Monday, January 04, 2010

This was going to be a review of Showcase Presents: DC Comics Presents—The Superman Team-Ups Vol. 1

This Showcase Presents volume collects the first twenty-six issues of the 1978-1986 Superman team-up title. The creators vary, but the format doesn't—with the exception of a two-part team-up with The Flash, each issue is a complete story in which Superman teams-up with another DC superhero of the day for the length of a single comic book. Some of the stories lead into one another, others don't.

I really enjoyed reading it, and found a lot of pleasures in it, some of which were very specific sorts of pleasures perhaps best suited to a certain type of comics fan, and reading through these old stories as 2009 turned to 2010, it was hard not to constantly consider the way comics have changed, despite the fact that Superman and most of these characters—heck, even most of these creators—are still around in the comics DC is currently presenting.

The most obvious pleasure was, of course, the art. The Showcase Presents line is in black and white primarily to allow for the old comics to be published at a cheaper price point without having to re-color the art, but, whether a goal of the line or simply a nice side benefit, removing the often cheap, smudgy and garish coloring of the era is that it removes a barrier between the artists' line work and modern readers' eyes. Often times, what might look rather unremarkable in a battered old back issue really pops in stark black and white like this, and that's certainly the case for many of these issues. Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Dick Dillin, Murphy Anderson, Jim Starlin, Joe Staton and Curt Swan are among those providing the art.

This period of Superman and DC Comics is rather interesting in that DC hadn't abandoned consistent character design or a certain level of house style, nor had they completely embraced an every-artist-is-entitled-to-their-own-style-and-interpretation ethos either (Was then a late eighties thing? A '90s thing?). These days, ten different artists might draw Superman in the same month's worth of DC Comics, and, were he not dressed almost always the same (Shane Davis keeps giving him the Superman Returns belt buckle for some reason, I noticed), you might be forgiven for thinking they were drawing ten different men.

Is one way of running a comics line better or worse? I don't know. If all ten artists are great artists, then I suppose it doesn't matter—if half of them are no damn good, especially when stacked up against the sorts of art Anderson and Garcia-Lopez were drawing for less money and less respect a few decades ago—then there's certainlly something to be said for model sheets and tyrannical art directors.

There seems to be a popular conception that comic books grew up all of a sudden, like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and Maus were some kind of one-two-three, triple combination in 1986, and then biff, bam, pow, comics weren't just for kids any more. It's easy to understand why that perception exists. If you were a grown-up who left off reading Dell, Archie and super-comics and checked out Dark Knight Returns, certainly you were going to be shocked by how much funny books had changed since you last checked in. But if you never left comics, if you would have seen DC and Marvel struggling to grow up, going through some awkward stages and suffering some growing pains.

These Superman stories illustrate a little of that leaning towards relevance and verisimilitude, with a foot placed firmly in the Silver Age. So Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are in TV news and Kent's an anchor instead of a newspaper man, for example, but Superman still solves many of his problems by using his stupendous powers to create very large objects with which he'll save the day, tall tales-style. Perhaps the best example in this volume is from the very first story, in which he creates a giant thread and needle to literally sew a tear in the space time continiuum back together.

A sub-plot later in the book deals with Superman trying and failing to change something in his present, but continually failing, The Legion of Super-Heroes telling him that his present is their history and you can't change history (The change involves the destiny of Superman's pal Pete Ross' son, so it leads to a great deal of angst on Ross and, to a lesser extent, Superman's part). While writer Paul Levitz devotes time and attention to how the characters feel about all this, the stories themselves still involve brain-swapping, time-travel, a kryptonite bazooka and the issue of not-being-able-to-change-the-course-of-history is ultimately solved by Superman realizing "Fuck it, I'm Superman" and changing it anyway.

Today, there isn't a Superman, Spider-Man, Thing or Batman team-up title (Unless you count DC's TV tie-in on their kid's line, Batman: The Brave and the Bold). Both companies try rotating team-up books now and again, with DC's current volume of Brave and The Bold being the only extant example. It sells like hell, of course, as did Marvel's canceled last attempt at a Marvel Team-Up title. The difference between those more recent books and DC Comics Presents, of course, is that the trend has been to rotate both characters doing the team-up, rather than pairing a guaranteed cash cow character like Superman or Spider-man with a lesser star, like Deadman or Deathlok or whoever.

I'm not sure why that is. It may simply be that Superman and Batman aren't the sales draws they once were, or that they and characters like Spider-Man have been drawn so thin by so many different appearances and titles that that their fifth or sixth or seventh monthly—a theoretical team-up title—wouldn't necessarily be able to keep its head above water for very long. I don't know though. Marvel has recently launched a Deadpool Team-Up title, in which they took one of their most bankable stars and plugged him into the old DC Comics Presents Star + Lesser Light team-up formula.

It's only a couple issues old—I think the third is released this week—so it's obviously kind of early to tell how well it's working and how well it will continue to work, but it certainly seems like a Deadpool and Moon Knight team-up is more likely to sell better than a Moon Knight and Sentry team-Up, and that if DC were to give Batman half of The Brave and The Bold each month, it would be more likely to sell better than a Spectre/Xombi or Flash/Blackhawks team-up. (Or hell, maybe Hal Jordan is a safer bet for a guaranteed strong-seller than Batman these days...he's certainly in fewer books).

Perhaps it's simply a matter of the current DC and Marvel readerships having been trained over the years to prioritize creators and/or events over characters. So that if Batman did have his own team-up title, they would likely ignore it if it weren't being written by the "main" Batman writer (Grant Morrison, at the moment) or a favorite of theirs, or if it promised simply to be an entertaining but inconsequential ten minutes of entertainment instead of being an important temporary change in Batman's status quo.

I don't know. I've surely thought about this way too long, and strayed way too far from whatever it was I had originally intended to say about this book.

At any rate, it was a lot of fun, had a lot of great art, and offered a rather interesting portrait of Superman and DC Comics during a somewhat transitional era in their existence and an illustration of how much comics have changed in the past decade, mostly for the worse. I hope DC collects the rest of the series—I'm not sure if they can legally do the He-Man issue or not, but I have the single of that in a longbox somewhere—as I certainly wouldn't mind reading three more collections like this one.

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