A professor at my school has started buying comics for his son, and he asked me to suggest some titles. He had purchased a few issues of Morrison’s Batman and a few of Levitz’s new Legion of Superheroes, and he was wondering what else to buy.
“Well, Batman #701 and #702 are a two-part story that connects “R.I.P.” to Final Crisis, so without those two story arcs, your son might be lost,” I cautioned. Then, I realized that even with “R.I.P.”, his son would be confused unless they purchased all of Grant Morrison’s run in its entirety.
After picking up the latest issue of Legion of Super-Heroes, I feared that this title would be even less accessible to a new reader. I have a pretty decent grasp of Legion history, yet I know I’m missing some of the connections Levitz is making in the title. He references “The Great Darkness Saga,” a storyline nearly thirty years old, the trade paperback for which is out-of-print. Therefore, the story not only is irrelevant to younger comic fans but also fairly inaccessible.
While price is certainly an issue when it comes to the decline in comic sales, I fear that the bigger issue is one of accessibility. It’s wonderful that comic books draw upon their own mythology and continuity, but due to the daunting nature of 75 years of stories, it can be incredibly difficult for new readers to jump in. When I worked in a comic-book store, the most common question I was asked was, “Where do I start?” and I found that there was no easy answer for this.
Of course, the comic-book industry wasn’t always this way. Before the ’70s, comics were single-issue experiences rarely referenced ever again. This single-issue experience was perfect for new readers.
Today’s comics are more sophisticated in terms of motifs and themes, which elevate the medium, but the price has been accessibility. Most storylines are four-to-six issues long, which makes it difficult for new readers who can’t track down back issues. Most new readers end up jumping into the middle of a story, itself part of a long run on a title, which references different stories from 30 years before. No wonder people ask, “Where do I start?”
“So, what else should I buy my son?” my professor asked.
My mind raced through all of the comics that I buy, and still, I had no clue. Nothing was accessible to new readers. I wanted to suggest Invincible, but the continuity has gotten far too complex and the action too grotesque. I wanted to suggest Green Lantern, but Blackest Night and the introduction of various Lantern Corps has made that universe difficult to get into for new readers.
Finally, I decided to go back to old, reliable Superman. The most enduring, iconic, powerful, and wonderful hero ever created has been a gateway into the entire medium for decades. He’s what boys want to grow up to be, he’s a great role model, and he’s a character that readers can take comfort in because he’s of unimaginable good.
Then I remembered what the plot of the current storyline has been: Superman, portrayed as an unconfident hero out of touch with America, is walking across the country in order to “find himself.”
This isn’t Superman.
During Geoff Johns’s tenure on Action Comics, Superman was iconic and having adventures that didn’t require close continuity reading. “Last Son” featured General Zod, but the villain was introduced in such a way that new readers could find him easily accessible. The Bizarro World story was straightforward and was more about Superman’s relationship with his father than about a story written 30 years ago. Johns’s Legion story was a gateway for new readers to come to the Legion of Super-Heroes. It was familiar to old fans but not continuity-heavy in a way that scared new readers. The Brainiac storyline could also be read by new and veteran readers because it built upon the Superman mythology instead of relying on past stories.
After Johns brought New Krypton into the mix, James Robinson and Greg Rucka took Superman out of his titles and put him on Krypton. The result was a full year without Superman on Earth. Initially, it seemed a bold decision to have Superman out of his titles and exclusively in a mini-series, but one has to wonder about the logic behind it.
New Krypton’s destruction found Superman back on Earth and in an effort to reconnect with America after a year in space; Superman decides to go on a walk across America to find his humanity again. It is J. Michael Stracynski’s goal to reconnect Superman to Earth, but it results in the hero sounding more like a preacher or a messiah than a human. He comes off as condescending rather than human, and the reader has to wonder, “Who the hell does he think he is? He’s the one who’s traveling across America to ‘find himself,’ and now he’s telling people how to live.”
It may be nice to see Superman in a different light in some ways, but this is the only title in which he is currently regularly appearing. Readers have no other outlet to see Superman being heroic and providing hope and comfort to the masses. What they see is the one person who we’re all supposed to count on walking because he lacks confidence in himself.
The message being conveyed is that even the one unflinching force of good in the world is afraid and unsure of himself. And if SUPERMAN lacks self-awareness, then what hope do any of the rest of us have?
And while JMS gets points for effort and a novel story idea, it’s all ultimately for naught because of one thing: it’s boring. Plainly and simply, this is a boring story for adults.
I wanted to tell my professor to buy some Superman for his son, but what six-year-old wants to read about a Superman who is unconfident and unwilling to fly? A story about self-discovery and self-awareness is fine for adults, but it’s still a poor representation of the hero.
Many claim that Superman is too boring or old-fashioned to be of any interest, but then, there is All-Star Superman. Here’s a story about a heroic Superman who doesn’t preach to people but instead shows them that there is hope and love. It’s big on action but sophisticated enough for multiple reads. Each issue can be read alone or all together. By all accounts, it’s the perfect comic book.
Compare All-Star Superman to the JMS Superman, and we see two very opposite characters. In both comics, the hero helps a woman who is about to commit suicide by jumping off of a building. JMS’s Superman gives a long speech about picking ourselves back up (or something) but would allow her to kill herself if she wants to. All-Star Superman shows that he loves the girl and that he will never give up on her. One Superman is giving her the option to end her life if she wants to, and the other refuses to give up on her no matter what. The mere suggestion that death is a viable option is something that Superman should never ever suggest.
Let’s face facts, the world sucks right now. To list the myriad troubles facing the world today would be trite and unnecessary because we all know the various threats that face us today. Super-heroes are something that people can turn to when they want to feel confident or cool. But when the perfect super-hero has to “find himself,” then who can they turn to? What hope do we have?
To conclude, a fan once asked Grant Morrison at a convention about issue #10 of All-Star Superman if the writer was suggesting that Superman created the world. Morrison said, “Yeah. He did it because he loves us. Isn’t that cool?”