-We’re talking around All-Star Superman this time around!
-Written by Dwayne McDuffie!
-Directed by Sam Liu!
-We talk about Batman some, too.
-You know how it is.
-This review from the Let’s Be Friends Again guys is great, too.
-6th Sense’s 4a.m. Instrumental for the theme music.
-See you, space cowboy!
-We’re talking around All-Star Superman this time around!
-This is the best cold open ever.
-We start with a summary of Jean-Paul Sarte’s No Exit to kick things off.
-We argue over the ethics and logistics of Johnny Cash’s “I Shot A Man In Reno.”
-It gets surprisingly complex.
-Then we get to the point!
-This week’s show is about superheroes, settings, and the way they fit together.
-Sometimes the setting is a help to the hero, sometimes it’s a hindrance.
-Esther sums it up as “Let the hero fit the setting.”
-What heroes work well in certain genres?
-What heroes don’t work well in other genres?
-True story: a couple times during this podcast, my sink made noises like the blog was coming out of it.
-This made both of us go :O and turn our heads toward my kitchen.
-There was nothing in the sink, though, which I actually found more troubling than the noise itself.
-Regardless, I edited most of that stuff out, but maybe if you listen closely, you’ll get lucky.
-Maybe it’s due to the Ghostbusters II-esque bubbling, you can consider this the revenge of the Digressioncast.
-6th Sense’s 4a.m. Instrumental for the theme music.
-See you, space cowboy!
I want to talk about this, from what’s probably the best single chapter of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman (#6, “A Funeral In Smallville”):
(Words by Grant Morrison, art by Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant)
But I need to talk about this before I come back around to it:
I may get lost along the way, because this is probably actually about a lot of things I’ve been working through over the past few months that I still don’t have a handle on, but follow along and maybe we’ll get there together and in one piece.
I’ve read Flex Mentallo a ton of times. Dozens, even. Every time I do one of these posts, I end up flicking through the series as a whole two or three times while writing. This panel (and a caption in the panel before it that reads, “Why didn’t the superheroes save us from the fucking bomb? I feel so sick.”) kept sticking in my head every time I ran through the book. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it.
The rest of Flex is pretty clear and easy to understand. It’s easy to figure out how the idea of superheroes intersects with and brushes up against real life. Most of the questions posed in the book, like the point of comics about broken heroes or the soft and mutable nature of comics in the Silver Age, are answered explicitly or implicitly in the text itself.
“Why didn’t they stop my mum and dad fighting?”, though. There are no captions or glimpses of superheroic life to give it a deeper context. There’s just a guy dying in an alley, wondering why love doesn’t last forever. For my money, it’s the saddest scene in the book. If you want cape comics with gritty realism, you don’t need rape backstories and heroes moping on rooftops. All you need is something basic going wrong with no easy answers to be found.
The word choice stuck with me, too. It’s not “Why couldn’t they stop my mum and dad fighting?” It’s not “Why wouldn’t they?” It’s “Why didn’t they stop my mum and dad fighting?” The superheroes had the will and the way, but they didn’t do it. That implies a choice, maybe even a conscious one, to let the fighting happen.
Try as I might, I couldn’t find an answer in Flex. There’s not even a hint, near as I can tell. It’s just dropped into the narrative, this drop of real-life despair in the middle of the fantastic, and then left there.
I had a few guesses about what it meant. None of them were very good. It could have been tough love. It could have been not wanting to interfere in the lives of humans too too much, like in JLA: New World Order (by far my worst guess, considering the rest of the book). Maybe they just simply couldn’t interfere due to… something something.
All-Star Superman 6 put it into better focus, though. I was rereading the series in prep for a different post (maybe GAS05) and the solution leapt out at me. ASS 6 is about failure and what superheroes cannot do. It features Superboy, rather than Superman, and is a flashback/time travel episode.
One more digression. Way back when DC let John Byrne revamp Superman, he did a story where Superman killed General Zod and the Phantom Zone criminals and cried a little bit. The purpose of this story, according to an interview I read forever ago and now cannot find, was to show exactly why Superman doesn’t kill. So, to show why Superman doesn’t kill, Byrne had him slowly kill three people.
Byrne got it wrong, but when Morrison went to show Superman’s first failure, and thereby introduce a certain limit to the character, things turned out much better. Superboy chose to do the right thing without even thinking, against great odds, and in doing so, lost his chance to save his father. Three minutes of his life were taken, and in those three minutes, his father died. Superboy’s scream that he “can save everybody” speaks to a certain youthful invincibility, but also to what Superman will one day become. His scream of defiance as a child becomes a foreshadowing of his modus operandi years later, as he does his level best to save everybody.
But what’s important here is what Superboy did not do, which is save his own father. One of the other Supermen in the story explains that “his heart just ran out of beats.” He goes on to say that if Jon Kent hadn’t died, Clark Kent might have stayed in Smallville, “and none of us would ever have been born.” Put differently: “This had to happen.”
A few pages earlier is another key scene. While walking and talking with the Unknown Superman, who is actually the modern day Clark Kent in disguise, Jon Kent asks, “He’ll be okay, won’t he? The boy.” referring to his son. Kent clearly knows both that the Unknown Superman is not who he says he is and that his time is up. He wants to be sure that his son ends up okay, considering the amount of power he has. Superman’s response is “It all comes out right in the end.”
There’s a vein of fatalism there, isn’t there? In other hands, it would be “it is what it is.” Here, it’s an admission that even though this is a hiccup, that this will not work out like Superboy wants it to, things will work out in the end. This is just something he needs to learn before he can grow.
So, there are two answers here to consider. One is that Kent’s heart “just ran out of beats.” The other is that everything “comes out right in the end.” What that puts me in mind of is inevitability. You can’t fight certain things.
I think Byrne’s logic was atrocious (I haven’t killed anyone and don’t currently plan to, and I didn’t need to kill anyone to come to that conclusion) and his execution worse, but he was at least cognizant of the fact that there have to be limits. By forcing the hero to make a choice, though, Byrne shot himself in the foot. Morrison’s method, where the hero is forced to confront a shortcoming, seems much cleaner.
If superheroes can do anything, then you don’t have a story. There have to be things that superheroes cannot or will not do. Sometimes these limits are there to preserve the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Other times, it’s to maintain a profitable brand. Batman can’t kill the Joker and Superman can’t use his technology to make the world a better place. Flash can’t just end every fight in half a second.
These limits often tend to line up along real world lines, too. Tony Stark can never eliminate poverty and Superman can never battle racism. Those two things will just make the readers aware that they’re reading a comic book and that, hey, life still sucks.
I’m beginning to think that “Why didn’t they stop my mum and dad fighting?” is the one spot in Flex Mentallo that’s a rejection of the “Clap your hands if you believe in superheroes!”/”They will show us the way to a better life” philosophy that makes Flex such a strong and vital work. The rest of the book is about the glory of superheroes, the way we can become them, and how comic books are just a reflection of the cultural (un)consciousness.
Real life is the only inescapable hole in the philosophy. Yes, you can use superheroes as a model for life, and yes, in a certain way, we did create them to save us from ourselves, but they only go so far. They’re still fictional. They can’t stop your mum and dad fighting, they can’t stop the bomb, and they won’t actually save your life. Superheroes cannot stop real life–they can only delay it. Even Regan, the girl who Superman stopped from committing suicide, is going to die one day, and Superman can’t stop that.
There’s a Kanye West line I’m fond of from the 808s and Heartbreak era. It’s from Young Jeezy’s “Put On,” a song that banged before Kanye came in with some emotion. “I feel like these butt niggas don’t know he’s stressed/ I lost the only girl in the world that know me best/ I got the money and the fame and that don’t mean shit/ I got the Jesus on the chain, man, that don’t mean shit.” Since the death of his mother, all the stuff that brought him happiness and gave him peace, the money and fame and fancy necklaces, are worthless. Real life struck and they hit their limit. Kanye was at a point where they couldn’t serve their purpose.
Pulling back again. “Why didn’t they stop my mum and dad fighting?” makes sense to me now. It’s speaking to the fact that superheroes are wonderful, wonderful things, but even then, there are some things they can’t do. Taken alone, it’s a question without an answer. In concert with All-Star Superman, though, it makes much more sense.
When a little boy asks “Mommy, why don’t I have a daddy?” Superman can’t swoop in and give a little speech or solve that problem. That’s stupid. It doesn’t work. It’s pushing the idea of a superhero too far, and at that point, the idea breaks.
It’s interesting to me that it took All-Star Superman for that one line to click. It’s like if expanding upon it in Flex would’ve broken the story, but freed of the restraints of proselytizing the superhero, Morrison is much more free to demonstrate where capes fall short.
Courtesy of MTV’s Splash Page:
Not entirely sure how I feel about it–the best parts of All-Star Superman were the parts that could only be done as a comic and would get stripped out of the running time of an 80 (or whatever) minute film. The death of Pa Kent and the tenth issue, which is essentially Flex Mentallo told in 22 pages (superheroes are here to save us, both literally and figuratively, and we created them to do so), seem like they wouldn’t translate very well, or even at all. Regardless, I’ll probably watch it. The people involved are pretty talented, and the trailer’s a-okay.
You can get All-Star Superman in two paperback volumes for about twenty bucks total (volume 1 and volume 2) or pre-order the oversized Absolute All Star Superman for… sixty-eight bucks. Absolutes are nice, but rough to read and reread. Choose wisely.
Yo, I can’t fully become my mother’s guiding light
’til my dad returns to tell me what the other side is like
I keep the things you taught trapped in mind
I know you cared…
Even though you weren’t here half the time
But who am I to blame?
I’d probably do the same in your shoes
Fathers are an important element of a lot of comics characters origins, and I haven’t really seen a lot of attention aimed in that direction. This is odd, because the three biggest comics characters (Super/Spider-/Batman) are orphans with surrogate parents. Superman has Jonathan and Martha Kent, Batman has Alfred, and Spider-Man has Aunt May and Uncle Ben. I’m going to talk about Jonathan Kent, and Ben Parker to a lesser extent, in specific here, I think.
(For what it is worth, Martha, Martha, and May [their supergroup is named 3M and May is lead singer] provided the compassion that fuels all three heroes in their daily interactions with the citizenry. In each case, both parents are vital and equal components of the hero’s heroic persona. That should probably be another post, however.)
I could probably do an essay apiece on these guys, so I’ll take it slow and focus specifically on the treatment of Jonathan Kent in All-Star Superman #6, “Funeral in Smallville.” I find the regular DCU Jonathan interesting, too, especially in light of Adventures of Superman #500, but I’ll get to that later.
Ben’s influence on Peter Parker is two-fold. First, he’s the source of Peter’s superheroic morality. “With great power comes great responsibility” is basically the reason that Spider-Man became a hero, instead of a celebrity. The other angle is that he’s a source of grief and guilt for Peter, providing a secondary reason for him to keep heroing. Ben Parker is, essentially, Peter Parker’s first failure. Gwen and Captain Stacy are two further failures.
Jonathan Kent, in light of this issue, is essentially Ben Parker. In this updated story about Clark Kent’s past, Jonathan is already elderly at this point, and has heart troubles. Three mysterious Supermen appear and attempt to prevent Clark from fighting a Chronovore. Instead, Clark presses on into battle and loses three minutes of his life. In those three minutes, his father suffers a fatal heart attack and dies.
Before this, Clark was essentially invincible. There was nothing he could not do. There was nothing he could fail at. However, his first failure was harsh enough to instill in him a resolution (I’d hesitate to call it a fear) to never fail again.
The scene where Jonathan dies is cut into the fight against the Chronovore, including a rough scene where Clark is flying so fast that his hair ignites while he screams that he can “save everybody.” The scene directly after that is the funeral, which explains the moral fiber that Jonathan instilled in his son.
“Jonathan Kent taught me that the strong have to stand up for the weak and that bullies don’t like being bullied back. [...] He taught me about life and death.”
This page is about as good a summary of Superman’s modus operandi as you’re going to get. He’s there to work toward a better world, to protect those weaker than him, and to live up to his father’s example. In a very real way, Superman’s hero, the person he looks up to the most and attempts to emulate, is a normal man.
This adds an interesting wrinkle to the All-Star Superman. He’s already experienced the worst feeling in the world and it became a vital part of his character. He took the loss, adjusted, and now he’s there to try and live up to his father’s memory. It isn’t guilt, exactly– it’s more of a respect thing.
The twist in the issue is that one of the Supermen is actually our Superman, who has traveled back in time. He’s there for one last chance to be with his father. He knows that he can’t save him, and that sometimes bad things happen, but that you’ve got to take joy where you can get it. If that means talking with your father about your future just before he dies… so be it. It’s an experience to be treasured, yeah?
The weekend of chunky guys dressed like Colossus and hot women dressed as Slave Leia has come to an end. I myself had a great time, spent with hermanos from this very site and a whole bunch of guys from Funnybook Babylon. Sadly, Thomas “Wanderer” Wilde deemed himself “too broke” to consider joining us and Hoatzin would have probably involved a gigantic plane ticket paid in rare diamonds, since he’s from Europe. I don’t know. I really have no grasp on how that type of thing works. Besides, Hoatzin seems to have vanished from our planet. What happened to that guy?
This one movie sent the other movie into space.
Last year I got to New York the day before the con started, which allowed me enough rest and whatnot. This year I had to come in the first day of the event and kill time until David Uzumeri came in from Canada, since he was in charge of dealing with the hotel. I walked straight from the Port Authority bus terminal to the Javits Center, which tired me the hell out.
After getting my swanktastical press pass, I met up with hermanos and Joseph of FBB. They were at a panel starting up that was a screening for a new Will Eisner documentary. Since I was tired from all that walking, I decided to stick around and watch it. I found it interesting in the sense that I honestly didn’t know all that much about Eisner, which is almost a sin if you’re a comic fan. The four of us (David U. showed up towards the end) mostly agreed that while it had some fantastic stuff in there, such as taped conversations between Eisner and guys like Kirby, the sum of it was incredibly dry.
Shortly after, we went to the panel on online journalism, with guys from Newsarama and CBR there. It wasn’t as good as the comic blogging panel from last year and mostly focused on arguing over criticism vs. getting press releases. Once that was done with, I was rested up enough to do some wandering.
Chris Onstad’s Achewood beat out a bunch of other comics for top graphic novel, including Alan Moore’s Black Dossier and Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.
Congrats, Onstad. You deserve it.
“I think the thing to do is produce the best material you can, and on a regular basis, so that your readers know you can produce on a deadline, no matter what. Yabs showed editors, I was told, that I could hit a new idea each week, in a different ‘voice,’ and maintain a certain level of quality. A ton of editors read it each week, and a bunch offered me a shot. All of which I turned down, but that’s another story!”
– Gail Simone giving advice to Gavok
The other day I started cleaning my place, trying desperately to sort my DVDs, games and comics for the first time in about a year. There’s a chair where I toss stuff I had just bought that had gotten so ridiculously cluttered that I discovered barely-read magazines from months back.
Having finally sorted out all my comic trades, it was shocking how many of them remain unread. Some don’t really count because they’re collections of stuff I’ve already read as issues, like All-Star Superman and the first two volumes of 52. The real deal stuff I stacked into one big pile, guarded by an unbeatable team.
The Sentry has the power of a million exploding suns, which is why everything is so glossy. Really. That’s why. Shut up.
I work at a bookstore and when I get paid, I use the option of having my check cashed on the spot. When that happens, I get high on my cash and want to spend immediately. This leads to too many comics and that neglected stack above. By admitting my problem, I hope I can finally push myself into making this stack lighter.
Here’s the what’s what of my far-too-tall tower. What are the books? Why did I buy them in the first place? If I bought them, why the hell haven’t I read any of them? We’ll start from the top and go down.
Linkblogging again today! I’m off tomorrow so I can put some work in then.
- I am flying out to San Francisco on Sunday and staying until Wednesday! I’m apartment hunting for my move there in May. It’s fun trying to guess at your take-home pay without knowing how much the gov’t is going to ream you for taxes!
- I finally got the out of print Mr Majestic TPB. I now own each TPB of his two solo series, which is kind of a weird feeling. It took me a while to realize how much of a big Wildstorm fan I am. Anyway, the book collects issues 1-6 and the Wildstorm Spotlight by Alan Moore and Carlos D’Anda. I think that the series went on for eight issues total, but what we’ve got here are six done-in-ones plus a special. From the back cover copy: “Mr. Majestic rearrangest he solar system, repairs a temporal anomaly, gains a son, halts an intergalactic prison break, and meets the Ultravixens.”
Also from the back cover copy: “Remember when superheroes could move planets?”
The first Maj series is kind of a precursor to All-Star Superman in theme, if not in quality. Both stories take these wild silver age tropes and, rather than looking at them ironically (“Ha ha why do you need an invisible plane”) they just take them at face value. Majestic can move planets. Why? Because. It’s a pretty light and warm book from what I remember, and the team of Joe Kelly, Brian Holguin, and Ed McGuinness is the perfect fit for it.
Another choice line: “What the @#$# is wrong with you?! I’m a freakin’ nun!”
- I love Jim Lee’s new Batgirl design for All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder. (For color reference, see here.) It’s just all around awesome. The freckles visible under the bat-mask, the bats on the boots, and the big yellow bat-symbol work really, really well. I also love costume designs made up of just two colors for some reason, so that’s icing on the cake. I’m also really, really fond of Frank Miller’s dangly and busy way of drawing earrings. It’s funky and different. Also, is it me or is that a Daemonite head that Batgirl (who I’m assuming is Barb Gordon, if only because of the freckles and hair?) is standing on?
- 52 this week (#51, to be exact) was pretty good and paid off in all the expected ways. Buddy returning was a nice capstone to his story arc, though he now may be the most powerful thing in the DCU. I can’t imagine DC dropping the ball on that, so expect him to show up in Countdown. Also, I totally called the Mr. Mind in Skeets thing, just like 51% of the rest of the internet, but the payoff was so much better than I expected!
- Is anyone else reading and enjoying Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov’s Barracuda as much as I am? It is trashy and ugly and excellent. Barracuda has turned out to be a lot smarter than anyone ever gave him credit for and the series has been quite a ride so far. Be interesting to see where it goes!
- What’s it say about me when the most striking part of the first Outsiders trade is John Workman’s lettering? I love that man’s work. He’s got style and he’s unique.
DC released a teaser image a few months back for DC Countdown. It made the usual run around the comics blogosphere, in part for the graphic (read: hilarious) violence shown in Max Lord’s turned around neck and the Atom’s tiny, tiny arm poking out of the dirt.
(Max Lord and Dudley Soames go to the same chiropractor.)
There was also some talk of DC’s alternate Earths and blah blah blah. There was something about this image that was bugging me and I could never quite put my finger on it. I’ve found it now, though.
Superman is clutched to Wonder Woman’s bosom, sitting awkwardly, and sobbing his laser eyes out.
Uh, no. That’s stupid. It’s stupid on an Olympic level.
Superman wouldn’t cry. That isn’t in his character. Never happen.
Superman died once. Died in the arms of the woman he loves. His only concern was that she, and the rest of the city, was safe. He didn’t weep. He only stopped once he found out that he’d saved the day.
Superman is, like it or not, a father figure. He’s the hero that other heroes look up to. Having him crying is just ridiculous. It doesn’t fit his character. In All-Star Superman #1, he’s told that he’s going to die. His response?
“There’s always a way.”
Think about when you were a kid. When your dad was crying or upset, that’s when you know when things were serious. No kid wants to see that. It’s terrifying.
That’s the effect that Superman crying would have on the populace.
That’s why Superman will never cry. He’s too much of a hero for it. He’s too Superman for it. He knows the effect that would have on people. It’d be like seeing your father cry, but worse.
Superman: Back In Action got it right. Even in a country that distrusts him and doubts his identity, he is still the hero. He isn’t going to break down and get upset, he’s going to do his job.
All-Star Superman got it right. He isn’t going to cry and moan about his lot in life. He is going to live, fix it if possible, but if not– that’s okay. Life will go on. In the meantime, he’s going to give life his best shot.
Keep your weak Superman. He’s an imposter, a liar, a fraud, a coward, and a cheat.
He is the Man of Steel, not the Man of Kleenex.
More on fathers later.