Me, I love lists! So I thought I'd post one of my own on the good old blog, specifically centering around achievements in comics this year. I spend a lot of time on this blog being critical Sarah. I thought it might make a nice change of pace to celebrate the year 2013 in comics, through five (by my standards) noteworthy comics. These are my choices. What are yours? Sound off in the comments section!
I am a big admirer of year-end lists. Yet there are reasons not to be. Lists can reduce the year's output to a simplified collection of already well-covered moments. They can inadvertently steer a body away from searching deeper into the records of pop culture, to discover objects on one's own. They can define taste, instead of interrogating it. On the other hand, such lists can still introduce a person to a movie or book or play they'd never consider otherwise. Or, lists can force one to reconsider something long filed away as inconsequential or lost. And, let's face it, there's a lot of entertainment to be had in seeing critics praise art you already appreciate. I guess what I'm saying is, your mileage may vary.
Me, I love lists! So I thought I'd post one of my own on the good old blog, specifically centering around achievements in comics this year. I spend a lot of time on this blog being critical Sarah. I thought it might make a nice change of pace to celebrate the year 2013 in comics, through five (by my standards) noteworthy comics. These are my choices. What are yours? Sound off in the comments section!
I'll start with my most anticipated read of the year: March. I actually gave Congressman John Lewis' graphic memoir to my father for Christmas. Largely inspired by his connection with and consumption of the 1957 comic Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, this book is the first of three to chronicle Lewis' life and his involvement with the Civil Rights movement. The first volume deals with Lewis' young life, and Nate Powell's beautiful black and white art quickly draws you into Lewis' perception of the world around him. Particularly striking are the book's opening moments, when a young Lewis preaches to the family chickens, and the closing pages, which involve a paddy wagon full of arrested individuals driving "off-screen" as they sing about overcoming great obstacles. Lewis and co-writer Andrew Aydin intended this story to teach future generations about civil rights and the work of Dr. King, just as that 1950's book taught him. There are many lessons throughout the book, but it never reads as dry or didactic, only engrossing and awe-inspiring.
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga arrived on shelves in the spring of 2012, but it's been on my mind ever since. The story of two parents trying to raise a child in a mixed-up world might seem old hat by this point in human history, but add in intergalactic wars, ghost nannies, robot princes, and a cat who can tell when you're lying, and everything old becomes new again! Staples' down-to-earth pencils and ink ground this space opera in human concerns, like what happens to a body after pregnancy, or how to get a job when one's entire family is on the run from two sides of the same war -- and while I don't discuss lettering much in this space, Staples' handwritten narration gives a glint of the sassy grown-up child these parents will raise. Of course, Vaughan's signature sense of humor and heart saturates the plot, but it is his dissection of narrative as life-sustaining, and family as the forge that shapes and even melts our sensibilities, that define the book. Released in increments to give Staples enough lead time to craft the tale well, this creator-driven work engages with its audiences' real-life concerns in a visceral, vibrant way.
How to talk about Young Avengers? I've read interviews where writer Kieron Gillen equates the team book with the adolescent act of starting a band. It's also clear the entire short season of fifteen issues is meant to be a metaphor for being eighteen, for being on the cusp of adulthood, of learning one's possibilities and limitations. Hailed by many comics sites as something new, a pop-infused story that addresses ACTUAL young people (instead of middle-aged readers who grew up with Superman and The Simpsons), this book was labelled Tumblr bait by cynics, even as optimists embrace its shirtless Noh-Varr scenes and emotional roller coasters. What can't be disputed by anyone is the genius of the artwork -- Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton sculpt classic comics facial expressions into pop art shots, and muck about with traditional layouts, even breaking borders between panels to connect their isolated teenagers. This book may be ending soon (I blame the need to boost Loki's age, in order to appease Tom Hiddleston fans, I suspect), but its appeal lies in its "flash-in-the-pan" nature. The Young Avengers save the world, then go for Korean barbecue afterwards; the sad truth of adolescence is that good nights like that aren't meant to last forever.
Astro City brought me back to reading comics on a monthly basis two years ago. So it's only fitting that the series' return should end up on my "top of 2013" list. Now published under Vertigo's banner, Astro City hasn't lost a step, even after vanishing for a time due to scribe Kurt Busiek's health concerns. The new group of issues has examined both the heroes and regular citizens of the titular city, with covers from painter Alex Ross warmly inviting us into Busiek's bright world. Interior artist Brent Anderson has made the transition from pen and paper to digital, and his work remains as clear-eyed and emotional as ever. Meanwhile, Busiek builds and builds his superheroic universe, adding in call responders to a hero hotline, a giant alien presence intent on studying humanity, and a potentially unhinged fourth wall-breaking miscreant -- while revisiting old faces, including a retired family man, a stuntwoman psychic, and our first-ever look into his Wonder Woman stand-in, Winged Victory. At the end of each issue, a tiny street sign alerts us that we are now leaving Astro City. When the book was on hiatus, that notice struck me as bittersweet. Now the story continues, and I can't wait to come back.
I've written and written and written about Daredevil. About Mark Waid's interrogation of fear and fearlessness, of perception and obsession. About Chris Samnee and Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin and Javier Rodriguez and their consistent, snappy artwork. About my appreciation for a book that actually addresses disability, even if its central character is essentially sighted, given his radar sense. So what haven't I praised about this title? What's left to write about? I'll tell you what's left -- lawyer and Dare-love interest Kirsten McDuffie. She's amazing. She's basically Lois Lane, except she was in on the secret identity thing from the get-go. So I guess she's more like Linda Park, a woman Waid has had some experience scripting in the past. In the latest issue of the Dare-saga, Kirsten flirted with danger by addressing New York citizens via some sort of super-microphone during a crisis. In the process, she officially won Matt Murdock's heart, as she set everyone straight about the fear-mongering Sons of Serpents, a group of racists intent on creating mob rule in the Big Apple. Corny, sure. But Kirsten's heroics are just as important as Daredevil in this book; that is a refreshing change of pace for a love interest.
Hawkeye is a book about what Hawkeye does when he's not being an Avenger, usually when he's hanging out with the other, cooler Hawkeye. Also, it's about his dog Lucky, who loves pizza. Helmed by writer Matt Fraction, artist David Aja and colorist Matt Hollingsworth, this book has been a fan favorite for months, even as it's gotten a bit behind schedule, shipping-wise. But it's worth the wait. Fraction's decompression of time can be trying when read a month at a time, but his current insistence on telling street-level stories from a variety of perspectives, including Pizza Dog's, has brought a lot of enjoyment to me, personally. Aja's work can be sprightly and perceptive (as when Hawkeye leaps through the air naked, and a little Hawkeye mask covers his unmentionables; or when a phone conversation with Kate is split into thirty-something distinct panels). Hollingsworth gives everything a purple tinge and a cartoony look that makes Hawkeye's world seem pretty basic, even as the writing deepens Hawkeye's descent into poor behavior. With Clint Barton's book, come for the humor, stay for the inventiveness and emotional gut punches!
Looking back at the negative entries I've posted -- along with the boycott protocols I've enacted -- over the past month, I'm thinking I may have taken things too far. Not to intimate I was overly harsh on DC, or that my ban was ill-conceived. Far from it. Still, I've definitely thrown the baby out with the bathwater. When I made my vow to leave DC forever(?), I failed to realize I would be leaving its imprint Vertigo behind, as well. Vertigo has not only published some of the best comics of the past twenty-five years, it's also the new home of Astro City. And I cannot give up Astro City. Because everything DC Comics does wrong, Astro City does incredibly right.
Since its debut in 1995, Astro City has excelled at telling down-to-earth, optimistic superhero stories. Creator and scribe Kurt Busiek continually undercuts expectations by featuring Superman analogue Samaritan having dreams about flying, by highlighting a little-known supervillain's quest for fame, and by exploring the lives of non-powered citizens, whose daily routines are continually thrown off by superhero battles near the office. Coupled with emotionally charged interiors by Brent Anderson, and engrossing painted covers by Alex Ross, the series indulges the whimsy that fuels hero fantasies, while threading human stakes through Busiek's action-packed hijinks. As a result, I've yet to find an issue of Astro City that's emotionally uninvolving. And the series has been running for ALMOST TWENTY YEARS.
To be fair, Astro City has been on hiatus for a while, due to Kurt Busiek's health concerns. But this past June, it returned, clad in the glory of a new number one, and boy, how I rejoiced after reading that first issue! Not only has Busiek's scripting kept its smarts, not only has Ross' cover work remained top-notch, not only has Anderson's art retained its idiosyncratic nature despite his switch to digital -- but the book itself remains humane to its core. There will be no casting off history in the fake Astro City; the book proceeds in real time, so characters can age and mature. There will be no over-involved crossovers with hidden universes to goose sales; Astro City stands alone. And there will be no sacrifices of female characters, just to inflate stakes; Busiek is far more interested in watching characters grow, rather than be torn down.
Take, for example, last week's issue. In it, telekinetic stunt supervisor Maddie (previously introduced in Astro City: Family Album) is abducted and enslaved by the Majordomo, for the purpose of using her gift to nefariously rule the world. Sounds like a recipe for a kidnapping fantasy disaster, right? That would be true in a lot of other comics, but not Astro City, which allows Maddie to fool us all! From the moment of her capture, she knows more than the Majordomo. Having discovered at an early age that the masked vigilante life wasn't for her, she's since formed a community of like-minded super-powered folks, who hold everyday jobs and help each other when situations such as kidnapping arise. A friend who can talk to machines handily releases Maddie and her fellow captives, and they all work to bring down the villain's airship, wrapping up their trouble before Honor Guard (Astro City's Justice League) has a chance to step in, while leaving Maddie a minute to decline an offer to join Samaritan in his quest for justice.
Busiek takes a captive tale and turns it on its head, making a choice to work from the sidelines seem like the strongest one possible. Maddie is expected to be a hero, to be a certain type of person within her society. But she refused to work from the mold set for her simply because of who she is; she would rather find joy and companionship in everyday life, while helping when she can. She works within her skill set, same as Samaritan, but she values her personal life more than he does (he's the guy who literally counts the seconds he's wasting between disasters). Because she's built a life, she knows how to protect it, using her own methods. Seeing just how she goes about her business is a pleasure, and it proves that superhero stories can both be light and matter-of-fact about their ultimate silliness, like great short stories.
Furthermore, three of Busiek's first four return issues have focused on women as something other than sex objects or victims. This shouldn't really be trailblazing, but when you look over the rest of DC's offering, and see Wonder Woman only has a second book after seventy years because she has an all-powerful boyfriend, Busiek's choices are refreshing, to say the least. Of particular interest to me was the two-part tale of a female first call responder for Honor Guard, whose miffed advice resulted in an international incident she immediately teleported to, in an effort to rescue the girl who called her in the first place. The responder was SURROUNDED by women in both issues, and got advice from none other than Cleopatra herself. Busiek's women are full-fledged heroes in their own right, and he celebrates that every chance he gets. For those who aren't reading Astro City yet, this new number one is a great place to get started. You'll never find a friendlier town, with all sorts of people lending a hand.
Astro City #4: Alex Ross, Cover Artist.
I am currently kicking myself because I cannot find the greatest set of words I've ever read about Superman. They're buried somewhere in my newly beloved copy of Glen Weldon's Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. I've spent the last two hours looking for this specific quote, that's how good it is. I wanted Weldon's thoughts preserved on my blog forever. But alas, I cannot find said quote. But believe me when I say, if you have any interest in Superman, or even if you think he's the most boring drip on the planet, you should read this book. Weldon expertly analyzes each phase of Superman's life, highlighting how he's changed alongside America, and how two fundamental traits make Superman who he is, for the long haul:
1) Superman helps people.
2) Superman never gives up.
While pinning down that set of basic Blue Boy rules, Weldon also demonstrates that the best Superman stories reveal the Man of Steel's limits. I mean, ultimately, he's limitless -- that's been part of his appeal (and part of his "boring drip" cross to bear) for years. But Weldon points out that the grist for any good Superman story doesn't come from how Superman changes over the course of any given tale (as would be true of most compelling characters). The drive behind a good Superman story lies in however he chooses to confront and transcend limits.
That is the quote I'm missing, the thing about limits. That exact idea is something I've sensed for years, but haven't been able to express. Over and over again, I've been told by smart people that Superman is the worst, that he's all muscles and no conflict. But finally, Weldon arrived to make my argument for me. Superman embodies both weakness and strength, simply by fighting to make a difference. The twin pulls of finding things to surmount while admitting things look insurmountable is a basic facet of drama, and a large part of what makes Superman enjoyable for me.
But Weldon doesn't stop there. In a recent Robot 6 interview, he pointed out how kryptonite shapes the Metropolis Marvel. The rock did more than weaken Superman upon its introduction, he points out; it "was the means by which he learned who he was and where he came from, for the very first time. That was information the audience knew well, but not Superman himself. So this relic of the past, this thing that can kill you, is the thing that literally tells you who you are." That's a lot of identity-based symbolism to process, and there's a lot of story potential within that sort of identity definition, I'd say. Limits define Superman, and it's limits that he surpasses over and over. Perhaps that's why he captures the popular imagination so.
Keeping that kryptonite-fueled story engine in mind, I'd like to compile a short list of what I consider great, modern "Superman confronts limits" tales for skeptics. A list that shows how Superman's identity is entirely wrapped up in how he faces challenges, both in simple and complex ways. A list that proves he's worth any reader's time, if they're willing to meet him on his own optimistic, primarily plot-driven level. A list that proves there's something of a super-dude inside any workaday person's struggles. All we have to do is draw the parallels given to us.
Let's be real. Kryptonite is a pretty stupid thing on its own. It was clearly brought into being (via the wonderful world of radio) because coming up with things to stop Superman gets hella hard after a while. Such frustration and idea-grabbing is why DC killed the guy in 1992. But it's interesting to note that kryptonite originally came about because Jerry Siegel wanted Superman to reveal his secret life to Lois Lane. Trapped with her in a convenient mine collapse, and weakened by a strange "K-metal" that's fallen to Earth, Superman must free them using his last ounce of strength, thus showing his true colors. Lois takes the news in stride, vowing to become a partner in his crusade to help others. But DC shelved the story, since it would screw with what they found to be the gold-mine "triangle-for-two" tack.
Darwyn Cooke and Tim Sale set out to give kryptonite that sort of transformative, game-changing power again in their run on the short-lived Superman Confidential. Based on the first true introduction of the meteorite into comics, Cooke initially uses Superman's invulnerability to fuel his fear. Not knowing what can kill you, that'd drive you nuts, right? It'd make you hold the whole world at arm's length, even as you struggle to save it. I've written before about how genius I find this take on Superman and his worries, so I won't expound much more here, except to say that when Superman finally learns what can hurt him, what his physical limits are, it gives him the experience to approach Lois not as the massive, grand-standing Superman, but as the all-too-flawed Clark. Add to that conclusion a heartfelt examination of how family members understand and embrace one another's weaknesses, and well, you've got what I consider a classic, emotionally stunning Superman tale.
Superman For All Seasons
If you asked me, I'd be hard-pressed to choose a favorite Superman story. But. Ultimately. I might land on Superman For All Seasons. This miniseries got me back into comics, and got me thinking about the character in a more nuanced way. Plus, it's ridiculously beautiful, with Tim Sale creating as detailed and down-home a Smallville as I've ever seen, a town just rife for all the tornadoes and floods writer Jeph Loeb throws at it. Yet what really makes this volume stand out is the coming-of-age tale at its center.
Superhero origin story structure dictates that when Clark Kent embraces his ability to save everyone and everything on the planet, that's the ball game. After rescuing folks from a Kansas tornado, he moves to Metropolis and begins defending the city as its Superman. Happily ever after, yes? Nope. Given that this book has four different narrators, and four different points of view, you can bet this ain't your average origin story. By pitting a young Clark against the Lex Luthor-introduced reality that he can't literally save everyone and everything on the planet, Loeb turns his superhero tale into a meditation on how people confront and conquer failure. Frankly, he transcends the genre entirely, by delivering a novel-like story set across the four seasons, with Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Lana Lang all separately, stubbornly defining Superman, thus creating a chorus that celebrates not just the fact that Superman saves the day, but HOW he saves it. See, even Superman can admit he's only one man. Luckily, he's also clear-headed enough to see that one man can do more good than could possibly be imagined, if he just tries.
Superman: Unconventional Warfare
I absolutely adored the Super-marriage. Not just because I grew up watching "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" with my mom. I adored Lois and Clark as a married couple because the best stories involving the two showcase how they struggle just as much as any regular couple. Case in point, Superman: Unconventional Warfare. It's just the start of Greg Rucka's wonderful run on the characters, pre-many, many crises, but he encapsulates what makes Superman and Lois such good people in only a few pages. First, he demotes Clark at work, forcing our hero to tango with a micro-managing boss who won't let him make a difference in print. Then, he sends Lois off on assignment to cover war-torn UMEC (Unnamed Middle Eastern Country, for those interested), a place Clark can't intervene, for fear of making a political statement as Big Blue. Finally, while Superman struggles with a stalker at home, Lois finds herself pulling a man away from sniper fire, only to be seriously wounded in the process. Superman swoops in to carry her out of the dangerous situation, but what can he do beyond that?
Perhaps the most heartbreaking Superman panel I've ever read sits at the end of this volume, while Lois lies in the hospital, unconscious. Superman cradles Lois' hand in his two ham hock-sized ones. She's hooked up to machines, she can't hear him. Yet he vows to stay by her side, because it's the only thing he can do. "I'll never leave you," he promises. In that moment, he's just as helpless as any husband in the same situation, except you know his vow has more weight, because Superman always does what he can; he'll wait forever, literally. In fact, such dedication to his crusade is what puts Lois in danger in the first place. When confronted by a colleague about going into sniper fire, to save an injured soldier, Lois takes a moment before replying, "Clark would understand." Such an understanding, such attempts to do what they can, is what makes them the ultimate power couple in my eyes.
Superman: Up, Up, And Away!
Kurt Busiek is one of my all-time favorite writers. (If you haven't picked up his Astro City, do yourself a favor and get into it with the new number one.) I am a particular fan of his work on Up, Up, And Away! because it takes a worked-over premise -- Superman loses his powers in battle, he spends time living just as Clark; except, his powers are coming back, and how will he readjust to super-senses, etc.? -- and gives the comic bookiest of stories a lot of heart. See, Clark will always choose to help people, but even he has to admit that his life is a lot less complicated without the cape and boots. Once his super-strength is back, he doesn't really have a choice but to don his costume. But what he needs more than anything is his wife's blessing. Because he cares too much about people not to put their needs first.
I like that Busiek (and co-writer Geoff Johns, it should be mentioned) take time to build Clark's solo life, before getting the action going with robots and Lex and radioactive men. Being powerless finally gives him a sense of what it must be like to be fully human, and he cherishes the closer connection it gives him, with his wife, with his city, with the world around him. Without super hearing, he can focus on what's in front of him, so we understand the happy days he's sacrificing by leaving Lois to fight more crime. This may be the first story I know of to call super-senses a hindrance, and it's clear when Superman's hearing and x-ray vision come back, that he can't absorb everything all at once. So he can't snap into action. What he's fighting for is still unclear. Until Jimmy Olsen is threatened by a stray bullet. Only when someone he loves is in peril, can Superman truly become Superman, and beat a bullet to its target. Which lets the reader know that without his supporting cast, without people to love, Superman really has little to fight for.
It seems only fitting to end this list with the story that the impending "Man of Steel" movie is based on. Mark Waid's Birthright was meant to be the updated origin story for the Millennial Superman reader. However, not six years later, a new origin was concocted, and soon after that, there was this whole New 52 thing happening. So, essentially, this work is no longer canon, but it's good enough to get a movie based on it? Life is weird.
I guess I can understand. It's hard to find a thoughtful Superman identity story out there. But guess what? THIS ONE IS THE BEST ONE OUT THERE, BAR NONE. Waid even manages to reverse the "Clark is the actual personality" mandate of the John Byrne era without driving me crazy. Essentially, he takes us through an adoption tale, where Clark ultimately gets to choose who he wants to be, based on the various backgrounds he cherishes.
He flies around in long-johns because people are scared of him when he performs super-feats as Clark, so he needs to disguise himself in plain sight, giving rise to his colorful costume, AND his nebbish in glasses. What Waid proves in this rip-roaring, Lenil Yu-drawn, gut-punching yarn, is this -- Kal-El may be the most powerful person on the planet, but if he doesn't have a persona or two to anchor him, he is lost. He can try to squeeze volcanoes shut all he wants, but if he doesn't have a sense of place about himself, he cannot function in the world of man. This is why he wraps himself in the S-shield, cleverly reconfigured here to act as Krypton's flag. He is an alien, and he accepts that. It is only in his bright red boots that he feels fully himself, fully able to unleash his abilities. All superhero stories are identity stories at their core; they're about the choosing of masks, and the taking off of masks. Here, Mark Waid subverts expectations and generates great fodder for a movie.
I know I'm missing out on a lot of material here, but when it comes to Superman and limits, these are the first books that jump to mind. I haven't even touched on what happens when Superman is confronted by the grim spectre of death; that's led to some pretty amazing work, too (All-Star Superman, anyone?). But I think I've made my point. Superman's limits are there, and they are worthily explored by many a writer and artist. Like Mr. Weldon, you just have to look hard enough to see the complexities in what started out as a pretty simple superhero idea. So. What are your favorite Superman stories? What kind of limits did you see in them, if any?
I love Nightwing. Most ladies I know love Nightwing. Which makes a lot of sense, when you take into account that Dick Grayson is essentially the perfect boyfriend, AND he's singularly drawn to attract the female gaze. (More on gazing at the wonderful Hawkeye Initiative.) However, I think I most love the former Boy Wonder because he's been given years to develop a laid-back quipiness that winks at the superhero world he inhabits; writers and editors have allowed him to grow up in the caped community, unlike many DC characters, and so, he's had to deal with all the consequences that come with age: heartbreak, promotions, moving. A lot of moving. From nomadic circus life to big-time Gotham City to nearby Bludhaven to New York City, even. And now to Chicago.
Last month, our boy in red and back hit the Windy City. Hard. How hard? He's already helped blow up an el station, and smashed through several exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry, all while hot on the trail of the racketeer who murdered his acrobat parents back in the day. And soon he may be forced to unmask in a city that hates people with masks. Talk about painting the town red.
As a resident of the Chicagoland area, I've been tickled pink by all the geographic nods made (see the above Willis Tower) and names dropped (the Western station gets special mention, obviously) throughout the book. And after seeing the Lyric Opera of Chicago's Oklahoma! this weekend, I was primed to focus on place while catching up on Nightwing's recent adventures. See, what's most impressive about the classic 1940's musical is its evocation of the West. You may be sitting in a theatre while Curly paints a corn-fed morning for you, but it sure doesn't feel like it. It feels like you're riding alongside him, checking on the cattle and breathing in the bracing air. You are transported, through the sweet mix of music and language. (Edit: God, the mention of Oklahoma didn't even hit me till right now. Seems inappropriate now. Thoughts and prayers to the Plains states tonight, and in the many days following.)
I have already written about the transportation inherent in the comics form. Like Nightwing, I too get to stand behind the glowing Congress Hotel sign in issue 20. I get to ride on top of an el train and yell, "Wahoooo!" with our hero. His daredevil trips around the city are facilitated by focused, clean artwork -- DC's new house style -- and buoyed by narrative reliance on that old Illinois chestnut, political corruption. The world is recognizable enough that I can imagine looking out for heroes swinging between skyscrapers the next time I'm downtown. But ... I won't. Because what's really missing in this Chicago story is the actual problems Chicagoans deal with. Gangs, theft, a criminally under-served public school system, stuff like that. Oklahoma! at least addresses the fact that it's about the Sooners' rough frontier life. Nightwing's missing a like-minded opportunity, one inherent in its real-time location.
Now, don't get me wrong. I think it's smart that writer Kyle Higgins makes Chicago a city with an as-yet-explored vendetta against vigilantes. And it's probably for the best that the villain is less the shady mayor protecting the racketeer assassin, and more a creepy guy in a mask interested in Youtubing torturous pranks he's concocted. But when heroes rub up against the real world, problems can ensue. Like when Captain America dug people out of the World Trade Center in a story woefully pointed at addressing terrorism through bland bad-assery and an over-the-top, self-centered character dilemmas (i.e., Cap unmasked himself to better serve the public -- you know, after witnessing the death of real-world thousands). Or when Bane cashed in on Occupy Wall Street to make the last Batman movie seem super-relevant. Or when Superman decided to walk across America, starting in a Philadelphia I've never seen before. Truth be told, that story lost my love as soon as Superman placed a certain order at a greasy spoon.
No. Just, no. Superman, if you truly represent America, you'd already know it's called a Philly cheese steak, or a cheese steak. It is absolutely NOT a Philly cheese steak sandwich. That's redundant, and clearly demonstrates the unhipness people always see in you. More importantly, it shows that nobody involved in this story knew Philadelphia and its quirks. If you're going to work in our reality, you need to either play by its rules (and even ditch the costumes, a la Smallville), or build enough cred to create an alternate version of the city the hero is inhabiting. Look at Marvel's New York City. I accept all the crazy alien invasions and mutations that happen there, because the place is literally crawling with superheroes; in that world, superheroes are the reality, and so they can parallel our own trials and tribulations. Likewise, I can accept Metropolis, because Superman calls its marvelous monsters and ordinary citizens into being simply by living there, simply by befriending and lifting up other people.
My favorite comics tend to place icons in front of the audience, and then strip the heroic images down to the very human feelings that first generated them. It's no wonder, then, that my favorite fake place in all graphic design is Astro City. Kurt Busiek's Astro City is a metaphor for all comic book cities, a combination of every dark and light place existing in pulp fiction. The characters that live there are ALL heroes, whether they be an average citizen helping innocent bystanders escape falling skyscrapers, or the Superman stand-in, Samaritan. By pulling from Marvel and DC's back-catalogues, and making reupholstered heroes work as metaphors for other heroes, with the city a home for any possible allegory, Busiek invites us to see ourselves in his fantasy world. Not only does he invite us to step into Astro City, he sends us on the road outta town with a better understanding of human nature. There, we sidestep taking the real world for granted -- as only a set-piece or plaything. There, we learn.
So far, nothing in Nightwing's Midwestern odyessy shows me that Higgins wants to interact with our reality, or restyle it. Over in Gotham, Batman and Batgirl are working on opposite ends of gentrification. No such sociological mission statement exists here. Dick is simply after the man who killed his parents. Personal stories are great places to start a run, as Higgins did with an intriguing arc about Dick's circus past. But moving into a second major story, I often want authors to expand the scope of a character's journey. Is Dick the hero Chicago needs? Why? Why not? Or if he's not the hero for this metropolis, how are the readers able to pitch in? It's a series of questions that are hard to avoid, when a writer sets out to play in reality's sandbox.
Some strange doings are going on over at DC Comics. A slate of "zero issues" meant to explain its convoluted continuity -- and introduce cutting-edge new characters, like an Arab-American Green Lantern -- recently appeared on the scene, only to confound people more. What with origins being radically changed for non-narrative-strengthening reasons, and Batman's succession of Robins becoming even cloudier, there was little fans could do but throw up their hands and accept the way things are now. Which is perhaps what DC wanted: for us to be so beaten down by their slate of re-imaginings, that we will stop asking what dramatic plans the company actually has for certain characters. After all, who needs credible action and ever-developing storylines when you can have mind-blowing revelations and origin shifts in their stead?
Of particular interest to me during this zero-numbered blitz was The Phantom Stranger's book. Why should I care about the Phantom Stranger? Up till now, he's been only a wary traveler, arriving in different books to send superheroes on mystical journeys, while his own affiliations remain deliciously mysterious. He was, in fact, created by Carmine Infantino and John Broome, to be an occultist without any home or religious community. The two times I have encountered him in my years of reading comics have been decidedly non-spiritual affairs. In the much-lauded and often-reviled Superman #666, Clark Kent finds himself haunted by a Kryptonian demon while he sleeps. You know things have gone off the rails by the time a dreaming Superman has fashioned himself a space palace, and is muttering about buying a possibly-pregnant Lois "pickles and ice cream" in his sleep. But an early indication that something is up comes on the first pages, when crows swarm multiple panels, as Wonder Woman, Hawk Man, and the Phantom Stranger all warn Big Blue that "HE is coming," he being the aforementioned demon. My second encounter with the Stranger came in the famous Batman Elseworlds tale, "To Kill A Legend," where the Phantom whisks Bruce Wayne to another dimension, so that he can save a young alterna-Bruce from the gloom of losing his parents. In both these errands, the Phantom takes no sides, makes no moral pronouncements. He is simply a guide into the unseen, a representation of the magic that exists out there in the great beyond, a beyond that remains hazy even to Batman and Superman.
This was the Phantom Stranger as I knew him: mystic, tour guide, untraceable. Well, not anymore! In Dan DiDio's hands (that's the man behind the DC reboot), good old P.S. is no longer a stranger. He stands besides new addition Pandora and oldie but goodie The Question as "the trinity of sin." What is the Stranger's sin? Hang onto your hands, it's a doozy: he is responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. That's right. The unnameable spirit now has a name -- and one heck of an origin story! He's Judas, and he will spend an eternity not in hell, but in wandering the earth, looking for a way to pay back his major misdeed.
Of course, the name Judas and Jesus are never once spoken in DiDio's story, but the implications become pretty clear, pretty quick, as Judas' blood money is somehow sewn to his skin by a high council of magical, vengeful beings (none of whom I don't recognize):
Post this startling revelation, Didio forces the Stranger to wandering for several panels and pages. Apparently, the only way to repay greed (was taking blood money the worst sin he committed in betraying Jesus?) is to walk through millennia without being able to interact with anyone. Until, that is, you are called by a mystical voice that COULD BE GOD -- though it's never identified, much like Jesus' and Judas' identities are never confirmed. And what does this voice want you to do? Why, save a cop about to go over the edge, who's about to kill to get his girlfriend back!
If this cop character sounds familiar to you, that's because he's the pre-Spectre model of the Spectre. That ghostly green-clad character was created by none other than Jerry Siegel back in 1940 (the Phantom Stranger first appeared in 1969, for those keeping score), and he has almost always served as an avenging angel or God's Spirit of Vengeance -- a job given to him after his girlfriend's death and his own demise at the hand of mobsters. Since DiDio's work is clearly set on showcasing the twisted creation of mystical creatures in this zero issue, I was pretty sure things weren't going to end well for Officer Jim Corrigan. And I was right! He dies, largely because of the Phantom Stranger's inaction, and suddenly things get a little freaky ...
Oh, noes! Now Judas has unleashed even more pain on the world! "Why, Voice, whhhhhhhy?!"
"Oh. I guess creating a wrathful spirit aimed at destroying people's lives was a good thing. Why else would one of my weirdo coins have fallen from the cloak I've been wearing since I was Judas?" Why else, indeed.
I didn't intend to slip into such a glib tone while writing about this book, but I can't seem to stop myself, because DiDio has committed his own sin in scribing this story -- the sin of utter and complete laziness. Rather than explore the deep-seated persecution and anger, or the formative religious values, carried around by the Jewish Siegel, he creates the Spectre from an entirely Catholic perspective here, which only confuses readers, instead of enlightening them about which God or purpose the Spectre is serving. Wiping away the Old Testament fury that goes hand in hand with Spectre stories doesn't guarantee a clean slate; you need to substitute one driving force for another. Siegel's fantasies almost always had anger or sadness at their core. What lies at the core of this Spectre? Catholic anger? Catholic guilt? I'm not sure. All I see is a rote repetition of his anger (generated by the Phantom Stranger this time). If all we get from DiDio's tale is a new starting point, divorced from the real-world perspective that created comics in the first place, then we get no authorial voice leading us somewhere new. We get nothing lasting out of the Spectre's journey, spiritual or otherwise.
P.S. exists in Purgatory before he meets Jim Corrigan, and he only starts working off his debts by leading the man to his death. Such compounding negative consequences could lead to an interesting statement about religion and how our values shape our actions. But DiDio doesn't even seem to realize what iconography he's playing with here. He thinks labeling the Phantom Stranger as Judas is enough; he doesn't do any other work developing the complex issues surrounding possibly the world's most famous betrayer. Instead, he sets the Phantom Stranger on a simplistic quest that, frankly, defames Biblical stories, when he could be using those stories as engines to examine old-world and contemporary issues of morality and spirituality.
My major beef with this book is not that DiDio displays such ignorance/insensitivity (a comic so devoid of belief can't shake me to my core as a Christian), or that answers are provided where I had no need for them (did I seriously need to know the Phantom Stranger's real name?). My problem here is that DiDio turns past comics work into a religion. The Spectre's separation from God's guiding hand, the swapping of Jewish and Christian influences, The Spirit of Vengeance's creation by an enemy of God who's now been turned into a comic book fantasy, aka the Phantom Spectre -- it all leads me to believe that what DiDio worships is not the reality that influenced these characters, or any past writers, or any God; he only worships the world he's playing in, and what he brings to it, as a creator. Why would he question what he's building, when he's the all-powerful narrator? Why would he push past obvious conclusions about the Spectre and the Stranger, conclusions that could bring the silliness of his narrative to the fore? Because he wants to be right. Because he wants to be powerful. Because he wants to bend this world to his needs, rather than examine it with a well-developed sense of doubt, questioning, and well-won belief. And that's a pity. This book could have started an interesting spiritual journey. But as it is, we're given just a journey by the numbers, for characters meant to be anything but super-defined.
Originally posted 5/1/11
Superman standing in front of the American flag. That's a classic visual representation of his eternal representation of truth, justice, and the American way. This image is burned into my brain, same as it probably is yours. I associate Supes with the American flag because that's what he was shown standing in front of during the opening sequence in the 1940s Fleischer brothers cartoons. Those cartoons played endlessly on the Disney channel while I was growing up, and they really, definitively influenced how I saw the character.
But now my view has to shift. In fact, everybody's view has to shift. All thanks to the following exchange in Action Comics issue number 900, released last week:
But rather than looking at the whole conversation, most people are concerned only by this itty bitty panel in the corner:
Superman is no longer an American citizen, starting with issue number 901. For 73 years, Superman has been fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way. Now he's declared himself a global citizen, a UN peace-keeping force in his own right.
And people are losing it. Just check out the comments on the Fox News website, post their posting about the development a few days ago. Superman is a representation of America, and for the editors to change this is viewed by many as sacrilege, as an attack on decent Americans everywhere. That's an interesting reaction, I think. It says a lot about where our society's at right now, that a comic character widening his allegiances merits discussion on the news and in the newspaper. But I'll return to that momentarily. Let's first talk about what happened in this comic book, and what possibilities it nets for future Superman stories.
In this anniversary issue of Action Comics, Superman -- who's been walking across America in an effort to get back in touch with its down-home citizenry -- flies to Iran (Tehran, specifically) to protect a group of protesters. The protesters are under fire, menaced by the police and the military, and Superman arrives to let them know they're not alone in their fight. He stands a vigil for them, making sure no one is hurt during the ongoing protest. "I stayed in Azadi Square for twenty-four hours," he says. "I didn't move. I didn't speak. I just stayed there." And check out the results of his efforts:
Superman withstands the brunt of gasoline bombs and all manner of projectiles during this vigil, but the protest ends peacefully, with flowers exchanged, largely due to his presence. Of course, Iran's government still accuses the U.S. government of committing an act of war by allowing its champion to tread on Iranian soil. So, Superman gives up his American citizenship, in an effort to label himself a global citizen, keep the peace, and clarify that he acts on behalf of the world, not America.
This story was written by David S. Goyer, who you may know for his screenwriting chops -- in particular, for his uber-realistic portrayal of Batman in "Batman Begins." I mention this because it explains to me why the story takes place in Iran, and not in UMEC, DC's fictional Middle Eastern country. (UMEC literally stands for Unnamed Middle Eastern Country.) And it also sheds some light on a new day for our Big Blue Boy Scout. No longer will he be putting out fires in fictional third world nations; he'll be dealing with REAL places, REAL conflicts. A step towards making his true-life diplomacy believable lies in making him an official world protector. It's a bold step for a company that places most of its fictional cities within the confines of New Jersey, and makes most of its money off cosmic wars in space and zombie attacks closer to home. Superman's touched the ground in more ways than one this year, and with this decision, he seems to be throwing himself head-first into twenty-first century globalization. ("The world is too small, too connected," he claims in AC 900.) I'd like to examine the pros and cons of this decision, in relation to storytelling -- then extrapolate its impact on our larger world. Stay with me here, it might be a bumpy ride ...
1) Superman has, in a way, always represented a weird part of the America mythos -- the brawny, wish fulfillment part. We're a superpower and Superman's a muscle for us to flex, a creation so centered on stemming conflict that he became pretty boring as the Cold War developed. There's a reason he was so popular during the height of comic sales, back in World War II, and I'm pretty sure his threatening Hitler is one of the reasons. (See below.) Back then, Supes was our strongest and fiercest self, the pinnacle of evolving masculine American identity and pride. That iconography still exists, I'd argue; why else are so many dudes running around on Halloween dressed as Clark Kent turning into Superman? (I saw ten this year, I counted.) But to be a meaningful icon, he needs to keep up with the times, and keeping current as propaganda really isn't enough to seal your legendary status these days. Stepping into the twenty-first century to be a global citizen allows for more relevant, down to earth stories for Superman. It could allow a new American male to arise: a cool, collected, Obama-like male, who imposes his will not based on his seat at the table, or by the work of his fists, but by smart negotiations and peaceful resolutions. Plus, it could allow him to step away from outmoded definitions of male identity -- potentially. Or it could look like more of the same. It could look like this:
(For a great examination of why comic books shouldn't address true-to-life military conflicts in contemporary times, check out this excellent blog post over at "Comics Should Be Good!")
2) What stunned me most about this story wasn't that it freed Superman from his American citizenship. I was more shocked to see the story was set in Iran, a place experiencing real conflict nowadays, and with a really complicated relationship to the United States. Of course, it's not Libya, Iraq, or Afghanistan we're talking about here, but the setting of this story says a lot about where Superman might be headed. Like I mentioned earlier, DC Comics previously created its own Middle Eastern countries to tell stories mirroring real-life events. So it's a bold move to suddenly include the recent Middle East shake-ups in its storytelling. And I think it's probably a good one. Marvel Comics scored bigger relevance (and a bigger audience) a few years back with their Civil War event. Civil War pitted superhero against superhero in the face of the need for superhuman registration with the government. Now this isn't a new story; Kurt Busiek did it (complete with alien invasion AND vampires!) in his book Astro City, years before Marvel tried it. But Marvel pitched that event at the right time -- in the early 2000's, when people were disillusioned with their government, with its military engagements and obsessive secret-keeping that pushed the average American concerns to the side in favor of engaging in terrifying violence. Who could be trusted? What did America even mean? Vigilantes were no longer a reassuring symbol of the can-do American spirit, and Marvel registered that. It's why they had Captain America arrested and killed. (Of course, he came back. But at the time, his death was headline news.) They made their comics relevant again by taking the temperature of the day. In our waning days as a superpower, Superman and DC could do the same. The Man of Steel could influence more than our "running around in a towel for a cape" fantasies; he could make us reflect on our own reality.
3) But seriously. I need to be real with you guys. Superman's kind of a narc. I blame editorial control for this. Back when Siegel and Shuster created Superman, he was an effing roughneck. He broke up mob rings, he hoisted wife-beaters by their own petard. He didn't answer to anybody (well, maybe Lois -- but I would, too; she's awesome!). But after World War II, the more independent elements of the character had to be toned down, in favor of being completely pro-America, and in order to avoid censure by a variety of factions in the government. (For amazing comics histories dealing with censorship, check out The Ten-Cent Plague and Men of Tomorrow.) Frank Miller made beacoup de bucks off this narc-y image in The Dark Knight Returns, assigning Superman the role of aide de camp to a Ronald Reagan-esque president, while Batman denounced and battled against the corrupt government stooge. But if Superman represents America as a superpower, he also represents America's free-wheeling individualist nature. Renouncing his citizenship may give the character greater latitude to make the right choices, instead of the ones dictated by outmoded American values. I'd like to see a Superman acting under his own powers and ideals, the way every American should.
1) By abandoning Superman's citizenship, I worry the folks at DC are wiping away the intense complications that make Superman such a compelling symbol for me. At the heart of Superman's story is an immigration narrative. Let's not forget that he wasn't born in America, and that his creators were the descendants of Jewish immigrants. Likewise, they birthed this character as part muscle-man, part Jesus-like savior (while being Jewish; read the dialogue in that Hitler panel again). To forget the character's creative origins by disassociating him from the crucible he was forged in (1930s America) is dangerous. It makes Superman less personal and more problematic. If you don't see the Adonis Complex he grew out of, the nerdish fantasies he was born to fight for, then you're only seeing half the picture. If you only see half the picture, then the character is either completely boring to you, or god-like, and frankly, fascistic in his perfection. Superman as an American ideal represents the kind of life Americans should be leading in a melting pot, sure. But the best writers and artists still manage to embrace the wonder that Supes' other-ness generates. Geoff Johns' work on the character (though heavy-handed at times, for my taste) does an exemplary job probing Superman's alien-ness without excusing it. He is not all man (Clark Kent), nor all alien (Kal-El); he's both things combined in a mongrelish, immigrant identity. He's Superman. And that strong claim on identity is what makes him powerful. He doesn't take guff from anyone, because he can host three heritages at once.
2) Making The Man of Tomorrow a champion of today is a tricky business, particularly in a world as complicated as ours. If DC writers are going to place him in real-world conflicts, there's the possibility that they could undersell these conflicts and have Superman solve all problems, like a benevolent but mighty god. He's easily quelled trouble in the past, but I can tolerate such action when he's fixing shit off in space somewhere. Make him our mighty overlord in the real world, and I think he loses all relevance. It's stupid to think you can solve a problem just by showing up. (Case in point: look at what's going on in Libya right now.) If Superman engages with reality in any way, it must be to provide an allegorical tale of some sort. He's a metaphor to be molded, to say something about the human experience. Stepping in where you don't belong is something that happens to humans; solving a conflict based solely on that misstep isn't. (For good examples of how superheroics and Superman have been used to tell stories of fatherhood, growing up and the value of shifting identities, check out Superman: Secret Identity and any volume of Astro City -- which showcases what it's like for regular folks to live in a city of heroes.) I guess in the pros section, I showcased a little of how Superman reflects America's social values. But I'd like to dig deeper into that, if I could. (I won't go into the legal details of whether or not Superman's actually able to renounce his citizenship; but if you're curious about that, check out the amazing "Law and the Multiverse" blog.) What does it mean for an American icon to go global? On the face of it, I'd say DC's trying to be provocative and snag up even more cash -- after all, the anniversary issue we're talking about costs almost six dollars. The whole renunciation thing kind of reminds me of the homogenizing efforts of Coca Cola and McDonald's; fries and bottled pop show up everywhere these days and they mean the same thing to everyone. Why shouldn't Superman?
I mean, he's been stopping volcanoes from killing entire populations on obscure islands for decades now, sure. But does that mean he belongs to everyone? Or that he should? Isn't there something dangerous in that? A sort of "Because I've saved you, I now own you; I know what's best for you" mentality. Do you get what I'm saying? I'm not worried about Superman's irrelevance here. I'm worried he'll become more relevant under the guise of liberal guilt from middle-aged male comic writers. I'm worried he'll be even more conflated than he already is with American homogenization and intervention. I'm worried he's more imperialistic now than he was when he threatened to sock Hitler on the jaw. And I'm worried the writers of DC don't understand the impression they're giving when they have a gigantic white man swoop in and save the Middle East.
So. Angry voices on the Internet are spewing bile about Supes' choice being a betrayal of American values. If that's the case, my question becomes: what values does Superman represent? Whose values? He can claim to be a global citizen all he wants, but the company men at DC (Jim Lee and Dan DiDio, publishers) are still saying he embodies the best of the American Way. So what's going on here? Where are we headed? Can America be both sides of the coin at the same time? I think that's the question Americans face everyday in the twenty-first century. We're nowhere near as righteous as we once were; we come across as meddlers on a global stage, and I don't know that Superman's the person to teach us how to readjust that position. (After all, he's only stopped other military conflicts -- in For Tomorrow and Unconventional Warfare -- because his wife was involved. If Superman's the American Way, then Lois Lane is surely Lady Liberty, aka Democracy, and he makes the world safe for her and the war-torn countries she barges into as a reporter.)
But I digress. I have concerns as well as hopes for this latest direction in Superman's story. Largely because the fantasies we share reflect the goings-on of our times. That's why literature and pop culture have been studied so extensively by the academy. Still. What this denouncing has to say about America's awareness of the world, or our nation's place in it while under the thrall of a damaged economy and within a shaky political landscape, is anyone's guess. Maybe the continuing story of Superman will reflect our troubled times. Maybe it'll only exist in a bubble. But I hope not. We deserve better. And so does the unfettered, free-flying Superman of our imaginations.
Older Superman Cover: Jack Burnley, Cover Artist.
Action Comica #900: David S. Goyer, Writer; Miguel Sepulveda, Pencils; Paul Mounts, Colorist; Rob Leigh, Inker.
Look Magazine Panel: Jerry Siegel, Writer; Joe Shuster, Artist.
Superman: Secret Origin: Gary Frank, Pencils; Jon Sibal, Inker; Brad Anderson, Colorist.
Playwright News & Musings on Comic Book Culture
Check this page for updates on Sarah's writing and thoughts on a great many topics, including but not limited to superheroes and disability.