Friday, September 2, 2011

So, it seems like comic-fans have no respect for the history of their own preferred medium

A few things are becoming clear as we head toward the release of the all new Action Comics #1 this coming week. 

1.  Newsarama either doesn't understand what the world "cynical" means
2.  or they're still sweetly young and naive enough that they've mistaken the gregarious energy of Superman's over exuberance and naive idealism for cool cynicism
3.  85% of comics "journalists" and 95% of commenters have absolutely no familiarity with Superman's earliest phase in the Golden Age, or any other age

Today I looked at the article from Newsarama entitled "DC's New Superman is a Modern, Cynical Hero".  There's a lot of speculation here based upon the 7 page preview released by DC today to Newsarama.  From looking at the pages, this is pretty clearly NOT the Superman we know from the Silver Age onward, the Superman we think of as a sort of jolly, invulnerable pal or uncle.

I'm expecting a lot of comics fans are looking at these pages and saying to themselves "this isn't Superman!".  Sure, they can name the Superman creators and tut-tut about the Siegel lawsuit, and they know Superman kicked off the concept of superheroes in earnest with Action Comics #1 (1938), but they've not done their homework.

Superman, for the first few years of his existence, was written and drawn by exuberant young men who created a character who was designed pretty specifically to do right that other people couldn't do on their own.  That's why he was designed to be strong and bullet proof.  The entire idea was "what would happen if you had an idealist who wasn't hampered by the sort of thing that would slow down a guy like me?".

The first issue features Superman finding someone beating their wife and he walks in and, ahem, sets the dude straight.  He forces the governor to listen to evidence to pardon a woman headed for the gas chamber (and at the time, of course, the governor had no idea who this guy in the cape was), and when crooks did bad, he picked up their car and made sure they weren't going anywhere.

Faced with a slumlord, he knocks down the slums and rebuilds the buildings.  The issue that most blew my mind was the one where he finds two war profiteers making sure a war happening overseas keeps going so they can keep making money, so he grabs them and forces them into the infantry on opposites sides of the conflict.  Its absolutely mindboggling by the standards that  you'd see once Superman became a household name and had to get sanitized.

You see it all the time.  Mickey Mouse in his first appearances isn't just a friendly fellow with some wacky friends.  He's the underdog on a steamboat who outsmarts and outwits Pegleg Pete.  Bugs Bunny is routinely a smart ass thumbing his nose at authority.  Both until they became corporate icons more than characters.

None of this is "cynical".  As one comment I read online suggested, Superman isn't going Marvel.  If anything, he's going National.

I don't want to oversell it, but the pages I see look a lot more like Golden Age Superman, and I think you have to understand:  Grant Morrison generally understands how this stuff works better than you do, journalist, commenter and bloggers (including me).  We've been through this before when he relaunched All Star Superman and the fans were upset by a Silver Age-y Superman then. And in a few months, I expect we'll all be saying "oh, THAT'S what he was doing...".

People, you have to have patience.  And if you don't know Superman aside from what you and your pals say to each other, you have to be ready to leave all that at the door.  I want to point out that early in the day, Vaneta Rogers posted her article quoting Morrison on Superman and dropped her odd "Cynical, Modern Superhero" bit, which she then backtracks on when actually talking to Morrison in an article later on.  But, frankly, I expect someone with Rogers' reach and clout to know her Superman, not make goofy, uninformed headlines to appeal to the Deadpool fans who've never read a Superman comic.


Noah said...

You're dead on with this post. Let's also not forget that Batman had a gun the first time he appeared.

Grant Morrison has probably read every Superman story ever written. And recently too. He does his research. To judge where he's taking Superman based on 7 pages is laughable. We might as well judge an entire football season on the coin toss of a pre-game.

The League said...

I think we've got two generations of readers who never really read Superman, and certainly never made time to dig into the character's history. I can't remember a time when a new storyline was announced that readers didn't respond to with "boring!" or "why don't they just retire Superman?" or "Superman isn't 'edgy' enough".

I think some of this is a mix of ignorance and flailing when the old responses don't fit (anyone who found Chris Roberson's Superman boring, or Cornell's, was cold and dead inside).

I will miss my familiar Superman, but if Morrison is doing what he's suggesting, this should be a lot of fun.

Jake Shore said...

Ryan... may I call you Ryan? When I address you as "League" I feel like I need to precede it with "Master" or "Major."

I absolutely agree with you; based on Morrison's description of what he was trying to do with Superman, and the preview pages, Newsarama's characterization was utterly false.

As for your remarks about the layman's initial (or amateurish) reaction to Morrison's new take, I would say that your intimate knowledge of, and affection for Superman may prevent you from seeing what most people see.

A lot of folks love Superman. I'm one of them. I'm no expert and have never regularly collected his comics. But I've read most of his "Greatest Hits," and thanks to you and your blog, I've committed myself to further educating myself on the Man of Tomorrow. In fact, I just bought a copy of Les Daniels' Superman: A History so I can brush up on the pre-1950s Superman.

My "socialization" of the character began with Superman: The Movie, which I believe to be the greatest ever portrayal of him, as well as the greatest ever superhero movie. So my perspective will forever be shaped by it. Byrne's Man of Steel, Waid's Kingdom Come and Loeb's For All Seasons only reinforced this view.

For the sake of this discussion, let's call it the "boy scout" view of Superman. And I think this is how 99% of people view the character. He has (small c) conservative, middle-American values. He's kind, courageous, selfless, humble, polite, etc, etc. I know you know all this.

It's my belief that the affection for the boy scout Superman crosses political, philosophical, racial, and cultural lines. We want to believe in a benevolent force for truth and justice. More to the point, we want to believe in a savior. This is why I so much appreciate Superman Returns. For all the film's flaws, Bryan Singer absolutely NAILS this essential truth of what makes Superman so appealing at a gut level.

So when people make these drive-by criticisms of recent "interpretations" of Superman, I think it's because they fear (and I hope I'm not overstating this) something precious and eternal is being threatened.

Is some of it unfair, un-nuanced and flat out ignorant? Absolutely! But there's probably only 10 people in the universe (discounting anyone who has worked for DC) who know more about the Superman mythos than you.

So when you chide people for not understanding the Golden Age Superman, there's a disconnect. Virtually NO ONE has read the early treatment of the Superman! They are responding to the (boy scout) character that coalesced in the 1950s and that has existed for the vast majority of the 73 years since his invention.

You on the other hand have read everything. You are familiar with the minutia of the Superman continuity. You understand and appreciate what the writers are trying to do; to create original and relevant stories that allow the character to progress and not become stale.

But when people, even those who could care less about the character, see an icon altered in some significant ways, they say, "Hey, that's not right"!

And I can understand why.

Jake Shore said...

As far as the direction of the new Action Comics, I'm very skeptical, but I'm also intrigued.

I finally read All-Star Superman. I didn't love it, but I thought it was quite good. I'm not a fan of the Silver Age Superman and all the campy mythology that comes with it, so it was kind of a tough sell for me. Having said that, I can't imagine anyone making the Silver Age Superman more appealing and accessible than Morrison did. And there was never a moment where I said "This isn't Superman!" It was purely a matter of personal taste for me.

Now, I don't want to re-hash some of our previous discussions about my reservations to this new-old take on Superman. So, I will start by saying Morrison's "Champion of the Proletariat" take is a not an irresponsible artistic choice. It also has some a legitimate historical context. But I still say that Morrison choice is largely driven by his ideology.

The problem with those who argue that the "worker" Superman is actually a return to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster's original vision of the character, is that we don't live in 1930s or 40s. The quasi-socialist views that Morrison claims will animate this new Superman were much more popular in those days, before the world had seen the horrors of Marxist policies unleashed upon the world.

I also thinks it's anachronistic to compare the tremendous quality of life enjoyed by the working class today (however difficult or imperfect) with the problems of lower income people in the 1930s and 40s. It's just not comparable.

In other words, that Superman makes a lot less sense in today's world. But I suspect Morrison sees it differently; that the world is defined by class struggle. I think Morrison wants to see a Superman more reflective of this own political values; a hero who works to close the gaps in society.

The problem is that Superman hasn't been that guy in more than fifty years. I doubt he'll be as popular, or likable.

However, Morrison is a great writer who has great respect for the character, so I will reserve judgment until I read the first several issues.

The League said...

Well, as per the first - I am definitely not the world's foremost Superman scholar, if that doesn't spook you out. I consider myself to basically have a fairly good working understanding of the multimedia franchise of Superman, but there are folks out there online and who've written books who could absolutely school me. Interestingly, one of those people is Chris Roberson, and I think it was his informed picture of Superman that turned the ship on "Grounded".

Before the announcements of the relaunch, Morrison was asked if he was given Superman, what he'd do, and he pretty clearly said he'd like to take the character back to his roots and described Golden Age stories in those conversations. It was more or less stated explicitly on the very few comics sites I read (really, Newsarama and CBR).

Morrison has more or less done the same since, including in the soundbites Rogers quotes in her article about Superman as "modern, cynical", which had me pulling out my hair.

In the past ten years, DC has done a great job of reprinting early Superman, first through the "Archives" program - which isn't affordable, and then through the "Chronicles" program, which is pretty affordable (but not as cheap as "Showcase Presents") we've had a lot of Golden Age Superman hit the shelves. Basically, all of this stuff has been available and is still available at Amazon.

I don't expect Jane Q. Comic-Reader to have read or be aware of every aspect of Superman (and while disappointing, I expect it of fanboy commenters), but if you're going to be a comics journalist, I expect a modicum of research before you go to print. That's exactly the definition of Rogers' JOB.

I have a very hard time taking ignorance as an excuse, especially if you're going to ask to get paid to write about superheroes. Heck, the information is there as extras on recent DC DVDs from WB Animation.

I get that the general public has certain perceptions of Superman, but I like to think that the folks writing about these things will do the bare minimum by comprehending what it is that the writers are actually saying and not just running over all that with shoddy headlines and iffy reporting.

The League said...

On the second - I won't argue that Morrison is pulling from his ideology.

Certainly times are not what they were during the 1930's. But I think one thing that works universally is a healthy dose of JUSTICE. you can always write a story about injustice, legal or not. I think its a marked difference here between the Superman of the '86 relaunch who wouldn't take down Luthor unless he lad legal recourse versus the Superman we'd see in 1938 who clearly wasn't getting hampered by a few petty rules en route to saving the day.

Coming to the concept as adults complicates the character, of course. To an extent, its "kid justice" to step outside "the system" and "do what has to be done". This is a recurring motif in Batman, that he's reacting like an angry kid. Whereas I think we can look at Superman reacting like an overly idealistic kid (who figured out bullets are just a nuisance).

As long as we're flesh and blood relying on resources, we'll have certain of The Have's who got there via exploitation of one form or another. And there's stories there about folks who even the playing field going back to Robin Hood and before.

This change definitely feels like a reaction to the criticism of the past decade or two of pop-culture punditry talking up Superman's irrelevance for the past 20 years (and you can see the echo-chamber effect in the comment sections following any story about Superman as readers describe how dull the character is, by pointing to his power set).

I don't know what readers will do with this. I really don't. I understand its a shock, but after whining about what would make Superman "cool" for a long time, DC is, to some degree, capitulating to that pressure.

The flailing reader reaction seems to be, to me, readers working with the tools they understand from the echo-chamber of the comics blog-o-sphere and their own limited reading of mostly current work, and so the only things they can come up with are (a) snark at DC "changing Superman", and (b) a view based on their experience and perspective that doesn't seem to jive with what's being said.

The reason I can get behind the move so easily is that its NOT new. I can pick up old school Superman and see what Morrison is pulling from. What excites me is that I think Morrison is no dope, and he knows where Superman has to go.

In a lot of ways, the disguised social justice crusader (if we can just look at the term generically and not loaded with political landmines) is what superheroes are about in their purest form. Its certainly what Robin Hood and Zorro were about, and other predecessors of Superman. And ideas like Doc Savage, Gladiator, A Princess of Mars, etc... that pre-dated and informed the creation of Superman and how this uniquely physically superior specimen could effect needed change. And part of what turns me off to comics is when the stories become about the insular world of the stories.

X-Men lost me when Claremont left and the new writers wanted to write about brightly garbed people slapping each other, forgetting that the core of the concept was about how the X-Men were trying to be an example of mutants proving they could live among humanity, and that they would do what they could to police the malevolence of some mutants. Once your battles are taking place completely out of sight of the public in that formula, and its all about grudges and plotlines from the future spilling over to today and fighting underground... what is that?

I don't know if comics fans are ready to deal with superheroes dealing with "social justice" as its really, really hard to punch real problems in the face.

Jake Shore said...

Part of me respects Morrison's choice. It is a bold one. And after reading those pages, I was kinda pumped to see what would happen. And I agree he's been very open about where he's taking the character. I just hope Morrison doesn't get too political with this new direction.

As a Conservative bloke (if it's not obvious), I would certainly appreciate Superman stories that reflect my values/views, but only in a very broad, general sense. A Superman who openly advocates tax cuts or smaller government, or who attacks pro-choice people would be distasteful. It would also alienate a lot of fans. But a Superman who champions self-reliance and the American way? Absolutely.

This focus on justice will be an interesting one. I don't know how I feel about a Superman who operates outside the law. Someone with his power bullying folks around could come across as illiberal or un-American. Or like you say, more like Batman. And that would be a bridge too far in my view.

I'm also partial to your observation about the X-Men. Watching pictures of people fighting gets old really fast, as Image Comics showed us. Superhero comics are here to communicate and explore certain ideas and values. For all my reservations about Morrison, I think he gets that.

The League said...

It seems that if "Superman" is taking place "now", and "Action Comics" is occurring 5-6 years ago, we're really getting a Superman: Year One. My guess is that Morrison is no dummy, and he'll get us to that point where Superman realizes "with great power comes great responsibility" and we'll get a bit closer to the Superman we know and love.

While Superman's change to "Super Status Quo Man" occurred organically as part of the needs of National Comics of the time, I think we'll see it story and editorially driven here. We'll get to see Superman grow up, essentially.

That is, if they plan to ever circle back to a Superman that pundits decry as "boring".

What's most exciting is the chance to be a part of all that. While I like "Man of Steel", he more or less hatched fully formed as Superman by the end of the series, and never had much of a growth curve to deal with, and unlike what we'll get here, he was more or less told what to do by his ever-supportive parents.

I love Jonathan and Martha from the past 25 years, but I'm curious to see what happens here with them out of the picture and Superman lacking a sounding board.

Jake Shore said...

As always dude, you temper my paranoia. Thanks for your perspective (and patience), I appreciate it.