Thursday, January 05, 2006

Look, Up In The Sky...

I've been thinking a lot about Superman lately. You will notice that I did not say that I was reading Superman. No, even given the fact that I haven't been buying a lot of comics lately, I still wouldn't be buying any Superman books. Why? Because Superman is boring.

Let me repeat that for emphasis, in case you missed it: Superman is boring.

I think that Superman is one of those things you really have to get into when you're very young. Kind of like how the X-Men work best for adolescents and Spider-Man speaks to pre-teen anxiety - Superman is very much a figure of childhood wish-fulfilment. Which is to say that before you can even conceive of how you could one day either work hard or get lucky enough to become Batman or Spider-Man, you understand the concept of an all-powerful force for benevolence that protects you from the outside world - i.e., your parents. No one can become Superman because it requires an accident of birth on a similar level of unlikelihood as virgin conception by a divine force. Assumedly, by the time you're old enough to know what Superman is, you've already figured out you weren't the last son of a doomed world (or, for that matter, the second coming of Christ). Similarly, no one can ever become their parents, in terms of embuing their own lives with the same sense of well-being and comfort that their parents did during their youth.

But if you've identified with the character from a young enough age to understand the concept, you're hooked. Otherwise, Superman is going to be kind of lame. Every other super-character descends from him, so it makes sense that he's the blandest hero around. He's vanilla, the baseline. You can add all the chocolate and sprinkles you want, but vanilla is still vanilla. Some people will always prefer vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, while others will just go straight for the chocolate ice cream.

I like superhero comics. When done right, they're like candy - not, for the most part, very filling, and you need to make a regular habit of brushing and flossing to prevent tooth decay - but immediately satisfying. Superman is like Necco wafers - no-one buys those things, but they still make 'em just because they always have and it's impossible to imagine that they'll ever stop.

Like the rest of the blogosphere, I trooped down to the local comics emporium and bought the first issue of Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman. I was late, so I'd already heard all the reviews - many from people whose opinions on these matters I hold in fairly high esteem - I knew the critical consensus held the book to be every bit as good as was expected. So I came home, eagerly opened the book, and read...

... a Superman comic. Yeah, the art was OK, I guess. But at the end of the day, it was still a Superman comic. And there's only so much anyone can do to make Superman interesting to me. No matter what kind of metatextual bells-and-whistles you put on it, Superman still makes my eyes glaze over. You've got Krypton, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor - all the same pieces being moved around on the same chess board. Hey, it's some wacky Willy Wonka dude who lives on Mercury - how, um, OK, I'll go with it.

This isn't meant as a review of All-Star Superman, save to say that it was not to my liking. I don't begrudge the people who do enjoy it, because there seem to be an awful lot of people getting some good enjoyment out of it. Good for them: if you can find something you enjoy and gives you pleasure without hurting another person, I'm all for it. But man, this is the state of the art for superhero comics in 2005? This is what Grant Morrison is doing now? I knew there was a reason why the whole Seven Soldiers thing was so off-putting to me. I quit buying that two issues in because the aura of self-congratulatory cool was just too much for me. Just can't get excited about it, you know? At the end of the day, it just doesn't impress me. I was not enjoying it - seems an awful lot of work for very petty rewards.

(My new comics reading lately has almost solely consisted of a multiple-year run of the 80s Legion of Super Heroes I picked out of a quarter box. A pile of comics as high as my forearm for less then $20. Good stuff, perfect size and shape for reading around the house on a lazy afternoon. But I digress.)

I have also been working my way through the Showcase Presents Superman book. All I can say is, these stories are bad. Very bad. Many of them are so bad they cross-over from the realm of funny-bad into just plain "what the hell were they thinking? this is horrible"-bad. That is not to say I haven't been enjoying the book... even though the creators would probably be horrified to know that their honest attempts at creating enjoyable children's literature have aged so terribly (or, more likely, they might not care at all).

Those of us whose exposure to the Golden and Silver age Superman was limited to the same small group well-remembered stories DC reprints periodically might have been tricked into thinking that Superman's history was more interesting than it actually was. The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told is simply a fantastic book, probably one of the few truly indispensible books of mainstream comics history available. (Of course, when they brought the book back into print they changed the contents and I wouldn't recommend the new version, so it's worth digging up a copy of the original from the 80s. Warner Books printed a ton, it's still fairly easy to find.) But the reason this book is so good is that it tricks you into believing that Superman's Golden and Silver ages were anything less than utter crap. Reading the book makes you really like Superman - until you get out into the real world and realize that Alan Moore only wrote two Superman stories and that the original "Death of Superman" and "Superman Red and Superman Blue" are only accidental masterpieces, in no way representative of the actual tone and content of the vast majority of Superman stories ever published. There were so many Superman comics published that it only makes sense that one or two of them would have been good - throw enough crap at the wall and something will stick. Most of the stories were crap.

Most of everything is crap, of course. But Superman, especially, seems to have got the short end of the crappy stories stick. I think most of the people who really like Superman do so for reasons other than the actual content of any stories they may have read featuring the character. Of course, this is not something I could ever prove in any way - but if you were to base the character's survival these past decades on the actual quality of his stories, you'd come to the conclusion that Superman has been the recipient of the comics industry's version of agricultural subsidies: trademark perpetuation titles. Of course the most famous superhero has to stay in print, even if his stories are dry as dust. Hell, it's probably better that they remain dry as dust.

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