Death Warmed Over
In Superman: Where Is Thy Sting? (which could also have been called Death: Nyah Nyah Nyah), the Man of Steel becomes a plaything of the Grim Reaper. It seems that Death has gotten tired of sitting around his pad waiting for the page that never comes concerning the Kryptonian’s final demise “It’s a frustrating job,” says Death, who clearly isn’t bike-messenger material. To enjoy some satisfaction in the meantime, Death torments Superman with visions of his life through the End of Time, as everything that the hero knows and loves passes by. Death’s aim? An acknowledgement of its power, even over the effectively immortal Superman.
Where Is Thy Sting? is a new graphic novel by DC Comics that takes a dim view of solitude and a dimmer view of Superman. It is penned by seasoned comic-book scribe J.M. DeMatteis, and it continues a string of DeMatteis offerings stretching as far back as the eye can see in which the answer to every challenge faced by mortal Man (and Woman) is the same: love. Now, as a philosophy of life, this notion has a lot to commend it, but as a comic-book plot, it sort of kills the suspense.
That assessment is not meant to be totally disparaging. DeMatteis is one of the most creative writers in comics, because in the formulation “super + human,” his focus rests squarely on the human. DeMatteis’s tales usually feature spiraling forays into psyches tortured by responsibilities that they didn’t request, and the characters’ clawing climb back to sanity and the healing light of love. (This is why DeMatteis was the obvious writer for DC’s recently relaunched The Spectre, in which ex-Green Lantern and global madman Hal Jordan tries to set things right by himself, his world, and his God.)
If it sounds corny, it often (though not always) is. Still, DeMatteis is a talented enough shaman that we could stomach the same medicine in a different pill. The problem with Where Is Thy Sting? is that there is a bigger pill, and his name is Superman. Superman has all the depth of a matchbox, and DeMatteis gives him enough plumb line to hang himself.
Admittedly, DeMatteis has two strikes against him. If there are two reliably unsatisfying comic-book detours, they are the dream (or nightmare) issue and the far-future issue Where Is Thy Sting? is both. Dream issues flounder because readers cannot determine the appropriate lessons to glean. Is the hero responding to the dream as he really would, or as he dreams that he would? Are uncharacteristic responses a sign of a person who is changed, or just one who is unreal? Comic-book glimpses of the future fail for a simpler reason: They bore. Comic-book futures tend to be drenched in a sterile-ness that is the exact opposite of the richness that typifies the real world. For example, Where Is Thy Sting? posits a 2050 A.D. in which Lex Luthor, having transferred his consciousness into a cybernetic body, engages Supes in hand-to-hand combat while decrying Superman’s perfect life. It’s hard to say whom this picture insults more, Lex Luthor or the reader. (Then again, is this supposed to be the real future, or simply Superman’s dream of it? You see the problem.)
Nevertheless, despite the doubly illusory setting, Where Is Thy Sting? does manage to deliver one real punch, but it is an unintended one. Essentially, DeMatteis uses Superman’s incredible fortitude to set forth a gauntlet that is grimmer than DeMatteis has ever employed before. The revelation lies in Superman’s responses or, rather, his non-responses.
For one thing, Superman doesn’t look to the past that is, the distant past, the universe before Superman or any man. It is odd that a book that speaks so freely of hope and love can find not one word about faith. Apparently, in the mind of Superman, there is no Creator, Kryptonian or otherwise, no divine Editor-In-Chief barking orders in the newsroom of the cosmos. Of course, belief in a Creator isn’t a requirement, but when one is facing the loss of not just one’s partner but also the entire universe, some contemplation of a higher purpose would seem to be called for. But not Supes. As long as, somewhere in the universe, an eight-armed cat is stuck in a fluorescent blue tree, Superman’s life has meaning.
Nor does Superman find solace in the future that is, the future of his ideals. Even as a bearded Superman attends the final sentient beings before the universe’s extinction, he never once considers his descendants, either actual ones via Lois Lane, or figurative ones via the legion of heroes who took up the cause of justice in Superman’s name. The Man of Tomorrow becomes the Man of a Million Yesterdays, and by his own sorry choice.
So, confronting supra-galactic annihilation, where does Superman put his marbles? In LOVE, specifically, the person of Lois Lane. Now, Lois is a nifty gal (and she has never looked floozier than she does here apparently, Metropolis just got underwire). But, the image offered by Where Is Thy Sting? of Superman - having crisscrossed the universe for billions of years of hardship - being driven solely by his memories of Lois in a flannel shirt isn’t inspiring; it’s insane.
In the end, Where Is Thy Sting?, which desires to convey the humanity of Superman, succeeds only in proving what an alien freakball he is. Watch your back, Lois.