Superman Volume 2: Secrets and Lies

Collecting Superman #7-12, Superman Annual #1

Writers: Dan Jurgens, Keith Giffen

Artists: Dan Jurgens, Jesus Merino

DC Comics, $24.99, color, 176 pages

There's nothing in this book that couldn't have happened before The New 52. That's a complaint.

It's really a continuation of my complaint about the Super-books since the 2011 revamp: They haven't changed enough about Superman to suit me.

Because I'm worried that Superman, as constituted before The New 52, had run his course. That he was no longer relevant. That, as a myth, he had lost his capacity to represent our hopes, dreams or fears. I mean, for heaven's sake, he's only the third biggest franchise at DC -- and shrinking. Worse, even Captain Comics finds him a little boring.

Predictable.

Bland.

So I was hoping for big changes in The New 52 for the Big Red S. I was hoping for the new writers to take a page from Grant Morrison's All Star Superman, and give us a Superman who wasn't just a strong guy who punched things, but an inexplicable, almost angelic presence whose abilities kept surprising us -- and amazing us. I wanted a Superman that could ignite a sense of wonder, as he no doubt did in the '30s and '40s, when flight and heat vision and bouncing bullets off one's chest was the stuff of dreams. I wanted a Superman whose powers and abilities are as far beyond the mortal men of today as they were to the mortal men of 1938.

Now, I don't expect a lot of change in Clark Kent. We're kinda stuck with the mild-mannered reporter. But I found it irritating that they launched the new Clark Kent with sliiiiight variations that we knew wouldn't last. Kent at the Daily Star? Give it a year, he'll be at the Planet. Lois dating someone else? Give it two years, and it'll be Lois & Clark again. Look, I know you can't change Clark Kent much, but do you have to insert changes that are so obviously temporary? That just insults the audience. Give us a change or two that can stick, if you're going to change anything at all.

But, as I said, I didn't hold out much hope for a modernized Kent. But Superman? He could change. He has before, as his powers morphed to keep up with the times. Jumping turned into flight. X-ray vision became heat vision, and infra-red vision, and telescopic vision and microscopic vision.

But then they stopped morphing. When was the last time we saw a real change in Superman's powers? Super-ventrioloquism? Seriously, it's 2013 -- flight, strength, invulnerability and heat vision are now referred to as "the standard power group" by comics fans. There's nothing there we haven't seen a jillion times; there's nothing there not shared by a dozen or so other characters. Even in the context of the stories, where Superman is supposed to be exceptional, he isn't. And he needs to be. He needs to as amazing to other superheroes as he is to the audience.

But we didn't get that. In fact, the stories in Superman these days could easily have been published  before 2011. In fact, with Dan Jurgens on the art -- and I like Dan Jurgens -- it looks like it could have been published 20 years ago!

But the art isn't the problem. It's the stories. In short, they don't amaze.

In the first volume of Superman, the Action Ace ... hit things. Big monster-type things. Nothing intricate, arcane or -- to tell you the truth -- interesting. Just lots of hitting, with occasional heat vision.

In this second volume, Superman ... hits things. Big, monster-type things. Nothing intricate, arcane or interesting. Just a lot of hitting, with occasional heat vision.

One of the monster-type things is Helspont, which I guess we're supposed to be excited about. I dunno, DC -- didn't you notice the sales numbers on WildStorm titles? We AREN'T interested in Helspont, or Grifter, or the whole Daemonite thing. Honest. We found it boring and derivative in its own line of books, and it doesn't look any better shoehorned into the DCU.

Especially since all Helspont does is a lot of hitting, with occasional use of some sort of power projection from his face that for all intents and purposes is heat vision. Hit, hit, heat vision, hit. Repeat.

As Joss Whedon said on Jimmy Fallon's Late Night, "One of the problems I had on [Avengers] was, everybody basically had punchy powers, where they were always punching something and it got boring after a while."

Whedon gets it. I sure hope DC gets it. I mean, it's Superman. DC needs to get it, and soon.

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My theory about Superman is that he should represent an idealised masculinity, and there's more than one masculine ideal he might embody. I'd characterise the Golden Age Superman as a man who the strength and will to bend others to his will. I'd characterise the Silver/Bronze version as an adult with responsibilities. There's counter-evidence to my theory, though; in the immediate post-Crisis period Byrne and Wolfman clearly did mean to represent Superman as a masculine figure (among other things they implied he had a sex life), and I remember that version as lacking something.

 

I don't think he needs to be perfectly good: a person can be good without being incapable of low thoughts and desires. In fact, the Golden Age Superman wasn't above deceiving people, breaking the law etc. I think he should enjoy being Superman; the Golden Age Superman clearly did, and that's part of his charm. I think he should be depicted as intelligent, and the morally intelligent adult in the room; that he should use his powers in creative ways (rather than just hit things), and be someone who can creatively solve problems, including difficult problems; and that he should be confident in his abilities.

 

In the Golden Age Superman was aggressive. I think coming into the 50s a decision must have been taken to not have him use his power in violent ways, which is one of the reasons the stories of the era can come across as bland.

 

In the Julie Schwartz era action sequences became an increasingly important part of the stories, but the writers often had him use his powers in creative ways. So e.g. in Action Comics #494 Superman saves a train from a landslide that has covered the tracks by boring a tunnel through the rock with his heat vision instead of simply hitting it out of the way. Which example I mention because it's heat vision, not disintergrator vision, and presumably everyone on the train was killed when the super-heated rock gas under tremendous pressure forced it explosively backwards out of the tunnel like a cork out of a bottle. That's not what happened in the story, for some reason. But the approach of going out of one's way to have him use his powers creatively was correct, I think. Likewise Thor was probably better-handled earlier on when he was more creative in his use of his powers, even though Kirby could depict a great slugfest.

 

The Schwartz era stories also sometimes featured sequences in which Superman lost his cool and ranted a bit, saying something like "I'm Superman, SUPERMAN!" I think this detracts from the character, as that kind of thing is really an expression of frustration at one's impotence. Superman should never be more than temporarily impotent. I'd distinguish it from anger proceeding from moral disgust.

 

It looks to me like Jerry Siegel avoided including too much fantastic content in "Superman" early on; early Golden Age features with magician heroes were often more fantastic, and so was "The Spectre" sometimes. But he did include fantastic elements other than Superman in the strip sometimes. Be that as it may, I don't see there's any good reason why the strip shouldn't be as imaginative as e.g. "Thor" was in the 60s.

I like your analysis, Luke. I had to do a double take when one of your sentences seemed to imply that an ideal masculine figure wouldn't have a sex life, but you later explained that, sorta, as meaning that an ideal masculine figure wouldn't experience lust. I dunno about that; as they say, courage isn't the absence of fear, it's overcoming fear. So I would think ideal masculine figures would experience lust, and what makes them ideal is how they'd deal with it (i.e., honorably). But that's a philosophical difference we can explore another time.

I can offer some background to feed into your Superman-over-time essay. One thing is that Superman kept getting rejected by comic-strip syndicates and comics publishers because the editors felt he was too fantastic and nobody would buy into the premise. (This philosophy also explains why so many World War II "super" heroes weren't super in the least.) So maybe Siegel and Shuster kept the fantastic elements at a minimum due to editorial edict, for fear of losing the audience.

Also, there were two impetuses (impetusi?) to "domesticate" Superman in the late '40s and '50s. Steranko says in his history that editorial thought a more domestic Superman (and Wonder Woman) would be more in line with the sensibilities of soldiers returning from WWII. The other impetus was the Comics Code, which blanderized everything into pabulum. (Incidentally, one of the edicts in the original Code made romance between adults virtually impossible, so Superman and Lois Lane could not be a normal couple who had a normal romantic relationship, and instead played pranks on each other like Lucy and Charlie Brown.)

And Schwartz deliberately made Superman less Super, which is well documented. He felt the character was too powerful, and set about halving his power level, and making him fail on occasion. I remember disliking that at the time; it's all well and good -- and in character -- for Spider-Man to fail, but all characters should not be Spider-Man. Superman is -- or should be -- something hopeful and inspiring, something better than us mere mortals. That's the fantasy he represents, and that will always be relevant. Schwartz, I feel, took the character down the wrong path in a genuine attempt to make the character more relevant. I think it did the opposite.

Anyway, back to your thesis, I dunno if I agree that Superman should be the ideal of masculinity. I think he should almost be angelic, something above and removed from us, a Mt. Olympus figure that inspires by near perfection of character (not necessarily male character), abetted, of course, by amazing abilities that amaze us when he uses them in service to the moral good (instead of the reverse, which we can imagine, which is what makes Superman so super that he uses his abilities in the service of others instead of himself). Yes, he was "Super-dad" in the Silver Age, and an idealized version of that idea, but I didn't see that as necessarily filling out a masculine role so much as the role that was required of him at the time. Maybe in another era, he'd be more Super-Mom.

But I recognize that I could well be wrong. I'd be delighted to continue this conversation.

Regarding Superman's implicit sex life during the Byrne/Wolfman era, I meant to say it was one of the masculine characteristics of their version. They dropped the idea that Superman poses as clumsy or cowardly when Clark, so their Clark was also very masculine. According to my theory I should like their version, but I don't particularly (which is not to say I hate it) and I don't know why. Possibly it's just that I don't remember the stories of the era as all that inspired.

 

Denny O'Neil wanted to depower Superman, and did the Sand Superman storyline at the start of Schwartz's Superman run which supposedly left him with much less than his former power, but this was very quickly forgotten. The depowering that took was his Crisis reboot. Post-Crisis he was, I think, less imaginative in his use of his powers, and he ceased being a scientist.

 

Being an introvert myself, I like the beta-male Clark and more introverted Superman of the Weisinger and Schwartz eras. Part of the fun of Superman comics is Superman really being Superman when he's preteneding he's not as Clark, and that's something that goes right back to Golden Age.

 

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