origin story I’ve seen / read / listened to / ate for breakfast a thousand times seem fresh. The alien biotech is gorgeously rendered, and the destruction of Krypton is presented in a new way that is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

It was a smart decision to jump straight from Kal-El crash landing in Kansas to the adult Clark working on the fishing boat, telling the bulk of his childhood upbringing in flashback. After the Reeve films and SMALLVILLE, I don’t know if the audience would’ve had the patience for a linear telling of the development of Clark’s abilities.

But the flashback scenes contain one of the larger problems with the film: Jonathan Kent. Superman’s morality stems not from his Kryptonian heritage; it’s what he learned from the couple who took him in as their own. The notion that you use your powers to help other people without hesitation is the basis of what makes the character so inspirational (and so confounding to his misanthropic enemies). MAN OF STEEL’s paranoid version of Pa Kent, who thinks it might be okay to let a bus full of kids drown, who sees the worst in people rather than the best, is impossible to imagine as the moral compass for Superman.

Still, I was willing to forgive this veering from the mythos (maybe Clark learned his morality from his mom), as—aside from the handheld camera—everything else up to this point was working for me. I loved Hans Zimmer’s percussive score. I thought this version of the Phantom Zone was the best I’d ever seen (and it made sense how its prisoners escaped). I liked the elements that screenwriter David S. Goyer lifted from Mark Waid’s SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT (Clark traveling the world, finding his way). The oil rig rescue was fantastic. I was happy with the ancient Kryptonian ship at least temporarily serving as the Fortress of Solitude. I wasn’t annoyed with this incarnation of the artificial Jor-El, and even (as I had hoped) accepted the retooled costume within the context of the story.

Right up through the point where Kal-El puts on the Superman suit and learns to fly, I was sitting there thinking, “Damn, I’m really liking this movie” (I'm pretty sure I even leaned over to whisper as such to Gary).

And then, like the planet Krypton did so spectacularly, MAN OF STEEL pretty much implodes. Once General Zod and the Phantom Zone exiles land in Smallville and start trading blows with Superman, destroying everything in sight (including Sears and IHOP), the movie becomes an almost relentless assault on both the senses and the spirit of Superman.

Like so many other fans of the character, I sat there bewildered, wondering why this Superman seemed to have no compunction whatsoever about the absolutely devastating collateral damage that his battles were incurring. Buildings are demolished, vehicles are tossed into crowds and structures, gas stations and silos explode, and there’s barely a hint of concern on the part of our supposed savior.

Things get a thousand times worse when the action moves to Metropolis, where the devastation makes New York City’s trashing in THE AVENGERS look like the wee bit of carnage caused when Supes battled the Phantom Zone villains in SUPERMAN II. It's yet another disturbing 9/11 exploitation in a movie obviously made by people who weren't here on that day.

And this is the most aggravating thing: The movie would have been SO MUCH BETTER if director Zack Snyder and his crew had done LESS. Why on Earth did they think that we needed to see seemingly half of Metropolis destroyed in order to grasp the gravity (no pun intended) of the threat? Surely one building toppling would’ve been enough (and as we learned in real life, two is too much). The destruction is so over the top that it becomes not just mind-numbingly repetitive, but annoyingly meaningless. We get it! The Kryptonians are powerful and ruthless! This battle is important!

But of all the thousands of deaths in MAN OF STEEL, the worst one is the last: Superman kills General Zod. Kills Zod dead. Kills the shit out of him. Superman kills. I keep writing it because I still can’t really believe it.

This is the moment where MAN OF STEEL loses the core audience who so desperately wanted to love this movie. This is the moment where David Goyer and Zack Snyder seem to flip the cinematic bird to everyone who really cares about how this character is presented. There were other options. It’s almost impossible to see this as anything other than a chickenshit bow to the formula of practically every superhero movie in the past few decades.

(Of less overall importance, one has to wonder, how exactly did Superman snap Zod’s neck? They’ve spent the last half of the movie smacking each other with planes, trains, automobiles, and entire BUILDINGS, to no avail. But when it suits the story, suddenly Zod’s neck becomes vulnerable. And why, after thousands of people are dead, does Superman only reach his breaking point when he sees Dick and Jane and their parents [seriously, where was Spot?] about to be heat-vision-vaporized at the train station?)

Now, you’d think that, as someone who’s written about how Superman’s refusal to take a life is one of the key tenets of the character, I’d be among the very vocal chorus who flat out decry this movie as an abomination.

But here comes some of that mitigating I mentioned at the top: While I hated Zod’s death, I’m going to cut it some slack in the larger context of MAN OF STEEL, based on an interview with Goyer and Snyder for EMPIRE MAGAZINE (which also reveals that producer Christopher Nolan was against the controversial ending, but lost the argument).

Snyder’s defense is thus: “I felt like, if we can find a way of making it impossible for him–like Kobayashi Maru, totally no way out–I felt like that could also make you go, ‘Okay, this is the why of him not killing ever again, right?’ He’s basically obliterated his entire people and his culture and he is responsible for it and he’s just like, ‘How could I kill ever again?’”

There is precedent for this. During John Byrne’s run on Superman, there was a storyline in which Zod, Zaora (not Faora, although she did exist in the comics) and a third Phantom Zone villain named Quex-Ul destroy every living being on an alternate Earth in a “pocket universe.” Superman (summoned from his Earth in a last ditch effort to defeat the villains) ultimately decides he has no choice but to execute the criminals before they can escape to another world and wreak the same havoc.

In the comics, the story had ramifications that lasted for years, with Superman suffering a crisis of conscience that cemented his resolve to never again take another life, no matter how vile. It’s interesting that this story took place in 1988, during the celebration of Superman’s 50th anniversary… now here we are, 25 years later, having the same discussion. It just shows how the more things change, etc.

So, if we discover in the sequel to MAN OF STEEL (MAN OF TOMORROW?) Henry Cavill’s Superman has learned a painful lesson from killing Zod, then I’m willing to grant the filmmakers some latitude. Continuing in the EMPIRE interview, Snyder says, “I think that when you really put in stone the notion that he won’t kill, it erases an option in the viewer’s mind… That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t now have a code that ‘I just won’t do that; I have to find another way.’”

True, it’s not optimal that I had to read an interview after seeing the movie to have my biggest complaint about MAN OF STEEL somewhat tempered, but there you go.

While I hope the inevitable next installment does deal with Superman’s killing of Zod, overall it had better be a lot less gritty and humorless. MAN OF STEEL could certainly have benefited from one or two more moments of heroism that didn’t involve the demolition of a city block (remember the montage in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE where Superman captured the cat burglar and the bank robbers, rescued Air Force One, and got the cat out of the tree? Something like that, maybe). And please, for the love of Rao, can we have some more laughs next time?

I hesitate to compare MAN OF STEEL to Richard Donner’s 1978 classic and its first sequel for many reasons. Despite telling the same basic story, they are disparate animals in practically every way, made by a wholly different generation of filmmakers for a different era. Those of us old enough to have seen Christopher Reeve take flight on the big screen have a stubborn tendency to decry anything that doesn’t kneel at the altar constructed by that seminal superhero film. But those movies weren’t perfect, either (Hell, one could even argue that Superman casually let the de-powered Ursa, Non, and General Zod die of hypothermia or whatever in the theatrical cut of SUPERMAN II with nary a second thought). Nor, of course, was Bryan Singer’s noble, yet ill-advised attempt to craft a simultaneous sequel and ode to the first two Reeve movies in SUPERMAN RETURNS (which was as morose and uneventful as MAN OF STEEL is angry and apocalyptic).

In the larger sense, mixed feelings about the new movie aside, I have to accept MAN OF STEEL as perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the classic ideal of Superman that I and so many others hold dear. This noble idealist, the staunch optimist, clad in bright primary colors (red shorts and all) has given way to the more modern, grimmer, armored superhero that populates comics, toy shelves, and now film. Those of us who lament this new Superman’s presence as an insurgency run the risk of coming across as nothing more than bitter, cranky old timers fighting against the inevitability of change.

Maybe instead of quixotically weeping over the loss of “our” Superman (for whom mountains of material in all forms of media will always exist), we should instead try to find and encourage others to find in these new iterations the kernel of what made Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s character so enduring in the first place. Despite my sizable issues with the movie, I did see that kernel more than a few times in MAN OF STEEL.

And I don’t think I’m just mitigating flaws. At least I hope I’m not. Time will tell.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

It's Not an S (anticipating MAN OF STEEL)

As of this writing, it’s a few days until the premiere of, and a few more until I plan to see Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, MAN OF STEEL. And I’m doing everything I can in my (decidedly non-super) powers to refrain from being excited. Because last time, I got burned. Bad.

Oh, I put on a happy face and did as much as I could to mitigate the problems with Bryan Singer’s 2006 film, SUPERMAN RETURNS, both in public and in my own geeky brain. But, as with Tim Burton’s BATMAN (and, to a much lesser extent, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), despite my fervent attempts to convince myself SUPERMAN RETURNS was a good movie, in time, I had to admit that it was, in fact, pretty crappy.

Rather than reiterate the entire history of my relationship with the last time the my favorite fictional character appeared on the big screen, here are some links to the evolution of my thoughts…

The first of a five-part series I wrote for anticipating the movie, explaining why Superman matters (to me personally, as well as in the larger context). Please forgive the clichéd “Webster defines…” opening. I was young. Well, not young, but… oh, screw it, I have no excuse.

The final installment of that series, explaining how even if SUPERMAN RETURNS turned out to be lousy, it wouldn’t do lasting harm to a character that’s proved to be ultimately invulnerable to bad media adaptations.

My too-forgiving original review of SUPERMAN RETURNS, written after seeing the movie a few times (note the alternate Lois Lane casting suggestions… ahem).

A February 2010 open letter to Christopher Nolan, written for, upon the announcement of his producing MAN OF STEEL, with a more honest appraisal of what went wrong in SUPERMAN RETURNS and notes on how not to fuck it up.

• And a 2011 blog post upon the announcement of DC Comics’ Superman reboot about how Superman doesn’t really need to be “rebooted.”


It’s funny now to think of how worked up fanboys (myself included) got over the reveal of Brandon Routh’s darker Superman costume in RETURNS in contrast with the relatively small outcry over the far more radical redesign for MoS. Personally, I’m not a fan of Cavill’s supersuit… again, it’s way too dark, with too many little details, that stupid rubber accenting, and a ridiculously long cape (Superman ain’t Batman, kids). And of course, the red shorts are nowhere to be found. But I like the \S/ shield, which harkens back to the comics’ Golden Age, and the boots are good… I’m reserving final judgment until I see it in context. And, to be honest, I think a lot of us Supernerds are more forgiving because it’s actually better than the armored monstrosity the character currently wears in the comic books.

Of course, I’ve followed the development of the movie since it got under way three years ago, and there’s been much trepidation. While Nolan knew what to do with Batman (at least until that final stumble), would his sensibility be able to translate to the much lighter Superman, or would this just be a better made iteration of Tim Burton’s thankfully-aborted Man of Angst movie from the late ‘90s?

I was mollified a little bit when director Zack Snyder started saying some of the right things early in the process, assuring fans that he wasn’t going to make a “Dark Superman” movie and that Henry Cavill was cast in the title role in part because he possessed an “innocence” that was necessary for the character. And I was happy with the casting pretty much across the board (if a black Perry White bothers you, you have problems, while the supposed “Jenny Olsen” seems a pointless do-over). Still, screenwriter David Goyer’s résumé doesn’t have a lot of lightness on it, so my skepticism remained (especially after seeing that shot of Superman drowning in a sea of skulls).

I’m thankful that Warner Bros. (side note, bloggers: it’s not “Brothers”) held back the media onslaught until a mere handful of weeks before the film’s release (regardless of their motives). A few trailers and some discomfiting Walmart tie-ins aside, there wasn’t a lot of content out there to fill the spoiler bags. I went into SUPERMAN RETURNS knowing much in advance, and with too many carefully crafted teasers raising my expectations way too high. Way.

Still, even with just a fistful of trailers and three or four clips, it’s not that hard to figure out the plot of MAN OF STEEL, and it’s not even really spoilery (altho’ if you haven’t thought about it at all, you may wanna skip to the next paragraph): Zod and Jor-El battle on Krypton, Zod and fellow insurgents are sent to Phantom Zone, Krypton is destroyed and Kal-El is sent to Earth, found & raised by the Kents, Clark discovers his true heritage, travels the world trying to figure out his place, secretly using his powers to help people while being tracked by investigative reporter Lois Lane, Zod escapes from Phantom Zone and tracks Kal-El to Earth, ensuing giant threat forces Clark to adopt Superman mantle and go public, Superman defeats Zod, and then maybe at the end, puts on glasses and gets a job at the Daily Planet.

Or something like that.

Going into the movie with expectations about the story is kind of hard to avoid with a reboot of a character I know like my own family. I don’t have a problem with that. I’m more worried about how this thing is going to play out.

I’m nervous that, despite claims that Superman himself isn’t dark (even if the context is), that Henry Cavill’s Kal-El will turn out to be another ill-advised take on this character that means so much to me. Although I doubt he’ll use his x-ray vision to spy on ex-girlfriends with whom he sired a bastard child (seriously, what the fuck was Bryan Singer thinking?), there remains a decent chance that this Kal-El will be angsty and mopey like his most recent cinematic predecessor.

And, based on the mixed reviews the movie is getting (I’ve only scanned the headlines, again to avoid spoilers), I’m also nervous about director Zack Snyder’s tendency to overload his movies with visual dazzle in the place of story and character development. And there’s so much damn character to develop, too.

Anyway. This time, I’m being good. My expectations are measured (even if I have already purchased the deluxe version of the soundtrack and five action figures in advance of seeing the darn thing). I’m prepared to not like the movie. Still, I have to cling to what that Kryptonian glyph (it’s not an S) on Superman’s chest means: Hope.

Either way, I will let you all know next week.

Monday, June 10, 2013

10 Things You May Not Know About Superman

With MAN OF STEEL right around the corner, speculation is running high as to just how different—aside from the lack of red shorts—Zack Snyder’s Superman is going to be from what’s come before. How many surprises can there be for a character that’s been in the pop culture spotlight for three quarters of a century?

But one of the reasons the character’s been around so long is that there’s always something new to pull out of that blue sleeve. And even his past contains some things you may not know. Here are ten such little known facts from Superman’s vast history that may well surprise you (unless, of course, you are a comics fan, in which case, Shh! Don’t spoil it for the laypeople!).

In 1933, the third issue of the fanzine, SCIENCE FICTION: THE ADVANCE GUARD OF FUTURE CIVILIZATION featured a story by its publisher, a young writer named Jerry Siegel, entitled, “The Reign of the Superman,” with illustrations by Joe Shuster. The story tells of an evil scientist who chooses a homeless man to be the test subject for an experimental serum that grants telepathic powers. When the formula proves a success, the empowered vagrant kills the scientist before he can use the serum on himself. Inspired to take over the world, the Superman is shocked to discover that the effects of the serum are temporary, and he soon loses his powers, as well as his world-dominating aspirations.

But Siegel was more interested in writing about heroes who could battle against the world’s evils, and so (with Shuster again on art duties) he set about reworking the powers and concept of his Nietsche-inspired character. It would be another five years before they were finally able to sell their revamped Superman to National Comics for a whopping, copyright-forfeiting $130.00.

Over the years, Superman’s arch-enemy has evolved from evil scientific genius to evil corporate overlord to evil scientific genius corporate overlord, but his abiding hatred of the hero has never wavered. These days, the general gist is that Luthor is envious of Superman’s powers and popularity, mistrustful of his motives, and aggravated by his altruism.

But in the simpler Silver Age, the reason was much more superficial, as explained in ADVENTURE COMICS #271 (1960): Friends as teens, Superboy built a fully stocked laboratory for the young Lex Luthor. When an awry experiment caused a fire in the lab, the Teen of Steel used his super breath to blow it out, but the resultant mixture of gaseous chemicals caused permanent hair loss for his now-ex pal, who swore he’d get even (he also accused Superboy of jealousy and was mad that a huge experiment was ruined, but it was mostly the hair thing). Turning your back on the coolest friend you could ever have because you think he made you bald? Vanity, thy name is Lex (a first name, by the way, that was finally given to the previously mononymous Luthor in this very tale).

Actually, if you’ve seen the third trailer for MAN OF STEEL, then you do know this one, but the evolution of Superman’s trademark chest emblem is an interesting story. For decades, the symbol was indeed an S, and Clark himself chose the rather immodest name for which it stood. 1978’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE decided to adorn Superman’s birth daddy, Jor-El with the symbol as well, altering its meaning to stand for the House of El, the resemblance to our letter S being a mere coincidence (and, in that film, as well as MoS, it’s Lois Lane who gives Kal-El his nom de guerre). DC Comics retroactively adopted this idea, and while the precise meaning of the Kryptonian glyph has shifted in the past three decades, one thing is for sure: It’s not an S.

Superman’s girlfriends over the years have almost all had one thing in common: Alliterative names beginning with the letter L: There was Lana Lang, his childhood crush, Lyla Lerrol, the Kryptonian actress he fell in love with during a time-travel trek to his home planet, and of course, the intrepid reporter, Lois Lane. And then there’s Clark Kent’s college sweetheart, a wheelchair-bound beauty named Lori Lemaris.

Introduced in a flashback story in SUPERMAN #129 in 1959, Lori cast such a spell on Metropolis University student Clark Kent that he proposed marriage to her, despite not knowing why she always had to cut their dates short to return home by 8pm. When Lori reveals she knows Clark is Superman due to her native people’s telepathy, Clark is stunned to learn—because he would never use his X-ray vision to peek under the blanket she always wore—that he has fallen in love with a mermaid from Atlantis, sent to study the progress of we “surface people” (the 8pm curfew was so she could soak in a tank of water, of course).

Despite their love, interspecies relationships were still frowned upon in Silver Age comics, so Lori returned to the sea, leaving behind a broken hearted Young Man of Steel. Wah.

Technically, neither does Batman, but you wouldn’t know that from all the guns and rocket launchers that are mounted on all his vehicles in every Batman movie (good and bad alike). But Superman’s moral code is so exacting that he refuses to take a life, no matter how vile. Additionally, he knows that the fragile sense of trust he’s worked to earn from his adopted home would be shattered if humans thought even for a second that he would use his vast powers to exact the ultimate vigilante justice. We shall see if MAN OF STEEL's “darker” Superman adheres to this character-defining tenet or not. Let’s hope so.

Superman was such an instant smash when introduced seventy-five years ago in ACTION COMICS #1 that he very quickly made the leap to other media: comic strips, radio, animated cartoons, and even a novel. And many indelible parts of the legend came from some of these non-comic book adaptations.

The radio show introduced the Daily Planet’s Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, as well as the deadly element known as kryptonite. The newspaper itself got its name in the comic strip (replacing the comic book’s’ “Daily Star” in 1940). George Lowther’s 1942 novel, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN renamed our hero’s birth parents as Jor-El and Lara (supplanting the original Jor-L and Lora). And it was in the Fleischer Studios animated cartoons that Superman first changed clothes in a phone booth, and—more importantly—evolved from making great leaps to actually being able to fly, simply because a jumping superhero looked kinda silly in the first few episodes (The cry of, “Up, up, and away!” also came from radio, a necessity when you could only describe action as opposed to showing it).

Since Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent were introduced in 1938, the hardest part of the story to buy wasn’t his alien heritage or his many amazing super powers. It was that nobody would recognize Clark as Superman just because he put on a pair of glasses (and changed his voice, hair and posture).

In 1978, writer Martin Pasko (using an idea by Al Schroeder III) solved the mystery in SUPERMAN #330, “The Master Mesmerizer of Metropolis!” It turns out that among the hero’s many powers is a form of super-hypnosis, which, magnified through the lenses of heat-vision-resistant Kryptonian-plexiglass eyeglasses, causes people to see Clark Kent as he wants them to: A frail, slightly balding, extremely mild mannered reporter, quite the opposite of the beefy Man of Steel. The effect is so strong that it even works when people look at photos of Clark!

Yeah, there are some holes in the theory, and, like so many stories, this idea was quickly abandoned, and to this day, the only reason nobody recognizes Clark as Superman is because of a great power we all possess: Suspension of disbelief.

In this age of corporate synergy and ubiquitous merchandising tie-ins, it’s practically unfathomable to imagine that not one Superman movie was adapted to either comic book or novel form prior to 1983’s SUPERMAN III (in case you were dying to read the prose version of that tale).

True, neither the two 1940s serials starring Kirk Alyn, nor George Reeves’ theatrical film, SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN begged for print translations. But why was there no comic / book version of 1978’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE or its first sequel in 1981? Blame Mario Puzo. The Godfather author wrote the first draft of the screenplay to SUPERMAN (which included much of SUPERMAN II), and had a specific clause in his contract that no adaptation of the story could be published without his involvement. Despite numerous rewrites by subsequent script doctors, Puzo’s name remains the primary screenwriter, and as he had no interest in working on either a novel or a funnybook version of his radically altered original story, to this day, the only way to experience those first two films is to watch ‘em… which really is not a bad thing.

In the olden days, Superman had to jump through an awful lot of hoops to protect his secret identity, often enlisting his pal Batman to masquerade as one of his identities whenever Superman and Clark Kent were required to be in the same place at the same time (he even had an army of robots in part for this reason, but also because they did a great job cleaning the Fortress of Solitude).

But in ACTION COMICS #309, Batman has to appear at the same live television spectacular honoring Superman as all of the Man of Steel’s friends… including Clark! And so, Superman calls in a favor from another trusted confidant… President John F. Kennedy, who slaps on some makeup, wig and glasses to pass himself off as the reporter (foiling Lois’ 548th attempt at proving Superman and Clark are one and the same).

The sad irony of this story is that the issue (cover dated Feb. 1964) hit the newsstands one week after Kennedy’s assassination (too late for DC Comics to pull the comic book from distribution), adding a heavy poignancy to a rather silly tale.

Despite being a cultural icon for 75 years, the character that launched the entire superhero genre (perfectly synthesizing elements that existed in numerous heroes before) and solidified the nascent medium of comic books as a viable form of entertainment, Superman doesn’t get his due respect. People tend to dismiss him as being dull or too goody-goody. Common wisdom says the dark and brooding Batman or raging bad boys like Wolverine are much cooler heroes than the morally righteous Midwest farm boy in the primary-colored costume.

But here’s what most people don’t get about Superman: When he’s done right, he’s actually the coolest hero there is. It’s not that he has this long list of incredible super powers, it’s that how he treats them. First of all, he’s Steve McQueen-nonchalant about this “most powerful being on the planet thing.” It’s no big deal. Remember, he didn’t name himself Superman, and he doesn’t even think that he’s better than us. All he wants to do is help, which is the other cool thing about the guy. There’s no angsty motivation for revenge or simmering need to prove anything. He uses his powers for good because, Duh, that’s what you do.

How many of us could honestly say that, given powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, we wouldn’t become insufferably arrogant and use those abilities for our own benefit over that of others? Sadly, not many, which is what makes Superman so eternally cool… and also necessary.
Originally posted on, June 2013

Monday, June 03, 2013

Collector's Edition Excerpt #10: Kloppers

NOTE: Now that the book is "finished," I'm in final editing mode, preparing images, and searching for a publisher. Any inquiries should be sent to 

You’d think that after a few years of full-time music retailing, I’d have become jaded, but spending so much time at BBC didn’t dull the shine of shopping in other record stores. Maybe not for new stuff, since I could order practically anything I wanted, but finding rare, out of print and old records remained an obsession. Searching out old used vinyl remained a ritual that had as much to do with the act of collecting as listening to the music acquired.

It was also something that my brother Ken and I shared. We would hit flea markets, thrift stores and used record shops and line up for the annual Lancaster Library Sale (which sold donated records in addition to books) in hopes of getting the good stuff before some other collector did.

One day in January of 1993, my wife’s realtor uncle said to me, “Hey, Karl, you’re into records, right?” I affirmed that was a proper assessment. Uncle Sal told me that a tenant of his had died, an old lady with no heirs who was apparently a major pack rat, and had left her collection of books and records to the Lancaster County Library. However, when Sal contacted said establishment, they had no interest in taking them. “So, if you wanna come see if there’s anything you want…”

I said sure, and asked if my record-collecting brother could come as well. And so, one cold morning in early February, I picked up Ken and we drove to Uncle Sal’s office with relatively low expectations. Odds were this was just going to be a handful of cartons of beat-up Lester Lanin albums and original cast albums of West Side Story and Oklahoma! Still, what could it hurt to take a look?

The old lady lived in a small apartment over a garage in the parking lot behind Uncle Sal’s office building. I can’t imagine it wasn’t at least somewhat depressing, but I never saw the space itself. All of her belongings had been boxed up and put in the space below. “Okay, fellas, take as much as you want… the more you take, the less I have to get rid of,” urged Uncle Sal as he unlocked the garage door and rolled it open on its squeaky metal track.

Ken and I were immediately taken aback by the sheer volume of cardboard boxes stacked in the cold garage; There were dozens. Literally thousands of books and records… it was simply a mathematical probability that at least some of them were worth keeping, right? Uncle Sal left us to our excavation and we each grabbed a carton and opened it.

Our jaws dropped and drool began to form at the corners of our mouths. We turned to each other with the wide eyes of avaricious collectors waiting to pinched awake from a common, yet impossible dream. This was no stash of worthless junk. This woman was a serious collector of pop culture, and had been since the 1940s.

There were hundreds of jazz and pop vocal albums by Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Francoise Hardy, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, and dozens more. She had over 60 Frank Sinatra records (albums, 10” EPs and 7” singles) from his Columbia years through Reprise. She collected tons of soundtracks to films like La Dolce Vita, Baby Doll, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Wild One. There were early Elektra folk records, comedy albums by the likes of Mike Nichols & Elaine May and Stan Freberg, and a bunch of celebrity vocal sides by Patty Duke, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. She owned classical albums and world music and—perhaps most unexpectedly—every single Tangerine Dream record!

And here’s the thing… they were all in perfect condition. In fact, the only “defect” by collector’s standards was a uniform marking somewhere on the back of each album: Her name, set in a bold serif typeface, hand-stamped in black ink from a custom-made rubber stamp she no doubt had made for the sole purpose of staking a claim on her beloved collection.

Between the two of us, Kenny and I walked away with over a thousand records that day, some of them worth hundreds of dollars. Why didn’t the Lancaster library want this stuff? We had no idea, but felt guilty enough about taking what was intended for them that we made a financial donation to the institution in the old woman’s name. Of course, we didn’t feel so guilty that we didn’t keep the records. Collectors can have a conscience, but we are rarely unequivocally selfless.

But I like to think that the old woman would be glad that much of her collection went to people who genuinely appreciated it. Every time I pull out one of those LPs, I’m glad that she stamped her name on the covers. In a way, it’s keeping her alive; it’s a memorial of sorts to this old lady that I genuinely wish I had met. It’s easy to imagine that, despite a large age difference, we had a lot in common. We were both collectors. We loved music (even some of the same singers) and film and art. And we probably both felt more connected to those things than to most people.

by and ©Karl Heitmueller Jr.