Thursday, June 27, 2013

Superman 400: "The Living Legends of Superman"

The single best comic ever produced by DC Comics, EVER.

Superman 400 is an exploration of the concept of the mythic hero, the historical figure, the person of interest as their story travels down through time and is received by further generations. This is Elliot S! Maggin's opportunity to fully flesh out his mythology of Superman's future, aided by the greatest team of artists to ever appear in a single issue of a comic. Seriously, check out this roster:

Joe Orlando; Howard Chaykin; Brian Bolland; Jack Kirby; Al Williamson; John Byrne; Jack Davis; Frank Miller; Leonard Starr; Walt Simonson; Marshall Rogers; Bernie Wrightson; Wendy Pini; Will Eisner; Mike Kaluta; Steve Ditko; Mike Grell; Klaus Janson; Moebius; Jim Steranko (writing his segment as well); Bill Sienkiewicz and Jerry Robinson. WITH an introduction by Ray Bradbury.

With a talent roster like that, you know it's time to just dive right in and see what we have. Please note, that because this issue is presented as an anthology we'll be doing capsule reviews, rather than a single essay which connects all these disparate parts, so that I can do justice to everything on it's own terms.

- As you can see above, Howard Chaykin's cover is a depiction of Superman forged directly from the souls of everyone who has ever loved him. Just amazing work.

- The framing story expresses the twin ideas of the piece: That time is a fixed point in time and that legends do not originate in a vacuum, but are animated by the people who transmit and receive them in powerful, simple, terms. This is just a wonderful metaphor for the continued creation of comic books through the ages, and it's expressed powerfully without being too "on the nose." Beautiful work.

- Wow.

- There aren't enough Jack Kirby Superman images out there.

- The next piece is a wonderful yarn concerning a futuristic flim-flam man's tall tale about being saved by Superman in space, and discovering his "super serum" which he's now willing to sell. It's accompanied by drop dead gorgeous art, and it's a fun yarn. A comedic piece to whet our appetites for the more serious stories to follow. It doesn't make any less lovely to read, but it's not the sort of story that benefits from in depth review. Just read it.

- Interesting to see how Byrne saw Superman, just a couple years before he became the architect of his world. He's a little younger here than he looks in Byrne's origin for him a couple years later.

- Maggin teams with Frank Miller for the next segment which uses the Pre-Crisis concept of "Earth-Prime" (which is literally OUR Earth) for its springboard. Basically, scientists in the far future develop a device to obtain relics from parallel dimensions, and today they have obtained an episode of The Adventures of Superman 50's TV show from our world, and will use it to determine the age old secret of Superman's true identity. The debate between the reporter (who is a descendant of Jimmy Olsen) and the scientists over the accuracy of the evidence and the speculation concerning who Superman really was (it seems the majority opinion was on and off Superman baddie and Darkseid lackey Morgan Edge) feels like gentle mockery of the "debate" concerning Shakespeare's authorship. Great stuff.

- How many times can I say something's incredible?

- Marshall Rogers illustrates an offbeat story where Superman's indestructible costume allows a simple vagrant to incite a revolt against an oppressive regime. Superman, even without being present, is such a powerful symbol that he can rip whole communities out of apathy. An interesting inversion of the idea that superhero comics are fundamentally a "distraction" from the real world.

- Powerful, dynamic, work from a true master.

- The next story clocks in at just three pages as we watch two college professors in a space school argue about whether Superman was actually real. Nothing masterful, but the point being made that history fails to capture the true greatness of our finest heroes. Fun.

- Mike Kaulta's trademark style animates a neat slice of life from a far future Earth where children imagine themselves as a Superman, who they have subtly conflated with Batman (though he is never mentioned). Makes the point that the methodology of Superman is not nearly as important as the concept of Superman, which will always endure.

- Of course, Ditko makes the letter on the college sweater an A. Of course.

- Striking.

- Maggin's best story involves a futuristic seder meal for his Superman holiday Miracle Monday. Superman himself makes his only appearance in these stories, and is delighted to discover that he's become a kind of post-modern Elijah. The final evolution of probably the essential Jewish-American character. Not just great Superman, but truly great science-fiction.

- Very few images of Superman are haunting, this is one of them. From French legend Moebius.

- Steranko contributes the finale, where Superman and most of his descendents have transcended their physical form, and allow Superman's final descendent to stop the heat death of the universe and restore the universe's capacity for Life. Probably Steranko's greatest work, and that covers A LOT of ground.

Conclusion: This would be a satisfying final issue for Superman, and it doesn't contain Lois; Clark; the Daily Planet; the Legion; and barely contains Superman himself. Incredible, incredible. It places the Superman myth in incredible and varied contexts and makes the mind and spirit soar like truly great science fiction does. It gives you world after world that you want to live in.


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