Monday, May 31, 2010

As long as they're still making video game movies

The galaxy is at war. The valiant starships of the Earth Alliance struggle against their ruthless enemies, but every day more of their number fall to the alien fleet. Veera Ryder, Earth's most decorated commander, leads an elite team on a daring mission behind enemy lines, hoping to turn the tide in Earth's favor.

But something goes terribly, terribly wrong.

Now, Veera must lead her team back to Earthspace, fighting the endless waves of aliens along the way. But how do you defeat an enemy who can take control of your allies and turn them against you? When friend becomes foe, it will be Veera Ryder, alone, against The Galaga.

Superman Sunday Origins: The Master List

I've been using the preliminary list I made on this post as a kind of master list for the Superman Sunday posts. Since then, I've discovered a few more entries, and so it's time for an update. I'm going to use this post as both a master list for the origins I'm aware of, and as a linkfarm for the posts themselves. As I discover new origins, I'll add them here.

  • Action Comics #1 (1938): Part 1
  • Superman Daily Comic Strips #1-12 (1939): Part 2
  • Superman #1 (1939): Part 3
  • "The Adventures of Superman" Radio Program "The Baby from Krypton"/"Clark Kent, Reporter" (1940): Part 4 & Part 5
  • "Superman" Fleischer Animated Serial Episode 1 (1941): Part 6
  • The Adventures of Superman novel by George Lowther (1942)1: Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, & Part 10
  • "The Adventures of Superman" Radio Program "Superman Comes to Earth"/"Eben Kent Dies in a Fire" (1942)
  • More Fun Comics #101 (1945)
  • "The Adventures of Superman" Radio Program "The Meteor of Kryptonite" (1945)
  • "Superman" Live-Action Serial (1948)
  • Superman #53 (1948)
  • Superman #61 (1949)
  • Action Comics #158 (1951)
  • "Adventures of Superman" Live-Action Television Series (1952)
  • Superman #146 (1961)
  • "Superman" Motion Picture (1978)
  • Superman: Last Son of Krypton novel by Elliot S! Maggin (1978)
  • World of Krypton #1-3 (1979)
  • Action Comics #500 (1979)
  • History of the DC Universe #1-2 (1986)
  • The Man of Steel #1-6 (1986)
  • "Superman" Animated Series (1987)
  • The World of Krypton (vol. 2) #1-4 (1987)
  • The World of Smallville #1-4 (1988)
  • The World of Metropolis #1-4 (1988)
  • "Superboy" Live-Action TV Series (1988)
  • "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" Live-Action Television Series (1993)
  • Superman #0 issues (1994)
  • "Superman" Animated Series (1996)
  • Superman: For All Seasons #1-4 (1998)
  • Superman: Peace on Earth (1999)
  • "Smallville" Live-Action TV Series (2001)
  • JLA: Secret Origins (2002)
  • Superman: Birthright #1-12 (2003)
  • It's Superman novel by Tom De Haven (2005)
  • All-Star Superman #1 (2005)
  • 52 History/Origin stories (2006)
  • Superman: Secret Origin #1-6 (2009)
I'll add more details as I come across them (such as which episodes of "Lois & Clark" and "Smallville" I'll be examining), and feel free to let me know if you find any origin stories I've overlooked. I'm especially interested in whether or not any of the omitted animated series tackle the story, since I'm not particularly well-versed in Super Friends or the other versions. Any insight is greatly appreciated.
1. This story also appears to be the same story as the radio two-parter from the same year, "Superman Comes to Earth"/"Eben Kent Dies in a Fire," which (as of May 2010) I have not been able to track down.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Winding down

It's been a whirlwind week or two. I've been swamped with work, I've been traveling, and I've just committed to a new apartment. That being said, things are finally coming to a close, and the summer will open up vast new vistas of time. "Superman Sundays" was a relatively ambitious project to start at this point in my job, and I'm going to use some of my free time this week to bank some posts on that front (there's some really interesting bits coming up, I promise!).

So, regular posting will resume soonly! In the meantime, d'ya think I should put my Twitter feed back in the sidebar? I removed it mostly because it runs a little more blue than I usually allow on this page. But if people are interested, I'll pop it back up there.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

One more delay

Sorry folks. Had a family emergency and a ton of work this weekend. Superman Sunday will return on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Da Fug?

I tried reading "Seaguy" again. I got from the first page to the last, for the second time, and I still have no idea what it's about. I feel like it's written in a foreign language that I haven't taken classes for in years; I can pick up a thought here or there, but it's mostly incomprehensible.

I want to like it, I really do. There's a lot of cool ideas in it, and I love Morrison and Stewart, but both of the times I've read it, I've felt utterly and completely lost. The best idea I can come up with is that Morrison is trying to provoke in the reader the confusion a new comic reader might have when picking up their first shared-universe comic, referencing plots and characters and events that you don't know about.

But even then, there's got to be more to it. I just really don't know what. I can't really follow the story, it appears to end really abruptly, and there's a tragic "The Prisoner" vibe I get from it that I can't fully appreciate because I don't understand it.

So, do you understand it, or is this an "Emperor's New Clothes" scenario, where everyone pretends to understand and love it because no one wants to look as stupid as I look right now?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Superman Sunday on Miracle Monday: Origins (Part 5)

By my reckoning, today's the third Monday in May, which means (according to the Elliot S! Maggin Superman novel Miracle Monday) it's Miracle Monday1. I'd hoped to have read that novel and prepared a review by today, but I've been swamped with work and complaining about Ryan Choi, and I'm still not quite finished with It's Superman, so instead I figured I'd give you the second part of Superman's radio origin. Brace yourself, folks: this is where things get weird.

The opening narration this time is different:
And now, Superman: eighth wonder of the modern world! Visitor from a distant planet whose strength knows no limits, whose endurance is beyond anything the world has ever known.

I love this sketch, and I really wish it had been made into a cover before the '90s."Eighth wonder of the modern world" feels like the kind of thing you'd read on an old circus or show poster. It's even a little reminiscent of the early Shuster sketch that inspired this cover. The narrator gives us a brief recap of the previous episode's cliffhanger:
We have seen how the child of Jor-L and Lara was placed in the rocketship and sent on his way to Earth.

Nice, succinct, though it might have been nice to get the child's birth name in addition to his parents' names. Naturally, this leads to the familiar scene of the rocket crash-landing in a field somewhere in America, and the child's discovery. But will it be a passing motorist in this version, or the elderly Kents? Take a look:
During the long journey of the rocketship to Earth, the child has become a man. The rocket landed in the desert. Superman stepped forth full-grown, to explore this strange new world in which he found himself.

Kal-L aged in the rocketship from infancy to adulthood? That's not Superman's origin, that's Lion-O's2. This is, obviously, a pretty radical departure from what was established in the comics and comic strip. Clark's boyhood may only have been introduced in "Superman" #1, but every origin up to this point has agreed that he arrived on Earth as a baby. This detail also calls into question whether the last episode actually intended Krypton to be a Counter-Earth world, since I doubt even at this point before the space race that they'd think a journey of 186 million miles would take 20-plus years. This is the first instance of a superhero comic book being adapted for another medium, and thus this is the first instance of superhero Adaptation Decay, setting the stage for everything from 'Holy Noun, Batman!' to 'Spider-Sentai'.

So, why the drastic change? I suspect it's a matter of budget and time. Recording the Superman origin from the comics would potentially require actors for young Clark, Ma & Pa, and at least one worker at the orphanage. They could do some more narration to cover the gap, I suppose, but instead they choose to jump right into the action. It's a show for kids, after all, and while the kids might be confused by how different this detail is from the comics they've been following (if they've been following the comics), they probably don't care much about the details of Superman's adoption. Still, it's certainly an oddity, it's certainly worth commenting on, and it'll certainly raise some questions later on.

And it's not the last oddity, either.

The story proper opens with Superman, "hovering with his curious power above a quiet highway in Indiana." So that's episode two, and we've left "leaping" behind. Say what you will about Adaptation Decay, folks, but it'll make you believe a man can fly.

Indiana may be an odd place to start from a modern perspective, but remember that Superman's home state has never been given at this point. Kansas hasn't even been mentioned, let alone "Smallville," and there's no indication of where Metropolis is located. This is, in fact, the first time Superman is explicitly placed in the Midwest--although a little further East than usual.

Superman watches as a trolley picks up the Professor and his son Jimmy (not Olsen), but the car begins to move without the driver. The doors are jammed shut, so Jimmy breaks a window, but they can't jump out because the car is going too fast. To make matters worse, a tree has fallen onto the track! Just in time, Superman arrives, tearing the roof off the trolley and grabbing the two passengers--"one under each arm." He flies them to safety, just before the trolley car crashes, and lands in a field.

After recovering from their fear, Jimmy asks some pertinent questions: "Who are you? Where do you come from." Superman responds, "I have no name. I come from a world that no longer exists. Here in this world of yours, men would call me a Superman."

It's fair to say that we don't know how long Superman has been on Earth at this point. There's an exploitable gap between 'arriving as a full-grown man' and 'saving the trolley riders,' during which he might have observed humans and learned the language and so forth. Still, how does he know his planet no longer exists? And if he knows that, why doesn't he know that his name is Kal-L?

Superman makes the duo promise to keep his existence a secret, not yet ready for the world to know about him. After they agree (one wonders what he'd do if they didn't!), he asks for some advice:
Superman: You know this world; I am a stranger. You know the people in it, and I have still to find them out.

Professor: You want to meet men, is that it?

"I know just the place."3
Superman: Not meet them, professor, observe them, study them, see them at their best and their worst.

"Ah, that might cost you extra."4
Know which to help, and when help is needed. If you could tell me that--

The professor thinks for a bit and suggests that the best place Superman could go to see what he wants to see is "a newspaper, a great metropolitan daily." Eventually, Superman decides to take this advice as literally as possible. The Professor suggests that he join their staff and be a reporter. This generally fits with the Golden Age justification for Superman's civilian career--in the earlier stories, he saw working at a newspaper as a way of keeping abreast of crime and trouble (because the newspaper would know of those things before anyone else--oh, how the times change). But Jimmy sees a glaring problem with that plan:
Oh, but you can't do it in those clothes, not that blue costume with the cloak and shield on your breast! Gee, you couldn't!

Though we might have guessed, this is our first indication that Superman is wearing his traditional costume. It's a brief description, and I suspect that the scriptwriters were banking on their audience being familiar with the costume already from the comic books, comic strips, and promotional campaign. In any case, this raises some further serious questions, namely where did the costume come from? Was he dressed in the costume when launched from Krypton? The Silver Age held that his costume's fabric was super-stretchy, so it fit him as well when he was Superman as it did when he was Superboy, but for the fabric to still fit him as a baby? And wouldn't that mean (in either case) that his cape was once much longer in proportion, because why would it stretch (and hold its shape)? Again, there's an unknown period of time between Kal-L's landing on Earth and rescuing the trolley, so I suppose he could have learned to sew and acquired fabrics for a costume in that span, but it's still odd. Wouldn't it be far easier to acquire normal clothes, then make a flamboyant costume? In any case, Superman explains that his primary-colored garb is the costume of Superman, and that he'd dress like a normal man if he became like one of them.

The Professor says that Superman will need some kind of a name, and asks what people call Superman. Superman says that he has no name, and I've got sudden déjà vu. The Professor apparently wasn't paying attention earlier when Jimmy asked that question and Superman gave basically the same answer. That's okay, he's just had a traumatic experience. He deserves a little slack. The scriptwriters, on the other hand...

Jimmy, ever the helpful sort, says this:
Well, how about 'Clark Kent'? That sounds all right.

Really. That's how Superman gets his name in this version. I remember reading "Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating Superman" years ago, thinking that it was ridiculous for having Clark pick his name from looking at a truck and a street sign, but this is worse. Why that name? Why was Jimmy able to supply it with so little hesitation? It'd be better even if they went with the real-life logic that produced his name: "How about Clark, like Clark Gable? And Kent, like Kent Taylor? 'Clark Kent'!" But for Jimmy to just have that name on the tip of his tongue is fairly odd.

The Professor says the name is "usual enough, won't attract attention." That's probably true, in-universe. Here on Earth-Prime, where Superman and Clark Kent are household names, I can't help but wonder how much the decreasing popularity of "Clark" as a first name has coincided with the popularity of Superman. It's kind of odd to be naming your kids after fictional characters, you know, and I suspect that's a lot of why you don't meet many Clarks, Bruces, or Lukes these days. Unfortunately, we don't have a "control" Earth where the characters never existed, so we could see what the popularity variations would be in their absence. Superman decides to follow their advice, to become a reporter by the name of Clark Kent (which, strangely, Superman says twice each time he says it). Having lingered too long, he bids the duo goodbye, then takes off.

I could end the post here, since it's really the end of the "origin" part of the story, but I might as well stick it out for the last six minutes. We're quickly introduced to Perry White for the first time ever (the newspaper editor in the comics is George Taylor), and he doesn't object to being called "Chief." He receives a phone tip about a railroad story, warning him specifically of a man called "The Wolfe," who will ultimately be one of the main villains for this arc. Perry's secretary, Miss Smith (no Betty Brant, but she'll do) informs him that there's a man still waiting for an interview, and Perry realizes he doesn't have anyone available to take the railroad story. He tells Miss Smith to send the man in, and we get our first auditory glimpse at Clark Kent.

While Bud Collyer's characteristic inflection and accent is present, he's raised the pitch of his voice and softened it significantly to portray Clark, which would become a pretty standard tactic for future portrayals of the Man of Steel. Collyer played Superman for decades, on radio, animated movie serials, and television, so it's not surprising that he set the bar. Collyer walks the careful line between making the voices distinct and making it clear that they're the same person; it's really quite impressive.

In any case, Kent runs into an unsurprising problem: he has no experience whatsoever. I'm glad they addressed this, because anything else would have been a pretty big stretch of the old disbelief suspenders. Perry doesn't have time or patience for rookies, so Clark plays the only trump card he has: offering to bring in a big story, specifically about The Wolfe. This is the first indication in the radio show that Superman's senses might be more acute than a human's, though the comics described his "sensitive ears" over a year ago5, making super-hearing one of the first new powers Superman would gain over the decades.

Clark plays coy with the story--likely because he only knows as much about it as Perry does, since he heard the same phone call--but Perry takes the bait and describes the situation: The Wolfe has sent threats to "tie up every railroad in the country"--threats which went unheeded until one train went off a bridge. The warnings are being kept secret until they've been thoroughly investigated. With impeccable timing, The Wolfe chooses that moment to call in, warning Perry that the Silver Clipper will not make it from Denver to Salt Lake City.

Clark is really terrible with his secret identity here, tipping his hand to Perry that he could hear what the voice on the other end of the phone was saying. Perry finds it odd at first, but mostly brushes it off so he can take a chance on Clark and send him on the story.

Miss Smith takes Clark around the building, ultimately leading him to the anteroom to the cashier's office, so she can get him an advance for a plane ticket. When she leaves, Clark goes out the window, twenty stories up. Miss Smith returns and panics, realizing that Clark has jumped out. Clark's taking a very cavalier attitude toward his secret identity, and I suspect that this won't be the case for very long in the radio program (we already know it's not the case in other media).

So ultimately, a fairly conventional ending to what started (or more accurately, middled) as a very unconventional version of the Superman origin. The drastic changes deal only with the sort of thing that needn't be mentioned ever again, and that's about the same time I think we'll hear about Jimmy and the Professor. The end scene, where Clark gets a job by pitching a story that no one else could get, shows up frequently in these origin stories (although usually the story involves an interview with Superman). This whole segment is particularly interesting because of what's been left out. I mentioned the Kents (and any childhood) earlier, but more significant, I think is that there's no Lois Lane. Four new characters are introduced, two of whom will likely never show up again, and yet the one major mainstay is nowhere to be found. She'll turn up eventually, it's just interesting that the scriptwriters left her out of this "introduce the main characters" episode. There may have been behind-the-scenes reasons for this, since there was apparently some difficulty in nailing down an actress for the part of Lois.

It's a good pair of episodes, especially the Krypton segment, and it's the strength and intriguing interpretations of these early programs that got me hooked on the "Adventures of Superman" radio program when I first started listening to it a couple of years ago. The cast is top-notch, especially Collyer, and I highly recommend taking a listen to further episodes. I'd especially like to track down some of the ones that aren't in the commonly-available sources, especially the first appearance of Kryptonite and the revamped origin story from a few years down the road.

As a final point, since I didn't know it in time for the last post, it's worth mentioning that even though this origin didn't have Lois, it did have a Lane. Lara was portrayed by veteran actress Agnes Moorehead, famous now for her roles in Citizen Kane and Bewitched, but at the time this was recorded, her most notable role was Margot Lane, confidante to The Shadow. I have read that Margot Lane was a major influence in the development of Lois's character, right down to the surname, but not only can I not find a reference for it, but it seems unlikely given the account of her creation in Les Daniels' Superman: The Golden Age. I'll amend this if I can find a source, otherwise it remains an interesting curiosity.

1. Also notable: Tomorrow is the 71st anniversary of the release date of "Superman" #1.

2.Interestingly, there's a lot of Superman in "ThunderCats," largely because I think both were particularly influenced by Judaism. While Superman can be seen as the story of Moses's birth--the child set adrift to be raised by outsiders, who would become a great hero--the ThunderCats story is the other side of the Moses tale: the Exodus and journey to the Promised Land. Jaga plays the role of Moses (most of the time) in the latter, appointing the new leader and guiding his people safely to their new home, but dying before they arrive. There's an incredibly geeky dissertation in this, I think.

3. Sorry, I just couldn't resist.

4. I have no willpower.

5. In "Action Comics" #8, cover-dated January, 1939, which means it was probably released in November, 1938.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Superman Sunday: Origins (Part 4)

"Boys and girls, your attention please. Presenting a new exciting radio program featuring the thrilling adventures of an amazing and incredible personality!"

With that brief introduction on February 12, 1940, Superman made his way off of the page and onto the airwaves, taking the first small steps into a multimedia empire that would span decades (so far). I think it's fairly common knowledge that a lot of the Superman mythos started with the radio program--everything from Kryptonite to the Daily Planet to "Look! Up in the sky!"--and made its way into the comics later. It's a process that continues to this day, as comics incorporate characters and details from other media into the print continuity1, generally reflecting either the actual greater visibility and popularity of non-comic media, or the comic writers' perception that that's the case.

What's less common knowledge, I think, is that such elements weren't in place from the start. There's some incredible adaptation decay involved here, which never quite made the leap from broadcast to print--and that's probably for the best.

But the first episode contains a version of the destruction of Krypton that could easily be taken straight from a modern portrayal. Give it a listen:

Frankly, I'm not entirely sure how to go about describing this show, since there's no convenient way to reference discreet bits like panels or even scenes. I think I'm just going to listen through and write up what seems significant. I'll also take a moment to say that I imagine the posts will tend to get either longer or less in-depth as time goes on, since the origin stories get longer as time goes on. Sure, these early years, even up through the Kirk Alyn serial and the '50s comics, have stories that are confined to relatively short time periods and page counts. But 1978 brings a 45-minute origin story; 1996's is nearly 90 minutes, and by 2003 we have 12 full issues to contend with. I'm not made of blogging.

The first significant portion is the introductory narration.
Faster than an airplane! More powerful than a locomotive! Impervious to bullets!
"Up in the sky, look!"
"It's a bird!"
"It's a plane!"
"It's Superman!"

And now, Superman.

It's clearly the rough draft of the opening that we're all used to from the cartoons and TV shows, which is so frequently referenced in pop culture that I suspect most people can rattle large parts of it off the top of their heads, even if they've never seen a Superman show before. Hearing it this first time, the same but subtly different, is a lot like reading the original U.S. Pledge of Allegiance after reciting the revised version in school my whole life. "More powerful than a locomotive" and the bird/plane/Superman bits are the only full lines that make it to the more familiar introduction intact. Eventually, as you know, the first and third lines are combined to become "faster than a speeding bullet," and we get the added "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound," trading a description of invulnerability for leaping/flight. I'll be curious to see if the "leaping" bit is introduced before or after he gains sustained flight as a power. It's hard to say whether "faster than a plane" (vs. bullet) is meant to be a description of his limits or not; as far as I can tell from very cursory research, military planes around the time had top speeds around 450 mph, and Chuck Yeager wouldn't officially break the sound barrier (761.2 mph) for another eight years. I haven't found any official specs on bullet speeds from guns of the era, but bullet speeds in general can easily outstrip that depending on conditions, ranging from 400 mph at the low end to over 3000 mph. Not that Superman's powers have ever been quite so clearly defined, that is, I'm just interested to know if this is meant to be an "impressive but not preposterous" description of his speed, where the change to "faster than a speeding bullet" was an extension of his power, or if it's just that "faster than a speeding bullet" is more impressive and poetic.

Moving right along, there's a second paragraph to the introduction, which again is like a first draft for the version that becomes immortal2. It's an interesting mix of what we've seen at the end of the origin stories in the comics and lines like "strange visitor from another planet" that show up in later iterations. Here it is, for posterity and the hearing-impaired:
And now, Superman: a being no larger than an ordinary man, but possessed of powers and abilities never before realized on Earth. Able to leap into the air an eighth of a mile at a single bound! Hurdle a twenty-story building with ease! Race a high-powered bullet to its target! Lift tremendous weights and rend solid steel in his bare hands, as though it were paper. Superman: a strange visitor from a distant planet, champion of the oppressed, physical marvel extraordinary, who has sworn to dedicate his existence on Earth to helping those in need.

The "eighth of a mile"/"twenty-story building"/"raise tremendous weights" has been pretty well consistent in the different origin stories, as has the "champion of the oppressed" and "helping those in need." Frankly, I really like the "champion of the oppressed" moniker, and I'll be interested to see when it gets phased out. "Rend steel" eventually becomes "bend steel," "distant planet" eventually becomes "another planet," and "race a high-powered bullet" eventually gets streamlined into the first-paragraph zinger. For how much of this is taken directly from the comics, it's significant to note that they don't mention that his skin is impervious to anything "less than a bursting shell." And, for that matter, though they keep the "leaping," the sound effect they use sure sounds like flying to me. There's also no mention of Clark Kent, though I think the reasons for that will become obvious in the second episode. This first installment is just about the sci-fi.

There's some nice poetic language in the description of our auditory journey, to "where the planet Krypton burns like a green star in the endless heaven." Here, as in all the previous versions of the story, the denizens of Krypton are highly-evolved supermen at the peak of human physical perfection. The story proper opens on "Krypton's foremost scientist" Jor-L addressing "the planet's governing council" in the Temple of Wisdom. Through his "solar calculations," Jor-L has determined that Krypton is doomed. He lists a litany of natural disasters that have been plaguing the planet, leading to the inevitable conclusion that the planet is facing its final days. Members in the crowd dismiss his doomsaying as mad, and Rozan is sure that he's made a mistake. On the contrary, says Jor-L, Krypton is being drawn ever closer to its sun, and within a month the gravitational stresses will cause Krypton's complete destruction. The council laughs, but Rozan humors him: "Assuming for the moment, Jor-L, that what you say is true, how are we to avoid it? What can we do to stop it?" Jor-L explains that he's been working on a space-ship, and with time and the combined effort and resources of the council, they might be able to evacuate the entire population of Krypton to Earth, which has a similar atmosphere.

Rozan is, again, dismissive. Of course they "have the utmost respect for your [Jor-L's] knowledge and integrity," but he's obviously been working too hard. "Planets as large as Krypton do not explode, Jor-L." So the government recognizes that Jor-L is the world's foremost scientist, respected for his knowledge and integrity, but they patronize him, dismiss his findings as "impossible" and laugh him out of the building, calling him crazy, because they don't like his conclusions and obviously they know more about science than the world's foremost scientist. There's a relevant lesson in all that, even seventy years later.

Another earthquake hits, and Jor-L repeats his warnings.
Jor-L: Wait! Do you hear that, gentlemen? It's the forewarning of doom! Every moment is precious now! Quakes like that are sounding the death knell of Krypton! It will happen, gentlemen, and happen soon! When the last great eruption comes--

Rozan: When it comes, Jor-L, it shall find all of us ready. If Krypton is to die, we shall die with it. The parting would be much too severe. [The council laughs].

And there you have it. The Council of Krypton has chosen its fate, and dismissed Jor-L's science as a joke. Jor-L chides them for their flippant attitude: "Laugh all you like, Rozan, and you members of the Council. I have no time to laugh. My wife, Lara3, and my infant son are dear to me. It is not my wish to stand by and see them destroyed!" He then ends his speech with a hearty 'you'll all be sorry,' and they laugh once more. On one hand, Jor-L is acting a bit like a classic crackpot, and it's often hard to tell the difference between reasonable warnings and irrational doomsaying. On the other hand, you can see Jor-L trying every tactic he can think of to convince the council: he starts by explaining his scientific findings in a fairly calm manner and laying out the potential solution, he moves on to trying to scare them into action, and finally he resorts to an appeal to their humanity, using his own family to try to evoke the council's sympathies. None of it works; the old men are too set in their ways, and so Rozan calls a vote with some pretty loaded language: "You have heard Jor-L speak. Is it your wish that we devote time and money to the building of space-ships, for the transportation of Krypton's population to another planet?" The vote goes about as well as you'd expect.

Jor-L tells the Council that they've signed the death warrant for every living thing on the planet, and says he'll proceed with building his own spaceship to save his family. "As for the rest of you: May the gods have mercy on your souls."

Jor-L returns home, where Lara complains about the heat, wondering if it's because of Krypton's increasing proximity to its sun. Jor-L responds in the affirmative, which raises some scientific questions. I'm no astronomer, but I think if Krypton is getting close enough to the sun that it's affecting global temperature, then there should be other, more obvious signs that its orbit is changing. I think the days should appear to be getting longer, seasons should be getting out of whack, the sun should appear larger in the sky. I suppose those changes might not yet be drastic enough, depending on the astronomical conditions, and one should never underestimate the ability of people in positions of power to rationalize away the obvious. Lara asks him how the Council responded to his news, but Jor-L says he didn't mention it. He doesn't have the heart to tell her that they won't support him (or his pride was wounded by being laughed out of the room). He's just finished building his model rocket, and if it works, he'll build a much larger version for the three of them.

There's a really tragic comment here, from my perspective: "Can't you come in and look at him [Kal-L]? You scarcely see him these days, what with working all hours on the spaceship model." Not only will Jor-L miss his son's childhood and adulthood, sending him off into the cosmic wilderness, but he's sacrificed what little time he does have with the boy to ensure that the child will have a future. That's heartbreaking, and it makes me almost angry that other versions of this origin story have changed this detail, have missed this point, making Jor-L into an artificial intelligence who raises or educates or manipulates his son from beyond the grave. This is the tragedy of Jor-L: he sacrifices everything to give his son a better future than he'll have, up to and including having a relationship with his child.

Suddenly, I have a much more positive opinion of Jor-L.

Jor-L explains how the model craft will work. This is where the Silver Age went wrong, I think, by retconning multiple test-flights into the origin story, rocketing a dog and a chimp into space. It makes the baby-sized rocket look like the next phase in the testing process, rather than a model that was never meant to be used to carry anyone anywhere. After the chimp lives, why not make a full-sized rocket for the whole family?

Anyway, the rocket is pointed at Earth, "a planet, smaller than our own, situated on the other side of the sun." This is the origin of the idea that Krypton was "originally" meant to be in our solar system on an orbit opposite to our own, so we can never detect it. There are some serious astronomical problems with that notion, made odder by the fact that Krypton's rapid descent toward the sun never has any stated effect on Mercury or Venus. I think there's enough ambiguity and poetic license in Jor-L's description here that you can't necessarily peg Krypton's location, but regardless it's not a part of the "original" anything. We're four origins in, folks.

Jor-L explains to Lara what Earth's humans are like, how they're less developed and weaker and more limited than Kryptonians. His illustration is worth quoting:
Jor-L: Something like this: You know how far you step when you want to go somewhere?

Lara: Practically as far as I want. Why, one step takes me to Bruta's house, near the fountain.

Jor-L: Exactly. But down where I'm sending this spaceship, it's quite different. An Earthman steps only three feet at a time at most, and everything else is in proportion.

Lara: And that's where we're going? Oh, how dreadful.

Another little detail that Byrne would eventually restore: Lara's revulsion at the planet Earth. I do like Lara's romantic resignation: "It doesn't matter whether we live or die, as long as we're together." It recalls some of the poetic melodrama from the newspaper strip version.

Jor-L plans to test the rocket at dawn, watching to ensure that it reaches Earth safely. They are about to head back into the house to escape the oppressive heat, when the ground starts trembling once more due to a series of subterranean explosions. Jor-L realizes that the end has come ahead of schedule--"Oh, what a fool I've been to delay!" The other tragedy of Jor-L: despite his warnings, despite his careful studies and calculations, despite his meticulous testing, even he overestimates how much time Krypton has left. Lara asks if the model is large enough to carry one of them, then goes to retrieve Kal-L: "If one of us can be saved, Jor-L, it should be the boy!" Jor-L disagrees--he wants to send Lara. I have a hard time describing why I like this, but something about it rings true. There's something both romantic and pragmatic about Jor-L's position, and something both optimistic and maternal about Lara's. Jor-L provides the means of salvation, Lara provides the hope for the future--shocking that those two elements would go to produce someone like Superman.

On an amusing note, Jor-L can't help but get in an 'I told you so' before the end: "just as I foretold!" Take that, Rozan! They put Kal-L in the rocket and start the launch process. The house begins to sway, smoke pours from the center of the planet, while the rocket builds power. Just when Jor-L thinks it might be too late, the rocket launches. Jor-L declares that their son is on his way to Earth. Lara cries out his name: "Kal-L! KAL-L!" And the planet crumbles.
So the tiny rocketship roars into the uncharted heavens, as the mighty planet of Krypton explodes into millions of glowing fragments, glittering stars to remain forever in the night sky.

I wonder, if they hadn't said that Krypton's fragments were "glowing," would anyone have thought up the idea for Kryptonite? I'll ignore the word "stars" (and for that matter, the word "forever") here as poetic license.

As for Kal-L's ship, as the closing narration says, "Does it reach the Earth? Does it find its mark in all the far-flung darkness of space?"

I guess we'll find out in episode two. Don't miss the next installment of Superman Sunday!

1. For example, Harley Quinn, Live Wire, Spider-Man's organic webshooters, Wolverine's claws extending from between his knuckles, Iron Man not being a jerk, etc.

2. I'm actually going through some of the radio archives, and it's very interesting to hear the intro develop. To me, anyway. I'm skipping ahead story arc by story arc, and each one gets a little closer to what I'm familiar with--adding lines, subtracting words, and interestingly enough keeping the phrase "champion of the weak and the oppressed" pretty consistently. The familiar "CRACK! Faster than a speeding bullet!" beginning and "the American Way" at the end appear to have been added in 1942, probably during one of the large gaps in my archive--or possibly introduced by one of the portrayals in other media, since the first Fleischer cartoons aired in 1941. At some point, this might be a worthwhile post or series on its own. Mental note: made.

3. Yes, "Lara," with a long "a" at the beginning (though that fluctuates throughout the episode). "Lora" is gone, presumably never to be seen again.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A brief note about legacy characters

One of the things I like most about the DCU is the idea of legacy characters. Yes, it leads to some really nasty continuity tangles and makes comic quirks (like character aging) really obvious, but I like the sense of history it provides. A superhero name, a costume, a power set, isn't necessarily something unique, but a mantle that can be passed from one character to the next, in a largely unbroken string potentially lasting up to the 853rd century. I enjoy that.

And I was exposed to it pretty early on. Some of the comics I read when I first started reading DC regularly were the Mike Parobeck JSA and the Jurgens JLA. The two issues of JSA I found featured both Wally West and Jay Garrick as "the Flash," neither of whom was the Barry Allen I knew from TV and my parents' comics, as well as Jesse Quick, who I recognized because I'd read about Johnny Quick before. There was even a guy called Green Lantern, who didn't look anything like the Green Lantern I knew. Over in JLA, there was another guy called Green Lantern, who still didn't look anything like the one I knew, but was clearly a different character. It wasn't confusing, it was intriguing: I think you hear this a lot from comics fans, but the minor characters, the legacies, the guest stars--as a kid, those are just tantalizing little glimpses at a fascinating universe with a fascinating history. It's why I loved the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe and Who's Who as a kid, and I know I'm not the only one, but I wanted to know more about these amazing characters and what they could do.

If there's one lesson DC should have learned from comics like JSA and Flash--if there's one lesson that Geoff Johns should have learned but apparently hasn't--it's that no reasonable person gets confused by having multiple characters running around with the same name. And yet, for a company that prides itself on legacy characters with long histories, how many new-generation heroes have been sidelined or eliminated to make way for their previous counterparts? Recently, it's Firestorm, Hawkgirl, Flash, and Atom, but they're not the only ones. What about Green Arrow? Hourman? Dr. Fate? I can accept, for instance, that there's only one helmet and amulet for Fate, but what of the others? I can't say with any certainty that characters are being pushed to the sides or replaced because the higher-ups think readers aren't bright enough to understand that multiple people might operate under the same name, but I have a hard time thinking of any other reasons that this keeps happening.

I think the legacies offer a nice way to tell new stories, to expand supporting casts, to break out of ruts, and to prevent characters from being spread too thin or overexposed. And I think a lot of books understand this--Steel, Supergirl, and Superboy frequently show up as supporting characters in the Superman books; there was a time when both JLA and JLE had Green Lanterns, so Guy Gardner was on the former and Hal Jordan was on the latter; Flash frequently used the rest of the Flash family as a way to tell new stories, focusing on different Flashes or the relationships that tie them together. DC is a universe that should never run into the Wolverine problem, of one character appearing on six different teams--Barry can be the Flash of the JLA, Jay can lead the JSA, and Wally can be on the Titans or Outsiders or whatever.

Returning to the point, I think DC would be better off by fully embracing the legacies. Let some legacies be like families, working together as a cohesive cast; let others be like franchises, where different people operate in different places, so you can alternate between the focal characters and tell different stories, keeping everything fresh (specifically, I'd like to see a Firestorm book that bounced between Jason and Ronnie's different adventures); let other legacies be loose associations, joined by a Second Feature or something along those lines.

But for the love o' Pete, stop thinking that only one version of a character can have the spotlight at a time. This is a situation where you actually can please most of the people most of the time, why on Earth wouldn't you take it?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Stop. Just, just stop.

If you haven't read Chris Sims's excellent, excellent post "The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling," you should do that. It's perfect, and the ramble I'm about to write here isn't going to even approximate how brilliant that was.

Look, I understand nostalgia. I really do. I've got a complete set of He-Man DVDs on my shelf; I spent most of my high school years listening to music made 15 years before; I frequently wish I were still in college, staying up 'til all hours of the night and not caring about what would happen the next day; nostalgia's great.

But, dammit, I'd think a major part of growing up is realizing that the time you're nostalgic about wasn't as good as you remember. We all idealize some parts of the past, remembering the good bits and forgetting the bad bits. Sure, I could take out some more student loans and go back to college, but not only would I be hit with all the things I chose to forget (having no money, homework, conflicts with roommates), I'd also be that creepy loser who thinks he's still nineteen.

Well, Geoff Johns1, wake up: you're thirty-seven. It's time to stop trying to force modern comics into the stories you made up with your Super-Friends action figures.

I understand wanting to tell the cool stories you imagined as a kid. Look, I'll lay it out right here: if I were writing Superman today, I'd be cribbing some plot points and characterization from "Lois and Clark." I'd be bringing in cryogenically-frozen Nazi super-soldiers and seeing if DC had the rights to use Tempus in the comics. I wouldn't be plagiarizing--I'd put my own spin on it, I'd ask permission from and credit other writers when necessary, but I can't deny that the versions of the characters I enjoyed as a kid. To some degree, all comics fans (and consequently comics writers) have preferred interpretations of the characters, which likely gelled when they first enjoyed those characters' adventures.

And I think that's largely okay--as long as you're doing something new with it. Frankly, I like the Rainbow Lantern Corps, because it's something new. It's progressive, it changes the status quo, it shakes things up. I don't like Perry White forgetting that Clark Kent has friends or killing off Ryan Choi and sidelining Wally West to make way for previous holders of those costumes. Nostalgic storytelling can be accomplished without undoing what's been done since. For example, take a look at Karl Kesel. Whether it's in Adventures of Superman or Superboy or Fantastic Four, it's clear that Kesel's nostalgic about Jack Kirby work. I know that, even though I've never seen Kesel kill off a character to replace them with a previous counterpart, or manipulate things so that he can introduce older elements without regard to more recently-established continuity. Instead, he's done things like introducing Project Cadmus into the modern Superman mythos, putting Superboy into the Kamandi role for a story arc and playing with those dynamics, or creating new Kirbyesque characters like Kossak the Slaver.

Or better yet, look at Grant Morrison. His work, I think, is less clearly nostalgic, but there's no denying that Grant's rooted in the Silver Age. From using Awkwardman Merryman in Animal Man to reviving the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, Grant's influences are so prevalent that they've inspired whole trade paperbacks. Yet he didn't bring these elements in by rejecting the intervening decades of Animal Man and Batman stories; he made Awkwardman Merryman into the voice of Limbo, he made Zur-En-Arrh a semi-hallucinatory failsafe put in place by the Batman who thinks of every eventuality.

It's a little like improv. Good improv results from taking what you've been dealt, adding to it, and passing it to the next person--"What are you doing with that banana?" "You never know when a gorilla is going to attack. Look out, there's one now!"2 Bad improv results from negation--"What are you doing with that banana?" "It's not a banana, it's a handgun." "Oh, um..." Negation shuts everything down. It breaks the flow of the story, it returns the segment to square one, and it's ultimately rude and self-centered. It shows a lack of respect for the other person's ideas, saying "no, my idea is better, and deserves consideration over yours." Regressing storytelling is comics' own negation, throwing out what has gone before in favor of your own personal preference. It's jarring, it's disrespectful, and it's counterproductive. More than that, it's uncreative. It's the easiest thing in the world for an improv performer to negate everything that's given to them and barrel forward with their own ideas of what the skit should be; it's much harder and requires much more thought and creativity and wit to be able to take someone else's ideas and run with them--but the end result is much, much more satisfying. The same is true for comics storytelling. It's beyond easy to ignore continuity and characterization and anything that directly preceded your story, and just barrel on through with whatever tale you've wanted to tell since you were in short pants; it's a lot harder to build on what's come before, to respect it and draw from it and incorporate it into your story, but the end result is a story which feels like a natural progression or extension of the previous works, using the same characters and setting and so forth. In ongoing, shared-universe comics, that makes for a much better reading experience than a bunch of discrete arcs next to each other featuring characters who dress the same, but that's where the similarities mostly end.
If you want to do some nostalgic storytelling, be my guest. That should be an option for everyone. But do it in a way that's progressive, that adds on what's come before and doesn't negate it. It's possible, and though it requires a bit more work, it results in a much better product.

There are two other trends in comics that need to stop, which are somewhat related. The first is a matter of stalled maturation. Nostalgic storytelling is, at least somewhat, rooted in that desire to play with the same toys you played with as a kid. But I think most people, by the time they get to the point where they can play with those toys professionally, recognize that there's something childish about all that. It's embarrassing to have those toys out in the open where everyone can see them. They realize that they have to do something to fight against that, to prove that they are, in fact, mature adults. You can already see where this is going: there are quite a lot of comic creators (and, I suppose, people in general) whose definition of "mature adult" means "violence and sex." This is, somewhat understandably, what a thirteen-year-old might think "mature adult" means, but it's sad that there are people who make it to adulthood without correcting that misapprehension. There's a place for adolescent gore and sexuality, but it doesn't make anything more "mature," and it only serves to make your immature nostalgia look like something you're ashamed of. But if you're ashamed of it, why write it in the first place?

I can think of few better examples of this idiocy than that Teen Titans debacle, where Wendy and Marvin and Wonder Dog of the SuperFriends cartoon were introduced into the comic continuity, only to have the teens brutally murdered by a monstrous Wonder Dog. If I had to guess, I'd suspect that whoever brought those characters in did so out of a genuine liking for the characters. And I further suspect that they were killed out of this misguided embarrassment, that somehow the inclusion of cartoon characters would have to be validated or justified or balanced or ameliorated by doing away with them in a "mature" way, to prove that the writer's still "cool" by some external standard. Repudiating what you really like, pretending that you don't like it, in order to appear more mature in the eyes of the cool kids isn't "adult," it's something DJ would do on an episode of Full House, leading to a valuable lesson learned and a hug with dad at the end.

Contrast that with, say, bringing Vartox into Power Girl. Vartox is a goofy character with goofy roots from a somewhat goofy era of comics. Gray and Palmiotti brought him into the modern age by embracing the goofiness, acknowledging it through their protagonist, and using it as a springboard to tell a deeper story. There's nothing grim about Vartox; he doesn't get eviscerated by the alien bug things he's brought to Earth, he doesn't rape Power Girl, he isn't decked out in guns and girls to make him seem to be more acceptable. He's played straight, but he's given depth and dimension. It's those things--plot, characterization, and depth--that are the real signs of maturity.

On the other hand, you could just play it for fun. I don't know why this seems to have been confined lately to parts of Marvel and Tiny Titans, but "because it's awesome" should be justification enough. Who cares if it's childish? Fun is fun is fun. One example I like of this is when Zan and Jayna showed up in Young Justice. It was a relatively short appearance, but the only real update they got was that they spoke in an incomprehensible alien language. No blood, no sex, just the Wonder Twins doing what they do, because it's fun.

Point: if you're going to do nostalgia, do it progressively and maturely. You want to do Superboy-Prime? Look to "Superman: Secret Origin" instead of "Infinite Crisis." Don't be the idiot man-child who mistakes "R-rated" with "mature."

The other trend I'd like to see ended is another mistake of juvenile, short-cutted storytelling: the "badass by proxy" character. Whether it's having everyone extol the virtues of some character so you don't have to show said virtues (or acknowledge that the character has never possessed such virtues in previous portrayals), or just having the character do something shocking to prove how shocking they are, this is a crappy way to get your point across. Ultimately, the latter method is the better one, as it involves showing instead of telling, but it seems that, too often, it boils down to "New Guy beats up Strong Guy to prove that New Guy is a threat" and variations thereof. When the alien can throw Worf across the room, when the unknown bad guy can knock out Superman, then you know they must be really powerful. And when the bad guy does something comically over-the-top evil for no good reason--say, killing Ryan Choi or a busload of kindergartners, then you know that bad guy is really evil.

The problem is that the trope gets way overused. If every new villain who comes up against the Justice League proves his power by knocking out Superman, pretty soon Superman looks like a wuss. If every villain who wants to prove how evil he is by killing a minor superhero or committing some act of extreme depravity, pretty soon those acts of depravity are going to make your villains some weird cross between Mengele and a moustache-twirling melodrama fiend. Also, you cheapen superhero death by making it a monthly occurrence. There are better ways to accomplish your goals of making characters badass or evil or powerful, and the big one is through good characterization, which isn't accomplished through a series of shocking actions or a series of laudatory exposition.

That point about killing characters deserves specific mention. As I've said before, part of writing comics in a shared universe setting is putting the toys back in the toybox so that the next writer can take them out and play with them. Most writers, traditionally, have left the same toys in more or less the same condition for the next writer, and I think that's fine. I think it's a sign of good writing if you leave more toys for the next guy than were there before you came along. It's bad form and bad writing to go around breaking some toys and hiding others and drawing all over a few more with permanent marker. It comes back to the matter of selfishness and self-absorption. Eric Wallace has left an indelible mark on Ryan Choi, and whoever comes along next and wants to write stories about the interesting Atom will be forced to acknowledge what Wallace did to the character, in order to undo it. Wallace has wedged himself into that character's history, scrawling his name on the toy with an X-Acto knife, so everyone who sees it later can know that Eric Wallace was there, and look what he did.

It's a sad truth of any medium that a lot of great work and great artists get forgotten. Not everyone who works hard and does their best and puts out quality work is remembered. Not all good characters are ever used again. You could spend decades churning out great comics with original characters and intriguing stories, and never achieve any real popularity with the fans or any lasting impact on the medium, your new characters and altered status quo fading into obscurity after you're off the title. All that hard work might go unnoticed by the next writer or artist, or otherwise it might just fade into limbo a few years down the line. But there are easy ways that you can make sure your run will be remembered, all you have to do is shockingly alter some character. It doesn't have to be a major character--in fact, it's the B- and C-listers who are most open for this kind of change. It doesn't have to be a death (although that generally works), it could just be a power change or a dark heretofore unseen chapter in that character's past or an atrocity committed by that character in the here and now. After that, potentially forever, future writers who want to use that character will have to explicitly acknowledge what you did, either by referencing it explicitly or changing it explicitly or denying it happened explicitly or even just by studiously avoiding it. The rape you retconned into that character's backstory, the criminal you had that hero kill, the new power you gave to that matter what, that's something that will have to be addressed at some point. And your run will always be remembered as "the story where they killed/raped/depowered X"--but what's important is that it's remembered. You've achieved immortality through vandalism.

I'm going to lay it out here in bold: If you have to kill established characters to tell your story, then you're not a very good writer. This isn't to say that established characters should never die, but it ought to be an exceedingly rare incident, one which has a little pomp and circumstance around it. Killing a character to make a point, or to characterize someone else, or for shock value, or to serve most secondary purposes, is cheap, unnecessary, and a good sign of a crappy storyteller. If you can't play with the toys without breaking them, then you should play something else.

1. As an example. He's not the only one, but he seems to be leading the current pack. I'm sorry, Geoff, because I generally enjoy your writing--I even mostly liked Blackest Night--but it's not 1978 anymore.

2. True Fact: I suck at improv.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Delay is not a river in Egypt

Since I just posted last week's Superman Sunday yesterday, I'll be posting the next one in the next couple of days. I don't expect it to take another week.

Also, I'm hoping to do something special for next Monday, but it depends on how quickly I can finish a book or two. Speculate away!

Grail Hunting

I'm just going to lay it out here: I would love to have a Carmen Sandiego game show jacket. It might be cool to have one of the actual ones, but I'm just shocked that no one out there is selling replicas. This is a world where I can represent the Blue Barracudas or show my Camp Anawanna pride, but I can't dress like a stylish gumshoe? Way to drop the ball, Internet.

Also, I have been unable to procure any of the Aggro Crag via eBay. I think we'd all love to own a glowing piece of the radical rock, and I'd prefer to get it without the use of bungee cords, if at all possible.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Superman Sunday Saturday: Origins (Part 3)

Sorry for the late post, folks. It's been a long week, and I've alternated between "too busy" and "too sick" to get it finished. I've been working on it all week, though, which means it's extra long and probably quite rambly. Check it all out below the fold!

Update! In the interest of keeping this series as accurate as possible, I'll be making edits when I come across mistakes or new information. The original text will still be preserved, albeit struck out. In this case, I've added a bit more information about the science fiction aspects of the Superman comics.

Last week's installment gave us a detailed look at the science fiction behind Superman's origins. Today, we'll come back down to Earth a bit, as we look at the origin in "Superman" #1 and, for the very first time, meet Ma and Pa Kent.

There are two things to keep in mind as we take a look at this issue. The first is that, at this point, there have been essentially no science fiction aspects to Superman's comic book adventures. Since Action Comics #1, the sci-fi has been limited to that first panel of the rocket leaving (the unnamed) Krypton. Superman' adventures have focused on corrupt politicians, fatcat businessmen, opposing generals, and even an attempt to rig a football game. The closest the comics had come to any other science fiction elements was the introduction1 of the Ultra-Humanite, and even then he just who mentions that a scientific experiment had given him super-intelligence and uses a couple of hi-tech devices (specifically, an car that can turn invisible and a machine that encases Superman in a block of crystal). I don't know enough about the comic book/comic strip landscape of the time to fully understand why Siegel and Shuster chose to confine the exploration of Superman's alien heritage to the newspaper page; it may be that sci-fi comic strips were well-established ("Buck Rogers" had been running for ten years, "Flash Gordon" for five) and the duo wanted to tap into that audience, while the young medium of comic books was home mostly to pulp adventure heroes and funnies (where Superman was already an oddity) and they didn't want to stretch the audience's suspension of disbelief. But I don't know with any certainty.

The second thing to keep in mind is that, until now, Superman has not had a solo title. "Action Comics," despite Superman's status as the breakout hit character, was an anthology series, and Superman's adventures were presented alongside those of Zatara the Magician; Scoop Scanlon, Five-Star Reporter; and Marco Polo, among others. "Superman" #1 is the first time that the Man of Steel gets a book all to himself. Good or bad, the issue is mostly reprinted material from stories in "Action Comics" #1-4 (along with a neat prose adventure). There is one story which gets expanded for the reprint: The opening scenes of "Action" #1. You'll recall that Superman's origin was originally given only a single page, and "Superman" triples that. This allows, most strikingly, for a big splash panel of Superman's rocket leaving Krypton (which is mentioned by name for the first time in the comic books).
Clark sure looks sharp in that sweater/shirt combo.

That splash panel is still the only mention we get of Superman's birth planet (well, sort'll see). But what follows that by-now-familiar scene is something heretofore unseen. Rather than a "passing motorist" who found (and in the strip, rescued) the baby in the rocket, the infant Kal-L is discovered by an elderly couple, the Kents.

This is our first glimpse of Superman's adoptive parents. We'll see their ages and appearances fluctuating wildly over the next seventy years, and the circumstances of their discovery and what happens afterward will change considerably too. We don't have much detail here--Pa doesn't even get a name!--but what we do get gives us quite a bit of insight into why Superman is who he is. And perhaps it's my bias as a modern Superman fan, but I think understanding Clark Kent's origins provides a better understanding of who Superman is than knowing what Krypton was like.

Mary2 and Pa take baby Kal-L to the orphanage, demonstrating here that they have completely usurped the role of the "passing motorist" from the previous origin stories. On one hand, I'm glad this is the case. The motorist is an unnecessary character, and I don't think he's restored in any subsequent version of the origin. On the other hand, his omission removes a pillar of the reasoning for taking the baby to an orphanage. Now, there's still the justification that the Kents are elderly, and that it would be suspicious for them to suddenly have a child without some sort of adoption process, but I'm surprised that there wasn't an intermediate version where the "passing motorist" takes Kal-L to the orphanage and the Kents are just the lucky couple who pick him up.

By the way, I think this might be the first retcon in superhero comics history. Make a note of it.

The next panel is another familiar scene, Kal-L wreaking havoc in the orphanage, and sadly we've lost my favorite element of that bit: the doctor whose glasses fly off at the sight. It's a shame; I like that bit of slapstick. Incidentally, Kal's lifting a dresser instead of a chair now; I suppose that's probably heavier and more impressive.

The next panel brings the Kents back to the orphanage, where they decide to adopt Kal-L after all. "We couldn't get that sweet child out of our mind," says Pa. For as long as the orphanage is a part of the Superman backstory (spoiler: it fades out considerably as we approach the modern age, making a brief resurgence in "Smallville"), different details get brought in regarding why the Kents left the child, and why they later came to adopt him (and were allowed to do so by the agency). No real rationale is given for their dropping Kal off in the first place, but I don't think one is really needed: what else do you do with abandoned infants? It's not specifically said that they are considered too old to adopt (something which occasionally happens in other versions). But the adoption agent's reasons for allowing the Kents to take the child often revolve around the reason given here: the kid is a menace, and no one knows how to deal with a super-strong infant.

It's also interesting to note something more basic here. Recall that this is still fairly early in the days of comic books (though comic strips as a medium had been around for quite some time), and one thing that hasn't quite gelled is the formatting of the speech and thought bubbles. Sure, the speech bubbles look relatively similar to those today (though 1930s comics sure seem less reluctant to use periods than 1960s comics), but thought bubbles don't even exist! The concept is there, but characters' thoughts are just included in their speech bubble, enclosed in parentheses, quotes, and em dashes (a veritable punctuation overload). Strangely enough, the dashed-line bubble for whispering/asides does exist already.

The next scene is our "Uncle Ben moment," where Mary and Pa set Clark's future in motion. Now, this version of the origin is still relatively short--just two pages of story--so this scene of parental advice is pretty compressed. It's clear that this panel is intended to justify both Superman's strong moral character and his double-life. So, Pa provides the practical point: "You've got to hide [your great strength] from people or they'll be scared of you!" Naturally, this is the origin of the mild-mannered Clark Kent persona, the reason he maintains a secret identity. Mary provides moral guidance and purpose: "But when the proper time comes, you must use it to assist humanity." And so begins the story of Superman, champion of the weak and oppressed.

There are two things I really like about this scene. First, it shows that the admirable qualities of Superman are a matter of upbringing. Stories of heroes often skip over the childhood; it's not the exciting part of the hero's life, and it can often ruin a character's mystique to show them in their formative years (see also: Michael Myers, Anakin Skywalker, Wolverine, etc.). Still, when we miss out on a person's childhood, we miss out on a lot of what makes the person who they are (they're called "formative years" for a reason). In the orphan-strewn world of superheroes, having parents who take an active role in shaping the hero's moral code and life philosophy is still something of a rarity.

The other thing I like about this scene is that it not only establishes Clark's foster parents as good and influential people, but it makes them more important than his birth family--who at this point, have only appeared in the comic strip--right off the bat. There's no "his brain has evolved beyond the desire for power or the urge to discriminate" or "a message recorded by his scientist father played as he traveled to Earth, subliminally instilling in him the desire to do good deeds and help others," or even "his alien physiology allows him to see the auras around all living things, causing him great mental anguish if he sees a living being come to harm"3. No, instead Superman's a hero because of the "love and guidance of his kindly foster-parents." Instead of a mythical, epic, science-fictiony explanation, we get "his parents raised him right," which is about the most down-home salt-of-the-Earth American motivation ever.

Knowing what comes later, I almost put the word "midwestern" or "country" in that hyphen-loaded sentence above, but there's actually no indication of where Clark grew up. In fact, the next page shows him as a child, leaping from rooftop to rooftop among skyscrapers.
You'd think Superman might bring this up when Batman gets all broody.

Here, we run through the development of Clark's astounding powers. The last two times we saw this sequence, it said rather specifically that he found he could do these amazing things "when maturity was reached." Now, that's changed, and the powers developed "as the lad grew older." It'd be five years before this slight change germinated into full-fledged Superboy stories, and by that point the "development" angle was mostly gone. Still, we see a young Clark jumping across rooftops with a smile on his face.

That smile--the "delight" Clark feels as a result of his abilities--is something else I really like about this expanded origin. This isn't an angsty character; Superman in these stories is downright cocky. Golden Age Superman is the kind of guy who smirks. While I'm glad that his attitude has mellowed somewhat in the intervening decades, I think the "delight" is a pretty core part of Superman's identity. He's shouldn't be the kind of superhero who broods and grieves. When it comes right down to it, Superman enjoys his abilities, has a great life, and knows just how lucky he is. That gets lost now and then, but as far as I'm concerned, Superman's natural state should be flying, with a smile on his face.

That being said, the examples have remained relatively consistent for the last year. Superman can leap over tall buildings and forward an eighth of a mile. He can lift tremendous weights (this time a car, instead of a girder), outrace a train (a "streamline train" now, rather than an "express train"), and still, nothing less than a bursting shell can penetrate his skin. I like this latest panel, because so far the origins haven't tried to picture Superman's invulnerability. The doctor here, having broken six hypodermic needles on Superman's skin, isn't quite as funny as the orphanage doctor with the spring-loaded glasses, but the scene comes pretty close. Clark's casual, smirking "Try again, doc!" is a perfect, succinct example of his cocky, flippant attitude in these days. Those of you who think Superdickery was a Silver Age innovation are about twenty years too late.

In the next panel, we learn sadly--though not unexpectedly, given the Kents' advanced age--that Clark is an orphan twice over. Their deaths strengthen his resolve to help people, and so Superman is created. This is significant for the same reason that the "as the lad grew older" is significant, because it's an explicit statement that Clark became a superhero as an adult, ruling out the Superboy who would debut barely five years later. What really surprises me about this is that it means "Man of Steel" was less radical in its changes than I previously thought. I didn't realize how much of it was just restoring an older status quo.

Finally, we get to the titular hero, in a panel that's fairly identical to its previous incarnations. It does show that Superman is gradually becoming more well-defined, in terms of color scheme and costume design.

After this page, there is a little new story material, redrawing and expanding the beginning of the story from Action Comics #1. The rest of the book is reprinted, with the exception of a short prose story and this page:
Why does Krypton even have roads?

It follows from a similar justification back in "Action" #1. There's the same "scientific" justification of Superman's powers by comparison with the proportional strength of ants and jumping ability of grasshoppers, and the same point that Kryptonians had evolved to "physical perfection." Gone, as above, is the note that the native powers of Kryptonians developed when they reached maturity. The key innovation is in the all-new panel on the right. I'm not sure why Earth is orange, or why something like Saturn is so nearby, but this page provides us with the first-ever instance of the idea that Superman's powers derive from more than just his genes. Krypton is considerably larger than Earth, and consequently has a greater gravitational pull4, which "assists Superman's tremendous muscles in the performance of miraculous feats of strength." This addition to the justification for Superman's abilities demonstrates (for the first time) that Superman on Earth is, in fact, more powerful than a normal Kryptonian would have been on Krypton (which is still described as a world of supermen). This paves the way for later justifications (i.e., the yellow sun), which will further widen the chasm between Superman's abilities and those of his native people.

The last panel gives an optimistic view of the potential future of humanity, that one day the Earth "might be peopled entirely by Supermen." History gives that statement a darker connotation, and while I'm sure fascist groups and eugenecists might have used that kind of language at the time, it would still be several months before the Nazi invasion of Poland made that kind of sentiment more palpably ominous on a worldwide scale.

Well, that's a downer. Next time is somewhat more positive, as we delve into Superman's first foray out of the medium of comics. Tune in tomorrow, Superfans!

1. In "Action Comics" #13, released probably a month or two after this issue, as near as I can tell. That issue is dated June, 1939, while "Superman" #1 is "Summer, 1939." "Action Comics" #14 contains a house ad for "Superman" #1, which gives the latter a release date of May 18th, 1939. This, combined with what we already know from earlier considerations, suggests that "Action" #14 was the May issue (and contains a little bit more sci-fi content).

2. What is it with the name changes of Superman's mothers? First Lora, now Mary?

3. But I'm getting about 64 years ahead of myself.

4. There's some quibbling I could do here, though it has little to do with what's actually on the panel. Suffice it to say that Krypton must also be significantly denser than Earth.

Superman Sunday: Origins Master List

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Rain Delay

Sorry, folks. I've been traveling and making wedding plans the last couple of days, so I'll be posting the Superman Sunday post tomorrow. In the meantime, check out this British Superman Documentary that's been making the rounds on Twitter. I've only had time to watch a little bit, but it seems quite interesting.