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....

No comments: