20 November 2012

on superman & cognitive dissonance

Reboots are tricky things, especially when they're comprehensive.  In comics, publishers reboot for a variety of stated and unstated reasons, one of which is the desire to scrape away barnacles - to rid the character of cumbersome backstory and simplify their presentation.  That's simple enough, and basically the approach DC took with Batman during the New 52.  I'm not sure how much of Batman's prior continuity or backstory is still considered "real", but he's still pretty much the same guy he was prior to Flashpoint.  There are differences but they are subtle for the most part - he's still "feels" like Batman.

Many of the other reboots have been more extensive, of course.  (And I'm pretty much convinced that the success of the New 52 has emboldened DC to go all-in and alter some characters more radically than they originally had intended.)  Though I've enjoyed the first year of many New 52 books, at times it was a weird experience.  DC chose, rather than starting with origin stories, to join the action in media res, and it also made the decision to launch many books with 6-part, 7-part or longer storylines.  So you get to the end of the year and there have only been 2 storylines, and that makes it hard to connect with the characters and become invested in their stories.

As year two of the endeavor has begun, I've begun to get my bearings.  Something like Birds of Prey, for example, feels much more steady to me than it did for much of the first year.  I feel now like I have a decent handle on who these characters are, and what their relationships are to one another.  Year one was about the thrill of discovery or re-discovery, and now year two feels like settling down and plowing ahead.

But then there's Superman.

I like Grant Morrison's Action Comics, really.  It's no All-Star Superman but then what is?  I jumped off the George Perez Superman run after one issue - may give that a look again with Lobdell aboard but it'll have to wait until after this big crossover is over.  I've read Justice League.  I read Superman's guest appearances in Swamp Thing and Dark Knight.

But this just doesn't feel like Superman to me, and it's not getting better with time.

Superman as a concept requires periodic reinvention in a way that Batman does not, and I'm perfectly fine with that.  I had no problem with the marriage being jettisoned - the notion that the Superman/ Lois romance is central to the series is much newer than a lot of people seem to realize.  The Super-marriage wasn't the albatross that the Spider-marriage was, but if you're doing a ground-up reimagining, it makes sense to ditch it.  Likewise, the idea of repositioning him as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption figure is a sound one.  And the armor?  Well the armor is stupid, but the trunks were stupid too.  We accepted the trunks because they'd been around forever, but the only reason they were there in the first place was because shitty 1930's coloring needed color breaks to distinguish his legs from his torso.  

Hell, I don't even mind that he's dating Wonder Woman.  Whatever.  I'm not a shipper.  Just don't screw up the wonderful Azzarello/ Chiang Wonder Woman comic and I'm cool.

My problem is that I don't have any sense at all who the guy is in the modern day, though.  And yes, I understand that this is, in part, because I have not been reading the primary comic that chronicles his modern-day adventures.  But I have read around a dozen present-day comics that featured him in some capacity, and that really ought to be enough.  Superman's not that complicated or difficult to define.  I don't read Green Lantern's comic, either, but I have no trouble explaining who he is or what his personality is.

Superman's just not clicked.  He feels like a placeholder rather than the "real" Superman.

It's a strange era in which we live, because historically DC's success or lack thereof starts with Superman and Batman.  There have been times when one or the other franchise was "down", and also times when they were both floundering simultaneously (the early 80's), but usually if that's true, DC is in trouble in the marketplace.  When DC crawled from the ashes of commercial irrelevance in the early 90's, it was on the backs of The Death of Superman and (later) Knightfall.  After Infinite Crisis, priority #1 was to fix Superman and Batman.  Heck, after Crisis on Infinite Earths, a time when basically every DC property other than the Teen Titans needed fixing, look where DC went first - Superman and Batman.

One of the mission statements of the New 52 has been to present clearly-defined, recognizable, I-hate-the-word-iconic-so-no-way-will-I-use-it-here versions of the characters.    And they've failed pretty badly with Superman.  That sticks out like a sore thumb.  Action Comics is good but it's not a template for how modern-day Superman can be written, any more than The Dark Knight Returns can inform the present-day version of Batman.  Morrison's Superman is all piss-and-vinegar and out there determined to change the world, but in the present-day he can't have actually changed the world, because it isn't changed.  So who is this guy?  Is he older, more restrained?  Is he bitter that after five years or whatever, he hasn't made more progress?  That doesn't sound very appealing, but on the other hand having him essentially grow up and stop taking everything overly seriously seems like a betrayal of Morrison's concept which, after all, is supposed to be the now-definitive version of the character.

The ball feels dropped.  It's simple enough to just pick it back up; hopefully someone will grab it soon.  The DC Universe feels strange without the "real" Superman running around in it.

- By the way - the Lois thing: Look - she was "Superman's Girlfriend" for decades but the idea that Superman and Lois were truly in love or destined to be together didn't come about until Byrne's run at the earliest, and really wasn't cemented into the mythos until the 1990s. The notion that Silver Age Superman and Lois were in love with one another is borderline ridiculous.  Nor is romantic tension between the two a sine que non - there was relatively little of that in the 70's and early 80's.  Yea I know the movies are important and that they pushed the romance angle, but there are two hugely popular Batman movies built around the idea that Bruce Wayne's true love is Rachel Dawes, too.  Movies don't trump all.  Lois is clearly a key character in the Superman mythos, but she does not have to be his love interest, nor do they have to "end up" together.  Comics characters really don't end up with anyone anyway because they don't end up at all.

1 comment:

collectededitions said...

I agree with what you've said here, though I, too, have only read Morrison's Action Comics and not Perez's, Jurgens/Giffen's, or Lobdell's Superman. Three writers on Superman in a year is a problem in-and-of itself, and hopefully Lobdell will be the lock.

What I'm hearing, though, is that Lobdell is making Clark Kent more volatile so as to match up with Morrison's Clark, and that doesn't make sense to me, either. Five years is not a very long time, but in that time Superman has been the leader of the Justice League, fought some villains, etc. I don't think readers necessarily want the same Superman in the Superman title as they have in Action Comics; matter of fact, you'd think the character in Action would mature to match the Superman title and not vice versa.

Agreed the ball is dropped, and I hope someone picks it up again soon, too.