Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow

I remember a time, when Superman was, well, not cool, but at least popular. Sure, he's still popular in that he's still capital-"i" Iconic, but his comics and his life in comics has been suffering, floundering, other adjective meaning kinda sucky.

It didn't seem that long ago when Superman was huge, the king of comics, carrying four tightly joined comics (Superman, Adventures of Superman, Action Comics and Man of Steel) that made it pretty much a weekly series, plus there were always his multitude of extracurricular series, from various Elseworld stories to mini-series like "Birthright". It doesn't seem that long ago, but upon further reflection, 'twas actually about a decade past. Yes, I just used 'twas.

Okay, maybe Superman wasn't exactly "king" then, he kind of shared his throne in a kids-from-Narnia kind of way with Batman and Spider-Man who seemed to have an infinite number of series and specials themselves, and of course Wolverine who was rather ubiquitous throughout the 1990's. These days, Superman is starring solo in one book, called "Superman". He's not even the star of Action Comics right now (that'd be Lex Luthor). To put in perspective, Deadpool has at least four titles all his own and is regularly guest starring in more... every month. Fucking Deadpool!

The Superman books you could say had a pretty solid and focused run (with a few exceptions) from 1986 through to approximately the "President Lex"/"Our Worlds At War" period in 2000/2001. The initial '86 post-Crisis John Byrne revamp/depowering revitalized Superman, his world, his supporting cast, (practically everything about him) for a new generation, that carried through to the Dan Jurgens-led era that culminated in the "Death of Superman" and "Reign of the Supermen" which also culminated in media hyper-exposure and the industry-wide speculator boom and bust. Following this there was the "electric Superman" era and the "Superman Red/Superman Blue" malarky, which, with the exception of recent events, is pretty much the low point of 70 years of publishing history. Throughout all of this, there was the "Superman Triangle", the unifying factor that brought the four Superman titles together, even if the writers of each individual series carried their own story for a few months at a time, eventually the titles would start running massive stories once again. However, following the Red/Blue story, DC was trying to make Superman as relevant (ie. million-copy selling) as he was in 1995, which let to a lot of experimentation with creative teams and story structure, and by 2003, the Superman Triangle was gone and one of the titles was dropped, and there really was very little exciting about the character or his titles. Creative teams fluxuated, continuity was relaxed and generally few people knew what to do with him.

Then came Geoff Johns, DC's wonderkid and lover-of-all-things-Silver-Age. His bright idea was to repower Superman to godly levels, restore his pre-Crisis continuity with the Legion of Super-Heroes and, by enlisting his old boss Richard Donner as co-writer, trying to create a loose affiliation with the 1979 Superman film. It sounds horrendous in theory, but it was a nice kick in the pants for big blue, and despite numerous momentum-crippling publishing delays, this resulted in some of the best (non-"All-Star Superman") stories in years. But they were the product of a rather singular vision, and somehow that vision just couldn't sustain itself. It certainly didn't lend itself to other perspectives and James Robinson's sibling title (Adventures of Superman now cancelled, only "Action" and "Superman" remained) was painful at times in his own resurrection of Silver Age ideas. Donner and Johns revamped the Phantom Zone, Bizarro, and Brainiac, introducing (briefly) along the way a new adopted son for Clark and Lois (a Kryptonian child from the Zone), and reintroducing Kandor to the Superman mythos. As good as the stories were, they spat in the face of everything that Byrne, Jurgens and company had built over the years. Superman, the "last son of krypton", was now just one of thousands of Kryptonian orphans. I understand the objective was to try and highlight what makes Superman unique and not just among men, but Supermen, but it had a funny way of going about it. And not funny ha-ha.

In perhaps the biggest miscalculation since the "electric Superman" days a decade before, the remaining two Superman titles went Superman-free. Hey, it worked for "Reign of the Supermen", but that's because Superman was dead, not because he decided to go to another planet (the Kandorians created another planet called "New Krypton"). It was as if DC had no confidence that their premiere character could hold two monthlies and a maxi-series because of the storytelling circumstances they put him in. Johns crafted a rather intriguing idea but abandoned it to other writers (to focus on revamping, yet again, Superman's origin story) and it went off the rails.

I have to be honest, I didn't read any of the "New Krypton" stuff. I loathed James Robinson's work on Superman and wasn't willing to continue with a story that he was now taking the reigns of. Greg Rucka, a favourite writer of mine, took over Action Comics however, but I didn't want to get suckered into having to read other books to follow along, so I abandoned Superman altogether. Until this past week. The trade paperback of "Nightwing and Flamebird" came out and I figured I should give Rucka the benefit of the doubt and see what he did with the situation. The result: none of it's good.

Whether by choice or mandate, the collection (which is four issues plus an annual) is saddled with far too much Kryptonian/Kandorian backstory to be genuinely interesting, and it recalls Christopher Kent (Lois and Clark's briefly adopted son from the Donner story last seen over two years ago and kind of forgotten), now rapidly aging and thrust into the hero role alongside a new character who is implausibly tied to Supergirl, not to mention bringing Lois' father back from the dead and Zod and his cronies from the Phantom Zone as the big bad, and it's all just a spiralling, overwraught, ridiculous mess. Each one of these elements could have made for multiple issues worth of storytelling if Clark or even Lois were the story focus. But Nightwing and Flamebird are two not-ready-for-primetime players put in the lead of DC's longest-running series (even if they were in their own spinoff it would be unappealing reading).

I remember at the beginning of 2010 Dan Didio and other DC hypemen trying to push the "War of the Supermen", the big culmination of the New Krypton saga, as one of the big events of the year. But it seems that, like me, most readers just decided to wait it out and see what the next status quo would be... which unfortunately is currently the "Superman Gump" storyline that even J. Michael Straczynski must be bored with, as he's abandoning it mid-stream. The only "news" on the monthly Superman front is that "Superman's Back In Action" in Action Comics #900 which really isn't news at all, except to say that the character who normally appears in that title will now be normally appearing in it again after an unceremonious two-plus year hiatus.

Bluntly put, Superman is a mess.
So, Second Printers, who do you think could fix him?
Give me a creative team each for Superman and Action Comics.


antididio said...

I agree with you mostly about Johns undoing everything that was great about Post-Crisis Superman, but I did like the New Krypton saga (Post-Johns actually).

I know this is nitpicky but it is something that always annoys me when I read this (It happens a lot) but Adventures of Superman was not canceled, it reverted back to its original name of Superman. Superman (volume 2) was canceled.

BIG MIKE said...

I don't have a particular creator in mind, but my advice would be to do what Marvel has done with some of their flagships: go young, and go long. Find a promising young creator, hand him/her Superman and let it ride for a while. Somewhere out there is a 20-something whose ideas of Superman all come from Up Up and Away, which is probably the best non-All Star Supe story of the past ten years. Find that guy/gal and hand him/her a pen.

Bill D. said...

I'd be happy if the current Action Comics creative team stayed on after Lex's story finished up. Paul Cornell has been doing a great job, and I'd love to see what he does with a Superman book that actually features Superman

Devon Sanders said...

I'll echo Bill and say I'd very much love to see Paul Cornell stay on Action even with the return of Superman. It simply is the freshest take within of anything within the Superman franchise in what seems like forever. I haven't been this bored by Superman since the Seagle run.

Graig Kent said...

I just noticed the April solicits for DC that there's a big Doomsday-based event going on that Cornell is going to be immediately saddled with when Superman returns to Action Comics. While I wouldn't have much problem with this if it were an Action/Superman storyline, the fact that it's jumping across multiple titles is putting me off.

As for my own creative team, I'm curious to see what Cornell does when he gets his hands on Superman without editorial edicts.

On the Superman book I admit to a longstanding curiosity to see what Mark Waid would do with him for an extended run (which is his own Holy Grail, he's said). Pair him up with Marco Rudy and Mick Grey (from The Shield series).