Novak (novak) wrote,

Personal: Cool Friday with Colleagues; Geeking Over "Smallville"

Friday was unexpectedly fun, before plunging me into the dark depths of Too Much Written Work to grade. (Our bookstore didn't order enough books to cover the first book I assigned for my classes, so in trying to be as flexible as possible in the first exams I gave, I made them all written responses, with no easy-to-grade purely objective sections that I could have done in a match or multiple-choice format, leaving me with over 300 pages of written material to work through.) Around dinnertime, there was a reception being held for mentors of new faculty and their mentees, just to give them some social time together. Since I'd had a few lunches with my mentor already (Sr. Terri Bednarz, R.S.M., a fun New Testament scholar working right now on Jesus's humour in the Gospels), and since that looked to be a fairly regular occurrence, I thought we were blowing this shindig off as probably the sort of awkward or clumsy affair such things often are.

Not so, I was told on Friday afternoon, when Terri assured me that just the location alone – on the roof of a high-rise apartment block near the Audubon Park and Zoo, on part of the bend of the Mississippi River that gives New Orleans the nickname of "the Crescent City" – made this gathering worthwhile. She was entirely correct. Everyone showed, and even though I did actually spend the majority of the time talking with Terri, I had a number of other passing conversations that also added to the fun of the evening.

These included talking voodoo history and vampirism with Catherine, our scholar who studies emergent religious movements among other things, looking ahead to the following morning when Terri was going to be giving her a hand on taking a group of students on a walking tour of the French Quarter, as they studied Religion in New Orleans. Terri and I also rather freaked out another person by getting into a stunningly detailed conversation about Komodo Dragons (after I enthused about discovering the pair in the Audubon Zoo, below us) where Terri proved even more full of random information than me, as she went into the microbiology of the peculiar danger of Komodo Dragon bites. Who knew? A consensus emerged among the young Jewish faculty that I looked far more Irish than Jewish, which came just a few days after the even more unexpected satisfaction expressed by Boyd when he discovered an older picture of me and that it was my missing "Irish rocker" longer hair than had been throwing him off, that I carried myself as though I still looked that way, but as the now short-haired, clean-cut scholar, something had felt "off." This has made me fall into a deep, regretful longing for my longer locks over the last several days. And toward the end of the evening, Boyd led me around the perimeter of the rooftop and gave me the low-down on a number of obscure New Orleans sights that we could make out from our vantage point. I even got into a fun conversation with one of the young women who had been part of the service crew, in this case, dealing out the Bordeaux wine being served. She turned out to be a classicist – a Latinist, in particular – working on the Roman military, and so for the first time in years, all my undergrad research in that area paid off. The only tragedy was that she turned out to be a Loyola student, so I couldn't just propose on the spot. (A Latinist on permanent retainer would be so handy.) All the variety made the evening one of the most pleasant I've had in the city, even though it was all too brief, ending shortly after sunset.

Geek alert. When I got home, I was also completely geeked to discover that I was still in time to catch the final (10th!) season premiere of Smallville, which I'd been increasingly excited for over the last few weeks. A month or two ago, I had tripped across the original promos or TV trailers for the show from 2001 on YouTube. I remembered seeing these, especially this one, and my jaw just dropping at the time. When I was in high school, comics had started being written more and more for older and more sophisticated readers, as increasingly-serious science-fiction. During this time, when the John Byrne revamp of Superman had occurred, and when I had read Elliot S! Maggin's Superman novels, I found myself much more sympathetic to the idea that Clark Kent was the real person, and that "Superman" was a disguise, a costume and persona he put on in order to still allow himself to have a private life. More so, I was increasing attracted to the youthful side of the mythology as the importance of the moral or character education of such a person became obvious and dramatic to me, and that the relationship with his parents and friends became not "supporting cast," but the necessary components of making a person.

So, on some night in 2001, taking a little TV time, I was totally surprised by a line that grabbed a sci-fi/fantasy fan's ear: "Do you believe a man can fly?" It was a clever play on the tagline from 1978's Superman: The Movie: "You will believe a man can fly." And when I saw that the conversation was happening between two young men named Clark and Lex, building off of Maggin's innovation that Clark and Lex had been friends in their youth, I immediately understood that there was a new live-action "Superman" show forthcoming. (I had heard nothing of this in advance, perhaps since I didn't read comics at the time.) And the signs were good: it looked like it was being done as serious sci-fi or action/drama, not kiddie/camp. Marvel Comics' X-Men and Spider-Man movie franchises, with their wild success, had finally driven that lesson home to Hollywood, as even the mid-90s TV romantic action dramedy Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was certainly a light take on the mythology. Smallville was instead something of a cross between the teen angst dramas characteristic of the WB network, but crossed with the weird sci-fi of The X-Files. They followed the Byrne-era DC comics in portraying Clark's powers as emerging in his teen years, but there were a couple of new features.

As this trailer teased (and some of the others I subsequently saw), Smallville actually made a couple of brilliant innovations to the Superman mythos. The best was that Clark's refugee "lifeboat" spacecraft dropping this baby out of the sky didn't come by itself (which would be harder to hide nowadays) but came down in the midst of a huge meteor shower full of debris from the planet Krypton, causing incredible devastation to the area of Smallville, Kansas. This both allowed for the extra-terrestrial and radioactive element called "kryptonite" (a name that wouldn't be known for a long time, as it took Clark years to discover anything about his origins) to litter the area, causing strange mutations in people over time. This gave the Smallville version of Clark both super-powered opponents to face off against at times, as well as a rationale for why strange new abilities began to appear in human beings at this time. It also gave Clark a moral imperative for the whole series: as he discovers that he's not just "different," but a full-out alien, he feels guilty and responsible for the tragedy brought about by the meteor shower. That was a new thrust to the series. The producers instituted a "no tights, no flights" rule: this Clark Kent would not be a 1950s "Superboy" before he was Superman. He would just be Clark Kent for the series, and he would not have the most dramatic (and special-effects expensive) power of flight: this Clark would keep the focus on other abilities, and, even more, on the relationships that form a person, and give them their greatest possible strengths.

While certainly having its occasional stinkers, the show did remarkably well in doing a more "serious" take on the mythology, become, curiously enough, the best Superman show ever produced in any medium – without "Superman" in it. The 1970s-1980s film franchise, while having great success, seems at times almost as campy as the 1966 Batman television show, particularly in Christopher Reeve's unbelievably over-the-top über-dweeb version of Clark Kent. By treating the source material (mostly) seriously and respectfully, Smallville has become the longest continually-produced sci-fi franchise in television history. It did so well that it's lasted this long: going all the way through Clark's high school years, then college, and now at the Daily Planet, on the cusp of finally becoming Superman, and having offered some epic storylines that put to shame anything ever done on big-budget film adaptations. The continuing success of the show even allowed the writers to start bringing in more and more of the DC Universe, introducing live-action versions of characters that had never seen film outside of animation, including some of my personal favourites like the 31st-century Legion of Super-Heroes and the old-time Justice Society of America (featuring personal fav Doctor Fate). And all this in spite of increasing budget cuts and crummier schedule placements. Michael Rosenbaum made Lex Luthor into a tragic and believable menace, providing a sort of "anti-Clark" storyline of what bad parenting and bad personal choices can do to a human being. John Schneider and Annette O'Toole as Jonathan and Martha Kent gave performances of real people in unreal situations, magnifying the weight of responsibility that goes into all parenting, and – shocker of all shockers – had writers that let them be usefully smarter than their teenager. On TV!

So I was jazzed to see the beginning of the final season, but a bit melancholy, too, to see the beginning of the end of something that has been offering me entertainment for nearly a decade of my life: from Saint Joe teaching days, grad school, and now my first professorship. Another example of the potential in myth done pretty well.
Tags: dc universe, favourite shows, friends-loyola era, loyola, movies/film/tv, new orleans, personal, photography, youtube

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