Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Continuing Death of Superman

For Tomorrow
Superman 204 through 215

Let’s start with a confession. I haven’t had much use for Superman since Alan Moore’s and Curt Swan’s first and only team-up, the purported “Last Superman Story.” Entitled Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, the two-part story appeared in Superman #423 and Action #583. It’s the last Superman story prior to the Crisis on Infinite Earths mega-series.

I loved Crisis, and I did enjoy the John Byrne version of the Man of Steel in the renumbered Superman comic, but the bloom fell off that particular rose rather quickly. And while Curt Swan (my favorite Superman/Clark Kent artist) had more issues to draw, he would never have a better script to work with than the Moore two-parter.

Since that time, Superman has been at the bottom of the barrel for me, and it has bothered me. You’re supposed to like Superman. I mean, he’s Superman, for crying out loud. So, I’d buy a bunch of issues every now and again in hopes of finding renewed interest only to see the same banal effort in all three books. The death of Superman was manufactured hype and his return was never in any doubt. His change of powers was as ludicrous as Spider-Man’s symbiotic black alien costume, maybe worse. The electric blue costume was idiotic. For nearly two decades now his characterization never really achieved the power, nobility, and supremity of his heyday. The character is great. His handling has been abysmal.

Then he got married. While that may have seemed like a great idea, and a natural extension after decades of Lois chasing him with a mattress on her back, it was just another sales stunt. And it’s one that has boxed all DC writers into a corner they cannot get out of. These authors will say that having Superman get married opened up a lot of story ideas that couldn’t be written otherwise. I say that it was merely a sales stunt and one that has had horrible consequences for the characters. All of these story ideas could have been explored in “other worlds” type stories or tales involving Mxyzptlk or some other such contrivance while leaving Superman unencumbered.

Once again, about two years ago, DC announced a new direction for Superman. Yee-haw. I got onboard for it, again hoping against hope. It has, however, been a largely unmemorable couple of years. I couldn’t tell you anything important that happened, nor can I tell you much about the storylines. There was that one with the alternate universe of super-heroes that endangered our universe. Some good art and covers. There was the whole “new Supergirl” thang that, in an attempt to modernize the character, made the whole thing look sleezy and slightly pornographic. (Remember that page with Supes lying down with the three super chicks? And one of them was supposed to be his daughter? Yeesh! What was DC thinking?) Lois got shot and Superman heard it half way around the world. That was interesting in that we learn that Superman always keeps one ear and one eye out for Lois. Explains a lot about their pre-marriage days and how he was always able to race to her rescue in time. This time, though, he’s too late. But his feelings aren’t particularly new. We got the same old “With all these powers, and I still couldn’t save her” angst.

Then in May 2004 Jim Lee came on board Superman with writer Brian Azzarello to do the twelve-part “For Tomorrow” maxiseries within continuity, starting with issue 204 and ending with issue 215. That story is now finished and is, ultimately, the point of this review.

What a waste. What a load of junk. What a boring piece of nonsense.

We spend about four or five issues with Superman and a priest talking. Hmmmm-mmm! That’s darn riveting storytelling. You betcha! Eventually Azzarello brings us into this nonsense about missing millions of people, but little of it works and by the end it all falls apart.

Now, I know that Azzarello was trying to work on some important ideas. He was dealing with a crisis of faith, both for Superman and for the priest. He was dealing with trust. Most importantly he was exploring the concept of the effects of Superman’s interference on the world when he is proactive. These are all important themes but they’ve been dealt with before. Superman has long since decided that he cannot interfere proactively in human affairs, and it seems like every year or so he questions his necessity/validity/relevance. Ho-hum.

Azzarello makes the unforgivable error of mistaking confusion for mystery. Each of the first four or five issues start out with an off camera monologue that leads us to believe that the speaker is Superman. Turns out it’s the priest or a waitress or some other regular human. Get it? Everybody is like Superman and Superman is like everybody else. Finally, Azzarello fools us and shows us that Superman is the speaker. My, oh my, what a twist!

The confusion continues for quite a long way into the series. We eventually find out that a devise is responsible for the disappearance of a million and then another half million people around the globe (including Lois Lane). The devise is in the hands of an Iraq-type dictator who’s involved in a civil war. A dictator wannabe is attacking the dictator and eventually takes over. Superman has decided to stop the war, but it doesn’t stop. When guns are gone, the crazy foreigners pick up rocks and bottles.

Anyway, the devise is making people disappear. Superman, who didn’t respect the sovereignty of the country when he stopped the war, now respects the new dictator’s demand that the devise (clearly a threat to the entire world) remain in his country. The JLA is of no help. They are against Superman’s efforts. They must remain neutral. Since when is the JLA neutral? All of them play against type and are made wholly impotent.

Superman gets the devise finally and goes to his Fortress of Solitude with the priest (his new best pal, move over Jimmy Olsen). His plan is to detonate it and be taken where the others are (read: where Lois is).

A mystery man who has been dogging the priest shows up. How he shows up is stupid. The Fortress of Solitude is not a place that can easily be found. But this guys drives up in a SnowCat like it’s nothing. It appears he injected a tracking device in the priest (on the off chance he went to the North Pole, I guess). What bugs me about this is that Superman, who earlier in the story says he can hear everything including a cry for help across space, didn’t pick up on the radio signal emanating from his immediate vicinity. (Little aside: that space call for help? It came from Green Lantern. Supes shows up and sees it’s GL and realizes GL doesn’t really need help so he turns and goes back to earth, leaving GL surrounded by alien warriors – and probably pissed.)

Anyway, boom goes the device. Well, surprise surprise we end up in the Phantom Zone. That’s right, the hellish netherworld created by Jor El to house incorrigible villains. One of those villains is there, too. Zod. And so is Jor El and Lois and the million-plus humans sucked into the Zone accidentally. But … this is no hellish place. It’s a Garden of Eden. Perfection is here, if only the residents would allow it to exist. Why Jor El and Lara are there are never explained.

The first person Superman meets is … Clark Kent!!! Wow, what a twist. No, wait. It’s just stupid since Clark and Superman are one in the same and there has been no hint that any kind of Hulk-like separation has occurred. Clark’s exiled himself from the city where the missing people live because Lois is uncomfortable seeing him. You see, Lois really loves Kal-El, not Clark.

And now for the big twist. Superman actually created this version of the Phantom Zone. That’s right. When he realized he couldn’t save all of humanity from itself, he created a paradise within the Zone as a safe harbor. A place he could send humanity if things got real, real bad. In other words, he pulled a Hal Jordan, making the world the way he wanted it to be. Oh, and then he hypnotized himself with super-hypnosis so even he would forget he’d done it. How the device ended up in the Iraq-style country is never explained.

But … there’s Zod and a Doomsday-reject/make over bad guy and a bunch of other bad guys who want to rule paradise. Jor El, the pacifier, tries to calm things and is killed. The battle for Eden rages. In the end Superman saves everyone. They all return. But Superman moans that, while he knows that he’ll be there to save everyone, who will save him. Boo-hoo!

A new OMAC is created in this series. It turns out to be the priest. The mystery man who has been dogging the priest is involved with a mysterious, never-before-seen cabal of corporate types. They transform the priest, who’s dying from cancer, into OMAC in the hopes of not getting another psychopath. This was probably an editorial dictate and makes little sense, and doesn’t add to the story. Unfortunately Azzarello relies on the old hateful corporate/evil military type villains to make all of this happen. It’s more than a cliché now. It’s just pathetic political tripe.

The confusion Azzarello creates doesn’t just come from his miserable attempt at writing mystery. His dialog is at times strange, as if there are words missing. Conversations are disjointed (but that’s, like, reality, man!). And his explanation for things is unconvincing and, at times, nonexistent. At the end there are actually two devices: one that goes with Superman to the Phantom Zone and another that stays on the other side and is used by the new OMAC. Somehow this helps trigger the return of people to the regular world. The priest sacrifices himself (apparently not permanently, though) to keep the Doomsday wannabe from hurting Supes. Why there are two devices at the end when there’s only been one since the beginning is never really explained.

None of the characters seems to act according to type. The priest absolutely refuses to say the word God or Christ. He does say Jesus, but uses it as an epithet. This is something a priest wouldn’t do. He might say “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” in an expression of surprise, but not simply “Jesus!” Of course Azzarello will probably explain this as an expression of how the priest is falling. Just noise. With Superman, he plays up the alien part. When Supes talks he says “You people” instead of “we.” He separates Superman from humanity after years of writers defining Superman in human terms. The alien angle is bad and it doesn’t serve the character. The priest says “Better men than you have tried.” and Supes replies “Better than me?” Conceited much? Then Lois kicks “Clark” out of Paradise because he’s not Superman, then proceeds to call Superman Clark whenever she talks to him. It’s just stupid.

None of this makes sense. Azzarello wants to show us Superman in the real world, then brings in some immortal witch who calls up the four elements as killer creatures to attack Superman. Supes then threatens to destroy the entire world if the elements kill people. Just dumb.

In better stories, Superman finds positive ways to solve problems. It’s Batman who solves problems with gadgets and fists. Superman would never have gone so far off his beam as to devise a Phantom Zone paradise to stick humans into for their own protection. That is a god-like thing to do and Superman has already figured out many years ago that he is no god.

The underlying themes of crisis of faith and the ripples caused by a power such as Superman interfering are excellent things to explore. It would have been nice if Azzarello had actually done that instead of using those themes for window dressing for a boring, nonsensical waste of $30 and 272 pages.