Comics Ate My Brain

June 26, 2009

What’s the matter with Kansas?, part 2: Superman Inc.

Filed under: elseworlds, superman — Tom Bondurant @ 2:24 pm
I got the idea to blog about this 1999 Elseworlds while in the middle of reading Red Son, and the reason should be pretty obvious: here, the focus isn’t on communism, but unapologetic capitalism.

Superman Inc. was written by Steve Vance, pencilled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and inked by Mark Farmer. It’s an unusual Elseworlds in that it’s not about superheroics. Instead, Dale “Superman” Suderman (the erstwhile Kal-El of Krypton) is the greatest athlete the Earth has ever known — a star in the NBA, NFL, and Major League Baseball, a multiple-medal-winning Olympian, and an unstoppable marketing force. His chief rival is still Lex Luthor (now a team owner), but this time Dale/Supes earns Luthor’s wrath by screwing Luthor out of a new stadium.

See, Dale isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue, which the book demonstrates in a pointed parody of the regular Superman’s boy-scout reputation. After Dale’s grinned and glad-handed his way through a lobby full of adoring kids (“Have this [jacket] fumigated,” he later tells his assistant), he tears into his staff for their concept-art failures. “Can’t you morons get anything right? How many times do I have to tell you?! I’m Superman! I’m everybody’s friend! I don’t grimace — I smile!” This last sentence accompanies the scary picture of an intensely beady-eyed Superman poking the ends of his mouth upwards in a look that would give the Joker chills.

What brought Dale to this state was a succession of foster homes and juvenile facilities, necessitated by the death of Dale’s foster mother. Dale’s powers contributed to her death, because his flying startled her into falling down the stairs and breaking her neck. This caused Dale to draw into himself (and also repress the use of his flashier powers), until years later when a chance involvement in pickup basketball awakened his “athletic abilities.” It’s certainly not an unrealistic alternative to Superman’s origin, and it gives Dale’s story a poignancy that a straight-up “Clark chose football over virtue” choice might have lacked. (Dale isn’t without some scruples, though, thanks to his mentor, ex-NBAer Marcus Clark.)

Nevertheless, Dale can’t quite let go of his powers, and as another marketing tool creates a “Superman” cartoon which uses the familiar costume and abilities. Thus, in this reality superstar athlete Dale Suderman invented the super-hero, which seems a little precious but pretty much works in context. Meanwhile, though, Luthor and his investigators (including reporter Lois Lane, naturally) have pieced together Dale’s extraterrestrial origins, and use their findings to “out” Dale. Being a nigh-omnipotent alien is apparently worse than using human growth hormone, so Dale’s career threatens to start circling the drain.

An enraged Dale makes matters worse when he storms Luthor’s penthouse offices, is defenestrated thanks in part to a shard of Kryptonite, and flies back up to administer beatings in front of many witnesses. Furthermore, during an attempt at talk-show rehabilitation, Dale gets shot with a Kryptonite bullet and winds up in the hospital. Shortly thereafter, Lois shows up, having quit Luthor’s employ once she figured out he was behind the shooting. She’s withdrawing herself: “I may do some teaching,” she says as she leaves.

At this point Superman Inc. starts to steer Dale in a more traditional direction, with a visit from a familiar generically-named police detective. Yes, J’Onn J’Onzz tells Dale that there are many aliens living on Earth who could benefit from a more positive role model, so why doesn’t he shape up? Thus, Dale heads back to where it all began, in Kansas, to clear his head and figure out what to do with his life. Along the way, he’s knocked out by a lightning strike. No points for guessing which kindly couple takes him in!

Actually, that too is handled pretty smoothly. The Kents don’t know Dale Suderman from Adam, so he’s able to hide out with them without much effort. On the farm he learns the value of hard work, etc., and eventually tells the world (via taped message) he’s headed into space to find the remains of his home planet. However, on the last page of the book, it’s “Clark Kent” who registers for Lois’ Journalism 101 class….

Superman Inc. looks like a pretty slight story, but I think it has a lot going on beneath the surface. The “I don’t grimace” scene is actually a nice encapsulation of the book’s message about image management. Dale’s mother dies because she thinks her flying child is a demon, and Dale turns this into introversion and self-loathing. Once Dale has started playing basketball, though, that gets completely inverted, and his face becomes ubiquitous. (The “S” symbol shows up too, but as the logo for Dale’s new basketball franchise, the Metropolis Spartans.) In this way “Superman” allows Dale to use his powers, after a fashion.

However, as in Red Son, Dale has no “secret identity” which might offer another perspective. Therefore, this book’s “Superman goes nuts” scene also forces him into hiding as a bespectacled nobody. In Red Son Superman’s disguise is just that; but here, it’s implied pretty strongly that “Clark” is the real deal — a kinder, gentler iteration of the boy who grew up to be an oversaturating sensation. The traditional Superman was Clark before he was famous, so Dale needed to learn how “Clark” could help him cope.

There is a hint, too, that Dale could re-emerge as Superman the superhero, fighting evil and injustice in the mode of his animated alter ego. After all, if Dale can’t use his powers for sports anymore, he’ll need some other outlet. The logistical gymnastics that would require seem well-suited for a sequel. Too bad DC has gotten out of the Elseworlds business….

June 22, 2009

What’s the matter with Kansas?, part 1: Red Son

Filed under: elseworlds, superman — Tom Bondurant @ 9:31 pm
This post is the first installment in a short series about various Superman Elseworlds. Nudged by the news that DC is releasing a hardcover edition, I re-read Superman: Red Son over the weekend. That got my brain going, and I wanted then to re-read other stories. Look for posts on Superman & Wonder Woman: Whom Gods Destroy, Superman: The Dark Side, Superman Inc., and probably at least one other, in the near future.

Right from the start, Red Son (written by Mark Millar, pencilled by Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett) creates an all-encompassing sense of horrifying inevitability, like there is absolutely no way it will end well. At the same time, though, that inevitability almost makes it read like dull, state-sanctioned propaganda. Accordingly, I found Red Son to be rather a frustrating comic — not in the reading, which was fairly engaging, but in the message (or lack thereof).

SPOILERS FOLLOW…

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First, a bit of personal perspective on Red Son. Lefty though I may be, I did grow up during the last two decades of the Cold War, and lived under the shadow of mutually-assured destruction. We didn’t have “duck and cover” drills in the ’70s and ’80s, but we did have The Day After, Red Dawn, and “Amerika.” While a lot of that turned out to be right-wing nightmare fuel, I wasn’t particularly eager to have the United States turned into the Workers’ Paradise.

It seems to me that Red Son plays on those kinds of fears and expectations. The big surprise, apparently, is not that Superman is a Commie; it’s that he’s a compassionate Commie, eschewing outright conquest in favor of winning the world’s hearts and minds. Even so, I found it hard to root for Superman, simply because of what he represented in this story; and I’m sure that’s just the way Millar wanted it.

See, Red Son argues that as a Soviet operative (and later as Soviet leader), Superman gets to examine how the apparatus of the state could be used for the benefit of all. In the capitalist United States, Superman/Clark can be just another guy, doing what he can to help out. However, if the state is charged with taking care of everyone, and Superman is the state (for all practical purposes), then he has an obligation to give the people food, shelter, etc.

Nevertheless, these are background and motivational details. Millar doesn’t really make a case for communism (Soviet-style or otherwise) — or, more accurately, he doesn’t use Superman to “rehabilitate” communism — as much as he implies that a communist viewpoint enables Superman’s actions in the pursuit of social justice. Thus, Red Son is another in a long line of “Superman takes over the world” stories, and like those, it ends with the realization that Superman can’t impose his personal morality on humanity as a whole.

“But that would mean,” my straw-man says, “that if the world got too corrupt, evil, depraved, etc., for Superman, he wouldn’t do anything about it!” I agree — and remember, that’s exactly what turns the Kingdom Come Superman into a bearded, pony-tailed hermit, living on a holo-farm in the Fortress of Solitude. Both the KC and RS Supermen have one last red-eyed rampage which ends in the above-described come-to-Jesus moment.

And as much as I shudder at the thought of a Soviet Superman leading the Red Army triumphantly down Main Street USA, I think Red Son would have been better had it not given into that familiar character bit. Admittedly, Millar sets up RS‘s come-to-Jesus moment pretty well, equating Superman’s global victory with his one unquestioned failure, but its first two chapters are so chilling that it’s almost a cop-out for Millar to bring in conventional Superman morality.

I want to stress here that I am not trying to connect said morality with uniquely American values. Instead, I just think it would have been more interesting for RS-Supes to have embraced fully the benign totalitarianism he’d been practicing for most of the story.

That’s the unspoken point of Elseworlds generally, though, isn’t it? Superman is Superman, whether he’s in the Middle Ages or the Civil War or raised by the Waynes. At some point, however, it makes these stories exercises in rearranging the details. In the end that’s what I didn’t like about Red Son: all of its radical visions — Wonder Woman traumatized by the loss of her lasso, JFK an aging buffoon, Hal Jordan waterboarded — seem only skin-deep. Indeed, the critical moment in the third part comes when President Luthor pretty much only has to snap his fingers in order to reinvigorate the United States’ moribund, third-world economy. There’s your communist-vs.-capitalist showdown in a nutshell: Superman spends decades shaping the USSR into the world’s only superpower, and Luthor reawakens the US practically overnight.

Like I said, frustrating. Is Red Son shaggy and padded with high-concept “moments,” or is it all necessary in order to get to Luthor’s “checkmate?” Is it shrewd satire, not just of Superman but Bush-era foreign policy; or is that undercut by the eventual redemptive moment? Did Superman deserve some comeuppance beyond the loss of his identity and prestige? Certainly Red Son is thought-provoking, but I’m not sure the answers justify the effort.

August 5, 2004

Last week’s comics (7/28/04)

Hoping to catch up soon, but for now, still a week behind.

Batman #630: Written by Judd Winick; art by Dustin Nguyen. The conclusion to the Penguin/Scarecrow story is satisfying enough. That may not sound like high praise, but there is a knack to writing Batman which not even the most high-profile creators always have. Of late writers have taken their Batman assignments as opportunities to tour the Bat-universe, stitching together episodes without worrying about whether they make sense. Winick wisely chose to focus on story over spectacle. That said, it’s still a story about the Penguin, the Scarecrow, and a boogeyman which rips people apart, so it’s not like something new was revealed about the human condition. Winick will be the regular Batman writer once “War Games” is over in 3 months, and this storyline doesn’t make me dread his arrival.

Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 3 paperback: This collects the Justice League/Justice Society team-ups from the early 1970s. The first story is an odd one about an alien child and his pet getting separated across dimensional planes, and causing havoc. The second is a three-issue epic reintroducing the Seven Soldiers of Victory. The third features Earth-X, a world where World War II lasted 30 years and the Nazis won; and the fourth tells us what happened to the Golden Age Sandman’s sidekick, Sandy. I bought this because, by and large, I didn’t have these issues, and I always enjoyed JLA/JSA team-ups. It’s pretty much critic-proof for me.

DC Comics Presents Hawkman: The two stories here are similar in theme to the Mystery in Space issue. The first takes its cue from the notion that ‘60s comics writers were literally channeling events on the parallel Earth where their characters lived, and turns it around so that Julie Schwartz is controlling what “really” happens to Hawkman. The second is a Valentine- themed tale revealing how Hawkman met his wife and partner, Hawkgirl. Both are enjoyable and light-hearted, and both skillfully include the winged monkey featured on the cover.

DC: The New Frontier #5 (of 6): Written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke. I read all 5 issues in one sitting last night, and it made me love this series even more. The future Justice Leaguers are finally all introduced as the “mystery villain” emerges. So much happens in this issue that it’s hard to believe there are still 64 pages to go until the end. My expectations are accordingly high for the concluding issue, due out in two months. Working on a NF essay, so more details there.

Green Lantern #179: Written by Ron Marz, drawn by Luke Ross. Kyle Rayner figures out who’s been messing with his life and sets out to destroy him. Since he’s involved with the government, fellow Lantern John Stewart shows up to stop Kyle. They fight for a while. Kyle then realizes the error of his ways, and decides to pick up the pieces of his crappy life without further violence. This doesn’t sit well with our villain, who decides to go after Kyle himself. All I know is, there are two more months left in this series and it just seems to be marking time until the Big Changes in Green Lantern: Rebirth. Since Ron Marz created Kyle Rayner, I presume he’ll want to give him a happy ending, so at least I can look forward to that.

JLA #102: Written by Chuck Austen, drawn by Ron Garney. This time it’s the Flash in the Seat of Woe, not being fast enough to save a couple of children from a fire. Apparently this is the first time the Flash has seen children die. Not to be cruel, but I find that hard to believe. The character has supposedly been fighting crime since he was a teenager, so you’d think he would have seen worse. Also, considering that last issue Superman couldn’t save a guy from a fire, you’d think Austen could have come up with something more original.

Justice League of America – Another Nail #3 (of 3): Written and drawn by Alan Davis. I like Alan Davis fine, and he draws gorgeous comics, but honestly I don’t know why this series should exist. The original Nail miniseries answered the justifiable question “what would the JLA have been like without Superman?” in shocking, often horrifying fashion. In this sequel, we have the JLA, complete with Superman, fighting some interdimensional menace. I think it’s supposed to be the Alan Davis answer to Crisis on Infinite Earths. It comes off more like “Alan Davis draws every DC character he can imagine.” If it didn’t look so fantastic, I’d be more upset. I feel very shallow for admitting that.

Legion #36: Written by Gail Simone, drawn by Dan Jurgens & Andy Smith. The Legion regroups in the wake of Earth’s total technological failure. That’s about all there is to it. Simone and Jurgens do a nice job of advancing the various plot threads from last issue, especially those involving the floating prison. They also show the calvary – i.e., the rest of the Legion – preparing to come to the rescue, but they make it clear that the situation is still dangerous. Probably the coolest and creepiest part of the issue is the sight of Brainiac 5 without his “neural inhibitors.” At first we think he’s going off the deep end into criminal insanity, but then he pulls himself together and starts firing on all cylinders. Jurgens and Smith are at their best portraying this process, first as mania, then focus.

Planetary #20: Written by Warren Ellis; drawn by John Cassaday. I can’t really explain the significance of this issue without laying out the premise of the entire series, so here goes – the Planetary team encounters very familiar archetypal characters on its way to defeating their arch-enemies, who are pretty much evil versions of the Fantastic Four. (That really doesn’t do it justice.) In this issue we finally meet the evil “Thing.” It was worth the wait.

Superman #207: Written by Brian Azzarello, drawn by Jim Lee & Scott Williams. Part 4 of “For Tomorrow,” as Superman fights Equus, the cybernetic enforcer who’s connected to the mysterious Vanishing, and learns that Equus and his master might not be as evil as we think. I really have no opinion on this issue. I want to like it, but it just kind of sits there. Lee’s art is very pretty, but not enough to win me over like Alan Davis’.

Superman: Birthright #12 (of 12): Written by Mark Waid, drawn by Leinil F. Yu. The end of the year-long revision to Superman’s origins and first adventure is touching, but it too left me a little flat. Look for a more comprehensive Birthright essay in the near future.

July 15, 2004

New Comics for July 14, Part 2

Filed under: batman, elseworlds, gotham central, lotdk, supergirl, superman, weekly roundups — Tom Bondurant @ 5:06 pm
I forgot to mention that Part 1 featured all the “team” books, but you probably noticed the theme. Here are the rest.

Action Comics #817: Written by Chuck Austen; drawn by Ivan Reis and Marc Campos. A wounded Superman recovers at STAR Labs after the last few issues’ worth of fighting with Gog. However, several B-list villains who didn’t make the cut for Identity Crisis have learned Supes is vulnerable, and attack the facility. As it happens, Wonder Woman and Superboy are there to help, but the Weapons Master manages to get through and provide the cliffhanger. The art carries the book, maybe by design — it doesn’t seem too hard to write snappy dialogue for fight scenes, and since Austen took over in April, that’s primarily what Action has delivered. Still, Austen gives us satirical characters — Jack Ryder, a Jerry Springer/Morton Downey-like newscaster whose cameraman sacrifices himself for the story; and Mohlman, an annoying, nerdish doctor who in the movie would be played by a bleached-blond Jack Black. Both are fairly broad, and the cameraman comes off the best. It’s hard to take the whole thing too seriously when it begins and ends with somber announcements about Superman’s death.

DC Comics Presents Mystery In Space: The Julius Schwartz tribute continues this week with Adam Strange, an Earthman periodically teleported to the planet Rann via “Zeta-Beam” (and no, his Rannian wife is not named “Catherine Zeta-Beam”). The two stories herein are inspired by a cover where Adam must choose between stopping an atomic blast on Earth or a giant heat-beam on Rann. The first story, by veteran Superman writer Elliot S! Maggin and artist J.H. Williams, is a more literal interpretation of the cover. When Adam’s advanced Rannian technology falls into the hands of a corrupt Earth government, it creates a nuclear crisis which guest-star the Elongated Man must solve; since Adam himself must take out a rogue weather-control device on Rann. The resolution is a neat bit of dovetailing worthy of “Seinfeld.”

The second story, written by Grant Morrison with art by Jerry Ordway, is a more conceptual riff on “two worlds.” It juxtaposes an Army attempt to invade Rann with commentary on Adam’s editor Julius Schwartz, DC’s sci-fi heroes of the Space Age, and the readers of the original Mystery in Space. This unconventional approach argues that the children who read Adam’s fantastic adventures in their youth grew up to face the struggles of the 1960s, and hope for a better world. The message is somewhat more poignant given that DC’s comics of the 1960s sought to keep out those harsh realities — and Adam himself was literally able to escape Earth for a comparatively idyllic life on another planet. All in all, this was a fine installment in what hopefully will be a fitting tribute.

And now, the Batman books.

Gotham Central #21: Written by Ed Brubaker; art by Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano. This is the penultimate chapter of “Un(re)solved,” but just like last issue (and like the cop shows this book emulates) there’s a helpful “Previously in Gotham Central” recap page. Basically, the Mad Hatter is being questioned for his role in killing a high-school baseball team several years before. Also suspects are two former students, now adults but then ostracized for being nerds. There is some thought that the Penguin might have wanted the team dead as part of his gambling operations. Finally, the detective on the case was Harvey Bullock, now disgraced for killing a man who shot former Commissioner Gordon. Most of the issue follows detectives Driver and MacDonald questioning the Mad Hatter (who’s locked up), Bullock, the ex-nerds, and the Hatter’s former landlady about his involvement — but by the end of the issue, things have gone south and the investigation might be compromised. I really like this book — the characters all talk like real people (or at least real TV cops, which may well be a step up for comics) and the art is gloomy, almost photorealistic. When fantastic characters like Batman and his villains show up here, they still look natural. There is a Gotham Central paperback out, collecting the first 7 issues, which is a great way to get into this ambitious series.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #181: Written by Dylan Horrocks; art by Ramon Bachs and Jon Holredge. Barbara Gordon gets to slip into Batgirl’s skin again, at least in cyberspace, as she tries to find out who’s been killing hackers. Along the way, Batman gets to question a mob boss’s daughter, who Bruce Wayne knew from summer camp and who blames Batman for her father’s incapacity. The best part of the story involves one hacker’s attempt to take out another by hijacking a cruise missile. The revelation of the killer’s identity is both surprising and novel, and the art isn’t bad. It tries to blend different styles in the “cyberspace” segments, to reflect the different genres of characters in the computer universe. While the story doesn’t say anything new about Batman or Barbara, I’ve read worse, including in this series.

Superman/Batman #11: Written by Jeph Loeb; drawn by Michael Turner and Peter Steigerwald. Part 4 of “The Supergirl From Krypton” finds Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman invading Apokolips (with the help of former Apokoliptian Big Barda) to rescue Superman’s ostensible cousin Kara from the evil despot Darkseid. Even if I hadn’t seen the cover of the next issue, I wouldn’t have been surprised at the ending for this one — but I’m getting ahead of myself. Wonder Woman and Barda fight Barda’s old colleagues, the Female Furies. (This includes Barda’s admission that WW “inspired” her; never mind that these days, Barda was around for a few years before WW showed up.) Batman fights giant Demon Dogs. Superman finally catches up to Darkseid, but we don’t get to see him fight too much.

Along the way, dialogue and our heroes’ internal monologues drive home the point that 1) Batman doesn’t trust Kara, 2) Superman trusts her implicitly, 2a) this is no different than if Batman were going to rescue Robin, and 3) Kara’s stay on Paradise Island made her partly Wonder Woman’s responsibility. Ever since Jeph Loeb started writing this series, I have been annoyed with his use of dueling first-person narration for Supes and Batman; and here, when he actually stops using it (for the Wonder Woman scenes, naturally), the issue improves noticeably. To me this series has become an excuse for “big dumb fun,” and has turned out to be an overwrought exercise in — for lack of a better term — “stunt plotting.” There are probably a half-dozen better ways for these high-profile heroes to find out the truth about Kara, but apparently they are not as marketable as “Three Justice Leaguers Attack Apokolips!” Oh well; it’ll be over in two months.

Batman: The Order Of Beasts: Eddie Campbell’s one-shot is an “Elseworlds” tale of Bruce Wayne traveling to 1939 London and getting tangled in a murder mystery involving an animal-themed cult. Despite the monochromatic color palette and the unassuming artwork, the word that comes immediately to mind is “jaunty.” Campbell presents a Batman who isn’t quite as grim or driven as the current version. He’s just starting out and makes little mental notes as to how he can improve his crimefighting skills. He’s also accepted by local law enforcement without much question — just a transatlantic call to Commissioner Gordon to check his bona fides. Campbell’s Batman is depicted as a guy in a suit, almost as if he were drawing Adam West, but he never makes Batman a ridiculous figure. The mystery itself goes from plot point to plot point without much trouble, making for a light bit of entertainment that captures the spirit of the Darknight Detective.

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