Friday, August 31, 2012

Breaking up with Superman and comics in general - part 1

With this being a holiday weekend, I'm aware that fewer people will be visiting this blog.  As such, I'm taking this opportunity to talk about some stories that had an effect on me as a child and that probably contributed to making me want to be a writer.

This past week marked the end of a practice I adhered to for over 23 years, ever since the early months of 1989.  This week will see the release of the first Superman comic I have not bought since Superman 28.  Not that the issue was the first Superman comic I'd ever purchased (or more accurately, had purchased for me by my parents.)  For that story, you'd have to reach back to 1983's Superman Special #3, which detailed the Last Son of Krypton's issue-long battle with a power stealing android called Amazo.  I would have been three when that issue was new, though I'm not sure if it was a recent release by the time I saw it.

I honestly can't remember my first encounter with the Man of Steel.  As far as my memory is concerned, Superman has always been there.  I know I was familiar with the character well before my first viewing of the original Christopher Reeve film at the age of five.  I remember impatiently sitting through the first hour of the film on TV, asking my parents when he was going to look like my brother's Super Powers action figure.  (Yes, my BROTHER's action figure.  He got Superman, I got Batman... and oddly enough, I'd never purchase a Superman action figure of my own until I was 25.)

So he was a fairly consistent figure in my childhood.  My library had a few treasury collections of Superman reprints, and I'm sure that many of the first stories I read on my own were illustrated by the great Curt Swan or Wayne Boring.  In 1986, an aunt gave me the then-new MAN OF STEEL miniseries, which rebooted the character's continuity following CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS.  It was like coming in on the ground floor, where everything was new and a bit more sophisticated.  Over the next two years, I'd manage to coax my parents into buying me the odd issue here and there, but I'd not yet made the leap to being a regular buyer.

SUPERMAN #28 changed all of that.  It was the culmination of story threads that had been quietly building for about six months.  Deep guilt over having to execute the evil General Zod and his lieutenants led Superman to develop a violent split-personality.  No longer trusting himself among humans, Superman exiled himself to deep space, intent on never returning home.

Unlike most of the stories I'd read up to that point, there was no resolution at the end of the issue.  In fact, the "next issue" boxes indicated that this wasn't going to be wrapped up in the next issue or the issue after that either.  Of course, I had to know what happened next and though I don't recall specifically, I'm sure I must have pestered my parents to buy the subsequent issues as they came out. 

Over the next six months, Superman confronted his personal demons while also facing the alien dictator Mongul.  Over the course of his journey his powers weakened and he was eventually captured and forced to compete in alien gladiator games, almost unrecognizable behind a beard and his gladiator outfit.  He also met an ancient Cleric, who not only had been to Krypton 200 millenia ago, but also still carried a Kryptonian artifact called the Eradicator.  The Cleric helped him accept that "if you have sinned, it was only in the cause of justice" and helped him reach redemption in his own mind.  Our hero rediscovered who he was and - in a restored uniform - set out for home.

Life. Death.  Morality. Redemption. For a nine year-old, this was heady stuff.

I'm a sucker for a good "Hero Returns" story, and that probably has something to do with why I love the final chapter of this arc.  The first page of the issue shows several panels of deep space.  We move through our solar system, finally zeroing in on Earth.  The final shot shows a blur of a figure streaking towards it.  You can almost hear the first notes of the John Williams "Superman March."

We cut to Earth, and in another nine-panel page, see shots of people on the Metropolis streets taking notice of a speck in the sky.  Naturally one suggests it's a bird.  Another says, no, it must be a plane. And as my mental John Williams sends the theme to its creschedo, the final pedestrian realizes, "No!  It's HIM!  He's come back!"

Splash page - Superman standing atop the Daily Planet globe, with the American flag waving in the background.  It's a gorgeous sequence written by Roger Stern and art by George Perez. I'm sure out of context it could have been cheesy, but coming at the climax to a 13-part saga, that moment was totally earned.  In the years that followed, there were stories that surpassed this, but if not for the quality of this one, perhaps I would not have been so dedicated in my collecting.

Not only that, but it was a vast expansion of the Superman mythology and indeed, the seeds planted here would still be bearing fruit as late as four years later during "The Reign of the Supermen" storyline.  To me, the Superman comics of that era were superhero storytelling at its best.  There were three, and eventually four, regular Superman titles.  Each week brought a new chapter and the editors did a good job of maintaining continuity across all four titles while allowing each title's writer to tell their own stories.  At the time, it felt like there was incredibly tight continuity week-to-week, which each issue leading into the next.  In hindsight, I see how certain subplots remained confined to specific books, and realize that only two or perhaps three times a year did the books unite to tell one larger multi-part story that moved from title to title.

It's not like that these days.  The concept of the single issue story is less common, with everything feeling like a chapter in the eventually trade paperback collection.  This isn't always a bad thing, but I appreciate when a title doesn't have to be locked into six or eight months of telling the same story.

 So how did I fall out of love with this habit?  Come back on Monday for the conclusion.

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