Robert J. Wiersema is an independent bookseller, a reviewer who contributes regularly to several national newspapers, and the bestselling author of two novels, Before I Wake and Bedtime Story. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia.
For the last several years now, I've had a standing date with my son Xander.
I've written about this before, and I'm sure I will again1: unless I'm severely under deadline, or out of town, Xander and I spend weekend mornings hanging out. His mom, Cori, works a couple of jobs, does some freelancing, and homeschools Xander and gets him to all of his programs, week in, week out. She deserves a break. So Saturday & Sunday mornings she gets to sleep in, and I get to hang out with the boyo, who turns twelve this summer, and watch TV.
Watching TV with your child might not seem like a big deal, but those weekend mornings are among the highlights of my week. Spending one-on-one time with Xander is, of course, pleasure enough, but watching TV, and the kind of TV we watch, gives both of us a common space, a terrain in which to meet, a shared language, and the subject material for long hours of conversation2.
We don't watch just any TV, though. For Xander and I, it's the slightly harder-edged, semi-serial stuff: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel the Series, the new run of Doctor Who, Torchwood. We've just started with Dead Like Me, our immersion in which is resulting in an even drier, more sardonic quality to our conversations.
We appreciate shows with sharp writing, epic plotting, and, most of all, shows that build their own universes and mythologies, shows that create a world.
Our first show, the first show we shared, was Smallville. And yes, if you're familiar with the show at all, you would argue that it certainly falls down on the "sharp writing" front, and that its plotting was more ramshackle than epic. You would, of course, be entirely correct.
But that didn't matter. We worked our way through the first few seasons on DVD, then when we were up to date we would catch each new episode on the PVR and watch it together on Saturday morning.
It wasn't great TV, but it was a great way for a father and son to spend some time together. We would watch, and I would fill Xander in on where the series -- which chronicled the life of Clark Kent in the days before the adoption of the public Superman persona -- deviated from the DC canon. It was a chance to let my geek flag fly, and I revelled in it3.
We lost touch with Smallville a couple of seasons back. When you're used to watching anything from the Whedonverse -- we graduated to Buffy shortly after we went to a weekly Smallville schedule – Smallville seems pretty hokey. Additionally, the writers played the drama out too far, stretching it into shaky season after shaky season, diluting the charm it had once had, and foiling -- through questionable narrative decisions -- the affection we had once had for it.
All that being said, Xander and I made a special date a couple of weeks ago: we were going to spend an evening watching the Smallville series finale. Sure, we had largely given up on the show, but the importance it had once had to us meant we couldn't miss the ending. Plus, we knew there was only one way the series could end, given its nature and its structure: Clark was going to put on the suit. Clark was going to fly. Clark Kent was going to become Superman.
After ten seasons of dodging the canon, of coyly teasing while obeying what were apparently the creators' dictums (no suit, no flying), the show had to go out with that moment, right?
Well, we were going to find out.
So a few weeks back I wandered up to the house and Xander and I settled in to watch the last-ever Smallville. Well, we half-watched. There were a lot of narrative strands wrapping up that we couldn't follow, so I flipped through magazines and Xander played Minecraft on the computer and we surfed along the surface of the show: the weirdness of a wedding that wasn't, at least one haunting, the return of Lex Luthor to put the grand Superman myth into motion.
And then, the final minutes.
I'm not spoiling this for anyone: the fact that Clark Kent becomes Superman has been an established fact for more than seventy years now. And the moment wasn't especially well-handled (you can watch it). But...
It started with the music, just a tease, enough to make me sit up and say, out loud, "No..." But yes, it was. The John Williams overture from Superman The Movie, as iconic a bit of music as the main Star Wars or Indiana Jones themes.
And then Clark was running in slow motion toward the camera, the shirt was pulled open, a zoom on the iconic red S on the blue background, a freeze-frame…
And I was in tears4.
Xander looked at me like I was insane, the perfect 11-year-old unspoken "Dad, it's Smallville. WTF?"
But it wasn't Smallville.
It was, in many ways, everything.
I was eight years old again.
Growing up in Agassiz, in the rural, fertile southwestern corner of BC meant, among other things, growing up without a movie theatre; the nearest was in Chilliwack, about a twenty-five minute drive and on the other side of the Fraser River. In those days, a trip to Chilliwack was a big deal.
One day in 1978, my mom and dad took me across the river without explanation. I don't remember my younger brothers being there, though they might well have been5.
I had no idea what was going on when, without any word, I found myself -- with mom and dad -- in the line-up outside the old Paramount Theatre.
I asked my dad what we were doing.
"Going to a movie," he said. As a father now, I can imagine his pleasure at a well-executed surprise.
"There's a Superman movie?"
I was already, at age eight, in the throes of what would become a life-long love of comics. These days I buy glossy trade-paperbacks, but back then, it was used Silver Age singles, a couple for a dime at the second-hand store, handfuls at the thrift shop, unsorted boxes from garage sales. I read them with an almost religious devotion, cracking open my blind for light when I was supposed to be napping6. I knew all the stories, but a movie? How could they make Superman into a movie?6
I remember waiting in that line, looking at the stills from the movie -- especially the one of Superman as smalltown tyke saving his adoptive father Jonathan Kent – and gazing adoringly at the poster.
I had never been to a movie before.
And the poster promised, "You will believe a man can fly."
In my seat, in the theatre, eating popcorn, I couldn't sit still. I looked around, up at the balcony, at the stage, the curtain. I kept waiting: I knew, from my experiences at school, that if there was going to be a movie someone would have to wheel the projector in and put up the folding screen at the front of the room.
So I was stunned at the moment the lights dropped, and the curtain parted and I saw that screen for the first time. And the moment that overture came. My first glimpse of doomed Krypton. Meeting the noble Kents.
And that moment that the shirt parted for the first time, revealing that iconic S, the blue tights...
The poster was right: I did believe a man could fly.
I may not have breathed for the duration of the movie. I certainly didn’t move.
And more than thirty years later, sitting on the couch, watching the Smallville finale, I cried.
I cried for a lot of reasons: I cried out of nostalgia, and for my own lost childhood. I cried for Xander, and the way he was leaving his own childhood behind. I cried out of pure delight, the sheer joy of hearing that music, seeing that S.
Mostly though, I cried because all of a sudden, everything made sense.
Everything I am as a writer, everything I do, goes back to that darkened theatre, to that little boy with no idea what was going to happen next.
I write to build worlds, to create universes that readers can walk into, and will want to.
I write to celebrate human nobility and sacrifice, to explore what happens when people are pushed beyond themselves.
I write out of loss and pain, out of vanished worlds and lingering memories.
I write because familiar stories take on new life in new forms, under new hands.
I write because there should be more things in life that make us gasp, and marvel, and wonder.
I write because of Superman, and for that 8-year-old kid who will never be the same. I write for him, and I write for the version of him that is inside everyone, that child who lives on stories, waiting to be remembered, to be nurtured, to be fed.
I write because I do believe a man can fly.
And because you will, too.
1 Okay, that’s a little facetious: in the introduction to my next book, Walk Like a Man, I also write about those weekend mornings. But the fact that the book isn’t out yet, though it’s written... I’m confused as to the proper tense. Have written but you haven’t read? Will publish? There ought to be a Writer’s Theory of Relativity for these situations. Or would that be an Uncertainty Principle?
2 We’re talking about a kid here whose favourite conversational construction, at age four, was to portentously intone “Actually…” before launching into a lengthy monologue about whatever was on his mind. The kid with whom, prior to the publication of the last Harry Potter book, we spent hours upon hours talking horcruxes, and parsing clues from the previous books. He’s a little odd, in the best sort of way. And no, I’m not sure where he gets that oddness from.
3 Smallville is so devotedly non-canon (while at the same time winking at it, introducing characters reminiscent of, but not identified as, Green Arrow and The Flash, for example) that I eventually gave up on trying to integrate it. In my mind, it’s an alternate reality Superman origin story.
4 Look, I wasn’t sobbing or anything, all right? I was just… it was probably just dust in the air, now that I think of it. Allergies. Yeah, allergies.
5 I’ve discovered, with the autobiographical aspects of Walk Like a Man, a certain amount of self-absorbed myopia to this sort of writing. At first I struggled with it, before finally throwing up my hands: it’s the nature of the beast.
6 The scene in Bedtime Story where Chris busts his son David for reading after lights-out after he notices the clandestine light coming out from under the closed door? Yeah, completely autobiographical.
7 As a kid, Superman was my favourite. As I’ve gotten older, Batman has taken his place – I got frustrated by the Teflon invulnerability of the last son of Krypton, and took to the greater depth of Bruce Wayne and his dark alter ego. This has prompted numerous conversations with Xander which begin with him saying, “Actually, Batman’s not really a superhero at all. He doesn’t have any powers.” I argue, of course, that that makes him MORE heroic, but I have to concede the “super” part.
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