22 January 2020

Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman: Final Post and Reflection

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #594
(art by Mike Wieringo & Lary Stucker)
What makes a good run?

This is the question I'm trying to answer, but I think it requires us to step back and ask another question first: What makes a run?

People always talk about "runs" in comics, but I think we're talking about a couple different things.
1. When a single creator or creative team defines a character or title from beginning to end. Good examples of this would be Neil Gaiman on The Sandman, Matt Wagner/Steven T. Seagle and Guy Davis on Sandman Mystery Theatre, James Robinson and Tony Harris/Peter Snjejbjerg on Starman, Roy Thomas on All-Star Squadron, Walter Simonson on Orion. Though most of those titles had existences outside of those creators, there are versions of those titles entirely defined by those creators. There was a Sandman vol. 1 and a Sandman before Neil Gaiman, but every issue of Sandman vol. 2 was written by him. The character of Orion existed before Walter Simonson, but the comic book called Orion was primarily his work as writer and artist. 
2. When a creator or creative team takes over a character or title, but that character/title extends beyond that creator. Here I'm thinking things like Geoff Johns's The Flash vol. 2 #164-225, George Pérez's Wonder Woman vol. 2 #1-62, Paul Cornell's Action Comics vol. 1 #890-904, Judd Winick's Green Arrow vol. 3 #26-75/Green Arrow and Black Canary #1-14. There were 163 issues of The Flash vol. 2 before Geoff Johns and another 22 after him; Geoff Johns was just there for a time.
    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #596
    (art by Mike Wieringo & Jose Marzan, Jr.)
    But you can identify another way of looking at a "run":
    A. The telling of a discrete story with a beginning, middle, and end. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos's Alias, for example.
    B. When a writer is just in charge of a character/title for a while. There's no "climax" to the run-- it's just a series of stories. Mark Waid's The Brave and the Bold, or Gail Simone's Birds of Prey. This doesn't mean that there are no arc elements, just that there's not One Big Story being told.
    Of course, there's certainly a midpoint between type A and type B. Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher's Batgirl vol. 4 #35-52 is a good example of this, as it (as I recall) tells three discrete stories, but each one leads into the next. Or there's the Mark Waid and Barry Kitson run on Legion of Super-Heroes, which tells two over-arching stories.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #600
    (art by Mike Wieringo & Jose Marzan, Jr.)
    So these two typologies overlap. I could draw you a chart with four quadrants if I wanted, but I'll just make a list of examples:
    • 1A. Single Title, Single Story: Gaiman's Sandman; Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos's Alias; Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta's The Vision
    • 2A. Partial Title, Single Story: Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee's Superman; Don McGregor and P. Craig Russell's Killraven
    • 1B. Single Title, No Overarch: Matt Wagner's Sandman Mystery Theatre; Paul Cornell's Captain Britain and MI13
    • 2B. Partial Title, No Overarch: Paul Cornell's Action Comics; Gail Simone's Birds of Prey; G. Willow Wilson's Ms. Marvel; Walter Simonson's Thor
    Okay, why do I bring all this up? Because I think comic fans and comic critics tend to prioritize type-1 runs and type-A runs. Obviously a type-1A is the best: a single creative vision, no extraneous stuff you have to disregard (imagine if there was a Sandman vol. 2 #76 by John Ostrander!), a a beginning, middle, and an end. It's hugely satisfying to read and discuss-- comics at its best. Type-2A and -1B runs aren't quite as good, but they're still very good. You either get a complete creative vision or a complete story.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #602
    (art by Pete Woods & Jose Marzan, Jr.)
    In the era of the collected edition, the type-1A is king. You can get a nice set of Sandman volumes, an Alias Omnibus, and a complete Vision hardcover. 2A doesn't do too badly. Azzarello and Lee's Superman fit nicely into two trades. Both type-B variants fare less well. DC has fizzled out doing a run of SMT collected editions twice now; you can get all of Paul Cornell's Action Comics in trade, but I doubt there will ever be an omnibus.

    But then type-2B runs languish at the bottom of what we appreciate. This is, perhaps, silly on the face of it. People love Simone's Birds of Prey and Wilson's Ms. Marvel. But I think it casts its effect on the way you read it. It's a little tough to get into Birds of Prey because these characters have some not-quite-explicated history. The whole run kind of fizzles out without a climax if you leave when Simone does. On the other hand, if you keep going, Tony Bedard takes over, and he maintains some stuff, but up-ends the status quo in other ways.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #610
    (art by Derec Aucoin)
    And Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman is probably more type-2B than most 2Bs! There's no one big story here; in fact, Casey's run was often in service to other people's stories. In the 35 issues of his run, eight were part of crossovers with other Super titles, not to mention that there were two other fill-ins, and one issue wrapped up the previous writer's story arc. That's almost a third! What was left was not telling one big story; the closest the run got to that was #612-16, just five issues. 

    And Adventures of Superman had a long history before and after Casey wrote it. (His run was #588-623; Adventures of Superman ran from #424 to 649, plus before and after that, it was just called Superman vol. 1, which ran from #1 to 423 and 650 to 714. He's just a drop in the bucket!) His run begins by trying up someone else's, as I said, and the early parts of the run in particular are very dependent on you knowing what Superman had been up to in Action Comics, Superman, and The Man of Steel. He's happily married to Lois, he's on a break, they're together; he's happily employed, he's fired from the Daily Planet, now he's not.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #612
    (art by Derec Aucoin)
    It just doesn't satisfy as a cohesive unit. I wanted it to. I felt like there's a really good story to be told about Superman's growing discomforted with the amount of power he possesses and what he does with it... but this, to be honest, isn't it. It's jumpy, it's not always in focus, and the thread doesn't come to a climax so much as a stop.

    But is this fair? Am I judging a type-2B run by the standards of a type-1A? Why should the best comic book runs be ones where a single creator tells a single story? Isn't that just the imposition of a certain kind of storytelling that came into vogue in the late 1980s? Comics didn't do that for fifty years prior. Maybe I should be judging Casey's run by what it was actually trying to do (telling interesting individual Superman stories focusing on his power while weaving in and out of Big Events), not what I wanted it to do.

    Type 1 isn't better than type 2; type A isn't better than type B. They're just different ways of writing comic books, with their strengths and weaknesses.

    I think what bothers me, though, is that the part of this type-2B run with the most potential to take off was often the most frustrating. The set of stories where Superman is a pacifist didn't work for me! Casey sets out a great challenge for himself: to tell Superman stories where he can't win through force. Yet the ways he does win often seem as arbitrary as the fact that he's always the strongest guy around. Many of the run's later issues invoke great ideas, but fail to climax satisfactorily (e.g., #603-05, 614-16, 617-18, 619-20, 621-22). I love of a lot of the premises here, but too often Superman doesn't do anything that feel brave or clever, and instead he wins just because. Plus, I really wish there had been a story that tested his pacifism. (Ending Battle is kind of this, but it felt hollow, and it actually comes before he's a pacifist!)

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #619
    (art by Derec Aucoin)
    Indeed, if I list the individual issues I liked the most, most of them, though not all, come from early in the run (e.g., #590, 594, 596, 599, 600, 608, 610). I feel like Casey did some of his best work when he was constrained by the overall plan of all the Super titles. Maybe because he couldn't tell complete stories based on external conflicts (as those ran across the Super titles), so he had to settle for stories based on internal conflicts purely (as those he could handle in a single issue on its own). Or maybe he just wasn't that good coming up with Superman plots on his own, but as part of a group doing it, he was just fine.

    I don't know. This makes it seem like I really didn't like the run, and while I did groan my way through both Return to Krypton stories and The Harvest and big chunks of Our Worlds at War, most of my problems with those stories can't be laid at Casey's feet.

    When he was writing, I was enjoying what I was reading more often than not. Casey himself has a good grasp on Superman as a person, and on the sense of humor and playfulness a good Superman story should engender. It reminded me of All-Star Superman in that regard, without being quite so on the nose about it. And both Casey's main artistic collaborators, Mike Wieringo and Derec Aucoin, were great in very different ways. I always like me some José Marzan, Jr., and it was nice to see early Pete Woods. And even if the story doesn't lead to a satisfying climax, there's a great continuity of theme: the stuff that will come into the open with Superman's pacifism in #616 is clearly layered at least as far back as #590, over two years earlier.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #623
    (art by Derec Aucoin)
    This was solid Superman stuff on the whole.

    I guess I just feel like I was promised spectacular, and this isn't it. I think I went it thinking I was getting a type-1A run (even though obviously I couldn't be!) or perhaps a type-2A, and that's why a type-2B was doomed to disappoint me. If you read Casey's Adventures of Superman, judge it on its own terms as much as you are able.


    I link to my usual reading guide above. A couple thoughts on it now that I'm done:
    • Reading the Super title events that included Casey's Adventures (e.g., Return to Krypton, Our Worlds at War) was the right move even when I didn't enjoy them.
    • The Superman/Batman story Casey wrote in 2009-10 (The Big Noise) is utterly terrible and utterly skippable, but it you are going to read it, definitely read it where it seems to go chronologically (S/B #64 after Adventures #588; S/B #68-71 between Adventures #596 and 597). If you read it in publication order, it would be a very dismal way to go out. Chronologically, it just reads like another mediocre Super titles crossover.
    • Jay Faerber's fill-in (#607) was worth it.
    • The Joe Kelly stuff I added in (Lost Hearts, The Harvest, Hungry Ghost) mostly wasn't worth it, and it contradicts what Casey was doing in Adventures. I probably should have saved it for, say, a Traci Thirteen-focused read, if I had to read it at all.

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