Sunday, July 14, 2013

Superman: True Brit

This is only the second Superman story I have ever read, and I enjoyed it immensely.  I’ve not really heard from others—Brits, Americans, or otherwise—as to whether it captured the Superman element, but from the perspective of an American transplant/honorary Welsh person, I thought its attempt to capture Britishness was quite successful.  Certainly it is “one” kind of British humor, no doubt conveyed by the fact that its author, Kim “Howard” Johnson either solicited or accepted scripting help from John Cleese.  

Personally, I think Superman needs a dose of humor; he’s just so gosh-darned earnest (at least that is the impression I get).  Superheroes tend to need to be morose or earnest, otherwise it’s hard to take their antics seriously.  And it’s the gosh-darn earnestness that Johnson and Cleese tease into hilarity in True Brit, satirizing Anglo-American expectations as well as repeating British stereotypes that will draw a chuckle. 
The idea behind True Brit is that instead of being dropped off with a childless couple in the cornfields of Kansas, baby Kal-el is adopted in Weston-super-Mare!  Certainly one has to question what kind of parallel timeline this is happening in because, as was once delivered a very valid criticism of my Batman fan fic, True Brit’s Britain is exceedingly old-fashioned for a world, based on other evidence, which is taking place some time in the late twentieth century.  I’m not certain what prompted this chronological limbo—though it’s something that hits Batman quite frequently, which I often don’t find myself minding, as with the success of the retro noir of BtAS—unless it’s not to create a political imbroglio by firmly setting this during some real Conservative or Labour government control.  This is pure speculation.

The thing is, True Brit made me laugh out loud on several occasions.  It is fascinating what elements of the Superman myth Johnson and Cleese felt bound to incorporate and which ones they felt they could dispense with or alter.  I’ll try not to spoil all of that, however, and focus on the funny bits in an attempt to recommend the book to add to your own merriment.  “Think of the wonders our Kal-el will experience in England!” Jor-El says to his wife.  These are suggested, ironically, as farming, dentistry, rain, and fishmongers fighting.  When Superman’s adopted father, Mr Clark, tells Mrs Clark what they must do with the baby found in the wreckage, he says, “Yes, we have been charged by an elder of the planet Krypton to be his caretakers.  Without pay.”  Mrs Clark’s response if one that shapes the narrative and depicts Britons, truthfully or satirically, as all sharing an all-consuming obsession:  “What will the neighbours think?”

Colin Clark is full of the kind of fraightfully jolly schoolboyishness that seems to be the only British equivalent for Clark Kent’s farm-boy sincerity; to his parents’ dismay, he warms up their cold tea with his heat ray vision.  This explains the need for his glasses (unnecessary for perfect vision, they shield his heat ray from going accidentally off during the vagaries of adolescence).  The narrator tells us that as Colin grows up, there must be “No super x ray vision.  No super-dancing.  No super-charted accountancy.  No super radioactive spiders.”  When Colin slips up and decides to singlehandedly run the Weston-super-Mare farm, he uproots tree stumps and sings gaily, “Look at me!  I’m a farmer!!  Farming’s easy!!”  

When Colin is sent away to school, he meets Louisa Layne-Ferret, cousin of the American Lois Lane who shows up later.  Worrying about whether he should use his powers to win a game of cricket, Colin finally decides, “What would the neighbours think?  They would think it as a very respectable, British thing to do.”  Unfortunately, in his nervousness, Colin accidentally disembowels a fellow player who gives the satirically British understated response:   “Crikey!  That smarts!”   “Mum and Dad were right!” the hapless Colin thinks.  “I’m ostracised by my peers!  I’m a social pariah!  Could my week get any worse?”  When Dirk McQuickly and Ron Nasty of the Rutles are in perilous danger, Colin defies his parents disapprobation to save them.  “What an absolutely super man!” a news commentator guffaws.  “Well done, Superman!  Jolly good!”  His parents are pleased that his costume at least shows that he’s wearing clean underwear.  

Perhaps the politics haven’t been entirely left out, given that Colin falls into a den of sleazy inequity by laboring as a journalist for Britain’s corrupt tabloid newspaper kingdom.  “Even if I have to—compromise—to be a good tabloid journalist, I can still be helpful, pleasant and nice when I’m Superman!”  Politics is also evident when the Queen gives Superman three seemingly impossible tasks to perform.  The first is to make the trains of Britain run on time.  This is a hilariously on-target gag, and Superman’s solution—to make the train drivers aware of such a thing as timetables—is a howl.  Reducing the waiting time for hip operations, the second task, is a sure criticism of the NHS, even if the solution—to ask doctors to play less golf and do more operations—places the blame with individual sloth and greed.  It’s the final “impossible task” which I think is a bit of an unfair slam—raising the quality of programming on the BBC.  What?!

Superman’s next project is to pay off the national debt, and it seems an amusing and not altogether satisfying blow that Superman is brought to his knees by bankruptcy (not to mention kryptonite and the Bat-Man!).   True Brit is very well-drawn by John Byrne and Mark Farmer with Alex Bleyaert.  I feel less affection for the final denouement of True Brit than I did for the very funny first two-thirds, but I do recommend this book. 

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