Friday, June 14, 2013

Musings On Superman on the Seventy-fifth Anniversary of the Superhero

I love superhero comics as much as I love comics as a glorious whole.

The dual demise of Wizard Magazine and The Comics Journal (as a regular print periodical) in 2010 was a symptom of the often ballyhooed "death of print" that continues to this very moment. While I don't completely buy the mass extinction of print, when it comes to comics news reporting, journalism and commentary, the vanguard had long since migrated to the internet and the death of Wizard and The Journal were inevitable. And while few seem to equate Wizard and The Journal as similar entities, I contend that their mutual folding was also a symptom of their mutual narrow world views: Wizard represented coverage of the lowest common denominator of comic entertainment, in their substandard and pop-focused coverage of the comic artform and their inveterate speculation and profiteering; The Comics Journal in their snobbishness, a lowest common denominator of a more insidious kind that excludes vast swaths of a medium for no other reason than lots of people like it, ignoring their own publisher's long history of inartful smut-peddling. Wizard and The Journal were two sides of the same coin, a coin that comics as a medium and a culture are mercifully better off without.

Of course The Comics Journal still exists as an occasional print publication and more frequent online one1, and its attitude towards the medium is unchanged. Interspersed with decent commentary on various independent and international works and in-depth interviews with a certain subset of creators is its ceaseless snobbery and willful ignorance of superhero comics. I like superhero comics. I also like art-house comics and strips and international material and mini-comics and monthlies and OGNs and webcomics. I like good comics in whatever form they take. Websites like The Hooded Utilitarian2 and The Comics Grid3 and The Comics Reporter4 are more reflective of my tastes and of, what I believe, is the reality of the average modern comic consumer, who are increasingly seeing the potential of comics as a storytelling medium beyond but inclusive of superheroes. Perhaps my viewpoint is skewed by my location and profession: I have for many years worked for one of the America's most progressive comic retailers - JHU Comic Books in New York City5 - an early and continuous pioneer and evangelist of the entire broad range of the comics language. My biggest personal influence as a comic consumer and thinker is JHU's co-owner Nick Purpura, one of the industry's most well-read and well-informed figures, and my experience working for JHU has repeatedly shown me that, at least in our customer base in Manhattan, that comic readers are adventurous and omnivorous.

Of course I also see many cases of folks unfamiliar with the comics medium who only know of comics as superhero fare, and just as many who are into comics and stick to just superhero material. I always strive to direct people to good comics regardless of the genre, but I completely understand those who stick to superheroes (the Wizard crowd) and those that avoid it (the Journal crowd). Both limit themselves, of course, and most, I believe, can and do embrace the entire spectrum of comics. So what of superhero comics? Superheroes, that uniquely American and uniquely odd genre of storytelling, are 75 years old this year. The comic book as a mode of storytelling delivery is just a few years older. (It is a natural assumption for many to assume that superhero comics are comics, but of course that is not the case.) Superheroes and the comic book would go on to influence the comic medium and eventually all of pop culture to an astonishing degree over the next seven-plus decades.

Though they were not my gateway drug into comics (that would be Tintin), I have always enjoyed superhero comics. Superhero comics as a genre are terribly flawed, there are veins of sexism and stupidity and bad art. Certainly Sturgeon's Law6 applies to superhero comics (and it applies just as equally to non-superhero fare despite what publishers like Fantagraphics or D&Q would like you to believe): most of what is out there is complete crap; the goal, the thrill of the hunt is in finding and celebrating that which is not crap, that which is better than what can be and what is elsewhere. And I love the damn things, the good but not the bad or the ugly. And superhero comics all started with one character, one idea, one ideal: Superman. But I have never really liked Superman.

I love superhero comics. I don't like Superman.

(Perfunctory Action shot.)
I've always been a Marvel guy; that is, when it comes to superhero comics I prefer those published by Marvel comics. It's not that I don't read DC superhero books, I do, but there is something about Marvel that has always appealed to me over DC. I know many people who like both equally or one over the other (or neither, preferring independent or strictly no longer extant superheroes). Now, I don't discount my preference of Marvel over DC could be the result of simple branding. But after my first exposure to superheroes at a young age I very quickly gravitated towards Marvel. There are decided differences of style between the two companies: Marvel, especially with the foundation of the Marvel Age of comics in the early 1960s, has tended to feature flawed, grounded heroes approached with suspicion by those not similarly powered, where DC's heroes tended to be more straight-laced and beloved. But after the widespread darkening of mainstream superhero fiction following the mid-1980s, one could argue that there is little difference in the books put out by both companies. I disagree, of course. Maybe this is some sort of misplaced brand loyalty, but Marvel Comics just feel different, as patently ridiculous as this may seem, more realistic in the sense that the events we see take place in a world more recognizably like our own, just a science fiction infused superhero mirror of it, whereas DC tends towards more unrealistic idealism. Marvel - as a fictional universal entity and as a company - is certainly flawed, and is not immune to producing shitty comics or treating its creative talent with contempt. But its creative output just tends to be better than DC, more interesting and engaging with more relatable characters. But perhaps the biggest difference is the persistent existence of the nearly all-powerful, largely bland and disinteresting Superman.

In June, 1938, Action Comics 1 from the company that would become DC Entertainment saw the debut of a new type of character - the costumed superpowered crimefighter - in Superman. Created by Cleveland high-schoolers Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster five years prior with the intent of comic strip syndication, they eventually sold the comic to DC. The newly exploded market would produce thousands of variants on the idea, and the sudden proliferation of superhero comics would prop up an industry which included funny animal comics, pulp heroes, adaptations, war comics, sci-fi, and strip reprints - but predominantly superhero material (which remains true to this day). The superhero was revolutionary, but much like Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, it wasn't created from a vacuum and owes its creation to a variety of preexisting ideas while elegantly distilling those concepts into a fairly original concept of its own. Superman and the superhero and pulp-hero comics that followed in its wake would eventually forge a new American mythology and create a multi-billion dollar industry. And the creation of Superman would also start the precedent of criminally underpaying the creators of these fictional heroes, Comics' Original Sin.

Superman, the fictional character, is extremely powerful. He can do pretty much anything - indeed his powers are nearly godlike, with very little he cannot do. His personality is also very dull. Is it wrong to equate his straightforward midwestern American decency with dullness? Maybe - but there are many characters in superhero fiction who are decent and always strive to do the right thing but have the same human flaws that we all have, doubts and mistakes made, flaws Superman often lacks. (And Superman is inhuman, not just in his alien nature, but in that where the best heroes are humans who wear a colorful mask, Superman's mask is Clark Kent. The fiction he weaves is that of a human, and there's a certain dishonesty more insidious than the dishonesty of putting on a mask.) Now Superman has not always been so perfect - his initial appearances by Seigel and Shuster feature a much less powerful, more personally gruff man of the people. But thanks to various economic pressures from licensors, he quickly morphed into the godlike being we know him as today. This all-powerful nature is what sells Superman to many, and what is a turn-off to some, like myself.

Many would argue that Superman's powerset, his status as the ur-hero, is what makes him special. Many would point out that the proliferation of the Superman "S" exemplifies the inspiration the character gives to millions (though maybe that proliferation really just exemplifies the cultural penetration of a valuable trademark). No, I shouldn't be so cynical... Superman is a powerful trademark, but he is also a powerful and ubiquitous inspiration for many.

But on the eve of the release of release of Man of Steel - just seven years after the last attempt at a Superman movie - we are reminded of the difficulties of translating the character to a different medium. (As I write this, I have not seen the film though I intend to.) But I see this as a failure at the root of who and what the character is, a failure reflected in the vast majority of the comics he appears in. I can't claim to be well-read where it comes to Superman by any measure, but I have read many key works and am familiar enough with many others to be consistently and thoroughly unimpressed. Perhaps I have preconceived opinions of the character that interferes with my potential enjoyment of the works, but I don't think that's the case. Many Superman comics are mediocre to awful, with few rising above the fray. Just look at this week's new Superman Unchained 1, a much heralded new release from two of DC's top-flight creators - Scott Snyder and Jim Lee - set to capitalize on the release of the new film. It is a silly story that creates an action set-piece to capitalize on the artist's talents that comes off as a ridiculous gimmick. What nonsense.

But then there's All-Star Superman, frankly one of the finest comics ever created. All-Star's incontrovertible status as a masterpiece only seems to highlight the lack of similarly achieved quality from prior and subsequent Superman stories. But then maybe it's unfair to compare All-Star Superman, a transcendent work with few peers, to anything else which can't possibly measure up. Written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely & Jamie Grant, All-Star Superman was published in 12 parts between 2005 and 2008. Not taking place in the shared DC Universe (which helps), All-Star chronicled Superman's final days. The elements that make All-Star work, the specific embracing of the inspired silliness of prior Superman stories and the unapologetic utilization and expansion of his godlike abilities, things that would turn me off in any other context, were executed to such perfection by Morrison and Quitely that I found myself embracing those selfsame elements. Grant Morrison is someone who is a true believer in the inspirational, aspirational potential of the superhero genre and Superman in particular, and he crafted a tale that not only celebrates but exemplifies everything that is possible in superhero comics. Superman for so many people is a shining example of the possible, of the heroic and the good, and for the first time with All-Star I felt it. It is one thing to know that people think a certain thing, it's another to completely grokk it yourself, and like a religious awakening All-Star did that for me. All-Star Superman 10 is the perfect superhero comic which accomplishes volumes in a short 22 page space: Superman is dying, dead really, and he rushes to save the day, again and again, no matter the sacrifice; he cures the sick, gives hope to the lost, gives purpose to those affected by his greatest failure, accepts defeat to his greatest foe, confronts his mortality, decodes his DNA, and creates the universe that created him. Like many Morrison comics it is a classic and layered meta-work of science fiction, but it is also a powerful, moving, transcendent achievement in not just the superhero genre but in the comics medium.

But that so few creators could achieve what Morrison and Quitely do is more a credit to Morrison and Quitely than a credit to Superman. My rapturous feelings to All-Star Superman do not translate to Superman, but to superhero comics as a genre and comics as a medium. This is a work that takes my breath away, not because of the character, but because of the creators.

Superman just still doesn't work for me. A character who can do anything within a shared fictional universe lessens that universe. That All-Star succeeds is because it is not in that shared universe, but in a self-contained bubble. Otherwise, that superiority diminishes everything else. I look at the other great superhero stories of the last thirty years, and can only imagine that the presence of a character like Superman would ruin it. The stakes are lowered and the structure of the conflicts fall apart when a character who can do anything is introduced. Many of these best superhero comics of the last three decades are not actually Marvel comics, but I still enjoy the shared setting of the Marvel Universe over that of any other shared universes. (Again, preference and general joy of experience plays a big role.) And it is a joy that would be diminished by Superman's presence.

Superman is in my DNA, and I reject him nonetheless.

Superman is the archetype, the first, and many (though clearly not I) would argue the best. He's certainly the most well-known, beloved and influential character of his type ever created. He inspires millions, his existence fuels a multi-billion dollar multimedia empire. Humanity had never seen anything like Superman because there had never been anything like Superman. Without Superman, comics as we know them simply would not exist. There would be no recognizable mass comic industry, the vibrant and extraordinary culture that exists around superhero comics simply wouldn't be. Whether or not the alt-comics of today would exist, from the Hernandezes and Wares of the comics world, is simply unknowable. The strip format would certainly still exist largely unchanged (i.e. a pale shade of its former glories with the cutting edge of creativity largely on the internet), and the rise of comics in Japan and Europe are largely unconnected to American superhero comics, though they certainly penetrated those cultures.

I love comics as a medium and language, I love the stuff covered by the Wizards and Journals of old, I love superhero comics, the stories and the format and the genre and the culture. Comics are my life. Comics are my bread and butter, they are what inspire me, they entertain me and sustain me. I spend my days thinking about comics and talking about comics and evangelizing comics and selling comics for a living and writing about comics as a passion. And I have to owe it all to Superman, at least for being the seed that bears the fruit of my passions. I just don't love Superman. I can't, I never will. I recognize and reject Superman in the same thought, like a man recognizes and rejects the religion of his forebears.

Long live Superman. To hell with Superman.

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