Monday, May 24, 2010

Library comics Pt. 5: Superman #693-#697

These comics are so strange, I’m not even really sure where to start with them.

Obviously, they’re part of the Superman family of books DC publishes, and these are different from the Superman family of books DC was publishing up until recently in two key ways.

First, and most noticeably, Superman is not actually in them. The star of this book is Mon-El, a Legion of Super-Hero character whose background is so complicated and has been subject to so many different revisions over the years that one would need charts to explain it in any great detail.

I think he was created and/or used as a stand-in for Superman after Crisis on Infinite Earths severed Superman from the Legion continuity, as he’s very Superman-like. He dresses similar, likes the same primary color combinations, looks the exact same, and comes from a planet where the humanoid white people gain fantastic powers under Earth’s yellow sun, their only weakness a single element.

For the purposes of this story, as Mon-El’s currenty continuity stands, he was a friend of Clark Kent’s when Clark was a teenager and was dying of lead poisoning, so Clark shot him into the Phantom Zone to keep him alive, promising a vague and insincere Reed Richards-like “I’ll find a cure for you someday, friend.” He just recently did.

As to why Mon-El is starring in a comic called Superman instead of Kal-El, well Superman’s been absent from most of his books for the majority of the past year or so, as part of a huge plot involving un-shrunken Kandor, a hostile New Krypton and Superman being banished from the Earth for unconvincing reasons.

Superman without Superman isn’t completely unprecedented, of course. After Superman died in the ‘90s, he wasn’t in his boos for several big, long story arcs. What seems different about those stories (“Funeral for a Friend,” “Reign of the Superman,” et cetera) was that while Superman wasn’t the protagonist of each, they were always stories about Superman. How would people get on without Superman, what did Superman’s loved ones, allies and enemies think and feel now that he was gone, could anyone really replace him, etc.

The current Superman status quo talks about Superman a lot, and one of the story arcs contained in these issues—“Man of Valor” is specifically about Mon-El wanting to be a symbol of Superman without actually calling himself “Superman”—but the comics I’ve seen all seem much more plot driven then theme-driven. They’re not about Superman so much as tangentially related to Superman. (These comics, for example, are set mostly in Smallville and Metropolis, and feature Ma Kent, Krypto, the current Superboy and Lois Lane’s dad, but not in relation to Superman so much as in relation to what’s going on in Superman books these days, if that makes sense).

The other strange thing about these books is that they have the “triangle” numbering of the old ‘90s Superman line, when each of the (then) three-to-five Super-books would lead directly in to one another, so an additional number was needed on the cover to indicate which sequence to read them in.

It was a system that had its positives (a new Superman comic each week, all of which are equally “relevant” and part of a big, epic story) and negatives (the fact that the style and tone would change slightly each issues, as each creative team brought something different to the material, no matter how rigorously it was plotted out). I think Steve Wacker and Marvel perfected that sort of comics storytelling on the almost-monthly Amazing Spider–Man, with story arcs generally having the same creative team within that numbering system (So, for example, Dan Slott and Marcos Martin would do four almost-weekly issues, then hand the baton off to the next team for the next story arc, which would run weekly-ish).

I was surprised, and a little relieved, to find that despite the triangle numbering (which here actually appears in a Superman shield-shaped pentagon), most of these issues were part of their own, stands-on-its-own stories (There were some previous and later issues that didn’t available at the library, but I just scanned through ‘em and don’t really wanna write about them, as they make up every fourth or fifth chapter of a story, the other chapters of which I’m missing).

That means they’re easier to read, but I wonder if that isn’t also pretty annoying. If one doesn’t need to read the various books triangle-numbered 14, 15 and 16 between Superman #693 and Superman #694, why bother with the numbering? If one followed it for a month or two, would one feel kinda tricked, and less likely to follow the Super-books?

I don’t really know. I gave up on Superman a while back. For the most part I liked what writer James Robinson was doing, but the pace was too plodding.

If a storyline about Mon-El and The Guardian fighting super-crime in Metropolis while Superman is off in space while Jimmy Olsen risks his life with some dangerous investigative reporting while the General Thunderbolt Ross shaves his mustache and pretends to be Lois Lane’s dad and builds an army of Superman-fighters consisting mainly of the Creature Commandos and forgotten characters from 1st Issue Special sounds pretty awesome in theory, how long do you think you’d like to see it play out? Six months? A year?

I got bored about three months or so into it, when it became clear what the big mystery was, and that everything else was simply Superman (and Action, which I dropped almost immediately after an issue which consisted of little more than the latest Firebird getting brutalized for like 20 pages, and, I assume, Supergirl and maybe Adventure) just killing time until the series about Superman on New Krypton (Superman: World of New Krypton) wrapped up and the various characters could all fight.

Those triangle or pentagon numbers, as well as the banners reading “World Against (The Superman S-shield with an “X” drawn through it)” across the top of the covers that would seem to indicate that all of the Super-books are telling (in actuality, they’re just general status quo branding, like “Dark Reign” was for Marvel), didn’t make staring to read it again very inviting.

James Robinson is still writing Superman, and the art teams change fairly frequently, with Fernando Dagino, Javier Pina and Bernard Chang penciling these five issues. Of them, I liked Chang’s art the best, as he has a nice, dark, thick line, uses strong, sometimes severe shapes in constructing his images, and is pretty dynamic in his storytelling (Dagino and Pina are fine too though; Dagino’s style reminds me unfortunately of Eddy Barrows’, and Pina has a softer, rounder figures that seem out-of-place coming between chapters by Dagino and Chang).

The pace is still plodding, although a slow pace isn’t such a bad thing when you can read 100 pages of the story in a sitting, instead of stretched out over a few months (I suspect these stories will all be a lot more engaging in trade then they were in serial publication).

General Ross—er, Lane’s team of Known Supervillains Who Work For the Army To Fight Known Superhero Superman For Some Reason have captured Mon-El, and taken him to 59009, the codename of their little Superman-busters club, have captured Mon-El and dressed him in tight black underwear (What does the mysterious number mean? Type it into a calculator, turn it upside down and you get—“boobs.” Wait, I think I got the wrong number., it was supposed to spell “hell”…)

Lane wants him to join his team, which now also includes some magic lady with a face tattoo, Parasite and that purple guy who put Green Lantern’s girlfriend in a refrigerator (Major Force? Is that it?). To convince him to do so, he tortures him.

Then Mon-El hangs out in Smallville, Ma Kent sews her forty-fifth version of a super-costume (Which I kinda like, actually) and Mon-El’s early adventures in Metropolis from a few issues ago are repeated, only now he’s wearing a different costume.

Robinson is building to something, and manages the neat trick of revealing that many of the elements of his Superman run (I’d say “characters,” but at least one of them is actually an object) were actually members of the…spoiler alert!…Legion Espionage Squad.

This will mean something to you if you knew there was a legion Espionage Squad. I wasn’t all that excited to see Whatshername and Whosit, but I appreciated the long-term planning and the surprise (Particularly the one where the thing turned out to be someone in disguise…like, who expects something that isn’t even a sentient being to be a super-person in disguise?).

I have no idea where this ultimately goes, as #697 ends with a blurb saying, “to be continued in Adventure Comics #8” and the library I got these comics from doesn’t have a subscription to Adventure Comics, just Batman, Superman and Scooby-Doo. But props for packing some genuine surprises into what has so far been a very predictable (and very, very, very long) storyline.


Couple of nitpicks before I go:

Issue #694, the all-Pina issue, has the evil killer monster version of Bizarro I can’t cotton in it. In this panel, he hits Mon-El with freeze breath. But Bizarro doesn’t have freeze breath. He has heat breath and freezevision, the opposite of Superman’s freeze breath and heatvision. This is an outrage! They should fix it in the trade! And give everyone their money back! And fire someone!

And not to pick on Pina or anything, but, he drew this one, too. Check out Starman in this spread. Does his pose look familiar?

Hmm. Close enough to look overly familiar, but not exact enough to suggest a straight un-fooled-around-with swipe. (Oh, by the way Legion fans, who’s that dude dude with the Tetris piece on his uniform?)


Finally: I’ll have a few general, scattered thoughts about DC’s Scooby-Doo comics, and that’ll do it for these “Library comics” posts


Intruder_W said...

That's Element Lad, and the tetris piece is E in "Interlac" the Legion's funky alphabet.

Eric said...

"There were some previous and later issues that didn’t available at the library, but I just scanned ‘em and don’t really wanna right about them,"


Hdefined said...

"I was bemused to notice Geoff Johns’ name quit appearing in the solicits for issues of World of new Krypton at some point."

I don't remember Johns ever writing World of New Krypton.

Caleb said...

"There were some previous and later issues that didn’t available at the library, but I just scanned ‘em and don’t really wanna right about them,"


Er, scanned with my eyes, not a scanner. And I meant "write" not "right." I fixed it.

Krypton at some point."

I don't remember Johns ever writing World of New Krypton.

Well shit. I coulda sworn he wrote the first few issues of that before Robinson took over, but now that I double-check I see that was never the case. Not sure why I thought that...I was under the assumption Johns left Action to write World, which became the "real" Superman book, but I guess he just left the Super-books altogether.

So I guess he got bored with the direction before it even got started in earnest.

I axed that paragraph.

Matthew said...

Just as a point of info Caleb, Mon-El wasn't created at the time of COIE - he's a product of the 60s Superman stories, when he was an amnesiac whom Superman thought could be his brother.

Jacob T. Levy said...

What a terrible picture of Element Lad. Looks like a villain from The Authority.

And, yeah, what Matthew said. Silver Age Superboy projected his by-then-no-longer-amnesiac friend who he still called Mon-El (because he thought they were cousins, and he found him on Monday) into the Phantom Zone to save him from lead poisoning. Promised to find him a cure. Failed, because the Silver/ Bronze Age Superman world was one of pathos and limits (couldn't save Krypton, his parents, or Mon-El, inadvertently turned his childhood best friend into his mortal enemy, couldn't save Kandor, couldn't-- as Clark-- get the girl). So Mon-El just hung around the Phantom Zone with the criminals and occasionally did stuff in PZ stories. And eventually 1000 years later Brainiac-5 created the cure and he was released to become the most powerful member of the Legion.

Yes, after Crisis it got complicated, but they're reset to the pre-Crisis version now, so none of the complications need to be worried about. Valor was one of his post-Crisis code names, referenced in "Man of Valor."

Anonymous said...

Johns left Action to write Superman: Secret Origin, a 6 issue mini about what Superman's continuity is in the post Infinite/Final Crisis DCU.

As for the numbering, generally each of WoNK/Action/Superman/Supergirl did their own thing, but periodically they'd have a month where they all tied in together.

nyrdyv said...

I learn more about the characters surrounding Superman in five minutes every week reading this blog than I get out of hours every week reading and referencing decades of back issues.


Steven G. Willis

mordicai said...

Wow, these sound as awful as they looked & as bad as the comics leading up to them were & as terrible as the premise is. I mean-- I GET that people want to tell Superman stories & not hold Big Blue as some icon that they can't mess with but...these sound rubbishy.