Thursday, 31 January 2013

Injustice: Gods Among Us and the problems with depicting Superman as a tyrant

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Contains spoilers for Injustice: Gods Among Us!

DC Comics have recently published a comic book prequel to their upcoming game Injustice: Gods Among Us. It's a fighting game and so the prequel comic has the task of explaining why all your familiar DC Super-Friends would suddenly want to knock seven shades of shit out of each other. It seems that in the continuity of the game, Superman, Wonder Woman and a bunch of other heroes have taken over the world because, in Wonder Woman's words, "Man's world isn't capable of self rule, we will preserve order!" As a result, Batman and a bunch of different heroes want to take down Superman and his fascist regime. What could possibly drive Superman to take over the world? According to the comic, the Joker tricks Superman into seeing Lois Lane, who is pregnant with Superman's child, as the monstrous powerhouse, Doomsday! As a result, Superman punches his pregnant wife into orbit, killing her and the child. This act triggers a nuclear explosion that destroys Metropolis.

Nice, right?

I don't necessarily have a problem with superhero comics tackling grim, unpleasant and violent storylines, especially in a non-canon, one-off, "what-if" series like this one. But I think a story has to be of sufficient quality to justify such adult content. If a story needs something really unpleasant to happen in order to give us something unique that can move us emotionally and make us think about these characters in a different way , then I think it's justifiable, even if it does use characters that are traditionally marketed towards young people. Problem is, Injustice: Gods Among Us isn't that story. It's actually a story that we've seen countless times before executed in a clumsy, tacky manner in a comic designed mainly to flog a video game.

'Superman goes Fascist' is a story that's been trotted out over and over again over the years. When told using a Superman analogue, such as in Alan Moore's Marvelman, or Mark Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme it's usually made for entertaining reading. Whenever DC Comics have tried it using the Man of Steel himself however, it's rarely worked. For example, in 1991, during DC's Armageddon 2001 event, Superman Annual #3 had a plot almost identical to the one seen in Injustice, with underwhelming results. In 1987, Alan Moore pitched a crossover event known as Twilight of the Superheroes, in which Superman and several other heroes have become tyrannical rulers of America. The story never happened, and if the grim and depressing plot synopsis is anything to go by, it's probably just as well.

In my view the problem with such stories is that Superman, as he is traditionally depicted by DC Comics in most of his various incarnations, values freedom so much that it's impossible to imagine any circumstances in which he would want to take over the world. "Truth, Justice and the American Way" is one of the key ingredients of almost every version of Superman and freedom is one of the key ingredients of "the American Way". As a result, a writer is usually forced to go to absurd, and often unpleasant lengths, to justify why a character like Superman would become a tyrant. Absurd and unpleasant, like say, being tricked into punching his pregnant wife into orbit. What you're then left with is a version of Superman who has witnessed or perpetrated something so awful that it borders on offensive, but still doesn't ring true to the reader! All that horribleness for something that still seems like bollocks.

If there's one story that illustrates what I'm saying, it's Mark Millar's brilliant Red Son, in which Superman is raised by Joseph Stalin and grows up to be a tyrant. This tale of a world-conquering Man of Steel works, because Millar cleverly removes "the American Way" completely out of the equation. But as long as whatever version of Superman I'm reading is still supposed to be the one who stands for truth, justice AND the American Way, it's going to be very hard, if not impossible for a writer to convince me that Superman would take over the world. Maybe there is a successful way of doing it, but I don't think slaughtering Lois Lane in a grotesquely violent way is it.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Jimmy Olsen, a girl? Why not?

Several comics news websites are reporting the rumour that the male character, Jimmy Olsen will be changed to a female character in the upcoming Superman movie by director Zack Snyder, Man of Steel. Jimmy has been one of Superman’s main supporting characters since 1941, and has been portrayed on screen by such actors as Jack Larson, Marc McClure, Justin Whalin, and Sam Huntingdon. But rumour has it that in Man of Steel, Rebecca Buller will be playing a character called Jenny Olsen. Personally, if this is true I'm all for it. In fact, I think Jimmy should become Jenny in the comics too.

Originally in the Superman comics, Jimmy Olsen served a role similar to that of Batman’s kid sidekick, Robin. Here was a character the young readers of the comic could identify with. With Jimmy, DC Comics were saying to their young fans, “Look, here’s a kid just like you, and he’s Superman’s best pal! If Superman were real, that could be you!” Jimmy even had his own comic, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, in which he would get himself into all manner of bizarre scrapes but inevitably use his supersonic signal watch to call his best friend, Superman, to help him out.

Times changed however, and so did Superman’s audience. Superman’s fans, and fans of comics in general, grew older, and as far back as the Seventies DC Comics’ creators began to search for a new take on Jimmy. For example, in the early 70s, comics legend Jack Kirby took over Jimmy’s comic and took him further away from his traditional depiction as Superman’s Number One fan. Jimmy was now embroiled in adventures involving the mysterious D.N.A Project and its genetically mutated creations, and Superman was as much along for the ride as Jimmy was.

Since the mid ’80s Jimmy has also been affected by the changing role of Lois Lane. Traditionally, Jimmy was “Superman’s Pal”, while Lois was “Superman’s Girlfriend”. By the ’80s creators and fans had finally realised that “girlfriend” and “pal” are not mutually exclusive. It is not impossible for someone’s romantic partner to be their best friend too, in fact, it’s probably essential! And so, as Superman and Lois became engaged and eventually married, Lois quite rightly became Superman’s trusted confidant, and Jimmy’s role became even less clearly defined. Even in DC’s recently rebooted Universe, where Superman has never been married to Lois, Lois is still referred to as Clark Kent’s best friend, leaving Jimmy’s role still as unclear as it has been for years.

There have been some great stories involving Jimmy over the past few decades but I would argue that they have mostly been reinterpretations of very old depictions of Jimmy. Throughout the late 80s and 90s Jimmy was forever encountering rebooted versions of Kirby’s 70s creations. Recent depictions of Jimmy by such great writers as Grant Morrison and Nick Spencer have been fun but drew heavily on the style and ideas of those early Jimmy stories from the 50s and 60s. I would argue that Jimmy Olsen has not been a truly interesting character for the past two decades, and I’d be hard pressed to think of a Superman story from that period that would have truly suffered from Jimmy’s exclusion. Sam Huntingdon’s portrayal of Jimmy in the Bryan Singer’s 2006 film, Superman Returns sums up the problem with the character quite neatly. In that film he is depicted as a bow-tie wearing, “gee-whiz”, throwback. It was fun, but not really essential to the film, or recognisable as any sort of person who’s ever existed in real life. That pretty much sums up Jimmy Olsen these days.

So, why not make him a girl?

Let’s list Jimmy’s defining characteristics. He’s a photographer, or sometimes a reporter. He’s young, usually late teens or early twenties. He’s Superman’s pal and he idolises Clark Kent and Lois Lane. He’s brave. Would any of these characteristics be lost or changed if Jimmy became Jenny? No, and changing Jimmy to Jenny could potentially open up the character to some story avenues that had not been possible before. We’d lose nothing, and potentially gain more.

If DC Comics were to ever perform such a switch I would imagine it would be done by some cosmic, time altering story telling device, or perhaps a multi-part, much hyped, DEATH OF JIMMY OLSEN storyline, in which Jimmy would die and be replaced by a cousin or a sister. But here’s a thought. Why not have a storyline in the comic where Jimmy decides that from now on he wants to live as Jenny? Remember, the whole DC Universe has recently been rebooted. We’ve seen very little of this version of Jimmy so far that would contradict a storyline where Jimmy reveals that his gender identity is different from his sex, and that he would now like to live as Jenny Olsen.

We live in a society that has a long way to go in its understanding and acceptance of transgender people. If handled properly, a prominent trans character in something as iconic as the Superman comics could go some way towards helping and educating us all. At the very least it opens up the possibility of a story that we’ve never seen told before in a mainstream superhero comic and it contradicts none of the defining characteristics I listed above. In fact, one of the defining characteristics I listed was ‘brave’. Choosing to live as you feel you truly are even if it means facing a world that may not understand or approve of your decision? Sounds pretty brave to me.

(A version of this article appears on

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Spider-Man: One More Day - THE TRUTH!

I don't believe no one's noticed this before. It's so obvious. The clues are staring us right in the face!

Remember Spider-Man: One More Day, the controversial 2007 story in which Spider-Man and his wife Mary Jane make a deal with the demon Mephisto and sacrifice their marriage to save the life of Aunt May? The story that retroactively established that Spidey never married Mary Jane? The story that sparked outrage from Spidey fans and is still regularly lambasted on comic related message boards all over the 'net? The story that I actually quite like?

Of course you do!

Well, you may have wondered if Marvel left themselves a hidden back door in order to reverse the events of the story, just in case they decided that Spidey should be married once again. Well, I can reveal, they did! Subtly hidden in the story is a clue regarding the identity of the REAL villain behind One More Day. Check out this recurring sound effect from the story's climax!

A clear indication that the real villain behind One More Day, and possibly every bad thing that's happened to Spidey since, is none other than....


Ok, I'm talking bollocks, but I had you going for a sec', right?

Monday, 7 January 2013

Superman #15 Review

Since the Superman comics were relaunched in 2011, we've seen far too little of Lex Luthor in DC's updated New 52 Universe. We saw a version of Luthor from the beginning of Superman's career in Grant Morrison's Action Comics, but while his characterisation rung true, he was ultimately little more than a pawn of the story's main villain, The Collector. With issue 15 of Superman, writer Scott Lobdell has once again cemented Luthor's status as Superman's arch-foe, which is quite a feat considering Luthor never actually leaves his cell for the entire issue.

The issue depicts Superman and Superboy making their way into Luthor's prison in order to ask him for advice on how to tackle Kryptonian super-baddie, H'El. When they arrive at his cell they discover that Luthor is five steps ahead of them and ready to play some mind games. For decades we've seen Luthor depicted as an evil business man, hiding his evil from the public with lies and spin. It's therefore immensely satisfying to see Luthor stripped naked (metaphorically speaking of course!) with his evil on display for all to see, and absolutely revelling in it. Luthor may be in a cell but this is the most free and unleashed that we've seen him in years. Luthor's cell is described as having been designed by Luthor himself, Superman having appealed to Luthor's vanity to create a prison even he couldn't escape. This is a wonderfully goofy idea that's evocative of the type of ideas found in Superman comics from the '70s or early '80s, but it also serves to reinforce the idea that Luthor is completely in control throughout the whole issue.

Luthor takes Superboy apart before our eyes, using his words to strip the boy completely of his characteristic teen cockiness. At one point Luthor likens talking to Superboy to “having a conversation with my own appendix.” A throwaway scathing remark, or perhaps a hint that Suerboy's human DNA comes from the same source as it did before the New 52? Luthor then goes on to speculate on Superman's true motives for consulting him regarding H'El. Luthor's words offer a chilling reminder to the reader that this is a younger, less sorted version of Superman than we've seen before, who's self control is not as rigid as that of his previous incarnation. H'El may yet provide Superman with the opportunity to prove something to Luthor, himself and us readers.

Kenneth Rocafort's art is fantastic as usual. The way he draws Superman and Superboy interacting with each other hints at a growing warmth between the two that perhaps wouldn't have been as obvious from the dialogue alone. Rocafort draws a wonderfully sinister Luthor and the way he lays out the panels lends an energy to an issue that's mostly comprised of people talking. Seeing him draw the Justice League towards the end of the book makes me hope he's one day considered as an artist for their title.

This issue is not perfect however. Seeing Luthor's play head games is great but the downside of that is that this issue is big on talking and low on action. I would have liked to have seen more imaginative traps for Superman and Superboy to tackle as they made their way through the prison. The traps are given some fancy names but basically amount to poisonous gas and robots, and considering that Superboy comments on the “craziness” of the traps they really should have been a bit more exciting.

Lobdell also makes a passing reference to the new relationship between Superman and Wonder Woman. Unfortunately it's rather a clumsy reference, with Wonder Woman thinking of Superman as her “beloved”, which seems a bit much after one date. Of course Wonder Woman should be feeling something towards her new boyfriend in this time of crisis, especially considering they're keeping the relationship a secret. But I felt “beloved” didn't really do justice to the developing and intriguing relationship we're seeing over in Geoff Johns' Justice League book.

Despite these criticisms, overall Lobdell and Rocafort are continuing to make this book the best it's been since the relaunch began. The action in this issue is a let down, but Lobdell's Luthor is spot on. Once again Lex Luthor is the most dangerous man in the DC Universe!

I give Superman #15 3.5/5.

(A version of this article appears on