Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Should Spider-Man Age and Die?

I recently got involved in a conversation on the Bleeding Cool forums regarding Spider-Man: One More Day. Being the only bugger on the internet who actually likes that story I occasionally feel obliged to stick up for it (I've even written a post doing just that) but as usual I was soon crushed by the weight of popular opinion. My puny arguments were no match for the legions of comic fans out there who believe that Joe Quesada is motivated by a personal dislike for each and every one of them and that producing a comic that they don't like is the moral equivalent of drowning kittens in acid.

Actually I'm being more than a little unfair. My own arguments actually were quite puny and didn't amount to much more than "but I like it" (imagine that said in a Droopy voice). Quite a few of the posters on the thread had many valid criticisms of the story and many compelling arguments as to why Spidey should have remained married. The thread itself is in response to a passionate and very well written essay by a fan who's dismayed with the current direction of Peter Parker's adventures. True, the thread now seems to have descended into nerdy number-crunching of the sales figures and personal criticisms of Mark Millar and Chuck Austen (for some reason), but for a while there it was intriguing stuff.

There was one particular point that was made by several posters that really got me thinking. They argued that Spider-Man should have been allowed to age and mature throughout his adventures and eventually the series should have come to a natural conclusion. The absence of the character would then create a vacuum that would have to be filled by new heroes for each new generation of fans. The specific examples that were given of this practice in action were Dragonball and Judge Dredd although I'm sure there are more.

This really got me thinking. Obviously it's very unlikely that the adventures of characters such as Spider-Man, Superman or Batman will ever be allowed to come to a finish. Spidey will forever be in his early twenties and Batman and Superman will always be in their thirties simply because they're not just characters, they're brands. The characters in the comics have to have at least a passing resemblance to the characters in the cartoons and movies, or on the lunchboxes. This is perfectly understandable, but is it right?

Financial concerns aside, can a character's story truly be of any worth if it's never allowed to finish? Robin Hood was killed by a treacherous prioress and King Arthur was clobbered over the head by Mordred. Aren't their adventures made all the richer because of these inevitable endings? It's very telling that Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow and Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns provide non-canonical endings to the adventures of Superman and Batman respectively and are two of the most critically acclaimed comic book stories of all time. You could also argue that allowing a character to age and mature makes him easier to identify with than a character who's perpetually going through the trials of a twenty year old. There's also a larger scope for telling different kinds of stories. A forty year old Spider-Man could have adventures that a twenty year old Spidey couldn't. Creatively speaking there's certainly an argument to be made for this approach to the characters.

But I'm very much playing devil's advocate in the above paragraph. I don't want to see Spider-Man, Superman or Batman age. I don't want their adventures to end. I'd go as far as to say that I enjoy the cyclical nature of the character's adventures. There's something very comforting in the familiarity. That's not to say that mainstream superhero comics are completely repetitive. Grant Morrison is a good example of a writer who will always find an interesting and unfamiliar twist to an old formula. But when all is said and done Clark Kent will inevitably return to the Daily Planet, Bruce Wayne will come home to Wayne Manor and Peter Parker will probably never celebrate his thirtieth birthday. And I quite like that.

So what does all this mean? Is allowing their most popular characters the chance to finish their stories really the answer to all of DC and Marvel's problems? Am I part of the problem? Have the demands of fanboys like me sent mainstream comics up a creative cul-de-sac? Will this creative bankruptcy inevitably lead to the comics' industry's demise?

I don't know.



I feel a bit guilty now.

What do you think?

Friday, 10 September 2010

Superman: Secret Origin is the Mutt's Nuts!

This is an updated version of a post I wrote last year after the first issue of Superman: Secret Origin was released.

Last month DC Comics published the final issue of the six part Superman: Secret Origin, a retelling of Superman's early years by writer Geoff johns and artist Gary Frank.  Every time I see this series mentioned on the web I notice that there's always someone complaining "Oh no, not another Superman Origin revamp, Superman continuity is a mess blah, blah, moan, moan, bitch, bitch". I never understood the "mess" accusation. DC could put out a new Superman origin every year for the next 100 years and everyone of them would involve Krypton exploding, raised by the Kents, going to Metropolis and meeting Lois Lane etc, etc. DC will never reveal that Superman is really a reincarnated Egyptian Prince or the son of an Ancient Wizard. You want messy origins, try being a Hawkman or an Aquaman fan. As for the accusation that there's too many origin stories, how many is too many? Because in fact, while Supes' origin is perhaps the most retold origin in comics, there have only been two other official origin revamps in the past quarter of a century, Man of Steel and Birthright.

Man of Steel by John Byrne is the reason that I'm such a big Superman fan. Before reading it I preferred Batman and always thought that Superman was a bit of a pompous douche-bag. Byrne trimmed down Superman's power level and emphasized the importance of the Clark Kent side of his personality. At that point in my life I don't think I had ever read a version of Superman that was so easy to identify with. However despite it's awesomeness it's worth remembering that Man of Steel came out in 1986, 24 years ago. There's as much time between Secret Origin and Man of Steel as there is between Man of Steel and this version of Superman....

My point is, as great as Man of Steel is, a lot of time has passed since then. What's wrong with updating the myth a little bit?

Which is what happened in 2003 with Superman: Birthright. There's a lot to admire about Mark Waid's version of the origin. Interesting Silver Age aspects such as Lex Luthor's childhood in Smallville are placed back in continuity while new additions to the myth are added as well. For example, Superman has a new power, a sort of soul vision. This ability to see the life literally leaving a dying body led to Superman's decision to become a vegetarian. Familiar characters are given intriguing twists. For example, Pa Kent is initially resentful of Clark's developing powers, feeling that they are driving a wedge between him and his son.

As entertaining as this origin is however it never seemed to take. Perhaps it was because of the lack of appropriate advertising. When the first issue came out it seemed to come out of nowhere. DC dropped Birthright on us without commenting on whether it was "official canon" or not. This was later confirmed by Waid nine months after the first issue came out. Personally, it was Lenil F. Yu's art that prevented me from warming to the series. While Yu is a fantastic artist I feel his style is inappropriate for Superman. It's too dark in tone and lacks that iconic, timeless feel of Byrne's art. This is no more evident than on the cover of the first issue where Superman is drawn without pupils in his eyes. This happens a lot with Yu's Superman, it pops up once again on the cover of the trade paperback. While removing the pupils from Superman's eyes can be a most effective image when drawing angry Superman, generally speaking he has lovely big blues that radiate kindness. Batman is the guy with eerie white slits.  Despite this I do like Yu's art.  He's currently working on a Superman analogue called Superior with Mark Millar for Marvel Comics, which I'm looking forward to greatly.

Which brings us then to the latest attempt, Geoff Johns' and Gary Frank's Secret Origin.  I've argued that, at least in my opinion, there is a place for another Super-Origin tale, but is this one actually any good?  The answer is yes, yes, yes!  Rather than dump this one on our lap DC have wisely spent the past five years weaving the changes wrought by this origin into continuity and teasing fans as to what this new origin might involve. And it involves everything great about the origin from the past 70 years. Secret Origin contains aspects of Man of Steel and Birthright, for example the way Byrne let Lana Lang in on the secret identity and the way Waid returned young Luthor to Smallville. It contains aspects of the Silver Age, for example Clark's indestructible glasses, Superman's indestructible costume and the Legion of Superheroes. It brings in fantastic touches from other tales of Superman's youth.   Clark flies for the first time rescuing Lana from a tornado, just as he did in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Superman For All Seasons.  Perhaps most obviously Secret Origin uses a lot of imagery from the 1978 Richard Donner movie.  Frank's Superman is the spitting image of Christopher Reeve and Lois meets Superman for the first time while being rescued from a helicopter falling over the side of a building.

This isn't just a collection of greatest hits however.  Johns brings lots of new touches to the Superman myth.  The Parasite and Metallo are both given much needed updates.  Rudy Jones has always beeen depicted as a faceless nobody before he was transformed into the Parasite.  Johns depicts him as a parasite by nature even before his accident.  This new version of Rudy Jones is a chubby spunger who mooches sandwiches from Clark Kent and his transformation into the Parasite seems very fitting.

John Byrne gave Metallo a great update shortly after Man of Steel.  Byrne wrote him as a petty criminal who was rescued from a near fatal accident by a mad scientist who placed his mind in a robotic body in order to defeat Superman.   This is a perfectly good super-villain origin, but I was always disappointed that Byrne's Metallo design made him look like a Terminator rip-off.  In Secret Origin Johns returns the character to something resembling his classic look whilst simultaneously updating his backstory.  Metallo is now Sgt. John Corben, a military bully who was jilted by Lois Lane.  Whilst battling Superman on behalf of the military he is fatally wounded and subsequently revived and upgraded by Lex Luthor.  I like that Luthor's now involved in his origin, after all if you're gonna use a mad scientist, use the best.  I also like how Metallo has more of a personal grudge against Superman, it always makes for more interesting villains.

There's plenty more to admire about Secret Origin.  The inclusion of Lois' dad, General Sam Lane as an early adversary was particularly interesting as was Johns' depiction of Superman's relationship with Lex Luthor.  The final confrontation between the two of them in issue six is absolute gold.  But one of my favourite aspects of Secret Origin is the relationship between Lois and Clark.  Lois is not an idiot and she sees right through Clark's meek and clumsy act straight away.  Okay, she doesn't quite figure out he's Superman, but she understands that he's not a man to be underestimated and she's fascinated by his efforts to make everyone do just that.  Johns gives us an interesting new twist on Clark and Lois' relationship.  Clark is meek and mild but Lois doesn't just dismiss him out of hand as she did in the Silver Age comics or the Donner movie.  This Lois is clever enough to see that there's more to Clark than meets the eye and it's easy to believe that her curiousity will one day turn to admiration and then love.

One of the biggest stars of Secret Origin is the city of Metropolis.  Johns' Metropolis is a grubby, cynical place before Superman shows up.  It's as if Lex Luthor has poisoned the city from within.  Of course Superman changes all that just by being Superman.  His presence inspires Metropolis to reject Luthor and become the greatest city on Earth once again.  Johns understands that Superman's greatest power is his ability to inspire.  He can't save the world by ending all poverty and overthrowing dictatorships.  If he heads down that path he's just an alien imposing his will on mankind.  Through his example Superman inspires people to change the world for the better themselves.  For me, this is what Superman's all about.  The following speech that Superman gives in the final issue sums it all up for me. 

There's countless more reasons why I love this story.  It's filled with large, iconic images and beautiful small moments that all absolutely nail the characters and their world.  I haven't even mentioned the art of Gary Frank yet.  Frank's art is clean, clear, timeless and iconic, just as it should be. A lot of people have complained about his Superman looking like Christopher Reeve but I say, who the hell else are you gonna make him look like? Dean bloody Cain?!

I honestly can't write enough good things about this story.  As much as I love John Byrne's Man of Steel I honestly believe it was time for a new origin story.  Superman: Secret Origin is an origin story that will endure, hopefully even longer than 24 years.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Links and Chains

I've had a very pleasant week!  This has mostly been due to Rich Johnston who runs the brilliant comic news and rumours site, BleedingCool.  He very kindly showcased my Amalgam Age of Comics blog and as a result the blog was also covered on io9.com! This has brought me more internet attention than I've ever received before and I'm very, very grateful to Rich Johnston.

Check me out on BleedingCool here.

Check me out on io9 here.

Rich has also very kindly featured a few Photoshop Amalgam thingies done by me on the theme of Vertigo's characters returning to the DC Universe.  Check them out here.

Also, if you haven't already done so, check out and bookmark BleedingCool.com right now!  It's awesome!

Just so this post isn't just me promoting myself in a shamelessly self indulgent fashion, there now follows several pictures of Superman busting out of chains.  I leave you with a question; who the hell keeps chaining him up?