17 June 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #2: Superman For All Seasons

Comic trade paperback, ~208 pages
Published 2002 (contents: 1998)

Borrowed from a friend
Read June 2008
Superman For All Seasons

Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale
Colorist: Bjarne Hansen
Letterer: Richard Starkings

DC Universe Timeline: Thirteen Years Ago
Real World Timeline: Timeless America

(This story occurs in and around Birthright. Most of the spring issue takes place just before Clark leaves Smallville to wander the world, and the rest of it covers his first year active in Metropolis. The fall issue would seem to pick up shortly after Birthright, as Lex has just been released from prison. Its real world date is pretty impossible to pin down-- either the 1930s or the 1990s, most likely both.)

It's another Superman origin story. Sort of. Superman For All Seasons doesn't give you any of the humongous backstory-- at one point Pa Kent mentions that they found Clark in a rocket, but that's about it. I don't think the word "Krypton" is ever used. Rather than on an exotic alien world with Kal-El's father babbling about exploding planets, this story opens in Smallville, Kansas with Clark Kent's father talking about farming... and his son.

It's divided into four sections, one for each season of course. And each section is narrated by a different key figure in Superman's life. As I alluded to earlier, "Spring" is narrated by Pa Kent, talking about Clark's last year of high school and the changes he went through as he started to realize his power. "Summer" is narrated by Lois Lane, talking about this new "Superman" that so fascinates her... not that she's in love or anything. "Fall" is narrated by Lex Luthor, as he fumes over the new arrival in his city. And "Winter" is narrated by Lana Lang, discussing what it's like to know Clark and Superman.

The characterization of this thing is pitch-perfect. Pa Kent is exactly what Pa Kent should be-- a good guy working a farm. There's no deep-seated paternal issues or overdramatic angst here. Which is not to say things are perfect between Clark and Kent, but it's the sort of problems every father and son should have: a son uncertain about his place in the world now that he's growing up, and father who doesn't know what's going to happen to his son... and unable to help. Since Pa's narrating, there's necessarily less of Ma, but what's there is handled well too. "Be gentle," says Ma as her husband goes out to talk to their son, who's overcome by fear as he begins to grow up. "Yep," says Pa as he goes out, thinking about being a father. The father of a boy, soon to become a man. Not a Superman.

Lois... Lois is Lois. Unfortunately, she doesn't contribute directly to the story much, but she comments on it. A cynical woman who, on some level, just doesn't like that Superman has disrupted her carefully constructed portrait of the world... but finds herself drawn to him nonetheless. Speaking of double-L love interests, this was my first real encounter with Lana Lang in, well, anything. I guess I haven't read/seen much Superman material dealing with Smallville. I like what I see here. As one of the few people who know the Clark/Superman secret, she's one of the few people who understands either of them. Superman is who he is because he is Clark Kent, and Lana may have pined for Clark as a child, but she too must grow up on move on to the next stage of her life.

And as for Lex... Lex Luthor. The 1990s cartoon is my favorite depiction of Lex bar none, but this is right in line with that. This is a Lex with no personal vendetta against Superman... at least not at first. Lex Luthor is the greatest man ever, a man who controls everything... Superman is better than him, and out of his control. His narration is brilliant: "The public needs to be spoken to. Often, they need to be spoken to as children. So they can grasp my position. Simply because my position is never wrong. Never. I poured my life into this city. I gave it a personality. A look. A kind of elegance. She was my fair lady. I've grown accustomed to her face. And yet... I was betrayed." That, ladies and gentlemen, is Lex Luthor, the greatest criminal mind of our time. Always in control, and always afraid of losing it. No hackneyed mad scientist traits or Smallville backstory required.

What of the character of Superman himself? Obviously, since the story is narrated by others, we get little of him directly. Superman can be a somewhat unfathomably distant person sometimes. How can you emphasize with a man who has powers like that? And yet, Loeb manages it. Superman has the weight of the world on his shoulders... and yet, don't we all? This story is about growing up and finding your place in the world-- drawing it not from some alien heritage, but from yourself. Even for Superman, it's hard to do what you need to do day in and day out, with a world trying to drag you down. Like anyone, when things get tough, he retreats from his problems-- in this story, Superman's "fortress of solitude" is Smallville, not some crystalline alien structure at the North Pole. But like the best of us, Superman doesn't stay in retreat. He doesn't know everything, and he certainly doesn't always know how to cope with the world... but when it comes down to it, he knows he has to do what has to be done, and he does it. Plus, he gets some of the best lines: "Nice costume," says a kid Superman has just saved from falling off a skyscraper. "Thanks," replies the Man of Steel. "My mom made it for me." Which is really everything you need to know about Superman right there.

I haven't read anything else by Loeb, but I really should. (And I believe I've got a couple of his works in my pile.) This is a man who knows how to use the comics medium. Many writers, when using narration, convey information you're already getting in the dialogue and images (John Byrne, I'm looking at you). But the solution is not to drop the narration. Loeb's narration boxes harmonize with the scenes they depict, sometimes contrasting, sometimes reinforcing. Oftentimes, the narration boxes overlay events the narrators actually know nothing about: Lois ruminates on what Superman does when he's not rescuing kittens as Clark returns to his apartment, Lana talks about the lack of Clark in Smallville as we see the lack of Superman in Metropolis. This is exceptional use of the form. And as I've gone about at length, his grasp and use of the characters is perfect.

The art is fantastic, too. Stylized, clear, usually... "gorgeous" is the wrong word. Handsome, maybe. Sale really captures the strength of Superman in one panel and the vulnerability of Clark Kent in another, but they're clearly the same person in different modes. The only problem I have is that sometimes the childish giant look he gives pre-Superman Clark comes across a little... goofy. He looks too child-like and too awkward. But on the other hand, his Lois Lane is every bit as gorgeous as Lois should be.

All I've done here is rave. Did I dislike anything about this story? I thought the "Fall" section could have been improved. Lex's plan was pure Lex-- gassing a whole city yet only killing one person just to get at Superman is absolutely something he would do-- but the Clockwork Orange-style scenes of mental conditioning had a tone just a little too... harsh for this lovely gem of a comic. And I think Jenny Vaughn's story would have been more tragic if she hadn't adopted the strange supervillainesque codename and costume for no apparent reason of hers or Lex's. But these are quibbles, really.

This is without a doubt one of the best comic books I have ever read, and the best Superman story. Almost every note is pitch-perfect-- if you want to know who he is, read this story. If you want to know who Clark Kent is, read this story. If you never read another Superman tale, read this story. "The whole world was resting on his shoulders and maybe, just maybe, they weren't big enough to carry the load." That's Superman in a nutshell. But more than that-- it's all of us.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

09 June 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #1: Superman: Birthright

Here's a new feature. Before he left for St. Louis last August, my friend loaned me his collection of DC comic trade paperbacks. I added them to my pile and, of course, am only getting to them now. Being me, I arranged them into a rough in-universe chronological order, and you get the pleasure of journeying through them with me over the next couple months!

Comic trade paperback, ~314 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 2003-04)

Borrowed from a friend
Read June 2008
Superman: Birthright

Writer: Mark Waid
Penciller: Leinil Francis Yu
Inker: Gerry Alanguilan
Colorist: Dave McCaig

DC Universe Timeline: Thirteen Years Ago
Real World Timeline: March 2002

(To get that date, I'm being generous and assuming that the joke on p. 88 about the terror alert system was made before such jokes had been beat into the ground, which narrows the story down to the week after the system was announced. But I'm confused as to how this story can take place 13 years ago in March 2002. Is it 2015 now? Or did September 11th happen in 1994 in the DC Universe?)

It's another Superman origin story. The comic book world needs these like it needs more Batman angst. In my mind, the perfect Superman origin hasn't been done, but it would fall somewhere between John Byrne's The Man of Steel and Superman: The Movie. With Braniac there, like he was in the 1990s Superman cartoon. But until this perfect origin is created, I've got no interest in a new origin story.

So perhaps I was a bit biased going into the story. It irked me right from the start. The opening pages didn't help me. I like John Byrne's Krypton-- mostly because of the sterility of the culture there. That sterility has one important consequence: Kryptonians do not engage with one another on any physical level. They do not have sex; they procreate via machines. Their babies are born out of machines. And when little baby Kal-El is launched towards Earth, he has not yet been hatched from the machine. The Last Son of Krypton is born on Earth. I think that's great; that's my favorite part of Byrne's reboot. I think it's perfect in every way. Which means that when this story has a virile-looking Jor-El (he's no Marlon Brando, that's for sure) kissing his wife as the rocket launched off carrying their infant son, my thought is "I liked it better the other way."

Another thing not to like: angst. Superman doesn't have angst. He's not the new series Doctor Who. He's the last of his kind... but he's okay with that. (Except in Superman Returns, where this is executed well. For once.) The family he left behind is one he never knew, one that was never relevant to him in any way, shape, or form. He doesn't spend his time agonizing over how he's not one of us... because he is one of us. He's just a better one of us. Better not because of superpowers, but because of the upbringing he received from his parents. The Kents are perfect parents, who raised a son who does the right thing not because his parents were gunned down in an alley or because his uncle got murdered by a guy he should have apprehended, but because it's the right thing to do. And Clark Kent does not have father issues that result in a twenty-plus pages of a graphic novel being taken up by juvenile arguments, hissy fits, and other antics. Seriously.

Yet another thing not to like: Lex Luthor should not be from Smallville. Lex Luthor hates Superman because Superman is better than he is. Lex Luthor does not hate Superman because Superman was the reason that Lex's hair was burnt off of his head. How small world is that? It's terrible. Lex shouldn't be a mad scientist, either. My ideal Lex is the one from the 1990s cartoon... the corporate villain who can't be matched for sheer power... except by Superman. Yet this comic tries to have it both ways. Lex spent some time in Smallville... yet (ostensibly) has no memory of Clark. Lex has a major corporate empire... yet is bizarrely referred to in all the news reports as "astrobiologist Lex Luthor". Though apparently his astrobiological skills lead him to be able to make wormholes to the past of other galaxies. Of course. It's doesn't help that the story just stops for thirty pages so that Clark can explain Lex's backstory to his father... a backstory his father was present for and already knows.

So: bad Krpyton, bad angst, bad Lex. What else can Waid get wrong? Bad plot. Do you know what I hate? When superheroes save the world from problems that wouldn't have existed without the superhero's presence. How does that make a superhero useful or wanted? That's one of the (many) problems of the Fantastic Four movie-- Doctor Doom was only a danger because he was trying to take down the Fantastic Four. Here, Lex's only reason for invading Metropolis is to discredit Superman. If there was no Superman, there would have been no invasion. Less people would have died if Superman had never existed. Wow, way to affirm the existence of your hero.

Furthermore, I don't think Waid gets Superman. In his afterword, he talks about how Superman is the real person and Clark Kent is the disguise. This same hogwash was peddled in the closing minutes of Kill Bill, Vol. 2, resulting in a generation of teenagers who believe this because they've never correctly experienced the saga of Superman. The real person... is Clark Kent. But not the Clark Kent that hangs out with the staff of the Daily Planet. He's the Clark Kent that helps his parents. Who can be "super" and a good son at the same time. Superman is an exaggeration in one direction, the Metropolis-Clark in another. The Smallville-Clark, however, is the real deal. And though Waid might espouse his view in the afterword... it doesn't come through in the text. The moments we feel closest to Clark/Superman are the moments where he's with his parents, able to be who he truly is without any sort of pretense. No capes, no forced meekness. Just Clark Kent talking to his folks.

Also: the art is horrendous. Just look at that cover. How could anyone think that's attractive? Clark Kent/Superman should be good looking. Lois Lane should be good looking. No one is this book is remotely attractive. Jimmy Olsen looks more like a monkey than a human being. (Maybe that's intentional, though.)

And some of the pictures in this book are just goofy. I mean, what's up with this:

So... did I like anything about the book? Well, Clark's adventures in Africa were pretty good. A good look at what a pre-Superman Clark might have done with his powers. But that's a largely irrelevant thirty-plus pages in an otherwise horribly misconstructed 287-page graphic novel. Oh, and Perry White was well-written. I like the bit with his list of reasons to keep or fire Lois Lane. Actually, most of the Planet staff was well-written, even Lois.

Mark Waid, Leinil Francis Yu.... I'll just keep on imagining that some day my perfect Superman origin story will actually happen. Until then, I'll crack open The Man of Steel again, pop Superman: The Movie in my DVD player, and keep on dreaming.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.