Saturday, November 20, 2010

‘Smallville’: A Missed Opportunity

The TV show Smallville, the series about young Clark Kent before he became Superman, has boasted a number of guest stars who have acted in other, earlier projects about the superhero. Examples include Margot Kidder (Superman I-IV), Terrence Stamp (Superman II), Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), Linda Slater (Supergirl), among others.

But perhaps Smallville’s most well-know guest star from elsewhere in the Superman universe is Christopher Reeve, who famously played the Man of Steel himself in the eponymous 1978 big-screen adaptation and its three sequels.  What made Reeves’s participation in the show so distinctive was that it came after his paralyzing fall from a horse in 1995.  So, of course, Reeve appeared on Smallville in a wheelchair, immobile from below the neck.  Reeve’s ability to take part in the show signaled both the triumph of a person so terribly disabled to re-enter his profession and the poignancy of seeing a once-vigorous actor in such a state.  All of this made Reeve’s two guest appearances on the series especially memorable.  The character he played — invented by the creators of the show, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar — was named Virgil Swann.

However, the name “Virgil Swann” narrowly missed being another way for Smallville to pay tribute to the Superman mythos.  The character’s surname reminded me of the artist Curt Swan, who drew Superman for the comics from 1948 to 1985.  When I collected Superman comics in the early 1970s, Swan provided the artwork’s pencils.  Swan’s work was then inked by Murphy Anderson.  Together, Swan and Anderson gave Superman a light but solid style, a black-ink buoyancy that served the airborne superhero well.  According to Wikipedia, “the pair’s collaborative artwork came to be called ‘Swanderson’ by the fans.”  Swan and Anderson’s take on Superman became the best-known among comics fans throughout the 1970s.

An example of Swan and Anderson’s Superman from 1971

Curt Swan (left) and Murphy Anderson in the 1990s

So, it’s unfortunate that Christopher Reeves’s character wasn’t named “Anderson Swan” as a tribute to the two artists.  Although Reeve’s appearance on the show was already charged with heritage and nostalgia, naming his character after two distinguished artists from Superman’s past would have added an extra level of homage — at least to readers of the Superman comics.

Christopher Reeve and Tom Welling in ‘Smallville’

Update, May 14, 2011: The Smallville series finale was broadcast last night.  I wonder if the role of the Secretary of Defense in that episode (ultimately played by Todd Thomson) was written for Gene Hackman, the Lex Luthor of Reeve’s Superman films, in an effort to get him to be a Super-alum guest star on the show as well.  If it was, the chances of Hackman coming out of retirement to play the role were slim.

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