Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Hallowe'en Countdown 18: DCnU and the Superman Curse

 DCnU Superman (2011).

Here's a twist.  There's more to explaining the paranormal than standing in a dungeon with night vision TV cameras and an EMF reader.  And there's more to rationalizing the unseen, the hidden, the compelling mysteries of our world than debunking them in scientific terms.  It's time to talk about the peculiar power of curses.  Curses born of suffering.  Curses that last beyond the grave.  How does the strange psychological and social alchemy of a curse - a powerful, dark, cryptic wish on someone else's welfare - bear out in the real world?
This is the season for lists of cursed movies.  These films' productions are considered somehow cursed by their evil subject matter or just pure bad luck.  You've seen the list before: Rebel Without A Cause (1955); Rosemary's Baby (1968); The Exorcist (1973); The Omen (1976); The Amityville Horror (1979); Poltergeist (1982); Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983); The Crow (1994); Star Trek (odd-numbered movies).  If you want to read some of the true stories behind these cursed movies, go here.  They fall in such a concentrated time period, you have to wonder if someone in Hollywood recognized that the coincidental streaks of bad luck that can surround big budget film-making could be respun as a brilliant marketing gimmick.
The Omen is a classic example.  The production of The Omen was plagued with incidents which some members of the crew attributed to supernatural forces trying to prevent the filming of the movie. Instances include the following:
  • Scriptwriter David Seltzer's plane was struck by lightning.
  • Star Gregory Peck, in a separate incident, had his plane struck by lightning.
  • Richard Donner's hotel was bombed by the Provisional IRA .
  • Gregory Peck canceled his reservation on a flight. The plane he had originally chartered crashed, killing all on board (a group of Japanese businessmen).
  • A warden at the safari park used in the "crazy baboon" scene was attacked and killed by a lion the day after the crew left.
  • Rottweilers hired for the film attacked their trainers.
  • On the first day of shooting, the principal members of the crew got in a head-on car crash.
The 'Omen curse' was indeed woven into the film's wildly successful marketing campaign.  You can watch the actual film, a true horror classic, online, starting here  (at least for now - the link won't last). And you can watch The Omen Legacy about the film's curse, starting here.  In 2005, a slickly written documentary entitled The Curse of 'The Omen' was shown on British television which explained the curse in epic, world-shattering conspiracy theory, terms.

David Lynch made one of his more troubling, yet brilliant, yet troubling, films, Inland Empire (2006), about a remake of a cursed movie inside a cursed movie, with the two looping back on each other like a Möbius strip.

But there is one more film curse on the list: Superman. And what better time to talk about the famous Superman curse than when DC Comics has turned itself inside out and rebooted its fictional universe, in part because of Superman.
Superman is DC's ultimate character, even when Batman proves more popular or brings in more revenue.  Superman is America's original superhero, a reimagining of a mythical Sun God for a Modern, then a Postmodern, and now a post-Postmodern age (see my post on that mythology here).  He was born out of the conditions of the Great Depression.  And he is reborn in the conditions of the Great Recession.
Superman was created in 1932 in Cleveland, Ohio, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who were teenagers at the time.  Brad Meltzer believes that the hero grew out of personal tragedy and crime associated with poverty. Siegel's father died in 1932 in his clothing shop by an armed robber:
On the night of June 2, 1932, the world's first superhero was born — not on the mythical planet of Krypton but from a little-known tragedy on the streets of Cleveland.

It was Thursday night, about 8:10 p.m., and Mitchell Siegel, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, was in his secondhand clothing store on the near East Side. According to a police report, three men entered. One asked to see a suit of clothes and walked out without paying for it. In the commotion of the robbery, Siegel, 60, fell to the ground and died.

The police report mentions a gunshot being heard. But the coroner, the police and Siegel's wife said Siegel died of a heart attack. No one was ever arrested.

What happened next has exploded some of the longest-held beliefs about the origins of Superman and the two teenage boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who invented America's best-known comic-book hero.

Past accounts suggest Siegel and Shuster, both 17, awkward and unpopular in high school, invented the meek Clark Kent and his powerful alter-ego, Superman, to attract girls and rise above their humble Cleveland beginnings.

But now it appears that the origin might have been more profound — that it was the death of Jerry Siegel's father that pushed the devastated teen to come up with the idea of a "Superman" to right all wrongs.

"In 50 years of interviews, Jerry Siegel never once mentioned that his father died in a robbery," says Brad Meltzer, a best-selling author whose novel, The Book of Lies ... links the Siegel murder to a biblical conspiracy plot.

"But think about it," Meltzer says. "Your father dies in a robbery, and you invent a bulletproof man who becomes the world's greatest hero. I'm sorry, but there's a story there."
Siegel and Shuster had invented one of America's greatest heroes, perhaps, as Meltzer says - the world's greatest hero.  And he's a hero, to borrow from Lermontov, for our times.  But in the decades that followed, Superman became a symbol of another American complex (perhaps a world complex) - the stuggle between the haves and the have nots.  Siegel and Shuster created Superman before they sold the character to the company that was DC's predecessor.  They were the original copyright holders and did not create the hero under a work-for-hire contract.  They were paid $130 for their creation in 1938, relinquishing copyright control to DC, an agreement that was later partly overturned.
When Superman became big business, Siegel and Shuster sued twice to regain their rights and failed.  They also had cases over profits from related characters like Superboy.  When the Superman movie came out in 1978, Siegel gained a lot of publicity by cursing the movie's success and DC Comics in general:
"I hope it super-bombs. I hope loyal Superman fans stay away from it in droves. I hope the whole world, becoming aware of the stench that surrounds Superman, will avoid the movie like the plague. The publishers of Superman comic books, National Periodical Publications Inc, killed my days, murdered my nights, choked my happiness, strangled my career. I consider National's executives economic murderers, money-mad monsters." 
Siegel's curse, combined with memories of the controversial 1959 suicide of actor George Reeve who first played Superman (dramatized in the excellent movie Hollywoodland, which is possibly the second-most compelling Superman film ever made), led to stories of the Superman curse.  This curse has been considered mainly to affect actors and crew associated with Superman film productions:
  • George Reeves' suicide, 1959.
  • Bud Collyer voiced the first Superman cartoon from 1941-43 and again in 1966, after which he died of a circulatory ailment.
  • Lee Quigley, who played Superman as a baby in the 1978 film, died in 1991 at age 14 due to solvent abuse.
  • Kirk Alyn played Superman in two low-budget 1940s serials but failed to find work afterwards because he was too closely identified with the role.
  • Christopher Reeve played Superman/Clark Kent in the Superman film series, was typecast, and died young in 2004 as a result of paralysis incurred through a horse riding accident in 1995. His wife died shortly after at age 44 of lung cancer, although she never smoked.
  • Margot Kidder, who played Superman’s love interest Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve, suffers from intense bipolar disorder. In April 1996, she went missing for several days and was found by police in a paranoid, delusional state.
  • Comedian Richard Pryor, who had previously suffered from a drug addiction that led to a near fatal suicide attempt, starred as villain/anti-hero Gus Gorman in 1983’s Superman III. Three years later, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He died of cardiac arrest on December 10, 2005
The partial inspiration of the curse - that is, Superman's copyright across all media - has become a legal war of attrition lasting decades. The hero's creators stayed in the courts to assert their rights under the US Copyright Act.  Their estates continued this battle after their deaths.  In 1999, 2008 and 2009, the Siegel heirs won important cases which ruled that they were entitled to a share of DC's Superman profits; they had recaptured 50 per cent of the copyright to Action Comics #1 and #4 and parts of later comics; these presented Superman, gave his Kryptonian origins, and his work at the Daily Planet with Lois Lane. They will hold these rights until 2033. The Shuster portion of the copyright is a separate, complicated, legal question because Shuster had no heirs; but it, too, poses serious problems for DC.  DC owns other rights to Superman's powers and origins outright (such as his arch-enemy Lex Luthor, the Fortress of Solitude and Superman's ability to fly).  The lawyers and judges have been picking apart the intricacies of this matter to this day. You can read about the endless proceedings, with some dark intrigue at certain points: herehere, here, here, herehere and here.  One day, someone will make the third-most compelling Superman film, a thriller, about the copyright cases and all the drama behind the scenes.
The legal concern that may have inspired DC's reboot this past September is this: DC may lose their remaining US copyright control of Superman in 2013 (see reports here, here, here and here).  If that happens, DC and its parent company Warner will no longer be able to publish material or make films with the Superman we know.
In early 2011, shortly before her death on February 12, Siegel's widow Joanne, who was the inspiration for Lois Lane, scolded DC in an eloquent plea (see here and here).  She asked them to consider the human side of the money making enterprise.  We're in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Superman was invented during a terrible economic downturn, and he is reborn now, but perhaps for all the wrong reasons.

After all, what does Superman stand for, this great hero who battled crime and injustice at America's heart? Does he stand for 'Truth, Justice and the American Way'? Or does he stand for corporate greed and profits? Is DC's core motivation in creating the DCnU dodging the Superman copyright, rather than finding a settlement? Is DCnU in fact DC's desperate manouevre in the eleventh hour to keep using the hero without fully compensating his creators' estates?  Is DC reworking Superman into a character who only reflects the bits of the hero to which the company owns the rights? Is this why DCnU has broken up Superman and Lois Lane? I discussed the importance of the court cases and related them to the DCnU reboot, here.

Whatever you think of the DCnU, it's a sign of the times. CNN's reviewer noticed these themes in the DCnU's 52 September titles:
It’s true the times, they are a changin’. In my next piece on reading the New 52, I’ll reveal how deeply tied to our zeitgeist these comic books really are. Subjects like class, diversity, mass media and terrorism permeate the re-launch and show just how much of a cultural event this really is. The presence of these topical themes suggests again that the company really wants readers to identify with their new universe, whether they’re new, old or returning. After reading all 52 issues I can’t say for certain that their strategies will work.
Will DC's grasp of the Zeitgeist - likely driven by this strange copyright battle - be a pyrrhic victory?  If DC really did launch the DCnU in an effort to avoid a copyright settlement, has it somehow stripped Superman of his heroism?  I am not talking so much about what George Perez and Grant Morrison will do with the character in upcoming stories, but the underlying motivations - the inescapable boardroom truths and values, the Fourth Wall decisions - which drive the changes.

And if that's the case, if DC unwittingly strips its greatest hero of his core heroism, will the DCnU lead to the final fulfillment of the Superman curse? At the seminal moment when print and film media finally merge, that would be the ultimate Millennial irony.  Curses, judgments, and the transformation of the media may together deliver the final verdict on what now can be considered just and injust, what is right and wrong, and what is heroic and what isn't in this crazy world.

See all my posts on Horror themes.

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  1. Oh, when you posted the Siegel quote before, I didn't realize that was the origin of the curse. Also the exact reasons why they created the character were new to me. I thought it was to take the Nazi notion of the 'superman' and turn it on it's head. -J

  2. Of course the concept of Uebermensch predates the Nazis.


    I don't think they were reading Nietzsche, but who knows? Brad Meltzer has explained it somehow in his new book. I haven't looked at it, but if I do, I'll follow up on this. The origins of Superman seem like a relevant topic right now.

    Chris Knowles says that Superman is a firmly Jewish messianic figure. And the symbolism that surrounds him, much of which was added later, is masonic.

  3. I should add that if there is a Nietzschean Uebermensch, it's Lex Luthor.

  4. I'm reproducing a comment from the post on DC's Titans heroines here, since it applies to both posts

    I could say simply that DC only is focusing on profits, or I could talk about how curses are just coincidences, but actually it goes way past that. There are mysteries in this world, and one of them is the basic fact that created works of art have a life of their own once they are created. But they still reflect the motivations of their creators. It's like the Mona Lisa smile.

    Sometimes the power of the story goes beyond continuity or even characterization. I pointed that out in my continuity for Terra on this blog. No matter what they do to that character, there is something about her that weirdly asks for another story to be told about her, and perhaps a different story. That's a very interesting phenomenon.

    It's the independent dynamic of the narrative, something that no creator or editor can control. DCnU is like the Judas Contract writ large: an attempt to force a whole fictional world into a preconceived box.

    But any artistic work has a life of its own. I'm interested in finding out if there's something in Superman that is similar, especially because he is the heart of the DCU. Maybe, no matter what they are going to do to him in the DCnU, something at the core of his story, the feelings he inspires, the heroism he represents, exists beyond the current editors and writers.

    So I'm not talking so much about a literal curse, but the metafictional level at which the motivations of the creators, the response of the readers, the lawsuit - all converge. But what comes out of that may depend on what Siegel and Shuster originally invested in the character, grief and fear, courage, a nugget of hope for something better.

    I think that these characters are incredibly powerful symbols and archetypes. The powers that be at DC can do all kinds of crazy things to them, but the stories will be here long, long after DC no longer exists and we are all gone.

    In the short term, I want to see if that eternal part to the narrative of these powerful heroes will reassert some baseline and if so, where that pressure on DC will come from. And as for the current choices of DC's editorial execs, they may serve a purpose, because they will show what happens when all the stops are pulled. It's going to be a path through total creative chaos, and the more they try to control it, the more it will slip away from them.

    Kory and what they did to her is part of that chaos; they were genuinely surprised by the reaction to that. But if they continue with this sex, hyperviolence and gore formula, it is not going to make Kory into a shell. Everyone worth their salt knows what Starfire really is. Thus, in a way, she is unaffected by their poor decisions. Perhaps the only way to show the vacuum in the DCnU, though, is for the heroes to reflect it, loud and clear.

    I should add further that even if the core heroism of the heroes won't be altered by whatever DC does to them, that doesn't mean that what they do (say, ruining Terra, or Kory, or Raven or Donna) doesn't have consequences. Just because something can be done, just because the rules can be broken, doesn't mean there won't be an aftermath.

    Imagine if a vandal took a knife to the Mona Lisa painting (God forbid). The power of that painting will always be acknowledged and just because someone marred it, it wouldn't make the Mona Lisa 'ugly' or any less fascinating. It would likely renew interest in the painting, create outrage and upset, and make people realize much more deeply what the mystery of the Mona Lisa is and how much it is worth to us. I think a similar thing can be said for the female Titans and the other DC characters. It's pop culture, but the same rules apply.