Who wears a red chaddi over blue tights and a flying cape to save the world from disaster ever so often? Superman, of course! But why is he flying around in jeans and shirt all of a sudden, looking like a high school student? What is even more amazing is that when he’s not saving the world, he seems to have all the problems that teens usually have, from pimples to dating!
In a new television serial, Smallville, soon to hit the US, Superman (Clark Kent) will appear as an American teenager of the 21st century. But many Superman fans are upset that the costume which has been such a hit since the American comic book character was created in 1938, will not be seen in the serial. They want their superhero back in his underwear and tights.
The producers of the show, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, say that they want to show the superhero in a more human way. Besides, he does not get his powers from his costume, they say.
Superman is not the only comic book hero to have undergone a change. So has the greatly popular Asterix comic series, created 40 years ago, by writer René Goscinny (1926-1977) and illustrator Albert Uderzo (1927). Millions have avidly read the adventures of the mini-sized warrior who fights the invading Roman armies with the help of his giant friend Obelisk and dog Dogmatix, in Gaul (as ancient France was known). Set 2000 years ago, the comic did not have too many women characters. But all that has changed in the latest Asterix comic.
So, Asterix and Latraviata shows Asterix fighting the Romans with new comrades: armies of women!
Publishers overhaul popular books to stay in tune with the times and not seem outdated or oldfashioned, and, in the bargain, gain new readers. ??This effort to rewrite popular books basically recognises the diversity and sensitivity within a society that has too long been narrow-minded and quick to offend.
In the last 100 years, the greatest changes in society have been a result of two major movements: women’s struggle for their rights in all spheres of life and the freedom movements in Asia and Africa against colonial empires and against racism.
That is why comics, old classics, fairy and folk tales are now being reexamined. To see how frequently stereotypes or certain images of women or black and coloured races keep occurring: like the stepmother always being wicked or the girl always being shown as helpless and waiting for a prince to rescue her.
Or, take the example of yet another hugely popular comic series, Tintin, created by the Belgian, Herge, in 1929. The boy reporter’s earliest adventures took place in Congo (a Belgian colony in Africa) and showed the Africans as inferior. The first Tintin comic, Prisoners of the Sun, shows Tintin and his friends outwitting the Incas, the ancient inhabitants of South America, who are shown as a fierce and ignorant lot. They outwit the Incas by predicting a solar eclipse, when in fact, the Incas were known for their knowledge of astronomy and civilisation! After the Second World War, many of the Tintin comics were suitably rewritten to eliminate these biases.
Recently, Tintin’s publishers were very happy that China had agreed to publish Tintin comics. But they published the title Tintin in Tibet as Tintin in Chinese Tibet because the Chinese government has controlled Tibet by force since 1950, and they wanted to make it clear in the title! The publishers did not like that very much.
Just as there have been attempts to correct biased attitudes of the past in literature, there are many who question extreme attempts to be ‘politically correct’. And so in his Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, James Finn Garner has reworked 12 fairy tales as spoofs in which cruel witches become witches with kindness-impairment and instead of wearing a gown made of silk, Cinderella wears a gown “woven of silk stolen from unsuspecting silkworms”!
The message is clear. There is a constant need to look at a work of literature in relation to the times in which it is created, but if readers feel that a literary work has been changed superficially to suit the times, they do not take kindly to these changes.
So watch out Superman, Asterix and Tintin! Only time will tell whether you remain as popular in your new incarnation as you were in your old one!