Friday, August 26, 2011

Flashback Five On: Post Crisis Superman

Today Matt introduces a new series here to the FBU, the Flashback Five. In these articles, we will cover 5 cool (or uncool) things about a comic or run of comics. Matt starts this series with 5 things he liked about the Post Crisis Superman Reboot!

I've never at any point found Superman to be an unrelatable character. Seriously.

Why? Because I related to Clark Kent. Clark was awkward, clumsy, and hid certain aspects of his true self from others. Deep down, he just wanted to tell a girl he liked how he really felt about her. Clark Kent is who we are in our everyday lives. People might judge us by our looks or underestimate our abilites. Superman is the truth of our potential and the dream of how cool it would be if, just as easily as Clark rips open his shirt to reveal the \S/, we could peel away our everyday selves to reveal the very best of who we really are. Even if Superman is the "real" person it's not about a god making fun of humans, but rather a seemingly ordinary person casting off the mundane to reveal extraordinary truth within.

So while I was a fan of Superman before the first issue of John Byrne's Man Of Steel hit the stands, I can still appreciate the dramatic value of Byrne's "Clark Kent is the reality" approach. The Post-Crisis version presents a Superman who in addition to his battle for truth and justice must also constantly defend his own humanity from forces that seek to control or corrupt him, including the ghosts of his own alien heritage. Byrne also scaled his powers back to a considerable degree from what they had become, both in the more humor-oriented stories of the Silver Age and in the Bronze Age where Supermans god-like power levels were readily embraced.

So as we are about to embark upon (or endure) the current DC Relaunch, this is a perfect time for a Flashback Five on the last Superman reboot!

1. THE LOOK: While I would later gain a better appreciation for the artwork of Curt Swan, as a kid I found myself wishing Superman could just be more dynamic-looking. Part of this was influenced by seeing the work of greats like Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez or Neal Adams on covers and Superman merchandise. Often I wondered why art this cool was not in the actual Superman comic book. Garcia-Lopez, for example, drew DC Comics Presents. That book was a blast, but why would you not bring a talent like that to the big show for a regular gig?

I think this is part of why John Byrne getting Superman was as huge as it was. Byrne had just come off his popular stints on X-Men and The Fantastic Four. What he brought to Superman in visual terms was, in my opinion an interesting way of giving Superman all the handsomeness and genuine sincerity of Christopher Reeve while simultaneously giving him a physique that put him on par with 80s action movie icons. In fact, his Superman looked like he could snap Rambo and The Terminator in half like twigs even without his cells acting as solar batteries. Rather than changing Superman's costume, Byrne enhanced what was already there. He redesigned the shield in a subtle but noticeable way and made the emblem a larger element of Superman's chest. Superman's hair fell naturally into that signature curl rather than it looking spit-shined into place. He drew the way the cape lays from his collar to his shoulders in a fuller, more regal way. Many of the artists who followed Byrne (among them George Perez, Kerry Gammil, Bob McLeod, Dan Jurgens, and Tom Grummett) preserved this new look.

2. CLARK KENT: As previously stated I enjoy and even relate to the nerdy version of Clark and I have no real issue with Superman being "real person". However mild-mannered doesn't necessarily mean nerdy. Byrne inspired by George Reeves created a more extroverted and assertive Clark Kent who uses his wits in his investigative reporting. Byrne balanced this by wisely having Superman never mention that he has a secret identity at all. Nobody has any real reason to think of Clark as anything but a regular joe.

Indeed, in a later "post-Crisis" issue where the reader is made privy to a bit of the average person's view of Superman, the idea that he would have a day job doesn't seem to occur to them at all. Why would it? One cab driver even theorizes that Superman just chills out in some secret hideaway with a poker table and a giant bowling alley, playing against other heroes until duty calls. The only part about this that doesn't work as well for me is when Clark begins to become a more public figure after having published a bestselling novel and winning a Pulitzer. Clark doesn't necessarily have to act like a klutz for the secret identity to be plausible (within the fantasy context), but at least one of the two identities needs to be relatively low-key and out of the spotlight.

3. MA AND PA KENT: While it was very counter to the first comics I read and my memories of the Kents, especially in the first Superman movie, I find the idea of keeping the Kents alive to be a benefit to the character.

Superman having aging parents exists as a reminder to Clark of how short and fragile human life is, just in a much more subtle way than his original "double orphan" back story. Plus I think many people can relate to having a life in the big city, while going back and forth to the old quiet hometown to visit their folks. Ultimately it goes back to the whole thing of Superman needing to protect his humanity. The Kents act as an anchor not only for the threats coming from aliens and Kryptonian artifacts, but also from the often dehumanizing grind of everyday life.

4. AS THE DAILY PLANET TURNS: After Byrne leaves the three (eventually four) Superman titles begin to run interconnected stories that feel almost like a weekly tv series. This helped to build a lot of momentum and let the audience feel like something was always happening.

The writers were also pretty good about picking up old plot threads or referencing plot elements from the very beginning of the reboot. In that respect, the eventual Death of Superman story seems almost like a season finale while the Return story feels like a season opener, like Star Trek TNG's Best of Both Worlds. This has the downside that always occurs when a superhero comic emphasizes narrative instead of done-in-one issues for an ongoing monthly: the story can't end. You can only ever have a beginning and an increasingly-complicated middle.

5. CEO LEX: Early on, this version of Lex was frequently compared to the Kingpin, especially since Bryne initially drew a heftier Luthor. Later, the character cloned his way to a better physique after having slowly poisoned his original body by wearing a Kryptonite ring. Luthor is always the dark side of the American Dream that Superman represents, even the Gene Hackman Luthor of the Donner films. The new Lex Luthor personified a new take on that and the fundamental idea of Lex as a man who abused his own genius. Instead of the pursuit of evil for its own sake, or out of being mortified about losing his hair the new Lex used his genius in endless pursuit of personal gain.

The post-Crisis Lex became a symbol of unremorseful lust for power and Lexcorp became an icon of corporate greed. Having Superman's opposite be someone concerned with status, money, and power as well as someone who was cynically jealous of Superman really works. It also meant Luthor could appear more regularly in the books, since his money could make him completely above the law. The only drawback to this is that I think it has a shelf life. It's a great way to bring Luthor into the story but after awhile it gets old seeing Superman losing out to a bald dude in a business suit.

While there is much I think did not work with the post-Crisis reboot of Superman, even aspects of it that I'm still on the fence about after all these years there was also a lot that I did enjoy and I wish this version had gotten some sort of proper send off that would have been a satisfying conclusion to what Byrne started. For me though I kind of like to think of Clark and Lois being married as a good place to end. Afterall what better way to conclude a version of Superman whose humanity was so central to the stories than by letting him have the only thing he ever asked for himself, to be with the woman he loved.

Have a great weekend!

- Matt


BrittReid said...

The only real problem I had with the post-Crisis Superman was the alteration from the "Superman is the real identity and Clark Kent is the facade" dynamic to "Clark Kent is the real identity".
To me, it was one of the main "selling points" of the character, that he was a near-omnipotent demi-god who chose to be nerdy.

The fact that none of the post-Crisis artists "revamped" the classic costume is a credit to them.
BTW, here's an interesting question:
In the mid-1980s, DC had Jack Kirby redesign the Fourth World characters' costumes for the Super Powers line so they could legally pay him royalties by claiming the redesigned characters were "new" characters for licensing purposes!
(Kirby's old contract didn't include licnensing, reprints, etc), but Paul Levitz, Jeanette Kahn and several others figured out the "workaround" to help the King!)
Did Jim Lee and the rest do the same thing so they could collect royalties on future licensing from the characters?

And the final pre-Crisis tale(s) "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" is one of the greatest comics stories ever.
Too bad there's no equivalent this time around...

JP Cote said...

"Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" I found the plot was weak if not lazy, 'Kill and destroy everything we can'. No real story to it at all, just a concept. Not Moore's best outing.

Byrne's take on Superman was great. The early stories were bang on (even the new villain Bloodsport wasn't that bad). And it was a credit to the DC crew that they decided to retell the stories rather than redesign the costumes. That's the heart of any comic.

I am getting a bit excited about Grant Morrison's spin on Superman. I am not a fan of all of his work but form what I have seen it looks like he will take Supes back to his very early roots and make him more of a vigilant being sought by the police rather than an ally right off the bat. There is there, again, a lot more opportunity for newer or novel storytelling. The demi-god Superman seems very difficult to write for or to and I think it is a big reason why the public attaches so much more to Batman these days than Superman. Put him back down on the streets, in between the buildings where we dwell. The angry god version I heard Mark Millar promoting a few years ago gave me chills. What you needs is an every-man's Superman.

MattComix said...

I think too often people want Superman to be dark and angry or to be "ground level". But I think rather than yanking him out of the sky and trying to make the character compensate for and feed a cynical popular culture Superman can and should offer a much needed alternative.

Anonymous said...

John Byrne is GOD!!!


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