Sunday, January 21, 2018

That Took Longer and Way More Failed Attempts Than I Figured, But The Red Trunks Are Back in Action 1000

I always thought the teeth-gnashing over Superman's red trunks was a sign of some deep and unwarranted insecurities at DC Comics.  But it looks like DC has decided, at very long last, to restore Superman to trunks-status with Action Comics #1000.

Yeah, yeah... I know Superman's red trunks were inspired by pre-WWII-era America acrobats, who were more or less covering up their junk.  (Look, if you've been to the ballet... you can most absolutely see what grapes those guys are smuggling under their danskins.) 

I'll always argue that the red of the trunks balanced the outfit, allowing it to remain sleek, but keep the solid blue from a certain visual dullness between the cape and boots.  From a design and visual appeal, and at least on the comics page, red trunks just work better to balance the complete outfit.
I also mourned the end of the shorts more than once here, and pondered their return at other times.

In the wake of Dark Knight Returns in the 1980's, Superman took a hit both with new readers coming into comics and seeing Superman on the page for the first time as a simp and a government stooge.  And, ever since, a weird aspect of DC Comics has been many-a-writer's insistence that in the presence of Batman, Superman must now behave like a lobotomized ground sloth who can't put on his own boots without Batman's bitchy guidance (honestly, even the second issue of the recent "Super Friends" storyline in Batman went back to the well on this one.  Which was disappointing).

At some point, Superman's exterior shorts became a punchline for late-night comics and pop culture bloggers alike.  As superhero comics rose to prominence, the red shorts (And Superman himself) felt to many like an outdated bit of comicsdom that had to be ejected for comics to be taken seriously as a medium.  I don't agree with these concepts, but that's what you get when you boil down the arguments I recall from the 90's to the early 10's.  Those red shorts became a popular arguing point for the weirdly popular "Superman is outmoded" articles appearing on the regular in non-comics media once the internet had to find content circa 2004 or so.

To complicate matters, circa 2010, Joanne Siegel's Quixotic quest to reclaim the rights to Superman was actually looking bad for DC.  By that same point there were no Shuster-heirs to claim any ownership of Superman, and Joanne Siegel (Jerry's widowed second wife) had come into contact with a semi-shady attorney who was making some serious progress.

I don't want to start a fight over who *should* own Superman, because that's literally for the courts to decide.  And the story is not as simple as "DC screwed over Siegel and Shuster", at least not in the way folks think.  But by 2010, DC had already been looking down a few dark avenues for what they might do to replace Superman if it came to that (that Mon-El is Superman storyline that ran around 2008-9 wasn't a mistake).*  The way things shook out, the Siegels more or less owned Action Comics #1, which gave them Lois Lane as a reporter, Clark Kent is Superman and red shorts, a red cape and a blue suit.  The Daily Planet wouldn't get that name for a while (Superman started at The Daily Star), and Perry White and Jimmy Olsen wouldn't show up for a bit.  Heck, Ma and Pa Kent weren't named Jonathan and Martha.  (Eben and Sarah, I think.)

Add in Dan Didio and Jim Lee's seeming dislike of Superman (full stop), and a new CEO at the newly coined DC Entertainment, and we got the New 52.

And...  within four months it became clear the New 52 had no idea what the hell it was or what it was doing.  I can only imagine the chaos that DC must have been at the time, but it did give us Grant Morrison's t-shirt Superman at the same time we got (sigh) Jim Lee's armored Superman in Justice League and poor George Perez trying to just make a Superman comic with all this shit going on (some of what Perez was putting in place in issue #1 of Superman was at least a bit of world building).

This look made way more sense than we'll ever talk about
the entire premise of New 52 Superman was "what if the suit was different and no one was on the same page as to who Superman is?"
Whether it was the Siegel lawsuit or the whims of DC executives... I don't know.  And we won't dwell so much on the changes to the character here, but the "armor" was an odd look from jump.  Say what you will about the spandex, but blue tights don't suggest just by showing up you assume people will want to kill you. 

From the stripped down, iconic look, Superman gained a nehru collar and lots of business.  The lines  didn't fall along "seam" lines we'd been seeing in comics since Hitch was doing Ultimates.  No shorts didn't mean no belt (we had to break up that blue somehow), and so we got the red belt of pointless inclusion.

Then, we were maybe 8 or 9 months into the New 52 before someone realized maybe we should explain how Superman was hiding the new gear under his street clothes and then a never-really-discussed-again answer was provided (nano-tech magic).  They never really got back into that whole idea after the first explanation of two.

What was maybe not so surprising was that Diane Nelson really leaned into making sure the look was out there.  Superman in armor with no spit-curl and a sorta-90's haircut was suddenly appearing in commercials for Target, as an action figure and on pretty much anything DC was licensing.  Only... not totally.  You'd definitely still see the classic look show up here and there, especially in items aimed at little kids.

I wasn't entirely surprised.  Mullet Superman was suddenly on toys and merchandise in even the limited exposure Superman was receiving in the 1990's.  And, man, you couldn't not find that stuff for years after they went back to the high and tidy classic cut.

If nothing else...  what blew me away was the seeming amateur-hour-ness of the whole thing.  I *get* that DC was having issues with the Siegels.  I get that DC's editorial was laboring under the weight of 00's-era blog posts and pop-culture.  But understanding iconography and protecting IP are usually a good idea.  That's *always* why I've always assumed the changes took place on the scale they did - they were really going to lose that lawsuit.  But...  maybe not.  It's entirely possible Didio convinced Nelson that this was how they branded the next era of DC.  And, boy howdy, was it ever.

What came next were a series of flailing editorial decisions, all based on exceedingly short-term thinking and unsustainable notions that showed no care for their existing fanbase (who left Superman in droves), wasn't able to maintain a base of "new" readers, and showed disregard for the general public perception of Superman that had existed for nearly 75 years.  And, seemingly all to placate the new coveted market of 21 year olds who sat at home playing video games and liked to use the term "bad-ass" as the go to adjective for things they liked.

Look, I have deep respect for Jim Lee, and he's excellent at what he does, but...  Jim Lee got famous for his rich line detail and character presentation.  As it turned out, the costume was kind of rough for other artists to draw, especially those doing monthly books under deadline.  And so it was, about three years after the New 52 Superman first appeared, he got a new suit.

Honestly, it was nice to have Superman at least back in just plain tights, but there wasn't all that much difference.  Frankly, he looked more or less how some of the toy manufacturers had interpreted the armor, anyway.

But it didn't last all that long.  Within a year the "wut?" storyline of "Truth" came to Superman where his secret ID was exposed to the world and some very well intentioned stories demonstrated why Captain America doesn't need a secret ID, but it's core to Superman.

They went back to the t-shirt, but a now far-less-powered Superman wound up with his cape as bandages.  It was...  not great.

Somewhere in there, DC had the Convergence event that no one talks about or remembers.  Frankly, the event and the mini-series (which was a mix of COIE and Secret Wars) was about as bad as these things get.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the fiasco.  The series had versions of characters from all eras of DC on one planet (and, sigh, they had to fight... which Didio had just made happen in Arena**) and that included Superman from before Flashpoint.

Someone decided to insert that Superman into New 52 Continuity, fully aware he was a man on the wrong world in Lois and Clark.

To be blunt:  Superman hadn't *felt* like Superman since the New 52.  New powers, less powers, no secret ID.  No romance with Lois (the Siegels owned that), an adult Jimmy Olsen, Clark working from home as a blogger (blech)...  The books were a damn mess.

All evidence suggests that, sales or otherwise, DC knew this wasn't working.  But Lois and Clark, written by a former Superman writer, was some of the best stuff I could recall Jurgens putting out there.  Or maybe it felt that way at the time in comparison to what else was going on at the time.

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at DC when they decided "yeah, we're gonna kill New52 Superman and put old Superman into his place."

And, like, nobody cared that New 52 Superman was dead.  I'm sure there was some grumbling at the time, but it sure didn't last, and guys like me who were sort of half-watching Superman out of one eye came back to the comics.

It was... closer.  I didn't entirely get what the deal was, and, frankly, I don't think DC themselves had quite figured out what to do with the full costume till the last minute, because some solicitation material showed Superman with red boots.

And at this point, you were kind of left scratching your head, thinking: well, so, is this a Siegel thing, or a DC editorial thing?  Because this Superman is supposed to have worn the red shorts at one point.  Why not now?

All that seemed clear was that someone at DC had agreed that, at least from the navel up, Superman sorta needed to look like himself in the comics, at least.  It worked in the movies - sorta (I still think he'd look better with red shorts, but, oddly, no one from anywhere has asked me).

It was a little weird.  But the quality of the comics and the new direction for Superman as a father to a young boy (with Lois as mom and brains of the outfit, thus remaining, happily, Lois) probably did  speak a whole lot more to fans of the comics who, in the 00's, had been criticized for becoming adults and parents.***

One more 5th-Dimensional Imp storyline later, and Superman got another refit, a cosmic-sized continuity re-adjustment and a better outfit, but not before a few action figures and whatnot had been issued in the blue-boots "Rebirth" look.

Assuming at this point that the Rebirth version of Superman was it, I got pretty comfortable with the red belt and boots.  It wasn't too different from some of what we'd seen, but minus the Nehru collar, the clear reversion to tights, the old school logo, boots and cape, I could be happy with it.  Especially as it didn't visually signify a middle-finger to decades of Superman comics, movies, toys and cartoons.

I will say - that's a hell of a lot of iterations on Big Blue in the span of six and a half-years, tho. Hopefully there's a lesson to be learned in there somewhere from someone in editorial, who I am sure is high-fiving themselves right about now, convinced that this journey was fully a good idea to get people back to loving the shorts (look, the people who didn't like them will continue not to like them).

DC isn't always at it's best when it looks to the past, and I want to be open to change.  But, like Superman-as-family-man, those changes are best when they fit with the character, crafted by people who understand the character.

What was funny was - during that era of Superman-in-armor, All Star Superman, which was critically acclaimed when it arrived, but argued about as much as anything else in comics when it arrived, became a sort of spiritual North Star to Superman, much as Dark Knight Returns became for Batman in the 90's.  I'm the last person to say a bad word about All Star Superman - it's one of my favorite things in the world - but it's also a pastiche to Silver Age Superman at his finest.  Essentially "what is Silver Age Superman, but now?".  And I mean that in the best of ways.

I believe in the Golden Age Superman - the unstoppable social crusader taking on "ripped from the headlines" scammers, ne'er-do-wells, treasonous bastards and evil scientists., all with a grin and a chuckle as bad guys flail at him helplessly.  But the attempts to bring that back - short Morrison's run in Action, didn't work so well.  They dropped that angle soon enough and went promptly into "who cares?" territory with a Superman with no solid supporting cast, no permanent status quo, no background to speak of... just things borrowed from better things.  And none of it ever felt like Superman.  So it was that I think most of us thought of the character in those books as an imposter - some random guy with all the trappings of Superman, but not him.

I can only hope DC is done monkeying for a while.  It's been a bumpy ride.

But I also think DC is ready for a second line of books featuring a fresh DCU, where a Superman first appears and Lois Lane doesn't know Clark Kent, her goofy co-worker, is the man of Steel.

*there's a whole lot that happened in this era where Superman-was-not-Superman that was effectively strangling the Superman books.  Whether DC was trying to walk away from Kal-El as Superman or what, I'll never know.  But, in some ways, we went for about a decade of an unrecognizable Superman in the comics, minus about a dozen comics.

**an idea machine, Didio is not

***remember "Dad Comics" was derogatory slang?


Stuart said...

As much as Rebirth Superman has been a step in the right direction, so much of it has seemed to fall on the category of continuity fixing. I very much look forward to a day when I can pick up a Superman, recognize all the main characters, and get into the story without having to drag along all the baggage of DC's failed experiments.

The League said...

I don't know what it is about DC that you can see the gears and machinations at work in so much of their output. Why they can't seem to just do what they did before COIE is beyond me, but it seems like a good goal for editorial. Hell, even the movie "Justice League" felt like pure DC product as you watched them try to rehab the prior films on screen.