Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Best Part of Superman: Doomsday

I realize I was pretty hard on DC’s direct-to-DVD Superman: Doomsday film last week. I suppose I should take some of the responsibility for my own disappointment. After all, “direct-to-DVD” translates pretty directly into “not good enough for theaters,” and, well, Jesus, just look at some of the stuff that gets put in theaters. Still, I was expecting something at least as good as JLU, and perhaps that’s my fault for expecting it as much as their fault for failing to deliver it.

Anyway, I don’t want to sound like I didn’t like anything at all about the movie.

I mean, I thought it was pretty funny that the hot Metropolis nightclub Jimmy works as a paparazzo at is called “Nite Club.”

And that animated Kevin Smith is so much skinnier than real-life Kevin Smith.

And, um…I guess it was pretty cool when Superman grabbed Doomsday by the roof of this mouth to flip him.

And…uh…hmm. Well, that’s really about it from the feature presentation, but I did find the special feature documentary about the creation of the original death of Superman storyline from DC Comics quite fascinating.

While the subject matter isn’t the making of the film I had just watched, this short film is of a similar nature to the “making of” featurettes that are so common on DVDs these days, just focusing on something other than the DVD feature.

Certainly it amounts to little more than PR, and if there is a compelling documentary to be made about that time DC Comics killed off their flagship character, DC Comics isn’t really the right company to make it.

Is it a good documentary? God, no.

But is it interesting, and fun to watch? It sure is, particularly for those of us interested in the creation of comic books and the industry as a whole.

Consulting, I see that was 15 going on 16 when Superman died in late ’92, and I was just starting to get into comics. As that much maligned decade of the comic industry was dawning, the TSR/DC co-production Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the only extremely occasionally released Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles books were the only comics I was regularly reading. But I was starting to feel the siren call of the DCU, thanks to the house ads and checklists that ran in AD&D.

Armageddon 2001 got me to pick up a couple of self-contained annuals featuring Batman, and Norm Breyfogle’s expressive art drew me to an issue of Batman (featuring a ventriloquist’s dummy with a tommy gun, as I recall), and I soon discovered there were scores of Breyfogle-drawn Bat-books in the back issue bins.

The Doomsday storyline would be my first exposure to Superman, beyond the Dan Jurgens Armageddon 2001 annual in which Superman wore gloves and fought Batman, and his brief appearance in the Death In the Family trade I’d bought (which also featured Batman and Superman fighting, come to think of it).

A neighbor kid had heard about the upcoming death of Superman and thought the books would be worth a lot of money someday, and he wanted to buy them. But since his mom didn’t want him going into the creepy comic shop in the creepy downtown part of my hometown (he was a gradeschooler) and knew I’d sometimes stop there on my way home form school, she gave me the money to buy those Doomsday fight issues for him. I would read them before passing them on (probably bending spines and leaving fingerprints, then decreasing their “value.” Ha ha!), and got hooked. With the actual death issue, I bought my own as well (I opened the polybag though, so there goes that investment), and hopped on for the whole year-long “Word Without a Superman”/ “Reign of the Supermen” storyline.

Considering how much time and energy I would eventually devote to the DCU, that year or so worth of Superman comics holds a special place in my heart, since it was a real gateway to the DCU in a way that the Batman comics I read weren’t; everyone showed up in there at some point. When I occasionally reread some of them these days, I’m sometimes struck by how dated they are in their details of the DCU’s fictional history (Lex Luthor posing as his own son from Australia, Supergirl being that Matrix thing I never completely understood, some guy named “Bloodwynd” being on the Justice League, the Hawks wearing red, et cetera), but it’s still an impressively rich and detailed story, in terms of the size of its cast and the different points of view the storyline was infused with, and the number of new characters and concepts introduced.

Looking back from 2007, I’m not sure which is more remarkable—That DC was able to sustain what was essentially a weekly Superman comic book for a year without the benefit of its star even appearing (kinda like what Ed Brubaker and company are attempting with Captain America now, only at least four times as often), or how influential the world-building those creative teams engaged in would end up being. I mean, Geoff Johns has been using Cyborg Superman to great effect in Green Lantern, Steel and Superboy have had been near-constant presences in the DCU since, and so on.

But enough about me.

(Above: Bloodwynd wears a golden circlet encrusted with jewels on his left thigh. I just wanted to point that out.)

The documentary features talking head interviews with Karl Kesel, Roger Stern, Jon Bogdanove, Louise Simonson, Paul Levitz, Jerry Ordway, Dan Jurgens, Jenette Kahn, Mike Carlin, Tom Grummett and Brett Breeding, only two of whom I’ve actually ever seen images of before.

These interviews are all rather brief and perfunctory, but I found it interesting just to see these creators’ faces and hear their voices, after having been familiar with them as names in credit boxes for so long. Comics is an interesting field in that the spectrum of celebrity varies so much from creator to creator. Read just about any novel, and you’ll see a photo of the author on the back of the jacket. But man, I’ve read scores of comics that each of these people were involved with, and I couldn’t pick most of ‘em out in a line up. I could be standing in a bank line behind all of them, and I wouldn’t be able to pick any of them out, although I might think to myself, Hey, that nerdy dude up there looks a little like Paul Levitz, doesn’t he?

(I wonder if this is changing due to the Internet, the rise of the blogosphere, the influence of conventions and the conscious cultivating of a celebrity culture to comics, or if I just spend more time in fan circles now. Like, I’ve seen pictures of just about every creator I read regularly now—and many, like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Paul Pope, Warren Ellis, Rob Liefeld and Brian Michael Bendis are people I wouldn’t only be able to pick out of a police line up, but probably a crowded New York City street corner— but I had no idea what any of the crators I was regularly reading back in the ‘90s looked like. Back then, I thought Kelley Jones was a woman at first though too, so it may also just be a matter of me being an idiot.)

Also interviewed are a couple of New York retailers, who give some first-person accounts of the consumerist hysteria that ensued when word got out that Superman wasn’t long for the world, and Brian Cunningham of Wizard magazine, who seems to have patterned his own hairstyle after Superman’s. I’m not really familiar with Cunningham, but I admit to sneering as soon as I saw where he was from. He provided the necessary fan perspective, and Idon’t mean to degrade the man here or anything, but I thought it was a little sad that in creating this film, DC turned to Wizard for an authoritative, third-party, industry watcher’s perspective on the event.

I don’t know how many magazines that were active in the early ‘90s are still active (Maybe Wizard is the only one?) or if websites like were around as far back as then (Was their an Internet back then? I didn’t discover it until it had already existed for quite a few years, on account of me being an extreme Luddite). But Wizard seemed like a poor choice, simply because this is just one more example of one of the Big Two legitimizing Wizard as the face of comics journalism. I don’t know, maybe Tom Spurgeon or The Comics Journal folks were asked to appear and laughed in the faces of those asking, and maybe Matt Brady of didn’t want to participate, but increasingly Wizard seems irrelevant to me, as the Internet handles the fan-stuff faster and better, and the mainstream media start paying more and more attention to comics, and I can’t help feeling the market would go ahead and kill Wizard off if only DC and Marvel didn’t devote so much time and energy into subsidizing it with their ad dollars, participation in coverage and granting the magazine “scoops.”

Anyway, the film jumps from talking head to talking head, occasionally lingering on art from those comics (which all looks extremely good blown up here), recounting in breif the John Byrne relaunch of the franchise, and the circumstances that lead to the storyline. Originally, they had planned a yearlong marriage of Superman and Lois story, but since they had to wait until the Lois & Clark series was ready to marry their Superman and Lois (as the plan was to synch the two events up), it left the Super-books with a year to fill.

And this is what they chose to do.

A lot of the specifics will be familiar to anyone who’s read any of the trades of these stories or of other’s from the era, as they recount the way the “triangle” books worked and the Super Summits, several of which are captured on film.

These segments are kind of revelatory, and while I hate to turn this post into another stiff arm of Countdown, it is remarkable that DC was able to produce such a (relatively) excellent Superman monthly 15 years ago, but have had such a hard time making a coherent weekly this year. Even 52, which I enjoyed enormously from the first issue on, had art that was quite sub-par. I forgave that at the time on account of it being a necessary evil of a weekly book, but then when you consider the Super-books of the ‘90s, that excuse evaporates. I noticed this too while reading the out-of-print Panic In The Sky! trade I recently found a copy of, and the whole death of Superman epic is just another reminder.

(Above: "Panic In the Sky!" featured Brainiac versus pretty much the entire DC Universe, and it was totally awesome. The trade, naturally enough, has long been out of print).

Why is it that those storylines came out on a weekly basis, and had high-quality art on par with the art in every other DC book at the time (if not better than many of them), while 52 and, even more so, Countdown, look so ugly, rushed and messy? I suspect it boils down to lead time, the Super-books were plotted out well in advance, and Countdown seemed to be more of an “Oh shit! We need another monthly, and we need it to start in three months!” But, in theory, Countdown could have had just four regular pencil and inker teams, each of which would take one week’s issue, and would thus only be doing as much work as they would on a monthly, although the story would be weekly (In theory. I’ve been downright shocked at how bad some high-profile DC books look of late. This past week, for example, JLoA and Teen Titans, the latter of which has had some real bad luck with artists, seemed just awful when compared to so much Big Two output).

Watching this documentary—and reading trades or comics from the period—also makes the lack of quality in Countdown’s writing seem mystifying as well. Is this another matter of not enough lead time, or a problem of the one writer as showrunner, with a team of writers fleshing out plot beats strategy of comics production? Because the Super-books had just about as many writers as Countdown, and yet these stories were all incredibly tight, and made sense from issue to issue. The extreme variance in writing quality is a bit mystifying when you realize that Countdown, “Panic in the Sky!” and the death of Superman stories all share an editor—Mike Carlin. Although Countdown launched with another editor, so Carlin can only be blamed so much for the lack of quality in the book.

But, as this documentary reveals, Carlin and all of the writers and artists would gather for summits, Carlin would break out these giant poster-sized boards and together they would all plot a year-long story, dividing up the pieces of the story. It seemed like a lot of brainstorming went on there, with pretty significant details suggested from all quarters. For example, the Four Supermen of the “Reign” storyline came about because each creative team had their own ideas about what a Superman coming back should be like, and it was, according to the doc, something they were debating until Simonson suggested they use all four, giving each team their own character and subplot to advance (and giving us two of the stronger new characters of the decade, Steel and Superboy, and Geoff Johns fuel for Green Lanterns stories 15 years later).

The convention season scuttlebutt is that a third weekly is planned. I hope DC is already working on it (although I doubt it), and that it will follow a production pattern similar to the one here instead of the top-down, TV-writing approach of Countdown. Clearly the former has lead to more readable comics than the latter. (But if Carlin’s editing Countdown, he can’t possibly be leading a summit on next year’s weekly at the moment, can he? Sigh.)

But enough about Countdown.

Back to the alleged subject of this post, in addition to the look into the process of the how Superman comics used to be created, the documentary also does a nice job of capturing some of the strange media coverage of the event, and the comics culture of the ‘90s, showing how the creators took the surprise celebrity status they received, with the kind of attention and adulation that was usually reserved for the likes of Todd MacFarlane or Rob Liefeld going, temporarily anyway, to the likes of Mike Carlin.

It’s a neat little trip down memory lane, to a time when comics was a collectable market and media coverage of the medium was still new.

It’s pretty striking to watch all the footage culled from TV news and the flashes of newspaper headlines in 2007, after Captain America had died, and seeing how the media of the early ‘90s did the same thing as the today’s media, in terms of equating that comic book icon with America itself, and trying to make the story of his death out as a broader cultural statement than the more obvious reading that, Hey, maybe this comic book company would really like to sell some more comics, and doesn’t have much to say about the “End of History” that followed the Cold War or War on Terror.

It’s also interesting to watch knowing all that would follow. The Death of Superman era, creatively, commercially and even culturally, genuinely seemed innocent and exciting, and the commercial aspect of wanting to sell more comics aside, there was something pure about it (Unless the creators are all really great actors, they seemed to have been really caught of guard that anyone other than regular DC readers cared about what they were doing at all).

But those of us who stuck around afterwards know exactly what it lead to for DC. Batman in a wheel chair, replaced by a darker, more ‘90s successor. Wonder Woman kicked to the curb for a darker, more ‘90s successor. Green Lantern turned evil and replaced by a new character. Green Arrow killed and replaced by a new character. Aquaman maimed and given a new, darker look*.

The success and attention the Death of Superman storyline may have caught DC off-guard when it originally hit, but they wasted no time in trying to replicate it, each attempt leading to diminishing returns. (See also Dan Jurgens twelve to fifteen different Doomsday projects to follow).

*To be fair, I enjoyed all of these stories. The Batman one went on a bit too long and didn’t go far enough—Jean-Paul Valley really shoulda killed some dudes, as the revulsion the regulars felt for him was a tad force. After all, he was simply a marginally more brutally violent asshole vigilante than the brutally violent asshole vigilante they were used to working with. And that Wonder Woman story? Good God did that suck. But otherwise? I was on board with all that stuff, even Hal going over to the darkside, and while the conversion likely felt forced to a lot of people, if anything is going to turn someone psycho, the genocide of his entire home town of millions oughta do the trick. Besides, when he was “evil” he was only trying to get enough power to resurrect the city, and thus if he killed someone, he did so knowing that if he’s successful, he could totally bring them back to life. I was disappointed when he died simply because Parallax, lame thought the name was, had the makings of a great villain.


Patrick C said...

I too got introduced to DC Comics through the Death of Superman. I still look back on the Reign of Superman story with fondness.

Out of curiosity, when did they give Hal Jordan the Reed Richards hair? Did they think they'd attract more fans by making Green Lantern seem like their father? I can't imagine that ever being a good idea.

Anonymous said...

Captain Marvel, Guy Gardner, and orange-shirted Aquaman together in a Superman story? **starts eBay-ing for it**

Jarrod said...

Right on. You captured my feelings about the early 90s Superman books, Wizard, and DC Comics' event policies all in one fell swoop.

You deserve a medal.