16 September 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #5: The Superman Chronicles, Volume One

Comic trade paperback, 204 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 1938-39)

Borrowed from a friend
Read September 2008
The Superman Chronicles, Volume One

Writer: Jerry Siegel
Illustrator: Joe Shuster

DC Universe Timeline: Thirteen Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 1938-39

(The stories in this volume obviously take place during Superman's first year in Metropolis-- no one knows who he is at the beginning, but he rapidly becomes famous. The 1930s setting is pretty obvious-- which I guess means the present day of the DC Universe is the 1950s? Comic book time is a bizarre thing.)

The Superman Chronicles is a series with a rather ambitious aim-- to reprint "every Superman story in exact chronological order!" I don't know how far they plan on going with this thing, but right now they are up to five volumes of this stuff, which covers about three years of publishing, so they've got a ways to go, even if they are only doing the Golden Age. (Unfortunately, James only owns the first volume.) The first volume contains seventeen stories, mostly from various issues of Action Comics, though there is also one issue each of the New York World's Fair and Superman books. I'm not going to review all of these stories, however, because that would get pretty redundant.

Action Comics #1 ("Superman, Champion of the Oppressed!") of course created a splash on its initial publication, and it is easy to see why. Because Superman is awesome. In this first issue, he stops a woman from being wrongfully executed, stops a wife-beating in progress from a tip at the Daily Star (though who exactly phones a newspaper to inform of wife-beatings in progress is beyond me), takes Lois out for a dance, prevents Lois from being raped, and intimidates a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. This is a much more down-to-Earth Superman than the modern reader is used to-- not in the sense that he's more relateable as a character, because he's absolutely not-- but because he's got a much lower powerset (he can't yet fly, though he can run fast and jump high, and he has enormous strength, but no laser vision or anything like that), and he deals with much more "normal" problems. There's only one supervillain in this entire collection-- Ultra-Humanite makes his appearance in one of the last stories, and even then his plan is to take over the world via a taxi protection racket.

So Superman pretty much spends all of his time righting human wrongs-- and he does this in a most entertaining fashion. In Action Comics #2 ("Revolution in San Monte, Pt. 2"), he takes the boss of the aforementioned lobbyist to the South American country where his company is selling munitions to spur on a civil war, forcing him to enlist and then enlisting alongside him! Hilarity ensues as the lobbyist discovers the horrors of war, Lois is nearly executed for some random reason, Superman battles an airplane, and the war ends when the leaders of each side suddenly realize they have no idea what the war's about. How could you not enjoy this?

Of course, random South American countries aren't all Superman cares about. This early Superman is always sticking up for the little guy, and of course you know he's always going to win, because no one remotely capable of threatening him even exists. Where the entertainment value in these stories generally comes from is in how Superman rights his wrongs-- usually by giving the perpetrators a taste of their own medicine: he traps a negligent mine owner in his own mine (along with a group of bored socialites), he solves the problem of tenement housing by destroying the housing so that the government will have to build nicer housing (not exactly on the side of the law, this Superman), he puts a crooked prison warden in his own prison, he gets back on a group of stock swindlers by making them think their own shares are worth millions... and then wrecking their oil wells permanently, and he combats reckless driving by smashing up used car lots.

Of course, sometimes you have to wonder if he doesn't have better things to do, such as when he investigates cheating on the "Dale" and "Cordell" college football teams, or when he joins a circus to increase its flagging ticket sales. Though, in the end, there's usually an attempted murder, which would seem to justify his super-involvement.

The early Clark Kent persona is interesting-- I prefer a much more confident Clark myself, but this Clark is an absolute pansy. One is somewhat unsure why he must play at being such a pansy; at one point Clark gives up a source to a man likely to kill him just to keep up his persona! Of course, Superman rescues the man, but surely that wasn't necessary? Still, it's also interesting to note the overlap between the two persona-- frequently, he ends up embroiled in an adventure when using his Superman persona to do some investigative journalism that Clark doesn't have the powers to carry out. On the other hand, God knows what he's playing at with Lois Lane. For some reason, he seems purposefully mess things up with her as Clark, but when she's obviously willing to jump Superman, he acts entirely aloof and noncaring! (One can't blame him for having a thing for Lois, though-- even this early on, she's plucky and courageous, always doing what needs to be done for her story, and she doesn't take crap from anyone. And she's apparently a helluva kisser to boot.)

But by the end of the volume, this early Superman is starting to come to an end. As appealing as the idea of Superman, Champion of the Oppressed is, it can't work forever. When Superman's always going to win, it's eventually boring (the Superman vs. a cracking dam story is a great example), and he can't reshape the social structure of America-- which Superman could if he was real. The coming of Ultra-Humanite signals the end of this approach to Superman, as unrelentingly fun and enjoyable as it might be.

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 September 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #4: Batman: The Long Halloween

Comic trade paperback, ~368 pages
Published 1999 (contents: 1996-97)

Borrowed from a friend
Read August 2008
Batman: The Long Halloween

Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale
Colors: Gregory Wright
Letters: Richard Starkings

DC Universe Timeline: Twelve Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 1987-88?

(Much like the same authors' Superman For All Seasons, this could pretty much be set at any time. In the DC Universe, it follows on the heels of Batman: Year One, covering eighteen months in Batman's early career, from June to December of the following year. I'm uncertain how much time has passed since Year One because I don't have that book on hand anymore.)

You know, there's this thing about Batman. There are a lot of people out there who like Batman more than they like Superman. And I'm actually okay with that, because I know that when it comes down to it, Superman could beat Batman in a fight so easily, and that's what matters most of all when you're talking about superheroes. What I'm not okay with is their reasons. "Batman is more realistic than Superman." Or "Batman is more relateable than Superman."

Excuse me, what?

Who on Earth can relate to a man who saw his parents brutally gunned down in an alley when he was eight years old, spent his young adult life traveling the world and being trained by the greatest masters of martial arts, science, and awesomeness, and now uses his billionaire wealth and mega-corporation to fight crime in the alleys of Gotham City dressed up as a giant bat? He's nothing like anything anyone has ever experienced! Superman, on the other hand, is an ordinary decent person who woke up one day to find out he could fly. And shoot lasers out of his eyes. Incredible unrealistic in a sense, but-- you could be Superman. You could not be Batman.

As more more realistic? I think Batman's lack of superpowers make him less realistic, not more. Superman's powers come from a yellow sun and his Kryptonian heritage; if you happened to have that, you could do all of the things Superman does. Batman has got no excuse for the fact that he can do all of these amazing things. He just can. And no matter how much you or I trained, no matter how much we hung out with Liam Neeson in the mountains of Tibet, we could not be Batman.

This, I think, is the fundamental root of my problem with the Batman comics I have read so far in this incredibly drawn-out blogging series. (I mean, one comic a month? How hard can this be?) The Superman we see in Superman For All Seasons is a guy we can relate to, as I hammered home in that review again and again. Even the one in Birthright fairs pretty all right. But Batman... he's never really depicted as a character. He's just there, this force of nature that spends all his time disappearing mid-conversation with Commissioner Gordon and kicking people in the face. You never get a feeling that he's an actual person, a man with struggles and difficulties and problems.

Except for once. In chapters 8 and 9 of The Long Halloween, which take place on Mother's Day and Father's Day, respectively, Batman's long, drawn-out hunt for the serial killer known only as "Holiday" is paralleled with his youthful memories of his parents. Of course, Batman does everything he does as part of some almost insane devotion to his long-dead ancestors. And here, that really comes through-- you feel that when Batman's failed, he's not just failed himself, he's failed his mom and his dad. And for a man who's spent his entire life making up to them, that's a pretty crushing blow. For once in the book, you know what it is to be Batman. And these chapters were my favorite parts of the story.

Not that the rest of it is terrible. But... what it seems to come down to in the end with this, just like Batman: Year One is... it's not as good as Batman Begins/The Dark Knight. Everything this comic does, those movies do better. In them, Batman does feel like a person you can relate to and understand. His actions really do feel like a struggle. I think that's because the movies use his supporting cast, especially Alfred, much more effectively. In this comic, much like Year One, Alfred is a two-scene nonentity with no real impact. And I think Dent's descent into Two-Face was much more effectively handled in the films-- the coin thing feels incredibly random here, as it's scarcely mentioned before he goes evil. In the movie, it's an integral part of his personality from the beginning.

Of course, not being as good as Christopher Nolan's Batman films is hardly the worst criticism you can give something.

This comic is good. It's got some problems-- most of the time, it feels like our protagonists are just standing around waiting for Holiday to kill someone else. Which I suppose might happen with real serial killers, but it makes for dull reading at times. The final solution as to who Holiday is is at first a cheat and then just muddled. But aside from that, the story is decent enough.

Most of the supporting characters are well-handled, especially the members of Batman's Rogue Gallery. I really like how the Joker, the Mad Hatter, Solomon Grundy, and the Scarecrow were handled. I really liked how the Riddler was handled, which is surprising, as I usually find his character pretty stupid. Catwoman confused me more than anything else: in Year One Selina Kyle's a prostitute, in this story she's part of Bruce Wayne's social circle. The gangster stuff was very well done, too, and probably some of my favorite parts-- another area where these comics obviously infuenced the Nolan films.

Jim Gordon continues to be awesome. Actually, I really like the stuff with the GCPD in general; Wikipedia tells me they got their own comic book series called Gotham Central, and I mean to check it out someday. This small group of people in their enternally-losing battle can't help but be appealing.

Tim Sale's art, of course, is fantastic, aside from the occasional panel where Batman is somewhat over-muscled. Overall: it was decent, but the lack of real character in Bruce Wayne/Batman prevents it from becoming great. Not so much a mixed bag as just... average.

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.