The Greatest American Hero

Superheroes are on an uptick right now. Maybe not as exalted as they were right before Avengers Endgame, but they still get the likes, still bring the dollars in. This was not always the case. Being into superheroes in high school, in the 80’s, made me a nerd and not very popular. Not that I’ve ever been that popular. The most popular action shows in the 80’s were things like the A-Team, The Dukes of Hazard and Miami Vice. Even if one focuses on action shows with a bit of sci-fi thrown in, the heroes weren’t exactly super, just people with exceptional skill, such as The Master or MacGyver. In stark contrast to today, the television viewing audience of the 80’s just weren’t appreciative of the superhero set. But during that decade, I would tune in religiously to one of my favorite shows, The Greatest American Hero (tGAH).

I will also admit that I was a fan of The Incredible Hulk, but, let’s face it, with one of his comic book titles still currently running (The Immortal Hulk), not to mention at least six movies (yes, I’m counting his appearances in The Avengers movies, but excluding the animated movies he’s been in) to his credit, he’s a pretty well known character. Not so much, Ralph Hinkley. In tGAH, Hinkley (William Katt of House and Carrie) is a mild mannered high school teacher who is visited by aliens and given a super suit. Yeah, I get it, it sounds pretty hokey when I say it out aloud, but I loved it all the same. If you are familiar with superhero lore, they all must have some weakness, an Achilles heel. Superman has his Kryptonite, Hinkley has a suit he doesn’t know how to use. The suit may endow a near limitless power upon him, giving him flight, super strength and speed, X-ray vision, invisibility, etc., but he lost the instruction manual and, therefore, only discovers these powers through trial and error. No man is an island, as they say, so Ralph is aided in his battle for justice by Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp of I Spy and Everybody Loves Raymond), a CIA agent. Rounding out the cast is Pam Davidson (Connie Selleca of Hotel and Second Chances) as the obligatory (well, it was the 80’s) love interest.

Created by Stephen Cannell, writer of such fine television shows as The A-Team and 21 Jump Street, he envisioned a different kind of superhero. Someone happy in his mundane humanity who has immense power unexpectedly thrust upon him. Rather than a Superman who flies in to save the day, he wanted the show to be about a man who just happens to wear the suit, and focus on human problems, like corruption and racism. He wrote Hinkley and Maxwell as the Odd Couple: Hinkley, the super-powered, bleeding heart liberal and Maxwell, the gun-toting, slightly misogynistic conservative. Oh, fun fact, on March 30, 1981, John Hinkley shot President Ronald Reagan. After that, the show subtly changed the name of Ralph Hinkley to Ralph Hanley. Unfortunately, after the first season, there was a change in the upper echelons at ABC, and the new executives forced the show to be a more conventional superhero show, complete with Hinkley fighting the Loch Ness Monster in one of the episodes. The show ran for 3 seasons, between ‘81 and ‘83, and can still be found on Amazon Prime. There’s even a fan-based website about it.

I got the inspiration for this post when I remembered the show and thought it would be great for a reboot. It’s a great concept, but, as I researched for this post, I discovered that such a reboot has been tried multiple times. In 1986, the original cast returned and tried to launch The Greatest American Heroine, The plot involves the aliens who originally provided the suit telling Hinkely to find a successor. As the name would imply, he decides upon Holly Hathaway (Mary Ellen Stuart of One Life to Live and As the World Turns), an ”elementary school teacher who spends her off-hours looking for lost kittens, raising environmental awareness and serving as a foster mother”. I shit you not. Alas, the show was never meant to be. The pilot was never broadcast, but, instead, was re-edited as an episode of the original series. In 2014, it was announced that Fox was looking at rebooting the show, in 2017 entertainment news sources said that actress Hannah Simone  (of H+ and New Girl)had been cast as the lead in a reboot, but in 2018, ABC declined to pick up the series. William Katt even started a comic book company in 2008, Catastrophic Comics, and put out a Greatest American Hero comic book. Given that I can barely find any evidence online that they exist, I’m guessing that didn’t work out. The show does still have an active fan base, however, which discusses the possibility of a reboot, so who knows? It could happen.

This post wouldn’t be complete without me mentioning the theme song. I’ve said before that theme songs should not have words. It’s too easy for them to become ear worms and this one is no different. Believe It or Not, composed by Mike Post (music) and Stephen Geyer (lyrics) and sung by Joey Scarbury can still be heard on easy listening stations to this day. During the show’s run, I couldn’t escape the poppy little tune as, in addition to being at the start of every episode, it reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Record World Chart. For a bit of added trivia, Mike Post not only created the Theme music to Law & Order, he is responsible for their unmistakable “Dun Dun” sound.

I still say I’d like to see someone take a run at this show again, but, looking back, it was very much a product of its time. There was an innocence about it and it was pretty goofy, possessing a strong comedic element, often at the expense of the hero. The reluctant hero who trips over his own feet has been done to death now, but it still felt fresh back in the 80’s. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I believe it contains a number of jokes and scenes that may not be acceptable today (The character of Bill Maxwell often refers to Pam, among other women, as “skirts”). Even with that, though, the show was so damn wholesome. Maybe the reason it’s having such a hard time coming back is because it imagines a world where most people are inherently good, where any evil can be overcome by good old hard work and cooperation and all the endings are happy. And maybe that’s just too much of a suspension of disbelief for audiences these days.

Pontypool

This is a film that doesn’t get nearly enough love. I get it; it might not be for everyone. It’s a zombie movie with no undead, flesh-eating zombies. It’s a horror movie with little blood and the secret weapon against the apocalypse is poetry. It’s weird. It’s unique. Dare I say, it’s a thinking man’s zombie movie. And the threat isn’t a monster or a virus or a demon; it’s language, it’s a meme. I would say that Pontypool is way ahead of its time in demonstrating how dangerous the wrong meme can be. I actually feel a little bad about calling this a zombie movie, in that the producer has explicitly said that this is not a zombie movie, referring to the infected, instead, as conversationalists. That being said, the infected were once normal humans who have been turned into mindless creatures bent on violence and everyone else calls them zombies, too.

I don’t think many people have seen this movie, so I’ll give a brief description. It’s a bottle movie, almost the entire movie takes place at a small radio station in the town of Pontypool, Ontario, reminiscent of 10 Cloverfield Lane. We soon meet shock jock DJ, Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie of Watchmen and Come to Daddy), a grizzled renegade, abrasive and slightly arrogant due to being a big fish in a little pond. He comes into the station to do his show on a cold and snowy day, assisted by the station manager, Sydney (Lisa Houle of Cold Squad and Scene of the Crime). Given that it’s talk radio, his show involves taking calls from listeners, but the first call is from their “eye in the sky” traffic reporter. He describes an odd scene in which a group of people seem to be attacking another and then he gets cut off. That sets off a series of calls, each one more bizarre and frightening than the last, the story of a zombie apocalypse told in snippets. Finally, the infection and the infected arrive at the studio and death enters the bottle.

It feels like a radio show, almost more so than it does a movie. There’s a good reason for that, in that, not only was the production inspired by Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, but it was also made into a radio play at the same time it was filmed. Based on a book, Pontypool Changes Everything, written by Tony Burgess, who also adapted it for the movie, it is part of a trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Hellmouths of Brewdley, followed by Pontypool Changes Everything and finally, Caesarea. I say trilogy, because that’s what’s on the Wikipedia page. Reading the descriptions of the three books , however, I have no idea how they are related. In addition to writing the screenplay for Pontypool, Burgess has written 7 other screen plays, including Septic Man and Hellmouth. He has even been in a number of his own movies, including Pontypool (he played Tony Lawrence).

In order to be complete in my research, I started tracking down these other movies. Septic Man involves a sewerage worker who gets trapped in a septic tank and becomes mutated by toxic sewage. It addition to sounding too much like The Toxic Avenger, it just sounded incredibly disgusting. Ejecta got horrible reviews, scoring a 4.6 on IMDB and sounded like it might be tortuous to watch. So, Hellmouth it was. Much like Pontypool, it seemed as if were made on a show string budget. Filmed in black and white and making liberal use of cheap editing tricks, it has the feel of the movie, Sin City. It’s the story of Sydney, an old and dying cemetery caretaker. He receives a box that contains a key and a mysterious map. Hellmouth was …okay. Watchable, but not too compelling. Somewhat disappointing, really. I’m writing this post because I LOVED Pontypool. I though it was amazing enough that I’ve seen it three times and I would see it again in an instant, and I rarely see movies more than once.

At the start of this post, I mentioned the word meme. While I have never heard anyone else associate Pontypool with memes, the connection seems obvious. A meme is defined as an idea, behavior or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person. Many of these are merely humorous, like Bad Luck Brian and Business Cat, but memes can be weaponized. In 2015, The journal, Defense Strategic Communications published an article by Jeff Giesea titled, It’s Time to Embrace Memetic Warfare, urging that, as countries prepare for cyber warfare, they should also be preparing for memetic warfare. One passage reads:

Cyber warfare is about taking control of data. Memetic warfare is about taking control of the dialogue, narrative, and psychological space. It’s about denigrating, disrupting, and subverting the enemy’s effort to do the same. Like cyber warfare, memetic warfare is asymmetrical in impact. It can be highly effective relative to cost. The attack surface can be large or small. Memetic warfare can be used in conjunction with troops, ships, aircraft, and missiles, or it can be employed without any kinetic military force at all. It operates in the communications battlespace.

Anyone who has been online in the last few years knows how pervasive a good meme can be, influencing large segments of society. I believe that Pontypool mimics this effect, though pushed to nightmarish conclusions.

This movie isn’t for everyone. The monsters in it are less monsterish than in most horror movies, and the deadly infection is somewhat conceptual in nature. Still, I feel that the actors are excellent and that the director does a fantastic job of slowly dialing up the tension until the viewer feels just as trapped and threatened as the people inside the tiny, small town, radio studio. The nature of the infection itself is so esoteric that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. The best horror movies are the ones that won’t let go. That hold onto one’s psyche. And, for me, Pontypool is exactly that. I may just have to watch it again.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Superman

Superman statue

Image by Joseph Lee Novak

As a new reader, growing up, I was never that into Superman. He was the ultimate Mary Sue. Super strong, super fast, nearly invulnerable, Kryptonite his only weakness; what’s the fun in that? He truly earned his nickname of the big, blue boy scout. Good and altruistic to the core, there seemed to be no darkness in him, no conflict and few shades of gray. Besides, I was a Marvel guy. Spiderman and Iron Man, the X-Men and Conan the Barbarian, they were the one’s I followed month to month. Even when I started buying comics on my own, my first purchase was Ghost Rider. I always wondered what that said about me, that my first choice for a comic book was a vengeance demon from Hell. Even when I started branching out, it was years before I even looked twice at a DC comic. It was their Vertigo line that caught my attention with titles like Preacher and Hellblazer. Even then, I was attracted to the dark and edgy titles; Superman sure as hell wasn’t on my radar. But then a few titles caught my eye and I took the plunge. Now I’ve found a few stories that write Superman in such a complex and vulnerable way that I was sold. These are the stories that convinced me to love Superman.

All-Star Superman

Holy shit, this comic book miniseries is frickin’ awesome. It helps that it was created by the power duo of Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly. I’ve waxed poetic about Quietly earlier, so you know my fan boy man crush on his art, but Morrison really outdoes himself with the story telling in this one. It begins with Superman dying. He has absorbed so much solar radiation, the yellow sun being the very source of his power, that it is breaking him apart. It also has supercharged him, so that during his last few days, he is stronger, faster, smarter, etc. than ever before. He’s always felt responsible for, well, the entire planet, so he knows he needs to get his affairs in order. What follows is a 12 issue tale that pens the Kryptonian with such warmth, such humanity, that I was completely won over.

Does he fly? Does he use his heat vision and bend steel with his bare hands? He does, but many of the challenges he overcomes take far more than brawn or powers. He shows compassion to his enemies and love for his friends. His father’s funeral will break your heart and his date with Lois Lane will make your heart swell. You will be introduced to novel aspects of his story, like black Kryptonite and Bizarro World and a super-powered Lex Luther. Yeah, I’ll be talking about other great Superman stories, but this is the one. This is the story that overcame my disinterest in Superman.

What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way

Written by Joe Kelly, this story appeared in Action Comics #775 in the March of 2001 and was called “the single best issue of a comic book written in the year 2001”. Wizard Magazine called it the “Greatest Superman story of all time”, which should prove that I am far from alone in my praise. It was also developed into an animated feature in 2012, called Superman vs. The Elite, which is worth seeing. As the name would imply, Superman encounters a new “superhero” team called the Elite. They clash in their methods in that, while Superman does not kill, the Elite have no qualms about it. This escalates into an all-out brawl where the Elite basically mop the floor with the Big Blue Boy Scout. Then things get interesting.

Seeing Superman turn bad-ass is always a treat. The juxtaposition between someone who is so morally good that it’s almost sickening and an alien being with nearly god-like power and no sense of restraint has been a winning recipe in a number of different stories. That’s what Bright Burn banked on, but What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way may be one of the earliest stories to lean into it. It was written at a time when superhero comics were getting grittier, more violent and central to the plot is the question, “Has Superman’s time passed?” Let’s just say that Superman convinces the Elite, and the world at large, to be happy with the way he is. Cause they won’t like the alternative.

Irredeemable

I’ve already talked about the storyline of Superman going bad , but I don’t believe anyone takes it as far as Irredeemable. Written by Mark Waid, for Boom Comics, and spanning an impressive 37 issue run, it featured a Superman copy called, the Plutonian. Superman, being one of the most powerful and idolized superheroes on Earth, has always had the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he had the mental stability to handle it. The Plutonian does not. He cracks under the pressure and lashes out at both his superhero team mates and the entire world. As I said, there are other stories like this, but none have a 3 year time span to explore the concept as fully. The title is completely appropriate, as well; this character does reprehensible things. I should mention that Boom comics put out a related comic called Incorruptible, also by Mark Waid, but it doesn’t live up to Irredeemable. In it, one of the Plutonian’s enemies, Max Damage, is so shaken by the Plutonian’s turn to evil, that he becomes good. It’s a good concept, but it just doesn’t read as well.

So, why am I including this Superman knock-off in a piece specifically about Superman? A few reasons. In addition to the blatant similarities, it is revealed that the Plutonian’s powers are mentally related, or psionic, rather than physical. This is a reference to a research paper published back in 2009 that stated that, with the breadth of Superman’s powers, it would break the laws of physics if they were physically based and, therefore, they had to be supernatural in nature. Also, at the end of Irredeemable, the very last issue, Waid makes it perfectly clear that the entire thing is a gorgeous homage to Superman.

Kingdom Come

Conceived and illustrated by Alex Ross and written by Mark Waid, Kingdom Come presents Earth on the brink of disaster from the multitude of vigilante superheroes that have populated the planet. Much like What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way, a younger breed of superhero, one who doesn’t mind the use of lethal force, has come into favor and the public has turned away from Superman. As a result, he has sequestered himself in a holographic Kansas, away from the world. But with violence spiraling out of control, a militant Wonder Woman convinces him to return to the fight. There begins a battle of the wills, with Superman determined to stick to his ethical refusal to kill and nearly everyone else screaming for blood. As if this weren’t enough, mankind has generally grown sick of all these living weapons running around and generally, making the world a dangerous place to live in, so they’re planning to take drastic action on all the capes, both good and bad.

I’ve already written about how much I love Ross’ artwork and that is one of the best parts of this graphic novel. The story itself is told through the eyes of a minister who feels as if God is showing him all the events unfolding so that he can save the world. There is great comic book action here, but also complex ethical struggles that are rarely seen in the superhero world. My copy of this graphic novel is almost as well read and tattered as my copy of the Watchmen, which, by the way, is falling apart.

Grounded

In 2010, J. Michael Straczynski took over as writer for Superman and DC’s Dan Dido wanted him to re-invigorate the character. What emerged was a 14 issue run called, “Grounded”. The events of the previous run,” New Krypton“, finds Superman feeling disconnected from Earthlings and wondering if he can truly be the planet’s protector any longer. Disillusioned and lost, he decides that in order to get back in touch with the common man, he’s going to travel across America. And since he can’t connect with them from 20,000 feet in the air, looking down on them from above, he decides to walk the length of the country.

It’s a great look into Superman’s psyche, a god among men, trying to understand their experience as mortals. Once again, this is a story that in which his powers are useless. There’s no enemy to defeat nor disaster to overcome, while the run isn’t devoid of action, its main theme is Superman’s soul searching. My main complaint about the character Superman is that he can’t be beat, but this story shows that he isn’t immune to self-doubt. During his walk across America, he encounters very human problems. People with life-work issues, loneliness, domestic abuse, joblessness and poverty. Problems for which super strength and heat vision are useless. Grounded was a great run that showed a side of Superman that has rarely been explored and it’s written amazingly well.

Runner Up: The Incident

In 2011, DC published Action Comics #900, a title primarily featuring Superman, and ran a story called “The Incident” written by Paul Cornell. While not as deep or meaningful as the stories I have discussed above, nonetheless, I feel that it’s a story that deserves to be mentioned. It’s set in Iran, where a group of peaceful protesters are being attacked by Iranian soldiers and Superman swoops in to save the day. While, on the face of it, this is a straight up heroic act, it angers both the Iranian and American governments. Basically, this is because both governments consider Superman an exclusively American asset. As such, Superman’s actions could be considered an act of American aggression, maybe even a declaration of war. Realizing his duty is to protect the entire planet, not just the U.S., he publicly renounces his American citizenship.

While this was a nifty development for Superman’s story, what was really amazing was how much of a fervor this caused. The news story that Superman had renounced his citizenship was carried by everyone from Fox news to the New York Times and it caused such an uproar that DC comics back tracked on the story, labeling it a “What if” story. It goes to show what an icon Superman is, that a 70 year old comic book character is still so important to so many people.

Supernatural

Earlier, I had shared my concept of the Children of the Slayer, in a reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, (BtVS), a show so influential it begat a myriad of imitators. Of all these children I could discuss, one would assume I might talk about her closest child, Angel, spawned from the same writers, the same creative minds and sharing quite a few of the same actors. I will discuss Angel later, but right now I want to talk about arguably the most successful of all the Slayers children, Supernatural. It’s ending this year, after an impressive 15 seasons, with thousands of adoring fans, it was originally only planned for a three season run, but the overwhelming popularity of it extended that.

The show follows a pair of brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki of Gilmore Girls and House of Wax) and Dean (Jensen Ackles of Smallville and Dawson’s Creek) Wincester, who are “Hunters”, a vocation which involves them tracking down and killing all manner of supernatural creatures. It’s a family calling, as their parents were hunters, but their mother was killed in a tragic, demon-related fire when they were young. Their father accompanies them in the end of the first season, he leaves early in season 2. And it’s just the brothers for the vast majority of the series, though he does return briefly (1 episode) in season 14 . Actually, that’s not entirely true. Throughout the show, there is a rotating cast of characters that interact with the Winchesters. I say interact, because these characters are wonderfully dynamic, villains becoming allies, friends becoming evil; there are so many twists and turns, double crosses and reversals of fortune, that the show traipses dangerously close to soap opera territory. It is this crowd of personalities that gives the show a richer, more complex tone that I am sure contributed to the show’s longevity.

Sam and Dean are consummate bad-asses, often going toe-to-toe with demons, vampires and even the gods themselves. They have demonstrated exceptional fighting skills, though more street fighter than martial artist. They are also weapons experts, usually carrying around enough firepower to equip a small army. Given the nature of their prey, they have demonstrated a comprehensive grasp of magic, routinely exercising demons and creating protective circles. To round out these many talents, they seem to be masters of disguise, or, at the very least, infiltration. On multiple occasions, we see them being accepted as doctors in a hospital using nothing more than a stethoscope and a lab coat or getting the run of a police departments by wearing a suit and tie and flashing a fake FBI badge accompanied by the hokiest sounding of fake names. By far, their greatest weapon, however, is The Colt, a mystical weapon that will kill anything, and I mean ANYTHING, that it hits. And lest I be incomplete, I must mention the Impala. That’s not a euphemism; their car is a 1967 Chevy Impala that Dean refers to as Baby. It’s magically protected and serves as both second home and rolling arsenal.

While the Winchesters, sometimes affectionately referred to as “The Boys” (Not to be confused with the Amazon show, which is based off of Garth Ennis’ comic, The Boys. Though, to be fair, the Amazon show is written by the writer of Supernatural, Eric Kripke), are very much the stars of the show, they share the screen with many others, who occasionally steal the spotlight. There’s Crowley (Mark Sheppard of 24 and Leverage), the once-King of Hell, a demon, who frequently teams up with Sam and Dean, for his own purposes. I have to mention Bobby (Jim Beaver of Justified and Deadwood), long-time family friend and hunter, who acts as the wise uncle. If there was anyone who could be considered a “third Winchester”, it’s Castiel (Misha Collins of 24 and ER), an angel who is a staunch ally to the Boys. Introduced to the show in 2008, in the fourth season premier, Collin’s character went from guest star to regular, won a People’s Choice Award in 2015 and has even directed for the show. There’s Rowena (Ruth Connell of Hari Kari and The Cursed Man), the mother of Crowley, before he became a demon, and 1000 year old witch who, while usually helpful, is as fickle a friend as her son. I shit you not, I could go on and on, there’s so many well fleshed out semi-regulars to mention, but I also wanted to mention the level of guests they have on the show. Nerd-favorite, Felicia Day; Battlestar Galactica’s, Tricia Helfer; Curtis Armstrong, known to most people as Booger from Revenge of the Nerds; The Walking Dead’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan, AKA the infamous Negan; Star Gate’s Amanda Tapping; BtVS alumni, Amy Acker and Julie Benz; even Linda-fucking-Blair was on the show. Talk about royalty

So, how is Supernatural doing as a Child of the Slayer? Let’s see, bad-ass main characters that fight vampires, werewolves and demons with both conventional weaponry and magic? Check. A team of Scoobies to back them up? Mega-check. Combining dark humor and witty banter with gothy angst? So much check. Supernatural may be more BtVS than BtVS. Just like Buffy, Supernatural was a monster of the week series that also had a larger story arc playing over the whole season, but the big bad at the end wasn’t always something that could be fought. Many seasons included an “inevitable” dark fate for one or the other of the Boys, or insanity-provoking torment for a beloved member of the team. There are some parts that are so over the top brooding and sad that, well, it’s almost too much. But, then, they balance it out with something so ludicrous completely turning the mood. Over the course of its 15 season run, both Sam and Dean have been killed and sent to Hell, Dean actually going on two different occasions. Sam has had a girlfriend killed and became addicted to demon’s blood (who knew that was a thing?). Dean was trapped in Purgatory for a year and bore the cursed Mark of Cain. Themes of abject loneliness and painful regret should be listed in the credits, they’re on the show so much.

Oh, I almost forgot, Supernatural‘s contribution to pop culture. Much like BtVS, Supernatural has spawned several artistic offspring. Fan conventions began in 2006 and have been going strong ever since. Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, TX proclaimed June 23rd, 2018 as Supernatural Day. There are comic books, a series of novels, webisodes, an anime series, and several attempted spin-offs. I say attempted, because none of them really ever caught on. Maybe once the show is over they’ll stand more of a chance, because, let’s face it, the Winchesters should never truly die.  

This may be the longest post I’ve ever written and I’ve still only just touched the surface. I’ve already mentioned the writer of the show, Eric Kripke, but in addition to writing The Boys, he’s also written NBC’s Revolution and The House with a Clock in Its Walls. He pitched the concept of Supernatural for nearly 10 years before the WB picked it up. While some seasons are better than others, the storytelling on this show is always solid. It’s been a favorite of mine for the entire 15 year run, but I’m not sad to see it end. It’s not only outlived its mother, but all its brothers and sisters. And they’re sure as hell going out with a bang; the big bad they’re up against for the finale is none other than God himself. I don’t know how it all will end, but I can’t wait to see.