[5 June 2012]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, Children, of all ages…presenting the one, the only… he can leap tall buildings in a single bound, he is as powerful as any locomotive, faster than even a speeding bullet… here’s your… Superman!
If you’ve read, as I have Dear Reader, with earnestness and at times even emotional involvement, Grant Morrison’s and Frank Quitely’s much-hailed masterpiece of Superman iconography, this past decade’s All Star Superman, and if in doing so, you believe as I once believed, Dear Reader, that this has been a return to the zany, crazy, wild scifi of the Superman of a bygone era, then indeed you are correct. But if you believe, even for a moment, that this zany, crazy, wild scifi, as zany and as crazy and as wild as it surely is, is in some way the modern analog of those classic Superman Adventures from that bygone era, then your belief is certainly misplaced, Dear Reader. Because while Morrison’s writing and Quitely’s artwork certainly effect the same content, the emotional experience of you and I, Dear Reader, reading All Star Superman, could not be further from the emotional experience of those original readers reading those original Adventures. And I say this honestly because, simply put, Morrison’s storytelling conforms to modern storytelling techniques. And those original Adventures, are of a more classic storytelling pedigree.
Morrison’s All Star Superman is certainly one of the hidden gems of comics in any age. It does smack of a return to the pre-reboot Superman (the first DC reboot in 1985/85 with Crisis on Infinite Earths, not the more recent reboot of the New 52). But it is also dissimilar to pre-reboot Superman in at least one crucial way. And that is, the storytelling is far more structured, for more honed, far more, in a word, “mature”. Buying a comic today, and reading it cover to cover, is a very different experience from a comic prior to 1971. Back then, comics had far more in common with pulp magazines, and pulp styles of storytelling and narrative. Even after the Juvenile Delinquency Hearings and the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, comics stories and comics storytelling remained garish and outlandish (the industry having had its hand forced into self-regulating against “lurid”).
This was particularly evidenced with Superman, the first, and even at that point, still the primary superhero. Fifties and ‘60s Superman Adventures were episodic, short, and included huge chasms across which its audience leaped, suspending their disbelief. Like some four generations earlier, when readers of Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes as a kind of interlocutor for all rational knowledge in the world, or like today when Hugh Laurie’s House intercedes for audiences to explain the current episode’s medical intricacies, Superman of the ‘50s and ‘60s acted as translator for what was back then unimaginable science. In defeating Brainiac for the umpteenth time, Superman would readily explain in the final captions, that it was “unstable radio molecules” that cause the mudslide. In the Silver Age, science fiction was very much a part of not only the stories, but a part of the storytelling itself.
But things change after 1971. We see the rise of social realism, a deepening of characterization, a growing complexity of narrative imbrication. The change happens suddenly, and almost exclusively in one place, in Superman Adventures when the creative team of writer Denny O’Neill and artist Neal Adams take the helm. In a year-long storyarc (arguably the very first storyarc) Denny and Neal tell the story of “Kryptonite Nevermore!”. This was possibly nothing more than an editorial mechanism to reduce the influence of Kryptonite, the mysterious radioactive element from Superman’s homeworld of Krypton which causes his powers to falter. But what Denny made of this was a genetic launchpad for the future of comics storytelling. Superman deepened as a character, his relationships with those around him became as important as his powers. And the appearance and reappearance of “Sand Superman” time and again throughout this year, signaled an increasing sophistication on storytelling. These weren’t simply formula-driven, episodic adventures any longer. These were far-reaching events, that had a deep and lasting impact on the character and his world.
So as much as All Star Superman looks like the Superman of the past, it never really recaptures that original storytelling mechanism. The mechanism with scifi at its core, the mechanism where the adventures are episodic, and where the character possesses unique knowledge (hidden in the beginning, of course, that’s really the drama of each adventure), and will ultimately act as interlocutor for the reader. This was a Superman larger than ourselves, where Superman himself would intercede between us as readers, and a science we couldn’t possibly know.
And any attempt to recapture that Superman would be incomplete if captures only the content and the themes and the joyful garishness, without attempting to recapture that mode of storytelling. Which is to say, you should really read All Star Superman because it is a beautiful project, and it is worth your time. But if you really want to read the “modernization” of the classic Superman Adventures from the ‘50s and ‘60s, you should really, really read Art Baltazar & Franco’s new offering, Superman Family Adventures.
Because Art and Franco recapture that unique storytelling mode that enthralled some three generations. This is Art & Franco’s successor book to their runaway smash hit Tiny Titans. In a cheapened way of looking, this is a kids’ book. Which is to say, this is Art & Franco maturing their creative output to meet the narrative needs of their maturing audience. Which is to say, I won’t need to explain to kids how to read this book, or why. Which is to say I fear that, if you think of this as a kids-only book, you might miss out on the magic that Art & Franco find in Superman.
This is the generational story of Superman. It is the unsullied, unfettered story of how Superman has come to live as a deep and meaningful idea in the popular imagination for nearly a century now. And it is a vision of this deeply iconic character, crafted by the hands of masters. And this is the purest, most accessible form of that classic, Silver Age storytelling. A return to that deep science fiction of Superman.
If every other vision of Superman, subsequent to “Kryptonite Nevermore!”, is an homage to Hemingway, then what Art & Franco have achieved is Hemingway’s summer home in Cuba. Now a museum, you can walk the grounds and look in by the windows, but the veil of history (and the Cuban Museum Board) prevents you from entering. And it is with a sense of pure delight, that Art & Franco resurrect that same sense of a museum that captures the past as a working, lived-in space, that you may look in on at any time.