Friday, June 26, 2009

What's the matter with Kansas?, part 2: Superman Inc.

I got the idea to blog about this 1999 Elseworlds while in the middle of reading Red Son, and the reason should be pretty obvious: here, the focus isn't on communism, but unapologetic capitalism.

Superman Inc. was written by Steve Vance, pencilled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and inked by Mark Farmer. It's an unusual Elseworlds in that it's not about superheroics. Instead, Dale "Superman" Suderman (the erstwhile Kal-El of Krypton) is the greatest athlete the Earth has ever known -- a star in the NBA, NFL, and Major League Baseball, a multiple-medal-winning Olympian, and an unstoppable marketing force. His chief rival is still Lex Luthor (now a team owner), but this time Dale/Supes earns Luthor's wrath by screwing Luthor out of a new stadium.

See, Dale isn't exactly a paragon of virtue, which the book demonstrates in a pointed parody of the regular Superman's boy-scout reputation. After Dale's grinned and glad-handed his way through a lobby full of adoring kids ("Have this [jacket] fumigated," he later tells his assistant), he tears into his staff for their concept-art failures. "Can't you morons get anything right? How many times do I have to tell you?! I'm Superman! I'm everybody's friend! I don't grimace -- I smile!" This last sentence accompanies the scary picture of an intensely beady-eyed Superman poking the ends of his mouth upwards in a look that would give the Joker chills.

What brought Dale to this state was a succession of foster homes and juvenile facilities, necessitated by the death of Dale's foster mother. Dale's powers contributed to her death, because his flying startled her into falling down the stairs and breaking her neck. This caused Dale to draw into himself (and also repress the use of his flashier powers), until years later when a chance involvement in pickup basketball awakened his "athletic abilities." It's certainly not an unrealistic alternative to Superman's origin, and it gives Dale's story a poignancy that a straight-up "Clark chose football over virtue" choice might have lacked. (Dale isn't without some scruples, though, thanks to his mentor, ex-NBAer Marcus Clark.)

Nevertheless, Dale can't quite let go of his powers, and as another marketing tool creates a "Superman" cartoon which uses the familiar costume and abilities. Thus, in this reality superstar athlete Dale Suderman invented the super-hero, which seems a little precious but pretty much works in context. Meanwhile, though, Luthor and his investigators (including reporter Lois Lane, naturally) have pieced together Dale's extraterrestrial origins, and use their findings to "out" Dale. Being a nigh-omnipotent alien is apparently worse than using human growth hormone, so Dale's career threatens to start circling the drain.

An enraged Dale makes matters worse when he storms Luthor's penthouse offices, is defenestrated thanks in part to a shard of Kryptonite, and flies back up to administer beatings in front of many witnesses. Furthermore, during an attempt at talk-show rehabilitation, Dale gets shot with a Kryptonite bullet and winds up in the hospital. Shortly thereafter, Lois shows up, having quit Luthor's employ once she figured out he was behind the shooting. She's withdrawing herself: "I may do some teaching," she says as she leaves.

At this point Superman Inc. starts to steer Dale in a more traditional direction, with a visit from a familiar generically-named police detective. Yes, J'Onn J'Onzz tells Dale that there are many aliens living on Earth who could benefit from a more positive role model, so why doesn't he shape up? Thus, Dale heads back to where it all began, in Kansas, to clear his head and figure out what to do with his life. Along the way, he's knocked out by a lightning strike. No points for guessing which kindly couple takes him in!

Actually, that too is handled pretty smoothly. The Kents don't know Dale Suderman from Adam, so he's able to hide out with them without much effort. On the farm he learns the value of hard work, etc., and eventually tells the world (via taped message) he's headed into space to find the remains of his home planet. However, on the last page of the book, it's "Clark Kent" who registers for Lois' Journalism 101 class....

Superman Inc. looks like a pretty slight story, but I think it has a lot going on beneath the surface. The "I don't grimace" scene is actually a nice encapsulation of the book's message about image management. Dale's mother dies because she thinks her flying child is a demon, and Dale turns this into introversion and self-loathing. Once Dale has started playing basketball, though, that gets completely inverted, and his face becomes ubiquitous. (The "S" symbol shows up too, but as the logo for Dale's new basketball franchise, the Metropolis Spartans.) In this way "Superman" allows Dale to use his powers, after a fashion.

However, as in Red Son, Dale has no "secret identity" which might offer another perspective. Therefore, this book's "Superman goes nuts" scene also forces him into hiding as a bespectacled nobody. In Red Son Superman's disguise is just that; but here, it's implied pretty strongly that "Clark" is the real deal -- a kinder, gentler iteration of the boy who grew up to be an oversaturating sensation. The traditional Superman was Clark before he was famous, so Dale needed to learn how "Clark" could help him cope.

There is a hint, too, that Dale could re-emerge as Superman the superhero, fighting evil and injustice in the mode of his animated alter ego. After all, if Dale can't use his powers for sports anymore, he'll need some other outlet. The logistical gymnastics that would require seem well-suited for a sequel. Too bad DC has gotten out of the Elseworlds business....
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Monday, June 22, 2009

What's the matter with Kansas?, part 1: Red Son

This post is the first installment in a short series about various Superman Elseworlds. Nudged by the news that DC is releasing a hardcover edition, I re-read Superman: Red Son over the weekend. That got my brain going, and I wanted then to re-read other stories. Look for posts on Superman & Wonder Woman: Whom Gods Destroy, Superman: The Dark Side, Superman Inc., and probably at least one other, in the near future.

Right from the start, Red Son (written by Mark Millar, pencilled by Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett) creates an all-encompassing sense of horrifying inevitability, like there is absolutely no way it will end well. At the same time, though, that inevitability almost makes it read like dull, state-sanctioned propaganda. Accordingly, I found Red Son to be rather a frustrating comic -- not in the reading, which was fairly engaging, but in the message (or lack thereof).





First, a bit of personal perspective on Red Son. Lefty though I may be, I did grow up during the last two decades of the Cold War, and lived under the shadow of mutually-assured destruction. We didn't have "duck and cover" drills in the '70s and '80s, but we did have The Day After, Red Dawn, and "Amerika." While a lot of that turned out to be right-wing nightmare fuel, I wasn't particularly eager to have the United States turned into the Workers' Paradise.

It seems to me that Red Son plays on those kinds of fears and expectations. The big surprise, apparently, is not that Superman is a Commie; it's that he's a compassionate Commie, eschewing outright conquest in favor of winning the world's hearts and minds. Even so, I found it hard to root for Superman, simply because of what he represented in this story; and I'm sure that's just the way Millar wanted it.

See, Red Son argues that as a Soviet operative (and later as Soviet leader), Superman gets to examine how the apparatus of the state could be used for the benefit of all. In the capitalist United States, Superman/Clark can be just another guy, doing what he can to help out. However, if the state is charged with taking care of everyone, and Superman is the state (for all practical purposes), then he has an obligation to give the people food, shelter, etc.

Nevertheless, these are background and motivational details. Millar doesn't really make a case for communism (Soviet-style or otherwise) -- or, more accurately, he doesn't use Superman to "rehabilitate" communism -- as much as he implies that a communist viewpoint enables Superman's actions in the pursuit of social justice. Thus, Red Son is another in a long line of "Superman takes over the world" stories, and like those, it ends with the realization that Superman can't impose his personal morality on humanity as a whole.

"But that would mean," my straw-man says, "that if the world got too corrupt, evil, depraved, etc., for Superman, he wouldn't do anything about it!" I agree -- and remember, that's exactly what turns the Kingdom Come Superman into a bearded, pony-tailed hermit, living on a holo-farm in the Fortress of Solitude. Both the KC and RS Supermen have one last red-eyed rampage which ends in the above-described come-to-Jesus moment.

And as much as I shudder at the thought of a Soviet Superman leading the Red Army triumphantly down Main Street USA, I think Red Son would have been better had it not given into that familiar character bit. Admittedly, Millar sets up RS's come-to-Jesus moment pretty well, equating Superman's global victory with his one unquestioned failure, but its first two chapters are so chilling that it's almost a cop-out for Millar to bring in conventional Superman morality.

I want to stress here that I am not trying to connect said morality with uniquely American values. Instead, I just think it would have been more interesting for RS-Supes to have embraced fully the benign totalitarianism he'd been practicing for most of the story.

That's the unspoken point of Elseworlds generally, though, isn't it? Superman is Superman, whether he's in the Middle Ages or the Civil War or raised by the Waynes. At some point, however, it makes these stories exercises in rearranging the details. In the end that's what I didn't like about Red Son: all of its radical visions -- Wonder Woman traumatized by the loss of her lasso, JFK an aging buffoon, Hal Jordan waterboarded -- seem only skin-deep. Indeed, the critical moment in the third part comes when President Luthor pretty much only has to snap his fingers in order to reinvigorate the United States' moribund, third-world economy. There's your communist-vs.-capitalist showdown in a nutshell: Superman spends decades shaping the USSR into the world's only superpower, and Luthor reawakens the US practically overnight.

Like I said, frustrating. Is Red Son shaggy and padded with high-concept "moments," or is it all necessary in order to get to Luthor's "checkmate?" Is it shrewd satire, not just of Superman but Bush-era foreign policy; or is that undercut by the eventual redemptive moment? Did Superman deserve some comeuppance beyond the loss of his identity and prestige? Certainly Red Son is thought-provoking, but I'm not sure the answers justify the effort.
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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Kids -- they'll age you!

[I should really preface this post with a disclaimer: anyone looking for an extremely well-thought-out DC timeline owes Chris Miller's site a look. The following won't necessarily match up with Chris's work, but that's probably because I'm making more assumptions than he is.]

It's been a while since I've tried to work out a rough Batman timeline. However, Grant Morrison says that Damian Wayne is ten years old, and that's got me thinking. A ten-year-old Damian tends to explode the notion that DC's current timeline is perpetually only 12-13 years old (that is, DC's "Year One" was somewhere around 1996-97). Batman/Bruce didn't even meet Talia until Dick was off at college -- well into Dick's Robin career, at least a year or two before he became Nightwing. Assuming that Bruce and Talia didn't make the sign of the double-humped camel until 1987's Son of the Demon graphic novel -- which appeared a few real-time years after Dick gave up the short pants in early 1984 -- that means Dick has been Nightwing for at least ten years. Accordingly, that gives Tim Drake a pretty substantial Robin career, and it probably has implications for Jason Todd's tenure as well.

Memorable milestones make the Batman timeline is relatively easy to figure. Bruce Wayne was 25 during "Batman: Year One," Dick Grayson became Robin somewhere in Year Three and turned 20 not long after becoming Nightwing, and Tim Drake was 13 when he became Robin. (By the way, has "Batman: Year Three" been lost in a continuity fog? For some reason I think it has, even though it pretty much sets up Tim's origin in "A Lonely Place Of Dying.") Furthermore, back in late 1986/early 1987, when "Year One" was originally serialized, Bat-editor Denny O'Neil theorized that the then-current Batman stories were taking place in Year Seven.

I don't agree with Denny's thinking there, primarily because it gives Dick Grayson too short a Robin career. If he turned 20 as Nightwing, but he spent a year in college as Robin (say, age 18), then the transition probably happened while he was 19. Even if that changeover occurred in Year Seven (and it probably didn't), then Dick was only Robin for around four years, and was in his mid-to-late teens when he started.

Besides, Damian's age lets us work backwards. If he's ten now, he was conceived some eleven years ago (1998) -- probably as chronicled in Son of the Demon.

(Brief digression: Batman #666 has a one-panel flashback to the night Damian was conceived, showing the original/"Year One"-style Bat-suit, as opposed to the "New Look"/yellow-oval model still in use in SotD. No doubt this gives DC some wiggle room to claim that Damian was conceived many years earlier than SotD, and thus that Talia and Bruce "knew" each other before they were properly introduced, if you know what I mean and I think you do. Well, I say phooey on that. It would mean that either Ra's al Ghul or Talia knew pretty early on that Batman needed to join the family; and as impressive as Batman's early career might have been, it surely wasn't that impressive.)

Therefore, with Son of the Demon as our eleven-years-ago milepost, we can start estimating other events. Dick (age 20-21) was Nightwing, and Jason was a teenaged Robin. Dick turned 20 pretty soon after Crisis On Infinite Earths ended, so by the time of SotD he was probably around 21. Thus, Crisis took place twelve years ago. Moreover, if Dick became Nightwing at age 19, that takes us back thirteen years; with Dick's year at Hudson University being fourteen years ago. In other words, Dick was 18 in 1995, making him 32 today.

However, there is some disagreement over Dick's age in Year Three. Marv Wolfman, who wrote "Year Three" (and, of course, all those New Teen Titans issues; and who was writing Batman when NTT launched), stated often in dialogue that Dick had been Robin since age eight. This would give Dick a pretty substantial Robin career of at least eleven years (ages 8-19) -- but how old would that make Bruce? If Dick was eight in Year Three, that would make 2009 Year Twenty-Seven, and Bruce would be 53 -- which, by the way, is Dark Knight "retired for ten years" territory.

We can try to figure Dick's age by using Tim's; and we can figure Tim's in relation to Jason Todd's career. Jason was killed (in real time) in 1988, about a year after Son of the Demon was published. 13-year-old Tim met Batman and Nightwing some months after that, which probably places the event in the DC-year following SotD. It would make Tim 13 when Damian was 1.

Here, though, we run into another problem: as far as I know, DC refuses to let Tim turn 20; and it surely won't cop to Tim being 22. This ceiling makes Tim at most 9 years older than Damian and 13 years younger than Dick. It also affects Bruce's age, since Tim was old enough to remember the Flying Graysons' routines on the night Dick's parents were killed. For some reason I want to say Tim was 2 years old when this happened in Year Three. That would make Bruce 25 years older than Tim, and 44 today -- which would make this Year 20.

In summary, then, Bruce is 44, Dick 32, and Tim 19. Dick's Robin career lasted from ages 15-19, Jason Todd's spanned (all or parts of) Years 7-14, and Tim's is in its seventh year (his brief "retirement" notwithstanding). The lingering problem with this timeline is that it may give Jason a longer Robin career than he had in real time (around 4 years, 1984-88), so I may have to revisit my assumptions to correct that.

Still, the point remains that Damian's age necessarily extends everyone else's timeline, and I hope DC acknowledges that.
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