Pop-Drama – Superman
I really am returning to proper bloggery now. The last month or six weeks have been some of the hardest in recent years for me – not because of anything especially bad happening for the most part, but I’ve just been overwhelmed with work (in the last four weeks I’ve been given new responsibilities at work, co-authored a paper, and completed two projects for my course, while also trying to help my wife through an illness and work on PEP!). But that’s mostly settled down now (though I have about a million personal emails to get through). So I’m going to go back to my old ways with posting.
I’ve not written much about comics recently, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because comics analysis takes a lot more mental energy than any other kind of writing I do. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Superman, and how to deal with him in my pop-drama series.
Superman, you see, is actually one character where the setup is more or less right – but everyone still gets it wrong. With the exception of All Star Superman, and a few of Kurt Busiek’s issues (before his plans were repeatedly altered by editorial), nobody’s done a decent comic about the character in decades – you get one good Superman story every ten years or so on average (last decade, All-Star, the nineties – the issue of Hitman he features in, the eighties Moore’s work and arguably Crisis On Infinite Earths).
There are three problems, really, with Superman. The first is that there’s not, yet, a good ending for the Superman ‘myth’ – both Grant Morrison and Alan Moore tried, but neither story is considered the ‘canonical’ end to the story even in the way that Dark Knight Returns is for Batman. One could have argued that the original Crisis On Infinite Earths functioned that way for the real, Siegel and Shuster, Superman, but of course Geoff Johns had to go and write Infinite Crisis…
The problem with all endings to the Superman story that have been thought of are that they involve Superman giving up and retiring. This makes no sense with the character as he’s appeared for more than seventy years, but it’s the only way people have been able to come up with an ending that doesn’t involve him being utterly defeated. Neither of these seems like a fitting end for the character.
The second problem is that writers who can’t get a handle on the character – who think he’s too powerful or whatever – try to make the comic not about Superman, but about the supporting characters. There were whole months at a time in the nineties where the comic wasn’t about Superman and his adventures but about the blind daughter of a right-wing columnist for the Daily Planet. We’re seeing something similar at the moment – of the four current Super-titles, Superman only appears in one.
This makes a certain amount of sense – the Daily Planet in itself could be a good ‘story engine’, much in the same way as Grant Morrison’s Manhattan Guardian (link goes to Justin’s blog) could. But all the characters in it are ‘secondary characters’ rather than the star of the story, and they all have ended up with their own huge, baroque back-stories that no-one can possibly follow (remember how Perry White and his wife had a son, who died, who was really the illegitimate son of Lex Luthor, who is himself posing as his own son after faking his own death? Neither does anyone else…)
And finally, there’s the fact that in a continuing serial – whether part of a shared universe or otherwise – Superman can’t really change anything. The character is, of necessity, ineffectual, and spurious reasons have to be made up for him not to, for example, remove dictators (“humanity must run its own affairs, I would be corrupted by the power” – simply not a good reason for refusing to rectify obvious evils).
So we need to solve these problems.
I’m going to assume here that we can ignore the ‘DC Universe’ and only look at two comics, Superman and Action Comics, but that these two comics will continue to be published indefinitely. So this is what I’d do were I to be given the writer/editorship of those two titles, and allowed to do what I wanted with them with no thought as to how they’d interact with the wider ‘DC Universe’:
Firstly, I’d announce, very publicly, that we were splitting the two books. Superman would be about the adventures of Superman, while Action Comics would become like the old Superman Family comics – all about the adventures of Lois Lane, girl reporter, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, and so on. I would announce that to make the point about the separation of these two, Superman would not be appearing in Action for a year, and his supporting cast would not be appearing in his title. After that year, *Clark Kent* but not Superman would appear in Action, and while the Daily Planet characters could have whatever adventures they wanted in Action, they would only appear in Superman as supporting characters, firmly in the background.
I realise that this sounds a bit like the stuff I’m complaining about, but it wouldn’t be…
My first issue of Superman would have Clark Kent asking for a leave of absence from the Planet for a few months, to write a book. But really, it would be to start changing things around. He’s got tired of ignoring systemic abuses, and he’s going to change things.
And while he was gone, Action would be totally reinvented. Superman would literally not be mentioned once, even in passing. Nor do we mention *ANY* previous story, or any Superman villains – no Brainiac or Luthor or anything. This title stands on its own. There would be a year-long story about a conspiracy within government, being investigated by Lois Lane, which would be the backup feature throughout the year, while Jimmy Olsen would quickly become the star of the story (each of Jimmy’s adventures would turn up clues to the big picture Lois was working on).
Over the twelve issues, he would be kidnapped by aliens who want to learn more about Earth’s rock and roll music, discover he was the precise double of an obscure European dictator and thus be targeted by assassins, get infected with a mutated virus, spread by sneezing, which causes everyone who catches the disease to turn into another Jimmy Olsen, get caught in a time distortion field which makes him experience events in the opposite order to everyone else (this issue would be told in such a way that you could read it page one top left panel to page 24 bottom right panel, and read it as Jimmy experiences it, or read it backwards and read it as everyone around him experiences events, and have both stories make sense), pass through into our universe (this one would be a photocomic), accidentally enter into a pact with the devil by not reading the small print on a car rental agreement, get made ‘editor for the day’ by Perry White to show him that Perry’s job is harder than he thinks, meet J’mi Ulzen, time travelling cub reporter from the 35th century, go undercover in a criminal gang that turns out to be made up entirely of undercover reporters, obtain an enchanted camera that takes photos of how things will be half an hour in the future, nearly become the cause of an intergalactic war, as Space Queens Bheti and V’ron’ka, of two different galaxies, both want him as their consort, and in the last issue…
But we’re meant to be talking about Superman, aren’t we?
So in the Superman title, we will, to an extent, mirror the history of the character. He starts off as a social crusader, terrorising slum landlords, usurious credit card companies and so on. He starts getting involved in politics – an endorsement from Superman will win elections for people, worldwide.
He cures cancer. He removes dictators from power. He does, in short, all the things that we would do, had we Superman’s powers. He also engages in some pure physics research (with that beardy professor, Emil Hamilton, from the 90s? No reason not to use old characters so long as we don’t have to explain them), who infodumps various bits about quantum physics.
But he doesn’t just do this, of course – there’s also the standard supervillain stuff to contend with, and a highlight of the first half of this first year will be the redemption of Lex Luthor – in a forty-page story, set in one room, with just the two of them talking, and Superman using logic to convince Luthor to turn his talents towards good (Luthor then joins Superman’s little research team).
After much talk about ‘the device’, Superman then sets off on his ultimate adventure – he flies literally to the other side of the universe, carrying a small gadget whose purpose is unexplained with him. It’s implied that this takes a *long* time, and on the way we have adventures involving Mongul and Warworld, Darkseid, Adam Strange and the whole host of DC cosmic characters – in each one Superman ends the story having made a *huge* difference to something.
And then he gets to the farthest point possible – the antipodal point of the universe, the literal opposite end of the universe from Earth, and he turns his gadget on. And we see Lex and Emil, back in Metropolis, doing the same (Superman can see them using a superluminal communicator of some kind). And a light suffuses the universe…
They’ve built a universal resonator. A machine which literally turns the universe into heaven. There will be no more death, no more pain, no suffering. Every living thing in the universe will live forever in a state of infinite bliss.
And then Superman pulls out another gadget.
“Emil, you told me about the infinite number of other universes out there. I’m going to visit.”
“But… but we’ve got heaven now! Perfection! Why do you want to leave that?”
“So why are you going?”
“Because some of those other universes don’t have a Superman to save them. Someone’s got to do it…”
“Surely you’ve done enough!”
“I can’t let anyone suffer any more. There’s been too much suffering already”
“But… there’s an infinite number of them!”
“Yes. It might take a little while”. And giving a confident smile (like the one I picture in my head, drawn by George Perez but I can’t think from which story), he steps through a doorway, through which is coming a blazing light.
And the last issue of the twelve-issue run of Action features Jimmy Olsen investigating rumours of a flying man in Metropolis, and at the end of the story, Jimmy and Lois are introduced to a new reporter, from out of town, who’s just starting work at the Planet. His name is Clark Kent. And we end with a Curt Swan wink to the reader.
(Tomorrow – White Album Post 1)