Thursday, February 9, 2012

Action Comics #593 just makes me really uncomfortable

I don't dislike the 80's Superman comics.  The Byrne/ Wolfman-era relaunch was something that maybe didn't need to happen, but it gave the Superman books an escape hatch from a corner they had painted themselves into somewhat methodically during the 1970's as Julie Schwartz also modernized the Man of Steel.

I love the Schwartz stuff for one reason, I love the 80's era relaunch for another.  Its part of why, in the DC relaunch, I feel quite zen about the Superman reboot.

Because it makes me terribly, terribly uncomfortable, I have never spoken about Action Comics #593.

In the early days of the post-COIE relaunch, much as they're doing now, DC began inserting Kirby's New Gods into the DCU.  For a while there, Mister Miracle and Big Barda were sort of the stepping stone into the New Gods franchise.  The push led to at least two New Gods titles, a couple of mini's, a Mister Miracle ongoing and, eventually, Walt Simonson's kick-ass Orion series right about when I was graduating college.

But then there's Action 593, which features the time Superman was mind-controlled into making a dirty movie with Kirby-character-fave Big Barda.  Comics Alliance discusses the issue here, if'n you're interested in details of what happens in the issue and Superman's near-miss with Peter North-styled glory.  I should mention the issue also gets covered about once a year as someone accidentally discovers the issue in a back issue bin and goes ape-@#$%, which is not the incorrect response as...  seriously, DC.

Why DC went to print with this issue is a bit of a mystery.  I can guess that pressure to tell more "adult" stories may have come down upon DC's creators in the wake of the success of Watchmen and DKR which both contained sexual components (DKR far less than Watchmen's bits of sexual content), but DC and its creators weren't necessarily ready to handle what that might actually mean in practice in mainstream comics.  I know I talk a lot about those two works as seminal, and younger readers may understand in theory, but in practice, this sort of awkward sexualization and violence started trickling into a market and from creators who may have not been quite ready for the opportunity in front of them to migrate a genre into new territory.

To John Byrne, apparently adding sex meant "adding pornography".  Or not.  One wonders if that were John Byrne's personal relation to sexiness, but I'd guess not (but it takes all kinds).  It may have been a misguided writing attempt, or it could have been Byrne intentionally going over the top to make a point to editorial about the ludicrousness of upping the sexiness.  All are entirely possible, but with editorial not blinking, which says something else (including the massive weight Byrne carried at DC at the time), the comic plays it utterly straight with a fairly serious set of issues, not the least of which is the possible rape of both Barda and Superman.  Yeah, I know.

I didn't read the issue until some time around 2004 or 2005, and when I did "utterly dumbfounded" only begins to describe the experience. While Superman never actually, uh, performs, it seems Barda was up to something on grainy VHS.  So its not exactly a wash in the "well, that was a near miss" department that usually helps comics circumnavigate controversial territory, and we're left with a storyline for Law & Order SVU in the DCU.*   At the time, comics, especially Superman, would have been picked up by kids (we've all but fixed that problem.  Thanks, comics!).  And while no prude I, I still consider the skanky world and subject matter of "adult film" to be for people who might have at least exited middle school.  

As an adult reader, I just find the whole thing clumsy and embarrassing for everyone involved.  Its not a good comic, which actually makes it stand out from the other issues around that time, which are, in context, pretty well done as the Superman titles were busy building a new Metropolis and supporting cast for Big Blue.  Its always an ugly moment in any media when the creator's reach exceed's his grasp.  Given the preponderance of material out there for adults, I suppose it seemed like making the switch in comics would be no big deal.  Unfortunately, 20-odd years later, we're still wrestling with the same problems of what a mature world for people in tights looks like.**

It would be fascinating to hear Byrne's explanation for the issue.

And I am sure the The Leagues of 1986 were totally freaking out.  This was the bold new direction Byrne was taking?  This was what DC thought was okay to do with Superman?  In a book read by kids featuring a widely known character who was on TV shirts and packages of peanut butter?***

It was a misstep then, and despite the audience skewing older, it'd be a misstep now.  I'm not exactly sure where in the DCU this kind of material would work, but this wasn't a responsible use of the characters, and the juvenile and naive approach shows a system failure at DC at the time.  Unfortunately, these failures seem to occur on a semi-regular basis, with varying degrees of play in the Comics Fan-o-Sphere.

*minus Mariska Hargitay, which is a shame.  And I am now going to spend some time thinking about Mariska Hargitay.
**see recent issues of Catwoman, Red Hood, Suicide Squad, etc...
***heck, yeah, we had Superman peanut butter

1 comment:

J.S. said...

Superman has a sex tape? Hahahahahahahahahahaha!!!