Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Super Heroin'

Words aplenty about Joe Casey's run on Adventures of Superman (or rather, the run from issue #600 to #623) after the break.
I first came across Joe Casey's writing when he did a stint on Uncanny X-Men, written in 2001-2002, around the same time he was writing Adventures of Superman, in fact (and that explains a lot about both series). He was in a rather unenviable position; the series had just finished a poorly received run by Chris Claremont, who had given the characters some baggage, such as having Nightcrawler join the Catholic priesthood. And worse, he was going up against the other main X-title, New X-Men, which was being written by Grant Morrison. Morrison's run is still regarded as probably the best one on the X-Men this century (with Joss Whedon's run at a close second). Casey's run is still regarded as better than the one that followed it, with Chuck Austen on writing duty, but given how hated Austen's run is, that's not saying much. Casey's stories were just weird: popstar celebrities, a man whose only weapon was a flame torch who *still* managed to beat a team of X-Men, and Banshee founding a fascist strike team formed by former villains who, to the surprise of no one but Banshee (who really should have known better), were not really all that former. And it wasn't the good kind of weird, like Morrison was dishing out; it was more the kind that made you shrug, and go "why bother?". You could see the ideas that he was reaching for, but they never quite seemed to come out.

I've just read the concurrent Adventures of Superman, stories, though, and things go much better.It's all about what it means to live as a hero, and how to act as inspiration. I think a blow by blow account. This is during a point in Superman's history where Lex Luthor is president of the United States, and Superman is married to Lois Lane, both of which generate stories. The first story, in fact, sees Lex Luthor disappear, with Superman the one picked to find him, while dealing with his own problems, that Lois is currently asking for some time alone to think about their marriage. (Why would you pick Superman to find Lex? Instead of, say, a superhero known for his detective abilities? Eh. Move on.) . After much searching, it turns out Lex has, by forces unknown (or maybe I just wasn't reading carefully), been implanted with a chip that gives him amnesia and, logically, the first thing he wants to do is create a team to commit anti-corporation acts of villainy. Superman restores him to himself and Lex sort of hates him for it, preferring a life where struggled passionately against adversity to being the most powerful man in the world. (Although Lex's "fight the power" alter-ego went by the name "Alex Luthor," so there's a fair argument a part of him wanted to be caught.)

Next is a two-parter in which a two-bit villain is granted cosmic power, and then sets about attacking the "establishment" as part of his personal vision; Superman keeps him occupied until his power disrupts and he disappears. Lois comes back, admitting that now that the glow's worn off, she's not sure how their marriage works, with him being super and all, but they still reconcile--the brevity of the separation makes the whole thing seem rather quick, but I suppose it's better than drawing it out. 604-605 is a two-parter featuring a super-powered baby who eventually turns out to be a cyborg Brainaic from another universe, who is defeated solely by Owlman bluffing. Superman stands around really nicely, though. 606 is the second part of some crossover involving Jor-El, and I can't say it made a lot of sense, so we'll move on. 607 was a nice little one-shot where Argent of the Teen Titans goes to Superman when she's worried about how being an alien may change how she relates to people. This is where the inspiration theme comes out, as Superman basically shows her she has nothing to worry about by pushing her to her own heroic instincts, and basic humanity. 608 and 609 are another two crossover chapters, wherein it seems someone is sending supervillains after everyone Clark Kent knows; again, no real idea what's going on, though Casey also devotes some time to a politician who seems to be arguing an anti-hero platform, on the basis that their presence creates more threats than they prevent. 610 is a weird little thing where Superman spends half the issue undercover at a mine looking for evidence of Luthor's corruption, and half helping a little boy mourn the loss of a family member. 611 is yet another crossover piece, this one written by a different writer entirely, Joe Kelly. And again, no idea what's happening.

612 is when things get interesting. We see scenes of an off-brand Superman, performing the sort of things Superman doesn't do: stopping an execution, fighting a man who was beating his wife, fighting against police officers tear-gassing protesters, beating up overzealous border patrol agents. Superman traces the hero's origin to an old man's story (because magic), and convinces him to erase the work, which erases the hero as well (because magic). It's a really interesting story, because these ARE the things Superman used to do, back when his series first started. And Superman articulates the difference between them:
ersatz: There's so much to do here. So much injustice... Those who can't fight for themselves... they need someone.
Superman: Agreed. But not like this. We try to inspire them. ...We don't judge them.

And the ersatz dies, and the book is very ambiguous over how we should feel about that.
Now, that by itself is something worth talking about. But the story doesn't end there. 613 features a man profiteering off of Superman merchandise. Lois tries to figure out how to beat him, and eventually his own greed does it, when he latches on to her suggestion that he expand into supervillain merchandise. The villains, understandably, don't like that. It seems a bit harsh to me--some of those supervillains tend to make their point with a bullet to the head--but it's a quick commentary on what the commercialization of a superhero-like figure does to that figure's image. 614 introduces Heroville, a small town city where everyone's a superhero that's existed on its own in a tesseract, and is based on 1950s society; the whole place was founded by a man who thought a society based on heroic ideals was necessary after the Justice Society was shut down. (Quick DC history lesson: according to DC circa 2000 or so, the Justice Society was the superheroes operating during World War II--the original Flash, Green Lantern, and so forth. They voluntarily retired after senate hearings started promoting anti-power sentiments. They later reformed, and became the legacy heroes of the DC universe, providing a living anchor to the company's past. Then the latest reboot happened, and they don't exist anymore. So it goes.) Superman's pretty okay with the scientist basically lying to the people about the outside world, and leaves.

But things get upped a notch in the next issue, when a group of suit-wearing figures called the Hollow Men invade the town and start draining the heroes of their essence. They're the creatures from the OTHER story the old man from 612 wrote, and they're the flip side of the 50s heroic ideals: they exist to destroy anything that deviates from the norm by sucking out hope. And so, they declare war on a city built on the ideals of superheroes. Not exactly subtle. A boyscout hero tracks down the old man while Superman keeps the Hollow Men busy (and that's important, that the boy's inspired to act heroically), and the old man gets there just in time to write the Hollow Men an ending. Superman, at one point, gets put under the Hollow Men's spell, and breaks free through thoughts of Lois--namely, that she's his inspiration, the figure that gives him hope in humanity. It's a nice reversal of how he inspires people, and especially so since we had that issue a long time ago where she wasn't sure if their marriage works; to him, it's the only thing that works, the center of his being. Sappy, but there's a structural appeal.

By the time that wraps up, we're in 617, and in time for a two parter where Mxyzptlk shows up, though he's now turned himself into a pair of male and female twins, and is attempting to sell a set of universal encyclopaedia and then turns off Earth's gravity, which Superman fixes by crafting a white dwarf star with his science buddies and moving it to the center of the earth to be our new, temporary center of gravity before the twins fix things. It's utterly preposterous, but again, it has a nice structural thing, as crafting a white dwarf was the bluff Owlman used to fool Brianiac back way back. 619 introduces a political satire thing, as it sees a candidate who runs against Luthor on no campaign at all, just pyrotechnics and a promise for change. The candidate is targeted by a hedonistic alien insect assassin, who is stopped by Superman, of course, despite the distraction of a carnivorous planet attempting to devour the sun. But the candidate dies, and reveals it was all his plan, as the final step in solidifying his political legend as a martyr. It's weird. It's really, really weird. The next two issues feature children metamorphosizing into insects, and a street-tough hero who calls himself the Minute Man, but I'm missing 622, so we'll move on to the final one. It's just Superman, telling Lois a bunch of stories: the time he helped Santa Claus, how a geek made a phantom football player to impress a girl, and a time everyone turned against Superman, and rather than fight, he looked for a source to the turning, and uncovered Hector Hemmond, a telepathic villain, and how he stopped the Earth from turning into a one-celled creature that then divided. They also have a philosophical discussion about the origin of the term "Superman"--the Nietzschean origin--and what they mean to each other. It reads a little like the ideas that Casey would have gotten to if he had free reign, but really it's just a nice character moment between the two of them. I think rewriting Superman's history so they aren't married was a mistake; Casey shows amply that you can generate a lot of drama about two married people, even if they're two people who love each other and have the best intentions.

Anyway, that's the run. It's defined, I think, by two points: the concept that Superman exists to inspire, and his relationship with Lois. And when it's dealing with either of those directly, it works rather well. I think inspiration stories are, ultimately, what Superman is for. With any other character, the Mary Sue-esque story where someone gets to meet their super idol feels somewhat false; but with Superman, it feels like this is what his presence on Earth should do, or what he wants it to do: inspire people to do better. And Lois provides the human side; she inspires him, as he says pretty plainly with the Hollow Men. This isn't a perfect run by any means. The early parts are marred by crossovers, and even at its height, it's weird to the point of being just bizarrely silly--the toupee-wearing Alex Luthor, the baby Brainiac from another universe, the politician that's trying to get an alien to kill him--none of that quite works. And Casey isn't particularly subtle; the Hollow Men are hardly nuanced villains, for example, and the politician spells out pretty much every step of his plan--and even then, it doesn't make sense. But unsubtle is okay--unsubtle is Superman. He's big and earnest and just wants to help.

I think what I like most about the run is that there's so much of Joe Casey in it. Not that I'm crazy about Joe Casey. But as it's not a run with a single threat or obvious theme to bind it together, what's left is the themes and motifs the writer finds interesting. And this really couldn't happen in DC today; if a writer doesn't knock it out of the park in the first inning, they don't let them stick around for the next chance at bat. This sort of sustained, meandering run wouldn't happen as they run comics now. That's too bad.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, the artist for most of this run is Derec Aucoin. I've had a soft spot for him ever since his art run on Quicksilver, so that worked just fine for me.

Later Days.

No comments: