Saturday, July 13, 2013

Superman 233: "Kryptonite Nevermore!"

Welcome to the Bronze Age, Superman.

As the 1970's began DC was looking to both introduce a number of new characters, as well as revamp several of its most established stars in order to "freshen up" the line and retake the prime sales position from Marvel. Mort Weisinger, a brilliant but mercurial editor, had been the architect of the Superman titles for 13 years and was largely responsible for their unprecedented success through the 60's. After Weisinger retired from the position, the Superman books were brought under the control of Julius Schwartz, who had orchestrated the creation of the Silver Age Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, Hawkman and Justice League of America.

Schwartz had a vision for a line of Superman books that were character driven, and more grounded in DC's shared universe (Silver Age Superman comics, other than the occasional mention of Batman, basically existed in a world where Superman was the only superhero) he wanted to update the Clark Kent persona, and scale back the incredible powers of Superman. The core character of Superman would remain unchanged, and, unlike reboots now, this would all take place within the established continuity of the titles. It was the first whole scale reinvention of the Superman legend to come from editorial mandate,  He is also the man rather than organic development.

The natural choice to oversee this process was Denny O'Neil, who was one of DC's youngest star writers and in the process of developing a number of retoolings for Schwartz. Since 1968 O'Neil had been responsible for the brilliant, revolutionary Green Lantern/Green Arrow series which turned the sci fi adventure into the first major commercial comic book to examine American political issues like drug use, racism, slum lords etc. He was also the gentleman responsible for returning Batman to his roots, and finally sweeping away the camp elements the book had picked up through the 1960's. O'Neil's association of the character was long and fruitful, continuing and off until the No Man's Land event in 1999. He is one of a handful of people who can make a reasonable claim to being the best Batman writer of all time. He was also responsible for the horrific "All New Wonder Woman" which recast Diana as a swinging mod who used kung fu rather than superpowers to battle evil spies and sentient Asian Egg monsters. The less said the better.

O'Neil was hesitant to take on writing Superman, who he felt was too powerful to be interesting, and too iconic to be drastically altered. All of this made him ideal for Schwartz, who was looking to radically reshape the entire Superman line*, including the limitless power of the title character. He gave O'Neil a year to gradually introduce his new Superman, and O'Neil came out swinging with Superman 233, an issue that from its Neal Adams cover to the revelation of a brand new villain on the final page declares that Superman will never be the same again.

When an experimental Kryptonite powered reactor goes critical, Superman is standing by with a lead shield to minimize the damage. The shield holds, but the concussive burst damages Superman, who lays unconscious upon the desert sands for hours until finally returning to consciousness. Upon waking, he discovers that all the world's Kryptonite has been reverted to simple iron by the radioactive burst. To further complicate matters, Clark Kent has gone from the semi-anonymous life of beat reporter to the celebrity of TV anchorman, and his boss secretly works for Darkseid. "Will Superman now have to wait for commercial breaks?" Clark wonders to himself. Finally, Superman's first rescue "between the bulletins" takes him over the spot where he passed out on the sands after the K reactor went critical, and Superman's powers temporarily disappear-- leading to the creation of a strange man shaped creature made out of sand.

These three threads are the story, but since I'll be covering O'Neil's entire run I'll leave the latter plots for the issues in which they're paid off and concentrate on the main thrust-- the end of Kryptonite. Kryptonite had been in the books since 1949, and it had been in the radio shows even longer. It was Superman's greatest weakness, came in a variety of colors (all with different effects), and was seemingly as easy to obtain as bread or milk for criminals. Even as a fan of the Silver Age, I have to admit that the remarkable alacrity with which Kryptonite appeared in DC Comics would make the reader believe that the entire planet of Krypton had been shipped directly to Metropolis sometime in the 50's. It was definitely time to give it a rest, and focus on new angles.

One interesting additional point is the built in "out" for future Superman writers to bring back Kryptonite at their convenience (hopefully, when it had regained its menace) which is that any Kryptonite in space would obviously be unaffected. Just nice to see a writer looking out for his fellows, rather than assuming he has the absolute final word on the subject. Replacing Kryptonite is a new job which will require Superman to be more ingenious about his day to day routine than ever before. The news anchor position was the longest lasting change on the Superman books made in this issue (as Julius Schwartz felt like the "newspaper reporter" angle was outmoded) lasting fifteen years until the hard reboot of '86. I prefer Clark as a reporter, because it ties him less to one place and allows him greater freedom to roam, but it's hard to argue that the restrictive nature of the position isn't the point in this issue, which deals entirely with weakness.

Final note: This issue has the best Curt Swan art I have ever seen. Just every panel is totally perfect. 10/10.

All in all, Denny O'Neil makes a strong Superman debut in which the theme of weakness is explored throughout the book, as well as the run. This is simply the first chapter in a longer 12 part arc I will review for the blog, so stay tuned.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Superman Unchained 2: "The Fall"

There's a scene early in the second issue of Superman Unchained that perfectly encapsulates my problems with the book, and Scott Snyder's scripts in general:

Superman walks down into the Batcave, so Batman can deliver a large chunk of exposition to him. Batman is testing a new piece of equipment that hides him from Superman's vision, and when Superman admits he can't find him Batman pops out right behind him. Batman goes on to explain that this new suit "automatically detects how it's being looked at from anywhere on the electromagnetic spectrum, and automatically adjust-- in essence it's a personal Superman proof cloaking device.

Great! How does that stop Superman from hearing you move? Or your heartbeat? Or your voice? Or smelling you? Or stop Superman from noticing a Batman shaped null spot when he uses his X-Ray vision? In the effort to make Batman look really cool, they have totally forgotten the basic abilities of the main character. Now, I could forgive you if you felt like this is nitpicking, but it strikes me as indicative of the basic problem-- this book is just lazy. It's lazy writing to have Superman farm out his investigative work to Batman, it makes him look dull and unimaginative. He's an investigative journalist for crying out loud! Let him think! Does Batman call up Wonder Woman every time he wants someone to punch Killer Croc's face?

The Burj Dubai scene is definitely an improvement over the space station rescue from Issue 1, in that, even though Snyder continues to use the device of explicitly showing Superman's inner monologue when he should be allowing the reader to focus on the epic action beat he's constructed, he at least uses this action beat to show how Superman's sense of time is different from ours. A slight improvement, and a great visual, but nothing truly groundbreaking or emotionally investing.

Ascension is being handled extremely poorly, which is shocking because they were created for this book one issue ago, so you would think that there'd be no way to create weird inconsistencies. You'd be wrong. In the first issue Ascension are rejected as suspects in the satellite sabotage, because it's "above their pay grade." Two days later, Batman matter of factly states that they've demonstrated the ability to weaponize any advanced technology in the world. No one brings up that this is odd.

The Luthor stuff is totally incomprehensible to me: He's wearing Matrix shades in prison, quoting the Iliad (in translation, ugh) into a camera and standing in front of a model of Metropolis. You can only tell it IS Luthor if you remembered that he was reading the Iliad last issue, because his look is way off model. Then in the final scene, w learn he's built his model out of Gundam parts and has it on remote control to "save the world." Nothing about those scenes makes any sense to me.

For a series that promised a return to the traditional Lois/Clark dynamic, they've sure done their level best to make Lois as visually and intellectually boring as possible.

The finale  with Gen. Sam Lane is a collection of cliches that I consider personally insulting. Superman lets himself be drawn into an enemy position, that's shielded from his vision, listens to Gen. Lane butcher one of Aesop's fables, lets them unload a black hole powered artillery division, lets himself be attacked by it, and is saved by the Army Superman who actually declares (bless him) "He's mine!" The next issue promises a big ole fight. Joy.

Not recommended.

Monday, July 8, 2013

"A great metropolitan newspaper..."

Hey, we joined the Superman Webring which is very exciting. That blue widget on the right is a portal to the other fine sites you can peruse on the SW, and I would encourage you to investigate them.

Proper review is coming tomorrow of a classic Silver Age tale.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Adventure Comics 247: "The Legion of Super-Heroes"

Given the name of the site I suppose this review was inevitable.

When we go back to the Silver Age Superman we're not just looking at a single character or book, but an incredible universe that sprung up around the character throughout the 50's and 60's. ACTION COMICS and SUPERMAN were joined by team ups with Batman in WORLD'S FINEST, Superman leading the greatest superheroes in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, Superman's cousin fighting the good fight as SUPERGIRL, LOIS LANE and JIMMY OLSEN enjoyed long periods of success, and even a prequel series of sorts chronicling the adventures of Superman when he was Superboy became a hit in ADVENTURE COMICS.

It was in the pages of Adventure Comics' Superboy feature that my personal favorite corner of the extended "Super-family" was born-- THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES. The Legion were a group of 30th century teen aged superheroes who, inspired by the legends of Superboy, had formed a "super hero club" which consisted of dozens of heretofore unseen superheroes who defended the galaxy from evil in their own time. Their great affection for Superboy led them to travel back to the 20th century in a "time bubble" to collect him and initiate him into the group so that he could join them in their adventures.

If ever there was a spin off more fertile than the idea that birthed it-- this was it.

Don't get me wrong, the Superboy strip was by no means a disaster in its own right, but its status as "the Superman comic for your younger brother" looked even more drab and hokey after you'd seen Superboy battle Mordru in the 30th century with a cadre of his fellow superheroes. What was intended as a fine "one off" about Superman and a group of three "future heroes" playing practical jokes on one another became, over the decades, a space opera of surprising depth and passion.

The Legionnaires were not just a high concept idea, they had real personality at a time when the mainline DC heroes (even The Batman) were basically interchangeable. They pranked one another incessantly, they were elitists about who could join their group, they made mistakes and had moments of weakness that characters paid for with their lives which made their essential nobility and camaraderie all the more touching. They were a massive army of Superheroes at a time before the Justice League existed, and they had bizarre and wonderful powers that felt like a kid had created them. They made Superboy less of an exact analogue of Superman-- by virtue of their richness and depth he gained added dimensions by bouncing off them.

Most importantly, they were implicitly optimistic as their very existence promised the brighter future that Superboy was destined to bring about through his example as Superman. Even though it's never explicitly stated in those early stories, the Legion existed as an affirmation of Superboy's faith in himself and his vocation. That's what makes the seemingly paradoxical blending of Superman's past and future so mythical and resonant-- it's hard to see where your life will take you when you're twelve. The Legion were a reminder to never lose hope in the development of humanity. Their existence promised a world beyond the problems of the 50's, where we had conquered the demons inside ourselves and had extended our grasp to the universe. And all this predated Star Trek by a considerable margin, by the by.

This story itself is not a masterpiece; it is an enjoyable short feature from the DC Comics of the late 50's. Skillfully written and drawn, it goes about its business of recounting the time Superboy met and horsed around with time travelling super heroes from the future with clarity and brevity. I don't mean to give it short-shrift in its own entry on this site, as it's a charming story and I think it sets the tone for the Legion stories perfectly by playing them as slightly edgy kids doing an elaborate "Hazing" routine. I also like the way Superboy effortlessly shows them all up in the final sequence and regains his primacy. These guys aren't Snapper Carr or even Robin, and the mischievous quality brings out an alpha male quality in Superboy that makes him a full character in his own right. This is a wonderful story.

But we have to be real, what makes it all so beautiful and wonderful is the world it promises and the stories it made possible by doing so. It's the prologue to one of the great epics of American comic books, and the first of many Legion stories to get profiled here. It was a great seed planted by men looking to meet a deadline which gave us a breathtaking space opera which continues to this day and so it deserves inclusion here.

Long live the Legion!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Adventures of Superman, radio program: "The Clan of the Fiery Cross"

When we look at Superman's history and draw comparisons we ought to remember how medium dictates story. A one in done story from 1971 has to engage its world differently than a written for the trade arc in 2011, or a feature length film from 1980, for example. You have to understand not only a historical context for these stories, but a formal context for that particular Superman and the world he inhabits. Every medium has its own advantages and contrivances. Every story that occurs outside our own minds is in some way a compromise to the demands of a physical medium.

That's what makes reviewing a radio serial starring the greatest and most visual character in American popular fiction such a wonderful challenge. To someone living in 2013, radio is defined by what it cannot do, but in listened with a sympathetic ear it's easy to hear why it was such a powerful medium-- like comic books there are no wasted moments and no unnecessary elements. Every line is designed to further the plot or develop the characters which allows us to create a clear and distinct picture in our mind's eye. It's also worth mentioning that unlike the radio shows I had been familiar with before reviewing this show, Superman is not a 30 minute weekly serial, it's a 15 minute daily serial which was recorded live. This necessitates building "breaks" into the serial for the lead actors when they needed days off, which is why Batman and Jimmy Olsen made their debuts in the Superman radio show before they showed up in his comic book.

Before I go on with this review I'd like to tell you about Kellogg's Pep, the Sunshine cereal. So light and crisp and tender it gives your appetite the old come on and makes you want to eat a hearty breakfast every morning. And now that we're sending these cereal grains overseas to feed fellows and girls overseas, remember not to waste it-- eat all your Pep!

(Thought you'd like a little local color there)

The story itself is really good; the kind of social consciousness stuff that permeated early Superman before being swept away in the 1950's. Superman takes on "the Clan of the Fiery Cross", an obvious analogue for the Ku Klux Klan, who have used a dispute between boys on a City League baseball team to incite a campaign of violence against a local Chinese family. I like the way they use a very small incident and build the tension solidly over two episodes before Superman even gets involved. They're also not shy about calling the Klan "Un American bigots and speak pretty specifically about what they do and why they do it.

I also like how adept they are at painting the images with words: the Klan members, illuminated by a single candle, drawing weird shadows in the sour milk light and Superman as a red and blue blur hurdling buildings in a desperate race to save Perry White. I could see these with greater intensity than some comic book images. It's a wonderful format.

The serial is quite long (16 parts of 15 minutes each) but well worth your time to track down and listen to. Here's a link to listen for free:


Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Superman loved Lois Lane.

Lois Lane loved Clark Kent and ached in vain to believe he was Superman.

Clark Kent loved Superman.

No one understood this.

- Elliot S! Maggin, Last Son of Krypton

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D

An adventure so great it takes place between the heartbeats of Clark Kent’s true love. A group of Supermen travel through time and space to save existence. 52 universes, limbo, and only something impossible can save the day…

What do you do with a super hero that can do anything?

You let him!

Superman Beyond.

Behind the cover…

“We‘ll be traveling through Bleed space between the universes, but you‘ll need to upgrade to 4-D vision to truly comprehend what you experience. Prepare yourself by wearing these Overvoid Viewers forged from Superman‘s own Cosmic Armor. Your ability to see 4-D perspective will develop spontaneously when you need it. It is crucial you cut your Overvoid Viewers out of the placard holder as indicated by the dotted lines, or they won‘t function properly. When properly formulated, your Overvoid Viewers should have the green part over your right eye and the red over the left with the rusted armor facing out toward the page.”

A pair of 3-D glasses await you (red and blue). Is this a gimmick is a proper response…and in anyone else’s hands…maybe. But not Morrison’s, these glasses are tied to the story, tied to the reader, tied to the creator. Morrison wants you to interact with the text. He’s offering you a way in, the images leap from the page to interact with you.

You’re about to break the fourth wall (a theme explored in his run on Animal man)  and enter a new dimensional space. Page 12 in issue 2 is the perfect example—"From a direction that has no name comes a sound like breathing... as if cradled"—you’re holding the book, right—Superman can almost hear you! And I wish I had more time to talk about the meta-textual aspects of this story but what we are interested now in something else entirely—

We open with a classic set up, Good vs Evil, Superman and an unknown foe locked in combat, the villain asks, “what shall we engrave upon your tombstone?" and opening with two splashes right away tells you Doug Mahnke’s style fits right in with what Morrison is trying to do, he presents classic DC archetypes mixed with a slightly over-lined and horror-ish embellishment on facial features and backgrounds are perfect for a reality spanning 3-D epic. Bottom line he draws BIG.

Previously in Final Crisis (this being a “tie-in” and all) Lois Lane had been mortally injured, Superman because only his heat vision can keep her alive has been out of the fight.

This is until a female monitor, Zillo Valla, appears, declaring she knows Clark Kent’s secret identity. The multiverse is in danger, she tells him, and only Superman can save it!

In return she promises him the life of his true love and with time frozen between Lois’ last heartbeat Superman kisses her good bye and boards the Ultima Thule, a monitor ship that can travel through the bleed between the 52 universes, joining an army of Superman analogues from other worlds.

What’s great about Beyond, and really Final Crisis overall is that almost all of Morrison’s work at DC is showcased, we get Limbo from Animal man and the return of the Seven Soldiers of Victory. In many ways I see Final Crisis as the culmination of Morrisonian themes and concepts, many stemming even from the Invisibles, within the DC universe; and Beyond is a perfect example. This is Superman, the first idea, the idea that’s greater than them all as allegorical a story as you’ll find from a mainstream comic. Superman fights a war in fictional space to save fiction with an idea.

The monitors who feed on the bleed, in my mind, have to be representative of the writers at DC who are forced to leech every last drop from their creations in service of the faceless corporate entity that controls them. Sucking them dry until there isn’t anything left and they are abandoned to limbo (the place where all characters go when they fall out of use or more accurately aren't making money).

In limbo there is a library where no one goes, within the library there is one book, a book that holds everything every written. A book with no duality, it is both good and evil, destroyer and savior. At the close of the first book the evil anti-matter Superman, Ultraman, attempts to wield the books power and discovers the existence of Mandrakk the dark god and possibly(?) original monitor from COIE, he attacks the people of limbo as reality crumbles, imploring Superman to “kneel before Mandrakk and die!”

And in a comic filled with superhero responses that make you want to jump out of your seat in quick succession you get my favorite two. First when Superman says in response to Ultraman, “Sounds like a challenge to me,” and shortly after that as the people of limbo fight back, Merryman asks, Superman to “Promise you’ll remember us, even if no one else does?” to which he replies, “I will. And they will (could he mean us??). I guess you can be a hero anywhere, Merryman.”  Morrison kills it with these lines, really if the meta-aspects of the story aren’t enough or you just don’t care for them, the simple superhero splendor is enough to leave any comic fan awestruck.

But the greatest piece of writing in this comic is at the end, as evil Superman and our Superman are combined by a very Watchmen-esque Captain Atom (he even says there are only symmetries) into one being beyond the 2D comic space.

Only Superman can save us now.
There are no dualities. Superman’s mind inhabits a being of pure thought, of pure idea, represented as a golden machine built in Superman’s image (calling back to the Golden Age). He has become the very idea that birthed the Superhero, the essence, the pure goodness that is Superman.

Mandrakk offers him the challenge; he holds a bottle of bleed, the only thing that can save Lois Lane. “All you have to do Superman is take it from me!” Take life and the idea back from the corporate entities that brand and buy images and wear them down, with reinvention after reinvention until they’ve crushed the very soul of the thought in the end.

But come on Superman can do the impossible.

Nothing could hold the bleed, They said. They were wrong.
Superman can. And with a kiss…(well, you know…Happy Endings and all)

And oh, in case we've forgotten, as for the words Superman would have carved on his tombstone? Well, considering all comics begin with--

Previously in…

It would only be right that Superman would write be continued.