“After all the deconstruction, Superior was planned as a RECONSTRUCTION of the superhero. A warm-hearted tribute to why we need them.” –Mark Millar, April 15, 2014
As longtime readers of Sequart may notice, I don’t write much about superhero comics. The reason is simple: I don’t really read many. It’s not a genre that holds a great deal of interest for me, as I always get the impression that all the best variations on that theme have already been written. I certainly like the highlights (Watchmen, etc.) but one the whole I tend to read and support comics that explore the depth and breadth of the medium, rather than wading in the comfortable heated pool of the superhero genre. But Mark Millar’s Superior is on a very short list of superhero comics I genuinely love and respect.
It was announced this week that Fox has acquired the rights to Superior and will produce a film version of it with Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass, X-Men: First Class) involved in at least the producer capacity. Being such a smart, cinematic and dare I say, “superior” version of the superhero mythos, there’s ample opportunity for this film to be creative and original, celebrating the genre while also poking respectful, self-referential fun at it. Only time will tell. But the comic is still widely available and for those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s certainly worth a look.
Published in seven issues between December 2010 and March 2012, and lovingly dedicated to Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner, the comic manages to successfully capture the feeling of Donner’s classic Superman film while resolutely bringing that sensibility into the modern era. Donner’s advice, to take the material seriously while not taking yourself seriously, seems to have been well-heeded by Millar and illustrator Leinil Yu. Like works such as The Princess Bride, Superior succeeds in being a wonderfully enjoyable superhero comic that also manages to step a few paces away from the genre and regard it with a loving but critical distance.
The very first scenes of Superior could be ripped from any number of cliched superhero films from our era, with city-destroying robots, explosions and stiff dialogue (“You need to detonate the pulse, sir. Before it’s too late”). But after eight pages the fourth wall (or fifth?) shatters and we see our two main characters, 12-year-old friends Simon and Chris, shovelling popcorn as they enjoy the film in a movie theatre. The film, of course, is “Superior 5”, featuring the archetypal superhero, “Superior”. That hero, Superior himself, is an obvious appropriation of Superman, right down to a later reference to a famous movie version from the late 1970s and his origin in comics in the late 1930s. Superior being a Marvel publication, obviously using Superman himself was out of the question, but this works to the advantage of the story, providing opportunity to generalize about the genre and therefore universalize the themes.
The self-referentiality starts immediately, with Chris observing that “Superior’s been around since my papa was a kid,” and “He’s just too much of a Boy Scout for people these days.” In the movies, Superior is played by ageing matinee idol Tad Scott, who will feature later in the story . Millar’s explicitly stated aim with this book was to counter those criticisms and present a really “good” Superman-type character that’s relevant to the modern world. This self-awareness is part of it but an even more important tool in Millar’s reconstruction box is the dialogue between the 12-year-olds. Amazingly, they actually sound like real kids. Not “TV twelve-year-olds” with their “aw shucks, let’s go catch frogs” foolishness (seriously, TV writers: do you even remember being twelve?), but smart, plain-talking, swearing-when-they-want-to real kids. Quite possibly the best I’ve seen since Super 8 if not The Goonies. They say, “Oh shit” when any ordinary person would say, “oh shit”. They’re loyal to each other but not in a cliched way, full of false sentiment. And they’re very, very smart, seeing the world with more clarity than many of the adults.
The first issue follows Chris and Simon home from their movie, avoiding bullies, talking about basketball practice, just being normal. Only Simon isn’t your average kid. A budding basketball star just a few short months before the start of the story, Simon is now crippled by the effects of Multiple Sclerosis, using a wheelchair and crutches, mourning his lost physical abilities but steadied by his loyal best friend.
Then, in the middle of the night, Simon is visited by a strange spacesuit-clad monkey named Ormon who shows him visions of the universe and offers him a “magic wish”. Simon is transformed from a 12-year-old with physical challenges into Superior himself. Ormon gives him one week to explore his new abilities and promptly disappears, leaving Simon-as-Superior in his bedroom, now a square-jawed and muscled superhero.
His first impulse is to run away from home and straight over to Chris’s house, who logically enough meets him with a baseball bat drawn and ready for battle, because there’s a strange man in his bedroom. (Contrast this to the dull, unintelligent, wide-eyed idiots who speak like they were on the Andy Griffith Show that usually pass for 12-year-olds in the movies.)
But after explaining himself, Chris believes him. Thus begins that wonderful process familiar to some of us now from movies like Chronicle, where the newly-minted super hero tests his powers. The two friends retreat to a forest where, in one test, Chris stands about twenty feet away from Simon-Superior and holds up a newspaper and asks him to read every other word. Superior comes up with “Lohan” and “Thong”, firmly grounding the paper in the world of 2011. Other tests involve pulling a train and finally, of course flying.
It’s the flying that leads to Superior’s first “big stunt” sequence, in this case saving the International Space Station from falling to the earth after being hit by asteroids. (Anticipating a bit of Gravity, there.) That stunt reveals Superior to the world and particularly to the attention of dedicated journalist and TV reporter, the ample-breasted Maddie, the story’s other major character. Maddie is a Lois Lane type, but with far more boldness and a talent for creative deception. Her test to draw out Superior for an on-camera interview is right out of Superman II, driving her car off a pier. (Her car, by the way, has personalized license plates that read, “Kick Ass”. Nice touch.) The stunt works, and Maddie not only gets her interview, but she comes into the orbit of Superior, inviting him over on a date.
One of the wonderful things about the character of Simon-Superior is that while he looks like an adult, grown up superhero physically, he is still a twelve-year-old inside. That right there is a good metaphor for Superman but unlike toothless flirting in the Superman films, here Millar allows the “date” scene to play in all its awkwardness, with Simon more than a little sexually intimidated by the confident and libidinous grown woman with him. Saving space stations and submarines and ending the war in Afghanistan is one thing, but knowing how to behave when a woman is coming onto you? That would be beyond most twelve year old guys, and it’s certainly perplexing to Simon.
The situation is quickly rendered moot in any case, as just as things are getting interesting on Simon’s terrifying first date, Ormon shows up to remind him that a week has passed. And here we have the final, wonderfully literate hidden theme of Superior: The Faust Narrative.
It turns out that Ormon is not an angel, but instead an Agent of Satan. And the deal he was offering Simon was for his soul. In other words, he’s offering Simon the opportunity to escape the prison of his body and serve the good of the world, not to mention live out all the imperatives of his twelve-year-old imagination such as batting for the Mets against the Yankees, but the cost will be his immortal soul. (For those playing the home game, this soul exchange plays by Faustian rules, meaning that Satan only gets his soul after he’s dead. Not Buffy rules, where a soul can be removed from a person still living.) As always with deals with The Devil, it’s the fine print that matters.
Faustian legends and narratives are not unknown to comics (Ghost Rider, for example) but it’s always interesting to see that ancient European mythology brought into a resolutely modern setting. In the original legend, Faust himself is offered youth and power on a “temporary” basis but just as in Superior, The Devil knows that once people get a taste of that big brass ring, it’s difficult to the point of impossibility to give it back. The stakes in this version of the tale are raised, on Ormon’s part, by the fact that he has to secure an immortal soul in the next 24 hours or be pulled back into the pits of hell. And, knowing that Simon might require a bit more incentive, he’s “blessed” Sharpie, the bully seen in the first issue, with superpowers as well, creating a version of “Superior”’s arch-nemesis, a city-crushing Robot called Abraxas. (Sharpie’s first words after becoming the powerful Robot aren’t some sort of “bad guy” cliche but the entirely more plausible, “Fuck yeah!”)
After a suitably gigantic battle in the streets of New York, creatively involving the actor who plays Superior in the films to create misdirection, Ormon is horrified to learn that he didn’t read the fine print. It’s Maddie, who we learn was a leukaemia survivor and quite sympathetic to the MS-stricken Simon, who points out the error. Ormon bought a soul from Simon in exchange for his transformation into Superior, a being that literally can never die. So, Ormon has, in his words, “bought something he can never collect”. The demons arrive and drag the evil monkey back into hell. When making contracts with the Devil, it bears repeating, read the fine print.
As Ormon goes back to the fiery pits, Simon transforms back into himself, but by this point he’s accepted his life the way it is, and Maddie feels both maternal and romantic towards the young man. Simon’s key final line is “I’m happy being me again”. Simple, but effective.
The comic ends where it began: watching a superhero in a movie theatre, helping to inspire the heroic in a common crowd. By this point, Millar and Yu have earned more than a little bit of sentimentality. So, they re-create the scene from 1978’s Superman that touched more than a few hearts, and still does, where Superman (or in this case, Superior) flies over the earth towards the camera, looks in, and winks. For those of us who remember how wonderful that moment was when Christopher Reeve reminded us that it’s all just a movie, but isn’t it fun to imagine if it wasn’t?
That’s ultimately the power of Superior. It isn’t a dark deconstruction like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, (or an excruciatingly horrible, joyless Man of Steel) but instead it’s a smart, loving celebration of why these stories continue to inspire. Whether it will make a good film is another matter, but this is a great excuse, if you haven’t read it, to check out Mark Millar’s wonderful tribute to the superhero.