Last Christmas my brother gave me a booster pack of random, non-sequential issues from a variety of popular comic book titles that syndicated in the late eighties to mid nineties. The nineties was a time of groundbreaking work in the comic community that gave birth to the age of modern comics. Sometimes, not so much. These are snapshots of the industry at its best and worst. This is Brian’s Comic Book Grab Bag.
The Adventures of Superman Volume 1 #512
Writer – Karl Kesel
Penciler – Barry Kitson
Inker – Ray McCarthy
Letterer – Albert DeGuzman
I have heard on occasion that Superman isn’t a very relatable character.
My experience with Superman is informed by modern comic book work primarily. By “modern” I refer to 2000 to present. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I purchased Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus that I started to truly understand Superman. One of the important things to remember about the Silver Age is that this was a period in comic book history that functioned as a bridge from the start of comics to what we have today. The tropes and beats of the Golden Age still haunt some pages, but for the most part Superman and his fellow Justice League are forced to confront the brave new world of the sexual revolution, the war on drugs, the rise of feminism, and the AIDS epidemic, all while retaining the untenable optimism of the early days of comic booking. If watching a Kirby gangster try to “kill” an unwanted reporter invokes discomfort via cognitive dissonance, seeing Superman be scolded by hippies and super scientists living in communes below the earth is just as bad, if not worse.
But this is still the secret origin of the modern day comic book. It takes a while to read Crisis on Infinite Earths, to truly understand it and get past the formulaic dialogue that spans the entire arc. Animal Man’s groundbreaking run began in 1988, only two years after Crisis on Infinite Earths completed its limited series run. But the tone and pacing of Animal Man nearly 20 years later reads like I picked it off the shelf yesterday. Superman’s journey to modernity has been less abrupt, featuring a gradual progression toward our now modern conceptions of him. A representative of the Modern thinking man, Superman is already put at a disadvantage to contemporary readers. The death of Superman was the death of Modernism in comics, which explains the flurry of attention that was dedicated to it by major news organizations. Only shortly after we are told, “oh. he was alive, in Kryptonian hypersleep, or something…” With Superman alive again, he can now be deconstructed and threaded through a postmodern worldview. This is where The Adventures of Superman #512 finally comes in.
I admit, when I first read #512 I was tempted to pan the entire endeavor. On second read, and gathering the circumstances on which the issue is based, the Superman depicted is not entirely as awful as he could be, but still not amazing. The lukewarm, ho-hum, plots of the mid-nineties, as the industry was transforming into what it would become today, nearly ended comics altogether as the sales dropped farther and farther. Despite all of this, Superman, as depicted by Karl Kesel, sticks to his guns (no, not the guns from his post hibernation solar suit days). Kesel’s Superman (in this issue at least) is a “thinking” Superman, and despite being swollen with solar radiation, impersonating the Incredible Hulk all the while, it becomes clear to the reader that this isn’t the way Superman is supposed to be. Many heroes by now had succumbed to the abysmal, gritty, Frank Miller-esque characterizations that were perpetuated during the nineties. Superman’s swollen exterior acts as a parody of these silly constructions; the issue emphasizes Superman’s intelligence. However he came in to the predicament that made him laughably muscular, he resolves the problem by using Parasite to drain him of his excess energy stores. How Superman will actually defeat Parasite is left alone as the issue closes with the Man of Steel falling to earth, now normal in size. With the addition of Big Words, one of the members of the Newsboy Legion, Jack Kirby’s Superman is invoked, a Superman who notably dealt with awkward and novel situations, many of which required intelligence and and wit to resolve rather than brute force. The issue does include Lois Lane’s drama, and Lex Luthor’s crippling illness, but the B-thread stories occupy little of our attention. “How will Superman get out of his uncomfortable situation?” dominates the focus of the comic.
Relatability. Isn’t that how we started this conversation? Superman’s chief character quality is his yearning to be normal, to fit in and be a part of human society. His continual battles with metahumans, his superhuman strength, his sense perception, is an affront to his ability to blend in. It’s interesting that today, we as Americans, especially youthful Millennials, desire to be hyper aware of our individualism, that eccentricities and particulars emphasize who we are. This need to feel set apart hasn’t risen to the levels of Japanese Visual Kei quite yet, but whatever state of present culture we reside in, Superman goes against the grain. The values of the late thirties and early forties, having come out of The Great Depression, was predicated on humility, incited by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Overnight, Americans fell into a state of poverty, and the abundant films and entertainment that worshiped affluence were replaced in the coming years by simple expressions of perseverance. Superman was born into the humility of the post crash generation. He wanted to blend in as a hard working, contributing member of society, which was a chief value.
In light of this, The Adventures of Superman #512 represents a return to normalcy for the Man of Steel. The New 52 harkens back to the Fleischer era Superman, and that’s a good sign. What becomes of our movement to recover the old spirit of the Golden Age is a work in progress. The ideals of our cynical generation have already been lampooned by Neil Gaiman in Sandman #14, rather poetically, and that was 24 years ago. Whether or not this will improve our ethics, why we do things the way we do, we ought to envision a future that is big enough for our own evaluation. People author comic books to make statements about society, many writing from the vantage point of the common lay man. It is my hope, then, that we can continue to make accurate conjectures about who we are, and not rely on post-modern extravagance to exemplify extremes when they are unnatural. Because, isn’t that what Superman is? An extreme? An outlier of statistical enormity? But so many are grounded by his humble posture to do what is right. Therefore it is no wonder why it is so odd to further distance Superman from the mortals he walks among. In Kingdom Come, Superman is geographically isolated from those that he endeavored to live near for so long, a post-modern extreme cleverly embedded by Mark Waid. Look what pain evolved from that disparate interpersonal relationship. Once we removed Superman from his humanity, we extracted the element that had made him so appealing for nearly 80 years. Now that Superman is youthful, we as young people understand him. But it was making him one of us, that made us advocate for him.
7 Wet Mullets (of 10)