Phone Booth Friday: Superman’s Changing Room in the Digital Age

As I mentioned last week, for the next few weeks I’m going to be trying a little experiment on the blog where Fridays are reserved for posts about superheroes, since a number of my readers and followers are interested in this area of popular culture.  Thanks to a suggestion from one of you clever readers, I’ve decided to call this weekly installment, “Phone Booth Friday”, appropriately enough.  And to begin the official launch of this feature, I thought we’d take a look at Superman’s changing room itself, an object which in many parts of the world has largely ceased to serve its original purpose.

On Wednesday, London launched the first of a series of phone booth conversions, turning some of the city’s iconic red boxes from payphone shelters to green-painted, solar-powered charging stations for mobile phones and other devices.  With the advent of digital communications, many of these familiar pieces of London streetscape have fallen into disuse. Some are sitting in phone booth “graveyards”, waiting to be scooped up by collectors and designers seeking to find new uses for these objects.  In fact, roughly half of all phone boxes which once dotted the British landscape have disappeared over the last decade.

London is not alone, of course, in finding itself with a surfeit of phone booths it no longer needs.  Here in America, removal or repurposing in many cities is taking much longer, in part because there are so many phone companies responsible for the installation, maintenance, and upkeep of these objects.  There are still an estimated 10,000 phone booths on the streets of New York City alone, and various proposals floating around regarding what to do with them.

Although it’s good to see new and innovative ideas are bringing life back to some of these now largely superfluous bits of technology, one might also conclude that with fewer phone booths out there, the last son of Krypton might find himself in a bit of a quandary when he needs to spring into action. The old-fashioned, full-length phone booth is hard to find in many American cities anyway, as compared to the open, half-length style still to be seen in places like airports and train stations.  Except interestingly enough, the automatic association we all make regarding the phone booth as Superman’s changing room is not entirely accurate.

Originally, the phone booth was not an essential part of Superman’s modus operandi.  The first example of Clark Kent using a phone booth to change into Superman occurred not in the comic books, which were first published in 1939, but rather in a cartoon short from 1941.  In fact the use of the phone booth as part of one of his comic strip adventures didn’t appear until 1942.  As this article points out, over the years both in print and on film, Supes has changed clothes in all kinds of places; on the 1950’s TV series, for example, he most often used a broom closet at The Daily Planet, or an alleyway, and never once used a phone booth.

So rest assured, good citizens, whether from a repurposed phone booth, a storage cupboard, or behind a dumpster, there will always be somewhere for Superman to do what he needs to do to leap into action.  The more critical problem today, quite frankly, is the ubiquitous presence of cameras both inside and outside of buildings, on streets, highways, intersections, and so on, which run the risk of giving the entire game away.  Plus, you can imagine the size of the speeding tickets.

Superman Phone Booth

Don’t Kneel Before Zod

Over on Twitter, one of my “tweeps” and I sometimes get into some smackdown talk, thanks to our respective profile pictures.  Sometimes he will use a Shepard Fairey-esque image of British actor Terence Stamp, in his role as General Zod.  Since my profile picture is often one of me in Kryptonian attire, you can imagine the rather nerdy teasing that goes on.

If you’ve seen the classic 1980 film ‘Superman II”, you’ll recall that General Zod wanted everyone to kneel before him, but most particularly the Man of Steel, as the son of the man who had imprisoned Zod in the first place.  Zod eventually gets what he wants, but immediately thereafter receives his comeuppance, in a now-famous scene that made both kids and adults cheer in the movie theatre back in the day.  I’ll refresh your memory if it doesn’t leap immediately to mind.

Stamp’s performance is more reminiscent of the subtlety of Mephistopheles than the brute force of Attila the Hun.  In this incarnation, as opposed to the latest version by actor Michael Shannon in “Man  of Steel”, Zod is so self-possessed, so convinced of his own omnipotence, that to lose control would be as unnecessary a degree of overkill as swatting a fly with a 2×4.  In setting himself up as a kind of god, he brings about his own downfall, because of course he isn’t God – he’s just Zod. And Supes knows that.

Faith in God is a subject that is sometimes touched upon in superhero films, e.g. “Daredevil”, “X-Men 2”, but is more typically ignored.  Truth be told, in general it’s not absolutely necessary for understanding the motivations of the guys and gals in tights, in a way that it would be in a film about, say, the English Civil War.  Yet at the same time, in the real world, even the most devoted fans of this type of storytelling are people, with beliefs which they act upon, just like the rest of us.

Take professional bodybuilder Andy Haman, for example, who a priest friend told me about.  Recently, Mr. Haman dressed up as a superhero and went to visit a hospital for sick children (something which I’m working on organizing, myself.)  He took the time while there to stop and visit the Blessed Sacrament in the hospital chapel.  As you can see, although it does seem rather odd at first to spot Mr. Incredible kneeling in church, in truth he’s out and about performing an act, not of heroic physical strength or of strange, alien powers, but rather of Christian charity, taken straight out of Christ’s words in the Gospel of St. Matthew 25:35-40.

Whether or not the character of Mr. Incredible from “The Incredibles” was actually a Catholic, who knows.  The point is, I like seeing that this particular Mr. Incredible is kneeling to the right person.  Before he heads off to do some good, bringing joy and comfort to kids who often have none, he is putting himself in the right frame of mind to remember that he’s God’s instrument.

I think this is a great example for all of us, superhero or not.  Too many of us are bowing down in worship to acts of selfishness, and to the pursuit of material things which will never make us happy, nor prevent us from having to face our own mortality someday.  I suspect that more of us would be happier, kinder toward others, and more willing to admit to our limitations – our own kryptonite, if you will – if we took the time to simply pause, and reflect on the heroic acts of virtue we may be called upon to perform on a daily basis, with God’s help.  For truly God, and not Zod, is the one to whom we should be kneeling.

Zod Poster

Why Being A Good Editor Matters

I heard on the radio this morning that Ben Bradlee, Executive Editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate era, turns 93 today.  If you’ve ever seen “All The President’s Men”, you’ll remember Jason Robards’ turn as Mr. Bradlee, which won the actor an Oscar.  At one point in the film, Bradlee raises questions about his reporters’ source for an article, but then realizes that he must trust them to do their job properly.  “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters,” he admits, “which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody. Run that baby.”  One wonders what Mr. Bradlee thinks of that trust level today, or indeed, what Perry White would think of it.

News that a rare, pristine copy of the first comic book to feature Superman sold for $3.2 million this weekend has generated a substantial amount of media reporting over the last couple of days.  Unfortunately, the rush to report also generated numerous errors in grammar and punctuation, enough to make any high school English teacher go into paroxysms of rage.  At the same time, the hurried storytelling has revealed, once again, that too many news outlets are committing factual errors in the urge to upload.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this piece from MTV News, for example.  Opening with poor verb-subject agreement (“statistics” is plural in this instance, not singular) is not a good omen for what’s to come.  I realize that many of my readers and followers have a problem with my pointing out this sort of thing.  However, errors in grammar and punctuation do make a difference.  This is a fact made all the more apparent when reading a bullet point like this:

4. This debut issue features the first appearance of Superman, alias Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

When you do not put a comma after “Clark Kent”, the headline becomes rather different, as I think you’ll agree.

Then there are the obvious research and reasoning issues with this piece.  For example, the author’s statement about Christopher Reeve being the first to play Superman on the silver screen is simply wrong.  Not only was there a live-action Superman series shown in movie theatres back in the 1940’s, in addition to animated cartoons, but George Reeves played Superman in the first feature film about the character in 1951.

The piece concludes with Reason No. 5 for the price of this very expensive comic book.  The author explains that Superman was originally an orphan, and that neither the Kents nor Kansas were mentioned at first in his mythology.  I’ll choose not to split hairs over the Last Son of Krypton being an orphan, and instead focus on the real problem with this assertion.  It isn’t so much that it could have been phrased better, but the fact that it’s irrelevant to the story.  It’s a bit like saying that a Francis Bacon painting sold for tens of millions of dollars because his last name also happens to be Twitter’s favorite pork product.

Of course, I don’t mean to pick on this individual writer, per se.  The real issue in my mind is whether anyone at MTV News actually does any editing, given that they let this piece be published as-is.  Keep in mind, this is just one, short piece on a pop culture subject, so one has to ask oneself what else are editors at major media outlets allowing to slip past on more serious matters.

Trying to put out a well-written, well-researched story is more important than simply throwing information onto the digital wall as quickly as possible, and hoping that at least some of it sticks.  Without common writing standards, and the enforcement of those standards by editors, writing becomes a kind of free-for-all, in which no one may point out anyone else’s faults.  Yet if you don’t tell me what I’m doing wrong, how am I ever going to get better?

If you write online, you have just as much responsibility to your readers when you hit “publish” as a newspaper or book publisher does.  If you expect your online readers to pay attention to what you’re about to tell them, then you have to be authoritative, and back it up with facts.  You also have to command the language, rather than either allowing language rules to intimidate you, or pretending that they don’t matter when they most certainly do.  Just because blogging is a new form of media, doesn’t mean that you should be allowed to escape the virtual red pen of a good editor.

Clark Kent could have snapped Perry White like a twig, if he wanted to.  Nevertheless, he respected his editor, and followed his orders when it came to writing a story.  Let’s all try to aspire to good writing and good editing in following that example, even if that means being corrected for mistakes, so that we can improve upon the writing powers we already have.

Perry White and Clark Kent by Curt Swan/George Klein  Panel from Action Comics #288 "The Man Who Exposed Superman" (1962)

Panel featuring Perry White and Clark Kent by Curt Swan/George Klein
Action Comics #288 “The Man Who Exposed Superman” (1962)