Saturday, June 1, 2013
Superman 247 - "Why Must There Be a Superman?"
When you start a blog dedicated to reviewing the adventures of a character who has been around since 1938 the first question is "Where do I start?" For my part I chose to start with a powerful turning point in Superman's history. Few individual issues have had such a dramatic effect on the course of a comic book for such a long period of time.
It represented a final break from the retooling Superman received courtesy of Denny O'Neil in 1971. That Superman was defined by new found physical instability, and a reaffirmation of the essential courage of the Superman character. Combined with the dramatic change in Clark Kent's life from the semi-anonymity of the newspaper by-line to life in front of the all seeing eye as a network news anchor. O'Neil's Superman ultimately exchanged kryptonite for a loss of power that implied true vulnerability, and it was an interesting approach. Alas, O'Neil was never truly comfortable with the character, and the door opened for new talent.
Enter Elliot S! Maggin. Writing to avoid law school, Maggin (with an assist from future Super-scribe Jeph Loeb) delivers a nearly perfect comic script that, almost by itself, suggests a whole new direction for Superman to take throughout what would be called The Bronze Age. Maggin's genius for the character was two-fold: a recognition that it would be increasingly complex problems that would humanize the Man of Steel for the 70's rather than a decrease in his prowess (Indeed, his capability was so great that it might be part of the problem), and a truly mythic approach to the Man of Steel. Maggin eventually developed an end game to the Superman story that the comics would never reach, but which could be alluded to by magic beings and time travelling historians alike. He knew what would happen to Superman, Lois, Lex and all the rest, and while he never gave details, savvy readers can piece together the story from his hints. This elevated Superman to a Robin Hood or King Arthur; myths with endings as grand as imagination allows.
What was this new direction? Whereas heroes like Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and even Batman confronted their essential limitations in the 70's, Superman is given the opposite dilemma: If you can do anything for the people of Earth, how do you know you aren't doing too much? When does helping the human race become smothering them? This question is too big, its implications too vast, for Superman (the series or the character) to answer completely, a fact which Maggin implicitly understands and uses to his benefit. The easiest way to show the power of this idea is to point out that every "serious" depiction of super heroics post Crisis, from THE AUTHORITY to WATCHMEN, has attempted to answer it with limited success.
A synopsis is simple: After successfully completing a mission in space for the Guardians of the Universe, Superman falls weakened and is taken into the care of same. While Superman lies unconscious, the Guardians (the ingrates), plant an idea in his subconscious that his heroic deeds are actually curtailing human progress and keeping them from reaching their potential. Armed with this fresh perspective, Superman refuses to directly interfere in a labor dispute between poor immigrant farmers and their cruel boss. Superman attempts to rally the farmers to solve their own problems, but a subsequent earthquake forces him into action, and he rebuilds their homes. The incident serves as an uneasy test case for Superman's new philosophy: he can help with the earthquake because the farmers have no means to do so themselves, but they must work to solve those problems which rest in their purview. Superman flies off, promising to keep in touch, but the narrator indicates that this solution has not completely satisfied him intellectually or emotionally-- it has simply allowed him to get back to work.
Before I go finish my analysis of the story, I don't want to forget Curt Swan. His storytelling is masterful, his instincts are perfect. It's an issue of Superman built on insoluble questions and nagging doubts and it never drags or depresses you because Swan is just SO GOOD. A-plus work.
The Guardians are probably the least sympathetic good guys in all DC Comics, and Swan subtly plays this up throughout the issue. They look like conspirators and despite what the cover and title page suggest they have no interest in a confrontation with Superman-- just implant a suggestion. One interesting implication of the whole issue is that the Guardians have armed 3600 sentient with the most powerful weapon in the Universe and see this as an endeavor worth dedicating eternity to, but they fear ONE Superman may upset the cosmic balance. What does that say about Superman and Hal Jordan's relative power and skill.
Superman, for a story that questions his entire raison d'etre, comes off pretty well. He befriends a boy who he sees something of himself in (the specific parallel is brilliant and I won't spoil it here), and the story implies that Superman's interest in him has fundamentally inspired him. He is selfless: springing into action to mitigate the damage of the earthquake even as he wrestles with the question of whether he should. He is shown to be a fellow with a very strong and tenacious conscience, which is rare in comics today.
One interesting aspect of this comic is that Clark kent (and everything that comes with him) never appears in this issue. In a story where Superman is struggling to coexist with humanity, it's strange that he never seeks refuge in his human persona for inspiration.
All in all, I give this my highest recommendation. A must read for fans of American comic books.