Saturday, June 11, 2005

Superman Inaction

Originally uploaded by Scipio1.
Ah, Superman; confused about where you are?

I'm confused about where you are, too, Superman.

I used to read the Superman titles, back when they told one big story and each issue had those little triangles on the cover that let you know the proper order to read them in. So tidy.

It wasn't always a great story...Jose's lottery ticket comes to mind. But I enjoyed it, I understood it, and it helped me understand Superman's role in Metropolis.

But that was a long time ago! And I'm afraid that during my recent celebration of "Freed Comic Book" I decided to free all my Superman comics.

I want to enjoy Superman; doesn't everyone? But I haven't for some time. Oh, there's an occasional nice story; I cried at "The Shame of Smallville" Action 791, in July 2002.

I have some theories of my own why I haven't enjoyed Superman lately. But bloggers always go on about their own theories.

You tell me...why haven't I (or you, for that matter) been enjoying Superman?


Scipio said...

No, that's not it.

The original model of the Superman story (reporter investigates story, discovers injustice, becomes hero, hero uses powers to uncover injustice) allows for as many as stories as there are newpaper headlines, and challenges where the ability to smash cars isn't a panacea.

But that model was abandoned after the original TV show went off the air.

Scipio said...

Oh, thanks, H! It can't take credit card donations, only PayPal donations. It would cost me extra money to enable the cc donations...more than the donations would cover!

I appreciate the support though! What do you think of the idea of selling...commercials?

Anonymous said...

I'd have to say the #1 reason I'm hating Superman right now is Jim Lee: the name just by itself makes me nauseous. That whole "Vanishing" thing, with the angst-ridden priest and the irritatingly pseudo-mysterious "Mr Orr" and the totally, totally pointless plot about the phantom zone or whatever the &*$@% it was: idiotic. Thank the gods he's gone now.

I like the character, usually, and sometimes it just works -- the Action Comics issue "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?" is one of the best comics I've ever read. But when you take the character, and strip out everything -- his personality, the basic nature of his relationships, his motivations -- and then try to produce crappy 1960s Marvel Comics melodramas with what's left, then it gets stupid.

Gods willing, the new writers won't keep doing that. Who wants to bet?

Martin Wisse said...

Because Superman is inherentely boring?

Scipio said...

Martin; no.

See my previous commment.

collectededitions said...


I happen to be a very ardent Superman fan, so your question is very important to me. I apologize sincerely for the length of this comment, and feel free to read as much or as little of it as you want, but I did want to try to answer fully why I think you might not have been enjoying Superman. I've made some suggestions at the end of this comment for some Superman trade paperbacks to try; if you happen to sample any, please do let me know what you think. Here goes:

You weren't enjoying Superman through the entirety of 2003 because the editors tried the worthwhile experiment of placing on the books Steven Seagle, who had admitted to a certain creative difficulty with Superman despite writing the excellent It's a Bird. Seagle did a twelve-month run that tried to highlight Superman's super-powers, but ultimately just became confusing. In addition, the series featured a quick deletion of Seagle's Supergirl, Cir-El, most probably because everyone realized the run wasn't working half-way through, and then needed to clean it up in time for both DC's upcoming Supergirl and Infinite Crisis plans. So it's a run that didn't start great, and then had to be truncated, and it wasn't helped by Scott McDaniel's art, which was fantastic on Nightwing, but didn't pair exactly right (or at least didn't look quite the same) with Andy Owens, and that contributed to the confusing appearance of the whole thing.

At that same time, Adventures of Superman write Joe Casey tried another noble experiment, this time of writing a Superman who, for almost a year, never hit anyone. Never once solved his problems with violence, instead using reason and his wits. Think about that. That's not only brilliant, but I imagine it's really really tough to do. And ultimately, Casey had already been on Superman for a while, and may have already been ready to be done with it by that point, and so the plots, as this experiment continued, became more and more outlandish, until it just didn't feel like good Superman reading any more. That's what happened there. Superman: Man of Steel had already been cancelled by that point for Superman/Batman, and Joe Kelly continued his fairly good run on Action Comics until the creative teams changed in 2004.

All of this was preceeded by a run from about 1999 to 2002, with the Superman titles written by Jeph Loeb, Joe Casey, Joe Kelly, and Mark Schultz, which was really very good. They breathed new life and some modernity into the Superman titles that had disappeared toward the end of Dan Jurgens and company's run. At its heyday of the Death of Superman (or even Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite), the Jurgens run of Superman was, in my opinion, the definitive Suerperman, but its time had past, and the Loeb Superman was fresh, large, and colorful. And from Superman Y2K through Our Worlds at War, they did a fantastic job. But I think there's something to be said for keeping a team on a comic only twelve issues; there's no chance for it to get stale. And by 2002, and into 2003, the teams got a little stale, though I maintain that the Loeb/McGuinness Superman shined throughout.

In the last year, you had the Azzarello/Lee Superman, the Rucka/Clark Adventures, and the Austen/Reis Action (all of this precursed by the new continuity Superman: Birthright). I've only read the beginnings of the Rucka and Austen titles, and I can say they're ... different. Not bad, not great, just different. It's a Clark Kent that's weaker, and a Superman that's stronger, maybe too much stronger. Depends on your individual tastes. Austen's run has only lasted twelve issues, whereas Rucka's run has been renewed, so take from that which is the current definitive Superman. Whether you'll enjoy them or not is hard to say.

So I think the reason you stopped reading Superman is because, eventually, the teams on Superman in the triangle days (which I remember fondly, too), eventually puttered to a stop, and by the time Loeb and company came in, you were probably already gone. And if not, there were plenty of jumping off points along the way after that, too. But let me give you some jumping on points, some suggested Superman reading that I think is good, including some newer stuff, and maybe this will renew your taste in Superman:

Superman: Man of Steel - the first Byrne miniseries. I imagine you've read it, but if not, these stories still stand up today.

Superman: The Man of Steel vol. 1 - 4 - these are the new DC collections of the initial John Byrne, Jerry Ordway, Marv Wolfman stories. They're somewhat clunky by today's standards, but if you read them recognizing that they'red 1980s comics, it's good stuff.

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman - I know it sounds hokey, but this is actually a collection of some of those early Byrne et al Superman stories, and I recall it as being pretty good.

Superman: Eradication!
Superman: Panic in the Sky
Superman: Krisis of the Krimson Kryptonite
Superman: They Saved Luthor's Brain! - all of these are good early Superman stories

Superman: The Death of Superman
Superman: World Without Superman
Superman: The Return of Superman - the Death trilogy, when that creative team was firing on all cylinders

Superman: For All Seasons - Jeph Loeb's excellent first Superman story, setting the tone for his 1999 - 2002 work

Superman: No Limits - this one, I'll warn you, has some parts good and some parts bad, but it's good to read before Superman: Endgame
Superman: Endgame - the first multi-part story from the new creative team has a great ending

Superman: Til Death Do Us Part
Superman: Critical Condition
Superman: President Lex
Superman: Our Worlds at War Vol. 1 & 2 - the three above again have their hits and misses, but they're probably good to read before Our Worlds at War so you know what's going on

Superman: Return to Krypton - a good story with hits and misses

Superman: The Greatest Stories - contains Action #775, which everyone raves about

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies - this is some great Superman, better than the Superman/Batman: Supergirl trade

Superman: Birthright - if you don't mind Waid's changes, this is a good story overall

Superman: Godfall - not exceptional, though the art is good, but this'll help understand the beginnings of The Wrath of Gog and Unconventional Warfare

Superman/Batman: Supergirl

Superman: The Wrath of Gog - Superman as portrayed here is competent and powerful, but also cocky and sarcastic. Some like Austen's take, some don't; I put it in this list as it'll help explain some aspects of Unconventional Warfare.

Superman: Unconventional Warfare - the beginning of Greg Rucka's run

Superman: That Healing Touch - part two of Rucka's run, forthcoming

Superman: Secret Identity - this is an "Elseworlds" tale of sorts, that I've heard is good but haven't read

There you go. Thanks!

Martin Wisse said...


if you follow your formula, you come to a comic book that would be, well, formulaic. Not that there is anything really wrong with that, but it would be far more difficult to do the kind of continuity and thrill heavy stories with it that seem to be demanded in today's comics marketplace.

When I was thinking about it some more, it seems to me Superman might work best as a character aimed at children 8-12, with bright, happy adventures and little continuity.

Sort of like the classic Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge/Donald Duck stories.

Jer said...

Scipio -

How about because he's got too many books, that all have to be co-ordinated with each other (even when they're all supposed to be independent). None of the writers end up being able to put their own creativity into the book, because they're all stuck doing a lot of "editorially-mandated" stuff.

Superman has to be at the center of every DC crossover, so storylines have to get interrupted every year for some mega-event. Plus, because he constantly has 3-4 books of his own, his own books turn into mega-events at least once per year.

Add that to the fact that everyone is too scared to do ANYTHING with Superman for fear that they'll ruin one of DC's corporate cash cows, and that most people are more interested in going back and re-telling old stories in 3-4 part arcs than they are in coming up with anyting new, and you have a perfectly good set of reasons for disliking Superman right now.

And I say this out of love, because Superman is hands down one of my favorite characters in any medium. I just wish his comic books were half as interesting as the animated series was years ago.

Hate Filled Poster said...

I thought Superman worked best with the goofy stories in the 60's and 70's and World's Finest. I think the problem is that Superman has gotten dark and serious and his villains have joined him on the trip to frownland. Comics used to be goofy fun things that just used the real world as a starting point. Now the goofy fun things are the starting point and writers work to make them more like the real world. That depresses me a little when I think about it.

Scipio said...

Jer, best explanation I've heard so far!

Shane, one fault lies with his villains. Trying to match Superman power-wise is just silly, because, well, he's Superman. He needs villains against whom his powers aren't very helpful. That was the crux of the Prankster, Wolfingham, and Mxyzptlk.

Hate Filled Poster said...

Exactly. What I was specifically speaking of was the change from Scientist Lex to Business Lex, Alien Braniac to Computer Braniac, etc.

It seems like they were trying to make Superman and his villains both "fit" into the real world instead of making a world built off of ours that "fits" him. Does that make sense?

Hate Filled Poster said...

Also, here is an old post where I and others have discussed Superman in the past.

Hate Filled Poster said...

Whoops, I meant to add more to that last comment...

anyway I wanted to note that my position on the character has changed and I've basically reversed my position.

Anonymous said...

I think some of Superman's problems may be the role of news reporter in today's society.

To me the inherant strength of the character of Superman was that Clark Kent could end up saving the day too. It used to be that "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" were fought by the press as much as anyone, and it made sense that Superman would be a reporter in his other life.

Rightly or wrongly, the occupation of "reporter" has been denegrated to the point that the news media itself is looked at with disdain (at best) or hostility (at worst) by a great segment of society.

Superman writers, being products of their times, then do one of two things: virtually ignore the reporter aspect of Superman (thus producing the Superman-gets-waylaid-by-big-guy stories ad nauseum), or try to use that to give him a "edge".

One of the things I've liked about Simone's two-issue arc on Action (and Waid's Birthright) is that it shows Clark Kent doing his reporter thing for the purpose of righting a wrong, doing something constructive that Superman could not do. THAT'S the kind of thing that makes him interesting. I like the Superman vs. Parasite/Mongul/whoever as much as the next guy, but the depth of his character comes from struggling NOT just to do the right thing, but doing the right thing the RIGHT WAY.

Hate Filled Poster said...

Good point K2.

Brian said...

To me, any good Superman story can be summed up in one word: Epic. I'm not talking Homeric epic in that we need our hero to be hopping all over the world, righting wrongs in a multitude of countries (galaxies, universes, whathaveyou). I'm not even talking about Beowulf-style epics that require fighting big monsters on grand scales. I'm talking about a more ethereal kind of epic -- the kind that happens when every action means something, when every punch is an echo of a much larger theme.

With Superman, you get just about the greatest foundation of any story, anywhere -- "The Neverending Battle." The universe tends towards chaos, and there are precious few with the abilities, the will, the anything to stand up and push back, a precious few times hard enough that the universe gives an inch. That's how Clark and Superman are the same, really (or how they should be the same) -- both stand up to the bad guys not because it's cute, or fun, or good cinema, but because it matters. Be it turning aside a space invasion or stopping a simple bank robbery, it's Superman taking a stand against chaos. The man is anti-entropy. More than any other hero out there, Superman has reason to be a pretty serious guy.

I'm not saying that there's not room for camp, or to revel in the fact that having superpowers would be seventy kinds of fun. Because we're human, or people at least, and even in the worst situations we have it in us to smile. But the bass line, the driving beat of everything Superman means (to me at least) is the pursuit of some ill-defined right in the universe.

Now, on to why Superman comics suck nowadays -- short answer? Because it's damn hard to write epic like that. It's gotta be exhausting, having everything you do matter. You decide to stop a train from crashing in Metropolis? It means you're not tearing apart a torture camp somewhere in China. And so the writers seem to go for the low fruit, to write the easier sorts of epic that involve fun, visual, kinetic things like collapsing buildings, supersonic airborne chases around the world, that sort of thing. The kind of stories that showcase the individual skirmishes in the neverending battle, but seem disconnected from the larger story.

To me, here's Superman's story:

Last son of a dead planet crashes to earth, finds he's gifted with abilities far beyond mortal men.

He flounders about, just like anyone, trying to figure out how best to apply his superhuman abilities to a more-or-less mortal world.

*He decides to take his stand against all the forces of chaos, darkness, meanness, and evil out there. He's going to fight for those who can't fight for themselves. He's going to be the line beyond which the bad things cannot go. Simultaneously, we have the story of Superman becoming more human with a shadow larger than the one cast by his cape and his powers.

Having uplifted humanity by his presence, Superman leaves his adopted home, and, inspired by his example, humanity becomes more than it was. Superman himself has become something new as well, a being that contains multitudes, as Whitman might put it.

If this seems an overly serious take on the character, well, that's just me. I think part of the reason superman seems so plain unsatisfying is that he's NOT taken seriously in anything. At best, he's the biggest gun DC has to throw at anything, and just like a gun he's good for one thing -- hittin' stuff harder than anyone else can hit it. At their best, Superman stories do what Superman himself is supposed to do -- lift us up and show us what the tops of the clouds look like.

recommended reading
Birthright, by Mark Waid. Not perfect, but has more than a few moments that just give me chills.

Secret Identity, by Kurt Busiek. As mentioned above, it's an elseworlds tale, but it nails the human/superhuman dichotomy of Superman.

Anonymous said...

I'll second both Birthright and Secret Identity... especially Secret Identity.

Anonymous said...

I don't have much analysis, but the stories Scott McCloud and Mark Miller did for Superman Adventures were the last regular Superman stories I enjoyed. Mark's writing on this child orientated series is easily my favourite thing he's done.