Saturday, May 17, 2008

Showcase Superman Volume 1

I’ve read a lot of articles/interviews where people talk about the deconstruction of superheroes, how Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s seminal 80s works changed the medium and took away a lot of the fun. For a long time, the only older comics I’d read were 70s X-Men, which aren’t exemplary of what these people were talking about, with their heavy angst and emotional soapiness. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I started reading Showcase Presents Superman that I really got the zany craziness that people talk about when they discuss 50s comics. These comics are totally insane, as crazy, if not more so, than anything Grant Morrison’s come up with, with a total disregard for real world logic or narrative consistency.

I’d always heard the premises of these 50s Superman books, Superman has a lion’s head, Superman shoots a tiny Superman out of his hand, etc. and thought that’s a great concept, but the comic itself probably isn’t as good. Well, if Superman inexplicably has a lion’s head sounds like a great story, then buy the book. It won’t disappoint. It’s astonishing to me that this book was popular entertainment, it’s so insane, every single story full of bizarre narrative gaps and logical jumps that blow your mind. It feels like somebody on an LSD trip throwing out the craziest thing he can think of, then scrambling to get things back to normal within ten pages.

You really can’t approach these comics as any of sort of sustained narrative, like today’s books. It’s not a coherent universe, or evolving milieu, it’s basically a sitcom. Every character has one trait, Superman is ultra-powerful, but constantly scared of having his identity discovered. Jimmy Olsen is his loyal friend, aiding in his schemes. Lois Lane desperately wants to marry Superman, but is foiled at every turn by Superman’s scheming.

The stories are very formulaic. Usually some outrageous premise is thrown out that disrupts normality, like Superman losing his powers. Then, Superman struggles to maintain the illusion of normalcy, in that case through his crazy schemes with Jimmy, and ultimately everything returns to normal, with Superman winking to the audience. The reason it works is because everything is so nuts, you don’t get mad at the deus ex machinas or narrative shortcuts, you just laugh at them. The creators seem to know how wacky the stories are, they’re in on the joke, and the joy is the journey through the story, not the destination. Notably, we’ve got no cliffhangers, and very rarely is Superman in real danger. The only one who suffers emotional consequences is Lois, who always comes this close to marrying Superman, only to have her dream foiled.

Reading these comics provides a startling twist on the societal myth of the 50s as a time of boring conformity. Yes, these stories are ultimately about enforcing the status quo, but brimming under that status quo are a myriad of psychological issues and deep seated fears. Why does Superman have such a fear of people discovering his secret identity? Why does he cruelly maintain the illusion of Clark Kent, even planting a room in his Fortress of Solitude dedicated to Clark so no one will find out his secret identity after he dies.

The opening story of the collection, “The Super Key to Fort Superman” is still my favorite. In it, Superman and Batman play an elaborate game of pranks on each other, which culminates in Superman pretending his powers have been disabled and they’ll both be trapped in the Fort forever. This comes after Batman has spent days infiltrating the Fortress, apparently leaving Gotham undefended. And, the reason all this happens is because Batman was shopping for a birthday present for Superman, but couldn’t find anything. If people say Batman the TV show wasn’t like the comics, point them to this and they’ll be in for a rude awakening.

Reading this, I can see why people would feel like something major has been lost in comics. First off, these issues contained three crazy stories in one, each a complete done in one tale. If you want to know why people don’t read comics like they did in the 50s, I think it’s clearly due to the fact that they’re just not a good value at all. These issues entertain for a while, and are easily accessible, not like the bloated super epics out there today. I’d be much more likely to buy books in single format if they were like this.

And, the stories are just so imaginative, it’s hard to believe what’s going on. I would think books like this, not 60s Marvel, would be popular with the counterculture. Morrison’s All Star Superman was not exaggerating the craziness of these early days. Superman barely even fights crime, he mostly battles identity issues played out through these crazy sci-fi conceits.

But, I think the stories are missing something. Morrison is able to keep these crazy concepts, but fuse a strong emotional layer on there as well. These stories feel like the crazy childhood of Superman, All Star is his adulthood, he’s more mature and able to recognize that there’s more to this world than just protecting his own identity. All Star Superman feels much closer to this guy than the Superman seen in JLA recently. That’s probably due to the fact that these are the archetypal Superman stories, where all the elements that persist to the present were established.

It’s interesting to compare what Morrison does with All Star to the way Moore approached Superman in Miracleman. I absolutely love Miracleman, I think it’s pointless to criticize Moore for doing his deconstruction work, Watchmen and Miracleman are such great works, it’s worth having them even if it means ‘losing our innocence.’ And, I think comics are stronger having gone through that dark period, Morrison and Miller have since found a way to integrate the insanity of these old comics with the darkness of the 80s.

Frank Miller’s masterpiece, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, takes the insane concepts and willful disdain for logic of these 50s comics and applies them to a post deconstruction world. I think it’s one of the greatest superhero comics of all time, and a perfect model for what comics can be.

Things have changed and we can never return to the style of these 50s comics without playing it as pastiche. The best thing we could get is something like Moore’s “Untold Tales of Supreme,” which ape the style and form of these 50s comics, but also have a tinge of dislike for the original material. It’s pastiche, and while these guys in the 50s had a sense of humor about the work, I don’t think they would like to be reduced to a series of formal tics that Moore emulates. It’s a form of storytelling that just can’t feel uncalculated in today’s world, we’ve moved on.

But, I think there’s still a lot of great lessons to be taken from these books. The embrace of craziness is something a lot of books could benefit from. Throw out crazy ideas on every page, and don’t necessarily focus on Superman fighting someone every issue. Superman very rarely faces a major villain in these stories, and they’re more interesting because of that. His greatest villain is his own nature, and his struggle to figure out what role he should play in this world.


RAB said...

I was really curious to see your reaction to this...and now that I have, I can only agree with every word.

You're exactly right about the series in that era being a sitcom. By definition, isn't the formula of every sitcom that some situation has arisen to disrupt the normal order of things, with the comedy ensuing from the characters' efforts to restore the status quo before the episode ends? The book Men of Tomorrow makes a good case that this kind of thing was a total reversal -- even a betrayal -- of the original premise of Superman. When he was created, Superman represented freedom, the ability to fly, to bend girders, to do what normal people can't do. Twenty years later, it's been turned around so that Superman is the one trying to repress strangeness and get everything back to normal.

Yeah, it's a very Fifties attitude, of a piece with the other pop culture we see from that era...but some of it was mandated by the immediate material circumstances under which those comics were being produced. The Kefauver hearings and the creation of the Comics Code meant that Superman had to be considered totally safe and inoffensive to young children, so that pushed the stories into fantasy that featured magic or aliens and couldn't depict any violence or terror. Every issue of All-Star Superman has included some image or concept that would have gotten the script entirely rejected by the Code as too frightening or disturbing. The company's survival in a hostile era depended on being considered safe for -- and appealing to -- even the youngest children. Or so they felt, anyway.

Also, you immediately spotted something that I didn't realize myself until very recently. When I started reading comics (about forty years ago) most of them had made the transition to full issue length done-in-one stories. At the time, stories that were 8 or 11 pages long seemed overly compressed and unsatisfying to me because I started off with something with a slower pace. It's only lately dawned on me how older readers seeing that transition would have felt cheated because the new issues only contained one story instead of several. Even worse to see (for instance) the first half of a two-parter, and realize they weren't even getting one complete story for their twelve or fifteen cents!

Fortunately, this childhood orientation didn't stop me from embracing longer-form works like Kirby's Fourth World, or The Invisibles or Transmetropolitan years later...but I can understand how people who take for granted long story arcs or serialized graphic novels might look askance at my championing the occasional done-in-one because it seems so constricting.

Anyway...I've been obsessing over the Silver Age Superman lately, and it tickled me to see you appreciating the very same things I like about that era. At the very least, Flex Mentallo has got to make a lot more sense now, right?

Jacob said...

I haven't read many of these old Supermans, but I recently worked my way through the first Showcase JLA trade and a lot of what you've written here resonates with what I encountered in that book. It's much more oriented towards heroes-vs.-villains style stories, but there's that same sense of infinite crazed possibility, and the threats very often represent challenges to the team's identities - like one where a magic funhouse mirror makes them fat, tall, etc. in real life.

Patrick said...

It's odd to think that these stories were targeted at kids. On the one hand, the very, very loose narrative logic and constant exposition are kid friendly, but the things the characters deal with don't seem like they'd be particularly interesting to kids. They really seem like the neuroses of older people, stuff like Clark always dealing with the loss of his parents, or Lois desperately wanting to marry Superman. Combine that with the general lack of fights and villains, and I don't see kids getting that much of a charge out of it.

But, I think that's a good thing, I like the emotional issues the book explores, and the zany way in which it explores them. Maybe I'm an anomaly, but I feel like the older I get, the more I appreciate this wacky stuff, and learn just to roll with the absurdity and enjoy it on its own terms.

Where would you recommend going from here in terms of Silver Age books? Are the other Showcases as good as this one? I was thinking of getting Flash next, since it's such a Morrison favorite, but I'd love any specific recommendtations.

RAB said...

When we're kids, we're actually fascinated by concerns that are considered neurotic if they persist into adulthood. For instance, when we're young, the idea of a human body undergoing bizarre metamorphoses and transformations thanks to some alien force isn't a metaphor -- it's a literal statement of our existence! And it's normal for kids to contemplate what it would be like if their parents died: our parents represent the world as it exists and always has existed, so losing a parent at a young age is very much having the world itself destroyed. When we grow up, we mercifully forget and block out just how inexplicable and full of hidden menace the world seems to us at that age.

Also, children are interested in "trying on" adult behaviors and activities as they dimly understand them through limited observation -- kids "play house" long before the concept of romantic attraction enters their universe. As it's presented in those comics, Lois wanting to marry Superman is so totally a child's misunderstanding of sex and romance. Lois isn't contemplating sexual intercourse with a Kryptonian, she isn't thinking about snuggling in front of the tv or going shopping with her husband. Matrimony in these comics is depicted as a game of tag that inexplicably interests grownups: the girl chases the boy and tries to trap him so she can be declared the "winner" but he keeps eluding her through his cleverness. Who knows why grownups want to do that? So I think it's perfectly in tune with a kid's outlook, at least circa 1955-1960 when Superman was selling something over 800,000 copies each month.

Future recommendations: I like Flash well enough, and you get the sweet Carmine Infantino art...but those stories are a bit tame. That book and Green Lantern were really tributes to logic and rationalism, with one weird transformation or concept splashed on the cover as an attention grabber and the actual story designed to ground it in a plausible explanation the hero discovers and deals with scientifically. Justice League of America sounds like a better bet: those stories tended to be shorter on plot mechanics, and as a result the inventiveness and throwaway ideas were cranked up higher. But, if you really want the prime motherlode of Silver Age crack -- I'm not sure you're ready for this high a dosage, but if you say you want to give it a try -- go for the Legion of Super-Heroes. That's the same editor as the Superman stories, many of the same writers, and without even the minimal constraints of logic or qualms about plausibility that kept the Superman stories from abject insanity.

Patrick said...

The prime motherlode of Silver Age crack, that should be the pull quote on Showcase Presents the Legion. Superman is already quite a dosage of crack, but I think I'm ready for more. Once I finish the first Superman volume, I'll check out Legion next.

As a side note, how's Showcase Presents Teen Titans? I read the "Lost Annual" from a few months ago and it was amazing, is the rest of the series that good?