So, there I was, talking to a German rock star about our early musical influences, and I found myself explaining “you know, that old cartoon where Black Superman plays baseball with the kid, while singing a funky R&B tune about grammar...”
But that’s a story for another time and place.
Anyway, it got me thinking about, and re-listening and re-watching, Schoolhouse Rock’s tiny masterpiece “Verb”. I then realized that that version of “Superman” was every bit as important to me as the Siegel and Finger and Binder Supes. He might even have come before my exposure to the O’Neil/Adams books that I so dearly loved, and he preceded my hero Chris Reeve by about 14 years.
Here’s my Black Superman in all his glory:
This is the essence of Superman. Smiling and playing with the kids, being a tad stern if he has to, and repeatedly Saving The Day (TM)!
Of course, the Superman comic books never mentioned that he had an ultra-smooth singing style (via the woefully under-appreciated Zachary Sanders) that rivaled most of the dudes on Soul Train. The only things that struck me as “off” were that his legs were kinda small, and they got the colors of his suit all wrong; I just used little-kid-logic to put the colors firmly in canon as his “singing outfit” (because everybody had ‘em back then). I really can’t express what joy it gave little me to “find out” that “Superman” was in the groove!
I don’t think Verb’s actual ethnicity really registered on me at the time, other than his neighborhood was more like mine (and like the Cosby kids’) and less like Metropolis. And I still can’t decide whether my childhood nonchalance and innocence concerning race was my father’s great success or great failure. Or both. The only time cultural differences and “race” came up among me and my little peers was whether you used a comb, brush, or pick, what you had for Sunday dinner, and the fact that our Japanese buddy got the coolest Shogun Warrior toys from his uncle in Japan (back in the early 70s, we called them Samurai Robots for some forgotten-but-surely-genius reason).
I do remember that my first real introduction to the realities of America’s race-based train-wreck came from, yep, an O’Neil/Adams comic book (Green Lantern/Green Arrow) in my older cousin’s collection. But that’s also a story for another time and place...)
Okay, back to Verb-as-Supes: It’s a grand testament to the 60s/70s/80s Superman that you could have had “layin’ down da Funk while playing baseball, visiting the zoo, and teaching grammar with the neighborhood kids” as an authentic Superman adventure. Sure, old-school Superman was often quite dry and nerdy in his old-school chivalry, but his stories could turn wacky as hell at a moment’s notice; if “Verb” really were a Superman story, nobody would have batted an eye. That’s my Superman! Like the man said, “The old school’s the best school”.
If you haven’t been reading them, DC Rebirth looks to be bringing back those older flavors in their new titles, to one extent or another. Perhaps we’ll see Clark singing, dancing, and playing ball with little Jonathan in an upcoming issue. On top of that, we have the recent coolness of Earth 2's Val-Zod, Neal Adams’ current craziness, and there’s a Chinese Superman on the horizon (and the grimdark folks still have “Injustice”, right? Everybody wins)!
Okay, seriously; what started as a remembrance of the impact “Verb” had on my musical life, ended up as a reflection on Superman (and Batman, Spidey, Green Arrow, Zorro, et al). Most of my earliest moral and social lessons and aspirations came not from a church or a classroom, but from superheroes and comic books. And they stuck, or I wouldn’t be thinking about it today. I truly believe that children’s programming in general, and comics in particular, have the power to change the world from the ground up.
Now, if we could just get a few more affordable G and soft-PG-rated, all-inclusive, and teachable titles in the Kids’ Section of the bookstore (or websites), we could really say we’re in a “New Golden Age of Comics”!
Honestly, as I’ve been rediscovering Superhero comics the past few years (mostly via my son, io9, the O-deck, and all the wonderful kinja-folk), I’ve been most excited about the way Marvel (mainly)and DC have been tackling real-world situations and issues while still remaining comics. Marvel-All-New-All-Different and DC Rebirth are just the icing on this “New Golden Age” cake.
Things often look wonderful through nostalgia-glasses. But these days, despite the cloud of Gehenna we live under, good ol’ Superhero comics are actually looking pretty darn great now. With or without the cool dance moves.
(This has been a random story inspired by an even more random phone conversation. I can’t remember if I had several points to make, or none at all; I just wanted to “continue the conversation” and see where it might go... That’s what I love most: the conversation. Even if I’m just listening. And I’m not an expert on anything, especially concerning most io9-ish topics, so please feel free take me to school in the comments.)