This was a really fun read, even for someone like myself who is largely outside of the Superman industrial complex. Except for one month in 2011 when...moreThis was a really fun read, even for someone like myself who is largely outside of the Superman industrial complex. Except for one month in 2011 when I did, I don't read comics. I've seen the first Christopher Reeve movie, and none of the others. I watched Lois & Clark in the 90s and thought it was fine.
I decided to read this book for two reasons. One is that Glen Weldon is my favorite contributor to the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, a witty curmudgeon-type I wish I could hang out with in real life. Two, I like cultural history and analysis of icons. My hope for the book was that it would look at Superman the character in his historical and symbolic context. Mission accomplished there.
The book is set up chronologically, with each chapter representing approximately one decade, starting in the 30s when Superman arrived on the scene. Instead of getting too much into the ins and outs of how publication came about (the suing of DC Comics by original Superman creators Shuster and Siegel is mentioned only superficially), The Unauthorized Biography zeroes right in on the character. We get recountings of plotlines of the first appearances in Action Comics and see how they paint a picture of a Superman who is being formed, whose motivations reflect the concerns of the day, whose powers change according to the whims of the creators and the needs of the narrative.
And then we see how that picture of Superman continues to change and never stops for seventy-five years. Along with his hair and his costume and his jawline, Superman's motives and politics and anxieties constantly evolve, based not just on the revolving door of writers and artists behind the scenes, but also on the changes wrought in American society.
It's especially fun to see how the villains change over time. In the 30s, Superman fought Cagney-esque gangsters. In the 40s, Nazis. In the 50s, mad scientists. And so on. Remembering the 90s in terms of their "extreme" villains (with names that Weldon mocks mercilessly and hilariously) was especially fun.
Apparently one of the biggest questions new Superman writers need to address is whether they believe Superman is a crimefighting alien masquerading as a man, or a farm boy whose strange powers are just a vehicle through which he does good. The goodness, in fact, seems to be the only thing that stays true--Superman is always trying to do the right thing, enforce a moral code.
Drawbacks: Weldon does go into detail retelling the stories as they happened in the comic books, the movies, and the TV shows. They are fun for awhile, but occasionally get repetitive. As the Superman universe expands and doubles and triples and spawns bizarro worlds and paradise worlds etc., they get increasingly complicated as well. If you are a not a Superman completist (as I am not) it may feel like a bit too much.
In that same vein, hundreds and hundreds of men (and a handful of women) have contributed to the drawing, writing, and publishing of Superman media for the past seventy years, and their names are crawling all over this book, with very little else to differentiate them from one another. I imagine Weldon had to include "This time with a story by Comicguy Bookington, drawn by Dude McComics," every time to satisfy the scholars who are looking for that thing, though the names became white noise to me really quickly. If you are looking to learn more about Bookington and McComics specifically this is definitely not the book for you. (Luckily Weldon includes an annotated bibliography at the end for your edification!)
Minor quibbles, though, about an interesting (pop-)cultural history written in a funny and engaging style by Weldon.(less)
This book was not what I imagined. I suppose I expected a book of essays, with each essay an analysis of a particular book and why it was significant...moreThis book was not what I imagined. I suppose I expected a book of essays, with each essay an analysis of a particular book and why it was significant for the author. For the Love of Books is something of a model for that. But no, Book Lust is basically a thickened-out list of librarian-approved "you might also like"s. There's nothing wrong with that. The books are spread apart into different chapters which represent categories and genres, so you can find recommendations for exactly what you might be looking for, and I would be lying if I said I didn't take down a bunch of titles for later. But there wasn't much depth here, no sense (for me) of the emotional and intellectual pleasures of reading, the strong psychic pull we can have for books that meant something to us once. Oh, well; that's why we have For the Love of Books.(less)
Of the two narratives (the serial killer and the World's Fair), both were successful for me. As much as I liked the murder stuff—I confess to having a...moreOf the two narratives (the serial killer and the World's Fair), both were successful for me. As much as I liked the murder stuff—I confess to having a penchant for reading about crime—I was also incredibly interested in the building of the fair. The architects and engineers who got together, campaigned for the rights to the fair, found the land, had to figure out how to build on it (it was a swamp onto which they wanted to build these massive, impressive structures), faced insane obstacles and setbacks with the construction of the buildings and still managed to pull the thing off. I love business narratives—rise-to-power stories, stories of impossible tasks with high stakes, and this was a first-rate version of that. Larson also does a great job of reinforcing the cultural significance of the fair, the way Americans set out to compete with Europe (we have culture too!) and the way the best and worst of humanity was on full display at the largest public gathering the adolescent country had ever put together.
It was a little less successful as a portrait of a killer—the book didn’t really get to the heart of Holmes, possibly because he was cold and soulless. Or possibly just because that wasn’t Larson’s objective. The scenes devoted to Holmes were not hard to picture, however: he was described as being short and boyish, but incredibly handsome with stunning blue eyes. My imagination cast him as Tom Cruise, which really worked.(less)
I found the book to be quite enlightening, if not quite as crushing as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. As expected, Ehrenreich found...moreI found the book to be quite enlightening, if not quite as crushing as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. As expected, Ehrenreich found that white collar workers on the job market are dealing with exploitation (in different forms) just as their working class counterparts are. Her resume consultant strung her along for weeks, often changing a comma, then changing it back (and actually giving poor advice—telling Ehrenreich that her resume could be three to four pages when other resources routinely dictate that it should be restricted to one or two). Her resume was only deemed perfect when she informed the consultant she would not be paying anymore.
Also, the majority of the networking and job-finding events she attended were sponsored by or based around an organized religion—sometimes explicitly, and sometimes as a fun surprise. A resident of Florida, Ehrenreich went to most events in the nearest metropolis, Atlanta, where she was advised that if she found God, a job would find her. Even the events which were professedly non-religious were the kind of hacky, new-age feelgoodery that we saw in the movie Little Miss Sunshine.
Ehrenreich’s conclusions were much the same as what can be found in Nickel and Dimed: it’s not the people, it’s the system. She seemed quite relieved to leave the corporate world at the close of the book and offered the ray of hope that more humanities-based industries, such as higher education, did not seem to be showing the same symptoms of self-destruction.
Ehrenreich's writing is, as ever, sharp, intelligent and bitterly funny.(less)