On Being A Marvel, Not A DC

Today I did something I’ve never done before. I went to a comic shop and bought more Marvel comics than DC ones. I picked up sixteen comics, and only six were DC. Seven were Marvel, and three were Image.

This is a very depressing figure, because three years ago I’d have bought that many comics in a week, and this was ten weeks’ worth of comics I was picking up. And the reason I’m buying so few comics is precisely because up until now I’ve always preferred DC to Marvel.

While I appreciate and love comics’ potential as an artistic medium as much as anyone — give me an Alice In Sunderland or Alec and I’ll rave about it for hours — comics are one of the few media I also turn to for pure entertainment, the way other people watch the football or soap operas. I can’t cope with those things, but I can enjoy an equally mindless comic, so long as it’s done to a basic level.

And throughout my life, since I was about ten, I’ve always looked to DC Comics for that kind of thing.

It’s a kind of brand loyalty I don’t usually have about most things, and think is ridiculous, but when I was first becoming a comics fan, DC was producing comics that were so far superior to Marvel’s it’s hard to think of them even as the same media. While DC were putting out things like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and even fun brainless stuff like Alan Grant’s work on Batman, Lobo and The Demon, Marvel were going all in on the proto-Image GUNS-WITH-A-CAPITAL-GUNS “aesthetic”.

And this meant that at a formative age, I got to grok DC Comics (and 2000AD, which I thought of as essentially the same thing, since the DC comics I liked were mostly made by British writers and artists who were also working for The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic) in a way I never did with Marvel. STAR Labs, Black Canary, the Daily Planet building, WGBS-TV, Lexcorp, all have instant associations for me in a way that, say, Stark Industries, Ms. Marvel, the Baxter Building and so on just don’t.

And so what this has meant is that whenever Marvel have put out something truly, exceptionally, good, I’ve bought it, but I’ve never bought the dozens of basically competent titles Marvel put out every month. I have, on the other hand, bought and enjoyed plenty of DC comics that merely showed a basic competence — I bought every issue of the 2008-2011 Booster Gold series, for example, which no-one is ever going to accuse of being a masterpiece but which had a witticism-spouting man in a gaudy costume having time travel adventures.

Since the New 52 started in late 2011, though, DC has descended into something close to the level of utter incompetence that Marvel where at when I first started buying comics. When the New 52 started out, I put something like thirty titles from it on my pull list, because there were interesting concepts like Demon Knights and Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE, and people like Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, J.H. Williams, George Perez — people who knew how to make good comics — working on many of the books.

Most of the more interesting titles are now cancelled, and none of those people are working on the comics they were working on. In three years, my DC pull list has gone from around thirty titles to two — Swamp Thing and Justice League 3000. And they’re the two comics I’m least interested in out of all the ones I’m buying.

Sorry, make that three — I’ve also got the Sandman miniseries on my list, the monthly one that’s released two issues in the last nine months.

The vast majority of DC’s output has turned into a sludgy morass of underdressed women, men with too many muscles and too many pockets, and “homages” to “classic” stories but with more violence and misogyny. Some of the titles I’m not reading might have got good again, and some of the new titles might be good. I know people have been saying nothing but good things about Batgirl (but even with Gail Simone writing, or now with Cameron Stewart working on it, I can’t get over the editorially-mandated destruction of Oracle), but DC are not only not making any great comics at the moment, they’re not even making any of those adequately-enjoyable ones they used to make.

And this means that not only am I buying fewer DC comics, I’m not buying as much by anyone as I used to. As recently as 2011 I used to eagerly go to the comic shop every week, and I’d pick a lot of stuff off the shelf to go with my regular purchases. Now I turn up every few months and pick up a handful of comics, and if there’s anything interesting on the shelves it’s usually up to issue three or four and I’ve missed the start of the story.

Luckily for my comics-reading, Marvel have started putting out a few titles so good I’ve ended up adding a few to my pull list, and I intend to add more, so I’ll be going to the shop more regularly. And with Grant Morrison’s Multiversity starting next month, I’ll even have a regular DC comic I’m actually looking forward to for at least six months (and that really does look like the best thing ever).

But if DC don’t change their editorial stance soon, once that’s over I may well, for the first time since I started reading comics, be left reading not a single DC title, and going to the comic shop and saying “Make Mine Marvel”. And as good as many of the current Marvel titles are, nothing in them can replace the thing in my brain that clicks with recognition when I see Etrigan or Bizarro, Darkseid or Booster Gold, Deadman or Zatanna. Those characters, and thousands of other DC characters, are like old friends I’ve known since childhood, and I want them back. I miss them.

Before Watchmen

Of course I didn’t buy it. What do you think I am?
I torrented it, of course. And if DC want to complain about me taking their copyrighted work, the work that talented artists put time and effort into, and using it without their permission, well…
they started it.

Alan Moore stabs a knife into a Watchmen smiley-face cake. Dave Gibbons looks on.

In an ill-tempered conference call on 3 April between some of these advisers and a group of Liberal Democrat bloggers, the advisers could not comprehend why the party was up in arms about internet snooping. They sought solace in the excuse that grassroots anger could be attributed to a problem with ‘messaging’.

How have we got into a situation where the party’s policy advisers seem to have no liberal instincts? Why are we being ‘advised’ by people who think politics is all about ‘messaging’? Why has Nick Clegg surrounded himself with people who have little or no grasp of liberal values or grassroots campaigning?

Simon Titley, “Meet The Linos”, Liberator no. 353, June 2012

Ever since Before Watchmen was announced, its defenders have had only one mantra. “while you may question the decision you can’t question the quality of the product and the quality of the people behind the product.” That’s a quote from Dan Didio, one of the three co-publishers at DC Comics Entertainment. It’s one that rather spectacularly evades the point, of course.

It’s also an incredibly arrogant statement. I think it would be perfectly reasonable, for example, for anyone to ‘question the quality’ of J Michael Straczynski, a man who has two notable achievements as a comics writer — writing a story where Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend secretly had sex with the Green Goblin, and starting a Superman story where Superman acts callously and immorally and refuses to use his super-powers, before giving up that story in a sulk half-way through and leaving it to a better writer to finish off.

(That better writer has since left DC “Entertainment”, because he believes the way they are behaving over Before Watchmen is morally despicable.)

What would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that, but I’ve got enough faith in them that I don’t think that they’d do that. I think because of the unique team they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over to do Watchmen II or anything else like that, and we’ve certainly got no plans to do Watchmen II.

Dave Gibbons, 1987, The Comics Journal

But DiDio’s argument is, and always has been, that we should judge these prequels as a piece of art.

Which is odd, because the rationale for their existence is precisely the argument that art doesn’t matter. Make no mistake, there is a reason that this series has stirred up more argument than any of the various other creators’ rights issues that plague the cesspool that is the modern comics industry. The treatment of Jack Kirby, or of Siegel and Shuster, or of any number of other comics creators, is unconscionable, as everyone with the slightest shred of decency knows. There is no real way I can morally justify my continuing purchasing of DC comics (Marvel don’t put out enough titles that I want to really register here). I continue doing so simply because you can’t fight *every* battle, and if I only engaged economically with companies that I approved of morally I’d be homeless, jobless, naked and dead of starvation.

But Kirby, S&S and the rest created their works as ongoing serial characters, with an expectation that they would be worked on by other hands. As awful as their treatment has been, one can imagine a purely moral Superman comic existing that is written and drawn by people other than Siegel and Shuster. Watchmen, though, was conceived as a self-contained piece of work. Everything about it screams that it has a finite, symmetrical structure, and everything about it exists because it is an expression of the world views of two people — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Diversion – Dave Gibbons

Incidentally, one of the justifications for why DC screwing over Alan Moore is ‘okay’ that some people have used is that Gibbons is OK with these comics, and that he has as much of a right to a say as Moore does.

This is of course correct. But one can’t help but think that their situations may inform their opinions, somewhat — Moore has created many, many masterpieces. He may not be a wealthy man, but he can make as much money as he chooses. He is artistically and financially as secure as he wants to be.

Gibbons, on the other hand, has never before or since done anything to match Watchmen. That’s not a criticism of Gibbons, any more than it’s a criticism of Tony Asher to say that Pet Sounds is the only album he’s written great lyrics for. Some people only have one masterpiece in them, and it’s still one more than the vast majority of humanity will ever achieve.

But it means that Gibbons’ financial future and artistic legacy is entirely wrapped up in the decisions that DC makes about Watchmen, in a way that Moore’s isn’t. And one might well believe that when everything about your creative and financial life is in the hands of a company that is acting like a psychopath, the choice you make is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy.

Just as Moore’s anger does not invalidate Gibbons’ acquiescence, Gibbons’ approval does not lessen the injustice that is being done to Moore.

Diversion ends

What Didio is trying to do is have his smiley-faced cake and eat it, too. He wants us to judge these new comics as art, but the only reason they exist is because… well…

“if we mined it properly we could stay close to the core material”
“might be something people are willing to buy into”
“we had a group of four core writers who were able to handle all the products”
“in a logical sense that’s true to the original product.”
“that’s what makes the Before Watchmen product exciting”
“I’m more concerned about the reaction to the actual physical product when it gets created.”
“If we went out there and announced this property”
“we are doing the best we physically can with the property right now.”
(all quotes from this single interview)

Dan Didio there, making quite clear just what his priorities are.

But still, let’s take this entirely on the terms they’re setting out. They’re saying to us “Ignore the morality of taking a self-contained work that revolution1ised the industry we work in, and for which we managed to con the rights out of its creators, and creating inferior knock-offs that cheapen the original work while deeply upsetting the man to whom we owe our livelihood and our industry’s continued existence. IS IT A GOOD FUNNYBOOK OR NOT?”

And, well, it’s possible that a good sequel to Watchmen could be created. We know it’s possible, because one was.

Part of a draing by Kevin Maguire of the Justice League

Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis are both people who understand comics storytelling in a way that Didio can only dream of. And they realised, reading Watchmen, what any quarter-literate person would. They realised that no-one *actually* wanted a new story about Rorshach. (The fact that plenty of people now *do* want new stories about Rorshach tells us more about comics fans than we would really like to know). The characters in Watchmen were not, of themselves, interesting — they were Superpowerfulman, Gritty Vigilante, Hero With Gadgets, Sexy Lady and so on.

DeMatteis and Giffen (and the artists they worked with, notably Kevin Maguire) took the pre-existing characters that those characters had loosely been based on — Captain Atom, Batman, Blue Beetle, Black Canary — and did their own comic with them. One that was very clearly inspired by Watchmen, especially in its use of the nine-panel grid to give the comic a rhythm, but which is its own thing. It has as much of Giffen and DeMatteis’ voices as Watchmen does Moore and Gibbons’. It’s totally different in feel — it’s a sitcom rather than an apocalyptic conspiracy thriller — but it’s worth reading.

And it’s worth reading precisely because Giffen and DeMatteis did their own thing (within the limits of working on corporate-owned comics characters). It doesn’t call itself “Watchmen II: Bwa-ha-hatchmen”.

So it can be done.

So let’s have a look at Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen 1 shall we?

There’s a possibly-apocryphal story (aren’t they all?) that several years ago Alan Moore asked DC Comics (as they then were) to stop sending him comp packages — the packages of free comics they send all their writers — because he didn’t like the company and didn’t want to read their comics. The person he spoke to said “I know you don’t like them, but I’m going to keep sending you just one. You’ll see why.”
The comic that was sent was Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier.
Moore said “Okay, you can keep sending me that one”.

Cooke is, as an artist, the utter opposite of Moore in every way, but he’s the only person involved in this who has anything like the talent that Moore does. DC are putting their best foot forward with this.

Oh, and one more thing — about seven years ago, DC decided that they didn’t like the Justice League comic that Giffen and DeMatteis had done, and killed, raped, or raped then killed, almost every character that had featured in it. This trend reached its peak in a comic called Countdown To Infinite Crisis, co-written by Geoff Johns, commissioned by Dan Didio, and with cover art by Jim Lee, in which the Blue Beetle, a whacky lovable superhero who got into humorous scrapes with his friends, was shot in the head by one of those friends, with lots of lovingly-rendered blood coming out of Beetle’s head.

Johns, Didio and Lee are the new co-publishers of DC Entertainment, and doing a Watchmen prequel was one of their first decisions.

But let’s look at the comic. Is it good enough to erase the moral problems?

Cooke does Morrison and Quitely


The whole thing seems determined to say “DC has other great comics that aren’t Watchmen“, in the hope that by making Watchmen seem less special it will seem less disgusting when they make tenth-rate knock-offs. Unfortunately, DC *doesn’t* have all that many other great comics — at least not ones that will appeal to the conservative Cooke while also being of undoubted artistic merit while having sold enough copies that the audience could reasonably be expected to catch a reference to them, and which aren’t written by Alan Moore. In fact, it has two.

So we start with the page above — a reference to the opening of All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, but horribly overwritten.

(And Morrison is the other ghost at this ‘feast’, his absence felt as keenly as Moore’s. I could write a blog post as long as this one on what Morrison *not* writing this series means…)

Where Morrison uses eight words to set up a situation we’re all familiar with, Cooke uses 120. Where Morrison’s are clear and simple, Cooke’s are newage gibberish.

But Cooke moves on from Superman… to Batman.

page from Before Watchmen where Cooke homages Miller and Mazzuchelli

Most of the comic is a ‘homage’ to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, in look and feel, which sort of makes sense since this is more-or-less Nite Owl: Year One.

The problem is that this means that this comic is now inviting comparisons with three acknowledged classics of the medium and genre, when it can’t even stand up to comparison with any one of them.

Where Watchmen, All-Star Superman and Batman: Year One have first issues packed with incident, this is a typical first issue of a typical superhero team-up comic these days, which means we have little unconnected vignettes introducing all the characters — Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, The Comedian and Mothman.

These little bits show us aspects of the characters that were already there in Watchmen, but with a hammering lack of subtlety that reads as if Cooke had never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”. Worse, they do nothing else — we’re expected just to be happy to see these characters again. Which would be OK if the characters weren’t obvious ciphers. Wanting to read more stories about Hooded Justice is the same sort of error of thought as wanting to read more stories about Mr Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair. They’re not built to be characters, and if you want to tell a story about them you have to turn them into characters.

Which Cooke here fails to do. It’s POSSIBLE to do it — you *CAN* write a story about Hollis Mason and the rest of the Minutemen, but you’d have to take the attitude of Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. You have to put characters in where none previously existed — you have to remake them totally into something that can hold the weight of a story.

But this is too ‘reverent’ a comic to do anything like that. It’s ‘paying homage’ to Watchmen, and of course in comics one pays homage to works of unbridled creativity and imagination by having absolutely no original ideas of one’s own. As Jack Kirby was meant to have said when someone told him John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four ‘in the style of Jack Kirby’ “If he was doing it in the style of Jack Kirby he’d have invented his own characters.”

And of course ‘paying homage’ has absolutely nothing to do with respect, or even basic politeness. One request Moore has made over and over about Watchmen and his other work-for-hire is that his name be removed from it. He doesn’t want to be associated with this product in any way.

Credit from Before Watchmen, with a created by credit for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Even if you’re the kind of sociopath who dominates the discourse in modern comics fandom, who thinks that the people who write and draw the comics you read are of no importance compared to the trademarks and the multinational companies that own them, who thinks (and I’ve seriously seen this opinion stated by people who intended it to be taken seriously) that Geoff Johns is a better writer than Moore because he allows action figures to be made of his characters, you’ll still find nothing worthwhile in here. Cooke’s art is always good, but without any kind of a workable story to tell, there’s nothing much for his characters to do, and it degenerates into lifeless poses, with nothing to say about anything.

If you read Watchmen and it fired up your brain and made you start thinking “I want more of that!”, then the best thing you can do is buy a copy of Andrew Rilstone’s phenomenal short book about the comic, Who Sent The Sentinels?. Rilstone’s book — like Moore and Gibbons’ comic — is a structural masterpiece, but one whose surface cleverness conceals a wonderfully touching emotional core.

But as for this?

Cooke sums up his own comic

DC Liveblogging Part Two

Today I’m going to go through the next batch of new number one issues from DC’s ‘new 52’. And like last time, I’m going to read each comic straight through once, then blog my immediate reaction, rather than a more considered one.

As always, I’m only buying those comics which I think have at least a chance of being decent, so if you want my opinion of the Rob Liefeld Hawk & Dove, or anything written by Judd Winick, you’ll have to pay me large amounts of money.

Today is my fifth day without caffeine, and the first of those days I’ve managed to make it as late as 1:30 PM without having a little nap. Will my caffeineless state make these comics seem like psychedelic, hallucinatory masterpieces? Or will their lack of Thrill Power force me into a coma? Read on, as I delve into…

Blue Beetle #1
Writer Tony Bedard
Pencils Ig Guara
Inks Ruy Jose
Colours Pete Pantazis
Letters Rob Leigh

Well, that was a whole lot of rubbish. The series that John Rogers and Keith Giffen did with this character, a few years back, was not the greatest comic ever or anything, but it was fun, funny, and a decent way to spend ten minutes a month.
This, on the other hand, tries to recap most of the background that was dribbled out over a year or two by Rogers et al in a single issue, turning it into foreground. And it does so charmlessly, with not a single memorable line or event.
And the incompetence makes it borderline racist. It’s certainly not *intended* that way – Bedard says in the back-matter that he’s Puerto Rican and so identifies with the hispanic immigrant experience – but having all the characters speak in perfect English *except* for a very few Spanish words, which we could be expected to guess from context (“N-no–! Por favor… we ran tests in Mexico City!– That is the real escarabajo azul in the backpack–! I swear it on the virgin…!”)
This tries to do too much in one issue, and ends up being a confused mess. I accidentally swallowed a filling while reading this, and it was far more dramatic than anything in the comic.

Red Lanterns
Writer Peter Milligan
Pencils Ed Benes
Inks Rob Hunter
Colours Nathan Eyring
Letters Carlos M Mangual

This is, in its own way, an equally bad comic – probably, on any objective scale, a worse one. Certainly, the art is as bad as one would expect from Benes, and Milligan clearly can’t be bothered at all. It’s just generally sloppy – as an example, an old man in the UK says he “fought a war for you”. The old man’s age is later given as 73.
Now, 73-year-olds in the UK actually lived their young adulthood in the most sustained period of peace in British history, so unless he fought in Suez when he’d just turned 18 (almost impossible, as only highly-trained troops were sent there, and British troops were only there for two months- only 16 British soldiers died in that war) he *might* have been a professional soldier in his mid-40s during the Falklands conflict, but in general people of that generation are the least likely to be able to say “I fought in the war for you” in the whole of history. And that level of can’t-be-arsedness seems to pervade the writing.
But at the same time… there’s an *energy* to this comic, a sense of over-the-top grand guignol ridiculousness, that’s totally missing from Blue Beetle. This seems to be aimed precisely at the hearts of 14-year-old boys, and is like listening to ten Iron Maiden albums in a row then watching a slasher film while drunk on a single pint of cider. There’s an energy, and an intensity, here, that make it worth reading despite being, frankly, terrible.
This is going to be the new All-Star Batman And Robin, with people making great claims for its subversive genius precisely because of its apparent incompetence. And given that Peter Milligan, one of the most intelligent and able of comics writers, is writing it, those people may well be right. I’ll certainly pick up at least the second issue.

Frankenstein: Agent Of S.H.A.D.E.
Writer Jeff Lemire
Line Art Alberto Ponticelli
Colours Jose Villarrubia
Letters Pat Brosseau

This is the kind of comic that should be the staple produce of the Big Two, but isn’t. Full of nice little touches and ideas, this is very much the Frankenstein ongoing series that we could have expected coming straight after Seven Soldiers.
If anything, the only problem is that Lemire might be slightly too in thrall to Morrison, but in an age when so many comics are about little more than mopey superheroes sitting around complaining, seeing Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf, a vampire, a mummy and a black lagoon creature sent into a town overrun by monsters on a rescue mission is certainly refreshing.
Best of the bunch so far, by a long way, but little to say about it.

Demon Knights
Writer Paul Cornell
Pencils Diogenes Neves
Inks Oclair Albert
Colours Marcelo Maiolo
Letters Jared H Fletcher

In many ways, this comic shows more potential than any of those I’ve read so far, but it’s not yet living up to it. Cornell is here very much just putting his pieces in place – moving Vandal Savage, Jason Blood, Madame Xanadu and Sir Ystin together, and planting a few seeds. This is clearly influenced both by Kirby’s original Demon comics and by Seven Soldiers, and like those starts with a fall of Camelot, and seems to be leading up to the creation of a team of seven.
Cornell’s a good writer when he wants to be, and these characters have a lot of potential, especially given that they appear to be mostly immortals. And the multiple falls of Camelot are obviously going to be a major plot point, given how heavily they’re referenced in this issue. But like many of these stories, it seems that this issue is all set-up and no pay-off – although the cliffhanger, dinosaurs crashing through a pub wall, promises something more for the next issue.

And last but, I presume, best…

Writers J.H. Williams III and W Haden Blackman
Line art J.H. Williams III
Colours Dave Stewart
Letters Todd Klein
Look at that list of people. You don’t really need to know anything else, do you?
This does have a script (one that actually has some of los mismos problemas as Blue Beetle, with people speaking Spanish only when it can be understood en el contexto), but is competent enough, setting up a new storyline while connecting it to the past – though this is clearly the story that was meant to happen months ago, straight after the Detective Comics run with the previous Batwoman stories in it.
But this isn’t a comic you read for the script. This is drawn by the single best artist working in mainstream comics, coloured by the best colourist, and lettered (though he doesn’t get much chance to show off) by the best letterer. Every single page is a masterclass in putting together a comics page. Every image is beautiful.
It has faults – Mr Williams is slightly too fond of objectifying the female form – but this is a beautiful, gorgeous piece of work from a master of the form, and is as far above the rest of the comics I’ve reviewed here as Pet Sounds is above Jan & Dean Meet Batman

Liveblogging My Reaction To The New DC

For the last couple of years my enthusiasm for superhero comics has been steadily waning. This is not because I’ve somehow ‘grown up’ or ‘got over it’ or any of that nonsense, but because DC Comics have very deliberately, consciously, chosen to lose my custom.

While the “DC or Marvel?” question is, of course, a meaningless one – “do you prefer your superhero adventures to feature trademarks owned by Time Warner or trademarks owned by the Disney corporation? Which dead, elderly Jewish bloke’s family do you want screwed over more, Jerry Siegel or Jack Kirby?” – the fact is that everyone who reads superhero comics at all *does* have a preference, and in my case I prefer DC to Marvel. It’s not an unthinking or absolute preference – I’d choose to read a good Marvel comic like Nextwave over a bad issue of Green Lantern, because I’m not an idiot – but all else being equal I’d rather read a Batman comic than a Wolverine one, a Superman rather than a Captain America.

But over the last few years, DC Comics have been deliberately trying to drive me away. I don’t say this from paranoia or anything like that – they have obviously identified a target market, and gone after it with brutal efficiency, and I am very far from that target market. As a result, pretty much every comic DC have put any effort into promoting over the last few years has gone as follows:

“Oh no! You know Heroman, that new, young, funny superhero who just recently started fighting crime?”
“The ethnic-minority one, who had a fully-rounded personality and a great supporting cast, whose comic Andrew Hickey really liked?”
“That’s the one. I’m afraid he’s been brutally raped and then eaten by the Ultra-Humanite!”
“Wow, that’s bad. We’d better kill all the villains ever and be angsty about it.”
“Don’t worry, because here’s the Silver Age Heroman!”
“He’s back from the dead! And he has just as little personality as ever!”
“Be fair, he’s got daddy issues now!”
“But he’s still got a blonde crew-cut, and a job in the police or military, and that’s the important thing.”
“Yes it is. Hope has triumphed over despair! Now let us never mention that minority kid ever again.”

So for the past couple of years I’ve been reading fewer and fewer DC comics, and enjoying those I have been reading less and less. Some have begun to feel like a chore rather than a piece of exciting superhero entertainment, and there are some recent comics that I’ve bought out of habit but will now undoubtedly never actually read.

The only two bright spots have been Grant Morrison and Keith Giffen. Morrison’s Batman work has been wonderful, imaginative, and everything a superhero comic should be. Giffen, meanwhile, has been doing great overlooked work. His run on Doom Patrol, in particular, was wonderfully inventive – things like the entire issue that was an Aristocrats joke, or the final issue of his run, where he wrapped up the big conflict he’d been building for many issues by just having Ambush Bug explain to the villain that Dan DiDio had cancelled the title so they’d better just go home.

Which is not to say that other writers and artists weren’t doing good work, but it wasn’t good enough to rise above the sludge and disinterest.

But this month DC are rebooting their entire line of comics, and while the announcements of the new comics stopped me from getting my hopes up too much (apparently DC thought they had too many disabled characters, too many women working for them, and character designs that were too good), just the sheer amount of new comics they were putting out meant that there must be *something* worth reading there. Right? Right?…

So today (the only day this week I’m working less than ten hours) I’m going to read through the first batch of new DC titles I’ve got and comment on them. I’m not buying them all (though I’ve heard such good things about the new Animal Man I might add it to the pull list) and have at least one comic that’s only there because I couldn’t pick up my comics myself this week (Justice League of America), but I’ll be updating this post over the next couple of hours with my as-of-first-reading thoughts on Justice League, Swamp Thing, OMAC, Batgirl and Action Comics.

Remember, I’m only buying those titles that look like they might have some merit, so theoretically I *should* love at least most of these. Check back in a few minutes for my thoughts on…

Justice League #1
writer Geoff Johns
penciller Jim Lee
inker Scott Williams
colourist Alex Sinclair

And so far, it’s not looking good, is it? Lee and Williams draw at least ten trillion lines per panel, in the hope that the completely random cross-hatching will distract the reader from the basic inability to tell a story and lack of anatomical understanding. It features three characters on the cover who are not in the story (such as it is) inside, but the cover *does* also have Green Lantern using his magic wishing ring that can do anything to… make a gigantic gun.

Which about sums up the imaginativeness of this comic. Essentially one long fight scene (apart from one cut away to show that Vic Stone can play American football quite well, though given that this is meant to be our introduction to these characters we’re given no indication in this issue why we should care about this).

There is nothing here that could be described as a ‘plot’ – merely a sequence of not-very-interesting events. Batman and Green Lantern meet each other for the first time and exposit to each other about their powers or lack of them and their entire backgrounds, while alternating between acting like macho pricks and punching a Parademon, which self-immolates. They then fly to Metropolis, where Superman comes out of nowhere and punches Green Lantern for no reason.

Now given that in the new continuity this is our first introduction to any of these characters, we can’t say that anything here is out-of-character *as such*. But it’s certainly an… interesting… choice to take DC’s three most currently-visible characters, have two of them act like macho self-aggrandising idiots and make Superman into a character whose very first reaction on seeing someone who is no threat whatsoever is to fly into them at full speed and punch them on the jaw so hard they fly at least about 70 feet and into a nearby car, knocking it over. It wouldn’t be *my* choice for how to portray these characters, and I wouldn’t want to read anything more about these characters, but maybe someone out there likes that.

There’s also the problem that Lee and Williams are incapable of representational art. Lee has many admirers, so presumably there are things to admire about his work, but one thing that’s certainly true is that his work is not a model of clarity. As a result, the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim of so much writing has to be ignored, and the expositional burden passes from the artwork to the dialogue.

This would be OK, if Mr Johns had ever heard a human being speak English, but I’ll just leave you with one line, which seems to sum up the general incompetence of this ‘flagship’ comic:

“It combusted into fire!”

Well, maybe Swamp Thing will be better…

Swamp Thing #1
Writer Scott Snyder
Artist Yanick Paquette
Colours Nathan Fairbarn

It is. Much better. This is a good comic. It’s not great, but it sets up a bit of a mystery, it introduces our central character, Alec Holland, and gives him something approximating a nuanced characterisation (he’s a botanist, but he turned into a swamp monster, and now he’s become human again he’s scared of plants, but he still uses his old knowledge to help people). Even though Holland is portrayed as weak and scared, he’s still more heroic than the ‘heroes’ in Justice League, in that he actually does something to help someone else (recommends to a friend that his sore knee will hurt less if he wraps cabbage leaves around it).

The main fault with the story is that it spends several pages at the beginning establishing definitively that it takes place in the DC Universe, in order to satisfy those fans who care about these things (Swamp Thing, for those who don’t know, started as a DC Universe title, and the character used to interact with Superman, Batman and so on occasionally, but later editors ignored the superhero titles so they could tell whatever stories they wanted).

I’m not hugely familiar with Yanick Paquette’s art, having only read a handful of issues he’s drawn before, all to Grant Morrison scripts, but the work here is far more impressive than anything I’ve seen from him before. Especially impressive is the middle section of the book, which is clearly inspired by J.H. Williams’ work on Seven Soldiers 0, with similarly inventive layouts and panel bordering. Fairbarn’s use of different palettes for different sections is also unusually inventive for mainstream superhero comics.

The main weakness in the art is that while Paquette is an excellent layout artist and good draftsman, he’s comparatively weak as an ‘actor’, and a lot of the facial expressions seem to betray an overuse of photo-reference (see e.g. Lois Lane’s expression on the bottom of page one).

But I’ll definitely keep buying this title until it’s inevitably cancelled in about twelve issues’ time. It’s not a world-changing, fantastic piece of art, but it’s a good, enjoyable comic made by people who obviously care about doing a good job. It’s the kind of thing that should be the bread and butter of the big comics companies, but feels like a revelation because the level of quality is usually so low.

I wonder what I’ll think of OMAC…

story and art by Keith Giffen and Dan DiDio
inks Scott Koblish
colours ‘Hi-Fi’

And this is Keith Giffen in 70s-Kirby tribute mode. Essentially one big fight scene, this just sets up the situation, reintroducing a load of Kirby characters and situations (OMAC, Cadmus, Dubbilex) and variations thereon (Gobblers, wonderful little monsters that are like small versions of Angry Charlie).

The dialogue and captions are perfunctory at best – presumably the work of DiDio (given the credit and Giffen’s normal way of working I imagine this was done Marvel-style, with DiDio and Giffen co-plotting, then DiDio scripting over Giffen’s finished art) – but they don’t get in the way of what is essentially just an excuse to have Giffen do his Giffen thing while trying to throw in as many Kirbyisms as he can.

If you want just twenty-something pages of Keith Giffen drawing like Jack Kirby, this is the comic for you. If you don’t, there’s nothing in the story so far to make you want to stick around. Luckily for me, I do want that, so this is another keeper.

But what about Batgirl?

Batgirl #1
writer Gail Simone
pencils Adrian Syaf
inks Vicente Cifuentes
colour Ulises Arreola

This is another very competent comic, but it saddens me.
For those who don’t know, Batgirl used to be Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, but after she was shot in the spine in the story The Killing Joke, she became Oracle, a unique character in superhero comics. Oracle was a character in a wheelchair who was still able to be a superhero through her intelligence and skills as a librarian – she became the intelligence and data expert for most of the superheroes. Batgirl is just a female Batman knock-off, Oracle was an interesting character in her own right.

Now, however, Barbara Gordon is Batgirl again (explained in one line in this comic – “a miracle happened” – maybe this has been explained in some crossover I didn’t read). This not only gets rid of the fascinating character of Oracle, who still had a huge amount of potential, it also gets rid of the new Batgirl who had replaced her (whose comics I didn’t read but was apparently a good character in her own right – my friends Debi and Jennie both enjoyed that title, but given that DC have stated that they want to appeal to twenty- to thirty-five year-old males with this relaunch, their opinions probably don’t count). Not only that, it’s to fill a void that didn’t really need filling – there’s already a red-haired female crimefighter in a Bat-outfit in Gotham, Batwoman, and her comic is drawn by J.H. Williams so will be much better than this.

Not that this is a bad comic – it’s far from that – but it’s a sign of DC’s insistence on making everything like it was in 1985 again, rather than moving forward and doing new things, and the comic isn’t good enough to overcome that. I’ll probably pick up a few more issues to see how it goes, but this is a comic that just isn’t worth the character destruction that took place to create it.

And now to the one I’ve been looking forward to most… Action Comics.

Action Comics #1
writer Grant Morrison
pencils Rags Morales
inks Rick Bryant
colours Brad Anderson

Only the second-best first Superman issue Grant Morrison’s ever written, this is still clearly the standout of this bunch of comics. Restoring Superman to his 1930s roots as someone fighting against corrupt businessmen, abusive husbands and so on, this takes quite a few elements from the very first Superman story and puts them into a structure based on the old radio show introduction – “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound”.

Morales’ art is not up to the standard of Morrison’s writing, unless that can of cola in Luthor’s hand is meant to shrink to about a quarter of the size between panels, but this story of a Superman at the beginning of his career, still physically vulnerable and not yet up to his full powers, is clearly the best of these, though like most of Morrison’s work it gives the impression there’ll be a lot more to say about it in a few issues’ time, so I’ll reserve further judgement til then.

And that’s it for now. Overall, the quality of these has been far higher than the recent dire levels DC had sunk to, and the only really bad one is Justice League, but at the same time there’s nothing here that’s truly fantastic, or worth the company-wide reboot to achieve. This is just *what they should have been doing anyway*.

Rebooting The DC Universe

Blame plok. I had a post all planned out for today, about Morrison’s Frankenstein, and about the resurgence of Arianism in the 17th century, but then I read this, and now I have to do my own “How would I reboot the DC Universe in 52 comics?”

Now I agree with plok that we need simultaneously to have less continuity-heavy crossover stories *and* to have a way to bring readers through from one line to another. By stealing some ideas from the Faction Paradox range, and adding a few of my own, I think I know how to do it.

It involves Hypertime, of course.

An entity exists at the end of time. A single entity, that exists for precisely one Planck length of time, but that is all-knowing, all-seeing, and omnipotent for that one Planck time. Call it God – we might as well,

But it’s at war with itself.

There are two possible histories of the universe. One leads to one type of God, the other to another. Both these histories have different laws of physics – one set of laws is what we call ‘science’, the other is what we call ‘magic’. Both are totally self-consistent sets of rules that will lead to a consistent universe.

But there can be only one end of the universe, and only one God, and so both Gods are in an existential struggle to become the one that really exists. If either God actually won, not only would the one that lost cease to exist, it would also cease ever to have even possibly existed – we might as well think of it as two potential universes at war as two beings.

So both Gods are trying to manipulate the hypertimelines, to destroy ones that lead to the other’s existence. But the Hypertime multiverse currently exists in a state of flux, and our universe is an interference pattern between two incompatible universes.

This means that there for many beings, they see a universe of scientific rationality, where the universe operates according to the principles we know now. Another lot of people see a universe where thought and mind have an ontologically basic existence – a universe of magic.

There are the people – the vast majority – who live in a lowest common denominator set of the two worlds, that looks like the ‘real world’.

And there are those, a very few, who exist in both universes simultaneously. We call these superheroes. They appear at first glance to operate according to one set of rules, but don’t quite fit. They, and only they, exist in both universes. They can affect both universes, but only to a limited extent – they can prevent an incursion of one on the other, but can’t affect the overall course of history. Superman can travel in time, or defeat an evil magician, and it’ll be on the front page of the Daily Planet and everyone will believe it – but the next day they’ll still think time travel and magic impossible.

All the big dichotomies in the DC Universe – Heaven/Hell , Order/Chaos, Monitor/Antimonitor – are reflections of this great war, and every power in the universe, be it the New Gods of New Genesis or the Guardians Of The Universe, has taken one side or the other, although the alliances are complex and constantly shifting.

There’s a very small alliance, though – no more than a handful of individuals – who make up a third side in the conflict. They realise that were either side to win, their rich universe would collapse into a dull conformity, and so they stand in the middle and try subtly to play one side against the other. Metron and Rip Hunter are the main ones here.

This then lets us split the comics into four separate lines quite neatly. We have the main-line superheroes, who can operate without continuity constraints, and any real continuity blunders we can just blame on the war. We have the SF/Space Opera stuff, which is where we dump all the real hardcore universe building for the people who are currently buying and enjoying superhero comics. There’s a magic universe, which we aim at the Vertigo readers, and the Twilight/Harry Potter people. And then there’s the ‘ground level’ of characters who could almost live in our universe. The superheroes can appear in any of these stories, but there’s otherwise no crossing over between the four lines.

The main line should be done-in-one stories, accessible to anyone of pretty much any age. The SF line would be aimed at the current comic reading audience, the magic line at the huge ‘dark fantasy’ audience, and the ground-level stuff should be, in general, based around character rather than plot and aimed at the largely-untapped but very real female audience for these types of stories.

Main superhero line
Wonder Woman
Captain Marvel
The Flash (using plok’s idea of The Flash being really about time)
Doom Patrol (keep the current Giffen take on this – it’s essentially Morrison’s version, but done so people who aren’t Morrison can do it and with extra Ambush Bug)
Plastic Man (get Kyle Baker back)
Power Girl
Tales Of The DC Universe – this would be an ongoing along the lines of 52, done in much the same way.
Frankenstein: Agent Of SHADE – give this to Morrison

SF line
Green Lantern
Metal Men (Giffen and DeMatteis for this)
Omega Men
Booster Gold (done the way it currently is, with Rip Hunter an important character)
Blue Beetle (Jaime)
The Atom (Ryan Choi)
New Gods
Mister Miracle
Green Lantern Corps
Legion Of Superheroes

Magic line
Sandman (also known as ‘get Neil Gaiman to do any magic-related title we can)
Doctor Thirteen (who has ended up in the magical universe from the scientific one)
House Of Mystery
The Adventures Of Detective Chimp In Gorilla City (“I was on my twelfth cigar and third whisky of the day, and thinking about breakfast, when the client knuckled in. I don’t normally go for the larger types, but this gal had arms up to her shoulders and the kind of figure that would straighten anyone’s banana”, with Monsieur Mallah and The Brain as occasional guest stars).
The Demon
Tim Hunter
Animal Man
Amethyst, Princess Of Gemworld
The Spectre

Ground level
Birds Of Prey (with Oracle, who is Barbara Gordon)
Batwoman (by JH Williams)
The Question (Renee Montoya)
Manhattan Guardian
Action Comics (As I described in my Superman pop-drama, with a Jimmy Olsen done-in-one story in the front and a Lois Lane serial as backup. Clark Kent can appear, but no Superman).
Sgt Rock – Garth Ennis and Joe Kubert
Jonah Hex
Black Canary/Green Arrow
Gotham Central
The Spirit (get Darwyn Cooke back on this)

Along with these, I’d have five other comics:
World’s Finest – Superman and Batman team-ups
The Brave And The Bold – Batman team-ups
Showcase – an anthology, the first story of which would be a new character by the best-quality team possible, the backup would be a well-known character by first-time creators
Solo – a showcase title for writer-artists
80-Page Giant – a monthly 80-page reprint of classic stories, usually tying in with something out this month (say if the Penguin is the Batman villain this month, a classic Penguin story would be in there).

Eschatology & Escapology 3: They Call Me Mister Miracle

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

“You heard it direct from the mouth of science itself, nothing but nothing can escape the deadly gravitational pull of a black hole!”
Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle 1, by Grant Morrison and Pasqual Ferry

In 2008, DC Comics published a crossover series by Grant Morrison and others, Final Crisis, a gigantic tale featuring all their superheroes. But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.

The story Morrison was *really* telling was going on in the various Batman titles, which intersected only briefly with Final Crisis. It was the story of a man poised between darkness and light, who had had to face death, and a black hole, in order to do what he had to do, and how as a result of this his psyche was shattered, he lost his identity, and was pushed through time to regain both his identity and the universe. Final Crisis, as good as it was, was a sideshow. The death and rebirth of Bruce Wayne was what mattered, as we later discovered.

“As above, so below”
Hermes Trismegistus

In the mid-1990s, DC Comics published a series by Grant Morrison and others, JLA, a gigantic tale featuring all their most popular superheroes. But the story was bigger than it looked. But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.

The story Morrison was *really* telling was going on in The Invisibles, which paralleled JLA (which some have described as using as a Cliff’s Notes version of The Invisibles). Even within The Invisibles though, Morrison was telling two stories. The first was the surface story, the one most people seem to have read for much of the run – an exciting adventure with goodies and baddies – though by “You’re running around shooting people like they’re Nothing. You’re Fucked up, Gideon. You’re not cool, you’re not a hero, you’re just a Murderer” most people had got that King Mob was not necessarily the hero of the story. But then there was the other story, about corruption and redemption. In The Invisibles #12, we’re taken through the life of a henchman shot by King Mob – his whole life, shown out of sequence, the good and the bad, and we’re made to feel sorry for, and care for, this character who could have just seemed like a NPC. And we’re made to feel sorry for him even though he is, by any standards, a truly bad man, just because we get to know him so well in 24 pages that the emphasis is on man, rather than on bad.
We meet his wife, who he abused, in one later issue, five years later. She saves King Mob’s life, because she can’t stand to see someone shot after what happened to her husband. There’s the story you’re being told, and then there’s the important story.

“fractal essentially means ‘self-similar’ — it implies recursion, pattern inside of pattern, ‘symmetry across scale'”
Helmut Bonheim, “The Nature/Culture Dyad and Chaos Theory.” Das Natur/Kultur Paradigma in der englischsprachigen Literatur des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts (Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Paul Goetsch). Ed. K. Groß. Tübingen: Narr. 1994, 8-22

In 1985, DC Comics published a miniseries called Crisis On Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. A gigantic tale featuring every character ever to appear in one of their comics except Hal Jordan, But the story was bigger than it looked.But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing had a story called American Gothic, about a war between Light and Darkness, which ended with them being convinced that they define each other, and God shaking hands with the Darkness. It’s better than it sounds.

“I’m dying, oh fuck, I think I’m dying”
The Invisibles #12 , Grant Morrison and Steve Parkhouse

In 2005, DC Comics published a crossover series called Infinite Crisis, by Geoff Johns and others, featuring all their most popular characters. But the story was bigger than it looked.But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.

The bigger story was Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, a series of seven miniseries (Klarion, Zatanna, Shining Knight, Frankenstein, Mister Miracle, Bulletteer and The Manhattan Guardian) all of which were attempts to make old, unprofitable DC Comics characters commercially viable again. The story was about how humanity’s far future descendants, with no culture or energy of their own, feed off the past. There may be a subtext there.

“What interests me is that while Zatanna chastises Promethea it’s also restaging, you guessed it, Swamp Thing – dragging Moore back to his roots, as it were. Morrison revisits the climactic chapter of “American Gothic”, quoting a line of dialogue, duplicating its setting in Baron Winter’s home, and repeating its fatalities. If there is a criticism of Moore here it’s done by paying homage to his older material while snubbing the new. I’ve always thought Morrison had the most interesting anxiety of influence vis-a-vis Moore of anyone in comics (certainly moreso than that faithful but pale imitator, Neil Gaiman); Zatanna offers plenty more fodder for it.”
Marc Singer

In 2005, DC Comics published a crossover series called Seven Soldiers, by Grant Morrison and others – a gigantic tale featuring a bunch of obscure DC Comics characters. But the story was bigger than it looked. But the story was bigger than it looked. In fact, the gigantic Gods-versus-superheroes sturm und drang in which reality was in the balance was a sleight of hand, while at the same time a seemingly smaller, but in fact much bigger, story was going on.

The Mister Miracle story never seemed to fit in with the rest of Seven Soldiers, having nothing to do with the main storyline about the Sheeda’s invasion. Instead, it took us through all the possible lives of Shilo Norman, a Jack Kirby character, as he is trapped in the ‘Life Trap’ – a trap worse than the black hole he’s trying to escape from. We get a non-linear view of one man’s life, and all his mistakes, but almost incidentally Morrison is reinventing Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters and putting them to a new use. In some ways this reinvention seems at first glance even cruder than Kirby’s own work – and Kirby was not known for his subtlety, with characters like DeSaad and Lashina. But Kirby had many characters straddling the gap between light and darkness, between Apokolips and New Genesis. Morrison’s not interested in that kind of shade of grey – or if he is, he wants it represented by humans, not by Gods. This Mister Miracle is Shilo Norman, a human being, not Scott Free, a New God.

“I believe THE INVISIBLES to be a work of great emotional depths, but I realise most people tend to concentrate first on the surface glamour of the book, which is fine and pretty much as intended. Go back and read it again, concentrating not on the clothes, but on King Mob’s attempt to get over the loss of his girlfriend and the death of his cats by turning himself into a pop god with a gun. Read it for Edith Manning’s guilt, humour and unstoppable enthusiasm or most importantly, read it for the invisible backstory of Audrey Murray, the book’s central character, and her refusal to let a shitty life turn her into a shitty person.”
Grant Morrison

On Barbelith’s guide to the Invisibles‘ character list, Audrey Murray is not mentioned.

“In 2009 DC Comics announced that at some point in the next couple of years it would be publishing a crossover series called Multiversity, by Grant Morrison and others – a gigantic tale featuring all DC Comics’ most famous characters. But the story was…”
Andrew Hickey

And Flex Mentallo is being reissued in 2011.

Eschatology & Escapology 2: Desperate Scientists, Last Hope

A revised and improved version of this essay is in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – hardback, paperback, PDF Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), all other ebook formats

“Doomed planet
Desperate scientists
Last hope
Kindly couple”
All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant

One of my favourite comics of all time is Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore and Curt Swan. Its opening is still one of the most powerful bits of writing Moore has done, in a career with thousands of them, and it as much as anything else inspired this series of essays:


(which may never happen, but then again may)
about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.
It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the
great miracles long since performed;
of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in
the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights;
of the women he loved and of the choice he made between them;
of how he broke his most sacred oath, and how finally all the things
he had were taken from him save one.
It ends with a wink.
It begins in a quiet midwestern town, one
summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future.
Away from the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from
the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky… but no: it’s only a
bird, only a plane — Superman died ten years ago.

Aren’t they all?

But strangely, despite this attempt to turn the Superman story into a universal myth, the story then turns into one that is very, very specifically based in then-current DC continuity. This made perfect sense at the time – it was a ‘goodbye’ to thirty-plus years of stories, characters and situations. But it meant that it was rooted in the specific, rather than the universal.

This had benefits, for example this sequence:

You Grew Up Beautiful, Kara

From Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?

The first time I read that, I don’t mind admitting I broke down in tears. It’s an astonishingly beautiful piece of writing, and its force is made more powerful by being drawn by Curt Swan (inked by the great George Perez) – this still looks exactly like the simplistic stories of the 1960s, even though there is a lot more going on. These simple children’s characters are being asked to carry a weight they were never designed to carry, and are only doing so precisely because they remain the characters of our collective childhoods.

But it’s only powerful if you have background knowledge. Depending on your familiarity with the Superman ‘mythos’ of the time, this could be anything from near-incomprehensible (though I think Moore gives enough information to give you some context, because he’s a wonderful craftsman) through to heart-stoppingly beautiful. But ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful’ only comes if you know that, for Superman, this had already happened:

Cover of Crisis On Infinite Earths 7, by George Perez

Cover of Crisis On Infinite Earths 7, by George Perez

Supergirl had, in the comics, recently sacrificed herself to help save the universe (and this story was so powerful she stayed dead for twenty years – almost unheard of in superhero comics). But this had only happened in the comics – it had obviously not happened in any of the films, TV series, cartoons or other interpretations of the Superman story.

So while Moore is obviously trying for the mythic and universal, in a myriad ways (I think I’m the only one to have noticed, for example, that he has Superman die ten years to the day after Elvis, so when Superman turns out at the end not to be dead, but just living a normal life without his powers, he ties it to the ‘Elvis working in a Burger King in Des Moines’ tabloid stories of the time, as well as to one of the most potent of what can only be called the 20th century’s ‘real-life myths’), to make this the capstone of ‘the Superman story’, what we have is, by necessity, only the end of a Superman story. There’d be another one along in a minute.

[FOOTNOTE the one that came along in a minute was John Byrne’s Man Of Steel reboot. This originally looked more exciting and ‘modern’, but has badly dated – and Byrne’s changes can sometimes look pretty unpleasant in retrospect. The original Siegel and Shuster had Superman sent to Earth as a baby. Byrne had a ‘birthing matrix’ sent, landing on Earth before Superman was born, thus ensuring that someone who had previously represented the Jewish immigrant experience to the US was now born in the USA – a reflection of Reaganite anti-immigration ideas that is very odd coming from a writer/artist who was himself doubly an immigrant (born in the UK, Byrne moved first to Canada before becoming a US citizen).]

Moore’s story is rooted in specifics of place and time – it takes place in a flashback to 16 August 1987, with a framing sequence on 16 August 1997. Even its future is now fourteen years in the past. That doesn’t remove its power for now – I first read the Crisis issue where Supergirl died when I was eleven, so Moore & Swan’s work still has the power to affect me. But Crisis is ephemera – at best it will last in the same way Sexton Blake or Billy Bunter stories from the turn of the last century have. If it’s read in a hundred years at all, it will be as a footnote to Man Of Tomorrow [FOOTNOTE – or maybe Animal Man], and Man Of Tomorrow will only be read by scholars of Alan Moore’s work.

By contrast, I think Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant’s All Star Superman will (possibly along with the first two Christopher Reeve films, and maybe Siegel & Shuster’s original origin story ) be the Superman story that lasts as long as the human race are interested in stories of superheroes.

Partly, this is because it’s simply a better work. I don’t think Morrison’s quite the writer that Moore is (though I don’t want to get into a Moore-vs-Morrison argument, quite possibly the most tedious discussion it’s possible to have about comics. Both men are superlative writers, and I would rather read even a minor work by either above almost anything by almost anyone else in the medium), but Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? doesn’t play to Moore’s strengths. Moore is Apollonian – he’s a formalist by nature, whose greatest strengths come from rigorous plotting, structural innovation and intellectual bravado. The best example of Moore as writer of a single-issue comic book is probably Promethea #12, which (with the help of J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray, Todd Klein, Jose Villarubia and Jeromy Cox) uses the comic page the way Bach used the keys of the harpsichord, to create stunning contrapuntal effects that no-one else could ever create. Having Moore write a two-issue Superman story to be drawn by Curt Swan and edited by Julie Schwartz is a bit like asking Bach to write a twelve-bar blues. You’d probably get something pretty great, but it would still be a waste of his talents.

By contrast Morrison, while he’s also interested in formal experimentation, is more Dionysiac (for all that All-Star Superman is an Apollonian myth). He works in a more improvisatory way, leaving far more to his collaborators, and seems to be far more interested in emotional effect than in process. If Moore is Bach then Morrison is John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy, improvising wild ideas around the core of a pop song and playing off his collaborators’ work.

And luckily, in All-Star Superman Morrison had the pefect collaborator in penciller Frank Quitely. While I would never hear a word said against Curt Swan’s work, his greatest strength was (as Calamity Jon Morris described later Superman artist Dan Jurgens) “The things he drew sure do look like the things they’re meant to look like”. That’s not quite the damning with faint praise it sounds like – in the comics industry that bespeaks a level of professionalism and craftsmanship that would probably put an artist in the top five percent, sadly. But it’s not a quality that is necessarily suited to making lasting art.

Frank Quitely, on the other hand, is one of the most intelligent, sensitive artists working in ‘mainstream’ comics. While he’s not as innovative as some would have it (many of his innovations come from European or indie comics that many of his readers haven’t read), he is able to use the comics page in a way that few others would be able to. Just consider this panel, for example:

Panel from All-Star Superman #1, pencils by Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours by Jamie Grant

Panel from All-Star Superman #1, pencils by Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours by Jamie Grant

(That image can be clicked through to if it isn’t displayed at full size on your screen)

The interesting thing about this is not just the multiple-images-in-one-frame thing to indicate motion – this had been done before, and was probably invented by Carmine Infantino in Flash stories in the 1950s, though it’s rarely been done so skillfully and gracefully, but the thought that’s been put into it. It’s a cliche to say ‘there’s not a line out of place’ but in Quitely’s case it’s simply true. Quitely uses fewer lines per page than most comic artists will use in a small panel, and as a result philistines accuse him of ‘laziness’ and ‘not drawing backgrounds’. But every line in every Quitely panel is placed to illustrate one of plot, character or environment. And there’s far more detail there than appears at first glance. Take this, for example:

Detail from above panel

Detail from above panel

That’s Cat Grant’s shoe, poking out under her desk. And precisely the kind of shoe the character would wear. Most readers will never notice that, but tiny details like that add to the impression that this is a real, living world, where things happen ‘offstage’ and characters have lives away from the protagonist. In fact a huge amount of this story only takes place by implication, in the gutters and what is left unsaid.

And this is the reason why All-Star Superman will be read long after Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? is forgotten. Because whereas the latter depends for its (incredible) power on being part of a specific continuity, All-Star Superman only depends on you knowing the outline of the Superman myth – “Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple” and we’re into the story. It doesn’t matter what shape the rocket he landed in was, or whether there was an Eradicator in it, or whether Super-Horses live on Krypton, or whether he was born Kal-El or Kal-L. All that matters is that he’s Superman.

And it takes aspects from every version of the Superman story to have been published – ranging from an updated version of Jack Kirby’s version of Jimmy Olsen, to Steve Lombard from the 70s stories, to Cat Grant from the 90s soap-operatic comics, to Qwewq The Infant Universe and Solaris The Tyrant Sun from Morrison’s own JLA stories. The Kent/Superman distinction is pure Christopher Reeve – you can hear Reeve saying the Clark Kent lines – but he’s drawn in pure Wayne Boring style. These are incorporated to precisely the extent that they serve the larger story being told, and no more, but all are given their own remarkable stories (Steve Lombard goes from being a blustering bully early in the story to an almost heroic figure by the end).

The story itself is possibly the most audacious ever told in a superhero comic, and probably only escaped right-wing outrage by being so ludicrously good – Morrison doesn’t just turn Superman into a Jesus-figure, like the awful Superman Returns, but actually makes him the personal God that created humanity on the Earth on which we live, pretty much in passing as part of an even larger story.

And in the end, almost everyone is redeemed. Even Lex Luthor, the only person presented as actually evil, has a moment of enlightenment:

Luthor Einstein failed to unify the gravitational force with the other three but he… he had no experience of this…it’s so obvious. I can actually see and hear and feel and taste it and… the fundamental forces are yoked by a single thought.
Nasthalthia Lexie? How do I get this hat to work?
Luthor It’s thought-controlled! Hmm? Sorry… sorry, these new senses…I can actually see the machinery and wire connecting and separating everything since it all began… this is how he sees all the time, every day. Like it’s all just us, in here, together. And we’re all we’ve got.
Nasthalthia Uncle Lex! You’re literally embarrassing me beyond all therapy with this behavior!
Luthor Nasthalthia!
Superman No, he’s just trying to articulate how gravity warps time and how I forced his metabolism to accelerate to compensate.

How gravity warps time? I think I might just have something to say about that, and so might Grant Morrison…

Panel from All-Star Superman 12, written by Grant Morrison, pencils Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours Jamie Grant

Panel from All-Star Superman 12, written by Grant Morrison, pencils Frank Quitely, digital inks and colours Jamie Grant