- Based on an untrue story: First published in 1977, when superheroes are definitely kid’s stuff, Superfolks shows Mayer knows his comic books … well, DC comics, anyway. The superheroic protagonist is an obvious analogue of Superman: a reporter (with time served on television) with superstrength, flight, X-ray and telescopic vision, superhearing, and the ability to travel unaided through space. He’s vulnerable to pieces of his exploded home planet. His wife and former love — also a reporter, who is in love with his superheroic persona — share the same first initial. He grew up in Littletown instead of Smallville. There are Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel analogues (their magic word is “tomato-herring”), as well as Elastic Man, a villainous Plastic Man wannabe. So anyone who knew their Superman comics would have felt at home when this book came out … and still would, actually, since little has really changed.
- Did they think that was funny in the ‘70s?: Like The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, Superfolks has punning names sprinkled throughout. Mayer seems to love them; the most obvious one is in the hero’s name and his chief weakness. The protagonist goes by the name David Brinkley on his day job; in reality, Brinkley was a TV newsman, co-anchoring the evening news for NBC for 15 years. In the book, Brinkley comes from the planet Cronk, so therefore the chunks of his exploded planet (which cause him to weaken) are called … Cronkite. Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS evening news, which overtook NBC’s broadcast in popularity in the ‘60s.
But unlike Wilson and Shea, Mayer just likes putting people we know in incongruous roles. Marilyn Monroe (under her real name, Norma Jean Baker) is a nurse at an insane asylum. Nelson Rockefeller is a penniless beggar. Bella Abzug (she was famous then, don’t worry) and Mohammed Ali are taxi drivers. Holden Caulfield is a proctologist for the rich. And so on.
The two forms of “humor” are combined with Candace Bergen. She has married a CIA operative, and together, they have two kids: the elder named Charlie, the younger Mortimer, who is mentally handicapped. The joke is that Bergen’s father, Edgar Bergen, was a ventriloquist on TV and radio, famous if not the most technically skilled; his most popular dummy was named Charlie McCarthy, and he also used one named Mortimer Snerd. Charlie is probably the most famous ventriloquist’s dummy in appearance: monocle, top hat, tuxedo. Mortimer was slow witted, with buck teeth and an overbite.
- A lot of influence for a book without pictures: It is amazing how Mayer anticipates — or inspires — a lot of the more mature themes that came after. From the link of costumes and sex that shows up in Watchmen to many of the plot points from Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” to just more adult treatment of sex (super-groupies and impotence and other things) and violence, this book feels out of place for 1977, when it was originally published. I wonder if Mayer or his publisher mandated those puns and cameos to soften the blow a little — as if to say, Comics are for kids, maybe, but even though it’s got that adult stuff, it’s still funny, lighthearted; it’s got jokes, right? Prose camouflage, so to speak.47
It doesn’t work, of course. That maturity — that forward thinking — shows through. In many ways, it makes sense that someone outside of comics would have the most forward-thinking attitudes toward superheroes. Mayer didn’t have to deal with the consumer expectations, the editorial pressures, or the Comics Code Authority. He just had to tell a story about a superhero. It wouldn’t raise eyebrows in 2010 — it’s a little juvenile for a prose story about superheroes in 2010, really — but it was a breakthrough at the time.
Three Things about ... Superfolks
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