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?”

“I don’t”

“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)

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17 Responses to Pop-Drama – Superman

  1. Leigh Mortensen says:

    holy crap… these are now officially some of my favorite Superman & Jimmy Olsen stories. the fact that they are just outlines, non-canon and unpublished… doesn’t even slightly matter. quit futzing around with this blog and start harassing DC to hire you. (harassment is the proper channels to get hired there, yes?)

  2. Bill Reed says:

    You beautiful bastard. Your Jimmy Olsen ideas are a million times better than mine, and I seriously have like a two-year plan of nonstop madness written down.

    Tell you what, I’ll let you co-write it. Don’t tell Sims.

  3. pillock says:

    Interesting mix of Moore, the second Superman Red/Blue Imaginary Story, and All-Star, Andrew! You wear your influences on your sleeve here, for sure. I can’t say I was ready to be particularly jazzed by the ending (what, no mention of how things work out with the Undercover Reporter Gang?!? HOW DARE YOU), but in the end I really was — that’s a great deck-clearing “end of Superman” solution, and I’d unbelievably love to see the Adventures of Superman in the new universe. Free of encumbrances! I know this may not have been your intention, but an “open universe” Superman would be a wonderful thing to have, and this way you could have it…theoretically, if you were going to have Superman just go immortally on and on and on through universes “fixing” them, you’d hardly need to specify which universe he was ever in, meaning you could tell unlimited Superman stories, my God it’s Hypertime +1, in my opinion not necessarily an elegant way to get there, but a remarkably elegant place to get to…and knowing where the destination’s going to be it frees you from any necessity to do anything other than tell maximally-good Superman stories along the way. That part definitely has a post-Crisis feel (I think you know in what sense I mean that), in that you can make the current DCU a scientific mystery to Superman that he can actually work hard at and figure out, with no need for returning things to any status quo. Really, that he makes the universe a “heaven”, I don’t really care about that…but that what comes before and after could be as interesting as the writer cared to make it, basically an Imaginary Story come true, that kind of fascinates me.

    I must question 40 pages of Superman convincing Luthor with logic, though. Maybe it’d be better to have Luthor himself decide to change his ways?

    Nice stuff! I found I had to squint at it a little, but once I did I really liked it!

    By the way, when you’re working through your backlog of personal emails…you can safely disregard all the ones from me except the last one, the Beatles one.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Exactly. The ultimate freedom from continuity.

      And the forty-page story would be *very* good. Did you read the issue of Fell where he uses neuro-linguistic programming on the bloke he’s arrested? Something like that, but much, much more interesting… it would work.

  4. I don’t like the idea of Luthor being fixed with logic either. His problems aren’t logical – they’re emotional.

    Other than that I love it to bits.

  5. Zom says:

    I think the point about Luthor’s problems being emotional is a strong one, but other than that this is wonderful, Andrew.

    Just one thing, though, Morrison didn’t have Superman retire, he had him go on hiatus and come back a god.

  6. There is no excuse why DC does not have a Jimmy Olsen book like this, or at least use him this way in the Superman books. No excuse. EVERYBODY WANTS IT.

    Trading places with Perry White seems to stand out as less obviously absurd than the others, but it’s totally jam-packed with potential (of course the Jimmy who has all these fantastic adventures would find it hellish to spend all day in an office, check over proofs, deal with ad department screw-ups, tell reporters that the paper hasn’t met Q1 revenue so there’ll be no cost-of-living raises this year). It’s sitcommy, but a lot of those Silver Age Superman comics ARE sitcoms, in their way.

  7. Bill Reed says:

    Obviously, the story finds its pep by having Perry White accidentally get involved in some ridiculous Jimmy Olsen plot while Jimmy leads the staid, harried life of an editor-in-chief.

  8. pillock says:

    Oh, Bill’s got it. Perry White as Mr. Action for a day. It seems insane to me that I haven’t already read that.

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  11. Prankster says:

    I actually do think Morrison’s All-Star Superman ending *may* become the canonical “ending” to the Superman story, but it’ll probably take a decade or two to sink in.

    I think the reason “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” didn’t impact as the ending of the Superman story is that DC (and even Alan Moore) gave fans every reason to ignore it, what with it being concurrent with Crisis on Infinite Earths. Comics fans were getting hyped up on the possibility of “cleaning up the continuity” just as this story hit. So this story, which made an effort to hit all the “campy” Silver Age beats and elements, practically begged to be swept under the rug along with everything else. This is assuming you care more about continuity than good stories, of course, which an awful lot of superhero fans do.

  12. Miraclemet says:

    Just echoing everyone else who’s said it. Tons of great ideas. I agree with Prankster that “whatever happened/…” was very silver-agey, so its tough to swallow in this day and age. Morrison’s All Star Superman has more of the moden ethos/pathos thats resonated with readers. I would pick up every issue of Action comics/ Jimmy Olsen if it was written by you@!

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  14. I don’t know if you’ve read Mike Carey’s Lucifer – but the ending is actually reminding me of that somewhat. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but there are resonances.

    And if you haven’t read it then I recommend giving it a go – it was the last comic that I picked up in issue form, after everything else had switched to TPB.

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  16. Darry Weight says:

    I understand that I am late to the party but I think the reason that “All-Star” and “WHTTMOT” do not resonate on some level is because they are essentially about Superman going away as opposed to “The Dark Knight” where Batman continues to fight even after death failed to claim him. I think Andrew’s done a nice job at providing that to Superman. He solves all problems ‘here’ and now he’s going to continue to do so everywhere else.

    As nice as it was knowing that Superman is repairing the Sun, or having a kid with Lois Lane, it isn’t engaging (for me, at least). Here, Superman is allowed to continues to champion “truth and justice” no matter what. That’s a version I can get behind.

    Thanks for the entertaining read!

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