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The Last Days of Superman

Longbox Graveyard #89

Superman might be the world’s most popular superhero. He’s also among the most difficult to write. Through the years we’ve seen Superman travel through time, endure the heat of the sun, and perform so many feats of strength, speed, and stamina that every other superhero on earth seems superfluous.

Superman is a paragon — ageless, invulnerable, always a jump ahead. Even Kryptonite — one of Superman’s few vulnerabilities — eventually proved powerless over the Man of Steel.

Kryptonite Nevermore!

With his secret identity as Clark Kent so carefully guarded, it is difficult to strike at Superman through the people he holds dear (though Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen have been threatened by more than their share of supervillians and runaway robots in their day). Being such an ultimate superhero with so few weaknesses it’s only natural that creators should desire to pit Superman against the one great villain that gets us all, in the end — death.

Superman has died several times. Most famous may have been 1992’s “Death of Superman” arc, where Supes met his demise at the hands of the killing machine called Doomsday.

The Death of Superman

Superman would return, of course, bigger and stronger than ever, and it was never a case of “if,” but “when.” A character like Superman could never die “for reals” — he’s too valuable a property. Only an “imaginary story” could kill off Superman, and make it stick. Two of the biggest names in comics got their chance to tell just such a story. Alan Moore told the death of Superman in 1986 in the two-part, “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” while Grant Morrison gave us his take two decades later in the twelve-part series, All-Star Superman.

With both Superman and Action comics wrapping of their runs in 1986 prior to John Byrne’s post-Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot of the Man of Steel, DC tasked Alan Moore with writing a coda for the Silver Age Superman. Alan Moore was the greatest comics writer of his generation, but he had to be handled with care — he seemed to write every comic story as if it were the last tale ever written. His stories were inventive and ferociously imaginative, but they also left their characters turned inside-out, with little left for the creative teams that followed. Moore’s best-known work at DC — Watchmen — was partitioned in a universe all its own, where it could do no lasting harm to DC’s heroes. Moore’s brilliant Saga of the Swamp Thing altered that character for all time, but few readers really cared about Swamp Thing before Moore got to him. Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke put Barbara Gordan (Batgirl) in a wheelchair for a quarter-century.

Curt Swan & Alan Moore

So we might have expected Superman’s crucifixion when DC tossed Alan Moore the keys to the Fortress of Solitude, but his two-part story from Superman #423 and Action #583 is more prosaic than apocalyptic. At least, it looks prosaic. Illustrated by classic Superman artist Curt Swan, these issues look just like any number of Superman books from the 1960s or 70s … but there’s something twisted and dark going on beneath those Silver Age surface impressions. Like a David Lynch movie, there is dysfunction behind the happy-looking facade, which begins to crack when Superman’s goofiest foes — characters like Bizarro, Toyman, and the Prankster — turn uncharacteristically homicidal. In penning this tale of the end of the Silver Age, Moore takes his brief literally, bringing down the curtain not only on Superman, but on an entire era of four-colored adventure when the good guys always triumphed and evil contented themselves with silly conspiracies that attacked Superman’s dignity but rarely left a mark. Bizarro’s suicide at the onset of this story heralds that things have changed, the stakes have been raised, and neither Superman nor the people around him will ever know peace again. Worse yet, there may be nothing that Superman can do about it.

Frank Quietly & Grant Morrison

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly (with spectacular digital colors by Jamie Grant) was conceived as one of a series of stand-alone, out-of-continuity stories intended to reinvent DC’s biggest heroes. All-Star Superman was the only project that reached full fruition — the controversial All-Star Batman & Robin The Boy Wonder remains incomplete after nine issues (and I may be alone in liking this series), while Adam Hughes’ All-Star Wonder Woman remains one of the great “lost” comics of recent years. Only All-Star Superman went the distance, in twelve high-quality installments readily available in trade editions (volumes one, and two), collecting an Eisner Award for “Best New Series” in 2006 and even being adapted into a not-half-bad animated feature film in 2011.

Unlike Alan Moore’s tale, All-Star Superman wears it’s weirdness on the outside. Falling prey to the machinations of Lex Luthor, Superman suffers a fatal overdose of solar radiation which substantially increases his powers while also slowly killing him from the inside. Knowing he has only a short time to live, Superman races to make up for lost time, revealing his secret identity to Lois Lane, and embarking on a series of twelve labors to defend the earth and hopefully leave the planet in a position to survive without him. Along the way, Morrison touches on all the homespun elements of the Superman myth — the Kansas farm boy with his flying dog, the unlikely and bumbling Clark Kent deception, the relationship between Superman and his pal, Jimmy Olsen.

Frank Quietly

But we are through Morrison’s looking glass here, so there’s plenty of strangeness, too, like the exotic creatures and artifacts on display at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (viewed through the paranoid eyes of a Lois Lane suffering an artificially-induced nervous breakdown), and a 21st-century Jimmy Olsen who trails his own bizarre backstory, characterized as the kind of guy who casually hacks a commercial blimp network to engineer an aerial getaway.

Strangest of all the characters is Superman himself. Solar radiation didn’t just triple his strength — it also tripled his creativity, curiosity, and imagination — manifesting itself in an outburst of scientific experimentation that serves to illuminate Superman’s alien psychology. This series sees Superman concocting potions that award super-powers for twenty-four hours, creating miniature suns on a “Cosmic Anvil” to feed his pet “Sun Eater,” and using his x-ray vision to copy down his eight billion letter genome sequence into a book.

Frank Quietly & Grant Morrison

With twelve issues to tell his tale, Morrison sets out not only to show the death of Superman, but also to clarify his life as an alien exile of a lost and impossibly advanced culture. When Lex Luthor inherits Superman’s powers near the end of the story, and sees the world the way Superman sees it — across the entire electromagnetic spectrum — Luthor is humbled, and we realize in a moment how god-like and unusual Superman is even when compared to the world’s greatest (albeit evil) human intellect.

Curt Swan & Alan Moore

Moore is less concerned with Superman’s interior life — he has two issues to tell his story, and he fills them to the brim with the kind of funky Silver Age continuity that he so loved. In a subversive sort of way, Moore revels in all the little details that DC was so determined to clean-up and ret-con back in the 1980s, binging on robot monsters, time-traveling teenage Legionaries, flying dogs in capes, and superpowers for Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang like a condemned man ordering his last meal. But there’s an undercurrent of darkness in all these appearances — Supergirl is bundled back to the future with her Legionnaire pals before she realizes she is dead in Superman’s era; Jimmy and Lana are killed by the Legion of Supervillains (who have traveled through time to witness Superman’s demise); even poor Krypto bites the dust after absorbing a fatal dose of radiation from the Kryptonite Man. Moore isn’t out just to kill off Superman — he has the innocence of the entire Silver Age of comics in his sites.

Curt Swan & Alan Moore

Moore tells a fast-paced and fun story (in a grim sort of way) but we don’t learn a lot about Superman, or see him meaningfully change in the crucible of his last days. Instead, Superman remains Superman, largely stoic as the people he loves are taken from him, even to the point of (seemingly) taking his own life in a chamber of gold Kryptonite, punishing himself for breaking his own code against killing after ending the murderous rampage of Mr. Mxyzptlk by tearing him in half with a Phantom Zone ray. But Moore stops short of total despair with a postscript that shows Superman is still alive, years later, married to his love in Lois Lane and father to a son with superpowers. Now living a boring human life, Superman is dismissive of his former identity, saying that Superman was too wrapped up in himself, and overrated, and wrong in his belief that the world couldn’t do without him.

Curt Swan & Alan Moore

There’s still a bit of sting in this ending (poor Lana and Jimmy and Krypto are still dead, after all), but Moore can be forgiven for wanting it both ways. He kicked for the nuts in these two issues, but this was a send-off for Superman, and even Alan Moore couldn’t bring himself to dance on the grave of  the world’s greatest superhero. Moore also telegraphed his conclusion in the first words of his story, telling us it would end with a wink, and reminding the reader that this was an imaginary story (and “Aren’t they all?”)

Grant Morrison & Frank Quietly

Morrison’s tale, being part of a longer-form continuity all its own, feels the more consequential story. While Moore’s tale is told at a frenetic pace, Morrison and Quietly can indulge in strong action set-pieces that also serve to show how Superman might have squandered his powers were he a less noble character — his battle with the time-traveling Samson and Atlas show us how the world would suffer from Superman as a sophomoric meathead, while his later battle with Kryptonians who have remade the earth in their own image shows how Superman may have been a tyrant, had he so desired. Mostly, though, we see Superman as selfless, working to his last hour to save the earth and ultimately giving his life to save earth’s sun, achieving apotheosis as a literal sun god (a fitting end, given that Morrison views Superman as a sun god figure, as revealed in his book, Supergods).

Grant Morrison & Frank Quietly

Selfless as he is, Morrison’s Superman is also selfish, or at least self-centered. He reveals his identity to Lois Lane, and treats her to a romantic, superpowered birthday, but then kind of hangs her out to try — obsessed as he is with saving the world — refusing to commit to a deeper relationship because their biology is incompatible, and they could never have children. Children aren’t the only reason people come together — would it have killed Superman to marry the girl? — but maybe here we see more of Superman’s alien psychology, a hint that a great gulf separates Superman even from the human that he loves most of all. Interestingly, Moore’s Superman is equivalently foolish when it comes to love, revealing that he could never have a life with Lois because he was afraid to break Lana’s heart. Maybe Superman’s greatest enemy isn’t death so much as it is romantic relationships!

In All-Star Superman and “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow” we have two entertaining comic book masterworks, by some of the most talented men in comics, both telling us their imaginary-but-not-really story of how Superman died. Both give us final and revisionist looks at the Superman mythos, and each story addresses Clark Kent’s relationship with the people he loves, and his enmities with the evil beings who have sought to destroy him.

Frank Quietly

Morrison’s tale tells us that the way Superman died was not so important as they way he lived, and he shows us how we never fully appreciated Superman while he was with us — and likely could never really understand him, owing to his alien psychology. Moore’s story is less interested in killing Superman than it is in killing the myth of the Silver Age of comics — a kind of prophetic, be-careful-what-you-wish-for warning from an author who saw more clearly than most that retroactively cleaning up the DC Universe through the contrivance of the Crisis on Infinite Earths would not serve to strengthen a great mythology so much as diminish it.

Neither tale is especially satisfying as a “death of Superman” story, but maybe a Superman death story is impossible. Moore’s Superman is unkillable because he is a figure of nostalgia, and even though Moore puts paid to the Silver Age in “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” that nostalgia has only grown larger in this era of endless THIS-time-we’ll-get-it-right reboots of comics and superhero movies. Morrison’s Superman is just as impossible to kill, as Morrison makes Superman a figure of myth, setting him to twelve labors before turning him into a god of the sun, positioning Superman’s demise not as a death so much as a transformation into a benign and functionally immortal presence that remains ever apart from a mankind that could never truly claim him as their own.

Frank Quietly

In both stories the world seems able to carry on after Superman, the “last days of Superman” proving to be a new beginning — of the modern and less soulful era after the Silver Age of comics for Moore, and of an era where Morrison leaves mankind to puzzle out the mystery of Superman’s transfiguration, and to follow him if they can. Whether Superman brought superpowered chaos upon himself and upon the world through his mere existence is beyond the scope of these tales, but in every other area, these stores grapple with big ideas — setting out to tell the death of Superman, they instead affirm his immortality. In writing these death tales, Morrison and Moore show us that while you can kill a man, you can’t kill an idea, whether it be the wistful memory of a bygone era or the legendary tale of a hero who died for the greater good.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #90 Red Sonja

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Supergods

Longbox Graveyard #18

Grant Morrison’s Supergods promises it will reveal “What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human,” but a better subtitle would be, “What 400 pages of a meandering comics memoir can teach us about being Grant Morrison.” At times sharply-written but ultimately flabby and self-indulgent, Supergods sings when it deconstructs beloved superheroes only to lose drive, relevance, and credibility when it veers into an account of Morrison’s personal drug-fueled vision quest.

I’ve been blacked out like one of the Red Skull’s Sleepers for the last couple decades and have missed most of Grant Morrison’s career. Aside from All-Star Superman and a recent Batman trade I don’t know his work. I had a vague sense that Morrison was a brainy guy with an appetite for biting the hand that feeds, but otherwise came to Supergods with an open mind.

In his introduction, Morrison asserts “Supergods is your definitive guide to the world of superheroes — what they are, where they come from, and how they can help us change the way we think about ourselves.” In his conclusion, Morrison writes, “Here in the twenty-first century we’re surrounded by proof that we tend to live our stories,” and Morrison declares that superheroes have been at the center of his spiritual and emotional development.

Morrison has a point. We citizens of the future fly though the sky near the speed of sound, use Google vision to zero in on any square foot of the earth, and can modify our minds and bodies in ways that challenge the definition of “human.” In a way we do live out the stories of superheroes. It is fascinating to think we may have “believed” ourselves into our present state, following the hidden signposts of some collective unconscious that reveals itself through comic book stories.

Superheroes as comparative myth! I’d like to read that book!

Supergods is not that book.

Supergods is a feathered fish, half history and half memoir, with anecdote masquerading as evidence, and opinions substituting for proof. While Morrison makes a case for the transformative effect of superheroes on his own life — leading him to personal fame, wealth, and professional success — his subjective and intimately personal narrative has little relevance for we poor mortals lacking Morrison’s self-proclaimed magic powers and extra-dimensional vision. If his book is to be a “definitive guide,” Morrison needs to more strongly connect superhero stories to social and psychological trends beyond his own personal experience.

For a man so immersed in comics — he’s in his third decade as a comics creator — Morrison has the gift of seeing superheroes with fresh eyes, a talent that has served him well in developing new takes on timeworn characters like Batman and Superman. His insight in examining one of the most iconic images in comics — the debut of Superman on the cover of Action Comics #1 — is Supergods at it’s best and it’s worst.

Morrison looks at the cover as it may have seemed to readers of the day — an ambiguous image of a circus strong man run amok, smashing a car against a rock, while citizens (?) criminals (?) flee in dismay. There are no captions to tell us who this man is, or if he is hero or villain. It is possible that by smashing a car, Superman lashes out — as Morrison suggests — against an age of industry deaf to the “silent cry of the little fellow.”

It’s when Morrison likens the X-shaped composition of the cover to a metaphorical crossroads and matter-of-factly links it with Haitian voodoo, Odin, and Ganesh that my bullshit valve blows. C’mon, Grant! The cover, like comics, may be profound … but it’s not that profound.

Not for the last time in Supergods, we are expected to accept an extraordinary claim simply because the author wishes it were so.

he wishes it so

These self-satisfied flourishes are as unfortunate as they are unnecessary, distracting from intriguing ideas — like Morrison’s assertion that Superman is an inherently Socialist hero of the people, a god-like, other-worldly reformer who by becoming a corporate trademark is “… transformed into a marketing tool, a patriotic stooge, and, worse: the betrayer of his own creators … (who) flew into the hands of anyone who could afford to hire him.”

Was Superman a Socialist brainwashed by The Man? Who knows? Morrison makes that provocative assertion, bows toward Ganesh, then moves on — fait accompli — to the commercial origins of Superman’s dark clone, Batman, and then in rapid succession surveys other Golden Age greats like the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Captain America, and the Flash. Here Morrison again jumps the fence, linking the Flash to the Roman god, Mercury, and from there to a grab-bag of ancient gods, including Ganesh (again with Ganesh!), reminding in an unfavorable way of master myth analyst Joseph Campbell, who could get away with this kind of stuff, because, well, he was Joseph freaking Campbell.

Joseph Freaking Campbell

Morrison tears into the 1950s with glee, praising EC Comics, machinegunning Fredric Wertham, and lamenting Superman’s fall from sun god to the “fatherly, conservative, and trustworthy” establishment figure played on television by George Reeves. Morrison’s deconstruction of the 1950s adventures of Superman, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen as the foul harvest of Mort Weisinger’s therapy sessions is as far-fetched as connecting the cover of Action #1 to Thoth and Ogma, but Morrison gets away with it here, given his bona fides as an expert on Superman.

His “Superman On The Couch” chapter is buoyed by the book’s strongest writing and is worth the price of admission. Morrison wonders at Jimmy Olsen’s transvestism, and sees 1950’s era Superman as a commitment-adverse, sadistic man-boy who delights in humiliating the husband-hunting Lois Lane with insincere promises of marriage. Every bit as vivid is Morrison’s assessment of Batman and Robin, a dysfunctional relationship Morrison says Robin could only have viewed as “… a schizoid cold war hell where Batman was secretly conniving to betray and dump (Robin) any time his guard was down.”

Almost as sharp is Morrison’s description of the Silver Age, which Morrison says originated with a request from the U.S. State Department that creators of entertainment for children try to cultivate an interest in science and technology in their audience — one of many fascinating but too-tidy claims that mar Supergods for their lack of citation. In Morrison’s narrative, early Silver Age heroes like Green Lantern and (especially) the Flash are New Frontier “Kennedy Men” — cold war science heroes like the Mercury 7 astronauts. When Kennedy was murdered and Camelot destroyed, the way was made clear for Marvel Comics to run rings around DC heroes that overnight seemed relics of a too-innocent age.

Morrison writes movingly of the cosmic importance and sheer, implausible joy of DC’s multiple earths, and damns by inference the modern DC impulse to rationalize and compartmentalize that crazy gush of four-color creativity. With the delight of an inveterate shit-disturber he affectionately regards the anything-goes era when Roy Thomas was Marvel’s editor-in-chief, making special note of Jim Starlin’s cosmic experimentation on titles like Captain Marvel and Warlock.

For Morrison, the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow begins the “Dark Age” of comics, putting paid to the uptight 1950s and the pop art 1960s with a more realistic and legitimized take on superheroes. Morrison acknowledges Dark Knight and Watchmen as twin thunderbolts of 1980s realism, then just as quickly dispatches them, offering arm’s-length affection for Dark Knight, and skewering Alan Moore for the overly structured and inherently ridiculous plot of Watchmen.

Speedy shoots up … what are the odds?

It is here where Morrison comes of age enters his own narrative, and this is where Supergods s-l-o-w-s d-o-w-n and loses much of its drive. Morrison turns to his own work: when Zenith, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and a deserved but dull victory lap for Morrison’s Arkham Asylum get more pages than Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four combined, the transformation is complete — Supergods is no longer a history. It has become a memoir, where Morrison gets rich, travels the world, practices magic, attains enlightenment, and loses the reader.

Morrison is sincerely committed to his tale. I believe he believes what he believes. Fans of his work may get a real kick from the inner journey that blew Morrison’s mind while writing The Invisibles. Morrison gets points for putting himself out there, and if I’d rather read about imaginary heroes in a space station 22,300 miles above the earth’s surface than a real explorer on a drug trip in Katmandu, then maybe that says more about the reader than the writer. What I found ridiculous you may find profound. But when Morrison says we should not attribute to hashish his vision of “… the Shwayambunath temple rearrang(ing) itself like a Transformer into some kind of chrome lionlike configuration with exhaust pipes and tubular spirit conduits,” the sane man has to say No, Grant — that’s the hashish.

Does Grant Morrison talk like this over dinner? Do his friends let him get away with it?

Insight and nonsense, humor and hooey. The wheel is always turning in Supergods. You take one with the other or you take nothing at all.

Morrison returns to form with his “Image Versus Substance” chapter, chronicling the rocketship rise of Image Comics. Resuming the ironic outsider tone that made “Superman On The Couch” so readable, Morrison doesn’t disguise the suffocating horror he felt at the Image explosion: “At the time, it was a dreadful setback for the idea of ‘grown-up’ superhero comics. In hindsight, it was America’s inevitable reaction to Watchmen, and the only response that could possibly be effective: Fuck realism, we just want our superheroes to look cool and kick ten thousand kinds of ass.”

“… cocaine comics, emotionally dead, creatively limited, and perfectly timely.”

Morrison gets his sneer on with delicious results, offering backhanded praise for Image’s commercial acumen in “… appealing to the lowest common denominator … a huge, new market: bored teenage boys growing up with The Terminator, PlayStation, and Mega Drive who wanted no-nonsense action heroes in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Bruce Willis style.” It doesn’t occur to Mr. Morrison that what may have bored those teenage boys were the arty, metrosexual heroes of the brief British comics golden age he so admires, but no matter — the Image flame-out comes soon enough, and Morrison is there to write the obituary. With the direct market saturated by Image product, Morrison describes the geek superhero glimpsing “… itself in the mirror, standing there in stained underpants and playing air guitar,” then he brings Alan Moore back on stage for a kicking, calling him out for first leaving superheroes because his work left no more stories to be told, only to then sell himself out to The Man with the miscalculated 1963, which Morrison suggests was the beginning of the end for Image.

“… the way engines might dream of themselves.”

Morrison is a superior writer, and in places his words sizzle. He writes that superheroes are “… a uniquely American creation … born of a corn-fed, plain-talking, fair-minded midwestern sensibility,” while heroes of the British comic book industry are “a rum bunch” of “cargo cult creations” that “stink of the bargain bin” and “left behind the stale odor of rationing and austerity.” He calls Mort Weisinger’s influence over Superman stories a “Jungian bowel movement.” Jack Kirby’s creations sport “Aztec zig-zags and go-faster stripes,” with his engines looking “… the way engines might dream of themselves.” Image Comics were “… cocaine comics, emotionally dead, creatively limited, and perfectly timely.”

When that voice is present, Supergods is a delight. But Morrison loses the plot when he writes about his own quest for the meaning of life, and his matter-of-fact declaration of enlightenment casts a shadow over the entire work.

The only evidence that Morrison offers for superheroes teaching us new ways to think about ourselves is Mr. Morrison himself, miraculously transformed from comics geek to mystical, world-famous storytelling shaman. But in neglecting to connect the spiritual significance of superheroes to anything outside own biography, Supergods fails to be a “definitive guide” to anything but Grant Morrison. The last step in understanding the significance of superheroes as immortal myth symbols apparently requires traveling to Nepal and getting 5-D vision. There’s no path for me to follow. It’s a travelogue to nowhere.

Morrison’s commitment to his ideas, opinions, and insights is courageous, and that I found him tiresome after four hundred pages does not make him wrong or insincere. Morrison takes himself and his work seriously, and he genuinely gives a shit about comics. And when it sticks to funnybooks, Supergods is a fine read. But by claiming superheroes can “teach us more about being human,” and “help us change the way we think about ourselves,” but then neglecting to prove those points in a relatable fashion, Morrison does a high dive into an empty pool.

The failure of Supergods isn’t so much that it’s mostly nonsense, because Morrison writes well enough that even his nonsense can be entertaining. The problem is that Morrison’s opinion of himself as superhero isn’t nearly so interesting as his opinion of superheroes themselves.

Should you buy Supergods?

Historians should give it a miss — with its lack of attribution and unsupported opinion, there’s nothing here you can use (unless your subject is Grant Morrison himself!).

Students of poison pen character assassination should buy a copy for the Mort Weisinger and Image Comics chapters alone.

Pseudo-intellectuals should buy two copies, and get them autographed.

It’s kind of a coin-flip, but comic book fans should probably accept the good with the bad and add Supergods to their library. I’ve been hard on the book in this review, but Morrison’s opinions on comics are worthy, insightful, and funny. Approach the text with a critical eye and be your own editor — enjoy the good stuff, and skim the nonsense. Though scandalously under-illustrated, the book is bloated at 400 pages, so you can safely ignore half of it and still get a good read for the cover price.

And all of us should see if Morrison walks the walk by checking out the recently re-launched Action Comics, where Mr. Morrison has been tasked with guiding Superman into our new century. Superman as Socialist champion of the working class is a promising take … but as soon as Supes teams up with Ganesh, I’m out.

NOT a Superman/Ganesh team-up, but don’t let Grant see or he’ll add another 400 pages to Supergods

(For a contrasting and positive view of Supergods, check out comicbookGRRL’s review).

(Thanks to Tom Mason and Chris Ulm for their pre-publication review of this article).

NEXT WEEK: #18 Top Single Issue Stories

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