Friday, January 13, 2017

Superman Comics!

I am and will always be a DC man. I guess it comes of watching all those episodes of Superfriends when I was a kid. It saddens me that DC movies have been so crummy lately, though I do have high hopes for Wonder Woman. But I'm allergic to tie-ins and sprawling media franchises. I've seen only one Marvel movie to date (Guardians of the Galaxy, which was light on crossover stuff), and my exposure to the comics is limited to the inept newspaper Spider-Man.

Really, though, the DC trinity captures everything I'd ever want in a superhero. You've got Superman representing science fiction and planetary romance, Wonder Woman representing mythological fantasy, and Batman representing the purely human. What more do you need?

I read some Batman comics last spring, and enjoyed them so much that I decided to move on to Superman. Superman is, of course, the superhero, the exemplar of the breed, descended from the science fictional supermen of the thirties and the long-jumping John Carter of Mars. He's certainly the first superhero I ever knew about. The only comics I read as a kid were Superman comics.

To get myself in the mood, I rewatched Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie, which is, I suppose, the best Superman movie we're ever going to get. That John Williams score still gives me a thrill. What struck me this time around is how closely it follows the life of Christ, with an infancy narrative marked by danger and assumed poverty and a kind of kenosis, a brief boyhood idyll among the green fields and blue skies of Kansas, a coming-of-age and period of testing in the wilderness, and a beginning of work at the age of thirty. The sequel is a lesser movie but still watchable (especially in the recently released "Donner cut"), while the rest of them just go downhill from there.

As I wrote at the time, I was less than impressed with the recent Man of Steel, which replaces the mythic conformation of Superman to Christ's life with a vulgar, superficial, commercially-motivated appeal to Christian consumers (and relentless, painfully overt product placement, which forces us to contemplate an alternate America in which Superman is unknown but IHOPs abound). And I have no desire to watch the grim and superviolent Batman vs. Superman. (Well, maybe just a little desire.)

But we'll always have Superman: The Movie.


When I read comics, I'm not terribly interested in consistent character arcs reaching across decades. All the metafictional infinite-earths-crisis stuff just makes my head spin. It also strikes me as unnecessary. For me, Superman is a mythical character like Heracles or King Arthur. The stories don't all have to match up. I'm coming at it from the point of view of a casual, occasional reader, of course. At any rate, I tend to gravitate toward one-off stories that seem reasonably self-contained. I'm also not averse to a little tweaking or even subversion.

In making my selections, I tried to find comic books graphic novels that are well-regarded by fans, with 4+ stars on Amazon. I wanted at least one modern take on the origin story and at least one Justice League story. I also wanted stories meditating on what Superman really means as a pop culture icon.

I had the most fun reading All-Star Superman (2005 – 2008), which follows Superman through a sacrificial death-mission into the sun, an episodic account of twelve mythic labors accomplished as a kind of zany Silver-Age bucket list, and an implied immolation-apotheosis. It portrays Superman as a kind of predestined solar deity while sending him on nutty space-age adventures with all his old friends, from Jimmy Olsen (now a flamboyant columnist) to Krypto the Superdog, as he fights for truth and justice against the likes of Lex Luthor and Bizarro. Time-pretzels and near-death experiences return him to his roots on Krypton and his coming-of-age in Smallville. Lex pontificates on what life is all about in an exclusive interview / supervillain prison riot. Sun-eaters eat rogue sentient suns. Superman descends to the underworld with Lois Lane and arm-wrestles for her love. You get the idea.

All-Star Superman is an exuberant, funny, nostalgic, and poignant celebration of the Superman you grew up with (if you're my age, anyway), and more brightly colored than a bubble gum wrapper containing the secrets of the universe. If someone were to read only one Superman comic in their lifetime, I think this is the one I would recommend.

To satisfy my craving for a good origin story, I tried Superman: Birthright (2003 – 2004). There's nothing daringly new or different about it, but then again that's what you want in an origin story: an update hitting all the main points from a contemporary point of view, an exploration and temporal "localization" of a well-known myth-cycle. Amirite?

That's not to say Birthright isn't genuinely engrossing, however. This is partly because it goes far beyond kryptonite in exposing Superman's deep and very human vulnerabilities. It paints a sensitive portrait of the person behind the artificial Metropolis Clark Kent: there's Superman, of course, but there's also Smallville Clark Kent, which you're made to realize is an integral part of his genuine personality. Smallville Clark is who Superman is when he's just being himself.

Superman is a person with dual identities – last son of Krypton and Kansas farmboy – encountering the same obstacles any child adopted as an infant by parents of another culture might face. Much of the story focuses on his struggles to realize his Kryptonian heritage while dealing with the guilt and fear of betraying his adopted parents' love. The meditations on tribal identity that arise during Clark's coverage of an African conflict mirror his eventual adoption of the Kryptonian "S" symbol as his symbol. The story's climax, which involves his troubled boyhood chum Lex Luthor, is, of course, insanely over-the-top, with giant robots and wholesale destruction, as it should be in an decent Superman story, but also dwells on Superman's need to win the trust of a suspicious public.

I would recommend Superman: Birthright to anyone looking for a sensitive, modern take on Superman's origin story.

Now, you know how Superman stands for truth, justice, and the American way? Have you ever wondered what might have happened if his rocket had landed, not in Kansas, but on a collective farm in the USSR? Wonder no more, my friend, but pick up a copy of Superman: Red Son (2003). It's bizarre, terrifying, and a bit sad, with a mind-bending twist at the end. All of which is to say, it's right up my alley.

Life under Superman the benevolent communist dictator is about as fun as you might imagine. Oh, but he has only the best of intentions, comrade! Intentions that gradually transform him from the workers' champion into an incarnation of the all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother of 1984 (complete with compulsory brain surgery), in an arc not unlike that of the pigs in Animal Farm.

Red Son interweaves Superman's public career with an alternate history beginning in the Eisenhower administration, pitting him against chess-wizard supergenius Lex Luthor and everything Luthor can throw against him. Superman's presence in the USSR sparks a kind of superhero arms race. The time around, the USA is on the losing side, growing increasingly isolated and eventually turning into a capitalist North Korea.

Wonder Woman comes into the story, throwing in with the USSR and adopting a Soviet version of her usual costume. Batman is a freedom fighter / terrorist with a distinctly Soviet backstory, a crazy, creepy grin, and a bat-ushanka with earflaps. Colonel Hal Jordan, a.k.a. Green Lantern, is a crazed, commie-hating zealot who went off the deep end after years of waterboarding in an Asian POW camp.

Red Son uses its inversion of actual history infused with heavy overtones of George Orwell to prompt questions about American foreign policy yesterday and today as well as the nature of human progress. Not bad for a comic book. What's more, the art is really cool, resembling Soviet propaganda posters at some points and the old Fleischer cartoons at others.

Red Son isn't to everyone's tastes, but I thought it was terrific.

The Superman mythos is subjected to even closer scrutiny in Kingdom Come (1996), which takes place in the not-so-distant future, pitting an older generation of out-of-touch, retired superheroes – Superman and company – against a younger generation of amoral, violent vigilantes who've begun tearing the world apart in ruthless turf wars. Narrated by a pastor who views and sometimes takes part in events in a series of visions, replete with ominous quotations from the Book of Revelation and fiery visions of angelic battles in the heavens, it looks and reads at times almost like one of William Blake's books of prophecy. It's an unabashedly religious, quasi-biblical comic-book apocalypse whose antichrists are metahumans like the horned Magog and "the Captain of Lightning and Thunder" and whose false gods are the superheroes of yore.

I imagine this hit a nerve in the late nineties, when everyone halfway expected the world to end with the coming of the new millennium.

Kingdom Come is more a Justice League story than a Superman story. It features pretty much everybody you've ever heard of, and probably some you haven't. For me, Batman steals the show. (As he always does.) He's a cynical, hardboiled old recluse whose battered body is now encased in a steel exoskeleton, remotely patrolling Gotham's streets with scary, crime-fighting robot drones from a ruined Wayne Manor. Wonder Woman, as beautiful and high-minded as ever, battles demons of her own as an outcast from Themyscira.

But Superman is the central protagonist, no doubt about it. He swings from bitter hermit to fascist avenger, coming out of self-imposed retirement after millions of people die in a superhero-sparked atomic blast, only to make things worse before he makes things better. The battle that begins as a riot in Superman's Kansas Gulag is like something out of a Brueghel painting, ending in a second holocaust that leaves the barren battlefield strewn with charred superhero skeletons.

Are superheroes really a blessing, or are they a curse in disguise? That's the question Kingdom Come asks without offering a satisfying answer.

The art is quite different from what you typically see in comic books; quite different, and quite beautiful. It was executed in gouache, using black-and-white underpaintings with a transparent color overlay, touched up here and there with airbrush or opaque paint. Lightning flashes. Flesh glows. Metal gleams. Every page is a feast for the eyes.


As you can probably tell, when it comes to Superman – who seems hard to write for – I gravitate toward the meta. There are some other Superman stories I'd like to dip in to. Before I do that, though, I may try to acquire some well-regarded, fairly modern (post-crisis) Wonder Woman comics, in anticipation of her upcoming film, the trailers for which look pretty cool. Do you know what Wonder Woman's theatrical debut is? The Lego Movie. Isn't that wrong? For her sake, I hope they don't come out with another stinker.


  1. Hey, if you want, drop me a mailing address (I just added a contact form at my site), and I'll mail you my trade copy of Viriconium. I just bought an e-book version.

    1. Cool! Thanks, I'll do that! I looked for it in a bookstore I visited this weekend while traveling; they had The Centauri Device but no Viriconium. I'll read it with pleasure.

  2. "You've got Superman representing science fiction and planetary romance, Wonder Woman representing mythological fantasy, and Batman representing the purely human."

    A keen observation. You could also argue that Batman represents the weird and horrific, which neatly maps them to the three major streams pulp fiction divided into after WWII.

    1. Very true, especially with the ways Batman has been taken in recent years.