DC's bold gamble gives us a Superman of the people
Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Sept. 13, 2011 -- DC’s grand experiment, “The New 52” titles starting over at issue #1, launched 13 of them Sept. 7, with augers and portents of success. Especially for Superman, whose Action Comics #1 seems to be the biggest seller.
There are no official numbers yet, but shop owners and customers on my website and elsewhere on the Internet reported sell-outs all over the country, especially Batgirl #1, Swamp Thing #1 and the surprise hit Animal Man #1. My local shop, Comics & Collectibles in Memphis, Tenn., said Sept. 8 that all 13 first issues had sold out at the distributor level (meaning they can’t be re-ordered until there are second printings), and #comicmarket on Twitter, where comics retailers chat, is electric with debate, surprise and more excitement than I thought possible among these often cynical merchants.
These anecdotal reports are encouraging. But comic-book readers in this country total less than one percent of the population – maybe as low as one-tenth of one percent – and it’s not only current and lapsed readers DC is hoping to reach, but new ones. The bitter irony is that there’s a huge superhero revival on the big screen, but that success is leaving the comics market, from whence those characters leaped and flew, untouched.
That’s DC’s true grand experiment: The Hunt for New Readers. Part of the calculus is same-day release of all their comics digitally at comiXology.com (at the same price as the print versions, to avoid slitting the throats of the brick-and-mortar stores).
But DC is definitely putting its best foot forward. I don’t have room to discuss all of “The New 52” in this column (although I promise I will on my website), but I have a lot to say about Action Comics #1.
Actually, it’s Action writer Grant Morrison who has a lot to say about Superman, and he has already done so in his book Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human ($28, Spiegel and Grau).
Morrison has written a lot of critically successful and often controversial comics, and there’s probably no one on Earth who has thought as much, or as well, about superheroes. He’s especially philosophical about Superman, the first and greatest superhero, the one who created the genre and gave his name to it.
To backtrack a bit, Morrison attributes the various superhero “waves” in history as a response to existential crises. Superman arrived in 1938 during the Great Depression and Hitler’s reich. The superhero revival of the late 1950s and 1960s was, he said, a response to the fear of The Bomb and total annihilation at any second. And a third wave of superheroes, the current one, is the same:
“Look away from the page or the screen and you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve arrived into mass consciousness, as they tend to arrive everywhere else, in response to a desperate SOS from a world in crisis,” he writes in his book. “Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian role models?”
If you suspect that’s a hint about Morrison’s Superman in Action, you’d be right. The Man of Tomorrow’s incarnation in the 1940s, he wrote, “was a hero of the people. The original Superman was a bold humanist response to Depression-era fears of runaway scientific advance and soulless industrialism.”
While it’s a lot to read into a single issue, it appears that Morrison’s Superman in Action will return to those roots. After forcing a confession from a ruthless corporate CEO, the new/old Superman announces “You know the deal – treat people right, or expect a visit from me!” To blue-collar workers being forced from their homes: “If you need me, I’ll be there!” Even his Clark Kent persona – working for one of the Daily Planet’s competitors – is a crusader for the little guy.
Superman’s current power levels also harken to his past; he only leaps instead of flying, and he isn’t invulnerable – he’s injured several times in this first issue. There are hints his power levels are increasing by leaps and bounds, though, so we might not have long to enjoy this Man of Steel 1.0.
This is a huge departure from decades of the character’s role as invincible protector of the status quo. And to tell you the truth, it’s fresh air. The rich and powerful don’t need a champion, but the rest of us do. I like this all-too-human Superman, and I think a lot of you will, too.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at firstname.lastname@example.org.