There are comic books that inspire or sadden or anger me before I can even register that they're doing so. Reading them is such a fiercely disconcerting business that rational judgement is utterly sidestepped by the force of the feeling they ignite, and it's hard to unravel where the comic books stop and my emotions begin. I'm suddenly happy, or annoyed, ecstatic or dismayed, and it's difficult to muster the focus to wonder why because my emotions are suddenly so intense.
These dictatorial feelings make it hard to make sense of the comics which incite them. They can be so immediate and extreme that the contents of the pages themselves can almost disappear from view. I'm so fond of Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly's "All-Star Superman", for example, that I'm at a loss for what to say about it beyond the fact that I rather tearfully think it's quite wonderful. It's beautiful, and I like it, it's goodhearted, and I like it, it's clever, and I like it; I just end up listing adjectives and pointing at one beguiling panel after another, describing my taste rather than explaining a single thing that's relevant to the work itself.
And there's the same mind-blunting process at work when considering comics which provoke, shall we say, less positive responses. And so, rather than saying to myself that, for example, there are aspects of J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis's "Superman: Earth One" that upset me in ways that the creators quite evidently never intended, I'm simply angry at it. It makes me angry. Angry without being able to say why, angry without wanting to understand; it makes me angry and off it goes across the room, a thing that feels as if it's inseparable from the unpleasant feelings it inspires, when, of course, it's anything but.
But if I find it hard to discuss either "All Star Superman" or "Superman: Earth One" on their own terms, and if the emotions they trigger keep getting in the way of a clear head and an unbiased heart, then perhaps it might be more productive to compare them one with each other. Perhaps it's possible to have the two books in essence talk to one another, since they can't help but talk at me rather than with me, to have them agree and disagree over their contents, and in such a way provide a context in which those feelings are pushed to one side while some relatively calm thinking is made possible in the neutral space between the one comic and the other.
The reader will search in vain in "Superman: Earth One" for a single visually innovative panel. It's as if J. Michael Straczynski is quite uninterested in presenting either his artistic collaborator Shawn Davis or his prospective audience with any scene that they're not already entirely familiar with. His grand set-pieces, for example, are so stereotypical that the eye races over them with a weary recognition and disinterest, pausing only for a moment to consider all the thousands of movies and comics and TV series in which the appropriated images have appeared in before. It's a tendency that's always been present in his comic book work, to concentrate on a straight-forward plod onwards through standard-issue plots using stock imagery to illustrate his often borrowed tableaus. And it's as if he believes that the visual aspect of comic books is fundamentally little more than window dressing, and that it's the beats of his plots and the worthy and wordy dialogue that accompanies them that's of central importance.
It's a process of recycling familiar imagery and story content which reappears here most notably in the sequences given over to the inanely-named Tyrell and his by-the-genre alien assault on Earth. For the scenes depicting the assault by Tyrell's alien fleet on the major cities of the world progress exactly as you would expect and describe were you a Media Studies GCSE student producing an essay on the cliches of the Earth-invaded-from-space genre movie. First the alien ships are picked up approaching Earth by the military (38:4), and they are of course mistaken for meteors until they change course (38.5). Then a great spaceship appears above the centre of Metropolis (46), just as if this was a sequel to "V", or "Independence Day", or any number of science fiction epics. There's the assault upon the helpless city, which goes on for most of the story with remarkably little damage being done (47.1), there's the USAF jets being ordered to "form up and engage!" as they battle with alien drones (47.4), and, yes, there are brief shots of London and Rome being attacked too (51). Only Moscow, Beijing and the Taj Mahal are missing from the usual itinerary of passing visits to the rest of the planet before America saves the day again, although there is, by way of a token innovation, a single panel appearance by Hong Kong, marked by a remarkably inaccurate shot of the Tian Tan Buddha and a noticeable lack of fighters jets taking on the baddies in those non-Western skies (51.2).
And there surely is a point when a homage to other homages crosses the creative event horizon into sheer laziness. I'd challenge anyone not to look at the full page shot of Tyrell's unnamed command ship appearing above the Daily Planet and not sigh and think, yes, that's "Independence Day", isn't it, which was of itself a deliberate conflation of a series of genre cliches strung shamelessly together to inspire the purchasing of popcorn (46). Yet at least "Independence Day" was a knowing thief, playing itself as much for laughs as for a thrillsome spectacle. It was made by creators who knew that the audience would be in on the joke, for how could they not be, and it's tone was as joyful as it was on occasion patriotically po-faced.
But "Superman: Earth One" lacks anything that might pass for an ironic comment on its own lack of originality, and, in fact, it lacks anything of substance that might pass for a sense of humour at all. "Superman: Earth One" is a book which takes itself very seriously indeed, as seriously as a hoodie-wearing late adolescent despairing at his place in the world while possessing super-powers, a career as a professional footballer and a riches-spinning contract as a scientific genius.
Mr Straczynski and Mr Davis's graphic novel is a book largely constructed from scenes which are as utterly unremarkable as they are woefully over-familiar. For example, there's a five page sequence of Clark Kent trying out for an American football team based in Metropolis (6-11). As with Tyrell's invasion of Earth, the reader is presented with a tediously protracted scene which does nothing but replicate cliches so old and worn that it's staggering that anyone would care to lay claim to them. Yes, there's the moment when Clark's potential is doubted by the ornery, sternly wisecracking coach, there's the shots of men quite literally bouncing off our hero, and there's even a panel where the inability of the other players to catch the future Superman for dust is illustrated by having Clark run faster than them while leaving a trail of, yes, dust (9.4). It's a full five pages invested in telling the reader what every single one of them, whether they've read comics before or not, surely already knows; Clark Kent is so powerful and fast that he can beat a team of ordinary men, and another 100 000 or so others too, at football every time.
And even if neophyte readers were to be so improbably ignorant of the simple facts of Clark Kent's situation, there must surely be more interesting, and certainly more visually arresting, ways to present Clark's abilities than these 24 panels of an utterly predictable, humourless fare, showing one man humiliating and hurting a crowd of others while playing football.
After all, the scene isn't there for any other reason than showing that Clark's a tough and fast individual who could be a football star if he wanted to be. It's a section of the book that's obviously intended to be exciting and informative. Other versions of the Superman myth have used Clark's participation in football matches as morality plays to teach him that he shouldn't use his powers for personal gain, and that he'll inevitably wound others in one way or another if he's only thinking of his own glory. But there's no sense of that at all in "Superman: Earth One". In truth, there's not a panel in the book that sees Clark's success in earning a football contract as anything other than an achievement, a welcome source of riches, and that's true despite the fact
that he's eventually shown realising that working at the Daily Planet would be a more inspiring and enjoyable affair. Clark isn't behaving immorally in using his powers to corrupt a sport and endanger others as far as this book's text and sub-text is concerned; it just wasn't as satisfying an existence or as socially useful a one as being a newspaperman. He's not behaving badly, he just wants to fit in; it's apparently quite understandable and not inexcusable or even stupid in any way, even given that his dead father told him to "be careful in hiding your gifts from the world" (29.4). And given that's the meaning of "Superman: Earth One", and given that it seemingly doesn't matter that's Clark's abusing his advantages and running the risk of hurting other players by doing so, then the very least that might have been done in the text is to have made the vainglorious process more beguiling. To be immoral and dull is almost unforgivable.
And how strange it is that Mr Straczynski's Clark Kent didn't even need the money that playing football brought him, and yet JMS still included that sequence without pointing out that Clark was behaving in a dangerous, vainglorious and immature fashion. It's as if the scene has no other possible meaning beyond representing a job interview for a career that didn't in the end satisfy Clark's needs. There's not even the out that young Mr Kent needs the money to provide for his widowed step-mother. After all, Clark is also earning a fortune as a commercial scientist and, apparently, through working in construction too, and Martha herself declares that she doesn't need Clark's assistance (13.2). But then, I assume that future "Superman: Earth One" tales will deal, if not with the morality of Clark's behaviour, then with the fact that this newly-minted Superman has no chance at all of maintaining a secret identity. All of these many scenes concerning Clark's pre-Superman career options must have been placed there to set up future storylines examining the consequences of his careless and selfish behaviour. For example, Clark's already irreversibly made himself something of a public figure before adopting his glasses and geek disguise, rendering the misdirection of his new
public "mask" quite useless. He's already carved out the beginning of a fantastic career as a rookie footballer and, if I've grasped my American sports correctly, a baseball player too; these things simply don't go unnoticed. Such is the fascination with sport that biographies and cautionary tales are, after all, written about sports prodigies who never make it onto the big stage; Clark won't be invisible because he's put his helmet and bat down. And he'll similarly be prominent on patent forms and mentioned if not formally published in scientific journals too. There'll of course be sports photographs and press reports and public memories and tax returns and curious ex-colleagues and it will all shout out how this Clark Kent appeared out of nowhere and proved himself superhuman in a whole range of fields just before his identical twin Superman appeared.
And so, these early scenes of Clark in the big city are either examples of some very clever foreshadowing for future Earth-One graphic novels, or, it would seem, the consequence of a lack of care or concern being taken with how this tale was constructed. For at times "Superman: Earth One" reads as if the working assumption behind it was that a few golly-gee-wow moments strung around a bowdlerised "heroes journey" narrative would in themselves provide a coherent morality and a logical storyline. By comparison with the rigorously plotted and morally-systematic "All-Star Superman", as we'll discuss, "Superman: Earth-One" appears to be ill-considered and ethically troubling.
By contrast with the parade of the wearily familiar and uninventive scenes that constitute "Superman: Earth One", the very first sequence in "All-Star Superman", beyond the four-panel prologue, is a unique and breathtaking double-page spread of Kal-El flying across the surface of the sun (1:2/3). It's a scene that's immediately followed by a five panel sequence in which a Sol-exploring spacecraft crewed by scientists from Earth is revealed to be carrying a monster. (1:4) These sequences are thrillingly unfamiliar despite the undeniable fact that they're in essence stereotypical super-hero situations; innocent citizens are being threatened by death while the noble superhero races at great cost to himself to the rescue. But Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely have invested the thought and effort into recasting the cliches of the superhero genre, so that they regain the power of their original sources while shaking off the deadwood of over-familiarity.
And hand-in-hand with Mr Morrison's commitment to both innovation and tradition is an understanding on his part that the superhero comic strip has few needs under most circumstances for stillness. Yet Mr Straczynski's scripts have a strange staccato rhythm to them, where action occurs and then suddenly stops so that talking can happen. This happens time and time again in "Earth One: Superman", as if it hadn't occurred to JMS that the audience can not only cope with action and talking in the same panel, but that, for the most part, a combination of conversation and movement is a very good idea indeed. Mr Straczynski, it seems, thinks on one level or another that activity in a panel somehow distracts from the meaning of the dialogue being delivered therein. And so the showdown in "Earth One" between Superman and Tyrell is divided up into moments when protagonist and antagonist are punching each other without really talking (82), and moments when they're talking without doing anything else at all (85). This slows the pace of the reading experience without any compensating benefits; the
unremarkable fight scenes contain no informing text to make them more engaging, while most of the panels given over to dialogue, and indeed often monologue, are visually passive and uninvolving. As a consequence, the reader becomes aware in those stagy moments reserved for huge chunks of text that they're listening to staged and rather hammy debates while the story as a whole has slowed down to a crawl. It's dull to watch and it's distracting to read, because the pages offer the audience nothing to experience except the unmoving presence of a few characters and a mass of type, and often a great deal of type, in the accompanying word balloons. Even when Tyrell's long, long info-dump of a digression is spiced up by flashbacks (88-91), they're unconnected to each other and static in themselves, and so reading the story at that point becomes an experience not unlike holding a storyboard in one hand and a script in another, with the reader being made quite distractingly aware that the text and the art aren't being integrated as they might be.
But Mr Morrison is consciously writing comic book scripts, rather than the strangely wordy and theatrical hybrids that Mr Straczynski does. Indeed, it's hard to imagine two modern day writing styles more different than those of Morrison and Straczynski which might still prosper in today's highly specialised market. JMS's scripts typically oscillate between visually-quiet scenes crammed with theatrical declamations at great length and long and largely silent pages of mostly punching and posing. But the pages that Mr Morrison produces aren't broken down into "talking episodes" and "action scenes". Rather, the work he crafted with the estimable Mr Quitely in "All-Star Superman" are nearly always alive with movement and dialogue regardless of the scale and intensity of the scene that's being depicted. One panel always flows into the next so that the eye is always moving, always curious, always progressing across and down the page, and as a consequence the mind absorbs that unique and unnamed synthesis of words and pictures particular to well-written comic books. There's no stop-start rhythm to "All-Star Superman" and there's never a moment when the reader is aware that what's been shown is visually uninteresting or textually hectoring.
This difference in scripting technique can be emphasised by comparing Tyrell's prolonged rant at Clark Kent in "Earth One: Superman" and Lex Luthor's first appearance in "All Star Superman". While Tyrell's big speech is delivered as he hangs passively in the air, Luthor's first scene is marked by action, inter-panel continuity and a constant interplay between words and pictures. (1:8/9)
For example, Lex is shown intriguingly preoccupied throughout his initial appearance in ASS with the business of manipulating the assault on the solarnauts despite his ongoing conversation with General Lane. It's hard not to imagine that had JMS been writing "All-Star", that single discussion between super-genius and General would have been presented in isolation from all other events, but in "All-Star Superman", Luthor's first wander on the stage features two distinct narratives running side-by-side through the same panels. Indeed, within just three panels, we discover that Lex is in fact actively directing events in two quite separate environments at the same time, controlling the monster in the sun probe while intimidating and then attacking the anxious general beside him. Not only does this presentation of simultaneous narratives make what would otherwise have been a dull little chat between talking heads intriguing and exciting, it also emphasises how fantastically able Luthor is. From the first time we see him in ASS, he's shown to be both terrifyingly smart and psychopathically dangerous.
And so plot is furthered, the experience of reading made more intriguing and involving, and Lex's nature as a murderous genius established. Even the fact that Lex is using what looks like a motion capture suit to affect his monster's behaviour establishes how he has to rely on technology while Superman's powers are biological in their nature. And from all of this information, delivered in so many different ways in what is effectively just three key, concise and uncrowded panels, the reader's anticipation of the forthcoming conflict between superhero and supervillain is informed and intensified.
Certainly, the Luthor presented by Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely is a far, far more complex and interesting antagonist than he would have been if the JMS method had been followed, and his intentions and capabilities summarised in a static scene with a few unambiguous declarations of "who I am" and "what I intend to do".
Indeed, it's a fact that All-Star Superman is entirely composed of one visually inventive and enthralling scene after another, each designed to flow into the next so that the reader never need feel that they've been unwillingly ejected from the story they're following in order to make sure that they read the text more carefully. In ASS, the familiar is recast, the comforting is reinvigorated, and all the tropes of the Superman mythos are recognised and respected without ever being mindlessly aped or purposelessly updated. Sadly, and by contrast, there isn't a single page, a single scene or indeed a single panel in "Earth One: Superman" which shows any significant measure of the same intent and craft as is consistently displayed by Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely. There really isn't any measure of innovation let alone originality in the script or art of "Earth-One: Superman", with the passing and rather slight exceptions of two panels showing Clark's eyes glowing beneath his hoodie (5.2-3), and the idea that the very atoms of the ship which brought Superman to Earth are encoded with Kryptonian language (38:1/2).
In essence, Mr Morrison thinks visually and writes comic books scripts. Mr Stracyznski doesn't, and instead produces stories which are constructed with sequences of weary plot points and illsutrated with types and scenes already familiar from the shared and oft-recycled iconography of modern popular culture.
It seems quite clear that Mr Straczynski wants there to be no doubt whatsoever in the reader's mind where the nature of his characters and their capabilities are concerned. And it's as if he simply doesn't trust his readers to be able to deduce any such information unless he presents it in the form of a simple and unambiguous statement. Perry White, for example, is a man who has "no intention of giving up" (22.2), while Martha Kent declares her independence with a statement that she's "got this place, my retirement, my memories of Jonathan .... and I've got you." (13.3) In essence, Mr Straczynski's characters tell rather than show, and if they do show, they do so after they've already declared what their essential characteristics are.
In the case of Tyrell, the world-destroying antagonist of "Earth One: Superman", JMS has him introduce himself with a distinctly single-minded declaration of intent;
"I come from a world you have never heard of, so I won't bother trying to explain .... I am here to kill your world." (63.4)
And there we are, that's the only depth to this Tyrell that the reader is given in the 24 pages that he appears on, though the basic point that he's a murdering sadist from a planet that had been at war with Krypton is quite constantly repeated. Turn the page, for example, and he's threatening again to kill either "millions of people" or everyone on the "entire planet". (64) And so it goes. There's no light, no shade, no quality of any depth or difference to him at all. He is, in fact, the most one-dimensional protagonist that it's possible to conceive of. He has no life as a character separate from the role he plays as an irredeemably evil super-villain. Yet when we're shown in "All-Star Superman" how Luthor fear his mortality, that personal insight compels us to empathise with him despite everything else when he declares that;
".... three months ago, I looked in the mirror at those nasty little spiderwebs of lines around my eyes and I realised something. I'm getting older and .. and ... he isn't!" (1:9:4)
In himself, and especially by contrast, Tyrell is simply a very bad alien threatening to kill millions of people, a cardboard-natured, yawn-inducing, by-the-numbers comic book tyrant. And we learn far, far more about Luthor's personality and capabilities in the first 8 panels of "All-Star Superman" than we do of Tyrell in all 25 pages of his time as the supposedly fearsome nemesis of "Superman: Earth-One"
To be continued.
To come? The conclusion of this piece, a look at the new Gail Simone Secret Six collection, The Walking Dead, and of course the weekly dip into the world of 2000 ad. I hope you might pop over at one time or another, and, as always, I wish you a splendid day..