After looking for it for some time and having ordered it some months ago, I finally got around to reading, Superfolks. Turns out it is relevant to thinking about comics-related revision and influence.
In discussing my piece on She-Hulk as a meta-comic over at the Hooded Utilitarian, I started to think about the relationship between the long tradition of ridiculous characters and situations that make up a lot of Silver Age superhero comics (and that has been exacerbated in many ways by the grim undertones of the Bronze Age comics that followed), and the fantastic comic stories and series that take advantage of that archive of absurdity to develop some of the best comics of the genre. The best example of this might be Grant Morisson’s All-Star Superman, a refreshing read that embraces Silver Age Superman goofiness to give us well-rounded and fun Superman stories that are free of the shackles of comic continuity while still relying on their tropes. I don’t have to go back and read issues of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen to get the most out of All-Star, and except perhaps for the few issues written and drawn by Jack “King” Kirby, I really don’t want to. All I need to do is have a sense of those stories—often the covers alone are sufficient to give you that sense. They somehow manage to pique your curiosity even as they make it clear that the story told within those covers is mind-numbingly stupid.
And so decades of terrible stories that might seem completely without value—just the kind of ephemeral junk that comics were supposed to be—are retroactively given value through later writers’ ability to make use of their nostalgia to elevate them. In this way, those old stories just become grist for the mill—a resource that better writers can mine to develop something more sophisticated. In some cases this was done with some success by those who took a dark and serious look at the superhero phenomenon, but since that approach quickly became a parody of itself, these days I am much more enamored of comics that can recapture a sense of fun without reverting to kiddie garbage. On the other hand, this does not mean I have no love for some classics of the “adult” treatment of superheroes like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore’s Miracleman. I just don’t have time for comics that mistake violence, cruelty and rampant sexual objectification for its own sake, as maturity.
Superfolks, a novel first published in 1977 and written by Robert Mayer, strikes me as a source for both these strands of superhero revision. In and out of print in the last 35 years, it has often been cited as an influence on a variety of respected comics that came after it, and there have even been accusations of straight up theft from it. Leavened with 1970s gonzo humor, it is considered by many to be the first deconstruction of the superhero—but even if that is the case, it only has value in retrospect like some issue of Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane. Its worth is only as something abstract—something some other writer uses as the seed for a good story.
Superfolks is an embarrassingly bad novel. I mean really bad. Cringe-worthy. If it were not for my scholarly interest in this kind of text I would have never finished it. It is just that bad. It tries really hard to be funny, but is burdened with a lot of 1970s off-color humor that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work now and I can’t imagine that it really worked then unless you were a 16 years old, sex and comics-obsessed boy named Kurt Busiek.
While I can appreciate the influence it may have had on writers like Busiek and perhaps on Alan Moore, if Grant Morrison is to be believed (and some of the similarities between Super Folks and particular plot points in Watchmen and Miracleman are undeniable), it is only of interest as an oddity of its time, as a very base source of ideas that other writers—comic book writers with a better sense of what superhero comics are like and how they are (and can be) constructed—have developed into things that are so beyond what Super Folks actually is that it makes the source material all the more sad. And it is just really sad. It is just more grist for the on-going comic book mill.
A product of its age, its supposedly liberal-minded politics makes room for explicit racist and sexist tropes. Superfolks does nothing to really deconstruct the narratives of urban criminality that make superhero comics (esp. superhero comics of the late 60s into the 70s) so problematic. There is even an army of faceless nameless “muggers” that Mayer does nothing to dissuade us is made up of nothing but “blacks and Puerto Ricans” who have taken over the city as the “slums” expanded, driving “people” (read: white people) into the suburbs. Repeatedly the novel’s casual racist and sexist references are off-putting, even if they are more stupid than offensive.
Mayer’s book is nearly as bad as Family Guy in its senseless and endless referential humor and its use of a variety of real life characters and fictional analogues. Page after page is one groan after another. Kojak, All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Dear Abby and Ann Landers, Candice Bergen, Gerald Ford, Snoopy and the Red Baron, Gloria Steinem… On and on and on. Trust me, this is the kind of thing I’d admire if it were clever and were used to make some kind of intelligent and humorous cultural comment. It doesn’t. Near the end he mentions planets named “Elvis” and “Nigger” for no good reason—just examples of places the hero can fly off to. Those parts aren’t parody. They are attempts at humor through adolescent shock. Just bullshit.
The prose it is plodding, basic, and thickly smeared with bad similes and poor metaphors. For a novel based on a visual medium, its description of action is bland. It is really badly written. Poorly plotted. Not funny. Someone might be able to make an argument that the tonal inconsistencies of the novel echo the incoherence of the superhero comic book tradition, but I wouldn’t. That is not to say there wouldn’t be something to write in regards to the anxieties the book betrays about its historical post-Watergate urban-crisis moment, but that’d mean spending time with the book, and. . . well, just no thanks. Literary criticism may not demand that the critic love the book he or she is analyzing, but there is a such thing as diminishing returns with a book as bad as this one. I liked a flawed book, but this one seems like one whole long string of flaws.
Case in point: As part of a fairly explicit sex scene between the hero and the Lois Lane analogue involving a handjob and oral sex, the woman is taken aback when he pulls out a condom to have actual sex.
Peggy recoiled in horror.
“We can’t,” she said. “All those boys and girls seeing us in the comics. What would they think?” He put the Trojan away. They continued to give each other hand jobs.
This might be funny and interesting if it were part of a greater theme in the novel commenting on the inconsistencies of how sex and sexuality have been depicted in a genre ostensibly for kids through some kind of on-going self-awareness of their role as comic book characters, but there is nothing else in the novel to suggest that the characters are aware of being comic book characters (or even any mention of comics at all). The fact that later in the book there is more explicit sex demonstrates that this is a throwaway gag—something to make a teen boy snicker. Later, Peter Pan (who it is established is gay) tricks the protagonist into letting him give him a blowjob in a scene that comes out of nowhere and has no point. It is just a recapitulation of the hur-hur adolescent mentality that permeates the whole book. Over and over I asked myself, “Was this book even edited?” It comes off as the mid-list self-published crap—barely superior to shit like The Horny Ghost of Osama Bin-Laden.
It is just fucking terrible. Don’t let people like Busiek or Morrison convince you otherwise. They are either stupider than their writing suggests or biased by nostalgia. Busiek’s introduction to the 2003 reprinting is basically an admission of the latter because it is hard to believe that a clear-headed person would call Superfolks “the best Superman parody [he’s] ever read” or “one of the best Superman stories [he’s] ever read.” I may really enjoy (most of) his Astro City and find his Secret Identity to be one of the best Superman stories ever, but he is wrong about this. Morrison may be right that Moore has not given sufficient credit to Meyer’s book for some of his ideas, but it is just as likely that the ideas developed from thinking on the possibilities of things like the Marvel Family’s magic words or the role of Mxyzptlk in an increasingly grim superhero milieu. Certainly Moore uses them to better effect, and it seems rather hypocritical of Morrison to accuse Moore when he has ripped off himself ripping off Borges more than once without ever really transforming or elevating the source material. (It’s Borges, how could he?) Pádraig Ó Méalóid has a great examination of the controversy surrounding Morrison’s accusations in a three-part series he wrote for the Comics Beat last year. Part Two is probably the most relevant section, though I recommend reading the whole thing.
All of this is not to say that there aren’t interesting aspects to Superfolks. If there weren’t then the claims of influence and theft would be moot. The anti-corporate message is interesting and prescient. I liked the “twist” that the main character’s weakening of his superpowers arises from the diffusion of the equivalent of kryptonite into consumer products and building materials. I also think its angle on sexual dysfunction and the superhero superiority complex is interesting (though much better developed in Watchmen), but at the same time Frederic Wertham struck on these very same themes in his takedown of superheroes back in the 1950s. This isn’t new stuff. As I (and others) have noted, Wertham was influenced by Frankfurt School thinkers, so his work was really a variety of cultural criticism despite his psychological pretensions in his attack on comics, so it is not hard to develop satire from those ideas which are a form of deconstruction in themselves.
If you really want to read a good novel based on the Superman mythology, then I highly recommend It’s Superman! By Tom De Haven (a kind of social realist take on pre-Action Comics#1 Depression Era Golden Age Superman) or The Kryptonite Kid by Joseph Torcia (about a young boy with a troubled home life that believes Superman is real and writes him letters). If you are looking for something more along the lines of (so-called) literary fiction that uses comic book elements or based in comic book worlds, then read Jonathan Lethem’s fantastic novel The Fortress of Solitude (2003), which is as good and deep a book as I have ever read, or Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which brilliantly manages to use deep reference to comics, sci-fi and fantasy to enmesh his narrative into a real historical context using marginalized fictive resources, or even Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, which uses the Fantastic Four and the Negative Zone as the central metaphor for post-60s white middle-class suburban family life.
Superfolks book is strictly for those who feel they must read everything that may have marginally influenced their favorite (or least favorite) comic book writers. Otherwise, it is totally skippable.