At its best, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, released just in time for the big guy’s 75th birthday, feels like hanging out at a local bar, shooting the breeze with a friend who knows a shit-ton about Superman. In its less-successful moments, however, it can feel like reading an especially extended encyclopedia entry on the hero, one that’s become so exhaustive, it’s exhausting. The book is breezily written and compulsively readable, which ends up being both its greatest asset and its greatest demerit.
Written by Glen Weldon, an NPR comics writer and co-host of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, Superman is at its best when Weldon is digging into the adjustments made to the character to fit each era. Hardcore Superman fans will find little that surprises them in this book, but Weldon has done a great job of digging to find all manner of Supes-related material, from the first issue of Action Comics to the present day. He perfectly describes the series’ overarching meta-narrative, with Superman turning from a brash protector of the underclass into a paternalistic father figure, and finally, into something akin to a god, a paragon of virtue meant to inspire everyone. Weldon also defines, as succinctly as anyone ever has, the core of Superman, the way the character always puts other people first and never gives up, even in the unfortunate, mid-’90s “electric Superman” period.
Weldon is such an authoritative writer in such an unshowy way that it makes these grand critical pronouncements easier to swallow. His readings of famous story arcs and the various Superman films feel simultaneously freshly observed and at least somewhat definitive, but he never works too hard to push his own viewpoint. It makes that imagined bar conversation easier to stomach, because it’s always possible to picture Weldon letting readers jump in with their own interpretations, then nodding and saying something brief and extremely knowledgeable that would lay those arguments to waste. (The section on 2006’s Superman Returns—intriguing but fatally flawed, in Weldon’s view—is particularly strong in this regard.) In addition, Weldon has found a ton of great Superman stuff, including a passed-on TV pilot where the Superman mythos was reinterpreted by dogs—or, rather, little people in dog masks. Every other page will send readers scrambling to Google or Wikipedia to find visual evidence of the things Weldon uncovered.
Yet that’s the book’s problem as well: It occasionally comes off as a long, slightly annotated list of all the Superman-related stuff Weldon discovered in his research. The middle chapters, which deal with the ’50s and ’60s, can feel especially problematic in this regard, as Weldon struggles to encapsulate an entire decade of comics and TV shows and radio programs and Broadway musicals into the breezily readable format that makes the rest of the book so strong. It’s never taxing, but on frequent occasions, more depth would have been nice, and Weldon’s great critical insights might have provided added understanding of the material. These sections can feel rushed, and they occasionally lose sight of Weldon’s central thesis, which posits the many Supermen as united by core guiding principles.
Fortunately, the book snaps back in place roughly around the same time Superman returned to national prominence, with the first Richard Donner film, and Weldon’s examinations of, say, the way Americans glommed onto the superhero as a national symbol in the wake of September 11 return to his exceedingly deft understanding of both the character and the national psyche that dreamed him into being. Those looking for a deep examination of the personalities behind Superman will leave this book disappointed. Instead, it should be appreciated as something altogether different and fascinating: a straightforward biography of a fictional character who is many men and the same man over three-quarters of a century.