Friday, August 02, 2013

Meanwhile, a bunch of words about ten panels of Superman Unchained #2...

I'm going to list the links to the reviews I wrote at other sites this week in reverse order, because the one I have the most to say about here is the one that was published latest in the week. That would be my piece at Robot 6 this week, in which I review four second issues of a couple of big, newish series (It occurred to me that I—and, I think, a lot of individuals and outlets—understandably focus only on the first issues of new series, or "event" issues, in which something happens, but there's always an element of "I guess we'll wait and see" when discussing the first issues of serial comics, so I thought it might be interesting to focus on #2 instead).

Anyway, I wanted to take a closer look at this one particular scene from Superman Unchained, which I kind of made fun of a bit at Robot 6, but did not feel it was a good use of my space or readers' time to discuss too deeply what I found really rather weird about that sequence. That's what blogs are for, after all!

So, in this issue, Superman saves a skyscraper from collapse in Dubai and has a meeting with Batman. Then he flies off to the Salt Flats in Utah to have a tense conversation with Lois Lane's estranged father, General Lane:
Look at that first panel.

That's a pretty good example of Jim Lee being a good draftsman and drawer-of-superheroes-being-super, but not a great comics storyteller (I think he and Snyder are feeling each other out and not gelling yet, and I think there's probably a reason All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder is Lee's best work—it was written by a great cartoonist with great storytelling chops, so all Lee really had to do was draw the script and it all "worked" like a comic should).

Anyway, note those directional speedlines, that make it look like Superman is flying into the panel with Lane. That's pretty awesome. On the previous page, there's a big-ass panel of Superman flying in the desert, with his fist (he's flying fist first) and pat of his arm bleeding over the border of the next tier of panels, as if Superman is flying out of this panel and, in the turn of a page, into the next one—it's a nice, super-subtle demonstration of Superman's super-speed and fight; he's not bound (or "chained") by the limits of conventional space and physics.

But then Lee goes and screw is up, drawing Superman's left foot and crossing over the panel border as well, so that it looks like rather than flying into the panel, landing in a scene in the desert with General Lane, he's just passing through, having the first part of their conversation while flying by him, to land in a super-tiny, horizontal, just-there-to-have-some-place-to-stick-some-more-dialogue-bubbles panel (And he seems to be landing far to the right of...himself in it...? What the fuck is going on here?).

It's well-drawn and looks cool enough, until you really start looking at it, and then you notice, "Oh wow, Jim Lee was doing something kinda cool and clever here, wasn't he?" And then, a split-second later, you realize that it was either by accident, or he tried doing something cool and clever and then fucked it up.

He's the best-selling, most-popular comics artist in the U.S. though, and he's co-publisher in the company; what's an editor like Matt Idelson or Chris Conroy supposed to tell their boss? "Pretty good try, but can you move the Superman figure so he looks like he's landing in the panel, rather than diagonally floating past it? And maybe make it smaller, so the second panel has at least as much detail and impact as one of those little incidental cartoons Sergio Aragones doodles in the borders of our Mad magazine? Thanks boss!"

Anyway, those panels really stuck in my head.

What initially drew my attention to them, though, was Lane and his coffee.

Lee draws a really nice paper coffee cup and a really nice black plastic spoon, but he draws terrible coffee. Look at the way it sticks to the spoon, like beef gravy or chocolate sauce.

I also puzzled over the dialogue in this scene. See, Lane's at some super top-secret military installation in the middle of nowhere, building anti-Superman tanks and what not. He brags about the quality of the coffee. And I was thinking, isn't it weird that Lane uses a paper cup and plastic spoon? Wouldn't he have his own mug, if he's on a military base and drinks a lot of coffee? Otherwise, they gotta keep brining in paper coffee cups. But no, I thought, maybe that is the way the military thinks. They've got all that money, might as well spend it on paper coffee cups and plastic spoons rather than just buying Lane a reusable mug.

Finally, there's the bit with the spoon. Now, I understand, narratively, why Snyder and Lee have him drop it, although I have a lot of questions about how Lane and the coffee got there (It's still steaming hot; he's apparently just put sugar in it, but I don't see any sugar packets, and he's in the middle of a desert, with no, like, cafe's or tables or tents nearby. Where did his coffee come from? Where did the sweetener come from? Why is it still so hot?).

It's to draw the eye of the reader (And Superman) to the desert floor, which we see ominously opening, to (rather poorly, from a structural sense) reveal Lane's anti-Superman arsenal.

But, within the story, why would Lane just throw his spoon on the ground like that? Just straight-up, cold littering, man! He's supposed to be a disciplined military man, right? Running a top-secret facility, underground in order to hide it? Well, plastic spoons covered in viscous coffee lying around prove someone was around there recently, right? Scooby-Doo woulda smelled that, Velma would said "Jinkies!" and the gang would know there's something not quite right in the desert there.

Or maybe Lane knew exactly where he was dropping that spoon, and that when his secret trapdoors opened up to reveal his super-tanks, the spoon would fall down below into the base, leaving no clues behind. Hell, maybe the only reason he had the spoon and was stirring his viscous coffee was so that he could drop it on the crack in the desert floor to draw Superman's eyes to it. I think I have now officially over-thought those panels.

I really liked the opening scene, but this whole exchange with the coffee and the spoon stuck in my head just as strongly as that of the positives of the opening scene.

Now that I'm thinking about it, I wonder if Lee wouldn't benefit from another artist doing breakdowns for him...not necessarily sketching things out into the panels for him, but at least, like, determining the number of panels and the way they're arranged on the page. Like, what if Snyder gave his script to, say, Keith Giffen, Giffen translated it into less-detailed versions of the breakdowns he did for 52, and then had Lee do his thing?

I imagine it would speed up the process, and thus allow Lee to stay on a title longer, and I imagine it would improve the overall quality of the storytelling quite a bit.

But then, like I said earlier, I don't think anyone cares all that much. Everyone loves Jim Lee, and I don't think DC's biggest priorities right now are (nor should they be) making Lee a better, more perfect comics story-teller. Of the whole line, Superman Unchained is hardly the comic that needs, like, tinkered with. But then, I suppose if I were Lee, I'd want to keep getting better and better, and I'd want to be remembered for drawing great Superman comics, rather than comics with great drawings of Superman in them.

Hmmm. You know, I think when the first trade of Superman Unchained is released, I'd like to read it and then re-read Brian Azzarello and Lee's "For Tomorrow" Superman arc in trade and compare the two...

Also at Robot 6 this week, but not by me, is a pretty great column by Tom Bondurant on the Grant Morrison era of Batman comics, which just officially ended this week. The fact that Morrison was given a kind of pass on the New 52, and continued telling a story the New 52 pretty much directly contradicted and made impossible (save for only tiny tweaks being enforced, like Tim Drake's costume changing, for example) was sort of obvious, as was the fact that Morrison and Snyder's different takes and directions were overlapping one another in a way that didn't flatter either creator (Ideally, Morrison would have finished his run before Snyder began his), but Bondurant sees Morrison offering a positive influence on Snyder (Personally, I thought Snyder was doing a great job with the Dick Grayson-as-Batman Detective Comics, during the period in which Morrison was still the primary Batman writer, and his storyline was the dominant one—which lasted until the New 52 reboot scuttled it and put it on hold while DC figured out how to go forward with it...and Morrison tried reinventing Superman on-the-fly for them).

Bondurant points out that some of Morrison's many changes were "ratified" by their appearances across the DCU line—Damian Wayne, for example, Dick Gryason as Batman, Dick and Bruce as simultaneous Batmen—but the Batman Inc concept never enjoyed such an embrace by the rest of the DCU, rarely if ever getting mentioned (In retrospect, beyond that neat Knight and Squire miniseries and Batwing, there wasn't much acknowledgement in the wider DCU of many of these characters. I hold out hope for a Club of Heroes series written as a Justice League of all Batmen in the future, post-Morrison DCU though).

Anyway, a good piece contextualizing Morrison and his work within DC as a universe and a publisher.

Hey! Look at this! It's a Mort Drucker drawing of Christopher Reeves as Superman, from his Mad magazine parody of the first Superman movie, "Superduperman."

I was really struck by how much it looks like Gary Frank's version of Superman, from his recent-ish run on the Superman comics with writer Geoff Johns. I mean, it was obvious at the time that Frank was trying to model his Superman off of Reeves', but holy smokes it was weird seeing a caricature of Reeves drawn in the late seventies by Drucker, and being reminded so strongly of Gary Frank's Superman.

"Superduperman" is just one of the many Superman parodies and gag pieces you'll find in the Mad Super Spectacular: Superman, Man of Steel special that DC released in June to tie-in to the latest Superman movie. I reviewed it for Good Comics For Kids here, if you're interested, and returned to some of the jokes that didn't age well here.

And hey, speaking of that Mad special, what did you think of Superman's costume in the new movie? Didn't care for it?
Well, according to Sergio Aragones, you can blame Wonder Woman.

And finally...

I also reviewed The Malevolent Mr. Burns for Good Comics For Kids this week (Of special note to a few of you may be the fact that the first story in this issue is written by Ms. Gail Simone).

The above two panels were my favorite gag in the issue. They're from a story by Ian Boothby and Chris Houghton.

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