Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Must-Read Superman: Golden Age Edition

In an earlier post I gave a list of 10 must-read Superman stories. A commenter complained that my list was too heavily weighted toward the '80s and later, and I promised to make ammends. With that in mind, I have decided to make a list of must-read Golden Age Superman. For a more in-depth explanation of the "ages", see my post here, but for now let's suffice to say that "Golden Age Superman" means pre-1956.  In fact, the comics I'm talking about here are from an even more limited time frame -- all of them are from Superman's first year, in from June 1938 to June 1939, as Siegel and Shuster were still finding their feet and defining their character.  If you want to know Superman, it's good to know where he's come from.

1. Action Comics #1: "Superman, Champion of the Oppressed!"

Action Comics #1 (50th Anniversary Reprint Edition)

The first appearance of Superman, written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster.  This story would be mostly re-printed in the summer of 1939 in Superman #1, with slightly less abridgement of Siegel's original script (and therefore a slightly more comprehensible beginning).  The first appearance of Superman is almost frenetic in its energy, as Superman runs from one situation to another, rescuing a woman wrongly accused of murder, threatening a wife-beater ("you're not fighting a woman NOW!") rescuing Lois from a spurned suiter-turned-kidnapper, and exposing a corrupt senator, all within 10 pages of story.  This story sets the tone for Superman, and for superhero comics in general.  The Superman of Action Comics 1 is never in any personal danger, but instead races about protecting the weak.

2 and 3. Action Comics #3 and Action Comics #4: "The Blakely Mine Disaster" and "Superman Plays Football"

In addition to reprinting (and concluding) the story from Action Comics #1Superman #1 includes two other stories, originally printed as Action Comics #3 and Action Comics #4.  Though they are separate issues, I'm going to talk about them together because both are unusual for future Superman stories in that they feature Superman adopting a disguise other than Clark Kent -- and using his super powers while in disguise.  In the first story, Superman disguises himself as a miner to rescue some miner trapped by a cave-in, then strong-arms the mine owner into having a better safety and worker's compensation policy.  The second story features Superman in disguise as a football player, to even-up a rigged game.  These stories are wonderful firstly for their oddness, but secondly for establishing the character of the Golden Age Superman.  This Superman stands for the kind of justice that means mine owners pay to take care of their injured employees, and the kind of truth that means embarrassing a cheating football coach.

4. Action Comics #8: "Superman in the Slums"

Action Comics #8 represents an (impermanent) change in Superman's M.O.  Superman becomes convinced that a group of juvenile delinquents in Metropolis are the product of their environment, and proceeds to destroy the slum neighbourhoods so that the government will rebuild them.   Superman always was and always will be at least partly an exercise in wish-fulfilment, but in this issue those wishes are suddenly redirected from a wish for an invulnerability to a wish for a better society.  It is (as almost all of Jerry Siegel's early work is) fast-paced to the point of thoughtlessness, but filled with both pathos and energy.  The story would be followed immediately by several more stories in which Superman acts not as a grand upholder of the status-quo nor as a single vigilante but as a violent champion for social change.  In future stories he destroys cars to help the city's traffic problems and works for prison reform.  Whether you agree with Siegel and Shuster's politics or not, this comic is well worth reading as the beginning of a political Superman.

5. Action Comics #13: "Superman Vs. The Cab Protective League"
Superman The Action Comics Archives, Vol. 1 (DC Archive Editions) (Archive Editions (Graphic Novels))
Action Comics 13, written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster, features the first appearance of a supervillain for Superman -- the Ultra-Humanite, who is conceived as Superman's diametric opposite.  The Ultra-Humanite is a physically crippled genius bent on world-domination, and in retrospect is clearly a prototype for Lex Luthor, by whom he was soon replaced as Superman's arch-nemesis.  The appearance of the Ultra-Humanite in Action Comics 13 represents another impermanent shift in Superman comics, and Superman stories have continued to shift to and from a focus on supervillains.

If you're looking to read these comics, or other Golden Age Superman, the Superman Archives series or the Superman Chronicles series are good places to start.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

I'm still here

Hi there,

Just a short note to let you know that I'm still here, and this blog is still functional.  I dropped off the face of the earth for a while while I wrapped up my M.A. and started my PhD, but I have a few posts in the works, and you should expect new content here by next week.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Continuity Continued

One of the comments on my last post was that, though the title of the blog says "introduction" that post was more like a 3rd year course. I'm going to try not to do that, but feel free to ask questions in the comments if something I've said doesn't make sense. It's just as likely that I'm just plain not making sense as it is that it's going over your head.

In my previous post about comics continuity I talked about Umberto Eco and especially his suggestion that Superman can only work as a character if the timeline is unclear. The character must be timeless but the stories are necessarily timely.

The mechanisms that make comic continuity so confusing -- like alternate histories, flashbacks, tangents, and retcons -- are also the mechanisms that allow the story to continue to be told. If the continuity were simple or straightforward then comic book characters would need to die eventually. But a comic like Superman can't be stuck in an eternal present the way for example a gag-a-day comic like Hagar the Horrible is, because a Superman story requires some kind of threat or obstacle, which Superman overcomes. When he overcomes an obstacle, he changes his world and himself, which means that time has passed. As long as the character is mortal, time passing means movement towards death, or simply the end of the story.

To me, the complicated chronologies and continuities of comics seem like an oral tradition more than they do like a conventional literary tradition. Many people have written about literacy and orality, most notably Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word , and I'm not going to summarize Ong here except to say that conventional wisdom is that literate people think differently than do non-literate people. And by "literate people" and "non-literate people" I don't mean individuals who can or can't read, I mean cultures that have the technology of reading and writing. Even illiterate people withing Canadian (or American, or German, or whatever) think like literate people because the technology of literacy is all around them. And one of the most obvious impacts of the technology of literacy is the immutability of the past. Once something has been written down you can check it later. In an oral culture, stories literally exist in memory, so storytelling techniques are (unconsciously) designed to lodge the story firmly within memory. That's why there is so much repetition of tropes in fairy tales that come from an oral tradition. That's why folk stories often exist as rhymes or songs. That's why if you read The Iliad (for example) you'll find that every time anyone has a sacrifice the scene is described in the exact same words. The Iliad is taken from an oral tradition.

Part of what that oral tradition means is that the story seems (and is) fresh every time. The teller can edit the details, embellish on the story, continue past what had previously been the ending. Although Eco is right to point out that someone like Hercules came with an already-completed-past-tense-story, it is also the case that oral traditions by their nature constitute an open tradition. Hercules's story is over, but in an oral tradition the teller can change what that story was.

Comics, paradoxically, often function as if they were oral, although in practice of course they are not. That is part of the paradox of retcons. The current story can tell me that what I've heard about Superman's origin story is wrong. A new book can tell me that Superman's parents are alive and well and living in Smallville, even though the first Superman story -- in which both of Superman's earth-parents are dead by the time he moves to Metropolis -- is still available for me to check. In practice retcons pretend that I don't have the ability to check what has already been written. They pretend that they are a part of an oral rather than a literary tradition.

Partly that is because the disposability of comics (especially at first) meant that a writer could not count on his (and at first it was all "he") readers checking with what has been written already, but there's more to it than that. We'll talk more about comics continuity in a future post, but for now let's just leave it here: comics continuity often acts as though it is functioning within an oral tradition, even though it isn't. Very strange.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Eco, Continuity and Comics

In his essay "The Myth of Superman", Umberto Eco gives a careful, thoughtful, considered account of the nature of serialized publication, particularly in the case of Superman.  Eco's essay focuses primarily on the dual identity of Superman/Clark Kent and on the so-called "Imaginary Tales" of DC.

Eco begins by pointing out that in contrast to traditional mythological characters like Hercules, whose story is complete and in the past, the "mythological character of comic strips" (110) does not come complete with a finished story.  Superman must be recognizable -- archetypal -- but his story is both episodic and ongoing.  In order to be mythological and archetypal he has to be consistent, but in order to make sense in the story he has to change.  The story requires growth of character, but the archetype requires an already complete character.

According to Eco, once Superman has accomplished something he has "made a gesture which is inscribed in his past and which weighs on his future.  He has taken a step towards death" (111).  And Superman must be mortal.  These steps must be towards death, or else "the public's identification with his double identity would fall by the wayside" (111).  Clark Kent is not merely a disguise, but is a mechanism by which Superman can be a figure of identification and not only of aspiration.  We identify with Clark Kent and admire Superman.  But if Superman is really immortal then the secret identity becomes useless as a mythological device.

In Eco's terms, "Superman comes off as a myth only if the reader loses control of the temporal relationships and renounces the need to reason on their basis, thereby giving himself up to the uncontrollable flux of the stories which are accessible to him and, at the same time, holding on to the illusion of the continuous present" (116).  The writers (unconsciously) employ a number of mechanisms for confusing the chronology and therefore the temporarily of the stories.  Although theoretically Superman as written in the most recent issue of "Superman" comics is the same character as the Superman of Action Comics 1, and therefore should be at least 72 years old, in practice the publication of the stories as built in mechanisms to prevent the reader from reaching that conclusion.

Each "Superman" comic does not directly follow the previous one.  The chronology of Superman comics is not unidirectional.  In the first place, any number of Superman comics throughout the 72 years of publication have been flashbacks.  The existence of characters like "Superboy" -- who as originally conceived was Superman when he was a boy -- mean that not all Superman stories are intended to take place in the "present" of the comic, but even discounting that, comics frequently feature flashbacks of alternate futures, tangents, time travel.  Furthermore, it is both unclear and inconsistent what the "real-time" equivalent of an individual Superman story is. Some stories take place over the course of months or even years, others over the course of minutes.  Beyond this is the existence of alternate or non-canon stories.  Stories, such as the popular Silver Age "imaginary stories" that answer "What if?" questions (what if Superman were president?), that are explicitly stated to be outside the continuity of the ongoing story can nevertheless have an influence on readers's conception of the character.  They confuse and obscure the timeline.

Eco, of course, was writing prior to the 1986 reboot of Superman, or the 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths that precipitated the reboot.  Both of these events, and especially the Crisis (and its sequels, Infinite Crisis) cast a new light on the continuity of Superman and readers's perception of that continuity (I hope to write a blog post about the Crises that will explain that claim further).  In brief, both the Crisis on Infinite Earths and the reboot of Superman were intended to simplify the history of Superman.  Officially, the history of the character extends back only to 1986, not all the way to the 1938 Action Comics 1.  Yet thought the goal was to simplify the history -- so that new readers would not feel compelled to read decades of back issues in order to understand current comics -- in practice this kind of simplification may not be possible.  Only a reader who is sufficiently in the know -- who is sufficiently versed in comics history -- will understand that the history is supposed to begin in 1986.  So in practice the older comics do affect the readers's perspective of the continuity of Superman as a character.  And the character's history exists within the mind of the reader more than it exists in the official canon.

That last statement may be contentious, but while I think it is true for any fictional character, it is even more demonstrably true for a character like Superman.  The readers of today are the writers of tomorrow, who create the canonical version based on their own perspective as readers.

One way that comic writers create the canonical version of the character -- and sometimes do so out of sych with what had previously been the canonical version -- is through retroactive continuity, or "retcon".  Retcons are reinterpetations or explanations of past events in ways not intended by the original writers.  "Retroactive continuity" as term had never been applied to fiction when Eco wrote his 1979 essay.  What retcons really do is further complicate and muddy the continuity -- since, once again, only attentive readers are familiar with the (dis)continuities.

Citations of Eco are taken from The role of the reader: explorations in the semiotics of texts

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Ages of Superman

People familiar with superhero comics often make reference to the Golden Age or the Silver Age, and less frequently to the Bronze Age.  It is not obvious to a newcomer what exactly these terms refer to -- and that is partly because the people who use them don't always use them in the same way or with the same connotations.  So let's look at the Ages of superhero, and shed some light on what is the jargon.

The language of ages comes to comics by way of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and to a lesser extent Hesiod's Works and Days, upon which Ovid's ideas were based.  For both Hesiod and even more for Ovid, these were mythological ages of humanity.  The Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic (Hesiod only) and Iron ages represent the decline from peace and unity with the gods into the state of depravity that we find ourselves in now.

The specifics of the classical Ages of Men aren't especially pertinent, except in two ways.  Firstly that they are mythological rather than historical ages, which does not necessarily mean that they were not believed to have literally happened, but rather means that they are instructive and enlightening about the nature of the world we live in now. Secondly that with the exception of Hesiod's "Heroic Age", the ages represent a continual state of decline or entropy.  The use of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron as metaphors for the ages is a deliberate value judgement.  For Ovid the Golden Age was the best age, and the Iron Age is the worst.

In Comics the ages are not clearly defined, and become more obscure and contentious as we come closer to contemporary comics.  Two things worth noting, however, are that in contrast to the meaning of the ages in Classical mythology, the ages of comics 1) Refer primarily to publishing rather than mythology, and therefore have chronological dates attached to them, and 2) Do not necessarily involve value judgements.  The first point is important to remember because since the ages -- especially Golden and Silver -- are chronologically defined, and based on sales rather than on any artistic or mythic vision, there is not necessarily a thematic or artistic unity within an age.  With regard to the second point, we should remember that it is not universally recognized to be the case that the Golden Age was better than the Silver Age, even by people who use the terminology of the Ages.  In fact, the Silver Age is arguably the version of most superheroes that is taken to be the standard, and for which modern writers demonstrate the most nostalgia.  We should also note that the ages do not necessarily follow directly upon each other.  The Golden and Silver ages, in particular, were originally conceived of and are still often thought of as two highpoints separated by a lull.  The Silver Age was perceived at the time as a renaissance, harkening back to the Golden Age rather than a shift away from it.

The Ages are essentially a hallmark of superhero comics rather than any other genre, and as such the Golden Age begins with the 1938 publication of Action Comics 1, and the first appearance of Superman.  The Golden Age featured the introduction of some of comics' most enduring and iconic superheroes, most notably Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Captain Marvel, and Captain America.  Note that of these all but Captain Marvel and Captain America were published by DC or its earlier incarnations.  Captain America was published by Timely Comics, the predecessor of Marvel, and Captain Marvel was published by Fawcett Comics, and was eventually acquired by DC.   It is not too much of a stretch to say that in the Golden Age, superhero comics were dominated by DC, especially in retrospect.

The Golden Age Flash Archives, Vol. 1 (DC Archive Editions) The Golden Age Green Lantern Archives, Vol. 1 (DC Archive Editions)
The beginning of the Silver Age is generally agreed to coincide with the1956 first appearance of the newly imagined and redesigned Flash.  DC had decided to reimagine some of their classic superheroes, and the Flash was their first -- and successful -- attempt.  Following the success of the new Flash, DC published new versions of Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom, and the Justice League.  While Green Lantern and the Flash underwent the most extreme transformations, other characters were re-imagined with changes to their backstory, motivations, powers, or character traits.

Silver Age: Flash #1Green Lantern (No. 10) (Number 10) 

The Silver Age had different effects on different characters, but the general trend was away from magic or mysticism and toward science-fiction.  So Golden Age Green Lantern had a magic lantern, but Silver Age Green Lantern had an alien power battery.

The Silver Age marked a dramatic increase in sales and popularity of superhero comics, including superheroes who had not been explicitly re-imagined.  What this meant for comics publishers was that superheroes seemed once again like a viable market.  At Marvel Comics the team of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby responded to this newly rejuvenated market by creating such superheroes as the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Lee with artist Steve Ditko created Spider-Man.  If the Golden Age was dominated by DC, the Silver Age marks the rise of Marvel.

The Bronze Age has a less clearly defined beginning than do the Golden or Silver ages, but it begins in roughly 1970, the year Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC, and long-time Superman editor Mort Weisinger retired, to be replaced by Julie Schwartz.  Additionally, the early 70s saw Green Arrow's sidekick "Speedy" developing a drug addiction in 1971, and the death of Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy in 1973.  Finally, in 1971 the comics' self-regulating body, the "Comics Code"--an analogue of the MPAA--relaxed its rules against horror elements such as vampires and werewolves.  All of this together led to an impression of a shift both within the fictional universes of DC and Marvel, and in the publishing and editorial practices of superhero comics.  The Bronze Age is characterized by increased darkness, seriousness, and more attempts at social relevance than had been in the Silver Age.

There is little consensus about when -- if ever -- the Bronze Age ended, or about what succeeded it.  In accordance with Ovid's ages, the Iron Age should reasonably come next, and some would argue that the 1986 John Bryne reboot of Superman constitutes the beginning of an Iron Age of Superman at least.  By the same token, the DC universe of comics was substantially re-imagined in the wake of the Crisis on Infinite Earths.  The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, the recognized authority for collectors, includes a Copper Age and a Modern Age, both following the Bronze Age, though Overstreet does not explicitly name the dates for these categories.  The implication of Overstreet's categorization, however, is that the Bronze Age ends in the early 80s, and the Copper Age ends in the early 90s.

So roughly then, the Golden Age is 1940s and 50s, the Silver Age is the 60s, the Bronze Age is the 70s, the Iron/Copper Age is the 80s and the Modern Age is now.

Monday, July 12, 2010

No love for old Superman?

In my post about 10 must read Superman comics I included only three comics from prior to 1986.  Since Superman was first published in 1938, that means that I focussed on one third of the publication history to the near-exclusion of the other two-thirds.  Why is that?  Do I think the most recent comics are simply better?  Even if I do, I said that what I was providing was a list of must-read Superman comics, not a list of the best.  How can I make that claim while skewing so heavily to the most recent comics?

There are a few good answers to these questions -- one of which is simply that there are, as Chuck pointed out in the comments of that post, thousands of back issues of Action Comics, Superman, Adventures of Superman, Man of Steel, Man of Tomorrow, JLA, Superman/Batman, World's Finest, etc.  I haven't read them all.  I'm working on it, but I'm not done yet.  So I speak only from my own experience, about books or stories I've read myself.

More importantly, for a long time the trend in Superman comics (and in DC comics in general) was for each issue to be essentially a stand-alone story.  There were continuing themes, recurring characters, and occasionally ongoing plots, but in general each issue stood alone.  This has two ramifications to a reader in 2010.  Firstly, the earlier comics didn't have the space or the time to develop an easily consumable story the way they do in the most memorable stories now -- the stories that get republished as trade paperbacks.  That doesn't necessarily mean that the stories then didn't have the pathos or narrative weight that more recent stories have, but it means that they are easier to think of as either smaller or larger units.  Many earlier comics are more like episodes than stories.  So I can say "read the original  Siegel and Shuster Superman" but even choosing Action Comics 1 seems like it is selling the story short.  Action Comics 1 ends on a cliffhanger.

The second ramification for a reader in 2010 is the result of the first.  The way early Superman comics were written and were originally published affects the way they are republished today.  If I want to read the first Superman comics -- the first stories, as written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster -- I have a few options.  I can read it online, by hunting for the comics one by one and hoping to find them all; or I can buy Greatest Superman Stories Ever ToldSuperman Archives, Volume 1Superman Chronicles, Vol. 1Superman in the Forties, and probably some others I don't know about.  Though any and all of these are worth buying, they're all anthologies rather than stories the way something like Superman for All Seasons is.  They're more like collections of short stories than they are like novels or short stories themselves.  And that is fine, but it means that for a 21st century reader comics from the late 80s and after are more likely to be packaged as a single easily digestible story.

All of that said, I think I did shortchange earlier comics in my previous list and I'll do my best to rectify that shortly.  Also coming up soon, and explanation of the "ages" (Golden, Silver, etc.) of comics, and a reflection on continuity in comics and its relation to Orality and Literacy.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

10 Must-Read Superman Stories

I suggested in an earlier post that Superman is where we should start to talk about superheroes.  But where should we start with Superman?  I will be writing about Superman for the next few posts, but what primary sources should we go to?  Here I present my pick of 10 must-read Superman stories, some of which are chosen for their representative or historic nature rather than their high quality.  So these aren't the best Superman stories necessarily.  They're the stories that I think define the character.  So here we go, in chronological order.

10. Action Comics #1 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Action Comics #1 (50th Anniversary Reprint Edition)

The first appearance of Superman, written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster.  This isn't necessarily Shuster and Siegel's best work (the story starts abruptly and confusingly), but it is a fast-paced and funny introduction to the iconic hero. The Golden Age Superman is missing a lot of what we think of as iconic now -- he can't fly, and he's a reckless vigilante -- but he's still a Superman who fights for the little guy and hates bullies.  Most importantly, this is where it all started.

9. "The Lady and the Lion" (Action Comics Aug.No.243) by Otto Binder and Wayne Boring
Showcase Presents: Superman, Vol. 1

The Silver Age saw Superman with vastly expanded powers, and virtually no threats. Most of this era features Superman trying to protect his secret identity and evade Lois' feminine wiles. This era also features complete off-the-wall wackiness, as in this story where Circe (yes, the one from the Odyssey) turns Superman into a half-lion. Will Lois love him even when he has the head of a lion? Yes. Yes she will.

8. "Kryptonite No More" (Superman #233) by Denny O'Neil, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson
Superman in the Seventies

This story is the first part of an eventual attempt by Denny O'Neil to scale back Superman's powers -- an attempt that would be soon undone by the next writers. In this story Clark Kent becomes a tv anchorman, and develops an immunity to kryptonite. The Bronze Age Superman may not have been quite as wacky as the Silver Age, but Superman taunting a would-be robber by eating a chunk of kryptonite is a strange and wonderful event.

7. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

In 1986 the powers-that-be decided to revamp Superman. They ended Superman comics, to begin again as if from the beginning. Writer Alan Moore famously (and possibly apocrophally) grabbed editor Julie Shwartz by the throat, threw him up against a wall and told him he would kill him if he gave the writing job to anyone else. The resulting comic is a beautiful send-off for the Silver/Bronze Age Superman, one in which all of Superman's villains finally do the horrible things they've always threatened to do, and kill Superman. Or do they? *wink*

6. Superman: The Man of Steel By John Byrne
Superman: The Man of Steel, Vol. 1

Following Moore's ending, John Byrne had the job of beginning again. His run on Superman features a much less powerful Superman and a much more powerful Clark Kent. After the excess and clutter of the Silver Age, Byrne's Superman feels like a breath of fresh air. There's no Superboy, no Krypto the Wonder Dog, and no red kryptonite or gold kryptonite. This simplicity, however, comes at the expense of a lot of the humour, fun, and fantasy of the earlier eras.

5. The Death And Return of Superman by Dan Jurgens and others
The Death and Return of Superman Omnibus

The Death of Superman is a mess. The art is almost unreadably cluttered, and the lack of fun that began with Byrne has by this time become overwrought melodrama. It is, however, a momentous event in comics history, culminating in the ill-advised but fascinating Superman Blue/Superman Red. I consider this to be one of the most interesting eras of Superman, because it demonstrates the disconnect between the official control of the character and the existence of the character in oral tradition. But I digress.

4. Superman: For All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
Superman for All Seasons
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale are a very talented comics team, and this is some of their best work. Examining Superman's early days through a metephor of the four seasons, this is a beautifully drawn, wonderfully written book that captures what I take to be core of Superman.

3. Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid, Leinil Francis Yu and Gerry Analguilan
Superman: Birthright
Written by Mark Waid, with pencils by Leinil Fracis Yu and inks by Gerry Analguilan, Superman: Birthright is one of dozens of retellings of Superman's origin story, and it stands out.  Beautifully drafted and illustrated, it is an unironic and idealistic portrayal of the flying strongman.

2. "Angels" (Superman #659) by Kurt Busiek, Fabien Niceza, Peter Vale and Jesus Merino
Superman: Redemption (Superman (Graphic Novels))

Collected in the trade paperback Superman Redemption, which has low- as well as high-points, "Angels" is a great modern example of a single-issue. Kurt Busiek's run on Superman was a favourite of mine, and "Angels" is his attempt to address the problem of pain in the DC universe.  If Superman is so powerful, why does anyone in the DC universe suffer?  If Superman can see us and hear us and protect us from evil, how is he not God, or at least an angel?  This issue, written by Kurt Busiek and Fabian Nicieza, pencilled by Peter Vale and inked by Jesus Merino is a great example of how good a single issue of a Superman comic can be.

1. All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
All Star Superman, Vol. 1

This two-volume story written by Grant Morrison is frequently lauded as the best Superman story ever told.   Like Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Morrison's All-Star Superman is essentially a story about the death of the Silver Age Superman, but it is now told with the perspective that allows Morrison to celebrate the best parts of the Silver Age while quietly ignoring the worst. Morrison's Superman is supremely powerful, unerringly good, and a lot of fun.  

Friday, July 9, 2010

No more ads, and other News

Okay, I decided that the ads were stupid and distracting. Plus they're not making me any money. But if you want to make me some money you can always click on one of the Amazon links and buy a book. I'll get a cut!

I've also been adjusting the design of this blog to try to make it look a little better. Let me know in the comments if you like or don't like what I've done with the place.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Wherefore art thou Superman?

I'm back, and I'm going to talk about Superman now.  Okay go.

In an earlier post I made the contestable claim that comics "did not begin to come into their own until the advent of Superman".  There's a historical argument to be made in support of this claim--particularly if we are talking about comics as an industry, but even if we are talking about a socio-cultural artifact.

Maybe in some future post I'll give a more robust history of Superman and his place in the early comic book industry, but suffice for now to say that Superman is the prototype of superhero comics.

I'll suggest that what we call "comics" can be generally divided into four categories: mainstream comic books; indie, or underground, "comix"; comic strips; and web comics.  What all of these have in common is their employment of juxtaposed art, but from a cultural and especially a commercial/industry perspective, the four categories are quite different from one another.  Mainstream comic books, of which DC and Marvel are the two main publishers, have been and continue to be dominated by the genre of superheroes, of which Superman was the first.  Superman is the reason why comics and superheroes are associated with one another.

Though fans of superheroes may (and do) argue with each other about who is the "best", and Superman is often dismissed as boring, Superman is the standard against which all other superheroes deviate.  This is true partly because Superman was literally the first superhero, and many of the first superheroes are or were blatant imitations, but also because Superman's popularity and longevity mean that he is deeply iconic.  Although his character is almost as old and his legacy as established as Superman's Batman is a non-standard superhero to the degree that he deviates from the type as established by Superman.  A dark hero without superpowers is perceived as unusual despite the number of Batman imitations that exits only because is it different from Superman, who is the rule.  This is why Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns imagines Superman upholding the status-quo.  Not because Superman as a character necessarily upholds the political status-quo but because Superman is the embodiment of the standard of superheroes against which Miller wants to define his Batman.

So when Alan Moore writes a deconstruction of superheroes, in Watchmen or in The Saga of the Swamp Thing or in the less well-known-but-worth-reading Supreme, he is deconstructing Superman -- writing Dr. Manhattan or Supereme or Miracleman (for which I have no link since it is out of print) as a counterpoint to and a commentary upon Superman.    The same is true of Grant Morrison's classic run on Animal Man, or of Mark Waid's Irredeemable and Incorruptible, or of Robert Kirkman's Invincible.  All of these are meditations on superherodom, and therefore they are meditations on Superman.  The same is true of Spider-Man, of Batman, of the X-Men, of Wonder Woman, of every superhero dark or idealistic, male or female, earnest or ironic.

So whether Superman is an particular reader's cup of superhero flavoured tea, (and incidently I do like Superman) he is the standard against which all other superheroes -- implicitly or explicitly -- are judged; both by readers and by writers.  If that is true, then for any kind of systematic or rigourous examination of superheroes as a genre we must begin with Superman.