Waiting for Superman

June 11, 2011
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It is possible that Superman may be split in two.  Certainly he has been busy enough for two.  Already this year Superman’s originating text, Action Comics, reached issue #900 with the suggestion that Superman would renounce his citizenship, followed by the possible renunciation of that renunciation in Superman #711, followed by the announcement that Superman’s DC comic books would reboot (or “re-launch“– as will many other DC titles) with issues number 1 in September.  Meanwhile the animated straight-to-video All-Star Superman was released earlier this year even as details of the next live-action film, Man of Steel, have been leaking.  And then, just last month, television’s Smallville concluded after a decade.

Splitting in two, however, would not be a narrative gimmick invented by creative writers for the character, but instead a legal gimmick imagined by creative lawyers.  The U.S. legal system has been busy parceling ownership of intellectual property recently estimated to generate $1 billion annually.  The conflict between DC’s parent company Time Warner and the estates of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster involves copyright and trademark, work-for-hire and rights termination.  But it also demonstrates the ways in which, for 21st century media companies, the value of intellectual property is forever and complexly entangled with the narratives it offers.

Consider Smallville:  after ten seasons of serial narrative featuring the adventures of an initially youthful Clark Kent learning to become what every viewer already knew he must become, the literally-titled “Finale” episodes finally returned us to where we started before Smallville ever aired: with Superman.

There are two ways to understand this inevitable if disconcerting return to the start.  The first was articulated nearly 40 years ago by Umberto Eco who argued that for Superman to remain Superman, the mythical character we know, he can never really do anything profoundly new.  Every Superman narrative must start over again at a “virtual new beginning” and essentially repeat the story that made him Superman.  If he were to move on from where the story last left off, our hero would be located in time, within a specific continuity, and thus he would begin a process of consumption that could only, ultimately, lead to death.  As a modern myth, Superman is instead meant to be eternal.  Smallville simply delayed this virtual new beginning for more than 200 episodes as the novel events of Clark’s life before he became Superman inched inevitably nearer the globally familiar, 73-year-old myth that is Superman.

As I have written elsewhere, Smallville‘s engagement of corporate property through the indefinite balance of iteration and attenuation has both semiotic and economic implications.  What holds for myth also holds for branding and the maintenance of trademark.  Superman’s story can’t really change much or he is no longer Superman.  As character or property, truly moving forward can lead only to the end.  To avoid this he must instead always start over.  This helps explain the logic of renumbering DC will put into practice this fall.  It is why the feature films continually revisit Superman’s origins.  It is why Smallville could only ever end with where we had already been.  It is why splitting in two would likely be devastating.  Superman is the myth attracting the audience and the property that Time Warner values.  But this value diminishes if his story is not told enough, so the trick is to render him inexhaustible, allowing him to be consumed without dying.

For the second way of understanding the finale, then, recall another set of comic heroes, Calvin and Hobbes, in a strip in which the eminently reasonable Hobbes asks Calvin how he can ever expect his comic books to become valuable if every kid in America is also carefully saving five copies, sealed in airtight plastic bags.  These books won’t be consumed, they won’t be rare, and they therefore won’t gain in value.  Calvin simply suggests, “We’re all counting on the other guy’s mom to throw them away.”

What Calvin implicitly understood was something Michael Thompson had called rubbish theory to explain why the value of some cultural objects is transient while for others it is durable.  Transient objects lose value inexorably from the moment they are first exchanged.  Durable objects, meanwhile, increase in value over time and are perceived to persist indefinitely into the future.

A transient object eventually loses all value.  Everyone (and their moms) will throw it out.  It becomes rubbish.  But its very lack of value suggests the possibility of transformation.  This is the paradox of Calvin’s insight—he knew that only after the comics are considered rubbish could they start to gain in value.  But as Hobbes intuited, such shifts can be riskily dependent on the uncertain actions of others.  Calvin was holding on to his comics to demonstrate they could persist indefinitely into the future even while hoping everyone else would perceive of their copies as losing all value.

Our current moment, as Smallville demonstrates, is characterized by corporate efforts to do Calvin one better.  Not satisfied with the uncertainty of allowing property to become rubbish, hoping it will be revalued, the culture industries are trying everything to instill their textual productions with built-in durability.  If Smallville leaves us where we started, with Superman again, it offers us Superman retroactively reproduced as the afterlife of a decade of the television series.

Thus the significance of the finale’s final reassertion of the property, the brand, and the character:  Clark atop the Daily Planet building, pulling his shirt open at the chest, revealing a red “S” on blue tights (filling the screen with a final realization of the promise obliquely made in the pilot episode’s much reproduced iconic image) while a version of John Williams’ indomitable theme from 1978’s Superman swells and the series ends.  Thus did Smallville finally catch the narrative up to the start of Superman’s story, his virtual new beginning now novel again.

Despite such extreme semiotic efforts to maintain intellectual property, is the revaluing process of cultural production that easy to short-circuit?  In point of fact, of course, value is not a quality of the text per se.  It is a quality the audience gives a text through interactions and social practices.  Durability is the side effect of labor at the point of consumption, around and about the object, the work of watching, that generates value.  Efforts to bypass the audience as the (always uncertain) source of value notwithstanding, the audience and the culture industries remain crucially interdependent.  If Smallville can teach us anything, then, it may be to both admire and shudder at Lex’s metatextual profundity: “We have a destiny together, Clark… only on different sides.”


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