Sunday, 17 June 2012

Is Superman Boring? A response to Will Leitch's "The Most Mundane Man in Metropolis"

Superman: Not boring

The Wall Street Journal has recently published a review of  Larry Tye's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero entitled 'The Most Mundane Man in Metropolis'. During the course of the review Will Leitch argues that despite his enduring popularity Superman is fundamentally a "pretty darned boring" character. Mr. Leitch isn't the first person to make this assessment of the character but it is an assessment that constantly leaves me baffled.

Mr. Leitch begins his review by stating that:
"Since 1938, (Superman) has worn the same outfit. He has worked the same job. He has hung out with the same people. He has even kept the same haircut, except for a month or two in the 1990s, when a few strands poked out a bit behind the ears, an offense for which Superman can be forgiven, considering that he had recently died."
A fair point perhaps, but this is a charge that can be levelled at most mainstream superheroes (with some exceptions) and is not something that is particular to Superman. It's the nature of such characters that they'll never age or change in any significant way. If Mr. Leitch is looking for this in his fiction then fair enough, but he won't find it in mainstream superhero comics. You may think this is a problem (I don't) but it's not a problem that is unique to Superman.

To be fair, Mr. Leitch does go on to acknowledge that there are other characters in popular culture that have found themselves in a similar frozen state in regards to development. Strangely however, Mr. Leitch is okay with them. 
"Superman is a fictional character who, by his very nature, cannot change, which would be fine were he a supervillain bent on global domination, a tortured ad man facing dramatic cultural change at the end of the 1960s or simply a wisecracking rabbit. But Superman can't change in a specific, creatively crippling way: He must be absolutely perfect at all times. He cannot lie, he cannot kill, he cannot pirate music. He cannot be anything other than the ideal beacon for us all to aspire to be, to admire from below."
I don't see Superman's "perfect" nature as particularly "creatively crippling". Superman can still face adversity and temptation. He can still find himself in situations where lying, killing or even pirating music seem like the only options open to him. In fact in 1988 John Byrne actually wrote a story where, faced with no alternative, Superman is forced to kill. But Byrne's story is the exception. For the most part I find that the entertainment in a Superman story comes not from seeing Superman questioning his values and forced to compromise everything he holds dear, but from seeing how Superman holds true to his beliefs and finds an alternative to lying or killing. Greg Rucka gave us a perfect example of this during his 2004-2005 run on Adventures of Superman. Wonder Woman finds herself in a situation where she has to kill in order to save more lives. Superman is left wondering what he would do in that situation. What would be the right thing to do? Of course Superman eventually finds himself in this situation and, in an immensely satisfying moment, he finds another way!

You could argue that, Byrne's story not withstanding, of course he's going to find another way, he's Superman, so where's the entertainment? That's true but we also know that Batman's going to escape every death trap he's caught in. We know that Sherlock Holmes is going to catch the criminal. Does that make these stories boring? Well they might very well seem boring to Mr. Leitch, and fair enough, but once again it's not something that's unique to Superman.

Mr. Leitch continues;
Superman is always saying that he is a shining example of what humans can be, but we humans know better: He is the embodiment of what we are not and never were. He is a lack of frailty personified. He can leap tall buildings in a single bound, but we can't relate to that. A vigilante like Batman, who wants to put a fist through some creep's face, that we can understand.
I would argue that Superman represents what we could be a lot more than he represents what we are not. We're never going to leap tall buildings but we're all going to find ourselves in a situation where lying, cheating or even putting "a fist through some creep's face" is the easiest thing to do. We're never going to be as powerful as Superman but we're all likely to find ourselves in situations where we have power over someone or something. Superman is the depiction of a person who consistently strives to find an alternative to lying, cheating or killing. A person who will never abuse his power over others. And we're all capable of following his example, we don't need his powers to be that person! I find that truly inspiring and quite frankly, not the least bit boring.

Leitch ends his review by stating;
 As is the case with Mr. Tye's book, Superman is a black hole at the center of every story. Because he is invincible, because he can do everything better than anyone else can do anything, you run out of things to do with him.
So let's get this straight. He's invincible. He can go anywhere. He can fight any foe, from bank robbers to gods. And Mr. Leitch thinks that there is only a certain amount of things to be done with this character? Don't get me wrong, Superman has certainly been in the hands of writers who have failed to take advantage of the character's potential. But we're talking about a character who lives in the North Pole in a cave with an intergalactic Zoo. A character who's childhood friends live in the 31st Century. A character who owns a dog who wears a cape and chases asteroids! In the past ten years alone Superman has rescued a million of Earth's inhabitants from the Phantom Zone, fought the zombie version of an older version of himself from a parallel universe, adopted a super-powered son, battled a sentient, tyrant sun, journeyed to the cube shaped Bizarro World and fought a Bizarro Justice League, saved the Earth in the 31st Century without the use of his powers, seen his home planet restored and then destroyed again, and saved the Universe by singing.

And Mr. Leitch is bitching because Superman's not allowed to tell lies or punch baddies in the face!?

Now that's boring.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Problem with Superman

As a child I followed Superman's adventures on a regular basis through British reprints of his U.S. comics. There were of course good stories and bad stories but the creative teams stayed much the same and, like with many ongoing superhero comics, it was a similar experience to following a soap opera or a TV series. There were ongoing plot threads and character arcs that ran from issue to issue. It wasn't just a bunch of stories, it was an established world that I visited once a month. But within the last decade all that changed. Since at least 2003 Superman has faced a foe more deadly than Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Doomsday and Darkseid put together! Inconsistency!

In 1986 Superman was relaunched with Man of Steel, a mini series that established an updated origin and status quo. For the next 17 years DC Comics' writers worked from the foundation set by Man of Steel to unfold the ongoing saga of the life of Superman. In 2003 that foundation was swept out from under the character with Birthright, a twelve issue maxi-series that updated his origin. Three years later a further update to the origin began to be referenced in the Superman books. In 2009 a six issue mini-series named Secret Origin revealed the new origin in full. To be fair both Birthright and Secret Origin are very good stories in and of themselves, and reinventions and updates are an established part of mainstream superhero comics, where characters don't age and stories never really end. But having these changes occur within three years of each other was a bit of a distracting experience for a regular Superman reader to say the least. And the distractions didn't end there.

In 2006 Geoff Johns began co-writing Action Comics with Superman Movie director Richard Donner. They kicked off their run with a story arc named Last Son. It was a fantastic story, with some great art by Adam Kubert. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it suffered from long delays and mediocre fill-in stories that completely ruined the momentum of the story. Donner left after the second arc, Escape From Bizarro World, and Action Comics began to stick to something resembling a regular schedule. But after two further arcs penned by Johns the whole Superman line was launched into a huge crossover, New Krypton, which established a drastically different status quo for the Man of Steel and his friends. The planet Krypton had been remade and populated by a city full of Kryptonian survivors. Superman went to live on this new world and his role in Metropolis was filled by his pal Mon-El. This went on for a year until New Krypton blew up, Mon-El buggered off to the Phantom Zone and Superman came back to Earth. Finally, here was an opportunity to allow readers to read stories about Superman without any delays, without any changes in the creative team, without any big crossovers and without any major origin or status-quo shake-ups. Here was a chance for some consistency!

And then Grounded happened.

Grounded was a story conceived and written by superstar writer J. Michael Straczynski. The idea was that Superman would reconnect with the average person by embarking on a long walk across America. It was a nice idea, but Straczynski's story ended up being something of a mixed bag, mostly due to the writer's insistence of giving Superman pompous lectures on heroism with which to instruct any average Americans he encountered. Worse still, for whatever reason, JMS left halfway through his much hyped story and the unenviable task of finishing this unpopular storyline using JMS' notes fell to Chris Roberson, who quite frankly did an excellent job of it. Grounded was soon over but a new change was rearing it's head! A major reinvention of almost every DC character, (including Superman) and the relaunch of 52 DC Comics' titles. The New 52!

Morrison's Superman, art by Rags Morales

Since the New 52 was launched last September Grant Morrison has been reinventing Superman in the pages of Action Comics. While I feel that the quality of the art has been somewhat inconsistent, on the whole Morrison's run has been superb so far.  Each issue has been overflowing with the sort of mind blowing concepts and punch-the-air character moments that Morrison is famous for. Also, by focusing on an interpretation of Superman that has literally not been seen since the 1930s, Morrison has managed to make the character seem fresh and new while retaining everything that makes the character great. Morrison has also taken the time to give Superman, his supporting characters, and his world a consistent identity. Plot threads and character development that began in his first issue are unfolding satisfyingly from issue to issue. And the best thing about it all is that it doesn't look like Morrison's going to leave the book any time soon! With the unfortunate exception of the artwork, Action Comics has finally managed to achieve a level of consistency that it has not seen for at least ten years!

It's just a shame that can't be said for any other version of Superman we've seen so far around the New 52.

Judging from his stories Morrison has a clear vision of who his new Superman is; a hotheaded young idealist with an angry passion for justice and no tolerance for bullies. A man who is filled with joy because his super-powers enable him to fight bullies and help the helpless in a far more direct and effective way than he otherwise would have been able to achieve. Sadly other writers seem to have interpreted this as 'perpetually grumpy'. In Geoff Johns' Justice League so far we've had plenty of insight into the minds and motivations of Flash, Green Lantern, Cyborg and Batman but Superman seems to be nothing more than the team's silent muscle. Over in the Superman title we've had a Superman who doesn't seem to have cracked a smile once in 9 issues.

As well as Superman's characterisation, the Superman title is also different to Action Comics in style and tone. The first six issues were written by George Perez, who filled every available inch of panel with exposition laden dialogue. Since issue #7 Keith Giffen and Dan Jurgens have been on writing duties. Jurgens was a Superman writer for a long time in the '80s and '90s and although his issues have been okay, very little about his style and characterisation of Superman seems to have changed since the last time he was writing the character. So, the tone of Superman has been distinctly 'old school' since the relaunch. A stark contrast with the radically different and fresh approach of Morrison over on Action. Also, we've already had one change in the writing team since the relaunch, and if the rumours are to be believed there's another on the way when Scott Lobdell takes over as Superman writer later this year.

In 2002 Joe Quesada said of DC Comics, "They have Batman and Superman, and they don't know what to do with them. That's like being a porn star with the biggest dick and you can't get it up." It does seem that DC Comics have gone out of their way to prove him right, at least as far as Superman is concerned. Don't get me wrong, we've had some truly brilliant Superman stories in the past ten years, some of them I count among my favourites. But there doesn't seem to have been any consistent direction or plan for the character in the past decade. To paraphrase an old Eddie Izzard routine, DC Comics seem to have taken the Etch-A-Sketch approach to Superman's world. They carefully build up a detailed status quo and then almost immediately and without warning go "Oh fuck it" and shake everything away with a change of origin, a change of creative team, a multi-part crossover or a high concept story arc. There's something to be said for shaking things up occasionally to stop things getting stale. But in order for that shake up to be effective you have to begin with an established status quo that people have grown used to, otherwise there's nothing to shake up.

Like many characters Superman needs to have a foundation from which to launch his adventures. Beyond the bare bones of his origin and the names of his supporting characters Superman has not had this foundation for a long time. As a reader I have been missing the feeling of following an ongoing storyline set in a consistent, familiar world. I'm not saying everything should be set forever in stone and Superman should be stopping bank robbers every week. But if we're going to be following Superman on his many journeys then we need to know where he's coming from. Grant Morrison has the right idea with Action Comics. DC Comics needs to get all their other writers reading from the same rule book when it comes to Superman and most importantly they need to get a creative team on the Superman title who will stick with the book for more than six issues. If Superman is going to survive as DC's flagship character he needs to vanquish his most persistent foe. Inconsistency!

Friday, 8 June 2012

This is why Superman is the best!

In this week's Action Comics #10 writer Grant Morrison has shown us exactly why Superman is the greatest superhero of all time. 

Other superheroes will catch criminals. Superman will catch criminals and then take the time to find a loving home for their pets!

Brilliant stuff.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Green Lantern is gay - That's a good thing

Okay, so the gay character that DC Comics have promised isn't Superman, as I argued it should be in my last post, it's the Green Lantern of Earth 2, Alan Scott. Here are a few of my initial thoughts on the revelation:

1) Many have argued that as a gesture towards reducing the stigma and prejudice surrounding homosexuality this decision is meaningless as Alan is not the main Green Lantern of the DC Universe. He is a parallel Earth counterpart to Hal Jordan. Hal Jordan is the Green Lantern who stars in the movie, the cartoons and the adverts for milk, not Alan Scott. But Alan does at least come with the name recognition of the Green Lantern brand. Green Lantern has been trending worldwide on Twitter today so this obviously has had some impact and as a gesture it still means a hell of a lot more than if they changed the sexuality of, for example, The Ray or Black Condor or The Red Bee. And let's bear in mind that Alan Scott is the leader of one of DC Comics' big super-teams, the Justice Society of America.

2) To all those worrying about the whole "green flame" & "weakness to wood" thing; a couple of shit jokes aren't a valid reason not to do this.

3) The decision to make Alan gay hasn't erased his wife and two children from continuity. That had already happened as a result of Alan being made a younger character in the New 52 reboot. Alan's son, Obsidian was one of DC's few existing gay characters. Presumably he no longer exists as Alan is now too young to have had children who have grown to adulthood. But let's face it, if a writer wants to use Obsidian and his sister Jade for a story they can easily find a way to explain their existence. After all, this is super-hero comics, home of time travel, parallel worlds and kids who rapidly age into adults. And is anyone genuinely going to miss Alan's wife Molly? Really?

4) This may well be, as some have claimed, a desperate grab by DC Comics for sales and headlines. But even if it is, more people paying attention to DC Comics is, I believe, a good thing. More people being tempted to buy DC Comics is, I believe, a good thing.  A positive depiction of a gay superhero who has some name recognition is, I believe, a good thing.

5) Here are a collection of quotes by the man behind this decision, Earth 2 writer James Robinson. I found them here. I'll let them speak for themselves.

“This guy, he’s a media mogul, a hero, a dynamic type-A personality and he’s gay...He’s a complex character.”

“He’s fearless and he’s honest to the point where he realized he was gay and he said ‘I’m gay.’”

“What I really want to do with this character is make the fact that he’s gay to be a part of who he is and not to be the one identifying aspect of him. And have his humor and his bravery be as much or more a part of him as his sexuality.”

“The only downside of his being young was we lose his son, Obsidian, who’s gay. So I thought, ‘Why not make Alan Scott gay? That was the seed that started it.”

“He’s someone you would want to watch over your children. Presenting that kind of a heroic role model hopefully will be a good thing and help to show gays in a positive light for people who might be a little more small-minded.”

“He’s a type-A personality who doesn’t hide in the shadows.”

“I hope he’s a positive figure. If there’s some kind of kid out there who’s reading the comic and who’s worried about the person he is, maybe it will give him a positive sense of who he is. Or maybe a different kid will read it and decide I don’t need to bully some kind of kid in school.” 

6) After all that if you still consider Alan Scott being gay to be a bad thing, consider this. At least they're not still making the poor sod dress up like a giant lantern.