On redesigning icons, Superman and politics…

So it’s a rare week that sees me talking about the redesign of two icons – but with both Superman and The Guardian fighting for the little guy in brand new outfits, I couldn’t really not comment. My first reactions to theguardian‘s redesign – now that I’ve seen it in the flesh – are almost uniformly positive. But I think I’ll write about that more thoroughly later in the day when I’ve really had time to get my head around it. In the meantime, I don’t think you’ll find a more detailed or painstaking or (well) longer analysis of the whole thing than Dan Hill’s piece: Assessing the new Guardian, with brief nod to the avant-garde (aka Grazia, Heat and The Sun). Aggravatingly, he’s even thought to place the front cover on Flickr and annotate the bits he thinks are particularly interesting. I wish I’d thought of that. Maybe in a couple of days I will have done.

Anyway, despite the evident interest that everyone has in the Guardian, this post was about that other subject that no one but me appears to care about – the redesign of the Superman “S” logo that I wrote about earlier in the week. I can’t quite figure out why it hasn’t got the design / typographic community frothing in their lattes, but I guess that can’t be helped. I’m still fascinated by the cultural associations and design history of this particular logo. I can’t remember who said that decades alternated between ‘Batman’ decades and ‘Superman’ decades, with the popularity and reclamation of each character following cultural trends and cultural optimism, but it’s hard to deny that it’s true. The world of comic books in the eighties was dark and mercenary, the nineties optimistic and bright, and the most recent decade has seen an enormous swing towards darker stories and a more interventionist Dark Knight politics. What’s interesting to me then is how the evolution of Superman reflects these changes, how our delight in – and suspicion of – the idea of a super-powerful alien is reflected in the way his design is treated.

All of which is a pretext to link officially through to a site dedicated to the evolution of Superman’s “S”. And that link is itself a pretext to reproduce this image from the site, showing an enormous range of logo variation, way beyond the simple changes I indicated in my last post:

7 replies on “On redesigning icons, Superman and politics…”

“The world of comic books in the eighties was dark and mercenary, the nineties optimistic and bright,”
Not true. The dark trend in comics was the strongest in the nineties, with the death of Superman, Batman breaking his back, Green Lantern going crazy, the coming of the Image “heroes” and such. It may have started in the eighties, but this was also the decade of the funny JLA and spinoffs.
No decade is dominated by just one trend, as people respond to whatever is strongest at a given time and reject it in favour of something else.

My first reactions to theguardian’s redesign – now that I’ve seen it in the flesh – are almost uniformly positive.
It looks good, but the content! The Oona King interview is dreadful, and the Michael Behe interview… ye gods.
Something about some steps forward and back goes here, but I’m not sure how many of each.

I think the idea of a cultural trend shift between Batman and Superman was more to do with the movies than the comic-books, and the trend seems to be more towards Superman being popular during times of crisis or economic decline, whilst Batman is popular during affluent times.
For example, the Batman TV series was dominant in the hedonistic, booming 1960s, whilst Superman emerged onto the big screen in the late 1970s when Carter was about to be ousted by Regan and Maggie Thatcher took over in the UK.
Batman dominated our screens at the height of yuppie fever in the 1980s, and Lois and Clark followed on television as the recession was dying.
In recent years, both characters have begun to dominate simultaneously (Smallville, the forthcoming Superman movie, the recent release of Batman Begins) – partly in response to the events of September 11, 2001.
I think it was Mark Millar who pointed out that it’s no mistake that the villains of ‘Batman Begins’ are The Scarecrow, a rogue academic who generates artificial fear in the people of Gotham as much as Fox News and their terror alerts do in the real world, and Ra’s Al-Ghul, an impossibly rich, elusive international terrorist who declares war upon Gotham from his secret cave on the other side of the world.
Substitute Martha and Thomas Wayne for the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and you’re halfway to a plausible culture shift theory.
By all accounts, the forthcoming Superman Returns plot is partly about how the world coped when the Man of Steel abandoned us.

I can explain the lack of general interest in Superman’s costume. I agree that the design choices are a little bit fascinating and reflect socio-political climate during each of the modifications. That’s kind of interesting. The problem is that Superman is the worst, most uninteresting, most poorly written superhero in the history of comic books.
More than two years ago, I ranted and raved in one of my longest nerdiest posts ever, about how and why he was so miserable. Please feel free to go read it in it’s entirety, but I can sum it up here in just a few paragraphs…
Superman is written with a nearly infinite number of rediculous and unrelated super powers that make him so close to completely invulnerable that there is never really any stress or drama around him. Without the invention of his allergic reaction to kryptonite, and his occasional “loss of powers” there would never be anything even remotely interesting to read. In addition, over time, they just keep writing new powers for the guy. The current list, as far as I know, includes:
1. He can’t be hurt by physical weapons (hence “Man of Steel”)
2. He’s immune to cold
3. He’s immune to fire
4. He can fly
5. He can run REALLY fast
6. He is super strong, like lift a bus up by its bumper with one hand strong, despite the fact that the bumper would tear right off in the real world
7. He has laser vision
8. He has x-ray vision
9. He has super hearing
10. He has super-breath
11. He doesn’t need air (he flies through space for long periods of time, but I don’t know his underwater experience. I guess he has to leave something for Aquaman.)
Comic book heros are most interesting when they are written with flaws and weaknesses, when they are forced to make important choices, and find new applications for their existing powers with realistic constraints. It is exactly what builds the suspention of disbelief, and exactly what makes normal people like you and me able to associate ourselves with them. Well written heros, like Batman or Wolverine have constraints to their abilities, troubled pasts, and scarey choices to make.
Superman, I’m afraid, is a product of unsophisticated writing from a naive and sheltered time in fiction. No modern writer that I have ever read has done anything for improving his boring and bland status in life. Bottom line, his “S” doesn’t matter, because he doesn’t matter.
Please feel free to read my very specific rant on this subject on my blog here.

I think Chris’ list of attributes have been widely acknowledged by the writers over the years. Wasn’t that one of the reasons for the whole post-“Crisis” redefinition in the Eighties?
To be honest, I think that having Superman so physically able in so many areas forces the comic’s writers to raise their game — admittedly in ways that not all have been able to manage. His physical perfection requires that the best Superman stories have to work on a psychological level. I really got back into Superman at the time of his death, the rise of four “supermen” and Clark/Kal-El’s eventual return, because it worked on a very emotional, human level.
For the same reason, one of the biggest shifts — and, bringing this conversation back to design, where it started — didn’t work for me: the Superman Blue period (notably one aspect of “S” redesign that the image Tom linked to doesn’t cover). To me, it didn’t work — but not because of the look, or even the complete change in super powers. It was because the central conceit — the “am I still Superman?” question — was so goddamn obvious to answer. The series had, since Byrne, set up for so long that Clark was the real Superman, who worked in costume to protect those around him. With that in mind, it didn’t really matter what he looked like when working.
Which is, I guess, pretty much sums up why tweaking the “S” doesn’t matter all that much. So much of the modern Superman mythos is an emphasis of the man, not the costume, such that any modification really doesn’t — and, quite rightly, shouldn’t — matter.

Comments are closed.