When we were kids, my brother and I spent much of our time concocting stories and scenarios for our G.I. Joe action figures, imagining how they might destroy enemy depots or dispatch opposing commanders. Then my dad got involved. He offered a different sort of narrative, which began with christening our G.I. Joes “Hank” and “Jim,” in complete disregard for their codenames.
Hank and Jim, you see, were normal guys, except they happened to be small figurines with aggressive military bearings. Accordingly, they spent the bulk of their time complaining about their size and waging petty arguments. What I most remember is my dad’s Hank and Jim voices, complaining in a bland, thoroughly non–G.I. Joe manner about which of them merited the privilege of walking in front of the other one (or something like that). Incidentally, Hank and Jim were the names of two of my dad’s philosophy department colleagues.
To re-cast my G.I. Joes as bickering, put-upon little men was funny—albeit frustrating to a budding military zealot like myself. Such absurdly mundane reimagining is also one of the guiding principles behind Mark Russell’s superb Superman Stories, a zine trilogy of which two volumes have been published.
Each volume, which is written by Russell with his own occasional cartoons, recounts the travails of Superman in a world that more closely resembles reality than a comic book. For example, Superman and Lois Lane argue over his emotional impenetrability. Or, in another vignette, a judge dresses Superman down for not obtaining an extradition order before apprehending a mad scientist operating out of the Amazon rain forests. In Russell’s re-imagining, Superman bears the burden of mundane reality, with its humiliating arguments, its romantic difficulties, and its disputes with Aquaman over the political legitimacy of ruling the seas as a monarch rather than an elected official. Ah, relatability!
Aside from the parody and the kidding, Russell does bring a certain seriousness and poignancy to the notion of Superman-in-real-life. Lois and Superman can’t have children, for instance, so they struggle with the possibility of adoption. Superman Stories also returns again and again to the question of how we can imagine Superman without pondering the damage he would wreak on humankind. At one point in Superman Stories 2, which is at times downright earnest, Superman attends an anti-Superman rally where protestors read a list of names: Each individual was accidentally killed in the course of Superman’s superheroic exploits.
For me, Russell’s Superman joins Hank and Jim as avatars of one’s cluelessness in the face of expected heroism, forthrightness, and reliability. In fact, I feel moved to re-christen him. I hereby dub Superman “Mike.” Look, up in the sky! It’s Mike! He’s wrangling with Hank and Jim!