It’s been a struggle, hasn’t it? I think it has been. Remember Joaquin Phoenix’s wheezy, scratchy laugh in Joker? That’s been Mother Nature’s soundtrack, exhaled in one continuous blast throughout much of 2020/1. It hasn’t so much cleared the cobwebs as it has cocooned us in them, waiting for the face huggers to skitter into view.
Truly hopefully though, you’ve had some capacity, no matter how small, to let some goodness in; like discovering an ace comic run (see: Cook and Paton’s Killtopia) or a favourite character has been attached to a movie and things are panning out nicely (see: Catwoman and The Batman). These are things to be satisfied by, with culture endeavouring to nudge us along and cheer us on.
Yet, when it comes to selecting one media-related subject to be especially thankful for, for myself there has only been one real contender to take me up, up, and far away: Superman.
Oddly enough, I’ve chosen him not due to any contentious movie or palate-cleansing television show, as enjoyable as Justice League and Superman & Lois are. Rather, I’m thankful for Superman being there at all the moments where he wasn’t expected or invoked like some great god of all solutions. I wasn’t caught falling from any helicopter from any great height, but this year, my life was certainly cushioned by his presence.
I made a list of the key positive things to have happened to me this year. (I’m contractually obliged to state that my wedding anniversary is a given and not up for debate.):
- Started a video game collection.
- Spoke at a conference about Superheroes.
- Been working on my writing about superheroes.
While it all involved Superman, none of it was about Superman.
I wanted to build a small game collection, because I had to clear the spare room for Working From Home and realised some of it could store more media. Let the cheap shelves buckle, I wasn’t going to squander this precious gift. Of all the titles I could have bought, one of the first I wanted to own was Superman (1979) for the Atari VCS. Yes, I do have the ancient console hooked up to my modern television, so I can enjoy the flickering sprites in sub-optimal conditions if I really wanted, but, dear reader: I don’t want to. I just wanted to own the object. While I have games playable in rotation, this five-dollar forgotten classic, the first superhero game ever made, has instead become my totem of sorts. It hasn’t fulfilled any fantasy of my becoming Superman, but it has been instrumental in allowing myself to create a mental and physical space where I could return to my love of video games and superheroes, and to build out from there, learning more about them, and paving the way for Living From Home.
Outside of the domestic space, while he hasn’t scooped me up in his arms and taken me places, Superman has been low-key instrumental in the locations that I have visited. One week this year, the furthest I had travelled was to the corner shop, and honestly, that terrified me. The next week I was on a taxi, train, airplane, train, taxi adventure that had deposited me, over the course of twelve hours, in a foreign land called Germany for a number of days. This was for the the 5th annual Superhero Project conference, a prestigious event on my entirely empty calendar, and I was there to give a presentation on the representation of women in DC Comics’ video games.
The Superman connection? Aside from his background influence within the games themselves, it’s twofold: when I arrived at the hotel, I met the conference organisers for a beer and we immediately bonded over the Man of Steel, among other things. After a protracted period of staring at walls for conversational company and being immobilized, not entirely by choice but it did start to feel that way, I knew I had finally found my ‘tribe.’ Synapses reconnected; and that moment was as distinctly impactful as the following few days of meeting more new peers and having further fascinating discussions. Since then, my confidence to join in on conversations has slowly begun to return, with online chat even leading to Superman-adjacent world records being submitted to Guinness. (Lois Lane: longest-running female video game character, you heard it here first!)
The other thing? Well, I wore my Superman underwear when I gave the talk in Germany. I Clark Kent’ed the conference in secret und ich liebte es. When we think about the pandemic, and the effect it has had on us, it’s easy to become embroiled in the solemnity of it, but if Christopher Reeve’s far better executed role as Clark Kent, has taught us anything, it’s that there needs to be a lighter side of the equation, not to diminish the seriousness of events, but to remind us of the point of all this. So, while my choice in tasteful undergarments was not about Superman per se, it was definitely in his spirit that I took the incredibly daunting task at hand and ran with it.
Which, as all writers say, leads me to my writing. I don’t talk about it publicly, but for 5 years I suffered from debilitative work-related depression. It stopped my PhD research in its tracks. It stopped me enjoying a career in my late twenties because I just ceased to be functional. It crippled me and humiliated me. It is only since then, over a ten-year period, that I’ve have been able to challenge this persistent illness, and with the help of various horror, comic, and video game communities, I have been able to not only continue studying my interests, but also fully enjoy them again. And you bet, the peak of this momentum had me writing about Superman.
This year, I was fortunate enough to have an essay published in John Darowski’s tremendous Adapting Superman: Essays on the Transmedia Man of Steel, and I have a piece forthcoming in Lorna Piatti-Farnell’s pivotal The Superhero Multiverse: Readapting Comic Book Icons in Twenty-First-Century Film and Popular Media, in which I write about that old Superman video game. These articles were written before this year, but it is directly from this work that I’m in a position this time around to start work on my own book on superheroes, where I can pay some of this ceaseless gratitude forward to other interested writers. Superman, once again, has indirectly helped make my life better.
Laying all this out, I’m thankful for Superman this year. Not because of anything that he has specifically done, but because of what he has brought out of myself and rekindled, and for putting me in touch with those others, my ‘tribes,’ like yourself reading this, which has helped propel me on some collective track that we all share, as we all engage with the wider nonsense that the world throws at us.
When I read that Superman’s new motto was to become “truth, justice, and a better tomorrow,” I couldn’t help but laugh; he’s been telling us this all along, but it’s only this year that I finally noticed.