NEW COSTUME…SAME DRAMA…DEEPER SHOVEL

So I don’t stay anything close to current with this blog.  I have tried to do so from time to time and it just never took.  The reason for this is that I started this blog in 2008 and right around that time I started my slow descent into being an angry, bitter comic book fan before finally coming out on the other side in 2011 with a better attitude but still having serious problems with what DC and Marvel were doing.  I found it was possible to dislike a decision one of the companies, DC especially, made but not take it so freaking personally.  Some may have taken this as me back tracking or trying to be a kinder, gentler Mike but the truth is I just lost my taste for unnecessary bitching on the Internet and aside from a few moments of backsliding I have managed to stay that course for the past four years.

That zen approach to comics was challenged recently and while I won’t compare it to an alcoholic walking past a bar and not going in (because that’s a very real struggle and what I went through doesn’t even come close to that) I very nearly went off about some images that were released concerning DC’s soft relaunch in June.

Specifically this one.

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When I first saw this cover and the others that popped up over the course of the day I got really annoyed.  I didn’t want to.  It just happened.  Again, I have been trying to control the “raging fury” that dwells within me.  I even started to write what would have turned into a rant over on Facebook but decided against it because I was at work and didn’t want to deal with the comments that would follow.  I figured I would let it simmer and maybe I would calm down, which I eventually did but the Facebook postings continued and the desire to say something about it did not go away.  Then I figured, “Hey, I gots me a blog,” and thus I started typing what you are now reading.

For those coming in late after the whole Convergence thing DC is cancelling a bunch of titles, starting up a bunch of titles and re-tooling 24 of their current books in an effort to rebrand themselves.  They are dropping the New 52 label and focusing more on story and character rather than building a large, shared universe.  Some of the books will be their own things.  Some will tie together.  In a recent interview co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee stated that they will be focusing on canon and not continuity, whatever the hell that means.  To be honest I was a little sour on the new direction DC is going in because one of the interviews (which you can find here) made it seem like they were really trying to engage a new audience while giving short shrift to the readers already buying their books.  This is nothing new for either Marvel or DC but this time it bugged the crap out of me.

In reading the various discussions happening on social media (which admittedly is only a fraction of the comic buying audience) I slowly started to realize what my problems were with this costume in specific and the relaunch in general were as they pertain to Superman.  Here are those problems in no particular order.

1. The new costume comes on the heels of a previous costume change.

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Some time ago DC made a huge deal about Geoff Johns and John Romita, Jr. coming on to Superman.  The company realized that the book was having problems so they put their biggest writer together with an artist known primarily as a Marvel guy and hoped for the best.  It may not have been the first time a primarily Marvel artist was teamed with Johns to work on Superman (Adam Kubert drew Action Comics for a rather uneven storyline when Johns and Richard Donner were writing the book) but it was a definite coup for DC.  Romita, Jr. made his bones on Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men and had long runs with Daredevil, Thor and then Spider-Man again before doing some profitable work with Mark Millar.

The feeling I got from the announcement that Johns and JRJR would be working on Superman was that DC really wanted to make a big splash with the title and because of that I wasn’t expecting much.  The fact that I ended up liking the story as much as I did was a bit surprising.  Johns seemed to be bringing back some of the more classic elements of Superman that had been removed during Scott Lobdell’s run on the title.  Clark was back at the Planet. Lois, Jimmy and Perry were part of the supporting cast.  The new antagonist, Ulysses, made for a complex and formidable character.  The art was hit or miss but I liked that Johns seemed to be doing a course correct on Superman and his world.  It fit nicely with what Greg Pak was doing in Action Comics and Batman/Superman as well as what Peter Tomasi was doing in Superman/Wonder Woman.

Right at what became the end of the Johns/JRJR run two events happened that made the news.  The first was Superman’s new super power.  The Super Flare.  Now he can manifest the sum total of the solar energy in his body in one powerful blast that is strong enough to decimate whatever is around him and leaves him bereft of his other abilities for 24 hours.  The second event was that Superman’s costume got a tweak.  Nothing drastic but enough to get people talking.  Even though I ended up liking the issue where all of this was revealed I was really annoyed that Johns was writing this storyline and leaving the book.  Maybe it was just me but I thought his run was going to be longer.  It seemed disingenuous to hype his coming on the book, hype the new super power and costume and then throw the deuces in the air and say, “Peace!”  It made it seem like his brief run on Superman as well as the costume change and new power were all flashy stunts and suddenly what seemed like a long term solution turned into a short sighted cash grab.

The thing that kept me going was the idea that all of these changes were going to be brought over after Convergence.  Romita, Jr. was staying on the book and a new writer was coming on.  Maybe this wasn’t a short term thing.  Maybe this was going to be the new status quo.

Then I saw the costume I posted above and I felt like I had been had.

To me it is extremely insulting to your regular audience to throw a bunch of changes at us and then not even six months later change everything again.  I understand that anyone in the serialized fiction game lives or dies by keeping things fresh but this feels like the regular readers are getting jerked around.  Why promote a new costume and power so heavily only to change it again two or three months later?

Now I am well aware that images like the one I posted are designed to get us fans talking and that this new look might be short term and for a specific storyline and blah, blah, blah.  I get that.  I’ve been on this ride long enough to know how it works.  It doesn’t change the fact that it feels like DC doesn’t value me as a reader as much as the mythical new audience it has been chasing for the better part of a decade.

So in the short run I feel like I was mislead.  In the long run?

2. DC hasn’t known what to do with Superman since Infinite Crisis.

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Above is one of the more memorable scenes from Infinite Crisis.  I could probably write a whole blog post about it but for the purposes of this post I am using it merely to show the last time I thought DC had a good handle on Superman.  After a rocky start to the 2000’s Superman was on track and actually going somewhere before the events of Infinite Crisis.

After Infinite Crisis the Superman titles entered a period of times where things were at best misguided and at worst a huge freaking mess.  Things started off great with the Up, Up and Away storyline written by Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns.  It was a time of hope and renewal as two powerhouse writers (along with Richard Donner, the director of Superman: The Movie) were redefining Superman in a new and shiny DC.  Things slid off the rails quickly as books started shipping late leading to delays in major storylines.  The fact that DC changed the origin but waited a full four years before finally deliver on what those changes were didn’t help.  It was a confusing time with a few solid stories mixed with a lot of bad ones.  Then, right when they seemed to be getting things back on track they launched the meandering and bloated New Krypton storyline that saw Superman absent from both Superman and Action Comics for over a year.  When that ended Superman was still missing from Action Comics for another ten months and walking around America in search of…something over in Superman and just when those stories wrapped up DC relaunched their entire line with new number ones.

What could have been a perfect relaunch for Superman turned into more inconsistent confusion.  At the start of the New 52 there was a five year gap between what Grant Morrison was writing in Action Comics and what became a revolving door of creators over on Superman.  Scott Lobdell provided some stability on that title after brief runs by George Perez and Dan Jurgens but his approach was hit and miss at best and the characters he brought to the table were boring.  H’El, ostensibly the first big new villain for Superman in the New 52, was a boring character that led to two boring inter-book crossovers.  After Morrison left Action that title had creator problems with one writer announcing that he was leaving the book weeks before his first issue was going to hit the stands.

There were some bright spots.  Superman and Wonder Woman becoming a power couple turned out to be a pretty neat idea and the title that came from that, Superman/Wonder Woman, has been a consistently enjoyable read month after month.  Greg Pak started writing Action Comics and his run led into the Doomed event that ended up being really good but all of that didn’t make up for things like the high profile Superman Unchained turning into a late shipping book with a pointless story and the first ten or so issues of Batman/Superman being extremely weak and uninteresting.

For a long time I would see friends suggesting that DC just didn’t know what to do with Superman and I would bristle at the idea because I wanted to give the company the benefit of the doubt.  It has been nearly ten years since Infinite Crisis and outside of Pak on Action Comics the one series of Superman stories that I have liked the most and have gotten what I think is the essence of the character are JMS’ Superman Earth One graphic novels.  The man that started one of the most boneheaded stories in Superman’s history (Grounded, for those curious) is now the man that is writing the best Superman in comics.

How the hell did that happen?

How the hell did DC let that happen?

The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there’s a problem and by the looks of the covers DC has released for June their solution to bringing Superman back to greatness is to take him farther away from who and what he is as a character.

This leads into…

3. DC’s leadership doesn’t seem to think much of Superman.  Especially Jim Lee.

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In the interest of full disclosure this part of my diatribe is based mainly on a feeling I have had for years.  I can’t point to any hard evidence for what I am about to write, so take it all with a grain of salt.

I don’t think the power structure at DC likes Superman very much.  Geoff Johns seems to be only interested in Superman The Movie.  The fact that his big move back in 2006 was to bring in as many concepts from the Salkind films as possible made me think that he really didn’t have anything new to bring to the character.  While his more recent run was entertaining and had some good moments a lot of the beats seem to be taken from the book of Richard Donner.  I could go on but there is a lot of ground to cover here.

Dan DiDio seems to be the least of the offenders here.  Years ago he likened Superman to a firefighter…he sits and waits to be called into action and then goes back to waiting once the job is done.  This completely negates who Superman is as a character.  While firefighters are heroes through and through Superman is more than that.  He is a symbol.  It makes telling stories about the character problematic at times but he is an icon.  He’s an inspiration and to reduce him to the role of errand boy is a bad idea.  Superman doesn’t wait for trouble.  He goes looking for it.  It’s why he’s a reporter in his civilian guise.  The fact that Dan admitted some time back that if Superman is selling bad the entire line seems to follow suit was nice but recent decisions seem to indicate that it was either hype on his part or he forgot that lesson pretty darn quick.

Then there’s Jim Lee.

I am going to state right up front that I don’t have a problem with Jim Lee as a person. In the various interviews I have heard him on in the past few years he comes across as a very likable sort of guy. A family man and someone that takes what they’re doing seriously. So all of what I am about to say is not a personal attack on Lee. Usually when things like the release of these covers happen there are people on the Internet that will call for those responsible to be fired and while I understand the passion and am certainly not condemning anyone for how they feel I know that the situation is not as simple as a writer or editor or executive making what the fan perceives as a bone headed decision and should result in that person losing their job. There is so much about how the comic book industry works that I don’t understand so I don’t feel like it’s my judgment call to make.  I’ll even cop to the fact that I liked most of the Superman art Jim Lee has done over the years, even in Superman Unchained.  The story was misguided but most of the art was nice to look at.

You also need to realize that everything I am about to say comes mainly from feelings I have. I can’t really point to specific interviews (mainly because some of them happened years ago and I haven’t kept a running tally of things Jim Lee has said that irked me) to back up these feelings. They are the product of the gut reaction I have had reading those interviews that carry over into the actual comics and those gut reactions can be summed up in one sentence.

I don’t think Jim Lee likes Superman.

Actually I don’t think that Jim Lee is a good fit for DC Comics in general though his bosses apparently feel differently. To be fair I have heard that Lee is doing a bang up job keeping DC fresh on the latest in technologies, both in terms of the art itself and on the distribution side of things. This doesn’t make up for the fact that under his watch as co-publisher DC has felt more like Marvel and Image in the ‘90s than DC in the 21st century. When you look at the people in charge under Lee and DiDio you see names that were big at Marvel over twenty years ago. Bob Harras. Bobbie Chase. Scott Lobdell. Hank Kanalz. These are people that have worked in comics for several decades and I actually applaud that because there is something to be said for experience and I don’t like the idea of people losing their jobs. The problem is that the end result of all that experience is to put out books that feel like they should have been published in 1994. Lee gets accolades for his art and his business sense but the final product has been, with a few exceptions, loud and flashy but ultimately empty. A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. When I read The Culling, a storyline that ran through Teen Titans, Superboy and one of the Legion titles I felt like I was reading an Image book from late 1995. There was a lot of action but not a whole lot of meat to the actual story.

Under Lee’s time as co-publisher he has taken his square peg sense of story and what comics are supposed to be like and crammed it into the round hole that is DC Comics. He (and DiDio, just to be fair) have forgotten that DC has its own identity and the current business model seems to be to take these characters that have their own flavors and make them like a more Marvel type book. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Again, for all the kudos Jim gets for how savvy he is about running a comic book company he made his bones with loud, flashy art with just enough story to justify calling it a series. There is no denying that he has his fans, that he does have talent and that his books sold extremely well but you would think that after being in the business for nearly three decades he would know when to change for the times.

Now you could argue that the new direction DC is taking points to the fact that Lee (and DiDio) are trying to move forward but the changes seem to all be short term. They are chasing an audience that is coming into comics thanks to other media and don’t think for a minute that I am not thankful for that or that I begrudge new fans coming into the fold. My problems with the newer readers come from the fact that I am made to feel that I have no value as someone that has been in the reading and collecting game for over a quarter of a century and the fact that because comics are becoming more mainstream there seems to be even more of a division in the ranks. None of these are Lee’s fault but the fact that he (and DiDio) are courting those readers over his regulars irks me and makes me feel even more disenfranchised than I did before.

Which brings me to Jim Lee and Superman.

Again, I don’t think he likes the character.

He also doesn’t seem to understand how the character works, which baffles me because Superman is pretty basic. Lazy creators will fall back on the old “he’s too powerful” chestnut or worse the “well, he’s an alien and an outsider so let’s make him like an otherworldly Peter Parker” mindset. Lee has worked on two Superman stories. Superman Unchained and For Tomorrow. He was put on both of those titles because he was a big name and those books would sell. I don’t begrudge this and to be fair the problems with those stories are not entirely on Lee because he didn’t write them. It’s not his fault that Brian Azzarello and Scott Synder, talented though they may be and good on other characters, missed the mark considerably when it came to the Man of Steel. Still, he was a part of those projects and thus he gets part of the blame.

More than any of that Lee has always seemed rather dismissive of Superman. When I read his comments concerning Batman’s 75th birthday compared to his comments during Superman’s 75th anniversary I got the sense that he really liked Batman and talked about Superman like you do that uncle everyone likes but you don’t get on with all that well. You say nice things about him but there’s nothing behind it. Lee just doesn’t seem to have time for the character. When I look at all the decisions made with Superman during the course of the New 52 I see a co-publisher that is either actively changing things to make the character more in line with what he thinks the character should be (rather than what a character like Superman evolves into over the decades) or he doesn’t give a toss so Superman is allowed to hop on the ground like a freshly caught fish. The dance is entertaining but it is also short lived and ends in death.

Lee doesn’t get the character and when both publishers fail to get the character then I don’t hold out a lot of hope for Superman’s standing at DC.

This leads to…

4. Superman is not that complicated and yet he is extremely complicated.

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Superman is one of those rare fictional characters that has transcended the medium he was launched in and become something more.  As I mentioned earlier he is an icon.  Superman has evolved into a symbol and while that symbol may mean different things to different people it doesn’t change the fact that telling stories about him is hard because you have a fragmented fan base that all want different things from the characters.  Some want a straight and true Superman that saves the day and never has any doubts about his mission or his place in the world.  Others, like myself, enjoy a more complicated take on the character and want to see him grapple with who he is while at the end of the day doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do.  Serialized fiction lives or dies by taking the protagonist into places that challenge them and that is hard to do with an icon.  So I understand that sitting down and telling a Superman story can be a daunting task.  I really do.

At the same time I have no patience for a writer overcoming that challenge by adding on personality traits that work just fine for other super-heroes but are wrong for Superman.  The biggest fallback option is to make the character feel isolated and alien.  On the surface this makes perfect sense.  He’s an alien.  A stranger in a strange land.  He lives among us but he is not one of us so naturally he would feel like an outsider.  This ignores a key aspect to Superman’s origin and that is he was raised by the Kents.  Whether the Kents died when Superman was a young man or they lived well into his adult years Superman spent his formative years living with a human family that loved and accepted him.  This is what made Superman who he is.  I know there are people that love the idea that Superman just naturally had a desire to help people and a love of his adopted world but to me the story is so much better when the Kents are the origin of that love and desire.

You can have angst.  You can a young Clark Kent feeling like he is missing out on something because he can’t run and jump and play as hard and as fast as he is able.  You can even explore the idea that if Clark knows he’s adopted or an alien or both from an early age that he would have a desire to learn about where he came from but the moment you cast an adult Superman as someone apart from humanity you are throwing out one of the aspects that makes the character so special.

The whole idea that a certain segment of the population would fear Superman bugs me as well.  I realize it is extremely naive to think that we could learn a super powered alien is alive and active on Earth and not be somewhat nervous about that fact but I think making that a part of his character like they did at the start of the New 52 was a huge mistake.  Having that be part of the origin story is one thing.  I can understand it there but it doesn’t make sense five years after his debut when he has done nothing but use those powers for good.  Superman should not be a character the world fears.  They shouldn’t have to worry about him turning on them.  It might be dramatic but it’s wrong for the character.  He should be a figure of hope and inspiration.  His very presence should make people feel safe.  Superman himself can have doubts about this and stories where his power is corrupted in some way are interesting but at the end of the day people should not be afraid of him.

I don’t think anyone with any kind of power that is currently at DC understands this.  They look at Superman as a problem that needs to be fixed.  How do you make him work in a modern context?  How can you make him relevant?  How do you take a character that represents an older ideal and make that work for a contemporary audience?  These are all questions that have been answered…by Marvel Comics.

Got ReferenceThe perfect model for getting a modern audience to like and accept Superman is being played out with Captain America.  In the current series of films Cap is portrayed as someone that may have doubts about his mission but at the end of the day he steps up and serves as the hero the world needs to be even if his decisions are unpopular.  There is a scene between Agent Coulson and Steve Rogers in the first Avengers movie where Steve wonders if his outlook and what he represents are a little outdated and Coulson counters that with the world being as dark as it is they could use some of that old fashioned thinking.

That’s what Superman needs to be.  He needs to be, as Marlon Brando once said, the light that shows people the way.  He needs to be the beacon in the darkness.  The lighthouse that gets us back to land.  Again he can have doubts and wonder if he’s doing the right thing but those should be momentary and rare.  Superman should be the character that walks into the room and no matter how bad the situation is everyone suddenly feels like it is going to be all right.

I know it’s hard for some creators to wrap their head around that concept but I think that speaks more towards who the writers are as people than who Superman is as a character.  If you can’t understand the idea that someone can do the right thing purely because it is the right thing to do…if you can’t wrap your head around an alien not feeling like a freak and wanting to take care of the world that adopted him after he lost his own…if you can’t balance the icon with the character then you have absolutely no business working on that character.

None.

Zero.

Nada.

5. So what do we do about all of this?

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Sadly the options that we have as fans are few.  I could sit here and do a call to arms for everyone to drop the Superman comics so we can send a message to DC that we don’t like how they are handling the character but I don’t think that would solve anything.  The current thinking at DC is that if there is a problem with Superman do something flashy to get people’s attention and hope for the best.  A drop in sales would only work if the powers that be understand the character.  I honestly believe that people leaving the books in droves will only make matters worse.

We could besiege DC with letters and emails and social media movements to get their attention but the sad fact of the matter is that a certain segment of fandom has damaged our credibility when it comes to the online world.

We could try to reason with Lee and DiDio at conventions but they seem to be pretty stuck in their thinking so that wouldn’t do any good.

As much as I hate to end things this way our best option right now is to wait.  We need to wait until the current power structure at DC and Warner Bros. changes.  These people are very good at keeping their jobs and no amount of fan complaining on the Internet or a drop in sales or any of that is going to change anything.  We are at the mercy of a well oiled machine that happens to have the keys to the kingdom of my favorite character.

I wish I had more answers.  I wish I had the solution to the problem.  What I do have is the belief that at some point things will turn around.  Superman has been around for over 75 years.  He has weathered many storms.  This too shall pass.

I just hope it happens sooner rather than later.

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