For those of you who came in late, DC Comics recently rebooted their entire line of superheroes, including the granddaddy of them all, Superman.
Although I don’t understand everything in current writer Grant Morrison’s scripts, overall I’ve enjoyed his run of Superman stories in the reboot of Action Comics. He passed fairly quickly from his homage to the Golden Age Superman (ca. 1938), a little more down-to-earth, a little less a demi-god, a sticker-upper for the little guy. Now he appears to be examining our hero from a Silver Age perspective (ca. 1963). Save for the idiotic new costume the DC Powers-That-Be have decreed he must wear (think, guys—Superman in armor?), these latest issues very much waft the sweet aroma of the comics I read as a child.
That’s certainly true of the latest issue, #9, the lead story of which is called “The Curse of Superman.”
Here we’re transported to a world identified on the cover as “Earth-23,” a world to which a black child, a native of Krypton’s Vathlo Island, was sent when Krypton died. The baby was taken in by a kindly black couple and raised as Cal Ellis. He grew up to become not only earth’s mightiest hero but President of the United States as well. As Don King used to say, “Only in America!”
While Superman is busy with mad scientist Lex Luthor—who declares from behind his ray gun that he’s not a racist; he just hates the guy—he sends one of his robot-doubles to take his place as President Ellis in a crisis. (Why the President is rendered sans eyeglasses is a mystery to me; but then I’ve never understood how Clark Kent fools anybody with just a pair of glasses.)
Then what to our wondering eyes should appear but a “musical meta-machine ringing at impossibly oblique frequencies,” a chiming bridge between universes! Out of this weird tunnel charge three escapees from yet another earth: Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Jimmy Olsen, the latter two burned badly. They were fleeing . . . how shall I put this? They were fleeing a “brand.”
You see, on their earth this trio had imagined a “thought-powered” champion, a redeemer to save their world. Needing funding for their idea, they’d gone to some sort of super-corporation. But the greedy heads of “Overcorp” already had a messiah: money. Knowing whom they’re dealing with, but desperate to see their hero become a reality, Lois, Clark, and Jimmy sold out, only to pay a terrible price. Overcorp built a “violent, troubled, faceless anti-hero . . . a global marketing icon.” Artist Gene Ha depicts that alternate-Superman logo, a disturbing image looking rather like a swastika. It’s plastered on everything from billboards to underwear.
The young idealists tried to run, but the super-thing followed them across worlds. Thankfully, the Superman of Earth-23 is there to battle the living brand.
If your head is spinning, forget about trying to understand the plot, and just think for a moment about our consumer society and the power of a brand name. Make that the destructive power of a brand name. Do you remember reading a few years back about a seventeen-year-old boy murdered for his gym shoes? They were, of course, no ordinary pair of athletic footwear; they were Air Jordans, the image of Michael Jordan fairly flying off the ankle.
Logos are everywhere, but a brand is more than a logo. Marketing expert Colin Bates says that “a brand is a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer.” A brand infiltrates the imagination. For example, the Walt Disney scripted autograph immediately brings “family” and “fun” to mind. The McDonald’s brand has been so effectively imprinted onto the imagination of American children that a recent study found carrots, milk, and apple juice tasted better to kids when packaged in McDonald’s wrappers.
In America, image is everything. I began to realize the more troubling implications of this several years ago as a group of concerned parents in our church discussed our youth ministry. Somebody said, “We need a brand.” He meant we needed some sort of symbol to capture the hearts and minds of the youth of our community, an emblem appealing to the broadest possible number of lonely, angry kids.
We never got the brand, nor did we get a lot of kids. Now I’m rather glad. I didn’t think a lot about it at the time, but the problem with a brand is that it substitutes style for substance. People feed on vapors enough without the church contributing to the problem. Shall we empty ourselves of Christ’s love and toss the cross into the bin for a mere marketing ploy? In simple terms, shall we trade patience and kindness behind the wheel for a fish symbol on the back bumper?
As Skye Jethani points out in his excellent book The Divine Commodity, Christian identity is not an external construction, but the internal work of the Holy Spirit. Putting too much emphasis on “brands” increases the risk of confusing the two.
To get back to Superman, whom many students of pop culture see as a Christ-figure, it seems that Grant Morrison is raising the same concerns about the Man of Steel: Who is he, what does he really stand for? Is Superman the human ideal or a mere consumer brand? I don’t know what Morrison’s religion is, though, from what I’ve read, I doubt he’s a Christian. He may simply be challenging his bosses at DC, not to say biting the hand that feeds him.
In the end, however, it doesn’t matter whether we view Superman as a hero to emulate or a mere corporately owned commodity. Superman isn’t real. The real Hero, the rescuer of our souls, can’t be contained within a symbol. A thousand WWJD bracelets can’t begin to spell out His power. A thousand gold crosses dangling from a thousand necks can’t express the wonder of His love, the depth of His sacrifice. He is beyond symbol, beyond our fallen imagination. He is what He is! And, oh glory, in Him we most truly become!
Image copyright DC Comics.
Gary D. Robinson, preacher, writer, and actor, lives in Xenia, Ohio. He’s still bummed over the theft of Superman’s red trunks.
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