Sunday, August 04, 2013

Let's over-analyze this Superman book display; Here's what they racked, and what I woulda racked

So the other day I was in my local big, chain bookstore location, and I passed this display of Superman-related books and suchlike, noting the particular titles. "Hey," I thought, "I could do a blog post about this," and took a terrible picture of it with my cell phone.

I assumed the idea of the display, which features a Jim Lee-drawn image of New 52 Superman as decoration and a few little tchochkes in boxes (replica kyrptonite was one, I think) in addition to various books, was to snag customers who may have had their interest in Superman piqued by this summer's Superman movie.

So I noted the exact contents of the display, and thought about how appropriate they might be to meeting that goal, and/or what versions of visions of the Man of Steel those choices might represent.

It wasn't until I'd spent a few hours over the course of a few evenings working on the post below that I realized that maybe, just maybe, the guiding principle of the display was simply "A bunch of Superman books that will fill up the display," and that the folks who filled it might not have been super-familiar with each of the items on it, nor were they operating under orders from their corporate headquarters or from suggestions made by DC or Warner Brothers.

Thinking back to displays I've been involved in assembling in past day-jobs, I realized that one set of displays—grocery store end-caps—were rigorously planned by corporate decision-makers, and we were given detailed "plan-o-grams" on what items to display where (with a little leeway for how we arrange them and which of our own products to highlight among the things on sale." Another day-job that involved displays, however, was at a past library job, and that often just meant sticking new books, any new books, on this particular rack, or a mystery, any mystery, as long as the book has a nice, presentable cover and wasn't all beat-to-hell, on a shelf.

So what I'm saying is, chances are, I may have over-thought things here. But hey, over-thinking the innocuous is kind of what this blog's all about, right? So here's me picking apart the selections on this particular display because...just because.

The Last Days of Krypton by Kevin J. Anderson: This isn't a comic book, but a novel; actually, now that I look it up online to make sure I've got the author's name right, I see that it actually has a colon and a sub-title on the cover (along with a No shit tag-line, "Before there was Superman, there was Krypton") noting that this is, in fact, a novel.

I've never read, probably never will read it and can't imagine reading it, without being paid an awful lot of money to do so, for the purposes of reviewing it (I've pitched a column of book reviews of books about comics and/or prose adaptations of comics characters to a couple of places, but no one seems too terribly interested, and man, reviewing novels is some time-consuming stuff. That's one good thing about comics; like movies, it doesn't require too much of your life to consume the damn things before you start mouthing off about 'em).

So I don't know; maybe this is a great book, maybe it sucks. I'm guessing it's more likely to be of interest to people who are drawn to Superman by the movie and/or it's advertising presence, as such a significant portion of the film is set on Krypton (far more than in the previous five films), and this seems to be a book about Krypton rather than Superman.

Enemies and Allies by Kevin J. Anderson: Another Anderson-written novel, with a colon and the sub-title "A Novel" following it. At least this one's tag-line is worthwhile, explaining the premise a bit: "The Dark Knight Meets the Man of Steel."

Again, never read it, no intention of reading it (Maybe if I didn't so regularly read so many comics about The Dark Knight and The Man of Steel and the two of them meeting, I'd be more interested in a novelization of the premise). Maybe it's awesome, maybe it sucks. It does seem a bit less relevant than the other Anderson Superman novel though, in that Batman is not in this Superman movie. Probably the next one, though!

It looks like an Alex Ross cover there. Note the costumes the characters are wearing; Superman's in his traditional costume, while Batman's wearing the black-and-gray, "No Man's Land"-to-New 52 costume Ross seems to best like drawing (only his Batman always has visible eye-balls instead of white triangle eyes).

Superman and Philosophy: What Would the Man of Steel Do? by Mark D. White and William Irwin: There's a _____ and Philosophy or The Philosophy of________ book for every even mildly popular geek franchise (ditto cookbooks). That fact kinda makes me wish I woulda took better notes in my philosophy classes in college, so I could have kept my eyes peeled for trailers for upcoming movies and have manuscripts for The Green Hornet and Philosophy or The Philosophy of Spring Breakers or whatever already to send to publishers so they could have 'em in print the weekend the movie opens.

I didn't read this book, although the answer to the question posed in the title doesn't seem all that difficult. Like Jesus, I feel I've read and heard enough about Superman, a pretty stand-up, straight-forward guy, that I could tell you what he'd do in just about any situation without having to read a whole book on the subject.

But, again, I don't actually know what I'm talking about—this book could be the best (Pop Culture Touchstone) + Philosophy book ever written. (The only one I tried reading was one about Batman, which was a collection of essays by various writers, and I only got a few chapters in before I got bored; I like reading prose, and I like reading about Batman, but I don't like reading prose about Batman. Go figure).

I imagine this made the display simply because it's new-ish and they had a lot of 'em. If you were only gonna put up one non-fiction prose book about Superman though, I think you're better off with Larry Tye's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero (which I've read) or Glen Weldon's newer Superman: The Unauthorized Biography or Brad Ricca's newer still Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, The Creators of Superman (which I also haven't read).

But given the curious decisions and moral choices the Man of Steel makes in Man of Steel, maybe a book about philosophy is more relevant. Hell, I think Man of Steel's Superman shoulda read a copy of it while he was walking the world working odd jobs. If nothing else, the screenwriters and producers oughta skimmed it before they lensed the climax.

I didn't flip through the book myself, but I imagine Superman's unwillingness to take a life under just about any circumstances is in there somewhere.

Superman: The Last Son of Krypton by Geoff Johns, Richard Donner and Adam Kubert: The title story was the first story arc of the once much ballyhooed and hyped run on Action Comics featuring the writing team of Geoff Johns and Richard Donner (the guy who directed some Superman movies when Geoff Johns and I were children) and drawn by Adam Kubert, the long-time Marvel artist finally coming to do some ongoing, high-profile work for DC Comics.

I remember not liking it too much—their Bizarro was kind of horrifying rather than funny, and this is the story where Lois Lane and Clark Kent adopt a super-powered boy from the Phantom Zone and name hims after Christopher Reeves, who, later in the run, after Kubert fell away, replacement artist Gary Frank started drawing Superman to resemble to an almost eerie degree (In fact, I think this was the only arc that Donner and Kubert participated in, and that Kurt Busiek had to write a lot of fill-in issues between installments of their arc until Frank came on as the new artist; his first story, "Brainiac," is also included in this collection).

It's not a great one to hand to a newcomer to Superman, really, as adding Chris to the Superman family sort of upsets everything to such a strong degree (And, honestly, I think the boy's introduction was one of the half-dozen or so motivating factors toward the New 52 reboot; one of those things that DC felt it would have to walk back eventually). The follow-up story with Brainiac does feature a lot of Krypton business though, and some alien invasion aspects and a threat to Smallville, so I guess there's some overlap with aspects of the film.

I can think of at least three other Geoff Johns-written Superman graphic novels that would be better-suited to new readers (see below).

All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitley: You can't see the cover for this in my picture of the display all that well, as it's bent nearly in half, apparently from so many people picking it up and flipping through it.

You'll get no arguments from me about this being on display anywhere. If anyone asked me for a suggestion for a Superman comic book to read, this is the one would top my list. If it's not the best Superman story ever, it's the best self-contained, stand-alone, in-print graphic novel, and the the comic that best extolls the various virtues of the various versions of Superman and his supporting cast of allies and enemies there is.

In many ways, this is the ultimate Superman experience, in any media, as it accounts for so many of the best parts of the best takes of the character from various media. I haven't re-read it in a while now, though, and I bet that part where Morrison includes Superman's creation by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel within the comic itself is going to read really weird and really uncomfortable in light of the extremely uncharitable, even ignorant things he wrote about those creators and that creation in his Supergods book.

Superman For Tomorrow by Brian Azzarello, Jim Lee and Scott Williams: I was slightly surprised to see this rather controversial—"controversial" as in some people loved it, many people hated it, and few were anywhere in between—Superman story sitting here, until I realized, "Duh, Jim Lee," and then it made sense. I mean, they used Jim Lee's Action Comics #1 variant cover as the little poster setting off the whole display there, of course they're going to have this Jim Lee-drawn story arc included in their Superman display.

I haven't re-read it since it was originally serialized, and my recollections come down to this: 1). I was surprised by the backlash, as I thought it was a pretty good story, infinitely better than the Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee Batman run that immediately preceded it, in that it was more of a story than an excuse for Lee to draw everything associated with the franchise (as in that "Hush" mega-arc in Batman), 2). There's a really neat scene where Superman's underwater, and you turn a page and there's Aquaman and a huge army of whales and intimidating-looking sea-life arrayed across a two-page splash shown in long-shot, all just staring Superman down, and I remember thinking "Dayumn" (For maybe the first and only time in my life, now that I think of it), 3.) There's a big, giant stone monster with the four heads of Mount Rushmore atop its shoulders; that image really stuck with me, and 4.) That one supporting character looked so much like Jim Gordon that it distracted the hell out of me, and I couldn't understand why of all the different kinds of human beings in the world, Lee decided to design a new character to look so much like a prominent supporting character in another of DC's comics.

I seem to recall the storyline dealing somewhat with an issue that J. Michael Straczynski raised at the beginning of his aborted Superman run in which Superman walks around being a jerk for a while—why doesn't Superman use his powers to save every human being from death from natural causes, like cancer and/or tumors—but in a less idiotic way.

Oh! It also prominently features a priest character, who Superman talks to a lot for advice, so I guess there's a tie-in to Man of Steel, where he randomly asks a random priest whether he should surrender to Zod to save humanity or not.

Superman: Earth One Vols. 1 and 2 by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis: Speaking of JMS...

These are the original graphic novels that are essentially DC's version of Marvel's concept for their Ultimate line when it originally launched: Familiar characters presented as brand-new and contemporary, targeting readers interested in the characters from their appearances in other media, but intimidated by the decades of continuity the serially-published monthly comics have created (Of course, in DC's case, the New 52-boot erases a great deal of the gulf between "Ultimate" Superman comics like these and "Ultimate" Superman comics like the ones they publish every month in Superman, Action and other appearances throughout their line).

I don't really like JMS's writing much (and he's said so many horrible things during the hyping period of Before Watchmen that I get a little grossed out whenever I think about him now; a pretty big barrier to sitting down and reading a graphic novel of his for pleasure). And I don't really like Shane Davis' art much. And nothing about this "Superman for the Twilight" audience project really interested or excited me, although I can understand why DC pursued it, and it's my understanding that it's done fairly well for them in the bookstore market.

Finally, the two books on the bottom are a new-ish edition of one of those theme encyclopedias (Superman: The Ultimate Guide to the Man of Steel) and the other looks to be a coffee table book pertaining to the new movie, which I did not pick up or flip-through.

Of the five comics included in that display, it's interesting to note that they didn't rack any New 52 Superman comics, although that's the red shorts-less, younger, less-experienced version of the character that is closest to the one in the film than any of these other Supermen. Two of the books are from the "old" post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint continuity (Last Son of Krypton and For Tomorrow), one is the standalone, continuity-of-its-own All-Star incarnation of the character and the other two are from the standalone, continuity-of-its-own Earth One line.

And all three of those differing versions of Superman wear red shorts!

I'm not sure what DC has in print, exactly, although when I went to that same store's comic section, I saw all the New 52 comics starring the super-people and was sorta surprised to see Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen's excellent Superman: Secret Identity there, but here are a few books I think would be better for a big box book store display trying to grab readers who might have just seen that movie into buying some trade paperback collections of comics.

Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu: Swear to God, when I originally read this in trade, I thought to myself, "Hey, when they next try to reboot the Superman film franchise, they oughta just base it on this." It was Superman's origin (again), but focused on parts we don't normally see much of (that is, the stuff between leaving Smallville and getting a job in Metropolis), it gave Ma and Pa Kent more to do than usual, and it really focused on Superman as a potential alien invader who becomes a benevolent alien protector instead, here having to battle off a menace from his homeworld being used against Earth (and, in the process, helps sharpen Luthor's pathological hatred of Superman into something understandable, if not relatable, if his main objection to Superman is that he's an alien).

I guess the producers of Man of Steel were pretty fond of it, and I understand there was even some dialogue taken straight from it, but I didn't notice anything directly from the book while watching the film (Maybe because I read the book eight years ago?). Regardless, this is a Superman origin story in which Superman fights a bunch of Kryptonian shit that's wrecking Metropolis, and has some pretty obvious parallels to the film in terms of plot and theme (It is, it should go without saying, much better though).

Superman: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank and Jon Sibal: "Last Son" is probably the all-around weakest of Johns' Superman stories. Escape From Bizarro World with artist Eric Powell is a real treat, and Superman and The Legion of Superheroes with Frank and Sibal certainly has it's pleasures. Both would be pretty interesting to subject to a newcomer to Superman or superheroes, as these books are like mainlining Silver Age super-concepts; both story arcs are just avalanches of colorful costumes, character names and fanciful superpowers, particularly the latter.

But Secret Origin, Johns' version of Mark Waid's version of John Byrne's version of Superman's seemingly always-in-some-state-of-being-retold origin story. Their big innovation is in "casting" Christopher Reeve as Superman, which is somewhere between creepy and endearing, and may or may not even be something the target audience for a display like that would even pick up on, given the age of those Reeves movies, and tying Brainiac into Superman's origins in a way that both the Animated Series animated series and Grant Morrison and company's New 52 origin did.

And, again, here's the origin of Superman, the same subject of Man of Steel

Superman: Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel by Grant Morrison, Sholly Fisch, Rags Morales and others: Speaking of Morrison, this trade collects the first chunk of his run on the rebooted, New 52 version of Action Comics, presenting yet another origin of sorts for the Man of Steel, this one differing from the others in its attempts to fuse the original, Golden Age take on the character (dead parents, leaping instead of flying, crusading for social justice rather than defending the status quo) to the more familiar version he's grown into. It also prominently features that neat t shirt and jeans and work boots costume, which looks better and better the longer you look at Jim Lee's high-collared, heavily armored version of the character's New 52 costume.

They're not great comics, and the constant shifts in artists that plagued like 45 or so of the New 52 titles don't help matters at all, but, this being Morrison, even his not-that-great is still extremely interesting, and can make for a better read than what many of his peers have come up with.

If you were to include a New 52 book on a display like this, or try to sell a new reader on New 52 Superman, this is the book you'd wanna do it with, as its sister book, Superman was a mess from day one.

•All Those "New Krytpon" Comices From Like 2010-2012 by Like A Dozen Different Creators: I started reading this gigantic storyline, in which Krytpon is kinda sorta restored as it's own planet in our solar system, Superman gets exiled from Earth to live on Krypton, and the two planets kind of eye each other warily until they eventually go to war, the end result being the destruction of the new version Krypton and an all-around Kryptonian genocide.(Go Earth...?)

It went on a while, and some of the related books are just kinda sorta filler, as DC had to invent or maneuver or rejigger other characters to star in Superman's books while he was off-planet. I think Collected Editions has the whole reading order here, although if you just stuck with the four volumes of Superman: The World of New Krytpon, the few volumes of The Last Stand of New Krypton and Superman: The War of the Supermen, you'd probably get all the important bits (Unless you, like, care that Mon-El gets a new costume and protects Metropolis while Superman's in outer space, or that Clark and Lois' adopted son Chis super-ages into a teenager and becomes the new Nightwing in a Nightwing and Flamebird duo).

Like I said, I started reading these, and kind of lost interest, intending to try them in trade someday, but it became so big and unwieldly (Like, if I have to look up a reading order on the Internet, then that's usually a good indication that the story isn't organized all that well) and the ending so depressing that I never felt the need to get back to it. I recall James Robinson being the writer most involved for the longest (Greg Rucka and Geoff Johns had some input at the beginning, but I think sort of drifted away as it went on), and I don't recall any artists that I'm particularly fond of drawing any of it for any significant portion of time.

Still! This is a storyline/s about Krypton and Earth warring, with Superman caught in the middle, and thus would likely be of interest to Man of Steel viewers. I'd chuck War of the Supermen up on that display at the very least.

Superman Vs. Zod by A Bunch of Different People: Finally, here's one I didn't read, but I thought worth mentioning since DC seems to have packaged and released it specifically because of the (then upcoming) new film.

One of those themed trade paperback collections DC occasionally releases starring Superman, this one features various battles with Zod throughout history. Their website only mentions Geoff Johns and Richard Donner and Rags Morales and Curt Swan as creators, but I imagine there are a lot of old-school (and all-time great) Superman creators involved.

I'm also unsure if this features only the original Kryptonian Zod, or if other Zods—like the mysteriousblack-armored, Eastern European version from Joe Kelly's run on the Super-books—are included.


Matt D said...

I look at these and it's pretty amazing to me that anyone thinks there's one main "take" on Superman. For the most iconic comics character of all time, can you get more divisive?

And neither the 80s Byrne/Stern version or really the classic version seem to be represented much here. This is just the last ten years.

googum said...

I've read the Last Days of Krypton, and it wasn't bad. Although I have a hardcover I got at a dollar store some years back. It's better than that makes it sound, really.

Eric Lee said...

Matt D has a point. There are so many interpretations of Superman, I would feel that showing new people all these different versions would just turn them off all together. Like, how many Superman origins have we had in the past 10 years alone?