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 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.
This week, "The Amazing Spider-Man" opened in theaters, the exact same week as the previous three Spider-man movies opened earlier in the decade. That's right -- after only an absence of five years, our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler is back on screens, and he's raking in the bank while jumping around in a body sock, punching the Lizard and making time with his first true love, Gwen Stacy. But don't worry if you feel lost, having somehow previously missed out on Sam Rami's juggernaut series and Spidey's origin story (you were trapped in an Artic ice cave fending off a yeti between the years of 2000 and 2007, I assume). This film is a reboot of the franchise, and is getting decent reviews, primarily for the clarity of its performances and character-building. Anyone who missed the boat the first time around, will have a thoughtful little action movie to cozy up to here, and an entry point into Spider-Man's mythos and aesthetic reason for being.
I haven't seen the film yet, but my boyfriend assures me it is well worth my time. Still, this is a big summer for comic book movies, and I haven't seen this "Amazing" entry yet largely because I saw "The Avengers" twice last month, caught up on my one missing Marvel entry ("Thor") via Netflix three weeks ago, and I'm mentally gearing up for "The Dark Knight Rises," which I pray doesn't disappoint me as a final chapter to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight saga. Simply put, there's a lot of superhero stuff spinning through the multiplex these days, and I need a second to step back and ponder its place in my life and its current importance in tough economic times.
New York Times critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Darghis wrote an engaging roundtable about comic book movies last week, highlighting how the films' New Millenium rise is comparable to the high-flying times of escapist movie-musical entertainment during the Great Depression. Cinema itself was once seen as a purveyor of brain rot, just as comics have been stuck with that label since their heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. And by comparing one popular art form to another, the two critics gave me a little insight into why I've started feeling odd about these usually stirring, always entertaining films.
First off, it's every company's priority to make money. I understand that, particularly as a consumer of movies and junk books. Marvel Studios has never tried to hide its franchise-building ways (especially since becoming its own boss), and there's no reason to start now, given the giant success of all the films leading into its largest success -- "The Avengers," which proved that building up a fan base across a handful of movies can yield massive results. Hell, Marvel could make a whole movie about Rocket Raccoon, and no one would bat an eye (and it looks likely the company will feature that furry fighter in some film over the next couple years)!
I guess something I'm wondering is ... should Marvel capitalize on all this success? Should DC, with Batman? Should all these superhero movies keep getting made? I mean, I get why the "Man of Steel" has been produced, but do we desperately need a movie about the origins of Ant-Man? (If it's the Iredeemable Ant-Man, then I say yes, but only if it features a key scene where he impregnates a woman on the grave of her dead husband.)
Given the way culture trends, superhero movies will one day fall out of this hectic boom they've been in since the arrival of "X-Men" in 2000. That's inevitable. So, of course the market needs to be as saturated as possible before DC/Warner Brothers and Marvel float away. They need to squeeze blood out of this diamond, to mix metaphors. But I wonder if something isn't being lost with every tragic origin story and "putting on the costume" montage they produce. If superheroes exist as modern-day mythology, at what point do the stories stop speaking to their audience? When do myths lose their power? And do heroes' journeys have an expiration date within a culture? I certainly know I don't look forward to watching Peter Parker lose his uncle all over again, since I know the outcome is, "With great power, comes great responsibility" and a pair of stylish underoos. But I'll watch, because the marketers have been demanding I buy my 3D glasses everytime I walk into Wal-Mart for groceries, and see Spidey fruit snacks everywhere.
So what's the value in that hectoring and selling? Is there any value in a story branded and sold to everyone for profit? Often, what people need in tough times is a distraction, and most superhero movies fit the bill, from the cosmically ridiculous "Fantastic Four" to the bumbling Clark Kent antics of "Superman Returns." And entertainment should be the least that artists provide their audience with ... but for me, comics can go further than sheer entertainment; they can prove themselves useful to their widening audience. Yet I worry that they won't, past "The Dark Knight Rises." Again, I haven't seen "The Amazing Spider-Man." But its repetition of formula (i.e., the origin story) will start having diminishing returns someday, and when that happens, I fear the power of comics' storytelling will be lost to the larger audience that needs it. I'm talking about the power of translation.
What do I mean by translation? I mean, these characters exist as allegories at best and fantasies at least. Superheroes can give us an ideal to live up to: Superman is a symbol of strength and courage, Wonder Woman is a feminist icon, The Flash is a stand-in for the infinite nature of human potential. We can also imagine their adventures -- people might wonder what Batman would do were he in their shoes; we might dream we can vault over rooftops with him, a la the Boy Wonder.
But heroes sustaining and engaging the average citizen is the least of the services they can provide. They don't have to tell stories about our ideals. They can tell stories about us, about human nature. And the best of superhero comics -- the best stories -- do that; they move beyond proving moral superiority or physical might, and make us question our values. In these stories, we are not raised to the level of gods; the gods are on our level, and we weigh the choices they make not on a scale of kick-ass to admirable, but on a scale of whether or not we'd make the same choices. In these stories, we become not just as capable as our heroes, but as culpable as them. And that's dangerous, both to our psyches and to our business sense.
There's a reason amazing books like "Y: The Last Man" and "Astro City" languish in development hell. Sure, TV's done a little better, with the morally ambiguous "Walking Dead" gaining an audience. But projects that embue comic plots with a hint of drama or weirdness are not being shown in thousands of theaters this weekend. Instead we're getting our heroes showing us how to behave (even in "The Avengers," when the soulful Hulk rejoins his teammates because, hey, it's the right thing to do -- on some cutting room floor, there lies the story of chilled-out Mark Ruffalo's emotional journey from that abandoned factory to the alien battle, and I want to see it). And that's fine, but maybe we all need more? Maybe we need to take our pop icons and infuse them with more weight than we thought they had, and then we'll learn something about American society, about ourselves. Then it won't just be the nerds who know all the continuity, and hate that Batman has a twin brother now, having a conversation -- it'll be everyone.
Or can popular entertainment be a useful end in itself? Is accessibility to genre material enough to satisfy all our urges for it? Or should we be using this material to launch more discussions about our modern world? Should we take an essentially archaic format (the funny book) and grind it until it becomes a new archaic format (the comic book movie)? Forgive me, Spidey, but I don't think so. I see more potential there, just like the people in those movie theater seats who keep coming back for more.
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.