Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Irony

So, Adult Swim's Mego-animated show "Robot Chicken" is going to be airing a DC Comics Special.

That would be "Robot Chicken," the show that basically spun out of the Mego-acted "Twisted MegoToyFare Theatre feature in the Wizard magazine that remained readable the longest.

That would be the same "Twisted ToyFare Theatre" that DC issued a cease and desist order to stop using their characters in any way, shape, or form, requiring ToyFare to replace DC characters in the strip reprints, often in ways that killed the humor and made no sense.

I like how DC growing a sense of humor is, itself, unintentionally funny.

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Superman Classics: "Red Glass"

You're no doubt all familiar with Miracle Monday, the holiday celebrated universe-wide on the third Monday of May, to commemorate Superman's triumph over evil itself. There's a lesser-known Superman-related holiday, though, and one with a bit of the...opposite tone. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, April 15th shall live on in infamy as the anniversary of Superman's Day of Wrath, commemorating the day when the Man of Steel began a three-week-long crusade to eradicate his enemies from the planet.

Andy Kubert covers!"Red Glass"
Superman (vol. 2) #56, Adventures of Superman #479, Action Comics (vol. 1) #666
Cover date: June 1991
Writer: James Hudnall
Penciller: Ed Hannigan
Inker: Willie Blyberg

Synopsis: Superman returns from a trip into space, and immediately foils a mugging. But when both the muggers and the muggee are afraid that he'll kill them--and when the muggers are vaporized by a "sonic blast" coinciding with Superman yelling, it begins to look like their fears are justified. Superman follows the mugging victim, straight into the "Museum of Dead Villains," where he learns about the aforementioned Day of Wrath. The museum houses macabe reminders of Superman's departed foes--Brainiac's broken spaceship, Prankster's gadgets, what's left of Metallo's body, Mr. Mxyzptlk's crystal-encased skeleton, and a host of wax dummies on loan from Mme. Tussaud's. In his rampage, Superman apparently killed everyone from Brainiac to Maxima to Darkseid to the Joker. Even Otis's skull is on display. When Superman leaves, he's confronted by a livid, wheelchair-bound Lois Lane. He tries his X-ray vision, to make sure she's not an elaborate android, and ends up heat-vision blasting her to death. This sort of thing continues until Jimmy Olsen kills Superman with a chunk of Kryptonite.

And then things get weird.

I would be okay with a Superman-shaped aquarium.

Superman wakes up, and whaddya know, he's destroyed Metropolis.

No words.

He gets ambushed by J'onn J'onzz and Guy Gardner, who he kills, though kind of accidentally. And then the army shows up. And it's not long before Superman goes full-on Plutonian.

Love the Mumm-Ra cape there, Supes.

But surely Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol will save the day, right?

The ending of the little saga reminds me of something out of a Star Trek episode, and I won't give it away entirely. These issues aren't too hard to find, and they're worth checking out.

Thoughts: This was definitely the trippiest Superman comic I've read since the Steve Gerber/Gene Colan "Phantom Zone" miniseries (which I may post on later, since it was a recent acquisition and is great). It's not just because of scenes and captions like the ones above, or huge full-page shots of the ruined Metropolis, though those qualify. It's because of what it does to you as a reader. I compared Superman to the Plutonian of "Irredeemable" above, and there are definite similarities--how could it be avoided? Both are stories asking "what if Superman went nuts and killed everyone?"

The big difference, and I think it's what made this story so powerful for me, is in reader identification. We the readers enter the universe of "Irredeemable" after Plutonian's heel turn. Outside of flashbacks, Plutonian is never the hero to the reader; we always identify Plutonian as the villain and the ragtag bunch of rebel heroes and villains as the protagonists. So when Tony incinerates children or commits other atrocities, we're recognizing him for the horrible person he is, and hoping that the heroes can eventually stop him.

"Red Glass" is different because it's not a Superman-analogue character. It's Superman. And the story uses Superman's long history and the reader's familiarity with the character as an advantage. The reader already sees Superman as a hero, knows that he would never kill, and so forth. So we assume that something's up, something's wrong, someone is manipulating Superman with a grand mind game. It doesn't hurt that Superman thinks the same thing, and we're primed to agree with him. And so we're rooting for Superman all along, to triumph and figure out what's going on. Even after we see him flash-fry Lois Lane in her wheelchair, we're rooting for Superman. Even when he accidentally kills the Martian Manhunter, we're rooting for Superman.

And when he starts taunting his enemies, bragging about his kills? Well, that's when the dissonance really hit me. That's when I finally started to see that maybe this guy who's just murdered five Justice Leaguers wasn't necessarily the hero of the story. That's where it got uncomfortable. We see superhero vs. superhero battles so often, see them turn out to be misunderstandings or pass by without lasting consequences, that I think they lose their impact. This one really, actually impacted me, and even though it seemed like something larger was clearly going on, by the end even I was wondering if I should be on Superman's side.

So, yeah, hit your back issue boxes and give "Red Glass" a shot. It's good comics.

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Monday, April 09, 2012

Superman Classics: Action Comics #582

I recently did a little back-issue binging, and with my recent post about great Superman stories fresh in my mind, I figured I'd write up a couple of thoughts. I hope to do this periodically, since I have a big ol' stack of older Superman comics taking up space on my desk, and it's not like I'm not going to read them.

Today's issue is:
Superman's lesser-known 'bring my parents back to life vision' was another casualty of the Crisis."The Strange Rebirth of Jor-El and Lara"
Action Comics (vol. 1) #582
Cover date: August 1986
Writer: Craig Boldman
Penciller: Alex Saviuk
Inker: Kurt Schaffenberger

Synopsis: Superman's having strange dreams about Krypton's destruction, which lead him to the revelation that Jor-El tried an experimental machine to store his and Lara's brainwave patterns inside young Kal-El's mind before launching him into space (shades of "Wrath of Khan" there). Superman consults the universe's greatest medical minds and develops a machine that will use his cells (which have a genetic record of his ancestors) to build new bodies to house the mind-patterns stored within his brain. And so Jor-El and Lara are re-born.

Way to throw the Kents under a bus there, Clarkie.

I'll chalk Clark's "real parents" line there up to exuberance; after all, these are people he hasn't seen since infancy, barring the occasional trip back in time. Of course [SPOILER ALERT], as it often is with these sorts of stories (Spider-Man would get the same plot a decade later), it's too good to be true. Superman has a fight with his super-parents at the Fortress of Solitude, which ends with them strapping him to his rocket with his indestructible cape, rigging the Kryptonian fuel inside to super-explode and super-kill him. Naturally, Superman escapes, and it turns out that his "parents" were actually noncorporeal entities captured and reprogrammed by a pair of gambling aliens, betting on whether or not Superman would break his code against killing (which, you'd think, would be a dangerous bet to win). Superman traps his "parents" in a noncorporeal state, and imagines that they'll soon forget their foray into corporeality.

Thoughts: I enjoyed this story as a nice done-in-one, and a look at what Superman would do if his birth parents really could be resurrected. In fact, this story would have been great except for one thing: the cop-out at the end. Under normal circumstances, sure, that genie needs to be put back into the bottle. Bringing Superman's parents back to life removes a driving source of pathos, and while it opens up new story avenues, it runs the risk of being seriously problematic (see also: Jor-El in "Superman II," "Smallville"). But this wasn't a normal circumstance. One month later, in "Action Comics" #583, was the second part of a story that began in "Superman." A story called "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Which means this was the very last pre-Crisis Superman story in Action Comics. Why not let Superman have his semi-happy ending? Why not let Jor-El and Lara be resurrected as the coda to Superman's Silver Age adventures? Any other month, and this story's circuitous alien plot would have been not just expected, but necessary. In August of 1986, though, it just seems cruel.

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Saturday, April 07, 2012

Let the power...return!

So, news broke recently that DC is publishing a new He-Man comic series. As a He-Fan from way back, I'm fairly excited by this. I'd be more excited if it were someone other than James Robinson at the helm, and I really don't have an opinion on Philip Tan. That said, it could hardly be worse than some of the issues that came out from the last series at Image/CrossGen/MVC, which I say with the utmost love and respect for the creators, knowing that their hands were largely tied with corporate red tape. The premise sounds a little like a fanfic I'd started years ago (and a little like the plot to She-Ra), but it could have some promise.

It doesn't really matter too much. If there's any character besides Superman whose comics I will definitely at least try, it's He-Man. Much to the detriment of my pockets.

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Top 10 Superman Stories

Eric, my one-time supplier, long-time friend, and erstwhile editor at Nerdy Nothings, posed me this question on Facebook:

With all your Superman fan-dom, do you have a top 5/10 Superman stories list, either published or in your brain? I'm trying to come up with mine now, and I'm curious what'd make your cut, since you've read a lot more
Strangely enough, it's not something I think I've blogged about before. So I thought I'd sit down and put together a top ten (because top five was too limiting). Based on the questions, here are the parameters I set for myself:
No Film: Eric said "read," so I omitted the various other-media adaptations. None of the movies, no Animated "Legacy" or "Destroyer" or "Mxyzpixelated."
No "Elseworlds": Nothing explicitly an imaginary story. Superman's fairly unique, I think, in that some of the best stories with the character tend to be the imaginary ones: Red Son, Secret Identity, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, etc. I wanted to focus on the relatively canonical Superman. With one arguable exception.

With that out of the way, here's my list.

Honorable Mentions
  • The Death & Return of Superman: I would love to include this in the list proper. It begins with a huge battle, showcasing Superman's strength and willingness to sacrifice anything for the safety of others. It continues by showing how Superman inspires those around him, from his would-be cousin to his fiancĂ©e to the rest of the superhero community, to four who would try to fill his shoes. It shows, perhaps even more subtly than other stories, what makes Superman who he is and why attempts to modernize him, to make him fit better with passing fads, are problematic at best. It also has some amazing art. But as a Superman story--and specifically, as a Superman story I could give to someone as an example of how great the character is, I think it largely fails. The character is present only through impact for the majority of the saga, but even before that it's mired in the continuity of the early '90s, with the extradimensional shapeshifting clone Supergirl, the clone of Lex Luthor posing as his own son but actually housing the original's brain, the inhabitants of Cadmus, and all that. The main story is a good one, but the peripheral material is all but impenetrable.
  • Action Comics (vol. 2) #1-8: I really enjoyed the story, and I should re-read it soon to get a better impression of the arc as a whole. In time, it may make its way into the list. But especially with that two-issue digression in the middle and the art shifts, I'm not sure I can pop it into the top ten yet.
  • Final Crisis/Superman Beyond: A great story, but as much a Batman story as a Superman one. And as a Superman story, it's a little hard on the brain.
  • Superman (vol. 1) #1: A great introduction to the character, and a look at what Superman was like in the Golden Age. Just not a lot of depth.
  • Hitman #34: A good, introspective Superman story, but one that's mostly just narrated.
  • "Must There Be a Superman" (Superman #247): A good, classic story that examines the continuing question of what Superman's place is in the world, and whether he does more harm than good. It's a story that's been done multiple times since (immediately following "Our Worlds At War," Roberson's "Grounded"), and I think it's a little too short and too pat to really make it into the top 10.
  • "A Hero's Journey" (Action Comics #800): This one only just barely didn't make the top ten. Mostly it's because I kind of wanted to cut down on Year One/Origin stories there. Honestly, though, this should be collected in a TPB along with "Man of Steel" and "For All Seasons" because it fills in and retells parts of those stories, interspersed with stories about how inspirational Superman really is.
  • DC One Million: One of the best crossovers of all time, and a good Superman story besides, but it's really only about Superman on the fringes.
  • Man of Steel: I would have finished this post hours ago, but I had to re-read "Man of Steel" and "Birthright" to be sure. The former is great for its brightness and vibrance, for how it touches on so many different important parts of Superman's history to update them for a modern age, but it dwells more on how Superman's powers work than who he is, and spends so much time reintroducing characters and elements from the past that it doesn't always work as a coherent story. Plus, Magpie?
The Top 10
  1. Emperor Joker: There are a lot of stories that probe what Superman does when stripped of the abilities and status that make him who he is. There are a lot of stories that examine the friendship between Superman and Batman, and what makes it work. There aren't a lot of stories that do it in a way that's as entertaining and heartfelt as this one tends to be. To be honest, though, this #10 spot could go to a lot of stories, and would probably be the one most likely to change depending on my mood.
  2. The Challenge of Luthor (Superman vol. 1 #4): The first appearance of Lex Luthor, where the arch-villain challenges Superman's brawn against his own brains. It's a great showcase of the conflict that has raged ever since, and reading it now makes it clear that it inspired quite a lot of the first Superman/Luthor confrontation in the more recent Action Comics (vol. 2) #2.
  3. Camelot Falls: It's "Must There Be a Superman" writ large, Superman faces the accusation that he is actively harming human progress, and also fights Cthulhu. It doesn't hurt that the art is amazing.
  4. Up, Up, and Away!: The Busiek/Johns story arc from the "One Year Later" event is about as good an introduction to Superman as anyone is likely to get. It's a whirlwind tour through the Man of Steel's friends and foes, along with a great deal of heart and understanding what makes Superman tick.
  5. Miracle Monday: Superman vs. the Devil. While I thought the end was a bit anticlimactic, this story gives insight into Superman's mind and morals better than most, and also shows just what kinds of amazing things both Superman and Lex Luthor should be capable of. I wish more Superman stories would showcase both their intellects as well as this one did.
  6. Superman For All Seasons: I don't think it's hyperbole to call this Jeph Loeb's best work, at least of what I've read. This is Superman at his most earnest, and it makes for a calm, sincere portrayal that ought to be to Superman what "Year One" is to Batman.
  7. For the Man Who Has Everything: A story of what sets Superman apart, even next to the rest of DC's trinity, and what the Man of Steel can do when pushed to his breaking point. One of the true classics.
  8. What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? (Action Comics (vol. 1) #775): People say this one's overrated, but I have a hard time thinking of any other stories in the modern age that better showcase who Superman is, what he can do, and what he never would do, better and more succinctly than this one. Plus, Doug Mahnke is a hell of an artist.
  9. Superman: Birthright: I had been saving this one until I reached it in the "Superman Sunday Origins" series, but that's been on hiatus for awhile (even though I totes have the next post and a half already done). So I finally went back and re-read this series, having grown quite a bit as a person and a Superman fan since 2003, and having shed a lot of the attachment to continuity that impeded my ability to enjoy this series when it came out. And it is great. I don't know that I've ever been so wrong in my opinion of a comic book as I have with this one. What this has over "Man of Steel" is not just a consistent story thread, but a whole lot more characterization and emotion. Everyone here has a complex motivation and a consistent, sympathetic characterization, and it's all wrapped up in an action-packed story about hope and legacy and doing good.
  10. All-Star Superman: I kind of hate All-Star Superman. Not because it's a bad story, but because there's not a whole lot of places to go when you're done with it. Almost anything else is a step down in terms of story and art quality. I don't know that there's ever been a better Superman story, but it gives me hope that there still might be.

A side-note: I'm still reading. There are nearly seventy-five years worth of Superman stories for me to catch up on, and I know there are still classics ("The Luthor Nobody Knew" comes to mind) that I don't remember well enough to include. There's also a shocking and tragic lack of Curt Swan on that list. If you asked me again in a year to come up with another Top 10, I suspect at least a few things would be very different. But this little exercise has inspired me to do a little more revisiting of some stories, and visiting-the-first-time of others, which may filter its way down to additional posting. Hooray!

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Friday, April 06, 2012

The Future of Comics

I'm not a big adopter of digital comics. I don't own any type of tablet computer or e-reader, and since the only real reason I'd get one is to read digital comics, I really can't justify the expenditure. But I do have a ComiXology account, and I have the app on my iPhone, so I read some comics that way. Other people with more insight than me have talked about the hurdles that digital comics need to overcome--the current pricing model, for one, and the lack (at least with ComiXology) of having an actual downloadable file vs. having everything stored in the cloud, as well as other things.

But I recently read Mark Waid and Stuart Immonen's "Avengers vs. X-Men: Infinite" #1, and I really enjoyed it, particularly how it played with the medium. Using the digital platform to vary how the reader is able to encounter the page is a good move, and one I hope takes off as digital comics become their own thing.

I think that's a big part of it, too: realizing that digital comics are not just paper on a screen. This week also saw the XKCD webcomic's "Umwelt," an April Fool's Day installment that changed its content depending on a reader's browser, location, referrer, and other variables. That was the kind of amazing, interesting use of the digital comics medium that I hope we see more of as artists learn its strengths and limitations.

And that's my big hope for digital comics in general: that it gets the comic-making community thinking more about the medium of comics in general. What are the things that make comic books unique? What kinds of stories can we tell in comics and not elsewhere? What assumptions are we making about comic-construction that are simply practical limitations imposed by old-school printing methods? These are the kinds of questions that need to be addressed for comics and digital comics to further evolve as distinct media.

It's nice to see that some creators are asking those questions and pushing those boundaries, even at the Big Two. Or one of the Big Two, anyway.

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