Thursday, July 14, 2016

Superman or Supermen? Where Do We Go?

This time in 2009, DC was promoting an upcoming series called Superman: Secret Origin. That was the third in-continuity origin of Superman in 23 years, with Geoff Johns blending all of the different stories, including the Richard Donner movies and Smallville, into one, vast account. It seemed like overkill to redefine Superman once again, but it was all worth it if one, beautiful, all-encompassing origin could be established for once and for… a while.

That while wasn't long. In less than two years, Superman was rebooted with a loving, year-and-a-half redefinition by Grant Morrison.

Three years later, that Superman is dead, and we have been told by the mysterious Mr. Oz that the last Superman was maybe never Superman at all.

But we have the previous Superman back, which may mean that Secret Origin is once again the origin of the main Superman. Even if so, his reality is now (pending future events) very messy, with his life from birth through adulthood having been spent in his home dimension and the rest of his life on a new dimension without "his" Batman, Wonder Woman, Justice League… even his Krypton or Supergirl. Only his Lois Lane and his son made the trip with him, so the new world has two Lois Lanes. It also has a Clark Kent who is not super-powered, is not Superman, and has memories of meetings with Superman that Superman doesn't have. Everyone in this world knows that Superman is… or was… Clark Kent.

It's messy. And far messier with the addition of two other supermen, with Lex Luthor wearing battle armor bearing the S-symbol and, in Shanghai, Kenan Kong starring in a title called New Super-Man. So there are four living men, plus one dead, sharing some aspect or another of the identity of Superman. In addition, August will bring Superwoman #1, with Lois Lane getting the powers she always wished for.

All of this hearkens back to the past in many ways. When Superman died in a 1993 story, he was succeeded by four alternate versions of Superman – including the Eradicator, who is the focus of the current plot in Superman – none of whom was the literal incarnation of the dead man. The event in which the dead Superman returned to life was called "Reign of the Supermen," a titular reference to Jerry Siegel's 1933 story about a Bill Dunn, a regular man who had been given super powers artificially by a mad scientist. This title was referenced in 52 in an issue dubbed "Rain of the Supermen," in which ordinary people given powers by Lex Luthor fell to their deaths when he suddenly switched off their powers. All very ominous for China's new Super-Man, who, in getting his powers from mysterious scientists, is perhaps following in the footsteps of the oldest Super-Man. Lois Lane getting superpowers to become Superwoman was originally depicted in 1943. Is DC revisiting every past year that ends in a '3'?

If 1993 is the playbook for what is happening now, the non-Superman supermen will serve as good supporting characters for DC to work with and the real Superman will step up. Certainly, the Superman who's married to Lois is the individual who seems ordained to fill the role, but we also know that he's going to be reclassified in some essential way, with Mr. Oz telling us in DC Rebirth #1, "You… are not what you believe you are. And neither was the fallen Superman." With Mr. Oz alluding to that Superman's death as a "tragedy" (the air quotes are his, corresponding to a snarky tone of voice that we can't hear), we can take it that Superman's falling was not dying in the conventional sense, and so, the New 52 Superman must be alive or in some sort of limbo. If he's anyone whom we've seen living, then he's likely the powerless Clark Kent who is running around being enigmatic, seemingly on purpose.

When Grant Morrison told the tale of the New 52 Superman in Action Comics, he posited that the New 52 Superman was the individual who fought Doomsday and died – who was the same Superman as pre-Flashpoint, but altered. This wasn't clear until Action #16 when Jimmy and Lois stood beneath the golden memorial statue with an eagle perched on Superman's arm. Lois said, "Superman died right here." Jimmy responded, "Yeah, and then Superman saved everybody, remember? He beat the bad guy. He came back from the dead." Yes, Jimmy, we do remember. Are we supposed to? Is DC being true to what the stories have told us before? They're preparing some intriguing reveal that will tell us that the identities of the dead New 52 Superman and the revived pre-Flashpoint Superman aren't what everyone thought, and that will give us the Rebirth take on Superman, someone whom we're seeing in action (and in Action), but whose true nature is still unknown to us and to him.

There's a new story in progress, though, one that surely wasn't in line with Morrison's plans. Now we have a Clark Kent who is just as suspicious about Superman as Superman is about Clark Kent. And, in a fragmentary conversation during the battle in Action #959, Clark indicates that he seems to know more than Superman:

Clark: You'll "save me," is that it? Like you did before?
Superman: No idea what you're talking about.
Clark: Months ago. When you sent me into hiding.
Superman: I want to help you, but I don't kn-

Obviously, the timeline is fractured. Clark was plucked from it at a different moment than Superman. This Clark experienced a meeting between the two that this Superman either doesn't remember or didn't experience. Clark is resentful of how that all transpired, but here he is, alive. And we know that the fallen Superman's fate is not a "tragedy."

How, at the end of this, are the creators going to put all of the crayons back into the box and give us a Superman whose origins are not torturously complicated? If married-to-Lois Superman isn't who he believes he is, and they want to make the origin blend into the post-Flashpoint, post-Rebirth world, then they may be planning to tell us that he is the post-Flashpoint Superman, but older. If the falling of the fallen Superman was not a tragedy (with a snarky tone, in air quotes), then something else happened to him. For the messy situation with four living Supermen, a dead Superman, and a Superwoman to resolve itself, we're going to have to start learning that some of the multiple Supermen are evidently not different men but the same man tumbling through some timeline or inter-dimensional voodoo. Perhaps dead-Superman, living-Superman, and Clark Kent are all (or, at least two of them) the same individual at different moments in his life. Perhaps the New 52 Superman didn't die but grew a little older to become the Superman who's now married to Lois. Wally West has kicked off Rebirth by telling us that years of the heroes' lives went missing, and they lost, among other things, love. The simplest solution to the mystery of the multiple Supermen is that they aren't multiple, after all.

Given these clues, my take is that is the Superman who is now fighting Doomsday is the Superman who was born on this universe's Krypton. What appeared to be the death of New 52 Superman, wasn't. He somehow lost his powers and was sent into hiding as a powerless Clark Kent by Superman, who – due to some sort of timeline fracturing – doesn't remember the past few years correctly. I think the resolution to the mess is that DC will tell us that it's not a mess, just a good story, and that there was only one Superman all along.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Retro Review: DC: The New Frontier

It is easy to begin Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, classify it as an "Elseworlds" story, and continue on, reading it with pleasure to its conclusion without revising that classification, that is an Elseworlds, one of many. But New Frontier is, significantly, something different than – something more than – an Elseworlds, and part of what makes it so outstanding lies in that subtle distinction.

Yes, New Frontier meets the definition. Just as "imaginary stories," from the era before the term "Elseworlds" was coined, fits as well. New Frontier presents variants of familiar DC characters in a variant of the familiar DC Universe. But to see how the story is more than that, note the ways in which it deviates from both the Silver Age and post-Crisis renditions of the DCU:

New Frontier has an absolute timeline with precise dates, and with characters aging one year for every year that passes.
• As a rule followed in all cases but three, Cooke defines characters' debuts and careers to match their actual publication dates. For example, Barry Allen debuts, in the world of New Frontier, at the same time that Showcase #4 was published in our world. The exceptions are so rare that they are worth identifying: Dick Grayson, John Henry Irons, and (in a cameo only) Roy Harper all debut around 1960 instead of in 1940, 1993, and 1941, respectively.
  New Frontier interweaves the timelines of actual historical and cultural events with DC publications so that, for example, the launch of Sputnik is inserted in proper sequence after the arrival on Earth of J'onn J'onzz and the accident in which Barry Allen gains super speed.
• Artistic style and period-appropriate slang makes this work about 1960 look and sound like it was created in 1960.
• Though the style is from the Sixties, the perspective is from the 2000s, turning an eye to much that was ignored by comics and the mass media in its own time, such as racial discrimination, racial violence, and the excesses of McCarthy-era anti-Communist rhetoric.
• Cooke includes not only DC's stars, but also a huge lineup of DC characters, offering memorable renditions of characters ranging from Batman to Slam Bradley and the Challengers of the Unknown.
• Cooke adapts, from post-Crisis continuity as well as Watchmen the notion that superheroes became feared by the public, and thus the JSA era was ended. He adapts, from The Dark Knight Returns, the notion that Superman (and Wonder Woman) continue to operate by pledging their loyalty to the U.S. government, while Batman continues on as an outlaw.
• The comprehensive history of an era, showing the dawn of DC's Silver Age, suggests parallels between the optimism of John F. Kennedy's "Camelot" and the debut of the Justice League.

To summarize the nature of New Frontier's world: While a typical Elseworlds offers a variant of the standard DCU, or makes the DC characters interact with some fictional variant of our world, DC: The New Frontier places DC characters in a world that is much more like the real world than any previous rendition of the DCU. During long, extended scenes and in tiny details, New Frontier is a period piece that is about our world – primarily the United States, but other places as well. It educates while it delights and entertains.

Because of all this, the superheroes are much as we've always known them, but their world seems different, and, though set in the past, and worked from established material, it is incredibly new in the way it combines older plots and styles with a new perspective. The superhero action, front and center, is as universally white and non-inclusive as the comics of the Fifties, but Cooke makes the readers and his characters aware of the glaring social inequalities of the times, with xenophobia, rape, lynchings, and Joe McCarthy's Red Scare punctuating the usually-sunny narrative.

And while it does such a great job of being about the real world – circa 1960 but seen from the perspective of the 2000s – New Frontiers does two other things, too. It crescendos around a particular story with a particular threat, called The Centre. But before, during, and after that central plot, it constructs an architecture of an entire age of heroes, showing the Golden Age and the Justice Society in the rearview mirror while it drives us through the beginning of the Silver Age and the formation of the Justice League.

The first time that NF shows us a superhero in costume is when Hourman dies fleeing from the police as a vigilante in 1952 – this is the first year after DC ceased publication of the Justice Society, and also the time that McCarthyism was near its zenith. As in DC's post-Crisis continuity, NF posits that the JSA was driven underground, leaving the world without superheroes for a time. As in The Dark Knight Returns, NF shows Superman working behind the scenes as a government agent while Batman fights crime illegally. Like the continuity applied retroactively to the Silver Age superheroes, we see heroes like the Flash (Barry Allen) and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) debuting some time after Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Unlike any of those once-main continuities, NF asserts that the Trinity belonged to the JSA era, and after a few years, went on to be part of the JLA era. This is a luxury that NF's timeline allows because only eight year separate the two teams' tenures, unlike the decades that passed before DC reintroduced JSA stories in the late Seventies under the post-Golden Age concept of Earth Two.

At its finest, New Frontier is an origin story, not of one hero or another, but of a team – a universe. Most central are the three Silver Agers who joined the Justice League as charter members. Barry Allen is trim, almost petite, but supremely confident and courageous. J'onn J'onzz is lonely and isolated in his exile on Earth, but utterly driven to act only on the behalf of others as policeman John Jones. Hal Jordan, whose life is shown in more detail than anyone else's, begins as a kid in an outtake from "The Right Stuff," then goes on to become a war hero, a test pilot, an astronaut, and a superhero. New Frontier is a coming-of-age story for the Justice League's universe, tying together many loose threads, and ending by showing how the nascent League goes on to fight together, opposing Starro, the JLA's first opponent in print, back in Brave and Bold #28. The finale, quoting Kennedy's inaugural speech is overflowing with optimism. If it makes you want to see the new world that has been born, it's there in print, in the first fifty or so issues of Justice League. But those stories by Gardner Fox are written for kids, perhaps older kids. New Frontier is a look at that world that was newly minted for kids, but dressed up and sophisticated for adults, full of meaning and style. Sometime a few months ago, I realized that it is, in all likelihood, the best comprehensive account of the entire DC Universe in one work. If I had one DC story to take to a desert island, I can't think of a better choice.
 
Earlier this year, I read New Frontier for the nth time, taking notes, putting together drafts of a review to post on my blog. And then, when the review was nearing completion, Darwyn Cooke died, far too young. All of the kind things I say about the work, and by extension about Cooke, might seem like a puff piece, something overly kind said of the dead. No. After many times admiring New Frontier, I was putting into words why I thought it was so wonderful, and this was nearly complete when I heard that the author was gone. All of the admiration was firmly in place and for the most part already typed out when I got the sad news. Darwyn Cooke, this review – too late – is for you.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

DC Rebirth #1

Wally West is doing things a Flash has done before.

Like Barry Allen in Crisis on Infinite Earths, he appears to Batman to deliver a warning that is also a cry for help that Batman is unable to satisfy.

Like Barry Allen in Flashpoint, he comes to Batman to deliver a message about reality having changed. The status as a messenger is, in turn, a reference to the Roman god Mercury, who also inspired the first Flash, Jay Garrick.

Like Barry Allen in 2008's Final Crisis one-shot lead-in DC Universe #0, he is the narrator, initially unidentified, with yellow-and-red narration boxes as a clue to his identity before it is revealed.

Like Barry Allen in Flash Rebirth, he is lost in the Speed Force, seeking an anchor to pull him back to reality.

Like Barry Allen in Final Crisis, he gets back to reality, and then participates in an emotional reunion with his former partner.

Like himself – Wally West – in a JLA-JSA crossover called "The Lightning Saga" he returns to continuity after a prolonged duration in which his absence was a creative decision by DC that was eventually reversed.


But he is also playing the roles of two non-Flashes: Like Doctor Manhattan (on two occasions) in Watchmen, he is nearly blown apart by cosmic forces, but survives to return to reality. As with several of the correspondences mentioned above, the artwork is intentionally composed to remind us of the connection, but in the case of Watchmen, it is a clue (of several) pointing to a further reveal that Watchmen's universe is connected to the DC Universe.

Like Johnny Thunder, he is a bearer of lightning. Johnny's appearance as an old man is used early in Rebirth to let us know that the Justice Society was always part of the post-Flashpoint history, but it was hidden and forgotten.

And, like Geoff Johns, the writer of Rebirth, Wally West is telling us how he feels about the DC Universe: "I look down at it and know without question: I love this world."  Johns certainly does love the DC Universe, and Rebirth is a love letter to many things that it has been, and, as Rebirth tells us, manifesto-style, will soon be again. This applies to all of the scenes I've so far mentioned and many more, including the conversation between Superman and Destiny and the mysterious appearance of a Legionnaire, probably Saturn Girl (Legionnaires fulfilling a mysterious mission in the present was also part of the aforementioned "Lightning Saga").

Geoff Johns, presenting DC, is bringing things back, and he's excited about them. There's a lot to love. I'm excited about some of it, and other readers will be excited by a lot of it, too.

Where my enthusiasm grows dim, and where many of the aforementioned references to previous changes in continuity fail, is that what DC's creators brought back now are things that they themselves discarded in the very recent past. This is not a twenty-year rebirth, reversing the decisions of departed former bosses. Jenette Kahn, the longtime DC publisher whose tenure killed off Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, and the Multiverse, left DC in 2002; Johns and his new bosses began reversing those creative changes almost at once. But this time around isn't a revolution (or counter-revolution) under new bosses. This time, the Powers-That-Be are the same Powers-That-Were when all of the changes that are being reversed were made in the first place. Johns, et al made the creative decision to pare down DC Continuity in 2011 believing that those changes were good. Now, they undo those decisions, believing that it is good to undo them.

I was greatly enthusiastic about many of the changes made in 2011, and greatly disappointed in the lack of inspiration shown by many of the writers who wrote 2011's new titles. Some of 2016's changes, I regret. Others, I look forward to. But the key, as now, is not those changes, but whether or not DC has a stable of writers ready to write great stories. Revisiting the past can be a wonderful thing, and it can be done wonderfully. But if DC will be revisiting not only the facts and style points of the past, but also the same general plots and same general kinds of stories that we've already seen, my enthusiasm – and that of other readers – will dim in 2017 just as it did in 2012. I believe that any writer who can't make the New 52 exciting can't make the Rebirth era exciting, either. The creative direction changes nothing in that regard, and so the burden is on DC to show that change is good change, and not simply recycling.


"Nothing ever ends," quoted from Watchmen, is the last line of Rebirth. How DC approaches the new beginning will determine if we should interpret that line as a promise or a threat.