Thursday, March 15, 2012

What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?

DC released the trailer today for Superman Vs. The Elite, a feature length film based upon the famous-among-Superman-fans Action Comics #775.  The name of the story in the issue was "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?"

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It's an interesting time for DC Entertainment to be releasing the film.

The story pitted Superman against a rough analog for The Authority, a team book from DC's acquired Wildstorm line.  The Authority had become popular circa 1999 thanks to what some at the time called a "realistic" approach to superheroes - as in that fact that in the Wildstorm U, protagonists didn't catch bad buys and take them to jail or Arkham Asylum, they tended to deal with them with a tremendous bit of finality that became the hallmark of the line.

I read the first couple of trades of The Authority, and toward mid-2001, I recall losing my taste for the series.  The fascistic undertones of the book had always sat sort of oddly with me as a reader, but I assumed the writers were trying to make a point about power in a world where power was out of control.  However, after it became clear that... no...  the writers are just writing the most over-the-top stories they can think of, and are going to treat death tolls in the 10's of thousands casually, I simply lost interest.

2001 was, I might add, five years after Kingdom Come, the miniseries that, like Dark Knight Returns, seemed to have a serious impact on the DCU as a whole.  Waid and Ross's Kingdom Come was a brilliant collaboration, summing up the state of the superhero comics industry at the time, but also working as a larger commentary upon the endgame of extremism, that in the end you're left with madness, and sooner or later something will come along that nobody wants to see happen in an attempt to quell the day-to-day madness.

I still think Warren Ellis was trying to make a point with The Authority about how very human we are and that power doesn't change necessarily change that, even as we try to make decisions or use what we have to do good by others.  And on a planetary scale, the effects can be devastating.  I'm not sure the audience went along for that that particular ride, but they certainly seemed to like that "Apollo and The Midnighter" (a Superman and Batman analog) kicked ass!*

Its been a long time since I bothered with The Authority, the last time I remember paying attention to them was in the pages of a Captain Atom mini-series I didn't particularly like.  But what I do recall is that at some point The Authority seemed to have turned into a book that was about writers cooking up analogs of familiar heroes (The JLA, The Avengers, etc...) and then showing how The Authority would dismantle, humiliate, and sometimes murder the characters.  What had been a hilarious spoof idea in Boris the Bear back in the 1980's began to feel a bit like somebody wanking it a bit, and just repeating the same one-note joke over and over.

During that time around 2000, analogs of Superman were kicked around routinely in the Wildstorm U and other places.  And for some reason, DC just seemed to unwilling to  address the fact that in books they owned, their own characters were routinely humiliating the character who had made their company in many ways.  In some ways, I still blame fanboys associating a bit too much with the Bruce Wayne of Dark Knight Returns for starting the whole cascade (a presentation and character choice of Miller's that makes sense and with which I agree, because I think Miller, in the end, was telling Superman's story as one of redemption.  If you doubt that, see Dark Knight Strikes Again).

But comics were basically taking every opportunity to jump on the new  pop culture pundit bandwagon of trying to seem edgy by writing articles on "why Superman isn't relevant anymore".

Action Comics 775 hit in March 2001.  It was at least a double-sized issue.

In the story, a very Authority-like team called The Elite has appeared and Superman is watching TV pundits and newspaper editorials praising the team for their "effectiveness".  With horror, Superman watches as the team more or less murders their opponents.  And while that's something he can handle, what's shocking to him is how the populace embraces others murdering in their name.

Its a pretty great story, but it was also the kind of thing that you couldn't really put in anyone's hands as Superman's sales were slipping, as comics fans looked to anything other than dismemberment of anyone crossing a "hero's" path as childish and stupid, or out of touch and not "edgy" enough for "today's audiences".**

The issue came, and the issue went.  In my mind, it at least gave me some confidence that at least some portion of DC Comics was on my side.  Somebody in the DC offices understood the point and value of Superman, if not what superheroes were intended to be (at least the cape and bullet-proof kind).

But the issue was largely ignored outside of Super-nerd circles.  It got a few reprints, it got collected, but it wasn't overly popular.  The Authority kept on keeping on (I'd already quit reading it well before).

And then 9/11 happened.

The effect of 9/11 upon the comics industry was probably the smallest of cultural echoes of that awful day, but I think its worth noting that my generation and the generation that preceeded it had never really seen a real war up close.  We had seen F-111's fly over Libya and bomb people, but I was born after Vietnam, and the first Gulf War seemed more like a bit of confusion in the Middle East than a real war of any sort.

In short, even prior to 9/11, I didn't find the idea of lots and lots of casualties as part of my story about people in tights and using laser-vision to be something that made the stories more realistic.  Maybe it was the history major in me who'd read too many stories, or the news junkie me that watched coverage of Serbia, or...  I dunno.  I have good folks who wanted to make sure I basically understood the currency of other's lives?  Who can say.  It just made me wonder what the writers were thinking, piling up those death counts, and if they understood what even a few hundred deaths could mean.  Hadn't they been paying attention when McVeigh drove that U-Haul truck up to the Federal Building on Oklahoma City?

Lots of dead people wasn't funny, and I felt a bit like, in comics, it was being treated as such, and I didn't understand why.

The bottom line was that you weren't talking about super humans taking pot shots at each other in the skies above Metropolis, you were talking about wholesale murder as entertainment.  You were changing the stories to something that now needed to be about "what happens when a whole lot of people die?"  I really don't think that a lot of people my age knew that it didn't mean "righteous vengeance", it meant national mourning, tragedy, grief and a lot of steeling yourself for what would come as you prepared for what would be a long battle.

I should mention, I have always been deeply uncomfortable with the destruction of Coast City in the Superman titles as a side-note to The Death of Superman.  The fact that Superman's death was continually treated like a big deal in the DCU, but the flattening of Coast City was rarely mentioned outside of some second hand justification of the horrendous direction DC took Hal Jordan in the early 90's has always been a demonstration of what sort of thinking must have been going on in editorial, and presages a lot of the mess that was the 90's.

In a lot of ways, I'd argue that 9/11 helped wipe out Wildstorm as a Universe as the time, leaving mostly only Planetary intact as it may have taken the jaded angle, but the scales it worked on and its goals were so different.

DC tried rebooting Wildstorm more than once, and it never took over the years.  Flash forward to 2010ish and Jim Lee, founder of Wildstorm, is promoted to be Co-Publisher of the DC Comics line.  September 2011, and DC reboots, bringing in talent not from Wildstorm, but the imitators at Marvel at the time and merging the Wildstorm U right into the DCU (and everyone sort of shrugged as Stormwatch failed to become a thing and acclaimed writer Paul Cornell fled the comic, screaming).

The same Jim Lee works with kid-on-too-much-sugar writer Geoff Johns to essentially turn Justice League into a Wildstorm title, including scenes with Superman straight up killing bad guys and a lot of stuff explodes pointlessly over 6 repetitive, unthrilling, baffling issues.

And...  meanwhile, DC Entertainment's Animation Division releases a feature length film more or less giving a pretty good response as to why Classic Formula Superman was a better idea than all this The Authority jazz, or, perhaps, Nu Superman as presented by Jim Lee.

I'm just saying.

*by the way, The Midnighter may be one of the snarkiest ideas ever that only I think was a snarky response to Wolverine and Batman.  I'm still not clear that the creators weren't kidding.  And if they weren't, that was just the least good character ever.
**if there was anything that ever told me more about the impotent posturing of milk-fed, suburban-bred kids trying to feel tough by association, its been the idea playing lots of video games and watching scary movies has somehow bred a tougher class of young person audience than...  pretty much any generation whose biggest challenge hasn't been chronic obesity


Jake Shore said...

Great post. I've never read Superman #775, but I will certainly check it out now. You and I agree a lot on what Superman is all about. That's why I think Kingdom Come was such an important and timely work. God, I wish there was something like that kind of thoughtfulness in the new 52. As I've stated before, I find the that Superman's "old-fashionedness," as some see it, is a huge strength in the character, and part of what makes him even more compelling in the world today; a hero without the cynicism and disdain for the world, who runs against some of the current social/political currents today. What a well of storytelling that could be; of character development, and yet the DC brass think we'd all rather see comics with hot-shot artists drawing giant splash pages, about 3-40 words of dialogue, and smart-ass one liners. And don't forget lots of TnA, and some over the top violence.

Good point about the Coast City thing. That really was treated like some sort of afterthought (likely because it was a plot device to get rid of Hal Jordan).

To your point, by they way, is it me or is DC animation doing a lot of cool stuff, and doing it well?

And could you expand on your thoughts about Superman in DKR. I thought his depiction was fantastic, and I'm not sure why some people took a dim or cynical view of Superman after that.

The League said...

I do think DC Animation is trying a bit harder, and I feel Lauren Montgomery is coming into her own as a director. Adapting better storylines from the comics isn't hurting.

My theory on the DKR Superman is that a lot of folks read Batman's inner monologue in the comic, and as this was their first exposure to Superman they identified with what they saw in the comic as per Bruce's snarky, anti-establishment take on Superman. In the book, Batman describes Clark as the dumbly dutiful government stooge (at least by the time the story begins), even if the book suggests something else is going on - note the wink by Clark at the end of the book. And, of course, Dark Knight Strikes Again.

An oddity of DKR is that even though its a book about a 55 year old man, its a 55 year old Batman, a guy who is still dealing with the death of his parents like an angry kid, which I suppose is a lot more relatable to most folks in that target age group of high schoolers to young adults than what I think Superman might mean to either kids looking for a good guy or adults who may be looking for a character about about something a bit different than tactical superiority.