Mythology as a thing in tights

The Baltimore Sun

John Flynn was one lucky kid. Not only did his mother never throw away his old comic books, but his aunt actually encouraged his love of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, those costumed superheroes constantly striving to make the world a better and safer place.

"My Aunt Shirley used to give me and my brother comic books after she had read them," he says.

Good for Aunt Shirley. Not only did she provide her nephew with the beginnings of a comic-book collection that now numbers in the thousands; she also planted the seeds that would eventually turn young John into an author.

After years spent as both a comic-book collector and dealer - from 1980 to 1985, he operated Galactic Enterprises on Crain Highway in Glen Burnie - Flynn, 52, decided to put to use the writing skills he'd honed in college, where he eventually earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of South Florida. A former high-school English teacher and college administrator, his science fiction has earned him three Hugo Award nominations (in 2002, 2003 and 2004), he's written extensively on both movies and the comics, and he has been a guest speaker and panelist at comic-book conventions, including the mother of them all, the annual Comic-Con in San Diego.

In June, Flynn's 12th book, 101 Superheroes of the Silver Screen, was published by Galactic Books (galacticbooks.usafreespace.com), which he and his wife, Wendy Bush-Flynn, run out of their Owings Mills home. From his home, he talks about why we need superheroes, what makes for a good one, and the potential pitfalls of moving them from the comics page to the big screen.

What is it about superheroes that makes them so appealing? Why do we need superheroes, or why do we react so enthusiastically to superheroes?

I think it goes back to the fact that we've always needed myths of some type, to explain some broader truth about the world in which we live and our place in it. If you look back to the Greeks and Romans, they had a whole pantheon of gods and heroes that they worshiped and followed their stories.

Coming into the 20th century, we entered without too many of those myths. And we were entering a place where we needed those characters. We didn't know what we needed. I think these superheroes have come to represent the ideals and the innermost desires that we have for ourselves. They reflect feelings of bravery, that noblest part of our human nature. And they allow us, in a way, to see ourselves a little bit differently than what we really are. Had we spent so much time debunking myths that we needed to create new ones? Was that part of the problem?

That's exactly it. Our science is magnificent, it's given us a lot of wonderful things, like the Internet, for example, and medicines. But our science also took away some of our religion, took away some of our faith in something beyond ourselves. Science has spent so much time trying to say that God doesn't exist that we've reached the point that Nietzsche was pointing out, that God was dead. And so, without having this larger force, we had to create something new.

That's where the superheroes came, they sprang out of that desire for a belief in something beyond ourselves. The first truly great, or popular, superhero was Superman: Is it by accident that he happened in 1938, a time of Depression, of oncoming war?

He's a direct outgrowth of that particular time period. He is a reflection of what we wanted to be, at a time when we were in the midst of this worldwide Depression that was pulling us down economically, and affecting our social behavior as well. Then, of course, that Depression gave rise to fascism in Europe, and World War II. We needed Superman to come along and say that there is something better than this, here are these ideals that we can aspire to.

It's interesting to remember that, at first, he really was just a super man. He wasn't surviving nuclear blasts. He wasn't quite the invulnerable superhero that he became later.

Actually, if you want to go back, he was not a nice guy to begin with. When Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster first imagined him, they created this story called "Reign of the Super-men." It was a self-published magazine called Science Fiction 3, 1933. He was not the Man of Steel that we have come to believe, but rather a megalomaniac, like one of the James Bond villains, who was going to take over the world and put everyone under his domination.

He wasn't a hero figure at all, but when Siegel and Schuster went to try to sell this, Consolidated Book Publishing said, 'Look, no one's going to buy this guy. But they will buy somebody who stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way.' Thus we had the megalomaniac turning into a good guy.

What I find really interesting is that DC (the comics company that publishes Superman) recently has done these wonderful alternate histories and alternate worlds, alternate imaginings of their characters. One of the stories, it's called "Red Sun," they imagine what would have happened if Superman's capsule had landed in the Soviet Union instead of the United States. Imagine that for a while, how would the world have changed in that way?

What if Donald Trump had found him, instead of Ma Kent?

I like that, you should write that.

So what does make for a good superhero, what does make for a particularly appealing superhero?

If he can do things that ordinary man cannot do. One of the appeals for Superman is he's someone who has the ability of flight. We all have these fantasies, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could fly?"

Another component is invulnerability. We want to be able to survive that atomic blast that's coming. Add in the puerile things, like having X-ray vision, so he can determine if Lois Lane's underwear really is pink, things like that. ... I think those are the kind of components that go into making our first-class superhero.

Making the transition from the comic-book page to the movies ... not all superheroes seem to make that transition well.

Comic books, when they were first designed, because we had these panels of images, along with words, were set up in much the same way that we storyboard our motion pictures today. Still, that transition has always been somewhat of an awkward one. Look how many times it took before they got Superman right; it wasn't until 1978, with Richard Donner's Superman, that we really could believe a man could fly and do all of these amazing things.

Part of the transition has to do with technology, the special effects that are there. And then, writing a believable story ... so many of the earlier superheroes that were in the Saturday matinees, were pretty Pulp-like. They weren't interesting, they weren't sophisticated, they appealed more to kids than adults. But now that the adults who grew up with superheroes in comic books are the ones making the decisions in Hollywood, they're tending to make their superheroes just like they remember them being in the comic books. There is that degree of sophistication that's there, we do have this wondrous technology of special effects that is making these characters come to life. I just saw clips from next year's Iron Man movie, and it was just astounding, what (director) Jon Favreau was able to do with this.

I think superhero movies are making an easier transition today than they had originally. This is not to say that every character makes a good transition, but I think we're seeing more today, simply because of the adults who grew up on comics, and the technology that we have.

Was there a key moment, or a key movie, that signaled that now we can adapt these comic books properly to movies and make them into popular movies?

I would say that Richard Donner's Superman is the turning point. In fact, I believe that the Superman movie is probably the best of the superhero movies that has ever been made. Others would say X-Men or Batman, or whatever. But the reasons why it's the best: It was the first, it also set the standards by which we measure superhero movies.

Up to that point, superheroes were being treated comically. I think of the Batman TV series, where you the you the Pow! and Slam!, all that other stuff. But with the Richard Donner film, they treated the material as it if were serious, biblical in nature. We have this wonderful origin story, the character was sincere. Yeah, there was humorous stuff going on, but I think that was just the play of the heroic figure against the times.

This wonderful actor, Christopher Reeve, steeping into the role. ... He was so believable, so sincere in that. And of course, we had modern technology coming along and helping make it real. Every superhero movie that we have today owes a debt of gratitude in some way to that Richard Donner film. That was the turning point.

Of the recent films, what stands out in your mind?

I loved Brian Singer's Superman Returns, simply because I'm a real big Superman fan. But while I was watching that film, Brandon Routh came across just like Christopher Reeve. It was as if Christopher Reeve had been resurrected in this young actor's body. I really loved that.

On a different front I've always been a fan of the X-Men, of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. I would say that Marvel's done a good job in each of those franchises that are out - the new Fantastic Four, maybe more so than the previous one. I thought the inclusion of the Silver Surfer was inspired. I think the choice of actors in the piece was very good.

How about misfires? What comic-to-film transitions didn't work?

I love the work of Alan Moore, but I don't think The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was up to the quality of the comic book. The casting of Sean Connery was dead-on. I just think the film suffered when you compare it to the comic book. The comic book was so multilayered. I love the fact that Alan Moore brings in an ancestor of James Bond to be the leader of this group; they completely don't even touch on that in the movie. I just think the movie was a disappointment all around. I would like to have seen that be done better.

Any others particularly stand out - or perhaps down would be the better word?

If we look back, historically, the Red Sonja movie, Bulletproof Monk, Howard the Duck, Mystery Men, Judge Dredd. All of these were stupid, disappointments. They were trying to just make money, rather than make a good film.

Is there a common failure to those? Is it that they don't aim high enough, is it that they don't balance the built-in camp idea with a level of seriousness?

I don't think that they're aiming high enough. I don't think they have a high enough regard for the material. Brigitte Nielsen may be a very attractive woman to some, she's just not Red Sonja. They needed to cast somebody that was the epitome of the comic-book character. Same thing would go for Judge Dredd. And let's not even talk about Howard the Duck, how terrible that was. What was George Lucas thinking about there? He should not have made that. That was not something that could make a good transition.

I've always thought they did a serious misfire with Sheena, when they chose Tanya Roberts. She could have been a good Sheena, but the film was such dreck.

She's a beautiful woman, I just don't think the individuals involved in that went back to the material and treated it with the kind of respect that it needed. It certainly had the campiness of the comic books. But there was something seriously missing out of that. It's this notion that, if you put a beautiful woman there, you put her in various states of undress, we're going to make lots of money. That's unfortunate.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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