Wednesday, February 21, 2007

On the Trail of the Superman

1) Citations

It's always fun to come across early citations of now-common words. For instance, who knew that the earliest cited use of the noun superpower was in an issue of Supersnipe Comics from 1945? Several people, apparently.

I've always been interested in the history of the word superman. Some odd coincidences: Recently I was reading John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses which traces aspects of Nietzsche's thought up to the 1940s in part through an examination of the British modernists' disdain for popular culture. Many of the most famous (and famously elite) avant-garde writers of the early 20th Century dabbled in proto-fascist ideas --even those who at some point embraced aspects of socialism. Bernard Shaw is a case in point.

I think many dictionaries cite George Bernard Shaw as responsible for the coinage of superman in his 1903 play Man and Superman. Shaw took the word on loan from the German Ubermensch, first used by Nietzsche in 1883's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche's term is literally "overman". There are English versions that translate it as "superman" that predate Shaw.

A member of the non-revolutionary socialist Fabian Society, nevertheless Shaw "yielded to a craving for strong men in government and ignored the faults and praised what seemed to him the virtues of manifest villains, such as Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini," according to Robertson Davies.

Anyway, I discovered my favourite early superman citation recently in a work by one of Shaw's contemporaries, P.G. Wodehouse's Something Fresh, a novel first published in 1915. Wodehouse is described by Carey as a champion of lower middle class "clerk" culture; one of the writers who used vulgar slang and wrote for a mass audience. The quote describes George Emerson, a policeman, and is spoken by the object of his affection, Aline Peters:

"You are too overwhelming, too much like a bomb. I think you must be one of these Supermen one reads about. You would want your own way and nothing but your own way. I expect it's through having to be constantly moving people on out in Hong Kong, and all that sort of thing. Now Freddie will roll through hoops and sham dead, and we shall be the happiest pair in the world. I am much too placid and mild to make you happy. You want someone who would stand up to you."

On the Trail of the Superman, Part 2 

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Super Penpals

The Canadian Comic Fan Project, Part Three

Where are they now?

Today's penpals are concerned with questions meta and multinational.

From "The Legion Outpost" --Adventure Comics #346, 1966:

Dear Editor: I really enjoy your letter column, but the Legion Outpost picture is out of date. Colossal Boy is shown wearing a red suit instead of a green one and Light Lass has the insignia she used when she was Light Lass.
David Ouellette
Essex, Ontario

From "Metropolis Mailbag" --Superman #128, 1959:

Dear Editor: If Perry White sent Clark Kent to a foreign country, such as Canada, on an assignment, how could Clark get a passport, inasmuch as he has no birth certificate, not having been born on this planet? I know he could fly across the border as Superman, but wouldn't that be too risky?
Edward Katz

As well, the letters page of World's Finest #226, 1974 reveals several names "Boiled Down from the B & B Mailbag":

Alex Fedyk
Vancouver, B.C.

Roma Pohorecky
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Kevin Ferris
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Friday, February 02, 2007

Snow in the Comics, Part 2

Part 2 of 3
"We're Wolf" by Genevieve Castree
Drawn and Quarterly Showcase Three
edited by Chris Oliveros
95 pages
ISBN 1-896597-88-2
$19.95 Cdn/$14.95 US

It's snowing again today, which puts me in mind of snow in the comics (technically, since it hasn't really stopped snowing for several weeks, there should be many more of these entries, but I've been too busy shoveling).

Perhaps the most famous of all snow-themed comics is Herge's Tintin in Tibet, the classic, austere graphic novel that Herge identified as his favourite. Who could forget, after reading this story as a child, the epic journey of the indomitable boy reporter to find his long-lost friend Chang? During a troubled period of his life, Herge poured all his artistry into this simple tale of Tintin's adventure in the Himalayas, his encounter with the lonely Yeti, and the struggles of his companions to survive and reunite Tintin with Chang, his friend from an adventure drawn decades earlier. The only Tintin album without a villain, Tintin in Tibet is full of haunting cartoon images, emotion, and lots and lots of snow.

The iconic nature of this book, and the place it holds in the imagination of its readers, is one of the themes of Genevieve Castree's (she signs herself Genevieve Elverum here) contribution to the third volume of the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase anthology. "We're Wolf!" is a beautiful meditation on nostalgia, self, and lycanthropy that takes as its inspiration Tintin's snow-bound adventure --its pace, use of silence, and feeling. The story follows a young woman through two seasons, Summer and Winter, both highly suggestive of states of mind as well as stages of life and love, and with aspects of Herge's book used as outward emblems of an interior life.

The title page of Castree's story features a highly stylized version of the famous cover from Tintin in Tibet, grasped in a tiny hand --an elaborate play on words that refers to her title ("We're Wolf" or "Werewolf") and her subject, as well as to the character on her faux-Tintin cover.

The metaphor is stretched even further throughout the story as Castree's character, a young woman/cartoonist surrogate, in turn reads the comic, imagines herself inside it, hiking over snow-covered mountains, and finally giving birth to a brood of tiny Yeti-like werewolves. The narrative is quite dreamlike and Castree's art is a charming mix of ligne-clare cartooning and gorgeous colour with a very personal style. And of course there is quite a bit of snow. Ice-caves, mountain peaks, sleeping bags, pine-needles, vast expanses of white. The story is very evocative of childhood (I particulary like the idea of dealing with a Summer-time depression by curling up with your favourite kids comic --kind of like a snowball saved from winter in the freezer and unwrapped in the hottest day of the year) and it is wide open to interpretation.

How are these images connected? What does it all symbolize? I cannot say. I only know that it is beautiful and that the book (and Castree) is a treasure: the other selections include a nice coming-of-age story by Sammy Harkham ("Somersaulting") and a quirky postmodern pastiche of a 1930s pulp adventure by Matt Broersma ("The Mummy") that is someways reminiscent of early Herge. And yes, I know this book was published in 2005 --I've been saving it for a snowy day.

Next time: the forecast calls for more snow
Part 3
Part 1