Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.
There are fantasies we all have, ones that come from regret. While we are often able to surpress them, there are times when we wish we could indulge those fantasies, to go back and live life as if that girl had never left, or as if you hadn’t missed that third strike … or, well, as if Krypton had never exploded. Such is the premise of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1985 Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything.” Published in Superman Annual #11, the comic is a story wherein Batman, Robin (Jason “the 1-900 Number Killed Me in 1988” Todd), and Wonder Woman arrive at the Fortress of Solitude on Superman’s birthday (February 29) in order to celebrate. What they are greeted with is not a jovial, one-year-older Man of Tomorrow, but a catatonic Superman who has a strange life form attached to his chest. They try to figure out what is going on and soon get their answer in Mongul, an alien despot who as “poisoned” Superman with the Black Mercy, a parasitic flower that feeds off its host, giving him his heart’s desire while slowly driving him insane.
Naturally, our heroes begin fighting the big alien. Wonder Woman goes right at Mongul while Batman and Robin try their best to get the black mercy off of Superman. While they’re doing that, Superman is living life as Kal-El, a family man living on a Krypton that never exploded and from which he was never sent to Earth in a rocket. Slowly, as the fight rages on, his ideal world begins to tarnish and then starts to fall apart.
When that happens … well, I won’t spoil it for you if you’d like to read it. In fact, it’s on sale for 99 cents at the DC Comics digital store for 10 days! (honestly, it’s a coincidence. I didn’t write the post to get you to buy a 27-year-old Superman comic) Now I am a big fan of comics being used in the classroom (and notice I’m using the word comics, not “graphic novels.” I hate that phrase.), but I find that there is a considerable obstacle to using them. No, it’s not the format; no, it’s not the perception of comics being “juvenile;” no, it’s not the lack of good material. It’s availability and cost of said material.
Being a comics fan, I know of quite a number of great stories that exist outside of the catalogues I see in my mailbox periodically. There’s no price break for a class set of “For the Man Who Has Everything” the way there is Moore and Gibbons’ other famous work, Watchmen, and the logistics of getting a cart’s worth of digital copies is often more of a headache than it’s worth. What I had to do in order to get enough copies for my students is take the one copy that I had (in a trade paperback) and make 30 copies of it using the photocopier. It wasn’t innovative, it was violating a few copyright laws, and it was also beyond tedious.
But as a piece of literature, it was worth the effort. After all, by simply looking at Superman, you can take a look at the heroic ideal, the epic hero, and everything that goes along with that archetype. But beyond that, there is the look that the students who were leading their discussion group decided to take, and that is a look at dystopia on a very personal level. The society of a Krypton that survived seems ideal at first but as the story goes on we see that what the Black Mercy has given Superman is a perversion of a perceived ideal and not his “heart’s desire.” Put beside the other story we had read — Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” — the idea of a perceived ideal (in the case of the Vonnegut story, a society where everyone is truly equal) versus the horrible reality led to a fascinating conversation about the tropes of science fiction, the concept of utopia vs. dystopia, and how the perversion of an ideal such as equality can be applied to the American educational system.
The only downside, to be honest, was that the bell rang. And all of that from a short story and a comic book? I’ve found that if you give the medium the respect you’d give any other medium, then it becomes a very worthwhile work to study, which is what happened here with Moore and Gibbons’ work. Now, if only I didn’t have to make 30 photocopies …