Saturday, July 31, 2010

Walking with Superman: Day 10

Superman's in Las Vegas, where the stakes are higher than they've ever been. The Auctioneer has returned, and he's playing against Manga Khan for ownership of the planet Earth! It's up to Superman to turn the tables, but before he can buy in, he'll have to make it past the bouncer: Lobo!

Friday, July 30, 2010

After Shave

You might remember how, several months ago, I reviewed a Free Comic Book Day offering by my friends at Unshaven Comics. That issue was a "Sneak Preview" of their comic "Disposable Razors," and they released the full first issue at C2E2 a few months back. I got my copy shortly thereafter, and free time shortly thereafter that, so it's well past time that I got down to reviewing the book.

The book consists of two stories, "The White," which continues into the next two issues, and "Chasing Daylight," which had a prologue in the Sneak Preview. "The White" is basically a new draft of the Sneak Preview's material, with some updates and alterations here and there, while "Chasing Daylight" is all new. In any case, I'll be doing a lot of comparison, so if you haven't read the original review, you might give it another look.

The first point of comparison is the cover. My years of dedicated practice in a remote ashram under my learned sensei Slylock Fox have given me the skills necessary to accomplish this task:
That was fun. Now I wonder what Goofus and Gallant are up to.

"Disposable Razors" gets a snazzy and fitting new logo for this first issue, which is a lot more distinctive and appropriate than the cartoonish text on the Sneak Preview. The basics of the cover are the same, with a guy shaving in a bathroom mirror. The "Awesome Area for Creator Signatures" has been replaced with a vanity (with an Unshaven logo on it), and some details have been added in the mirror image. The coloring is much more nuanced, making the skin coloring a little more natural (and for some reason changing the variety of Barbasol--I guess the guy doesn't need the "Soothing Aloe" anymore). While the updated coloring is generally better, there are a couple of disappointing changes: first, an unnecessary and slightly distracting lens flare effect has been Photoshopped in, and while the shaved spot on the guy's face before had revealed a subtle star field, now it's just a fade-to-black gradient. The effect looks like a more advanced bit of coloring, but loses the interesting and fantastic implications of the original art.

On a more nitpicky note, I just noticed that on both covers, the actual guy has a sideburn, while his reflection doesn't. Spoooooky.

Moving into the book, it starts with what ought to be a correction on my end. "The White," from the Sneak Preview, becomes a framing story here. Unfortunately for me, I originally thought the first page was an excerpt from "The March," Unshaven's original graphic novel. So if you're going back to that original review, my discussion of "The March" is mostly a discussion of the first page of "The White."

"The White" has been completely relettered and split into two pieces to bookend the main story. The relettering addresses some of my early criticisms, particularly the unnecessary out-of-place censorship, and the font looks a bit more expensive (and less Simpsonsesque) to boot. It looks like it's been recolored a bit too, but that might just be a quirk of printing and paper quality. The dialogue has been revised, pretty heavily in places, which is good, because it removes a bit of attempted scientific detail that I'm surprised didn't bother me before. There's less text, which provides a better flow, and lessens the infodump sensation that this story had previously.

So, for the capsulized recap: a man is caught in a thunderstorm, which leads to his transportation to The White, a dimension that acts as a nexus looking into alternate realities, similar to "The Bleed" in DC/Wildstorm. Speaking of DC, our designated protagonist is guided and berated through the dimension by a lampshaded Skeets-lookalike who (now) calls himself "VOX." The protagonist looks into the insanity-inducing surreality of The White, but his experience with sci-fi and comic books have immunized him against madness. The story--such as it is--kind of meanders until the protagonist looks into a reality-window at a character that looks kind of like him, starting the first vignette. At the other end of the book, the protagonist reacts to the events he's seen in the reality-window, and VOX changes his appearance.

While the art is basically the same, a new two-page spread has been added, which is a nice riff on the kind of surreal spacescapes you might find in Kirby's Fourth World or Ditko's Dr. Strange books. It's colorful, it's bizarre, and it looks like it ought to be a psychedelic rock album cover. It's also basically the best art in the story.

I hate to say this, but I'm fairly disappointed by "The White." The art needed precisely the same facelift that the lettering and dialogue got, but didn't receive it. Frankly, I kind of hope it wasn't completely recolored, because the pre-White page really could use it. The landscape/background looks fine, but the protagonist is washed out and pale, to the point where there's not enough contrast between his skin and his teeth and the whites of his eyes to tell if they're colored differently. That's exacerbated by the high contrast between all the light washed-out color and the heavy inks in his face.

There's a lot of inconsistency in how the character looks throughout the story. His hairstyle and length, as well as the length of his facial hair, changes wildly from page to page and, sometimes, from panel to panel. There are ways to handwave this away, since it's established about halfway through that he can change his appearance within The White, but it really just looks like sloppy continuity editing.

Similarly, somehow the header from the blue line art board got left on the third page; it could be handwaved as well (that's the first page where we really see the bizarre surreality of The White) but it really just looks like "Book: The White Issue: 1 Page: 3" didn't get cropped out of the scan before it went to the printers. It wasn't worth critiquing in the Sneak Preview, given that book's status as a Free Comic Book Day sampler, but that's kind of a glaring error to leave in the final draft--especially without any explanation.

I'm going to go off on one of my traditional pseudointellectual tangents for a moment, if you'll indulge me. "Unshaven Comics" is an anthology series. I've got a lot of experience with anthology series in comics, television, and especially movies, and they tend to break down into two groups. There are anthologies where the framing device exists purely to link together the main stories, and there are anthologies where the framing sequence is a story on its own.

To elaborate slightly, we never really knew anything about Rod Serling's characters in "The Twilight Zone" or "Night Gallery." He was just there to link together the tales of interest. The Cryptkeeper didn't have plots, just puns. Most anthology TV series and comic books fall into that first category.

On the other hand, go watch "Creepshow" or "Trick 'r Treat," and you'll see the second motif. The framing device is a short story like the rest of the vignettes, with its own plot and characters. Sometimes it's separate from the vignettes, other times it weaves into and out of them with common characters or settings or whatever. You see this kind of thing a lot in movies, where the stories might come out of characters sitting around a campfire or listening to an eccentric storyteller, or whatever.

"The White" is clearly trying to be the latter. The big problem this presents is that the story continues on into the upcoming issues, so we only get the beginning here. What results is a story that kind of meanders and treads water for much of this first installment. I criticized "The White" previously for feeling like a rough draft, and it still feels that way here. The additional splash page and updated dialogue doesn't save the series of panels that feel like they were written without a real plan.

And I hate to come down on it again, but the biggest example of how unplanned this all feels is that VOX changes his appearance for no apparent reason toward the end of the story. When a character has existed for half a dozen pages, radically changing its appearance makes it feel like the creative team decided halfway through that they didn't like how the character looked but didn't want to go back and redraw and rewrite the previous pages. I know independent comics are an expensive and time-consuming affair, but in anything like this, one needs to be willing and able to go back and radically edit, even if it means scrapping existing art and eating a bit of cost. Although I suspect that all it would take is changing some dialogue and doing a bit of Photoshop magic.

It's certainly possible that the skin change is foreshadowing or establishing something (although I'd think that the protagonist's earlier discovery that he could manipulate his own appearance did the latter), and I'll be able to evaluate this better when the story is complete. However, when you're telling stories in a serial medium, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that it looks like there's a plan, and this is one element out of several that makes "The White" look quite unplanned. I suppose "not introducing a conflict in the first act" is another major one.

I'm happy to say that "Chasing Daylight" is considerably better. The original "Chasing Daylight" short in the Sneak Preview had a wildly different art style compared to "The White," owing at least in part to artist Marc Fishman. The art wasn't perfect (in fact, it's fairly flat in the last panel, though some good coloring obscures that), but it was clean and smooth. Matt Wright, the artist of "The White" and the full "Chasing Daylight" story, has a much sketchier style more reminiscent of Bill Sienkiewicz. That in itself isn't a criticism--I like Bill Sienkiewicz--but it's interesting to see an independent comic company with three creators go through a major change in creative teams before the first issue of the book.

Anyway, it's clear that there's been a lot of time between "The White" and "Chasing Daylight," because Wright's art has improved by leaps and bounds. Characters are distinct and consistent (and I'm have a feeling I know who modeled for the some of our protagonists) and expressive, and it's easy to follow the action. There are some hinky bits where a character's face gets distorted when they're drawn from a weird perspective, but they're fairly minor. One thing I'd kind of like to see is someone else inking over Wright's pencils; having another set of eyes and hands at work can sometimes smooth out those rough areas, and I'd like to see if that sketchiness could be restrained a little more by a different inker's pen. That's mostly personal preference, though, rather than an actual complaint about the art. If the whole book looked this good, I wouldn't have spent nearly as much time commenting on the style.

So, the capsulized story: four friends are returning from their "annual bro-cation," having a standard dude conversation about whether sex with your own clone would be gay sex or masturbation. It comes off fairly naturally, establishing the voices and personalities of the main characters (though "fellatio" is misspelled), and allowing the driver to give the backstory in captioned narration. The art is mostly fine in these pages, aside from the interior of the SUV they're all riding in occasionally looking massive (it's possible that they're driving the Canyonero--"twelve yards long and two lanes wide"). When they pull over to let one of the guys take a whiz, though, they encounter a person possessed by a predatory creature that wants to consume them as well. Being a sporting creature, it tells them that it'll spare their lives if they stay in the light. They deduce that this means they should try to follow the sun and stay in the sunlight. What follows is a pretty suspenseful horror standard, with the characters racing against time and trying to keep their wits despite conflicting personalities and the pressure of impending doom. I won't spoil it, but I think it works out fairly well, keeping close to the horror short story roots you might expect from an anthology comic, and making the conflict a believable extension of the characters' previously-established personalities.

At the end, we return to "The White" and get a quick note of how the protagonist of the framing story is connected to the characters in "Chasing Daylight." The book closes with a (now full-color) preview of "Ironside: Living Will," the story I unreservedly recommended the last time around, which will be in the second issue.

Overall, "Disposable Razors" is still a mixed bag. The main story is a pretty good, pretty conventional horror short. "The White" is fairly flawed, but I feel optimistic that a new issue with new material will improve on it. I've definitely read worse indie comics, but I've read better as well. I enjoyed the main story, but I can't honestly recommend the full issue without some reservations.

I guess, if I had one major suggestion for the Unshaven crew, it'd be to engage in a little more cutthroat editing (incidentally, I'd give the same suggestion to DC Comics lately too). One major mistake that a lot of writers make (and I imagine artists do too) is to become too enamored with an idea or a plot point or a turn of phrase, that they make sure to include that moment, even at the expense of the rest of the story. On the flipside, there's also the tendency to have errors or elements that could be better, but would take an even greater investment of time, money, and effort, and so they settle for what they've already done. There's a balance to strike between the two, where you're not wasting time and effort on being a perfectionist and you're not getting too wrapped up in your own perfection.

That's a general critique/patented tangent, there. I don't think anyone at Unshaven Comics thinks they're perfect.

The job of a comic editor is (or should be) to be a kind of professional jerk. Editors have to tell writers to cut off those abundantly clever bits of dialogue, no matter how good they are. Editors have to tell artists to redraw that page, that panel, that facial expression, even if it's the tenth time. The point of an editor is to have someone standing outside the project looking at the bigger picture, someone who's not emotionally invested in any particular aspect of the art or writing, but is invested in what the full package will look like. Also, to proofread, which is only a very minor problem for this book (and frankly, I see about the same kinds of typos in comics from the Big Two, because apparently no one hires a copy editor anymore).

I also realize the irony in my advocation of editing when I almost never do any editing whatsoever on this blog, resulting in things like 2,500-word reviews of a single comic issue.

"Disposable Razors" #2 is scheduled to debut at the Mid-Ohio Con in November. "Ironside: Living Will" was a pretty darn good story when it was black & white in the Sneak Preview, and even if there isn't any updating or improving on the art and dialogue, I think it'll be worth the price of admission. If you happen to be there, or if you frequent Stand-Up Comics--fine merchants of Unshaven Comics publications--check out Issue #1 as well, and decide for yourself.

Walking with Superman: Day 9

In northern Oregon, Superman encounters a group of refugees from Gorilla City. One of their number has been wounded by human Bigfoot hunters, and the humans are getting closer to their number. Superman finds himself torn between protecting the gorillas and mending their ties with Gorilla City's leader, Nnandi, so they can return home--if he can convince them to leave.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


I'll be honest, I liked Blackest Night. I didn't care much for the tie-in miniseries that I read (though I thought most of Johns' tie-ins were fairly good), and I thought the ending could have been a lot more daring and interesting and status quo altering than it was. But it was the kind of event comic I tend to like, and my opinion of Geoff Johns is still somewhat positive.

So when word came of "Brightest Day," I was all for it. Limited to 26 issues, it sounded like it'd avoid some of the problems of Countdown, and I was all for following characters like Martian Manhunter and Aquaman in the happier, more optimistic aftermath of Blackest Night.

And on the other side of things, "Justice League: Generation Lost" was announced with Judd Winick at the head. And while I may have associated Geoff Johns with over-the-top gore and violence and unnecessary character deaths, I associated Winick with character derailment, overwrought melodrama, and turning every series into a sociopolitical soapbox. I'm a dyed-in-the-hemp liberal, and I enjoyed the Terry Berg subplot in Green Lantern, but for awhile it seemed like Winick couldn't write anything without making it an outlet for his political views and social causes. After all the crap that the JLI crew has been through in recent years, the last thing I wanted to see happen to them was maudlin Winick.

So naturally I subscribed to "Brightest Day." But I gave "Generation Lost" a chance too, picking up the first issue at the shop.

Four issues later, I came to a decision. By issue 4 of "Brightest Day," it was clear that the series was showcasing the worst of Geoff Johns' dialogue (somehow both stilted and blunt, lacking any real sense of character or nuance) and plotting (story snippets that advance each plot a hair's breadth each issue, causing the book to move at a snail's pace) with none of the optimism implied by the name. In contrast, by issue 4 of "Justice League: Generation Lost," I was willing to assume that Keith Giffen wrote the whole damn thing.

Seriously, Winick and Giffen have put together a pretty compelling story, using an entertaining cast, and they clearly have a plan going forward. The story in "Generation Lost" has already taken a twist or two that I didn't expect (for instance, I expected the mystery of where Max was and what he wanted to last a lot longer), and making the team into a group of underdog outcasts puts them in an intriguing position. And so far every issue has either introduced something significant or moved the main story forward significantly, which is more than I could say for "Brightest Day," where I'm pretty sure Hawkman and Hawkgirl spent three issues walking through a door.

So, good on you, Judd Winick, for largely redeeming my opinion of you. It may just be that Keith Giffen turns pretty much anything he touches into gold, but I'm not so sure about that. The quality of "JL:GL" almost has me considering Winick's run on "Power Girl." Almost.

So, yeah, I switched my subscriptions around two issues ago. And I haven't looked back. If you're not reading "Generation Lost"--and especially if you're reading "Brightest Day"--you're missing out.

Walking with Superman: Day 8

Detroit has fallen on hard times in recent years, and Superman hopes he can lend a hand. Unfortunately, he's not the only Metropolis native in the Motor City. Metallo rises from the ashes with an army of robots made from the finest Detroit steel, and he's determined to make sure that Superman takes the midnight train to nowhere.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Do the Truffle Shuffle!

It's hard to say what the worst part of the latest issue of "Batman: The Widening Gyre" is. But if I had to pick a single panel?
You might be surprised just how little editing I did to this.


Walking with Superman: Day 7

In New York state, Superman's journey is derailed when his body is taken over by the evil Iroquois god Sawiskera, and the only man who can save him died years ago! Jon Standing Bear must return from his cosmic vision quest to take up the Manitou Stone and become Super-Chief once more--but will even his power be able to stop the machinations of a desperate deity?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Walking with Superman: Day 6

Superman arrives in El Paso, Texas, where he receives some southern hospitality from the Reyes clan. Unfortunately for the Man of Steel and his starstruck fan Blue Beetle, La Encantadora has been lying low in El Paso and thinks Superman has come to take her back to Stryker's Island. The heroes are caught between one criminal's dangerous past and her reformed present, and their decision will determine El Paso's future.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Walking with Superman: Day 5

Denver is a city known for mountains, but when Superman arrives he finds more than snow-capped peaks. The Mile High City will meet its match and the Man of Steel will tremble before the terrible Mountain of Judgment!
It's a Hairies Situation.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Superman Sunday: Origins (Part 8)

This week, we continue our look at George Lowther's 1942 novel, The Adventures of Superman. We left off at the destruction of Krypton, so naturally today's adventure brings us back down to Earth, starting in Chapter 3: Young Clark Kent.

The chapter opens on aging farmer Eben Kent plowing his field. There's a somewhat ominous flavor to the beginning of this chapter, the kind of thing you'd expect from the start of an alien invasion story rather than the happy accident of Kal-el's adoption:
There was something strange about that sky. He knew the weather, as well as any farmer born to the soil, and off-hand he would have said a storm was brewing. Yet he was not quite sure. It seemed to him there was the feeling of something more than just a storm in the air. (p. 20-21)

Eben shakes the feeling and continues plowing until he hears a rumble of thunder in the distance, which turns out not to be thunder at all. The strange sound increases in volume and the clouds open up to reveal a growing, blazing light. His horse gets spooked and runs off, dragging the plow behind it, while the roaring noise gives way to a series of explosions. Eben becomes dizzy, and the fiery object crashes into the ground nearby. He throws himself down and faints.

When Eben wakes up, the noises have stopped, except for the sound of a nearby fire. He sees the ship--"a strange, bullet-shaped object, almost completely enveloped in flames"--and runs toward it, sensing that someone might be trapped inside (p. 23).
Peering through the flames, he saw a child lying helpless behind the thick glass window of the door that sealed the rocket. Already Eben had come as close as the wall of heat would let him. He realized instantly that unless he broke through that searing wall the child would die.

He made up his mind quickly, took a deep breath, and plunged through to the rocket. When he emerged again from the flame and smoke, agony stood in his eyes, for he had been severely burned. But in his blackened arms he held the child! (p. 23)

I really like this take on the discovery. While it's a bit sad that Ma Kent isn't present, it gives Eben a nice heroic moment. In most versions of this origin, the Kents adopt Kal-el without much in the way of physical danger or difficulty--in some versions, the child saves them--but here, Pa Kent rescues the child with little thought to his own life and safety. It's pretty generally accepted that Superman gets his strong moral code from his parents, but usually that's just stated or it comes out in conversation or advice. Here is a fairly rare instance of showing, not just telling, the kind of people that the Kents are. That is, after all, the first rule of writing, and it's nice to see it put to use here.

Another interesting detail is one that had never really occurred to me before. I'm so used to this scene occurring as the Kents drive down the road in a beat-up pickup truck that it's a bit jarring to see the rocket crash down on the Kent farm in front of a horse-drawn plow. Even the earliest versions of the origin had a "passing motorist" discover the rocket, and I've not realized before how odd that really is. Imagine that Clark Kent is a conservative 22 when he leaves for Metropolis in 1938. That means that our motorist was driving through some unknown moderately rural town in 1916. It's certainly not impossible--the Model T was introduced in 1908--but it's definitely a bit unlikely. That's not really a criticism, mind you, just a reminder that the world has changed a great deal in the intervening seventy-odd years.

Eben Kent and his wife, Sarah, never knew where the child had come from, never pierced the mystery that surrounded his strange appearance on earth. Destiny perhaps played a part in directing the rocket to the Kent farm, for th eKents were childless and desired a child above anything else on earth. And here, like a gift from Heaven, was the infant Kal-el. The old couple took him into their home and raised him as their own.

They called him Clark, because that was Sarah Kent's family name. (p. 23-24)

I think this is the first mention we have of "Clark" being Martha's maiden name, a bit of trivial origin detail that remains even today. Clark grows up relatively normal until the last day of eighth grade, when he's thirteen years old. The school principal, Mr. Jellicoe, and Clark's teacher, Miss Lang, are giving out academic prizes to the various students (Clark was awarded a book of Shakespeare's plays due to his English scores and ambitions of becoming a writer), when one blue ribbon goes missing. Clark watches his teacher search the desk for the ribbon, and eventually realizes that he's also looking into the desk, where he sees it caught behind the drawer. Clark points it out, but when he's unable to explain how he knew where it was, everyone thinks that Clark had been rummaging around in Miss Lang's desk.

All at once, Clark learns that he has abilities which set him apart from others, and that such a difference alienates him from his peers. He learns an important lesson about secrecy and discretion the very first time he uses his abilities in public.

This scene is interesting for a few other reasons. First, it follows through on the "he has always been sensitive to the elements" foreshadowing line from the previous chapter, by making the super-vision abilities the first manifestation of Clark's strange abilities. Vision powers were a later addition to Superman's repertoire; he used some kind of super-vision in the Fleischer cartoons, and it's probable that X-Ray vision had showed up in the comics by this point1. It's nice, too, that Clark has ambitions of being a writer. Even the earlier origins have treated reporter as something Superman chose to do for practical reasons; this is the first real glimpse (in an origin story) we've had of Clark Kent as a normal person with hopes and dreams and ambitions, rather than just a mask for the Man of Steel.

Also, one might note Clark's teacher's name, Miss Lang. This book was published a full eight years before Lana Lang made her debut. According to the introduction, the novel was pretty successful, so it's not unlikely that the use of the same last name is intentional. Still, Miss Lang makes an interesting forerunner to Clark's teenage sweetheart, just as Jimmy-not-Olsen in the radio program presaged the later Jimmy. Sadly, blue ribbon recipient Lucy Russell didn't stick around quite so consistently.

Clark returns home, where his father congratulates him on winning the book of plays. This is the first time Eben speaks in the book, and it's dialect dialogue worthy of Chris Claremont:
"Son," said old Eben, "ye've done a mighty fine job. That book--that book of plays--why, shucks, boy, that's one o' the finest things that's ever happened to yer ma and me. We're proud o' ye!" (p. 29)

Yes, in this episode, the part of Pa Kent will be played by Snuffy Smith. It's just so jarring to see the 'ye' and 'yer' from Pa, who I've never actually seen written or acted with an accent before, let alone one as cringeworthy as this. For better or worse, though, we don't have to deal with it long.
Clark looked up at them and felt everything going soft inside him. He loved these two, loved them as nothing else on earth. (p. 29)

I quote this last bit for humor. "Everything going soft inside him" is a really bizarre way of describing Clark's feelings, and "loved them as nothing else on earth" might as well be followed with "Eben had only one week until retirement." If you didn't know that Eben was going to die (perhaps from reading the Table of Contents: "Chapter V. The Death of Eben"), this brief paragraph paints a big red bullseye on him.

Ma and Pa give Clark a present, a homemade costume for a costume party that night. It's about what you might expect:
There was a tight-fitting suit of blue, a wide belt of leather, knee-length boots, and--most thrilling of all--a scarlet cape. (p. 30)

It's at this point that I really started questioning Roger Stern's declaration that John Byrne was "working without the benefit of Lowther's long-out-of-print text" (p. xix) when he wrote "Man of Steel" in '86. As in "Man of Steel," here Clark's powers don't really begin to manifest until he's a teenager, his costume is made on Earth by his mother, and his name comes from Martha's maiden name. I wouldn't be surprised if Byrne did have this book, or had read it at some point, because the details he chooses to bring in are eerily similar to the ones presented here. I suppose I could go to the Byrne boards and ask, but I'm not quite that brave/foolish.

In any case, Clark runs up to his room to try on the costume, and jumps for joy once it's on. Shockingly enough, the jumping leaves him on the other side of the room. Trying it once more, he discovers that he can fly. And with this discovery comes the understandable angst that launched ten seasons of "Smallville":
He was frightened at first and his heart beat like a triphammer. Just as his eyes could pierce the wood of Miss Lang's desk, so he could fly. What was the answer? How could he do these things when other boys, he knew, could not? Was he different from other boys? He had never thought so before and he didn't want to think so now. He had a feeling that to be different would set him apart, and he saw himself as a queer and lonely figure, shunned by all. (p. 32)

There's a lot of room for allegory here, but I think the X-Men have pretty much covered that. Still, it'd be interesting to see a Superboy story that made the secret identity/in the closet linkage intentionally, as the language in this paragraph suggests.

Clark tries to forget his powers in the ensuing months, to be a normal kid, but temptation would get the better of him, and he'd try them out, eventually coming to enjoy them. He was also developing superhuman strength, though he would not discover that until he was seventeen.

The Kent farm had fallen on hard times, and the family was in dire need of extra money. Despite his age, Eben decides to enter an anvil-lifting contest at the state fair, which would award a $500 prize. While he'd won the contest as a young man, his age and the presence of much stronger men in town made victory unlikely for the old farmer. But Eben was desperate, and so was willing to take desperate risks.

We'll finish the rest of the origin material here in the next installment, which (with any luck) will be sometime during the week. I'm really enjoying this book, but I'll be happy to move back into the comics.

1. (Edit: 7/26/10) I don't know exactly how I missed it, but Superman's X-Ray Vision first showed up in Action Comics #11, cover dated April, 1939. That means that he'd been using the power for roughly three years by the time this novel came out.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List

Walking with Superman: Day 4

Superman's journey brings him to Georgia, where a mysterious set of Guidestones stand as America's Stonehenge. But the stones' graven message of harmony with nature stands in stark contrast to the series of ritualistic sacrifices that has plagued Elbert County of late. Can Superman unravel the mystery of the Guidestones before an astronomical alignment and a doomsday cult bring something decicdedly unnatural into the world?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Walking with Superman: Day 3

Superman's visit to Minnesota brings him up against a young, aspiring supervillain. While Monumentarch would love nothing more than to steal the Eiffel Tower or hijack the Space Needle, he's starting a bit smaller: burglarizing the world's biggest ball of twine (rolled by one man)! Can Superman save this northern roadside attraction from certain destruction, or will the mad monument marauder run rampant across America's kitsch landscape?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Walking with Superman: Day 2

Superman finds himself in Cleveland, just in time to take in a reunion concert by Metropolis band Shredding Metal, but the reunion will be short-lived if the Fiddler has anything to say about it! The villainous violinist takes the band hostage and threatens to destroy the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as part of his dastardly quest to stop the rock--for good! Can Superman stop his vile viol, or will he be staggered by the sinister Stradivarius?

Posts...from the FUTURE!

If you read "The Fortress of Soliloquy" through some kind of feed aggregator, you may have gotten some brief glimpses of the future last night. I'm doing my best to stick to the "Walking with Superman" daily schedule, so I've queued up over two weeks worth of advance posts, plus a couple for farther in the future. It's been a blast coming up with fun and interesting plots for Superman's cross-country trip, and I'll be trying to keep it going regularly. So check back here at 5:00 Central Time (I might change that eventually) every day for another capsulized pitch...and if you'd like to spread the word, I certainly wouldn't mind that either.

Even though I talk about Superman an awful lot, I do have some other things in the wings. Of course, I'm always open to ideas, so if you have anything you'd like to see me tackle, let me know in the comment section.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Walking with Superman: Day 1

Since Superman's going to be walking for roughly the next year, I thought I'd walk right alongside him.

Metaphorically, of course. Who wants to spend time with that pretentious jerk?

So, every day for the next 365 days1, I'm going to play navigator to the Man of Steel. I'll pitch ideas of places to go and things to do that would be better than his current "walk along the road and condescend to people" itinerary.

So, here's my first pitch: Superman visits Graceland and tries on the great shades of Elvis. While he's there, the most fearsome super-terrorists in Tennnessee, the Kings of Rock, mount an attack! Can Superman keep Jailhouse, Burnin' Love, Crazy Arms, Little Sister, and the King from destroying a big hunk o' Memphis?

1. Really? We'll see about that.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I'm fairly surprised this hasn't happened yet

Hey, you know who time-traveling superhero from the future with powers derived from a hi-tech bodysuit Booster Gold should meet/team up with?
Kristin Wells.

You know, Kristin Wells, the time-traveling superheroine from the future with powers derived from a hi-tech bodysuit? 29th Century Kristin Wells? Superwoman Kristin Wells?

Yeah, I know that recent years have introduced not only a new Superwoman but also a new Kristin Wells, both in contemporary times, but it's not like "Kristin Wells" is a super-uncommon name, nor would "Superwoman" be a super-uncommon idea in the DCU. Plus, you know, time travel and eight hundred years of difference are involved.

Having a history teacher with a history of time travel and superheroics would be, I'd think, a nice boon to the Time Masters. She'd make an interesting counterpoint to Rip Hunter, as someone who's more concerned with the historical aspects of the timestream rather than the temporal ones. I think she'd also make a nice love interest.

The one danger, I suppose, is that she'd be a superficially similar character to Booster's sister. That danger is really only in that she's a girl from the future with a suit that gives her superpowers, and if that were enough to keep characters out of the cast, they wouldn't have introduced the new Supernova.

So, Messrs. Giffen and DeMatteis, I think it's well beyond time to bring back one of Elliot S! Maggin's best ideas, and to add a little new blood to the Time Masters family. Feel free to get right on that.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Superman Sunday: Origins (Part 7)

Hey, happy Superman! Gosh, I miss that.It's pretty common knowledge at this point that a lot of what we generally recognize as the Superman mythos originated in the "Adventures of Superman" radio program. One of the generally-uncredited writers for that program was a young man named George Lowther. In 1942, Lowther took his radio writing experiences to prose, writing The Adventures of Superman novel.

The 1995 printing of the book contained a nice introduction by Roger Stern, which, while not entirely accurate on all the minutiae, was a nice source of information on Lowther, the novel, and their significance to Superman's history. Rather than paraphrase, I'll let him explain it to you himself:
There are many firsts associated with this book. With its publication, Superman became the first comic-book character to have an original adventure told as a prose novel. Also, George Lowther became the first writer other than Jerry Siegel to receive a credit for writing Superman. (p. xvi)

It's not entirely accurate--Seymour Kneitel, Isidore Sparber, Bill Turner, Ted Pierce, Carl Meyer, Dan Gordon, and Jay Morton all received "Story" credits on the Fleischer "Superman" cartoons--but it gives a clear picture of how early on this contribution was. Judging by the titles of the "Adventures of Superman" radio episodes I can't track down, Lowther probably wrote the second version of the origin on that series, since the same titles are used for chapter titles in this book.

Up 'til now, the stories of the destruction of Krypton and Superman's upbringing have been kept largely separate. The comic books have focused almost exclusively on the latter (and that, only briefly); the comic strip almost completely omits the latter and fleshes out the former; the animated films glossed over both; and the radio program gave a full episode to the former while writing any "upbringing" out of the story entirely. Lowther's The Adventures of Superman would be the first incarnation of the Superman story to combine the two, and aside from the radio show retcon using the same material, would be the only such attempt until 1945. Later versions will overturn a lot of what Lowther establishes here, which makes it interesting for its brevity in addition to its novelty.

Isn't that the Electric Superman symbol?Additionally of note is that this novel is illustrated with several sketches and a few full-color pieces by Joe Shuster and his studio. The art is dynamic, even when unfinished, and really shows off Shuster's skill. It's clear to look at it how much later artists like Bruce Timm and Darwyn Cooke take from the clean, simplified style of the sketches, while the full-page illustrations look an awful lot like the artistic endeavors of later Superman artists like Wayne Boring (who was part of Shuster's studio) and Curt Swan.

So, let's begin:
The Great Hall of Krypton's magnificent Temple of Wisdom was a blaze of light. Countless chandeliers of purest crystal reflected the myriad lights into a dome of glass where they were shattered into a million fragments and fell dazzling over the Great Hall. (p. 3)

So begins the novel. Aside from "chandeliers," which I have a hard time imagining in any version of Krypton, I think it's interesting that this book associates Krypton with crystals a good thirty-six years before the first "Superman" movie.

Below the brilliant dome the Council of One Hundred waited. Attired in togas of scarlet and blue, they looked impatiently for the arrival of Jor-el, Krypton's celebrated scientist. (p. 3-4)

I'm beginning to wonder if Mario Puzo and/or Richard Donner read this book, since that's the only other major place I've ever seen where Kryptonians typically dress in robes. Here, the robes are "scarlet and blue," foreshadowing Superman's eventual costume. Jor-el has an "e" in his name now, even if it's lowercase, and the "Council of One Hundred" suggests a much larger political body than we usually see on Krypton.

Lowther really plays up Jor-el's prestige as a scientist, stating that despite his reclusiveness, "when Jor-el spoke all men listened."1 This portrayal fluctuates over time, with Jor-el often being 'Krypton's foremost scientist', but he always seems to be treated as though he's a witless crank. There's an enduring message in that: no matter how much prestige and respect a scientist has, once he starts telling the people in power uncomfortable truths, they can dismiss him as a crackpot. Often to everyone's detriment.

Jor-el is described as tall and thin, with a handsome face that was nonetheless "drawn and haggard." That's an interesting contrast to his usual portrayal both before and after this story, where he's a square-jawed, barrel-chested lookalike of his son. He's wearing "the yellow and purple robes of his calling," presaging (and probably inspiring) the similar garb of Kryptonian astronauts Bar-El and Lilo in "All-Star Superman" #9.

Ro-zan, the white-haired supreme leader of the council, makes a return appearance. You may recall him from the radio origin.

Jor-el draws a breath to speak:
"Krypton is doomed!"
Had a thunderbolt crashed through the crystal dome of the Temple at that moment it could not have produced a more startling effect! (p.5)

Jor-el describes his long, difficult weeks of research, which have left him gaunt and prematurely aged. Several abnormal (and frankly, unlikely) disasters have plagued Krypton of late:
sudden showers of stars...have fallen upon our planet. Comets of great magnitude have appeared from nowhere, whirling dangerously close to Krypton...a monstrous tidal wave rose from the sea and roared toward our city. (p.7)

Somehow, all this leads Jor-el to realize that something is wrong. He and his research team can't figure out the exact cause, but it's clear that soon "the mighty Planet Krypton will burst into a million molten fragments!"

I don't know if this ever comes up again, but it makes perfect sense: Jor-el has a research team! Specifically, he speaks of the "learned men of science who work under [him]," which suggests that Jor-el isn't alone in recognizing the dangers plaguing the planet. That makes Jor-el's position far more believable (what scientist works completely alone?) and far more prescient. There's always been a lesson to learn in the story of Jor-el, of the danger of ignoring and scoffing at the warnings of scientists, but here Jor-el is no longer dismissable as a lone crackpot. Instead, you have to dismiss the converging work of his entire team, which requires a bit more willful ignorance.

Unfortunately, Jor-el's warnings come across as a little more raving than usual. I think his biggest problem was failing to identify a mechanism for the oncoming destruction; "I know what's going to happen, but I don't know why" is hardly compelling science. As you might expect, the council loudly and angrily dismissed his doomsaying, with some suggesting that he'd lost his mind or made a mistake, while the most charitable among them thought he was overworked and just needed some rest.

He pleads with Ro-zan to help convince the council, but even Ro-zan thinks he's unhinged. He asks Jor-el what they could do, even if his warnings were accurate. Jor-el says something a little unexpected:
"I have not come here with this tragic news," he said hastily, "without bringing with me a solution for it. You ask me where we can go? My answer is--to the Planet Earth!" (p. 9)

The council, Ro-zan included, laughs at the suggestion. Ro-zan explains in some interesting detail, underscoring again the notion that Kryptonians possess superpowers even on Krypton:
"How could we live there, Jor-el? You yourself--you who have studied the Earth for years through the great telescope--have told us how inferior to ourselves are the Earth People. They are thousands of years behind us in everything, mental and physical. Their cities are as nothing compared to the cities that have existed here on Krypton for centuries. Their minds are so far beneath the capacity of our own that actually, in comparison, they have no intellect at all! As for their bodies, you yourself have said that they are weaklings! It takes a hundred Earth People together to do what one man on Krypton can do alone! They have not the power to fly, but must walk at a snail's pace on the Earth's surface! They cannot breathe beneath the sea!"

Ro-zan shook his head slowly from side to side.

"Would you send us to live among such a people, Jor-el? Nay, I think not! Death is preferable to life in a world of such inferior people." (p. 10-11)

There's a lot to unpack here, including an interpretation of Krypton that seems timely for the era and surprising for any era. But first: Kryptonians can breathe underwater!

Seriously, Lowther has painted the Kryptonians as a puffed-up xenophobic master race, certain and secure not only in their superiority to humans, but also in their indestructibility as an empire. The idea of Kryptonians lording their superiority over the human race has been revisited time and again whenever Kryptonians other than Superman make their way to the planet, but rarely do we hear one declare that they'd rather die than live among humans--even if it were as their rulers. Ro-zan's rant here reeks of racist propaganda, and while the Kryptonians aren't simply space Nazis (no extermination program, for one thing), the association is pretty clear.

Ro-zan tells Jor-el not to return until he's regained his senses. Jor-el turns to leave, but then tells the Council of his plans to build a Space Ship, hoping to save the people of Krypton in spite of themselves. I like this aspect of Jor-el's character; it shows the same conviction and strong moral character that his son would eventually display.

Not a word was spoken as Jor-el turned and moved slowly out of sight through the high arched doorway--a tragic, beaten figure. (p. 12)

Thus ends Chapter I. Chapter II begins with a look at Jor-el's model Space Ship, "a long silver rocket," as he works intently in his lab. Lara (with an "a") enters, holding their infant child, and waits for Jor-el to notice her. Jor-el tells her that her warnings were right, the Council refused to believe him, but he still intends to finish the Space Ship, hoping to save all of them. He just has to finish the model first.

Lara changes the subject:
"Little Kal-el has been strangely restless these past few days," she said. "He has scarcely slept at all. Jor-el, do you think he feels the approach of this thing you have foretold?"

"It may be," said Jor-el. "He has always been sensitive to the elements."

The scientist continued his work, his thin hands moving swiftly and surely over the intricate mechanism of the model Space Ship. Lara sat and watched, rocking the child in her arms. (p. 14)

That's our first mention of Kal-el in the novel. It'll be interesting to see if the "sensitive to the elements" thing plays out at all. At this point, I believe Superman had displayed some super-sensory powers, so it may be a little foreshadowing at that.

Jor-el works diligently, having nearly finished the model Space Ship, until a tremor sets the room rocking and cracking at the seams. Great cracks in the ground spew fire into the air, and Jor-el realizes that his time is up.
In seconds, night was turned into flaming day. Across the sky, countless comets whirled screaming through brilliant space. The stars began to fall, showering upon Krypton a rain of liquid fire. Asteroids of every color careened across the heavens. Lights of every size and hue, dazzling and eye-searing, scattered over Krypton.

I'm pretty sure those are Kirby Dots coming out of the engine.Jor-el calmly observes the chaos, running through plans in his head. He realizes that he cannot save the people of Krypton, nor can he spare himself or Lara, but the model Space Ship would hold Kal-el. He installs the last part, and "as he worked, Lara stood with the child in her arms, gazing out at a crumbling world." There's a tragic, silent poignancy to Lara's conduct here. Her last word, just after Jor-el tells her there is hope for Kal-el, is her husband's name. She doesn't speak again, but hands Kal-el to him silently. Jor-el places the whimpering child into the model ship, seals the door, and pulls the lever. Then, the couple waits, until finally the ship launches.

Interestingly, we get no description of Krypton's explosion. Though the planet has clearly reached its doom, the chapter closes on the hopeful flight of the silver rocket.

And that seems as good a place as any to close this post. Next week, we'll see the rocket reach its destination, and what happens thereafter.

1. Appatently this book was written during the war's comma rationing effort.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List

Friday, July 16, 2010

Superman Visits the Vega System

DC's Superman family solicitations came out today, including an upcoming issue of J. Michael Straczynski's "Superman."
In a very special issue of 'Superman'...SUPERMAN #704
1:10 Variant cover by GEOF DARROW
J. Michael Straczynski's "Grounded" storyline, which has made headlines in USA TODAY, THE NEW YORK TIMES and ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, continues right here as Superman visits the Chicago area! In this issue, Superman discovers that there is a darkness even more immense than outer space: the darkness of the human heart turned against itself.
Retailers please note: This issue will ship with two covers. Please see the Previews Order Form for more information.
On sale OCTOBER 13 * 32 pg, FC $2.99 US

I thought it looked interesting, reminiscent of a two-parter from several years ago, where Superman confronts an abusive husband (which, itself, was inspired by a scene from "Action Comics" #1). But something about it still seemed familiar, and I couldn't quite place it...

...Oh, right!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I think I'll just gouge my brain out, thanks.

Oh boy, "Superman" #701.

Can I just take a moment to remind everyone that I haven't missed a regular issue of Superman since 1992? I've been through a lot of great Superman comics, and a lot of terrible ones. I own every issue of Chuck Austen's mercifully brief run. I own first printings of "For Tomorrow." Joe Casey's infamous "Superman's a pacifist" run sits, polybagged, in one of my long boxes. I have every "Our Worlds At War" tie-in issue.

But holy crap, I'm barely halfway through this issue and it's already trying my patience.

Really, the only way to tackle this is with a bulleted list. So I'm going to turn right back to page one and break this down for you.
  • Frankly, I don't have much problem with the first two pages. It feels like a scene that would fit better in Smallville than Philadelphia, but I've never been to Philly and think of it as a fairly big place. I could be wrong. Then again, apparently J. Michael Straczynski has never been to Philly either, and didn't feel bothered to do basic research like "local terminology" or "where things are in town."

  • Sorry guys, I just don't have the heart to do alt text jokes for all this crap.Apparently Superman is working on behalf of the Bureau of Silly Walks. Seriously, is he goose-stepping?

  • The word "smug" keeps getting thrown around on Twitter, and I can see why. I've never seen Superman act so douchey, and I've seen him take over the world.

  • Seriously, this isn't Superman. It's not a Superman jawline, it's barely a Superman haircut, and it's certainly not a Superman expression. Is this Ray Romano as Superman?

  • Oh hey, you know what this comic needed? A thinly-veiled and totally timely Michael Moore pastiche!

  • Yeah, Superman doesn't lie. Except when he's protecting his secret identity, in which case he lies freely. Also, it's nice to see that Straczynski is a "House" fan!

  • One reason that I'm not a humorist is that I tend not to know when to stop things, which is a key component of good humor. Case in point: this exchange. It would have been funny with just the Mooresatz's comment, but the "Nope" from some faceless silhouette totally kills the joke.

  • I get what Superman is saying here, but it's a really clunky way of saying it. "I'm covering me the length of the trip?" At the very least, the word "for" belongs in there, but I think Superman would end up slipping into third person here for clarity. Because he's, you know, a reporter. Someone who writes for a living. And thus must be pretty good with words.

  • I was almost with the issue up until this panel. I probably would have given the rest more or less a pass, but this panel got me to start writing this post. I'm sorry, I don't care that he's been away for a year, I don't care that her father killed his homeworld, I don't care that he's probably going through some serious PTSD, Superman doesn't sigh at Lois. Especially not when she's come from Metropolis to Philadelphia to track him down after he left with no apparent explanation, especially not when she's asking reasonable questions. Yes, I can understand that he's been asked those questions by lots of people at this point, but none of those people was his wife. A reporter is asking those questions to fill out the details of a story, to find an angle or an explanation. Lois is asking those questions because she's worried about the man she loves. Superman's sigh is simply inexcusable.

  • Lampshade hung, but so far I'm agreeing with the frustrated reporter.

  • The page in the diner actually reminds me of something I thought about mentioning during my much more optimistic initial appraisal of the concept. Waaaaay back after the "Death of Clark Kent" storyline, Superman considered giving up the Clark Kent identity altogether. To prove what a dumb idea that was, Lois and Clark stop at a small-town Cafe. Lois gives him a few dollars (he doesn't have much room for money in that skintight outfit, after all) and challenges him to go in and order coffee, as Superman. It's a great scene, where some people react with shock, the police officers ask him if there's some crisis going on, and the timid waitress just hopes the coffee lives up to his expectation. Also, Superman orders black decaf, which is just such a perfect Clark Kent detail. It's a good issue with Karl Kesel scripting and art by the always-awesome Stuart Immonen; if you get a chance to track it down (Adventures of Superman #525), I recommend it. It's certainly better than this dreck.

  • All that being said, his lack of cash and cleaning the storeroom ring pretty true, and make for a fairly genuine moment.

  • People have complained about the term "Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich," but I don't know enough to know how wrong it is. Except that I've never seen "cheesesteak" as two words.

  • Somehow, I doubt that this guy has ever actually seen "Project Runway," and I have the feeling the writer threw it in as more of a buzzword to show he's down with the kids than anything actually having to do with fashion. I've never seen "Project Runway" either, mind you, I much prefer "What Not to Wear."

  • Yeah, this guy's pretty much Mayor McWrong of Wrongington. Last I checked, vigilantism was illegal, and Superman isn't an officer of the law.

  • I'm not entirely sure how I feel about Superman's smirk here. I don't actually have a problem with Superman smirking and being a little flip with the criminals, taking them down a peg, but something about the dialogue still just doesn't quite gel.

  • Boy, that's a convenient kid. It's like (s)he came out of nowhere to set Superman up for a faux-profound, moderately obtuse, pronoun-laden speech about how he's chosen Philadelphia to watch from now on.

  • Hey, Superman, you know what might be good to do here? Maybe take the guy to the hospital. I mean, just leaving him to call his doctor when he's apparently having some kind of heart attack, and flying off apparently as fast as possible so you can start walking again is kind of a giant douchebag unSupermanlike move.

  • Okay, the jumper scene is pretty good. It feels like a Superman scene. Except I have a hard time believing that the generally apolitical Superman would wish aloud that Fidel Castro were dead. And John Lennon? Really? This sounds like really lame author insertion; Straczynski is using Superman as a mouthpiece for Straczynski's views, and that's a pretty serious problem.

  • Superman, I think there might have been a less destructive, less expensive way to handle that. Like, say, using the switch, or asking someone to turn it off. Maybe you can clean the police storeroom to pay for it.

  • Again, this sounds like author insertion. Especially since I have a hard time accepting Superman taking a position on euthanasia, and since his father-in-law committed suicide last month. Granted, not the same story, but still probably the greater recent impact. Then again, he's talking to a girl who feels suicidal because she's lost "everything." Maybe it would be a good opportunity for Superman to talk a little about what he's lost recently. Once again, this is a story told in a vacuum, refusing to acknowledge even the most proximal of recent events, no matter how well they might fit into the narrative.

  • Wow. I mean, just wow. I can't remember the last time I read dialogue that pretentious. I mean, holy crap.

  • And that's twice in the book--at least!--that Superman has done the "bend over and rub his chin" thing in this issue. It doesn't make him look thoughtful, it makes him look like a pretentious ass who just declared his English major and is thinking about growing a beard and spending more time in coffee shops. I realize he's mocking the jogger here, but he wasn't when he was talking to the heart attack guy. Incidentally, the gang leader did the same thing. I wonder if this is a quirk of JMS's scripts or if Barrows really just likes to draw people holding their chins.

  • And that's pretty much the end.

Hoo boy, that's just...hard to read. And I think the worst part of it is how wasted it is. Aside from some throwaway references, there's nothing to mark this as a story about Philadelphia. At the very least, I would think that maybe the various vignettes would revolve around a theme like "brotherly love," something that characterizes the place, even if it's more cliché than authentic ambiance. Why bother setting these stories in real towns if the most you're going to do with it is name drop some local food and streets?

Then again, why bother setting these stories in real towns if you're not going to bother to do thirty seconds of research on Google Maps to find out which side of town the 500 block of S 48th Street is on? There are times when you can chalk things like that up to poetic license, but when the mistake is that easy to correct, and when such a big deal has been made about Superman going to real places, that kind of thing is simply inexcusable.

More inexcusable, though, is taking a character like Superman, who shouldn't be that difficult to write, and turning him into a pretentious author avatar. I'm having a hard time remembering a mainstream Superman comic where he was this far out of character.

There are some good ideas here, and some genuine moments. Even some of the basic concept--Superman helping normal people in normal towns--is worthwhile. But the execution is terrible, terrible, terrible all around, and there's not one scene in this issue that I could recommend without reservation.

I'm in with Superman for the long haul. I've stuck through his series through thick and thin, and while I'm not a completist on anything else, I'm too far in the tank to give up now. But man, if this is any indication, the next year is going to be frigging brutal.

At least there's still Action Comics.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Dear Asian Spammers

Look, fellas, I understand that you want to make your mark. I understand that there's a cultural divide, and your intricate characters may disguise any number of profound messages that are simply lost on an American who's never studied a non-Romantic language. And I really appreciate the effort you've made to bridge that language gap with pithy English phrases that might fill a particularly brief fortune cookie note.

But I really have to ask: what is your deal? What do you hope to accomplish? What is your goal in leaving a bunch of unintelligible characters followed by a long string of URL-periods in the comment section? Your comments never stick around here for more than a few hours, and I can pretty much guarantee that no one clicks on the links, so what's your purpose? Why waste the energy and effort? Even if it's all done by bots, someone has to spend time programming those bots. What do you hope to gain in marking your territory across the blogohedron? Where's the payoff? I get the people who e-mail me about Apache Chief-ing my genitals and selling me cheap imported Miraclo, they're trying to sell something using the Internet's equivalent of junk mail. I even get the English-language comment spam that tries to be just vague enough that you'll click the name and end up at some sinister website. But spam in a foreign language that, thanks to the string of URL-periods, is obviously spam? That I just don't get. It seems like the goal of spam has been, for many years, to sneak under the radar and disguise its spamminess, using subject headers like "Re: your letter" and so forth. Why post such obvious, ostentatious spam? Is it a graffiti/status thing? If so, isn't that kind of lame, when you could be using actual skill to actually tag something in the actual world, where a bot can't do it for you?

I'm trying to open up a dialogue here, Asian Spammers. I'd really like to understand your motivations. Feel free to post your comments here; I'll make sure to keep them for posterity.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Superman Sunday: Origins (Part 6)

That might be the first Superman logo with a rounded 'u'. God I'm a dork.This week, we take another foray into a new medium, as Superman makes the jump from radio to film. For the very first time, you will believe a man can move!

As with our last installment, the "origin" bit of Fleischer Studios' first animated Superman film is pretty brief. In future installments, this is going to become a bit of an issue, since some versions (like "Smallville" and "Lois & Clark") spread the facts and details of Superman's origin across many different episodes. I'll take those as they come, but the "review of the whole episode, including the non-origin bits" is probably going to be a rarity after this post. This episode of "Superman" contains one of my very favorite Superman images of all time, so I'm going to go through the whole thing, because it gives me an excuse to post that image.

We might as well start with the opening sequence, not technically part of the origin story, but interesting in how it changes over time. Superman is drawn as a blur of colorful lines streaking across the screen, as the familiar onlooker introduction occurs:
Up in the sky, look! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!

My research has suggested that the Fleischer intro recording eventually becomes the one used in the radio program, combined with the later description of powers. Ultimately, the intro used will be the one from later Fleischer cartoons, as here it's quite out of order.

An upbeat theme song follows, originating the basic rule that all good Superman theme songs since have followed: you should be able to sing the word "Superman" to it. You'll hear it as we go through the decades, but I know I've heard people (Bruce Timm, maybe?) talking about it before. All the great Superman theme songs, from Sammy Timberg's here to John Williams to Andrea Romano, have had some three-"syllable" bit where the word "Superman" would fit, if there were lyrics.

The Green Green Grass and Seas of Home.A bit of omniscient narration fills us in on the basics of the backstory:
In the endless reaches of the universe, there once existed a planet known as Krypton, a planet that burned like a green star in the distant heavens."

"Endless reaches of the universe" is the kind of poetic language you might expect to hear from Carl Sagan1, a little purple science fiction prose. The "burned like a green star" bit is lifted directly from the radio program, but our glimpse of Krypton here is the first time that it's actually been colored green. The globe's only appearance in the comic books thus far has rendered it kind of pinkish.
There, civilization was far advanced, and it brought forth a race of supermen, whose mental and physical powers were developed to the absolute peak of human perfection.

So the origin story has changed little at this point. Krypton remains a world where everyone is super-powered, at least compared to Earth-humans. It also suggests that Kryptonians are, in fact, human (something which has been pretty consistent throughout the origins so far), which may be biologically unlikely but endured as a trope for quite some time. While modern science fiction trends tend toward developing increasingly inhumanoid alien races, there's a streak of early sci-fi which just kind of assumes that there are humans on other worlds as well. The most prominent such universe (now) is in Star Wars, where just-plain-humans populate a variety of worlds, like Corellia and Coruscant. I'm sure there have been justifications for that in expanded universe stuff, just as Star Trek has (at least once) suggested that the humanoid body plan is so common in the cosmos due to seeding by older races. I haven't read enough of the rocket-and-raygun era of sci-fi to know why (or really, if) the "humans are everywhere" trope at least seemed so common, but it does provide some easy answers to later questions about Superman, like why he looks so much like a human and whether or not he and Lois would be able to procreate.

There's another first here, which has carried on to several comic book portrayals of Krypton, and that's drawing the world with a number of geometric lines criscrossing its surface. I've never been entirely clear what these lines are supposed to represent, but I suspect they may be based on the mistaken observation of similar-looking canals on Mars. The idea had begun to be discredited as early as 1909, but persisted in science fiction until long after these Superman cartoons.
But there came a day when giant quakes threatened to destroy Krypton forever. One of the planet's leading scientists, sensing the approach of doom, placed his infant son in a small rocketship and sent it hurtling in the direction of the Earth, just as Krypton exploded! The rocketship sped through star-studded space, landing safely on Earth with its precious burden, Krypton's sole survivor.

Pretty conventional at this point. The destruction of Krypton isn't particularly spectacular. Seriously, look at all that hatching.
A passing motorist found the uninjured child and took it to an orphanage.

But man, that is one well-drawn orphanage. There are two things to note, here: first, despite using the radio program's language and lead voice actor, this animated serial completely discards the radio version of Superman's origin, which seems a wise move. Knowing how comic books tend to adopt details from multimedia versions of the characters, if this had stuck with the radio origin, the Superman mythos might be wildly different.

Also, it's worth noting that the passing motorist has made a surprising return to the mythos! I suspect that the only reason the "passing motorist" hasn't achieved a position in the Superman mythos similar to the burglar's in Spider-Man or the gunman's in Batman is that he's been entirely supplanted by the Kents. Otherwise, he might have gotten a name like Joe Chill or a similarly-dressed nephew like Spidey's burglar.
As the years went by and the child grew to maturity, he found himself possessed of amazing physical powers.

I'm glad the modern versions of the origin keep coming back to this idea that Clark developed his powers as he grew, rather than sticking with the insane Silver Age notion that two elderly people could successfully raise a nigh-omnipotent child without anyone noticing. The age at which these powers started developing has been creeping steadily backward since 1986, but so far it's still within some degree of reason.

And so we come to the familiar display of said powers:
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!

The appropriate sound effects are inserted here for the first time, along with the appropriate footage. I've always been a little perplexed by that image of Superman jumping over the building. Why is this huge skyscraper out in the middle of nowhere? There's clearly a city in the background, but those buildings are nowhere near this lone skyscraper. Does it have the world's largest parking lot? Is it an example of 1930s urban sprawl? Is Superman demonstrating his powers in Central City? Inquiring minds want to know!

The infant of Krypton is now the Man of Steel: Superman!

"The infant of Krypton" is, fortunately, not a moniker that stuck with the character.
And who, disguised as mild-mannered gangster Arms Akimbo...

To best be in a position to use his amazing powers in a never-ending battle for true justice, Superman has assumed disguise of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.

I'm not sure about the "true justice" part, it could be "truth justice," given the ungrammatical nature of some of the rest of the sentence. Either way, it doesn't sound quite right without "and the American Way" after it.

Honestly, this is pretty tame compared to what you usually see in newspaper letters pages.Mr. White, Managing Editor for...well, some great metropolitan newspaper, anyway, calls Clark and Lois in about a note from a mad scientist. As is often the case with letters to the editor, the author threatenes to attack his detractors at midnight with an "Electrothanasia-Ray." Electrothanasia-Ray, of course, literally means "electric death ray," but sounds so much retro-cooler that I'm quite shocked never to have seen it in a Grant Morrison comic.

Mr. White utters the most commonly-heard phrase when dealing with newspaper letter writers, "This nut may prove dangerous," then sends Clark and Lois to follow up on a lead. Lois, because Lois Lane hasn't changed in seventy years, goes off on her own instead. She does her best Carol Ferris impression flying an airplane (!) off into the distance. We fade to the mad scientist, waiting impatiently for midnight in his obviously evil mountaintop laboratory with a purple vulture and the most uncomfortable chair ever devised.

He activates his Electrothanasia-Ray (which looks suspiciously like Spongebob Squarepants's house) but shuts it down when an airplane approaches.

She's not just a pilot, she also tricked out the plane with the first VTOL capability.Now, I don't know much about pre-WWII-era aircraft, but there doesn't appear to be a whole lot of landing space there next to the laboratory. Lois must be a pretty fantastic pilot. What a polymath, that woman. Of course, the scientist instantly kidnaps her and ties her to a chair, then fires his death ray at a suspension bridge.

All this time, Clark Kent has apparently just been sitting at his desk, waiting. when the radio report of the mad scientist's midnight threat came across the speakers. Hearing about the destruction secondhand, Clark decides that it might be a job for Superman. Gee, Clark, maybe the threatening note that said when the mad scientist would strike should have tipped you off to that idea. And didn't you become a newspaper reporter so you could stay on top of the news as it happened? Why are you letting radio reporters scoop you? Ah, Golden Age Superdickery.

Clark leisurely changes in the stock room, then flies out a nearby window. The animation, I have to say, is very nice and fluid, even if the style is a little inconsistent (shifting between more realistic and more Looney Tunes-ish character designs).

In Metropolis, all the skyscrapers are made out of superball material, for just this reason.While Superman flies off, the mad scientist dials his device in on the skyscraper home of that great metropolitan newspaper, which starts it falling. Superman speeds back to stop it, though I have to imagine that if a building is bending like this one, it's suffered a lot more structural damage than could be saved by pushing and pulling it back to an upright position.

Having righted the building, Superman heads down to its foundation and interrupts the beam. The lurid colors and the style of the beam in this scene are just fantastic. Superman pushes against the ray, flying up along its length. At some point, though, just pressing forward isn't enough, so Superman starts punching the Electrothanasia-Ray.
Who even thinks to punch an energy beam?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of my favorite Superman scenes ever.

Superman finally comes to the Laser Floyd show.The mad scientist ramps up the power, which sends Superman tumbling, but if there's one thing Superman is good at, it's punching things. Eventually he reaches the barrel, ties it in a knot, and sets the whole lab exploding. Again, I have to comment on the colors here, because they're fantastic. All the light effects and bright flashes really add vibrance and movement to the scenes, and make even simple frames, like this one of Superman just standing, look impressive and iconic.

He does this pretty often; I don't know why Kyle Rayner was so surprised.Superman grabs both Lois and the scientist and flies them to safety. He unceremoniously tosses the mad scientist into a prison cell, and Lois gets to file her front-page story...thanks to Superman. Clark looks to the camera and gives a knowing wink, setting the stage for roughly 83,000 years of the same.

It's a short little film to be sure, with an even shorter time spent on Superman's origin, but between the smoothly rotoscoped Fleischer animation, that Morrisonian Super-wink, and Superman punching a death ray, I'd say that this gives you just about everything you need to know. It may be awhile before this little blog series sees anything as fun as the Electrothanasia-Ray, and Superman comics could benefit quite a bit from more of the titular character punching death rays, but that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of entertainment in the near future. For instance, next week we'll see Superman enter the world of prose fiction for the first time2.

1. In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan said that he read the adventures of Zatara as a child. Since Zatara's stories tended to appear in Action Comics (debuting alongside Superman's in the first issue) it's certainly likely that he read Superman as well. Given the character's popularity and the Fleischer films' longevity, it's certainly possible that this kind of flowery language influenced Sagan. Or not.

2. Assuming we ignore the prose short stories that have appeared occasionally in the Superman comic.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List