Superfolks and Superhero Literature

Robert Mayer’s satirical novel Superfolks (1977) is credited by Kurt Busiek and Alan Moore with inspiring, in part, Astro City and Watchmen, though with Moore the real influence can be seen in his Twilight of the Superheroes proposal  and Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Superfolks concerns a middle-aged superhero, whose codename is never given but who is referred to as “Indigo” (i.e. “Big Blue”), a Superman analog, who has retired into his secret identity of reporter David Brinkley and “slipped into the humdrum routine of middle-class life” with a wife, two children, and a home in the suburbs.  He hails originally from the planet Cronk, but had to give up his superhero career because his powers faded, a fate that was engineered by Pxyzsyzygy (a Mr. Mxyzptlk analogue), who bought up multinational consumer products companies and mixed ground cronkite into all sorts of products, building materials, and the water supply to induce chronic, low-level cronkite poisoning in Indigo and drive him from superheroing. The other superheroes have retired or otherwise withdrawn: Batman and Robin were killed in an Batmobile collision with a bus carrying African American children to the suburbs, Superman is missing and presumed dead after a kryptonite meteor fell on Metropolis, the Marvel Family died in a lightning strike, Captain Mantra (a Captain Marvel analogue) is living in a sanitarium after seeing his sister, Mary Mantra, cut to shreds by an Amtrak train, and Wonder Woman is an associate editor for Ms. Magazine and a leading spokeswoman for feminist causes.  All of which are part of Pxyzsyzygy’s plot to eliminate superheroes from Earth and ultimately replace God.

The plot of the novel concerns a CIA attempt to draw Indigo out of retirement as a setup for his assassination, which is demanded by the Soviet Union as part of a nuclear disarmament treaty—the Soviets want Indigo eliminated as a possible nuclear defense for the United States to reinforce the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, though this turns out to be a blind for an assassination attempt on the President, to be replaced by the Vice-President, who is a Soviet stooge.  Indigo discovers the plots against him with the assistance of Captain Mantra, and with the unwitting assistance of Elastic Man (i.e. Plastic Man), who slingshots Indigo into cronkite-free outerspace, he regains his powers, and ultimately speaks Pxyzsyzygy’s name at the syzygy (the precise point where the Earth is in conjunction with the Sun), thereby banishing the elf to the fifth dimension for four years.

While Meyer does not take the superhero genre seriously—his satire is often rooted in pointing out the logical inconsistencies and silliness of the genre—it does point to the deforming effects superheroes would have on human politics (a theme taken up by more serious works such as Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) and superhero sexuality, which probably had not been dealt with since Larry Niven’s 1971 essay “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” extrapolating what would happen if Superman tried to mate with Lois, based upon the conditions of his powers set in the comics themselves (the super sperm hunting for human eggs is a bizarre side effect of Kryptonian ejaculation, which is also mentioned in the context of Superboy masturbating, itself probably the first time such a topic was mentioned in print).  In these things, Mayer did lay the ground work for later, serious considerations of the superhero genre, both in comics and in prose.

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