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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

SUPERMAN IS DEAD. LONG LIVE SUPERMAN

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By Lane Williams
September 2008

Today is new comic book day. That’s Wednesday, to you neophytes out there.

All Star Superman #12 is coming out today, marking the end of a three year run from critically acclaimed writer & artist combo Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly. These two have been a money-making success on such titles as “We 3” (watch for the movie buzz), “New X Men” (the issue released September 12, 2001 depicted a plane colliding with a tower Magneto was holed up in), and “The Invisibles” (where Frank penned the final chapter, taking place on December 22, 2012).

Grant Morrison is a right bloody Pop Magick Beast, he is. When The Invisibles sales were dropping, he crafted a sigil and told readers to wank to it. Sales picked up. This Scotland native has spoken with aliens, or at the very least had his share of visionary psycho nautical experiences, and at a Disinfocon several years ago he recounted his First Contact, shortly before giving the audience notes on how to construct their own sigils. He works within the mindscape of the comics world with a sincerity, and All Star Superman is a quick pick-me-up.

Why is Superman important? Even with Morrison writing, even with Quitely drawing? Because for the first time the true Golden Age of Comics are upon us, and this series was a cornerstone. You don’t believe me? Ask Douglas Wolk, Gerard Jones, or anyone else approaching comics critically or anthropologically. They’ll take the time, perhaps, to inform you of something primal in the reaction people had to comics at their outset, before the McCarthy era, during a time when monthly sales surpassed today’s yearly sales.

Let me explain my position on the series, though. I’ve never liked Superman. He’s always been a rather dull bastard, really. An icon to pelt with tomatoes. Drunkenly driven into the ground like a rocketship with a baby in it. Too powerful, too nice. Hell, the last time the wider populace paid any attention to Superman (besides ridiculing that half-limp movie a while back) was when he died. Sure enough, the bastard returned, along with five impersonators that read like a cast list from the Real World in terms of diversity. Whatever. Morrison’s All Star series has been about the root dynamics of the character, a massive streamlining that lesser writers would be too intimidated by the scope of to take on. The basic origin is told in one page in the first issue, and if you need a recap : “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.” The accompanying images of course seal these lines into perfect order, and quite frankly Frank Quitely’s work is sheer brilliance throughout the series (though he draws some faces a tad too standard stock). Importantly, that first page is indicative of the stream-lining that Morrison’s writing has undertaken for this larger than life character, technically the first “superhero“.

Still, cutting down the fat or sprucing up an old or hackneyed character isn’t a new thing. He’s revamped numerous titles in similar fashion, from the Doom Patrol on up to the Justice League. The real perfection of the series has been the little things and the big things.

We have a good start. After Superman’s solar cells are supercharged to the point that he’s more powerful than he has ever been, but he has months at most to live. He begins to undergo a series of mythic trials that will end in either apoptosis (cell death) or apotheosis (spiritual ascension). That second part is more of a hypothesis due to issue 6’s beautifully convoluted/deliberately simple time travel scenario where Superman meets himself as a golden god.

Here, before I digress into some convoluted spasm of geekdom, I’ll hit on some major points of the series, to see if it sounds structurally sound. If you’re interested in the series, you should know that follows is a spoiler.

Superman reveals his identity to Lois Lane after he finds out he‘s going to die; reveals that his intellect has increased as much as his strength, brews up a drink that gives Lois Lane his superpowers for a day; arm wrestles Samson and Atlas after answering an unsolvable riddle of the Ultrasphinx; turns evil under the effects of Black Kryptonite; gets his ass kicked by Jimmy Olsen as Doomsday; interviews Lex Luthor on death row (!!!) as Clark Kent while trying to inconspicuously stop a riot in the prison as Superman; travels back in time with a team of his descendants from the future to say goodbye to his father the day he dies; staves off an attack by the Bizarro Planet by punching it; getting trapped on the Bizarro Planet as it sinks into the Underverse, haphazardly escaping in the nick of time; returning to Earth to find people from Krypton have moved in on his former position as world hero, dealing with them fairly enough after they crack the moon in half and then use the world’s bridges to staple it back together; creating baby universe Earth Q in his Fortress of Solitude, where Plato, Nietzsche and Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster all make appearances; putting the bottle city of Kandor on Mars (allowing for tiny superhumans that can cure cancer and terminal disease); preparing for his demise, defeating a “Tyrant Sun” with a team of Superman robots and, as Clark Kent, finishing an article on Superman’s death shortly before Lex Luthor shows up after having taken a batch of the same stuff Kal El gave Louis in the third issue shortly before his execution.

So. Yeah. It holds up, even in that sea of semicolons.

Everywhere in the mainstream of the industry, a meta-archetypal shift is underway. Marvel has created a very careful political bent in recent years, with industry cross-overs carrying tags like “Whose Side are you On?” or “Who do you trust?” replacing convoluted mutant affairs. Hell, they even killed Captain America. But no comic book character stays dead long. There was The Ultimates, which ran as a “GWB owning the Avengers” sort of scenario, where superhumans were weapons of mass destruction, and Bush‘s “Axis of Evil“ got their own superhumans to take over America, creating, naturally, an arm‘s race.

In the DC/Marvel arms race, there would seem to be a grander scope to the series Final Crisis than Secret Invasion. Secret Invasion is pretty ground level and basic. Attack of the Pod People. Sorry, um. Skrulls. Oh, who’s the bad guy? Embrace change? What? Final Crisis is more indirect, proposing tension for once, with prophetic bets placed on Evil winning, the multiverse collapsing. It mixes cosmic cops with ground-level detective work efficiently. Someone kills a New God at the beginning of the book with a time traveling bullet, likely fired in a later issue.

Superman, in another Grant Morrison scripted tie-in to the series, Superman Beyond 3D (complete with 3D goggles to give you a massive headache!), travels outside the Bleed of Realities to Limbo, where he discovers a book with every book ever written in it, and in that observes a metalinguistic barrier and monitoring system between his universe and our own. This is Morrison examining the paper-verse, or as Warren Ellis once put it via Elijah Snow in Planetary: “three dimensional side-effects of a two dimensional universe existing within a multidimensional stack.”

This is a conceptual fractal, see? We‘re talking about the ninth art. We’re talking about image and text fusion. It’s difficult to pull off, but it cleans up nice. Comics? Universally accessible. I heard they grew up smart in spite of the lead paint sandwiches certain regulatory systems forced them to eat at a young age. Ah, but then if the question is no longer if the comics medium is exclusively for children, what is the question? Perhaps, how is it slated to grow next? Is it a ladder? Is it like bacteria in a petri dish?

If you can see past the dreck of the comics industry (there’s always going to be plenty) and take a cue from literary history, you look for the writers. After that bloody bubble of speculation and false profits in the nineties popped, swamp-splattering even the Big Two, the artists proved an illusion of profits when they were in fact a means to an end. The writers of the past twenty years or so have given comics certain airs of respectability, a steady accumulation of good faith. The artists have learned good design technique, in the meantime.

After the dust has settled, this medium once reserved for man-children and hyperactive idiots would appear to have become a literate and well-adjusted (if somewhat quirky) jack-of-all-trades. Make friends with him. He’s been ignored so long that he’s the only one with a clear head and no restrictions. Even the Big Two have dismantled the Comics Code Authority, instituting a ratings system that ranges from kid-friendly to mature. There’s no proper lexicon, there’s no comic vernacular to speak of outside the collector edge or the creator network. We can construct a language, easily. We can accumulate the histories or we can reinvigorate them, paint them fresh, make them new again. Social and political commentary is easy in a medium as free as comics.

This is a shot in the dark, a call to arms for decent talent to take up the medium. Clear out the dreck. Or better yet, clean up the dreck. This is still a relatively new medium, not as slow as a novel or as quick as a film, but something that can act subversively or informatively without being too obvious. Maybe it’s time to take all these things said to be designed for idiot man-children and help their means of expression mature.

1 comment:

BenBertin said...

Do you want to submit this to Shit? Or something like it, perhaps less specifically about Superman and more about the "true Golden Age"?