Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Lives and Deaths and Rebirths of Superman

Superman # 51/52
Batman/Superman #31/32
Action Comics #51/52, #957
Superman/Wonder Woman #28/29
Superman: Lois and Clark #1-7
Superman: Rebirth #1

"The Super League Is Forged"...
uhh, what does that even mean?

After Grant Morrison's Action Comics run ended with issue 18, I didn't pick up another Superman solo title until Convergence: Superman last year.  It's kind of telling that it took the return of the pre-New 52 Superman to draw me back to the character.  If you had asked me then specifically what  was it about the New 52 Superman that I wasn't interested in, and I know I wouldn't have been able to tell you.  Today, though, I'm very close to being all-in on Superman because of Rebirth, and I think I have an idea of what kept me away from the character's published exploits for almost 4 years.

But I'll get to that.

Let's start here.

Past Lives

I know Superman.  I grew up with him.  I had some random pre-Crisis issues of World's Finest, Superman, and Action Comics comics, but DC Comics Presents were my favourite.  In DCCP Superman would team up with heroes (and sometimes Villains) across the DC Universe.  What spoke to me about these books as a youngling was how effortlessly Superman interacted with every corner of the DC Universe.  He was the heart of the place.  It felt like he belonged there, everywhere, always had and always would.  Hell, one of my favourite Superman stories is still Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (my beaten and battered oversized treasury edition one of my most favored childhood keepsakes and it's really just the best DC Comics Presents story they ever made), where two very different worlds collided and yet these two great heroes, one fiction and one real, managed to both feel at home together.

Lex's computer tells him Clark Kent is
Superman and Lex literally cannot
believe issue #2!
I was a fairly steadfast reader of Superman Post-Crisis.  Before I discovered comic book stores, I would truck on down to my local dirt mall and jump between the smoke shop and the book store looking on the magazine and spinner racks for the latest issues of Superman, Action Comics,  Adventures of Superman, and Justice League (and the occasional dip into something else, but those ...those were my must buys).  They had literally just relaunched Superman into three new titles, and depowered him, started from scratch.  And yet, the costume was Superman, the character was Superman from the get go.  This was not a reluctant hero.  This was a man of confidence and ability..  He just felt right.  He fit the DC Universe perfectly and he felt refreshed.

Those first 6 years were glorious for the character.  Not perfect by any means, but they felt like the character at his best.  By 1991 Superman was basically weekly, with a fourth Superman title added (Man of Steel) and a tighter continuity between books.  This saw the introduction of the infamous weekly triangle, which would show the story order number for each year (a feature which persisted until 2002).  The stories through this time saw Superman kill some evil Kryptonians and have a serious emotional crisis as a result, disappearing into space.  He also lost his powers to Red Kryptonite for a short stint, and bounced around time for a while.  There's are some tremendously fun (if very 90's) stories that efficiently established this character as the preeminent hero of the DCU (and it's worth noting the character continued to grow in popularity even during the marketing chaos of Tim Burton's Batman).

By the time Superman faced Doomsday and was killed late in '92, it felt like this character had earned the hype that the event was receiving.  It was a very big deal, because this was a character who was the epitome of "hero" in the DC Universe.  His loss was Earth-shaking.  Less than a decade into the post-Crisis DCU and it had already been established that the GALAXY knew and respected Superman.  John Byrne, Marv Wolfman, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Louise Simonson and numerous others, through fleet, exciting storytelling, built a Superman that was legendary without relying upon scraps from the past, but also not completely discounting his heritage either. 

He returned to life, revealed himself to his true love, got married, and after about 10 years, entered a weird holding pattern.  The storytellers had put him (and the audience) through the wringer with the character, so it was only natural that he hit a lull.  But for me, like for a great many, I'm sure, that lull persisted for some time.  I wasn't much of a regular Superman reader again after that.  I would check in for certain story arcs or just hop back on an issue for fun, but the thing was it was always a Superman I could recognize, and it would take no time at all to feel at ease with the character.

A New Life

The New 52 completely rebooted the character, turned him into something unrecognizable.  Here wasn't the Superman we recognized as the guardian of Metropolis, protector of Earth, hero to the galaxy.  It was almost as if DC was resistant to building him up as a hero, like they didn't want to shine the spotlight on him and make him stand out in any way.  He wasn't even a familiar Clark Kent.  And we had three very different writers in Grant Morrison, George Perez and Geoff Johns approaching the character from completely different angles.

Morrison's Action Comics was building the character in the past, exploring his origins, what brought him into the public eye.  But at the same time, Morrison was exploring concepts of heroism and toying with elements of the archetype's past, which made for fascinating reading but didn't quite build an inspirational hero fans could glom onto.  It was a little to heady, a little to scattershot, and a lot too condensed to be meaningful.

Perez was playing in the "5 years later" present-day of the New 52 (the dual timeline did the New 52 no favors at all) and seemed more interested in building around Superman than building Superman himself, putting focus on rebuilding supporting players.  Perhaps it's so he wasn't conflicting with Superman's depiction in Johns' Justice League where he was a lot more aggressive and angry than Supermen past, a signature flaw of the New 52's many missteps.

I quit Perez's Superman after only a couple of issues (Perez quit soon after himself) and I rode Morrison's whackadoo story through to it's conclusion, after which I put Superman on a shelf.  I wasn't sure I'd ever return.

He just didn't feel like my guy.  He wasn't completely mishandled like Zack Snyder's Superman, but he didn't feel at all familiar.  Brooding and kind of angry, aimless...he wasn't the epitome of heroism, and I didn't admire him as a character.  There wasn't really a bright beacon to the New 52 and this Superman was most assuredly not trying to be it.

A Return of Sorts

In Convergence: Superman I was reintroduced to Clark and Lois of pre-Flashpoint.  I hadn't seen them in years... even before New 52, it'd been a while.  As crappy as the overall Convergence event was, though (I reviewed Convergence, painfully, week-by-week for Bleeding Cool last year, links to week 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), what it had going for it was that it allowed the writers to advance the pre-Flashpoint characters.  I mean, Lois and Clark got married in 1996 and for 15 years their story barely advanced.  Richard Donner and Geoff Johns wrote a wonderful arc around 2008 which gave Lois and Clark an adopted Kryptonian son (the product of Zod and Ursa in the Negative Zone) but it was short lived.  Apparently DC editorial didn't want Lois and Clark to have a kid.

With Convergence: Superman, Lois and Clark were trapped, away from home, and Clark was depowered.  They were adjusting to their new life in a bottled up Gotham (yes Gotham), although Superman had never given up hope, nor stopped exploring the possibilities of returning home.  Lois was pregnant.  The New 52 said that happiness was a suckhole of good storytelling, so they didn't allow happy couples, and definitely no weddings, and no kids.  But with just those two Convergence issues of seeing Lois and Clark together, a content, unified couple, it was a tidal wave of exactly what was missing from the New 52, and the New 52 Superman specifically.

The Post-Crisis Clark's interest in Lois comes from her as an inspirational figure, of the strength of humanity to fight injustice even without superpowers.  Superman is a god amongst men, but Clark doesn't see himself like that.  He's a human being first, Kryptonian/Superhero second and third.  Lois is his match.  Oh, post-Crisis Superman had a moment with Wonder Woman (see Action Comics #600) but they understood a relationship based on the fact that they were the strongest man and woman on the planet wasn't a solid foundation for a relationship.

Like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, the New 52 didn't start Superman out properly.  They didn't establish him as a human first... and Superman shouldn't be just any human, but the best of them.  Altruistic and good, selfless and caring.  This New 52 Superman distanced himself, was a bit of a loner, and felt different in such a way as to keep him at arm's length from people.  I don't know/remember how the New 52 really detailed his relationship with Jonathan and Martha Kent, but pre-Flashpoint, they were his home.  They were always there for him, and they were even there for his extended family...Kara, Connor...  Clark Kent is the reflection of his parents.  Take them out of the picture or mishandle their parentage and you get a Superman who's not quite right.

Spinning out of Convergence came Superman: Lois and Clark, an 8-part mini-series which jumps ahead a few years from the end of Convergence where pre-Flashpoint Lois, Clark and baby Jonathan have escaped obsolescence.  In Lois and Clark the family has been living on the New 52 Earth in secret, taking the last name "White".  Lois had been writing copy for local Northern California press, while Clark was taking on odd jobs and doing a little clandestine superheroing on the side.  They weren't home, but they weren't commiserating about the loss of their entire reality, they were making due and they were happy.

As with Convergence: Superman, here Dan Jurgens gets to the beating heart of this couple.  They're two incredibly strong people who are even stronger together.  The loss of one's entire reality may drive some to madness or depression, not these two.  They soldier on and continue to fight the good fight.  Clark can't help himself, he has to do good.  It's what he was born to do.  He's realized that coming out in public wouldn't be good for him or his family, so he's taken a page from his old friend Batman and operated in the shadows.  Lois, meanwhile, is taking on the Intergang of this Earth, both acknowledging for all this reality's differences from their own, there's a lot the same too.

I haven't finished reading Superman: Lois and Clark, because I came late to it and I'm trying to catch up.  I really should have added it to my pull when it came out, considering how much I liked the return of these characters in Convergence: Superman, plus how amazing Lee Weeks' art was.  I just didn't want to keep being reminded of the old DCU and how little it really mattered in the world of the New 52.  My Superman wasn't the Superman anymore, so it didn't seem worthwhile to pick up this mini-series.

Then came the news, the news of Rebirth and solicitations which seemed to indicate that old-DCU Superman was once again going to be the Superman, and "The Final Days of Superman" was going to be the death of the New 52 Clark Kent.  I had to get on this.  I had to see this transition for myself, else I wouldn't believe it.


I returned to New 52 Superman for his final days... and it was ...I dunno...  I can't say disappoitnting, because I had no real investment in this Superman.  It was eye opening though.  Peter J. Tomasi spends 8 issues with Superman saying goodbye (the return of the weekly triangle, at least for this short stint was a welcome sight), and despite the best of intentions, it still felt like there was no heart there.  In the first page of the first book, Superman #51, Clark says "I'm dying".

It's a perfect storm, he realizes, having fought in the fire pits of Apokolips, been subjected to A.R.G.U.S.' kryptonite room and battled Rao (I didn't read this, but was this supposed to be a personification of the Kryptonian god?).  By page 6 Superman has given up.  He's stopped fighting.  He's accepted his fate, and from there he's out to say his farewells.

First stop was Lana, to tell her his final wishes, then to Lois, to give her the life story of Clark Kent: Superman.  He's then off to see Batman, to tell his friend of his situation, but it's a dual-purpose visit, since he needs Batman's help to find Supergirl.  Their dynamic still feels young, and there's still more than a bit of playful antagonizing going on.  Batman wants to fight for a cure but Superman waves it off.  They find Supergirl in National City where she's enlisted the DEO to help get kickstart her powers (to tie the comics closer to the Supergirl TV show).  Apparently Kryptonian powers on this Earth are pretty sketchy in their consistency.

Wonder Woman shows up at the Fortress of Solitude, kind of pissed.  "Am I the last to know?"
"Batman told you," Superman accurately guesses.
Their conversation from there doesn't feel like that of a couple who really knows each other.  There's no sense of comfort between these two.  These scenes feel like characters who are attracted to each other and have an emotional investment, but they don't feel like a part of each others' lives.  They fight together, they kiss...but they both have whole other lives, other lives that really matter to them, other lives where they don't fit together.

As I was saying earlier, Superman and Wonder Woman don't work because for Superman, she would be alien to him.  He's a Kansas farm boy, she's an Amazon Warrior.  She is the god he shouldn't see himself as. That doesn't fit.

There's so much awesome 1970's
Super-Team Family/DC Comics Presents
flavour to this Yannick Paquette cover.
Love it.
I missed Batman/Superman #32.  By this point people had caught on to the fact that they really were killing off New 52 Superman, and, like me, their curiosity started driving up demand.  I did the rounds at a half dozen local comic shops just prior to the end of this 8-part arc, and all of them were void of most back issues of this storyline.  Batman/Superman #32 the scarcest of all since it introduced the New Superman of China, and some of those types (meaning comics speculators) snatched it up, hoping it'll jump in value very quickly.

[A, ahem, second printing just came out of B/S #32, and it is by far my favourite issue of "The Final Days of Superman" arc.  Any appearance by the Morrison-created Chinese super-team, the Great Ten is welcome.  If they're a supporting player to The New Super-Man series I may just have to check it out.  Tomasi seems to have a great feel for the characters, and Doug Mahnke is just a monster this issue.  It looks sooooo gooood.]

Throughout this story, Tomasi had a thread of an escaped convict who wound up with Superman's solar flare power, as well as gaining some of Superman's memories in the process.  He was confused into thinking he was Clark Kent as well as the one true Superman, but through his confusion his true nature meant his ego couldn't handle there being other Clark Kents or Supermen, so he sought to eliminate them.  He kidnapped New 52 Lois and took her to the White's house, where he threatened old-DCU Superman's family.  It's worth noting here that above all, Old Clark's priority is his family's safety.  So even though he could help Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman take on this Solar Flare guy, his initial impulse was to secure his family in a makeshift Fortress of Solitude he built in the Colarado rockies.  Afterall, surely this Earth's trinity can handle a rogue Superman on their own at least for a little while?

He does return to help, but New 52 Superman needs to do it alone and fights him off.  Defeating the Solar Flare dude, he's exhausted himself.  Old Superman helps bring him to Earth gently, but he's in his dying moments.  The kryptonite poisoning consumes him from within, and he turns to...dust?  Stone?  Can't really tell.  In the process of dying, a surge erupts from Superman's body, knocking over Lois and Lana (given that there's a "Superwoman" comic comic starring Lois lane, there was a power transfer happening here...because transferring Superman's power to other people is a thing in the New 52).

Superman's death in the New 52 is literally a whimper.  A cough, and the spark goes out.  Some people are there to say goodbye, and it's sad, but it's not the tragedy it should be.  Old Clark is there, watching his doppleganger succumb, Batman too.  Superman dies before them and then Batman turns to old Clark and says "There's lots of questions...."
Old Clark replies "Which I'll answer at another time," and flies off.  It's such a draw away from the moment.  It's like Tomasi and DC in general were saying "your focus is on old Superman" here.

New 52 Superman's death is kind of nothing at this point.  Certainly nothing like the epic 22 splash pages of Superman #75 and the palpable sacrifice Superman made in a kill-or-be-killed tussle with an unstoppable creature. This was a cumulation of sacrifices made to be a hero, but there was no drama to this death, and equally no fanfare.  I'm not hearing much in the way of lamentation over New 52 Superman being killed off.


There's a 2-page spread in Rebirth, heroes and media have gathered at the site of Superman's death.  Cyborg seems to be looking for something while Shazam strokes his chin in puzzlement.  Wally West's narration states "Someone's died... Superman, or... I can't see him clearly for some reason."  It's as if there's some confusion over the validity of this Superman.  There's a Mr. Oz character, who apparently trained the New 52 Superman, states "You and your family are not what you believe you are.  And neither was the fallen Superman."

Mr. Oz is neither friend nor enemy, terms that are "too simple...when you consider the long game.  Some might call this that."  If Mr. Oz is Ozymandias, Adrian Veidt, it's possible that he and Dr. Manhattan are playing a game in universe creation for their own science or amusement, like some ersatz Rick Sanchez (from Rick and Morty).

Superman Rebirth was scripted by Tomasi, and paves the way for Old Clark's reintroduction as the Superman.  In this story he looks to take Superman's remains to the Fortress of Solitude, where he can be put into the regeneration matrix.  He's surprised to find Lana Lang already at the memorial monument stealing the remains, fulfilling her promise (form Superman #51) to take him home and bury him next to his parents.

Tomasi's script here is at times completely on-point, and at others a complete mess. In the early pages old Clark is so cagey about some things to Lana.  "It's a long story that I'm not able to talk about for a variety of...personal reasons."  One panel later he reiterates "Like I said, there are personal reasons at play here that prevent me from revealing too much about...".  But then he goes on to spill his guts about alternate realities and his own, somewhat different past, Tomasi inserting a wholly unnecessary 7-page recap of the death of Superman.

Old Clark gets into it with Lana about his decision to stay out of the affairs of this world, to keep himself secret, to stay out of New 52 Clark's life.  But he knows a world like this needs a Superman, a hero to inspire the best in others, to right wrongs, and to help those needing help, doing the best one man can do.  "I came back from certain death -- which means so can he."
"You seem so sure of yourself that I want to believe you," Lana replies.
"Why don't you?"
"Because Clark was my closest friend.  I can feel in my heart that he's gone."
Once again, the old DCU Superman talks of hope.  The New 52 character accepts the tragedy.

The best moment here is old Clark realizing that his doppleganger had made some improvements to the Fortress.  "Never occured to me to do it in my fortress...but how obvious... he honored both."
Right next to the crystal statue of Jor-El and Lara holding Krypton aloft is a giant statue of Jonathan and Martha Kent holding up the Earth.  The reason it didn't occur to you, old Clark is because your Ma and Pa Kent were still there for you (Jonathan Kent died not much before Flashpoint).  Even still, even if they were alive still, a tribute to both sets of parents is a great idea.

But old Clark has to succumb to the brutal realities of the New 52 Earth, and accept that he can't bring this world's Clark back.  There is no regeneration matrix in this reality.  In a way, old Clark has to accept his own mortality along with the other Clark's as well.

For the past year, combining Convergence Superman and Superman: Lois and Clark, Jurgens has been the shepherd of old Clark into the new DCU, just as he was the shepherd of Superman into both his death and rebirth 20 years ago (I just felt a shiver up my back at the realization of how long ago that was).  Jurgens has been tied to the character ever since, despite having gone on to do countless other projects (including a triumphant return to Booster Gold in the late aughts, a character he created).  He's not necessarily a beloved figure in that association.  All the scrutinizing of "The Death of Superman" over the years has called into question how good a story it actually was (and to be fair, it's not the best ever, but you cannot deny it's place in comic book history) or how good a villain Doomsday is (he's fairly one note, but he served a purpose and has been way overused since), but it sits uncomfortably on Jurgens, like it's his only contribution to the character, when his contributions are voluminous.

Action Comics #957 serves a dual purpose: to bring old Clark back into the fold as the Superman (based on Tomasi' groundwork in "The Final Days of Superman" and Superman: Rebirth ) and to put Lex Luthor in some power armor and adopt the role of Superman of Metropolis.

On of the immediate problems (and not just here but in Rebirth as well) is the continuity flow.  Has Superman been reported dead?  Or missing?  There seems to be confusion between the Rebirth books exactly what the public knows.  Hell, Jimmy Olson seems surprised by the news for some reason.  I mean, they built a monument with a statue having been commissioned.  It's just weird that there's this much confusion around what Superman's status is.  Not that it's important, long term, but it makes for a messy transition.

There are, however, two bigger problems with Action Comics' Rebirth.  The first finds Clark shaving the beard (or, rather, singeing it off with his heat vision...that bathroom's gotta stink) and putting on the old red and blue tights (only they're not the old ones, there's no red underroos and no red booties.  But the Nehru collar is gone as is all the ornate piping, so it's not quite classic, but also not trying so hard to be "new").  He flies off to Metropolis to publicly show that there is still a Superman and to call out Luthor as a villain, despite the fact that in all their investigation of this Earth's Luthor he and Lois have not found any dirt on him.  Superman -- MY Superman, remember -- then slanders Luthor publicly and assaults him, pawing at the "S" on his chest like a madman.

I don't know what kind of relationship Lex and New-52 Superman had...I think Lex was even in the Justice League for some reason...but for MY Superman to do this is way out of character.  He's the bad guy in this scene, and in front of the cameras, he's the one in the wrong.  MY Superman is smarter than that.  He would stare Luthor down, take the measure of this man, and play the long game.  He would shake Luthor's hand, announce their cooperative spirit to the public and keep an even closer eye on him as a colleague.  Keep you friends close, and your enemies closer, no?

Man, add this one to the "Superman's A Dick" blog.

"Making it appear like I attacked you? Tricky as ever Luthor."
No, I don't like this, don't like this one bit.  I know this is Action Comics, but out-of-character action is not what we need.  Luthor's responses are all on point here, this "imposter" is indeed an imposter, and the instigator.  Superman's ego is not so big as to let another world's Lex try and fight in Superman's image.  Surely he remembers Alexander Luthor form Earth-3?

The next big issue is where this ends, and where the solicits for upcoming issues have already noted where it's going.  Doomsday.  Again.  Bloody again. And again and again and again.  Each appearance of this mindless, characterless beast dilutes his initial appearance, taints the threat he represents.  Because he killed Superman once should make him such an immense threat always, but that's the very reason why he's not so scary.  He's already killed Superman, and the writers aren't going to let it happen again.  So he's not a stakes raiser.  He's just a tiring obstacle.

It's the best and worst of Jurgens here.  I mean, he made it through 10 issues of Convergence and Lois and Clark presenting some pretty challenging obstacles in old Clark's way, but the character triumphed a Superman's triumph, with smarts, and patience.  Throwing him back in the red and blue seems to have given Jurgens a seizure and he doesn't know what else to do but have him fight both Luthor and Doomsday for no good reason.

I like the family scenes, and the mystery of another Clark Kent showing up at the Daily Planet and meeting Jimmy in the crowd of the Superman/Lex tussle... that's a nice lil' mystery to set up.  Enough with this Doomsday malarky.  And we've had our aggressive Superman.  He died.  Let the real hero please stand up, now, thanks.

And the End

Those differences, between pre-Flashpoint Superman and New 52 Superman.  They were actually fairly tangible.  A lot of it had to do with the relationships the man had, and even more had to do with the actions of the character.  And hope (really leaning on the meaning of the "S" shield from Man of Steel, perhaps the best new idea in the film).  As I said, I didn't stick with New 52 Superman very long, so I may have missed some incredible character growth there.  During "The Final Days..." I was surprised that Lois was Superman's best friend... but all the other connections, Batman, Wonder Woman, Steel, Supergirl, they all felt like relationships with impediments.  I want old Clark's return as Superman to be as open and outgoing.  I want characters to notice how much more hopeful he is, how much more resolved he is. MY Superman has been a mentor to everyone from day one, and it's going to be amazing watching him inspire his own son as a hero.  I wasn't even considering it, but now a Super Sons book, with a 13-year-old Damien babysitting a 5-year-old Jonathan... that seems exciting.  The trinity book, where Wonder Woman and Batman have to learn to work with a Superman different from whom they knew and loved...that's all the more fascinating.  There's a whole new world for Superman to inspire, perhaps even Lex Luthor.  Let's remember part of Rebirth is to change the way we look at the modern DCU (and perhaps our own world), and a Superman from a brighter past seems like a logical guide to take us forward.

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