Monday, October 24, 2011

The Superman Nobody Knows

The post-Flashpoint DC Universe has already made many of the same mistakes that dogged the post-Crisis DC Universe. Just as in 1986, the company based their reboot around a completely new start for the flagship Superman, starting over a "new" timeline built around amorphously undefined yet far reaching continuity changes that somehow managed to keep the ongoing continuities of Batman and Green Lantern intact while restarting other characters at arbitrarily different points. If you remember your history, you'll know that Steve Englehart and Joe Staton's popular run on Green Lantern ran right through the Crisis and that the title maintained a steady status quo throughout the crossover. Batman continued through the crisis as well, and it was only afterwards that the post-Crisis changes were dribbled out in fits and starts, in the pages of Frank Miller's Year One and then under the short-lived Batman: The New Adventures banner. Meanwhile, characters who retained full memory of their pre-Crisis adventures freely interacted with characters whose pre-Crisis adventures had been wiped completely clean. Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen still remembered and referenced their "Hard Traveling Heroes" era while Superman never met the Legion of Superheroes until 1987. These problems only mattered as long as the long-term benefits of the housecleaning outweighed the intermittent continuity bumps. The problem is that in a few cases these "bumps" metastasized into full blown meltdowns, and concepts such as the Legion and Hawkman were eventually permanently crippled.

The difference between 1986 and 2011 is that the rationale between the reboot is entirely different. The original Crisis was an obvious labor of love, an incredibly complicated and forbiddingly dense work produced by a small group of creators and researchers with an encyclopedic knowledge of DC history, and intended (at least in theory) to open up a wide array of new storytelling avenues. To a degree they succeeded. Flashpoint, however, was put together on the cheap and seemingly at the last minute, a ex post facto attempt to provide an in-story explanation for sweeping business decisions made far above the level of editorial. The post-Flashpoint DC Universe was created as a means of streamlining the company's staggeringly diverse array of IP into forms more easily amenable to bookstore channels and especially digital distribution services. The goal - successfully achieved so far - has been to make DC resemble something less than an eclectically diverse publishing line and something more along the lines of a streamlined television network.

Given that, its not hard to see that many of the more controversial creative decisions have been made with an eye towards developing a ruthlessly efficient commercial applicability. Hence the explicit T&A books, hence the multiple attempts to ape existing popular Young Adult book franchises (you should be able to spot them yourself with no trouble), hence the multiple attempts to reframe existing properties as potential basic cable drama programming. The goal is to create stories that can be easily packaged and sold by genre to casual readers using digital devices whose size and visual capabilities have now synched up almost completely with the technical demands of displaying comic books.

With this in mind, it makes perfect sense that the company appears uninterested in elaborating the status of certain characters' continuity. My personal guess is that the Flash may well become the Hawkman of the post-Flashpoint universe: the character's history is so completely defined by the existence of multiple iterations that it is almost impossible to imagine what might "count" in the new universe. The Flash wasn't just a legacy character, he was the first legacy character, the first multi-generational franchise, and (I believe?) the first married character. If you wipe all this away, what remains? If the new Green Lantern is the old Green Lantern, and selectively remembers portions of the preFlashpoint and (assumedly) pre-Crisis universes, but the new Flash has no Jay Garrick and no Wally West or Bart Allen, then what?

But no character is more crucial to the new universe than Superman. DC knows that Superman is the lynchpin around which everything else revolves. So we get, once again, a new Superman for a new universe, with a new coat of paint (and now an awful new costume) thrown over the existing franchise in order to "update" the character for an anticipated new wave of fans. The responsibility of defining the new Superman has fallen, once again, to a fan-favorite yet slightly controversial creator who has made a number of significant changes to a seemingly inviolate origin sequence. And, as in 1986, these changes will be the source of a few years' worth of stories before eventually fading into the background as the franchise inevitably, inexorably reasserts its default and realigns itself according to the model of the accepted Silver-Bronze age template.

It is somewhat interesting that such a doggedly non-political creator as Grant Morrison has seen fit to restore Superman's almost forgotten status as a populist rabble rouser. It can't be denied that a return to Siegel and Shuster's original formula seems an especially apt maneuver for our current cultural moment, but by that same token it seems all the more likely that when Superman's Silver Age temperament reasserts itself the change will be notably jarring. Make no mistake: whatever shape they bend Superman might serve as a nice change of pace, but the character will eventually revert to type. No one understands this better than Morrison, whose All-Star Superman was perhaps the best illustration of exactly why the character's reflexively mythic nature prevents any such short-term changes from producing more than superficial alterations to the status quo.

In the meantime, however, we're left with a rather unpleasant reality: a nasty, brutish Superman with an attitude and an ugly costume. Our "introduction" to Superman in the first two issues of the new Justice League series has been an embarrassing extended misunderstanding / battle / meet cute / team-up of the kind that Marvel had already made cliche during the Johnson administration. Superman comes on like a bully, tearing into Green Lantern, Batman, and the Flash without any attempt to communicate or negotiate beyond the basic de rigeur tough guy platitudes.

Along the same lines, Morrison's new Action Comics gives us yet another variation on the same long-standing and frankly exhausting "Superman vs. the Government" storyline that appears to have been the defining aspect of the Superman mythos for at least fifteen years. The idea of placing Superman in a position of antagonism with the government has never been interesting because it has always been predicated on a severe misunderstanding of the character's strengths. Superman works because Superman is good: he is the ultimate incorruptible and uncorrupted samaritan. Frank Miller's horrendous misreading of the character places him in the position of a government stooge unable to perceive the differences between law and justice, and placing Superman into overt conflict with the government is a similar kind of error. Superman isn't apolitical, he isn't an apologist for the government, and he's no-one's patsy: what he is is someone who never bows to any authority he doesn't respect, and who stands for moral justice even against the greatest possible opposition. Placing him in opposition to the government doesn't work because there's nowhere that storyline can go except around and around a circle: we know Superman is right because he's Superman, but we also know that for that very reason Superman can't very well decapitate the US government and exile the Secretary of Defense to the Phantom Zone. Playing up this antagonism as a source of perpetual conflict turns Superman into just another iteration of the Hulk, smashing up billions of dollars of military hardware every other issue because he's "misunderstood." Superman should be someone who the President can call at a moment's notice when the safety of the world is at risk, but he should also be someone whose moral authority surpasses any single President.

That's the point: Superman's virtue, his exceptional nature as a character, comes simply from the fact that he's good. He is allowed an absolute purity of intention that simply could not work for any other superhero, and could only work for the world's greatest superhero. He's one of those few strange creatures in the history of literature who can be successfully defined by a single central characteristic without distortion or simplification. Trying to change the character in order to make him more marketable to different demographics misses the point entirely. He's good: everything else that gets heaped around that - and this includes every periodic attempt to make him a thuggish "badass" - is just bullshit.

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