Friday, 12 November 2010

Making Sense Of Straczynski & Davis's "Superman: Earth One" using Morrison & Quitely's "All-Star Superman" , & Vice-Versa Too! (Part 1)

1.

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.


2.

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.

3.

I.

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.

Poor Clark.


II.

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.


III.

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.


IV.

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".


V.

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.


4.

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..

32 comments:

  1. The troubling thing about the inherent nature of JMS' Earth One is it's financial success. It shouldn't be surprising, but when the essential form of the work is overlooked to get at the content, and the content is as trite and recycled as this it really makes me wonder at the things folks outside comics think of super-heroes.

    I prefer to think of them in the All-Star Superman sense: aspirational and innovative and inextricably linked to comics grammar. But to me, the success of Earth One seems to show that the audience just wants hyper-recycled cultural tropes via a highly-relatable escapist power fantasy of being well-moneyed, a sports star, fully capable in so many ways, and yet still feeling unfulfilled. It seems to be some sort of nouveau suffering-of-the-entitled thing that appeals to a some of my fellow young people today.

    There's probably a reason I read so few superhero comics anymore.

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  2. Hello Mr Tsmoreau:- I must admit that I'm still baffled by the structure and the content of Earth One. I wish I could sit down with a recorder MP3 and JMS and find out more about his method and intentions. I can't believe that he'd set out to write a book that's so as you've explained. I can't understand why he would do so deliberately. He doesn't need the money and the morality of the book does seem to stand in contradiction to so much that he's written and supported before. It's all very odd.

    But I suppose being baffled is good for stretching the grey matter in response to. And I would be deeply concerned, and in fact am deeply concerned, if the reasons you so ably describe are those which have made the book popular.

    I'm witholding judgement until I finish off the second half of this piece, but I must say, your opinions do make sense on the basis of what I read and thought about so far.

    But it can't be so shallow and ugly a book by design, surely?

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  3. Phenomenal. I almost feel bad for JMS for how true this is. Almost.

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  4. Hello mathematicscore:- it's good to hear from you again, and I do appreciate your kind words. I hope the day has been treating you well.

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  5. Ultimate Spider-Man's first story had Peter using his powers to get on the basketball team and admitting to himself that he didn't actually enjoy it, it was just something he'd thought he 'should' be doing now he has superpowers. I'm assuming Clark's not doing the same thing here?

    - Charles RB

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  6. Check out http://dcu.blog.dccomics.com/2010/11/10/breaking-news-superman-earth-one-sequel-in-the-works/

    JMS is leaving the monthy Superman and Wonder Woman books so he can write more of these.
    Darci

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  7. Hello Charles:- Superman: Earth One is so incoherent as a text that it's hard to say what was intended. In fact it's impossible to say what was intended, firstly because it's a confused text and secondly because the values that can be found there are so .... individual and uncommon that it's hard to believe anybody would consciously put them there.

    The answer to your question itself is something I'm writing at this very moment, more or less, for the piece intended for Sunday. Perhaps you might forgive me if I delay answering until then?

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  8. It's difficult to tell how much of the book is by design and how much of it is JMS channeling the tropes unconsciously because that's the cultural detritus that's around to pull from.

    Really, I'm almost tempted to say this is all Alan Moore's fault. This looks to my eye like the current zenith (or nadir, depending on your perspective) of the "realistic superhero" movement. Like Dan Didio said in the PR for the thing it's "Superheroes for Twilight Fans". This is the way to relate to the kids these days, apparently: self-aware-self-pity.

    I'd like to say that this shows how tough the Superman idea is, that he, like Batman, is a diamond-hard-archetypal hero who can be thrown at any wall and never shattered. But I think that's just misplaced optimism. This really seems to be a pure cash-in. However, given the reading comprehension of the average comics reader (with regard to both traditional prose and comics grammar) I can't imagine that the works are doing much to resonate on a level beyond pure id anyway. Which I do lament, but whattayagonnado?

    As for why JMS did the book, all I can really think of is that he wanted to increase his profile with a Superman book. You're quite correct to say that from our perspective he has no reason to do so. However, given how insulated he seems to be from both criticism and comics-at-large and how... strange his mainline Superman take was, I genuinely think this book and that (now cut short) run is a window into JMS' views on Superman and superheroes in general.

    Many out there like the man's work, but from what I've seen of it, it largely relies on personal-drama-heavy chatty talking heads and stock-CG. He's a TV writer, not a comics writer, which is a major difference and which you delineate excellently in the post here.

    Keep up the great work Colin, I hope the Millar book is going well, and I look forward to part 2!

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  9. Hello Darci:- thank you for the link! I'm still digesting the news. One of the reason I started writing this piece was, as I said in it, to rid myself of my emotional response to Superman: Earth One; there's no point in getting angry about it. And so I'll do my best to simply nod to the news you bring me, put it away into my "that'll be interesting" file in my mind, and attempt not to ask any questions about whether the new graphic novels will be any better than the first one in this series.

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  10. Hello tsmoreau:- thank you for the kind words; they are very much appreciated. The Millar book is progressing well, I hope: it's proving to be a fascinating process & I just hope I can do Mr M’s work justice.

    There's quite a few points you've raised that I'll be touching on in the second half of this piece, and so though I'm deeply tempted to mention them here, for your words have intrigued me, I hope you'll forgive me if I don't. Suffice to say, there are some remarkable and worrying ideas floating around in Earth One and you are, of course, quite right to identity self-pity and the importance of the self as two of the least-Superman-like of them, if I may put it like that. I'm writing about that self-pity and self-importance this very evening and I'm finding the process something of a challenge. These are ideas I'm not comfortable experiencing in a Superman comic. But it is a new start for a new generation, so I’m trying to remember that.

    The thing is that JMS has been talking about his longing to write Superman for a very long time now. Having been given the freedom to write Earth One, which he's recently said was the reason he came to DC, it would be remarkable if it was a cynical rather than a heartfelt exercise. Under those circumstances, why would he target a particular segment of the youth market in this way? And yet, it's such a strange book. It's such a very strange book indeed, and I’m torn between believing that it must be the product of a writer with a specific agenda and that it’s one produced quite carelessly. Luckily, I’m writing about the work on the page rather than speculating on its origins, but you and I are unavoidably drawn into thinking about such things, aren’t we? It’s unavoidable because the book is so peculiar. It’d be fascinating to buy the man a drink and ask him about his work here.

    I've done my best to make sense of JMS and his intentions and skills. I've actually read his "textbook" of writing for various mediums twice. I thought I owed it to him given that I've written some negative opinions of his work. Not because he'd ever be aware that I'd written anything, and whyever would he?, but because I really do want to be respectful of those folks I try to write about. But it's hard to make sense of Earth One, it really is.

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  11. I've been following the whole SEO business and I have to say it hadn't got me excited enough to be bothered checking it out - your analysis confirms I should give this a miss. A pity because, as I've said before, I love JMS and would probably let him have a kidney if he wanted one (or if he didn't, but that is a much creepier concept - forced organ donation, there has to be a horror story in that). However, his recent comics ventures have left me flat.

    It does seem to fit a similar theme to the one we've looked at before: the superhero in the real world. It is something we've touched on before so forgive me if I repeat myself but it seems like JMS has got his own interpretation of works like Watchmen and Marvelman. In Moore's work he shows the impact having superheroes living in the real world would have (although it is still rather fantastical). JMS' spin seems to involved dragging the superheroes down to Earth - literally in the case of Thor and co. ("Thor and Co.: Vikings For Hire"). It couldn't be much clearer than it is with the "Grounded" storyline in Superman but you can also see it in his Wonder Woman reboot where Paradise Island is destroyed so she is raised as an orphan in New York. I remain unconvinced of this approach as it doesn't make them any more or less easy to relate to and it might just jettison their Ultimate Selling Point - it seems odd to take over such powerful characters with a tonne of story telling potential and then hobble them. Perhaps it plays to some desire to see the Gods dragged down to Earth, after all people there are a lot of publications that pander to the public's desire to see the "celebrities" knocked down a peg or two with intrusive stories and photographs. I much prefer Morrison's ASS (hmmm I have seen piccies of him in his undies but that isn't what I mean ;) ) which tries to get under the skin of what it feels to actually be Superman, not how Superman would feel if he had to walk a mile in our shoes (almost literally in the case of "Grounded").

    Oh and emo superheroes - it may appeal to a modern Twilight audience but we've had The Crow since the late 80s all moody and pained. I seem to recall The Poet in JMS' Rising Stars also did his fair share of brooding. Perhaps in SEO we are seeing the collision of "moodyhero" and "real world superhero"? If so, it's about as appealing as wearing vinegar-soaked undies when you've got a bad set of Chalfonts.

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  12. Excellent work as always. I look forward to your assessment of the latest JMS furore on Superman/Wonderwoman (although I am happy that Phil Hester has landed the latter - I loved his book Deep Sleeper.

    In many ways Earth One reminds me of John Byrne's Man of Steel. Particularly his insistence that Clark was a very macho character, using his abilities to excel in American football.

    If anything Earth One seems like yet another retread of what Byrne was doing in his neurotic attempt to assure us that Clark was all man.

    Compare to All Star with Superman being used as a symbol for hope.

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  13. Hello Emperor:- actually I'd really recommend that you get hold of a copy of Superman: Earth One, and especially if you've been a big fan of the work of JMS. Because his work in Thor, Superman, Earth One and Wonder Woman is very much of a kind and distinct in some ways from work he's done before even in the superhero genre, and SEO is the most distinct book of this period. It all forms a fascinating stage in his career and it really is worth experiencing. I mean that without any sarcasm. Earth One is a book so very odd that it's an education. It reminds me in some ways of Heinlein's later work, or indeed Claremonts, where there was no sense at all of editorial restraint or internal restraint either. I'd love to know how many re-drafts the script went through. JMS seems to be delivering a product that's unmediated even with reference with himself! I really would recommend it.

    I'll be touching on alot of what you mention in tomorrow's piece, so perhaps I might refer to what you've said then. I hate the apparent rudeness of not doing folks the respect of immediately responding; I'm always stunned to read blogs where careful and interesting comments are allowed to lie unanswered. I hope you'll forgive that. For that issue of JMS's story-telling reductionism is one that I'm still working through myself.

    The funny thing about the Superman of Earth One isn't that he's "emo" in the sense of the popular stereotype of the word, but that's he's something far worse than just a rather self-obsessed young person. But that strange take on Superman is still, as you so wonderfully say, as appealing as wearing THOSE clothes you mention with THAT condition.

    But you must read it! I may have got it completely wrong anyway and be spoiling your enjoyment of a book by a well-regarded writer. And anyway, I'd love to hear your opinion.

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  14. Hello Emmet:- it's a fine thing to be hearing from you again, and it's reassuring to note that you're keeping up with that process of reading and reviewing a book a day on your blog. You'ev recently inspired me to read the last Joe Pitt novel, having stopped half way through volume 5 because I couldn't help but feel that the series was at least a third longer than it needed to be.

    I will indeed be referring to the Byrne take on Superman, which is an incredibly, incredibly mild revamp of the Superman mythos compared to the JMS take! The more I think of SEO, the more I'm convinced that it's the most radical and divergent take on the character that anyone's ever produced.

    And I appreciate the steer on Mr Hester's previous form. If it's good for thee, then I shall hunt it down.

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  15. I know what you mean about Joe Pitt. For me though I enjoyed series as an indulgence. Plus the hippie collective of left-wing vampires still strikes me as a fantastic joke.

    I remember reading a piece by an oldschool Superman fan, oh some ten years ago, where he was spitting blood about Byrne's take on Superman. He felt it was a revolution, a complete abandoning of the themes of the Last Son of Krypton, to have him use his abilities for personal profit.

    Now I cannot point to a single era in comic history and identify a consistent portrayal of the character throughout. Still I wonder if that blogger is out there. I wonder how he would react to this latest reinvention of Superman, given repulsion towards Byrne's.

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  16. Hello Emmet:- there's a great deal to admire about the Pitt novels, but they're so repetitive that in the end another one feels redundant. I too loved the Hippie collective, but there was always that by-the-numbers feel after book two. Joe loses another body-part, Joe is thwarted in love, Joe uncovers more exploitation, Joe tries - and succeeds - to cross NYC. A trilogy would have earned less dosh, I imagine, but created a truly impressive pulp fiction.

    Your comment on Superman's ever-changing nature has very much caused by brain to turn. I think there's one thing that links all the Supes up until now. To be continued ......

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  17. Can we please put a stop to red-eyed badass Superman? I'm old enough to have read "For the Man Who Has Everything" in the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told and gasped at the famous "Burn" panel, and young enough to see it repeated every three months. Enough already.

    Anyway, SEO holds no appeal to me. The pages you posted look lifeless. Shane Davis' work seems completely average. Not bad, but merely efficient. I'll buy a lackluster script illustrated by a good artist (which explains why there are more Jeph Loeb comics at my house than are necessary), but blah art can kill my interest quickly. You have to be Morrison, Gerber, or Englehart to make a Sal Buscema or Richard Case comic stand out.

    That begs the question: is it appropriate to compare SEO with ASS? (also: how immature am I that I still find the abbreviation for All Star Superman funny?) I know you're not making a facile comparison (ASS is good, SEO is bad) and I like the idea of creating a dialogue between the two. Still, ASS is the best Superman story of the modern era. Its only competition is Secret Identity, as far as I am concerned, and ASS is a more "pure" Superman story. Any Superman story will fall well short.

    Also, any thoughts on Superman: Birthright? I liked it, but it seems like it didn't have a very good reception. I've always found Byrne's Man of Steel dull, and that Waid put some more flavor into his semi-origin story.

    As always, I hope your day is enjoyable, and I look forward to your next post.

    - Mike Loughlin

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  18. Hello Mike:- but the glowing eyes in SEO are shadowed underneath a hoodie!! That’s innovation!!! Say what you like about Moore and Gibbons, but there were no hoodies on show in that famous Superman Annual.

    …..

    It’s a good question about why I’m comparing the two. Much of it is exactly as I said; these are books that shout at me so strongly that I can’t always clearly hear what they’re saying. But, as I hope to detail in the third and last piece on this comparison, there’s an absolutely fundamental difference between the two books which I think is very important indeed. It’s a difference which I couldn’t put my finger on any detail before I started yesterday’s piece, but the process of comparing the two has really helped me grasp some ethical issues that I think are worth mentioning. In essence, I guess the comparison wasn’t initially about the books so much as the effect they had on me, and then through the comparison I discovered a great more to talk about than I realised.

    I also think it’s really important to engage with commercial success and to pay it the respect that it deserves. Much of the criticism I read as a lad was of music, and the writers who dominated the weekly press in the UK back then paid little attention to what was insultingly called “commercial” records. And yet, looking back on the Seventies from the perspective of today, much if not most of the most vibrant and influential music of the period was exactly those records looked down upon and ignored. What’s more, in the commercial market, form and content can mutate under market pressures in ways which more exalted forms don’t.

    Finally, SEO has been lauded in a great many places as a well-written and even radical book. Its writer hasn’t been slow in praising its virtues and sales success. And I think that such confident words deserve to be examined through a comparison with work which has proven itself to be of quality.

    Ah! There you go, Mike, you’ve inspired a manifesto.

    ……….

    I am indeed very interested in Birthright, and I really do intend to write about Mr Waid’s work in the near future. Indeed, I’m collecting notes at this very moment.

    Thanks for the kind and thought-provoking words, Mike. It is always good to hear from you.

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  19. "actually I'd really recommend that you get hold of a copy of Superman: Earth One, and especially if you've been a big fan of the work of JMS. Because his work in Thor, Superman, Earth One and Wonder Woman is very much of a kind and distinct in some ways from work he's done before even in the superhero genre, and SEO is the most distinct book of this period."

    I'm afraid I won't be reading it and not because of what you said - I've been following the news, interviews, previews and reviews but at no point has anything made me want to read SEO, so your piece was more the cherry on the cake and my mind was largely made up (although if you'd been bowled over by it I might have at least considered it). The simple truth is I have a backlog of reading (including quite a few books - I'm already reading too many comics ;) ) and won't be picking up titles unless they appeal to me on some level and this doesn't

    Feel free to address some of the issues in future posts (I admire your restraint in not ruining future entries ;) ) I am mainly just talking out loud in response to your post, trying to figure out why his recent takes on superheroes leave me cold (and perhaps getting slightly closer to an answer for myself). It also seems I'm not the only one - despite plenty of press, the most recent sales estimates show it is hardly setting the charts alight: Superman is selling under 50k and loosing a lot of readers, Wonder Woman is under 38k and falling. Of course, they might have picked up solid trade sales but he is leaving without enough issues to make a decent trade (although I assume he'll get his name on the others as the replacement writers are working to his notes). It is a strange state of affairs when a big name writer on possibly the biggest title is being outsold by 3 Batbooks and 3 GL ones (not including Brightest Day), plus 1 JLA.

    Anyway I look forward to your upcoming meditations on this issue.

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  20. Hello Emperor:- it's impossible to ever catch up on all the reading to be done, isn't it? I heard a fascinating piece on the radio a few years ago about when the last time in history was that an individual could have read pretty much everything of any consequence that was available during their lifetime. The answers were varied, but somewhere around the end of the English Civil War was generally agreed upon. My in-tray is ALWAYS higher than my outtray.

    And yet there's a great deal to be said for reading work from able craftsmen who're apparently stuck in a bad run. What they were doing right before becomes all the more obvious when their less-succesful work is considered. But of course I understand why you'd have other things to do.

    Those sales figures are amazing, aren't they, just as the minimum of 17 000 copies for SOE in one month are amazing. If I were suddenly running a big comics company, I'd be signing JMS up to a graphic novel contract, but I'd be staying away from offering him a contract on a monthly unless it was already dead and buried and an irregular schedule couldn't sink it any further.

    I hope you'll always feel absolutely welcome to drop in and speak your mind here, Emperor!

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  21. Straczynski has said in interviews that he's been typing, what, 10 pages a day since he was, what, 12. With that kind of hard and joyless mechanical labour sucking the light out of his days, I guess he simply doesn't have the time left to do any amount of proper writing. All work and no play makes Joe a dull boy, so to speak.

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  22. Hello Marc-Oliver:- I'm absolutely torn over how I should make sense of Mr Straczynski's work these days. I remember being quite thrilled by the second and third series of Babylon 5, and I really do feel he had an impressive grasp of Peter Parker's personality until the later stages of his time on Spider-Man. But I do find it hard to believe that this believe is a man who's firing on a cylinders. Something is wrong, and it'll be interesting to see if we gain an insight on these matters so we might see if your hypothesis, and all the competing ones, nailed why things aren't as they should be.

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  23. It probably makes more sense to see SEO as the Superman movie JMS wanted to write instead of the Superman comic he wanted to write.

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  24. Hello Kynn:- I do think you're right; that seems like a probable explantion for SEO. And yet, it does still worry me that the same problems which mark the graphic novel would have plagued a movie too. The lack of the full-on sensory overload that would've marked a big-budget JMS Superman movie might have disguised the problems discussed above a touch more, or at least for a while, but they'd still be there. I am of course not suggetsing that you meant they wouldn't be, merely that I'd be concerned if this material appeared in any form really.

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  25. hi again, colin-

    i'm working my way through your jms and superman pieces after his recent departure from, well, everything. i'm not finished with this piece yet, but i wanted to say how delightful i found:

    "To be immoral and dull is almost unforgivable."

    as much as the misanthropy makes superman: earth one unappealing, i wonder how much horrible a jms-driven supervillain title would be. i forgive them so much for the sake of the lively entertainment they provide. (one of my own moral failings).

    now back to reading!

    carol

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  26. Hello Carol:- he's an incredibly dull super-villain/antagonist/person, isn't he? In fact, I say "he" because I truly can't remember his name. I find that remarkable, that the character is so dull that I can't even recall what he's called.

    A JMS super-villain title? The mind shudders. But then, the mind shudders about JMS's work over the past few years anyway. Either my radar is entirely down or his is, and, if it's him, it's just impossible to grasp why that should be.

    Of course, THE super-villain book is the Secret Six. I fear it would be a poor morning should I wake up to find Ms Simone is no longer on that and JMS is. That's a comic book fan's nightmare.

    Thank you for the generous words, Carol. I hope the day has been kind to you.

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  27. I think you hit the nail on the head here, Mr. Smith. The first time I read Superman: Earth One, I was bored, but the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I was. I wasn't sure why, but I think you helped me figure it out.

    I think JMS is trying to do what Mark Waid did in Birthright: tell the story of how a young Clark Kent forged his two identities, mild-mannered reporter and superhero. Birthright was better.

    And All-Star Superman is brilliant. It's the story that made me a fan of Superman in the first place. Previously, I didn't really care that much, but Morrison and Quitely showed me just how awesome a character he could be. It's a shame about the initials though. ASS? Oh, well.

    -Zen

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  28. Hello Zen:- EOS was the strangest thing. I've obviously no problem with JMS telling stories which aren't to my taste. But to produce a work so sloppy and technical poor is another issue. And to think that this is how folks are supposed to be brought into the comics-reading fold.

    Birthright is indeed a fine piece of work. All Star Superman is indeed one of the finest examples of the sub-genre that can be found. Huzzah! It's good to know that there's a book like All Star Superman - no acronyms for me this time :) - which serves as an example of so much that's good about the character.

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  29. I am not even sure how I got to this article anymore - but I love it! Even that I am a huge fan of JMS and all he has done and of course I have bought SEO as soon as it got out. Now, you made me actually to buy ASS (just ordered it online). And you have made me to schedule a re-read of SEO... I remember, it left me rather cold after reading it (though I never was a huge Superman fan - he was too super for me, too little real and believable... and to be honest, would I be the writer, I would make him a even darker and a definitely lost character - common, how can a person feel, when you know you are actually alone... alone... in a strange world... but hey, it is not my take.) ;) I will let you know what my feelings are about both books later. - Btw, has there been a Part 2 to this story?

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    1. Hello Alex:- Thank you for the kind words. I hope I've not led you astray and that you enjoy ASS as much as I did. I can certainly see why someone would choose to explore the darker side of Kal-El being an alien on Earth, as you suggest. I recall reading Jack Kirby's take on Superman as the loneliness alien on Earth in Forever People #1 when I was a very young nipper and it really did move me.

      The sequel to Superman Earth Man is out - I believe - in the second quarter of this year, following next month's Batman Earth One by Geoff Johns. Fingers crossed that things get better for the franchise, though SEO was apparent very profitable for DC, so they'll not be worried about what's between the covers too much one way or the other.

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  30. Came here from War Rocket Ajax, and wow, this makes me wish I owned ASS. If only I'd read this during business hours, I could've gone to the library . . .

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    1. Hello there:- Thank you for suggesting that something of my enthusiasm for ASS was transmitted here. (It was generous of War Rocket Ajax to mention this piece.) I hope you'll have the time to track a copy of ASS soon. I've yet to hear of anyone not having enjoyed the book.

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