Archives on TV: My Adventures with Superman
[Spoiler Warning for all of My Adventures with Superman!]
Wow, it turns out you can do a fun, relatable, and modern version of Superman without compromising his moral center and turning him into a melancholy Ayn Randian shell of his former self.
And the season finale is a Thanksgiving episode! Neat!
My Adventures with Superman is the latest iteration of the Superman canon to grace our computer screens from the dumpster fire that is [HBO] Max/Warner Brothers/Discovery. Look, I'm excited for what James Gunn and Peter Safran have in store for the new DC Cinematic Universe, but we're all in agreement that the calibre of product churned out in the last decade has been spotty, at best. Thankfully, the creative team behind the new animated series know exactly what they're doing.
Deveopled by producers/writers Josie Campbell, Jake Wyatt, and Brendan Clougher who, between the three of them, have worked on Steven Universe, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, DuckTales, Young Justice, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and a bunch of DC animated movies, My Adventures with Superman proudly displays its anime roots while delivering a refreshingly hopeful and kind-hearted adaptation of the Big Blue Boyscout.
I mean, there's also robots and alien technology and a slew of updated Superman villains, but the heart of show, as it should be, are the relationships between the trio of Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen played to perfection by Jack Quaid, Alice Lee, and Ishmel Sahid, repectively. I know these articles are supposed to be about the archives, but the show is that good and well worth watching for amazing performances, stellar writing, and jaw dropping visuals. I promise you won't stop smiling.
But I digress, there are some archival themes and stereotypes to cover and do that I shall! A couple things to keep in mind, however, is that our heroic trio are all in their early twenties and working as interns for The Daily Planet. Also, Clark only has some of his core powers having discovered his speed, strength, and flight abilities when saving a woman from crashing her car when he was roughly ten years old. Over the course of the first season, most of Superman's other abilities (heat vision, super hearing, bulletproof skin, and x-ray vision) manifest when Clark is stressed or in the middle of a fight. It makes for a great narrative justification for how his powers develop in a time of need, honors the trauma he experienced as a child learning about his true origins, and reinforces the mystery of his Kryptonian heritage to the audience and to Clark.
After the pilot episode in which a disguised Clark saved Jimmy and Lois from some previously stolen military robots - like ya do - Lois is more determined than ever to uncover the secrets of the supposed Superman who saved her. The second episode of the series, and the second part of the pilot, "Adventures of a Normal Man Pt. 2" shows us the obsessively determined side of Lois who, in her fervor and need for a headquarters of some kind, sets up an "office" for the interns in what everyone in the series calls the "newspaper morgue". When Jimmy and Clark arrive early to the Daily Planet, at Lois' behest, she drags them into what I know to be an archives based on the stacks of boxes, shelving, and file cabinets.
We also see the poor conditions of the room as the camera zooms to the leaky and steaming pipes in the ceiling and then over to a mound of dust that POOFS itself off the shelves. As she attempts to further clean the dust, Lois says:
Okay, technically, it's the newspaper morgue. [STEAM FROM PIPES FILLS THE ROOM. EVERYONE COUGHS]
It's also the boiler room. [MAIL FLIES IN FROM OFF SCREEN, WHICH LOIS CATCHES IN A BUCKET]
And sometimes mail gets sent here by mistake. [LEAKY PIPE POURS MORE WATER INTO THE ROOM]
It's one of the stranger things I've seen an archives referred to as, and so consistently, because anyone at the Daily Planet could easily just call it the archives and you'd probably convey the same meaning as "newspaper morgue," but the shows seems determined to only refer to the room as a place where old newspapers have died. And while the show doesn't explicitly say it, it's heavily implied that the interns' "office" is in the basement of the Daily Planet building. I can't say for sure because, quite frankly, the building is pretty big and I don't think a boiler room could cover that large of a building. But what do I know? I'm just an archivist.
The other issue I have with the interns occupying the archives is that they never actually utilize the space for its intended purpose. You'd think, out of all the young wanna-be investigative journalists, Lois Lane would see value in the archives. At the very least for research purposes. Unfortunately, we never see Lois, Jimmy, or Clark turn to the archives as they investigate the secret dealings of Anthony Ivo and AmazoTech or uncover the mystery behind Task Force X. The most involved research montage of the season features Lois pouring over tabloids (not found in the archives) as she pieces together that Clark and Superman are one and the same.
It really is a shame because one of the core themes of the season, if not the series, is the relationship the characters have with truth. And I don't just mean truth as a concept, I mean all three are motivated by their desires to uncover and expose Truth with a capital T. We learn in episode three, "Let's Go to Ivo Tower, You Say," that Lois has a strained relationship with her father, General Sam Lane, due to a lifetime of him keeping secrets from her. He ends up being the very same general who's been after Superman the whole season, but up until that point we only know that Lois' resentment towards her father informs her desire to tell the truth by being a reporter. It's also why she's initially obsessed with discovering who Superman really is because she doesn't like liars and she can tell when someone isn't being fully honest with her, much to Clark's chagrin.
Jimmy Olsen's low key conspiracy theorist angle is initially played for laughs as he tries to get his Instagram-esque channel Flamebird some credibility, but it stems from some inclination to question authority and interrogate information instead of taking it at face value. He's rewarded for his persistence when he stumbles across an old Project Cadmus building and befriends Monsieur Mallah (a hyper-intelligent French gorilla) and the Brain (the brain of a German scientist in a robot). Even Flamebird becomes essential to delivering the truth to the masses prior to the season finale.
Clark's relationship with truth is a complex one, starting almost immediately after he discovers his powers as a child. His parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, dig up the Kryptonian ship buried beneath the farm to give him a possible answer for why he has powers in the first place. Unfortunately, the first meeting between young Clark and the hologram of his biological father Jor-El doesn't go well as the non-English-speaking tech goes on the defense and almost harms the Kents. Traumatised by the reveal of his alien heritage and almost getting his parents hurt, Clark speedily reburies the ship and tearfully asks his parents, "Who am I?"
It isn't until Clark is an adult that he even revisits those fears, having spent his childhood isolating himself from others for fear of hurting them. It's why he doesn't tell Jimmy or Lois about his powers or being Superman, which all comes to a head in episode six, "My Adventures with Mad Science," when the trio, Monsieur Mallah, and the Brain are under fire from evil robots (don't ask). Jimmy and Lois, who both know Clark is Superman, want to know why Clark didn't tell them. Overwhelmed, Clark blurts out:
Because I was scared! All I've ever wanted is to be normal and I don't want you to treat me like an alien. I just wanna be your friend.
There's a very valid queer reading in Clark's words as well as Lois and Jimmy's reassurance that they like him for who he is regardless of his alien heritage. And once the trio are finally honest with each other, the relationship between them and the Truth shifts towards public perception and constructed narratives.
From an archival point of view, constructed narratives are part and parcel of the profession. I've written about it multiple times on this website, but it still bears repeating: archives allow for a truth to be told, but not the truth. It's all about taking the materials we have, placing them in some kind of order and letting the public, or historians, create meaning. That's not to say that archivists don't create narratives as well. Every decision based around the appraisal and selection of materials as well as how they are arranged and described becomes its own meta-narrative that archivists construct long before historians and researchers know the materials exist. So, yeah, archivists are just as culpable. When we look at how this applies to Superman and the public, as well as Clark's personal struggles with being a superpowered alien, the dangers of purposefully malicious narratives are on full display.
As the hero of Metropolis, Superman's popularity with the people is entirely dependent on them believing he's good and trusting that he only wants to help. Unfortnately, that trust hangs by a thin thread, which journalists have the power to alter based on how they report on his actions. This is exemplified by the appearance of Gotham City's premiere journalist Vicki Vale in the two-parter, "Zero Day," when Vale, along with fangirl Lois, revisits the sites of Superman's previous victories and shifts the focus of the story to the destruction left in the Man of Steel's wake. From the moment he showed up in Metropolis, the show has been dropping hints regarding suspicion of Superman's intent amongst the people, but its through Vicki Vale's alternative interpretation of events that we see how the ill-informed masses can find justification in their mistrust.
And though Lois believes in Clark's good intentions, she's struggling with the information obtained in the previous episode, "Kiss Kiss Fall in Portal," where she snagged a data file from the League of Lois Lanes (multiverse stuff) containing instances of other Supermans using their powers for evil. As the "evidence" of the danger Clark poses to the world compounds, it pushes the fledgling superhero to question not only his identity but his purpose. What does it mean to be Superman? What responsibility does he have towards the world? Why does he use his powers for good when he could just as easily use them for evil?
It makes for an immensely satisfying comeback when Clark continues to protect Metropolis despite the peoples' distrust and is rewarded for those convictions when Jimmy and Lois rally the city to help him at a critical moment. The show gives its audience a nuanced reasoning behind why Superman is a hero as well as why he continues to be a hero. And a majority of that reasoning comes from how truth is conceptually woven into the story and characters.
Would I have still liked more use out of the archives in My Adventures with Superman? Of course! Newspapers and archives are inexplicably linked and it's important to see how hardcopy and digital archives aid journalists while also advocating for public and government funding to make those archives accessible. One of my local papers, the Seattle Times, has a digital archive from 1895 (pre-statehood) to 2010 that only exists because of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Library Services and Technology Act, state funds, and public donations. Newspapers are essential tools for an informaed public and archives and libraries facilitate the means by which the public gains access to that information.
So, yes, it would've been nice to see our three budding journalists using the "newspaper morgue" for more than just a clubhouse, but there's always Season 2 right around the bend. Here's hoping the archives makes an appearance. And with more Kryptonians on the way, there's every possibility we'll get some alien archives as well!