Thursday, May 30, 2013

356 Comics... 148/149/150: Adventures of Superman #1/Smallville Season 11 Special #1/Deathmatch #6 (2013)

This week was a tiny, tiny week for me, compared to most anyway, consisting of four books I was very excited about.  I generally get quite excited about my books each Wednesday, but usually there's a clear or narrow shortlist of contenders for the top of the pile.  This week all four books were contenders, and I really did just close my eyes an pick one to start.

Adventures of Superman is another "digital first" book from DC, one which you may or may not have heard about as it was surrounded by controversy when it was first announced with Orson Scott Card as writer.  What's interesting then is the stink of OSC -- an active opponent of gay marriage opponent -- writing a Superman story was big enough for DC to shelve the story.  I'm sure DC's original logic was "OSC, a famous sci-fi writer, also has written some mildly successful comics (Ultimate Iron Man), his Ender's Game is a big film for the fall, and Man of Steel is a big film for us in the spring, so... synergy".  Given that this is just a one-shot, work-for-hire story by OSC, one has to wonder just how big a stink will be raised when the promotion for Ender's starts ramping up?

Anyway, I wasn't going to buy Adventures of Superman originally (I obviously didn't digitally) but I've been jonesing for a real Superman story.  DC comics as of late (and by late I mean the past two years) has not been cutting the mustard (whatever the hell that means) when it comes to telling Superman stories.  Morrison's Action Comics was a redefinition of Superman, but it never really felt much like Superman to me.  The Scholly Fisch back-up stories seemed a bit more like Superman stories, but even then they're just vignettes, and not full blown stories.

Adventures of Superman feels like Superman to me, much more than anything in the New 52, but that's because AOS is not in the New 52 (can we stop calling it that please?).  Superman in each of the three stories here is clad in his basic blue spandex with his red undies and yellow belt, and to me, that's an easy starting point for feeling like Superman.  Jeff Parker and Chris Samnee's tale is all Superman as a character, as he doesn't want to fight a junkie who suddenly manifests serious telekinetic powers, he want to help him.  While I typically don't associate stories revolving around drug fiends and bandying the words "crystal meth" around liberally with Superman (not really a book I would give to a kid), everything else just screams Superman.

Jeff Lemire comes in with a typically Jeff Lemire-esque tale of rural kids playing Superman out in the woods, pretending to be from the big city and cycling through the rogues gallery (Brainiac, Bizarro, Lex Luthor, etc) in rapid order.  It's a cute tale, though unlike Samnee's exceptionally clean and simplistic, animation-quality illustrations in the earlier tale, Lemire's Superman, rendered in his shaky freehand style is kind of gnarly looking.  Otherwise it's a charming story.  Finally, a Bizarro tale from Justin Jordan and Riley Rossmo.  Who doesn't love a Bizarro story?  This is a fun one, and Rossmo's art is superb... making me wonder what the hell exactly is going on with Rossmo in Bedlam.  There his art is very challenging, very difficult, while here I see the superstar-in-the-making Rossmo that I saw in Dark Horse's Debris last year.

The only real problem with AOS is that it's an anthology of 10-page-and-done stories with no ongoing stories, not unlike the aforementioned back-ups in New 52's Action Comics, (though the Parker/Samnee tale seeds in a thread that could be ongoing).  It feels like Superman, but it doesn't feel enough like Superman. 

But these days it's through the Brian Q. Miller-written Smallville Season 11 series that I get my main Superman fix.  Miller's working more in a DC Universe sensibility rather than a straightforward "Superman" sense, with the most prominent stories featuring the introduction of Batman to the Smallville world, the return of Bart Allen, and currently Booster Gold and the Legion of Superheroes (with Wonder Woman in the pipeline).  This Season 11 Special one-shot takes that a step further and removes Clark Kent from the equation almost entirely, as Detective John Jones and Batman team up to hunt down a murderous white martian who, it turns out, is just a lost and scared young female named M'gann (erm, spoilers I guess).

The story itself is probably the weakest Miller's told (though it has some of the strongest character moments of the 11th season), as the whole "letting M'gann off the hook for the countless murders" that wrapped up the book seemed a little too... easy.  I have a hard time with heroes who start out as murderers and are never brought to justice for their crimes but instead have to atone for it by doing good.  It's Angel, or Arrow too.  It's something you have to just roll with, but it's one the least appealing heroic journeys to me.

I love Miller's expansion of the Smallville universe (there's an oxymoron if there ever was one), as if that wasn't evident by my monthly salivating over each issue.  Miller's reimagining of Batman and Nightwing is amazing, and the kind of rebuilding of character the New 52 was supposed to take care of.  His Martian Manhunter is saddled with a bit of dorky Smallville backstory (he worked with Jor-El? Really?) to be an effective relaunch of that character, but he does utilize him generally quite well here.  With the Wonder Woman storyline coming up, I'm excited to see how BQM handles revamping the Amazon (one of the only New 52 revamps to really work out the gate).

That the Smallville Special highlighted the failures of the New 52 brought to mind an article/open letter Paul Jenkins distributed recently, in which the writer mirrors fandom's concern over editorially-driven structure of DC and Marvel, and puts the spotlight on the increasingly unsatisfying environment for the creative talent at these companies. 

"It bugs me," Jenkins says, "that the creators were a primary focus when the mainstream publishers needed them, and now that the corporations are driving the boat, creative decisions are being made once again by shareholders."  He's of course referring to the fact that the corporate stakeholders (Disney and Warner Bros) are treating their characters like they treat Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, that they need to be controlled and monitored and not led astray by, you know, creativity.  With a book like Adventures of Superman, it allows DC to keep having the cake it's eating, by giving the appearance that creators an outlet to explore the character that's outside the "mainstream" version, while it still dictates what that mainstream version is.  Again, though, it's appearances, because if it weren't just about appearances that Orson Scott Card story would be seeing print (but that's a whole other debate about whether you can separate the artist from his/her politics).

Ironically, Smallville (and other digital first books, like the Batman Beyond or video game properties) comes fully out of that licensed property shadow and seem to have a liberties that the New 52 do not, possibly because they're dead properties that can now only live in comics.  The New 52 is what's supposed to build/drive interest in new toys, paraphernalia, apparel and other such merchandise, Batman Beyond isn't selling much else new beyond comics to the small and devoted.

But I don't think Jenkins is vilifying working for DC or Marvel, or writing corporate characters.  Creators, beyond just taking a job, frequently have a lot of love for the properties they're working on.  But if guiding those characters can only be done with one's shoelaces tied together, it's a frustrating journey no matter how vibrant the landscape seems. 

Deathmatch is Jenkins' outlet to express his frustration with DC and Marvel, creating his own stable of characters that he can do with whatever he damn well pleases, and he does.  If Deathmatch has a hindrance, it's not that there's no recognizable properties or strong editorial constraints, it's that he builds a great world of characters, and promptly starts destroying them.  There are a lot of original creations and a few analogs of the Big Two pantheon, but here he can have Superman kill Wolverine and editorial outrage. 

Last month's issue got a bit unruly, as the heroes started to revolt against the cage they've been imprisoned in, and while story wise it was an important element, the script didn't quite have the emotional center the previous issues did.  This issue makes up for it in spades, with a lot of great character moments, and a resonant (no pun intended) battle between Mink and Melody Toon.  As the cast list dwindles, the more connected we become with the remaining cast, and the more we come to understand their connection together.

I wonder if there's more in store for the surviving characters following the series' conclusion, because I quite like what he's doing here with all his creative freedom.  Actually, I just hope that once this story is over that there will still be a "Jenkins-verse" left to explore. 

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