Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I begin to think that perhaps I've oversold the Byrne era in the Superman books. Or perhaps that isn't the right phrase -- I still get a kick out of them myself. But as Superman stories, I fear, they make good Byrne stories; that is to say, Byrne is as much a presence in the stories as Superman himself.

It's fashionable to slag Byrne these days for any number of reasons. Certainly, a great deal of the flack is deserved. The catty attitude towards fellow creators, the lackluster runs on forgotten books, the many downright bizarre proclamations -- well, it's become about as popular to mock Byrne now as it used to be to idolize him. And I'm not going to try to defend any of that. But the fact remains that for a long time he was about as popular in the industry as is possible to be, and furthermore, he created some good comics through the years. Most everyone reading comics today who's older than, say, twenty probably read a lot of Byrne when they were growing up or getting old. He was popular enough to influence the house style for both Marvel and DC at a time when both companies were shaking off the influences of the 50s and 60s and casting about for new forms (or rather, new stylistic permutations of the old forms), those same new forms that would eventually culminate in the 90s Image era. There's no love lost between Byrne and the Image crew, but anyone with two brain cells can see that every one of the first-wave of Image artists, without exception, owed an enormous debt to Byrne. To this day Erik Larsen (the only one who stills produces work on a semi-regular basis) still carries a few sublimated Byrne-isms in his work.

So, really, my fondness for the Byrne-era Superman says as much about me as about the comics themselves. I can look back now and see that the majority of the books were very much of their time, but I still have a fondness for them. Not quite as interesting as, say, the first year of Byrne's Namor (which, I think, holds up as an interesting, distinctively moody book) or the best of his Fantastic Four, but they hold my interest. In my post last week when I discussed the odd atmosphere of certain 80s DC books, I have to say that the post-Crisis Superman was also at the forefront of my thoughts. Not necessarily because Supes dealt with a lot of "ripped from the headlines" junk, but because the revamped Superman books, as the flagship franchise for the entire line, set a great deal of the company's tone.

Perhaps some of the books' momentum was flagged due to the exertion of setting the tone -- too much expository detail, not enough actual slam-bang action? But I still maintain that this atmosphere, notwithstanding the regrettable attempts at 80s relevancy, was pretty interesting. They were at least trying something moderately different -- setting different rules, trying to give the line-up of super-characters more of a grounding in a rational universe more closely resembling our own. Of course, as it turned out, this was a futile gesture, and within a few years the planet-hopping, high-stakes cosmic shenanigans would resume in full. But hey, let's at least give them credit for trying, eh?

Which brings me to the ostensible subject of today's rant, Superman #2. This is a Luthor-centric issue, and much like similar issues dedicated to Galactus and Dr. Doom in Byrne's Fantastic Four run, it plays to Byrne's own strengths -- that is, a great deal of mustache-twirling and scenery-chewing on the part of the villain. This issue is as great a summation of the post-Crisis Lex as anything else, but it also showcases one of the weaknesses of character revamps in general. Whereas most characters that have survived any length of time were created over the course of decades by many different creators each contributing to different aspects of the mythos, a revamp is usually just one creative team trying to redo the work of the ages. We don't get to pick, a la carte, what we would like to see, so we have to take the bad with the good -- the emaciated-seeming, constantly depressed and nigh-useless Lana Lang with the plutocratic evil Lex Luthor. Basically, Lana Lang only exists in the post-Crisis universe to give Superman someone to worry about, because otherwise Lana has done nothing but get beat on, figuratively and literally, since 1986.

This issue in particular sees her getting kidnapped, drugged, tortured and dragged into a broom closet, all as part of Luthor's fiendish scheme to learn Superman's identity. That's what I love about this book, even above and beyond the silliness: this is where Byrne gets to thumb his nose at the stupid parts of the Superman mythos, and I'll be damned if it doesn't provide one of the best "gotcha!" moments in Superman history.

Basically, at the end of the issue, Luthor's minions take every scrap of info on Superman they have, including all of his known associates and confidants, and feed it into a giant room-sized Kirby-tech computer the likes of which only really exist in old comic books (because the computing power on display could easily fit in a laptop nowadays). Anyway, after click-ing and whirr-ing for a few panels, the machine pops out with the obvious answer: Clark Kent is Superman. Well, duhhhh.

But then Luthor squints his eyes real hard and throws away the evidence:
"Yes . . . a soulless machine might make that deduction. But not Lex Luthor! I know better! I know that no man with the power of Superman would ever pretend to be a mere human! Such power is to be constantly exploited! Such power is to be used!

And that is why post-Crisis Luthor is the bee's knees. If that isn't the greatest bit of loopy, self-serving villain logic I've ever read, well, I'll eat my hat. Not only does is rather neatly sidestep one of the worst clichés of the old pre-Crisis Superman status quo, but it rather elegantly gives Luthor a motivation for his distrust / loathing of Superman as well as a nearly psychotic worldview that places him squarely in philosophical opposition to every hero he is fated to meet. Post-Crisis Luthor would have made a good Fascist, which says a lot about how we as a society see capitalism, dunnit?

But, alas, Byrne threw the baby out with the bathwater, and the best parts of the revamp were soon being undone along with the worst. Byrne's problem at his peak was that he didn't seem to be able to tell the difference between a really good idea (like the Sub-Mariner being bi-polar, a wonderfully efficient idea that exactly no-one has ever followed-up) and a horrid idea (like summarily dismantling the Vision and Scarlet Witch, therefore rendering the emotional core of the previous twenty five years' worth of Avengers' stories null and void). I remember from my time doing improv that one of the only rules of improv was that you never say "No" - you have to keep the momentum going, even if things go in odd directions, you have to keep moving. Some revamps create room for more stories to be told, others are simply destructive -- which is more valuable?

You could argue about which was a good idea and what was a bad idea all day. Perhaps the problem came to be that he was simply so strongly associated with revamps that he felt obligated to tear things down, even when nothing was actually wrong to begin with -- who knows? I can't read his mind so I won't try to impugn his motivations, except to say that the mania to wreak change for the sake of simply wreaking change has become almost a joke in and of itself, a problem not just with a single creator or company but the whole superhero industry. The constant churn of corporate totems, mandated by reader attrition and market inertia, is slowly but surely strip-mining the best parts of the genre of their potency. You have to rotate your crops or the soil gets worn out.

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