Sunday, 14 November 2010
"The Truth": What Straczynski & Davis's "Superman: Earth One" Tells Us About Morrison & Quitely's "All-Star Superman", & Vice-Versa, part 2 of 4
continued from last Friday;
Elsewhere in "Superman: Earth One", Mr Straczynski is forced to rely on exposition to establish key plot-points which he and Mr Davis have forgotten to actually show the reader on the page. When the decidedly unfearsome Tyrell questions Jimmy as to why he hasn't "run away" when "everyone else" has (65:1). (*1) Olsen declares in a quite inconceivably pretentious fashion that "I'm a news photographer. We don't turn away, and we don't run from the picture." (65:4) It's a statement which might have sounded less cringeworthy if the reader had previously been provided with a single panel in which Olsen's fellow citizens were indeed pictured racing away in fear while he was shown to the bravest man alive. But, since we've not had a chance to directly compare Olsen's behaviour with that of "everyone else", it's hard to generate such an awed respect for Jimmy that we can swallow the haughty slogan that Mr Straczynski has him deliver.
Of course, the irony is that this exchange just makes Olsen sound like a pompous jerk, and a fool too, since it's not simply brave to stand before alien cannon taking photographs and proclaiming your moral daring; it's actually incredibly stupid, and futile too. But Jimmy Olsen has to be shown as an incredibly daring and principled man at that point in the story, because Clark Kent, who can't make a single decision for himself without following another character's lead in "Earth-One", has to be inspired by what is in truth ignorant and egotistical behaviour. Regardless of whether Olsen is or isn't actually behaving in a laudable and valiant fashion, the structure of the narrative of "Superman: Earth One" relies on him being perceived by Clark and the readers to be doing so. And so we're given the following deathless exchange between tyrant and shutterbug;
Tyrell: "You and your kind would stay and die for a photograph?"
Olsen: "No -- we stay and die for the truth. Because it's the only thing worth dying for." (65:3-5)
And at these words, the watching Clark Kent, who has seen Metropolis assailed by alien ships for a good while now and done very little at all in response, finally clenches a fist and allows himself to be moved at last into some aggressively super-heroic action.
It's a moment that makes some purely functional sense in the terms of the beats of the story. The character of Clark needs an inciting incident that will transform him through a good example into Superman, and that's what Jimmy is, a dramatically and supposedly inspiring one-dimensional plot device. But just a moment's thought can reveal how shameful the scene and those words are. Firstly, because journalistic "truth" surely isn't the "only thing worth dying for". I can think of so many other causes worth laying down a life for that it's futile to begin to list them, but, nevertheless and to make a point, perhaps we might agree there might be just cause for self-sacrifice if a beloved neighbour needs saving from a burning building, or when the principle of a vital civil liberty is under threat? But to suggest that a newspaperboy's truth is the only thing worth dying for is actually a rather disagreeable statement, callous in its egotism and absurd in its meaning. But, regardless of logic, JMS constructs his script around that principle. It's Olsen's willingness to be ray-gunned in the name of this ill-defined "truth" that turns Clark into the Man Of Steel.
It's such an odd thing for Olsen to be made to say in the first place. There he is in the story, placed by JMS in direct opposition to the big evil antagonist of "Superman: Earth One", and the major turning point of the whole tale relies on Mr Straczynski's decision to have one character pronounce to the big baddie that they're willing to die for the "truth". But in what way is Tyrell standing for "lies"? In what way is this turning point connected to the conflict that forms the spine of the book, namely Tyrell's hunting down of Clark? Perhaps it'll be revealed in a later volume that the alien world-killer has not been entirely truthful with the history of Krypton that he later relates to Clark, but there's no sign of that in "Earth:One" itself. And so, while I could accept that the fight against Tyrell was all about "survival" or "freedom", I've no idea what this "truth" has to do with things. I can't even say why Jimmy Olsen feels he's serving the truth by dodging around a battlefield taking pictures of robots. It's impossible to believe that there won't be a host of photos from the various cameras that the state and its citizens possess in 21st century America, so why is Olsen out there? Is he engaged in some moral mission armed only with a camera, or is he perhaps fighting for this "truth" by taking a better quality of picture? Whatever he's doing, it's Jimmy that's the hero of "Superman: Earth One" in terms of the structure of the book. "Everyone else" is running away, but Jimmy's actively taking photos, and that's what makes the alien in the jodhpurs Superman. Even if Superman's value is later to be revealed as a figure who inspires all these cowardly Terrans to do something, it's Jimmy that establishes that key point first.
It's ridiculous, of course. It's the single most important event in the whole book and it's so silly, so puffed up with authorial imprecision and misdirection and so wounded by the stupidity of the silly concept being thrown around that it quite literally defies understanding; how could JMS and his editors have ever let this get to the published page? But, regardless, Mr Straczynski wants to tell us that Olsen is brave because his plot demands it to be so, and so a brave example there will be. Most worrying, however, isn't the total lack of sense, but the assumption on Mr Straczynski's part that the big gesture needn't be anchored in a recognisably moral context. Bravery in isolation from a decent cause is no virtue. There are endless examples of quite despicable individuals in history who were "brave" and yet quite appalling at the same time. "Bravery" in isolation from principle is no more admirable than, for example, "determination" untempered by decency, and being brave in the name of some ill-defined and photo-centred "truth" is actually rather contemptible; is this Jimmy Olsen really this pretentious and stupid? What is this "truth" that Tyrell is so threatening and how is Olsen standing up for the truth with his brave picture-taking?
For, yes, we're all aware that Superman has traditionally been defined as a superhero standing up for "truth", as well as "justice" and, in most versions, the "American way". But a stance of "my truth unto death regardless of whether it means anything at all" is hardly a statement of principle worth sacrificing one's life for, or rather, it's not for all but the most self-obsessed of individuals.
And so, though Olsen is eventually shown attempting to help Superman escape from the effects of a super-weapon, the damage to the plot and the meaning of "Superman: Earth One" has already been done. The reader's sense of what the book's about has been quite derailed by this key but ill-advised principle of "truth", and Olsen himself, the boy who in by example inspired Superman's first big fight, is revealed to a foolhardy and pompous windbag who thinks taking photographs is in itself a profoundly moral act worth dying for, regardless of what the pictures he's actually taking are. (After all, I think it's pretty clear to everyone that Tyrell is one alien terrorist who's not trying to cover up the facts of his attack on Earth's cities are concerned. He's pretty up-front about it, actually. Whatever the truth is that Jimmy's illuminating, it's nothing to do with the content of the photos he's taking)
Perhaps if JMS had chosen instead to show Olsen concentrating on helping the victims of the alien assault, he, if not his beloved "truth", might have seemed more inspiring. We are later told that there are many folks buried alive even after the battle with Tyrell has ended. (120, column 3) If only Jimmy had thought to help his fellow citizens rather than only being moved to lend a hand when the glorious superhero in his longjohns appeared, then he might have seemed to be a little closer to the inspirational figure that Mr Straczynski so evidently demands we believe he is. As it is, the Earth of "Superman: Earth One" seems to be one in which nobody, nobody, but Jimmy Olsen and a few fighter pilots are brave, and nobody, nobody, thought to help anyone else until Superman was inspired to start punching Tyrell. As a consequence, it's hard to care about Jimmy's world, let alone the daft little boy himself.
But since Olsen has been so unconvincingly placed by JMS in the role of spirit-raising, moral hero, what does this say about the Superman of "Earth One"? What can we say about a Clark Kent who watches on as his adopted city is bombarded and the Earth devastated and who does nothing but save a few threatened soldiers, who has to be motivated by talk of self-aggrandising journo-principles and, it might be said, the fact that the aliens have declared that they will destroy the planet if he doesn't appear? It's not very heroic of Clark to have to be inspired by Olsen's mendacious tosh into fighting back, but it's also undeniable that he's got no choice but to start punching aliens anyway; Tyrell will destroy the planet and Clark along with it if Superman doesn't force the aliens back to wherever they've come from.
Does Mr Straczynski, who finds it necessary to spell out to his readers so literally how he wants his work to be understood, not grasp that by the evidence of his own script, Jimmy Olsen is a fool and Superman a self-obsessed, dense and rather cowardly young man? For it's one thing to be young and to be unsure of what to do with one's life, and quite another to be a Superman and not be able to grasp that sacrificing yourself for the community while it's being laser-blasted to hell because of your presence is what needs to be done.
After all, if Clark hadn't wanted to fight, he could have taken Tyrell up on his offer to leave Earth alone in return for his surrender. Perhaps he didn't believe that his adopted planet would be safe from Tyrell even if he did give up, but to not fight and yet not surrender either while the Earth is being destroyed isn't the mark of a young man coming to terms with his destiny. It's the mark of a moral imbecile. For cities were being flattened and large numbers of people being killed and Clark was doing nothing while waiting to be inspired by Jimmy Olsen and the ethics of zen photography. And since Mr Straczynski offers us no explanation at all for Clark's various hesitations, it's obvious that he presumes the reader will be thrilled by Superman's heroic fight-back rather than appalled by his protracted hesitation to do anything of substance that put himself at risk at all.
It would have been fascinating to read of a scared Superman, a fully-realised late-adolescent who had to learn to face his fear and the shame of having caused so many to suffer while he was frightened to act. But that's not what we're being given here. The "truth", it seems, is not quite so absolute a guiding principle as JMS might wish us to believe it is, because "Superman: Earth One" tells its readers lies. Jimmy's not a hero, the truth isn't an issue, and Superman seems to have made it to the age where he can fill his longjohns without an ounce of inititiave or moral decency to guide him.
*1:- That's a pretty unconditional statement. Metropolis was monitored and "everyone" ran away? Apparently the emergency services, for example, all ran for their lives! That's a strange statement from a man who was so supportive of the people who did their very best to help out at 9/11, and we'll be discussing that issue of community in the concluding piece on these two graphic novels.
The Jimmy Olsen of "All-Star Superman" is no less unfamiliar to the reader than that of "Earth-One", in that he's as different from previous versions of the character as Mr Straczynski's take is, but he's a far more engaging figure. He's introduced in chapter 3 of ASS, and Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely work together there to deliver a great deal of information about Olsen visually. (3:3) Not for them great set-pieces and broad statements about virtue and purpose. While Steve Lombard is raging about the property damage caused by Krull's rampage through Metropolis, for example, Jimmy is presented to us calmly contacting Superman with his signal watch, immediately establishing himself as a focused and practical young man with barely a world being said. And by Chapter 4, Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely have assembled for us a Jimmy Olsen who's been shown to be brave, resourceful, ambitious, able and even capable of breaking into the top-secret P.R.O.J.E.C.T. databases (4:21:5). That's he's also somewhat ridiculous and self-important, such as when dressed in his bra and mini-skirt (4:1:5), is part and parcel of the fact that he's a character rather than a plot-point. Mr Straczynski's Jimmy has to be perfect, because he has to be the perfectly brave example that inspires Clark Kent; there's no-one else in the book to do that because everyone else ran away and obviously the Kents never convinced Clark about the value of civic duty. And that heroically one-dimensional Jimmy Olsen has no other function or existence in "Superman: Earth One" beyond that. He's brave and principled so that Superman can learn to be brave and principled too. But the Olsen of "All-Star Superman" has his weaknesses as well as his strengths, and they often overlap, as when the competent Olsen helping to run P.R.O.J.E.C.T. displays some alienating streaks of arrogance too. And it's because the Jimmy of "All-Star Superman" is almost as flawed as he is admirable that we feel so fond of him as a person rather than responding to him as an example of blowhard rhetoric.
Parachute the Jimmy Olsen of "All-Star: Superman" into "Earth One" and though he'd be both paradoxically a more real and yet more cartoony character than those around him, he'd still be a fascinating figure. Transfer Mr Straczynski's Jimmy into "All-Star: Superman" and, even adjusting for the difference in tone, he'd stick out like an irredemable idiot, fit only as comic relief, a deluded sidekick of Steve Lombard. Whatever would the Clark and Lois in that world think of this boy running around the ruins of Metropolis for no good reason at all?
And so, rather than having their Jimmy Olsen prove his bravery by taking photos of robots and pontificating to alien super-villains, Morrison and Quitely's Jimmy shows how much he loves Superman by bravely exposing himself to the Doomsday virus in order to save his friend (4:17:2), and by then cradling the fallen and badly beaten man of steel while shouting at the folks who approach the two of them;
"Don't let anybody see him like this! You hear me!" (4:20:2)
It's such a touching scene, displaying how much Jimmy cares for his friend's privacy and dignity without ever explicitly saying as much. And if Jimmy's somewhat over-wrought, well, he's just been transformed into a Doomsday monster and, let us never forget, he's still a young man, with a young man's emotions. But for all of that, he's presented as a brave character rather than one we're told is brave, and he's one among many in the pages of "All-Star Superman" who show themselves willing to help others at a great potential cost to themselves. That's in such contrast to the Earth One Jimmy, who turns out to have sacrificed nothing at all, and to have helped no-one either until Superman appears on the scene and makes assisting the war-wounded more sexy.
For just declaring that the word "truth" is of such importance, as Mr Straczynski does in "Earth One", doesn't mean that that's so. And the reader of "All-Star Superman" knows without having to be told that the principle of "sacrifice for the greater good" is what Morrison and Quietly's graphic novel is all about, because they've been shown example after example of characters facing up to their social responsibilities and being portrayed as admirable, or failing to do so and being depicted as shameful.
The pages of "Superman: Earth One" are full of characters who are clearly intended to seem endearing and commendable, but who are revealed to be anything but when the meaning of the text rather than its intent is considered. Mr Straczynski spends, for example, four pages of static and tedious images establishing the rather obvious point that Perry White is an editor of a newspaper, and we're clearly intended to admire this opinionated old professional around whom the Daily Planet's staff revolve (18-21). But given that we're never told anything about White and his role that's in any way necessary for the plot of "Superman: Earth One", the question comes to mind concerning why the readers are ever asked to get to know this Mr White in such detail? The assumption can only be made that JMS either thinks his audience will be fascinated by hearing an editor lecturing his staff on the finer points of grammar and the data-processing capacity of the Daily Planet's computers, or that they need the mass of information that's being given to them in order to believe that such an exotic figure as a newspaper editor can actually exist.
And yet, for all of Mr Straczynski's obvious intention to present the Daily Planet's editor as a noble patriarch, his take on Perry actually comes across as little more than a self-satisfied windbag. To read him lecturing Clark on "active sentence structure versus passive structure" is to want to walk away in the completely opposite direction from the man, especially when it's realised that White is actually analysing the title of Clark's old hometown newspaper; how much does this vain old man long to be seen as the font of all wisdom? Perhaps if the character were called upon to do anything but lecture and, at the tale's end, give Clark a job, the reader might feel that all that talk had been invested in to some purpose, but it's hard to see what the purpose might have been. It can't have been part of a plan to establish the Planet as a friendly, exciting place to work. Even Clark responds to his interview by throwing away his application forms (21.4), and it's the one time in the book that it's possible to see Kent's listlessness as an appropriate option. For White is nothing but a grumpy old Lou Grant stereotype grumbling at what seems to be nothing more than a little gaggle of low-achieving journalism students. He lectures Lois Lane on the flaws in her writing in front of Clark Kent, a stranger to both of them with no professional standing at all, and then White leaves her for dead in mid-sentence(23:3/4 - 21:1). It's humiliatingly unprofessional on White's part, but then, he's obviously incompetent anyway, despite what Mr Straczynski seems to think he's established. White has, after all, hired Lois as a reporter without making sure she knows the difference between a news story and editorial content, and he's only now grasping out that she can't do the simplest part of the job. It's a scene that's supposed to, in plot terms, show Lois as a feisty young thing trying to express herself in her work while establishing Perry as a no-nonsense sage of what was once newsprint. But that's not what the scene actually says. Once again, Mr Straczynski's intentions and his achievement radically diverge. The collision of a stereotype of an opinionated young reporter and a gnarly old-school editor just makes her look incompetent and whiny and him a self-important old fool.
But then, Mr Straczynski's Lois Lane is a profoundly ineffective and incompetent character whenever she appears in "Earth One". Oh, we know how she's supposed to appear to us, because she's called Lois Lane, but the facts of what she does and says stand in contradiction to the author's intention. She's stubborn rather than independent-minded, as is shown by the fact that she does nothing of any professional or humane worth on the battlefields that are the streets of Metropolis, with a single exception we'll discuss in a moment. She's not taking notes, or speaking into a recorder, or communicating with the Daily Planet through a mobile phone. Nor is she helping anyone except for her colleague Jimmy Olsen, and we've already talked about what he is and isn't doing himself. In truth, Lois is almost an entirely worthless character, and indeed so unimpressive and weak is she that Jimmy Olsen himself is moved to paternally ask her if she's "sure" she wants "to be out in the open for this?" (77.1) (The sexism of the comment quite passes JMS by, as it shockingly does Lois, who dream-facedly declares that "I wouldn't miss this for the world." Well of course she wouldn't; she's not having to work on her journalism or lend anyone any assistance and she gets to stare at Superman too.)
In the absence of any goals throughout the pages of "Earth One" beyond her desire to be able to add some personal opinion to her journalism, Lois is as unimpressive and insubstantial a figure as can be imagined, all dewy-eyed at the appearance of the blue-tighted Kal-El and very little else. It's a point that's emphasised when Olsen rushes to Superman's aid, pausing only to hand his camera to Lois for safekeeping because he "doesn't want it to get damaged" (93:2). Good old Lois! Good old Jimmy!
Still, Lois does eventually display a measure of initiative by generating the bright idea to drag Superman out from under a gravity beam by throwing him a chain that's attached to a truck. Perhaps she even drove the truck itself, but Mr Davis doesn't show us that vital piece of information. Based on everything we've seen of Lois, I rather suspect that Jimmy steered and she looked after his camera.
The Lois Lane of "All-Star Superman" is a far more complex and admirable character than her counterpoint in "Earth One". For one thing, Mr Morrison and Mr Quietly's Lois is constantly shown doing something of purpose if not always value; she's never the beautiful girl whinging about not being able to express herself and wandering without purpose on a battlefield in search of superhero eye-candy. Even when she's presented in "All-Star Superman" sitting passively in a car being flown northwards by Superman, she's tellingly portrayed as a self-confident women quite free of awe, challenging her partner and ignoring the spectacular scenery for the pages of a newspaper, as an obsessively ambitious career reporter well might. (2:1) Elsewhere, she's established time and time again as an utterly trustworthy and capable woman, such as when Superman is shown leaving the Bizarro Repellent in her hands (7:17:3). She's wonderfully brave, as she displays when she rolls her eyes and refuses to panic with a weary "Don't ask" despite having been captured by a mad old man in charge of a war robot (10.8.4), and she's compassionate too, as displayed in the way in which she tries to encourage Luthor to resist the temptations of super-powers at the beginning of "Superman In Excelcis" (12.5.4).
Of course, at no point does she declare that she's brave, empathetic or resourceful. She's shown to be those things. The reader is trusted to be able to read the evidence before them, and, crucially, Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely ensure that the evidence is actually present in the text. She's certainly not presented as a character worthy of our attention and respect in the absence of any evidence to support such thoughts and feelings. And our willingness to empathise with Mr Morrison and Mr Quitely's Lois is only increased by the fact that she's not a paragon in any way at all, just as their Jimmy too has his flaws as well as his strengths in "All-Star Superman". She's capable of a measure of paranoia, as shown during her visit to the Fortress Of Solitude in (2:16:1-3). She can be brusque with, and indeed cruel to, Clark, though she's also quick to defend him against the insults of a passer-by (1:19:2-3), and for all that she wonders why Superman loves her, she's very well aware of her own virtues. She's certainly too vain to believe that Superman's Clark Kent identity could ever have fooled her. (2:1:233) But like all the characters who prove themselves in the pages of "All-Star Superman", she's always ultimately capable of putting her own interests behind those of others in need. And so, when Lois almost stoically declares at the end of Morrison and Quitely's tale that "Superman's not dead" and that "when he's done ... he knows where to find me" (12:19:2-4), the reader can understand exactly why Superman loves her so, and why he's absolutely right to do so. Mr Quitely's art shows us that her heart has been gravely hurt, but also that she's never given in to despair where her faith in Clark is concerned, and the brevity and precision of Mr Morrison's script inspires our sympathy for Lois without ever making her seem pitiful.
But we're shown nothing in "Superman: Earth One" to suggest why the Clark Kent of that Metropolis should ever be at risk of falling in love with Mr Straczynski's Lois Lane, beyond the fact that he's a profoundly shallow young man himself. But then, as we'll discuss in the final part of this piece, there's little reason for us to believe that a Lois who's the equal of her "All-Star Superman" counterpart would ever fall in love with the JMS Superman either.
To be concluded, with a look at the ethics of All-Star Superman and Superman: Earth One.
What's next? Well, as promised last time, the conclusion of this piece, a look at the new Gail Simone Secret Six collection, The Walking Dead, a chat about Mark Waid's work, and of course the weekly dip into the world of 2000 ad, which may be delyaed because my subscription copy hasn't turned up! I hope you might pop over at one time or another, and, as always, I really do wish you a splendid day. Thank you for dropping in, it's much appreciated.