Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Shaw Bros.

* A note before we continue: the point of "The Shaw Bros." series is to share my own often-absurd experiences within the subculture of martial arts. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have fallen in, quite accidentally, with a genuine master of a Lost Art, who teaches openly and with no cultural obfuscation. It is not my intention to diminish other arts, nor to elevate the ones that I practice.

The Shaw Bros. Part Five: Hotel No-Tell

In 1993, around 11:00 pm, on a Saturday night, I was up in a hotel room in Orlando, Florida, getting a “lesson” at the stone hands of a particularly bizarre & terrifying martial arts teacher. While a friend of mine filmed it. The whole thing seemed perverse…I was furious at Jim for setting me up to be an unwitting stunt-double of sorts, but I couldn’t figure out an honorable way to remove myself from Sifu Raef’s “demonstration” of Jook Lum Pai Southern Mantis tactics, so I took my lumps without complaint. And honestly, I should’ve seen this coming. Jim was a great friend, but he was like what I imagined having a brother would be like; the ill-conceived pranks at my expense, and he found particular amusement if it involved some sort of non-fatal martial comeuppance on my behalf. 

Now, you have to understand. Raef was & is a particularly strange character; a hulking 250+ lbs at roughly 6’ 1”, yet he came off like an Oracle programmer with severe Asperger Syndrome…coke-bottle nerdworthy glasses, strangely fey mannerisms, with garbled confucian wit sprinkled oddly throughout his conversation. Raef was no joke; raised in a violent home by a reportedly horrific father, he excelled at every fighting art he’d tried, before finally studying the Southern Chinese system of Chu-Gar. Another friendless geek had found his way into the closed-door Chinatown community. “Playing Hands” with him was akin to being trapped in a drainage pipe with a badger; there was nowhere to hide, and backing up only made it worse.

Somewhere, this seminal experience exists on videotape.

Upstairs, somewhere after midnight, Jim’s other friends, members of the Shuai Chiao (Mongolian jacketed wrestling) team from Chicago, were partying hard. These guys trained crazy-hard, and played crazier-harder. These guys idea of a good time was to have a few beers & take turns throwing each other down a nearby cement stairwell, to much uproarious laughter (their own.)

Tonight they were fishing from their hotel balcony, keeping the fish they caught in their bathtub, and eventually throwing them back where they came from; the hotel pond. A nice “catch -n-release” gesture, though I don’t think most of the fish survived the 11-floor plummet into the shallow, decorative Koi pool.

The tournament itself provided for a fascinating weekend: the delusional and the sociopathic, the real & the fake, the wannabe’s and the real-deal guys, the light-hearted athletes & the stone-killers, all mingling in the same overbooked Florida hotel. Vince Black. David Lin. John Wang. The aforementioned Roddy “Raef” Manuel. David Weng. Tai Yim. Serious, SERIOUS Old-School Badasses. And many who weren’t, but who were still impressive athletes & who could perform jaw-droppingly acrobatic WuShu routines...

It was particularly enteraining to watch Sifu Raef enter gleefully into competition and drill right though a bunch of much younger, much fitter guys, who were pissed off and flummoxed by this odd panda-shaped guy and his odd, unsettling style. Plus, he'd give each opponent a big, sweaty, lingering-a-beat-too-long hug when he was done buffeting 'em around.

Things happen when the Old Masters gather together in one place. On another level of social interaction entirely, far removed from the opaque awareness of the Gwai-Lo. An incident at that particular tourney: Lineaged Liuhopafaquan Grandmaster Wai Lun Choi ran into lineadged Northern Praying Mantis Grandmaster Jiang Chong, and Jiang, upon hearing Choi’s name, confused Choi with a particularly egregious Chicago Kung-Fu huckster that had done him dirty somehow (to be fair and balanced, not knowing the exact exchange, it is not that difficult to piss off a Chinese Master of these older generations.) And Master Jiang Chong, of the Shaolin Northern Praying Mantis school, abruptly got in Choi’s face and began loudly finger-pointing.

At this moment, something physical happened, but it was subtle, barely noticeable. Someone put his hand on the other, and a misunderstanding nearly became a physical confrontation between two men a very high level of skill.

 Jiang Chong was properly mollified, in the discreet way that the old masters use (presumably)
in public disputes. Onlookers could scarcely  guess that they'd witnessed "crossing hands" done on a high level.

 Later on, as Jiang Chong was passing a group of students discussing another young master's demonstration of his various skills, including Pakuachang, Hsing I Chian and Liu He Ba Fa, Jiang paused, thrust himself into the circle, and was heard to loudly state, "he does NOT know Liu He Pa Fa." 

Many years & marriage & kids later, I was gobsmacked to see that the character "Toph", the little blind Earthbending princess/badass in the brilliant "Avatar: The Last Airbender" cartoon series, visibly demonstrated Southern Mantis as her distinctive style (which, ironically enough, she learned from giant mole-badgers!) It turns out that the martial choreographers of "Airbender" knew of the much-feared Southern Mantis master, and had enlisted his expertise in giving little Toph the scariest & weirdest real kung-fu body-language they could come up with. Learning of this, I felt an immense & fatuous sense of vindication.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Shaw Bros.

Part 4

In Chicago, the summer of 1974, 15 year old Mark Clayton was watching “Five Fingers of Death” on the big screen, in the Oriental Theatre. Mark described it as a revelation: two weeks before, “Enter The Dragon” had electrified the crowd, and  a week after that came the surreal news of Lee’s sudden passing. Yet here, amid the spectacle of glowing red kung-fu palms, eyes being torn out, and stanzas of Raymond Burr’s “Ironside” theme music to indicate the hero’s ensuing onslaught, came fanatically renewed vigor. Kung-Fu had arrived in the Windy City.

After that, the Shaw Bros. classics were a regular event, and a spectacle. The brothers would show up in full regalia; guys would would leap up onto the stage, and perform their own kata—often with weapons!—to the exhultation of the crowd. Mark tells em that local pidgeons would often roost on the seats, entering through the gaping holes in the theatre’s ceiling.

Mark and some of his friends immediately became connoseurs of Chinese esoteric martial practices—they’d haunt the bookstores, hoarding books from O’Hara Publications, teaching themselves what they could. Mark and his friend Kirk “messed themselves up” trying to teach themselves a Hung Gar “Iron Wire” Qigong set; the “Iron Wire” is an intense isometric tension/breathing set, similar to Okinawan Karate’s Sanchin Kata. Qigong is nothing to screw around with, without an experienced teacher. Another of Mark’s young friends tried to emulate a training exercise from a Run Run Shaw classic; driving his bare hands into a big pot of sand, heating on his mother’s stove, to stimulate an “Iron Palm” training effect. The results, though predictable, were not to his liking.

Chicago had a long & storied history of the oriental fighting arts; Chicago produced some notable Olympic-level Judo competitors in the late 60’s & early 70’s. The entire burgeoning subculture was given a black eye by the late John Keeshan, aka “Count Dante”, an opportunistic huckster who encouraged some notorious “Dojo Wars” which resulted in incarcerations & even a death (some idiot stabbed another idiot with a cheap knock-off samurai sword—though not cheap enough, apparently.) Some of his remaining followers are still arguing amongst themselves about who inherited Dante’s besmirched Black Dragon Fighting Society “legacy”; I’ve seen ‘em on YouTube, and they exemplify a truly perplexing state of self-delusion.
Mark had already gotten instruction in Korean Hapkido (made instantly famous by Bong Soo Han’s stunt work in “Billy Jack”) and began his search for a genuine Kung-Fu teacher. It didn’t take him very long to find Wai lun Choi, teaching in Chicago’s Chinatown.

Wai Lun Choi had come to Chicago in 1973, after winning a big Southeast Asian all-styles bare-knuckle tournament. Barely speaking a word english, he had taken it upon himself to open a legitimate Kung-Fu school in America. He had put on a demonstration at a University, and was approached afterwards by more than 30 fellows who he assumed were potential students; it turned out they were all from a rival school, eager to challenge & drive off this unimpressive little Cantonese guy. Choi got his dander up, and took them on one at a time, then in groups of two & three, defeating them all in half an hour’s time, bruising more than their egos and winning some believers.

When I happened across Choi in late 1989, he was a smiling, gregarious little fellow. Mark tells me that, in Chinatown in the ‘70s, Choi would just as soon beat you up as look at you. He was, mentally, still on the mean streets of Hong Kong. I was pleased that he’d mellowed since then; truthfully, I really wasn’t up for the old-school abuse. And his “Old Chinatown” methods were hardcore to the point of torment: kicking a mounted section of telephone pole with your shins, nonstop, for half an hour; punching mounted wall-bags filled with increasingly hard materials—sand, mung beans, finally iron filings—and a heavy bag that weighed at least 200 lbs, filled with concrete dust. If you were lucky enough to show some drive & potential, he’d show you a few combinations pulled from some of the many obscure arts he knew. Choi wanted to produce serious fighters, and the way he trained people reflected that bent. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Shaw Bros.

Part 2

The first book about martial arts I remember owning was "ADVANCED NUNCHAKU!" by Fumio Demura.
Or maybe it was "Hwa Rang Do" by Joo Sang & Joo Bang Lee...

The Lee brothers painted quite the picture of the mythical Hwa Rang Warrior Elite, knocking invading mongol hordes(?) off their armored mounts with flying feet. Joo Bang proved his Ki Powers by piercing various parts of his body with a bicycle spoke, and dangling suspended buckets of water from the non-bleeding wounds ( I found out much later that this is the lowest form of Ch'i-canery; stunts known from time immemorial to every carny huckster from Nanjing to Plano.)

With Fumio Demura's book, it was different. After 1973, Nunchaku sticks were, for all intents and purposes, the rosary beads for all non-catholic male children; you either procured 'em, or made a set. I did both. Fumio, a stocky Okinawan master karateka, showed skills beyond the twirly showboating we all wanted to copy from The Little Dragon (I only purchased the "Advanced" book because the "Not Advanced" version was unavailable.) While visiting my aunt in Orlando, I begged my parents for the gleaming pair of black plastic Nunchaku I spied in a store window. Linked by a thick chain, the sticks were heavy as hell, made from that dense, unfriendly bakelite material from the early '70s. After compromising (the razor-edged shuriken were out of the question, but made for a good bargaining tactic) my Mom acquiesced...and of course, out in the sunshiny backyard, surrounded by orange trees, I gave myself a minor concussion attempting to swing this ungainly cudgel. LAK-lak-lak-LAK-lak-lak-TOOMP.

Over my high school years, I gained a few more pair of the things; tapering round wooden swivel-chained ones (schweet), black octagonal ones joined by a simple short nylon cord (by far the best) and an odd friend in shop class hand-lathed me a set out of knurled aluminum (gorgeous, but nearly fatal to attempt even the most ginger of practice sessions.) And during my tenure in Tennessee Public School, I did indeed bear witness to a fight- more of a display, actually - featuring a teenager whipping off his black mesh wifebeater and performing a spastic kata with his own homecrafted broomstick nunchaku, doing his level best to imitate Bruce's inimitable catlike shrieks."Ooooo-Aaiiii!"

There were many other intoxicating OHARA PUBLICATIONS on traditional Okinawan weapons; the Tonfa, the Sai sword, the Bo...all were alleged former farm implements, all seemed outrageously exotic. During the 1982 "World's Fair" Energy Expo in Knoxville, Steve Stanley and I amused ourselves by writing a period musical, "Okinawa" (set to mostly to Rogers & Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!"):

with the Shogun sweepin' down the plain
and korean hordes
with samurai swords
beheading peasants in the rain..."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Shaw Brothers

(Anecdotes from martial arts subculture in America)

Part One

I’m really not sure exactly what drew me to Karate. It wasn’t anything I can remember clearly, like an episode of “Kung Fu” or a Bruce Lee or Billy Jack movie…or even a humiliating schoolyard confrontation. Not anything nearly so melodramatic. In Middle Tennessee, all you could find in 1973 was Tae Kwon Do, if anything. And even then it was considered exotic and obscure. Decades later I’d come to appreciate the zeitgeisty brilliance of the Korean pre-viral marketing approach.
I just remember that I wanted badly to try it, and I certainly wasn’t any good at any other sports.

In fourth grade, I made up my own martial art. This was at least a year before joining Jerry Jones’ Moo Duk Kwan-Tae Kwan Do Korean Karate school, the first of its kind in Cookeville.
Jerry was a singular personality; straight out of military service, the guy dressed exactly like Billy Jack, but looked exactly like Paul Newman playing Buffallo Bill…seriously. He had the beard, the electric-blue eyes, and the charisma. Jerry was, especially when magnified by my 11 year old memory, a phenomenal athlete; I once saw him casually catch a fly in his fist, unharmed, as he was musing philosophically in his office. Uncanny. Bear in mind, this was at least a decade before Pat Morita attempted this maneuver with chopsticks.

But I’m getting ahead of my story.

Like I said, in fourth grade, I made up my own martial art. I was raised on MAD magazine, more than any other single source—cartoonist Al Jaffee was a favorite. I’d also been sneaking peeks at various weightlifting sources, including Arthur Jones’ early “Nautilus” manuals…and of course, those over-the-top "FEAR NO MAN!" self-defense ads running in comics and cheap magazines. The Black Dragon Fighting Society and their fearless leader,"Count Dante", was a favorite..even at ten years old, I knew this was funny, intentionally or not.

At this age, I wanted very badly to join a gym, lift weights, learn martial arts, and become something other than what I was; a scrawny, artsy, dorky introverted kid who had trouble fitting in. Drawing came naturally, and I liked making the other kids laugh; so, I made up a manual; “The Deadly Art of Buttoxing”. Yes, using your own largest set of muscles, the gluteus maximi, as the weapon of choice for striking. The manual detailed a slew of insidious methods, including the “Full Moon”, “Half-Moon”, and the “Screaming Eagle”, a vicious airborne ass-first assault, far more dangerous to the attacker than to the intended victim. (Years later, John F. Gilbey’s fictionalized accounts would detail a tiny master of the “Macedonian Buttock” strike which rendered the opponents’ testicles mashed as if by a drill-press; but I smugly felt I’d gotten there firstest with the mostest. You should’ve seen Danny Bustamante blindside Mark Mason with his textbook airborne Screaming Eagle.)

The resulting playground violence was directly traceable to my laborously hand-drawn manual, which got me in deep trouble with the Lurchlike school principal, Mr. Bilbrey (his flattop crewcut just made the resemblance worse) — and got me booted off the Safety Patrol, as I recall. I was crushed.

It was around seventh grade that I discovered “The Destroyer” series of pulp novels, tepidly adapted to the screen, decades later, as “Remo William: The Adventure Begins”. I longed to find my own mystical “Chiun” to teach me the superhuman assassination-craft of Sinanju (the sun source of ALL the martial arts, according to the horrifically racist, abusive little South Korean Grandmaster. I didn’t chance across my own real grandmaster ‘til much, much later. TOO late, in fact, to fulfill my longed-for destiny as “The Dead Night Tiger, Made Whole Again by The Master of Sinanju.”
See, I didn’t even have to look that one up…I knew my Murphy & Sapir by heart.

My school notebook margins were filled with page-long sequences featuring a tiny, berobed martial arts master kicking the intestines out of huge, armed, muscular attackers.
(This was my first real attempt at an animation storyboard, although I didn’t realize it at the time.)

I'm thinking it was 1972 or so that my parents allowed me to join the Moo Duk Kwan Tae Kwon Do class at the Cookeville Karate School, led by the charismatic Jerry R. Jones.
I was either 11 or 12 years old.

Training at the Jerry Jones Karate Studio was a dream, and a nightmare. Jerry was very, very serious…if my parents had realized how tough some of the training was, I wonder if they’d have let me continue. I was in heaven, but the entire Dojo lived in fear of Mr. Jones. While not abusive, he brooked no nonsense & tolerated no foolishness. I was 11 years old, goofing off during a partner stretch, when he hurled me the length of the tiled studio floor & ordered me to do knuckle pushups for not paying attention in class, and you’d better bet I damned well payed attention from then on. In retrospect, I’m grateful as hell.

There was a scary Saturday morning session when Glenn, a blue belt that always showed up looking like a dunked tomcat, showed up drunk. Or high. One or the other, possibly both. Jerry veered narrowly close to losing his temper and knocking the guy into next week; instead, he scared Glenn as sober as Glenn had probably ever been. And Jerry even apologized to ME, privately, for berating the man in front of the class.

When I was a fourteen year old green belt, the legendary Jerry Jones got religion. Jerry never did anything halfway: Jerry got a LOT of religion, and once fully imbued with the Holy Spirit, denounced the school & his students as trappings of the Devil. After a lot of vehement “Get Thee Behind Me”’s, he vanished into the lush Tennessee hills, leaving the school to be continued by his wounded, disgruntled & disillusioned senior students.

This was my first personal encounter with the Devout.

From then on, traditional TKD went by the wayside, and we were a commercial Sport Karate school, specializing in tournament point-style fighting. This was not a good turn of events, at least not for me. I sucked as an athlete; I got into this esoteric eastern stuff for other reasons.
Turning an internal event & private practice into a high-pressure athletic spectacle was, for me, a disaster. Watching Black Belts become tantrum-throwing bullies in the ring was simultaneously illuminating & disenchanting.

There were bright moments, though. At the Battle of Nashville, I met Bill “Superfoot” Wallace: entering the gymnasium in street clothes (bell-bottom jeans & a wide-open shirt, the height of mid-70’s fashion ) bowlegged as a cowpoke, his son in one arm & the biggest bag of Ruffles potato chips I’d ever seen in the other, and looking around the room with wide, childlike eyes, as if he’d never been to such a big event. Which wasn’t the case…Bill was just bugfuck nuts, and he truly enjoyed life. Although preoccupied with flirting with the usual contingent of young Farrah-haired karate belles, Bill took time to be nice, funny & encouraging to me, some geeky kid he didn’t know. I remember him as a class act. Christ, could that man kick. Him, Joe Lewis, Skipper Mullins, Eddy Everett; they didn’t mess around in the ring; these guys were real fighters. To a lesser degree, the next generation were very successful point fighters & spectacular athletes, but didn’t seem to have the “warrior” aspect you saw in a Chuck Norris or Mike Stone.

One guy in Georgia, Robert Lee Harris, a slim young black man, was undoubtedly the most impressive point-style fighter I ever saw; he had the cleanest Tae Kwon Do technique I'd ever witnessed, combined with the electric-rubber speed of a genuinely elite athlete. And he was just starting to encounter the upper-level guys in the sport. As nice a guy as you could hope to meet; I remember seeing him take a running start, cleanly flying sidekick the rim of a basketball hoop, pretty as can be, and land gracefully. I also remember Robert Lee’s palpable discomfort at the attention & hero worship his ability attracted; the man clearly just wanted to quietly pursue the art he loved.

Still, all in all, the tournament scene left an enduring sour taste in my mouth. Before I graduated high school in 1980, and with a red belt with two stripes, a single rank exam away from possibly earning a coveted TKD Black Belt, my interest in the martial arts waned.

But I hadn’t yet realized that the history of martial arts in America is the history of guys with Daddy Issues; I’d be drawn back into the fold, eventually.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Waiting...and waiting...for Superman"

"One does not touch...the person...of Superman." - Paul Lynde

I never could sustain any interest in the Big Blue Cheese.

Cracking open one of those 100-page monstrosities circa 1970 or so, "The Superman Giant-Sized Bi-Annual Family Reunion" or somesuch, the thing that stuck was the chronic silliness of that DC era; Clark and Lois trapped on an island, with Superman sneaking off at super-speed to create latex masks out of tree bark and pigments from coconuts and blueberries, ostensibly to protect his own identity. No effort was made to get off the island or to procure food or shelter for the poor woman. It seemed like such a spiteful waste of super-talent, amusing himself with his own rather passive-aggressive game of Confuse-A-Lois, that any spark of interest I had was quashed. I'd take Layton's Iron Man, Rudy Nebres' Shang-Chi & The Brothers of the Tiger, thanks very much.

Later, with the advent of "Superman: The Movie", all of that changed, of course. Once Supes could be seen as an actual, good-hearted and admirable person, then he was a Star. Why the comics were rarely able to reflect the character in this light, I don't know. Simply too boring, or merely hard to write?

Every once in a while, for too many years, I'd peek in at what DC is doing with Supes, and then wonder why I even bothered. Lately, Supes decided to "grace us mortals with his earthbound presence", or some other piously ill-considered nonsense, by hoofing it across America and not shutting up the entire time. Since when did Supes chatter on with his puritanical moralistic pronouncements about everything under the sun, like some cross-dressing Lutheran Minister? Since when did real men act this way?

And don't even get me started on the "Kingdom Come" superman of the 90's...dour and inert, with his Brobdingnagian ribcage thrust forward like Bob Hoffman on a tin of protein powder, steeping in his own musky significance. That ain't our Superman. That isn't even how a man behaves...that's an 80's bodybuilding man-boy, ever aware to flex his lats slightly in case of a candid shot.

Middle-aged Superman, having retreated into a markedly petulant seclusion...WHY, exactly? "Kingdom Come" was never very clear on that. Something rather murky about being disappointed in humanity...or rather, that his public was no longer properly awestruck or worshipful. Superman, like Batman or the Honey Badger, should not give a shit about such trifling things as celebrity or public perception.

Several years after Kingdom Come, Ross provided his own coda, revisiting the tragedy that left Superman a hurting unit: Lois gets her head stove in by The Joker, and she is so horribly injured that even Supes darest not whisk her off to emergency care. Yet (with brains exposed to open air, one can only presume) she manages to deliver a fully conscious and nauseatingly contrived soliloquy about how freakin' wonderful the Man of Steel is, how fortunate she has been to have been in his very presence, and yadda yadda. I instantly flashed on "Tootsie"; when hectored by his "The Death of Tolstoy" director to somehow stand & stagger upstage while he's dying, Michael Dorsey quits in a huff. One can see how he'd feel strongly about such a dramatic choice...

It's telling that the most singular takes on Supes have been from an Irishman (Garth Ennis) and a Scot (Grant Morrison.) I never, ever thought that anyone would be able to top Garth Ennis' "Of Thee I Sing", a one-shot issue of his criminally underrated "Hitman", which appeared to be the Last Word on Superman...and then along comes Grant, with "All-Star Superman", and he & Frank Quitely knocked it clear out into the parking lot. After issue #10, I foamed at the mouth to my wife, "IF DC HAD ANY BALLS, THEY'D RETIRE THE CHARACTER. HE'LL NEVER BE THIS GOOD AGAIN!" ...of course, this hanging-up-of-the-cape would never happen, and I knew it, but...

Sure enough. The squelch of disappointment from Bryan Singer's overly-reverential & under-written movie (we took to calling it "The Adventures of the Brave Seaplane Pilot And His Lying, Shitty Family", as it was dubbed by a snarky AICN talkbacker) was made particularly sour by the fact that young Brandon Routh made a startlingly good Superman, and he in fact embodied the Grant Morrison "I'm Always Going to Do My Best to Help (regardless of my own circumstances)" Superman. The very best one.

Now, "Smallville" is grinding to a final train-wreck ending of sorts, and it's been morbidly fascinating to observe this show fall into a nearly identical rut-pattern of the Mort Weisinger absurdity of the 60's-70's. I wish all of these good-looking kids the very many talented young actors, fighting uphill battles against undercooked stories. And even though I have no love lost for the show, I have to admit: when it worked (roughly 1 episode for every 10, at my grim estimation), it worked quite well. Erica Durance, god bless 'er, transformed into the Top Secret Acting Weapon of the final season.

I cringe at whatever is coming down the WB production tube from Zack Snyder...most likely something unpleasant, filled with glittering, fast-moving slo-mo pixels, and with a disquieting undercurrent of misogyny.

The first and last word on the idea of a Superman character was Philip Wylie's 1930 novel "The Gladiator", which surely served as the inspiration for the young Seigel & Schuster. It's such a bleakly existential treatment of the absurd premise...poor Hugo Danner lives a life of constant, crushing disappointment, unable to discover a genuine outlet for his own gigantic abilities and appetites. Hugo is an iron-bodied engine of destruction, determined to do good where he is able, but he remains thwarted by the pettiness of authority, the smallness of human nature, the greed of politicians. God, it's such a Sartre-gasm, that book...not a great piece of prose by any means, but filled with Wylie's incandescent ideas and some rather blood-curdling descriptions of Hugo's inhuman feats. Howard Chaykin did an oddball adaptation of Gladiator" a while didn't quite work, and had Chaykin's penchant for anachronistic dialog, but Brian Azzarrello twinkled with glee: "That is a fucked-up comic! " Wylie's novels are deeply pessimistic,his logic unassailable...his prescient "The End of the Dream" sits on a shelf, and I regard it from a safe distance, and with grave trepidation. It's almost as much fun to pore through as "The Road".

Why does a flicker of hope remain for the Man of Tomorrow? He's still wearing his briefs over his leggings,
for Rao's sake.

It may be nobody's fault. Maybe Supes really, truly has just run his course...he may simply be, as some have convincingly argued, a vestige of the 20th century, best left on the rubbish pile of history. More to the point: while Batman can survive seemingly infinite reincarnations and alternate visions, everything from Christopher Nolan's ricola-throated philanthropist to Mark Martin's brilliantly absurd Gnat-Rat, or even Frank Miller's cursing, child-endangering, unshaven date-rapist, Superman seems to require a pin-point bullseye rendition, or he just doesn't seem to function as a metaphorical anything.

Getting right to it, Superman is a Jewish Old Testament Hero. Back to the original intent of the creators (*ahem* Wonder Woman *cough*): Supes was never meant to be an allegorical expression of the Christian God or Jesus, but an outgrowth of Moses, Sampson, the Hebrew warrior/liberator whose coming is foretold. We kinda all know that by now. My very smart professorial pal, Ineke "Doctor Light" Murakami, pointed out even as she audibly rolled her eyes at my stultifying fannishess, that Clark & Supes have deeper roots in the Wizard/Golem legend. Wizard/Clark (Mind, Intellect ) and Golem/Superman ( Action )--it's a metaphor that I enjoy more & more. Can't have too many Golems in comics.

The Batman , though, is very Catholic, or at least displaying the strain of Catholicism that sprung from Buddhism. He's a perverse, guilt-driven twist on Siddhartha Gautama. Even down to his trek to the Tibetan Mystic Mountaintops, where Lamont Cranston - er, Bruce Wayne, excuse me- learns the skills necessary to combat & terrify the lower elements of society. But this flawed pursuit is still rooted in a sincere desire to Do Good, and to abolish the Self.

Superman doesn't have this problem. He was Born To It, special from the start, selected by Fate for a Grand Mission of Aid. He has nothing to discover except his own glowy specialness, nothing to evolve except resignation to, and the embrace of, his own Special Density. It's a fantasy about each of our own unique path, that feeling from early childhood of unlimited possibility, that one day you'll pull the sword from the stone and THEN boy will all those pricks will be sorry.

That's not entirely fair to Kal-El. Grant Morrison got it exactly right, deepening Superman's Bodhisattva-like concern for the welfare of all, with his own life always his last priority. The difference between Superman & Batman seems to be about the level of optimism, more than anything...Batman, ever the tactical pragmatist, squeaks out a pyrrhic & morally questionable victory at best, at great personal sacrifice (most of the Robins, all of his girlfriends, his automobile, his spine, etc.) while Superman, back against the wall, bloodied, near-powerless, somehow Hail Mary's a galvanizing, last-point-at-the-buzzer, soul-embiggening Epic Win.

This most recent tempest in a bottle city, though...Superman pompously renouncing his US citizenship, then doing a 500 meter backpedal that would make Barry Allen just reflects the current mamby-pamby nature of the Man of Steel. It did not come off as calculated, or a smart, zeitgeisty move by DC; it was clearly another badly-timed misstep.

Superman is over with. Passe'. A museum relic. Stick a gold K fork in 'im, he's done. ( I just consulted the University of Googlepedia, and sure enough, Gold Kryptonite is what's required to permanently eliminate a Kryptonian's powers. I won't be telling my wife that I pulled that reference out of my ass. It might seem rather disingenuous from a guy who claims to be "unable to sustain interest " in Superman.)

But considering the character has survived so many trials during his published lifetime: President Luthor. Doomsday. John Byrne. Even Dean Cain. Perhaps this valley will also pass, and...and...geez, I really hope Snyder doesn't totally blow it. Amy Adams'll make a great Lois.

I'll probably be watching the "Smallville" series finale until I tap out from sheer exhaustion.

( About the author: Barry Crain is a nerd who still likes Superman.)