Monday, July 23, 2018

Superman's origin vs. Superman's origin

The first page of 2006's All-Star Superman #1, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Jamie Grant and Phil Balsman

The first page of 2018's Superman #1, by Brian Michael Bendis, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Alex Sinclair and Josh Reed.

The first page of Bendis' first issue of the newly relaunched Superman title--following his contributions to Action Comics #1,000, DC Nation #0 and his six-issue Man of Steel story, includes a recap of Superman's origin and the relevant events leading up to the current story, and I found it revealing just how different it was from Morrison and Quitely's famously succinct retelling of Superman's origin in their All-Star Superman (which one could probably argue was still eight words more than needed).

Only the first half of the first narration box on this first page covers the exact same ground that Morrison and Quitely did, but it takes about 25 words. And that's followed by four more narration boxes. I wanted to draw the comparison not to suggest that Morrison's strategy was superior to that of Bendis', but simply to compare the two, which couldn't be more different, despite telling the same story about the same character at the same point in their respective runs on a Superman book.

Certainly, both are very emblematic of the creators involved--Morrison doing something weird and leaving a lot up to the imagination of the reader, Bendis using a lot of words, so many that they threaten to overwhelm the artwork--but both are equally valid. What was compelling about Morrison's origin at the time was that it was basically unnecessary; he knew that everyone knew Superman's origin, and thus he didn't even really need to tell it at all. I said it was eight words too long because, if you removed Morrison's captions, I think that page reads just about the same, and a reader gets all the necessary information. But maybe even the art is superfluous, because surely anyone reading a comic book, anyone who has ever heard of Superman, knows those basic points of the character.

What I find interesting about Bendis' strategy is the idea that there is no assumption of a reader's familiarity with the character, even on the most basic level, or that a reader might have been aware of recent Superman history (that Jor-El is alive, that Superman has a son), or the story Bendis just got done telling the previous week in Man of Steel.

DC, and/or Bendis himself, seem to think that Bendis' presence on the book will be drawing all kinds of readers who are completely new to the character, perhaps new to comics, which seems to me to be vastly overestimating Bendis' pull. Bendis is, of course, a pretty big deal in comics, and I'm sure that all sorts of people will be reading this issue of Superman who weren't reading the previous few issues, but it's hard to imagine Bendis' arrival bringing in large numbers of people who weren't already reading mainstream, Big Two super-comics that they purchased on a Wednesdayly basis from their local comic shop.

In other words, the audience Bendis is likely to draw is one that is already in the direct market, they just might have been reading Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men and New Avengers instead of Superman and Action. In that regard, I think the arrival of Gene Luen Yang to the Superman franchise a few years ago was a much, much bigger deal, and one that was much more likely to attract new readers to Superman, to DC and to the direct market that Bendis moving from Big Company A to Big Company B, but Yang's arrival wasn't treated as so much of an occasion, likely because how notoriously difficult it is for DC (and Marvel) to see comics and their place in the medium and industry from the outside.

Regardless, here are two different ways to kick off Superman runs from two of the more popular and more divergent writing talents in the modern direct market.

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