Monday, August 10, 2009

Comic Relief

Okay, I was going to wait a while to start discussing my childhood obsession with all things “Super”—as in Superman, but I CANNOT resist the following segue from the discussion of being “black like somebody” without mentioning that DC Comics’ fictional Lois Lane did her own Black Like Me experiment at the height of the Black Power Movement, called “I Am Curious (Black).” This comic came out in 1970, when DC and Co. were being “relevant” as they explored social issues like racism, sexism, poverty, and prison reform. 

I found this comic many years ago, while browsing in Forbidden Planet, a regular haunt when I lived in the East Village. I still have my copy, protected in a plastic cover. It is one of the most famous of all DC comic books—with a quick perusal of the Internet, you can probably find and read all the panels on line.

Those of an earlier generation might find the provocative title quite amusing, as it is based on a 1960s Swedish “art” film (read: nudie) called I Am Curious (Yellow)—which had its own sequel, I Am Curious (Blue). I, of course, was ignorant about that "adult" stuff—I just loved Superman!

The George Reeves Superman series was my favorite television show when I was a kid. It came on in endless reruns throughout my early childhood. My siblings might say that my viewing bordered on obsession. I had a 6-foot Superman poster on my bedroom wall, a Superman coffee mug (years before I ever began to drink coffee), and all manner of Superman comic books (Superman, Action Comics, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Superfamily). I played “Superman” with my G.I. Joes (yes, I had G.I. Joes—no surprise there) and my Jane West doll.

Although I have seen every episode of the television show ever filmed, my favorites were the first couple of seasons of the show, when the emphasis was on crime and mystery, before it turned into a “superhero” kiddie-type of program, with less serious episodes and light comic elements.

The series was much darker in the early episodes—very much B-movie tough guy stuff. These episodes also had the benefit of the superior Lois Lane character, portrayed by actress Phyllis Coates. The early episodes were filled with gangsters, suicide, megalomania, murder, savage beatings and a cynical, dark attitude. I have the first season on DVD and, every time I watch it, I am surprised at the level of violence and pessimism the shows contain. I remember when I first found out that Superman actor George Reeves had committed suicide. If I had just seen the first season of the show, I wouldn’t have been surprised—he is a far different actor than in the later seasons. One rumor I remember was that he had taken an overdose of LSD, thought he really could fly, jumped out of a window, and fallen to his death.

Years later, I found out the truth—that he had died of a gunshot wound, perhaps by a mistress or maybe by his own hand. The question was, though, was it murder or suicide? I couldn’t imagine Superman killing himself, and I resisted believing it for a long time. How could he? He was “super,” and he was a hero. It wasn’t until the release in 2006 of Hollywoodland, starring Ben Affleck, that I finally felt a sense of closure regarding Reeves’s death. The scenario presented in that film seemed much closer to the truth than any of the others. Ben Affleck’s* very affecting performance is worth seeing—he is well-cast, and gives an incredibly moving portrayal of an actor trapped in an image he couldn’t escape.

*Also REALLY worth seeing is Gone Baby Gone, which Ben Affleck directed (in addition to co-writing the screenplay). Deep Baby Deep.

Superman and the Mole Men: Racial allegory or justification for segregation?

Superman and the Mole Men (also known as The Unknown People) was a feature-length movie (dir. by Lee Sholem) that was later re-edited into two episodes for the TV show. 

The plot revolves around three little visitors from the center of the earth’s core, whose lives are disturbed by an oil rig that has drilled deep into the earth. When the little mole men (ignore the zippers on the back of their costumes) come up from their habitat to explore the desert, the townspeople become frightened because they are “different.” 

A mob (led by a bully) forms, and the three are nearly lynched. Of course, the film has been read as a reaction to the Cold War Communist “scare” (and Cold War-era movies), but it can also be read as an allegorical reading of race relations and mob mentality, with Superman, of course, as the voice of reason. The little mole men mean no harm, and after witnessing the evil and hatred and intolerance of humankind, they return to their own world at the center of the earth.

So the question I have is, is the film a progressive, forward-thinking allegory on the dangers of mob mentality and a plea for racial "tolerance," or is it that we would all get along we were to remain in our separate spheres, i.e., a justification for continued segregation? I encourage you to watch the film and think about it. YouTube has the entire film in segments. Here's the first.
All best, Rebecca


Anonymous said...

Have you noticed the "mob" lately. They seem to be at the center of every public meeting on healthcare. The irony is their leaders don't tell complete truths. They leave out important facts and the "mob" is left to fill in the blanks. All too often with incorrect or misinformation. Not much as changed. He who yells loudest wins. Unfortunately.

Author said...

Yes, if you take a look at "Superman and the Mole Men," you will see some disturbing similarities to the current climate at some of the town meetings about health care reform. The mob in the film also comes armed, also speaks with ignorance and hate and fear, and has a "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality. There's no attempt to listen, communicate, or understand.

Here's a good trivia tidbit: Jeff Corey, who plays the mob bully in the movie, was blacklisted for about a dozen years for refusing to name names during the Hollywood blacklist era--he was committed to racial justice, and was one of the most highly regarding acting teachers in the world. He was also in another classic film, this one on racial prejudice in the armed forces (Pacific theater), "Home of the Brave," which also starred James Edwards and Lloyd Bridges.