Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Superman Annual 1, originally released August 29th, 2012.
Patrick: DC Comics has a Superman problem. Supes is the quintessential American comic book superhero. Batman, Wolverine and the Hulk have all proven to be more bankable than ol’ Kal-El, but there’s no escaping the simple mythology and iconography of Superman. Remember when they killed Superman? Of course you do — everyone knew about it — it was a news item. When your grandmother knows the name ‘Clark Kent,’ it’s clear that the character — for whatever reason — has immeasurable appeal. But when you try to pick up a comic and read about the adventures of the last son of Krypton, you are never rewarded with that same simplicity. In fact, Superman has his feet in both the superhero-nonsense AND the outer-space-nonsense aspects of the DC Universe. At this point, I’m starting to fancy myself a bit of a comic book nerd and I am still off-put by the sheer volume of aliens, heroes, villains and history (both secret and otherwise).
As a testament to how impenitrable the story is in this issue, we begin 3600 years ago, on the Daemonite homeworld. As the society parties itself into decadent oblivion, a lone objector carries his dead wife into the room. This melodramatic malcontent is Artus and he blames his society’s (and his wife’s) downfall on the dilution of his people’s gene-pool. He’s expelled from polite society and that’s where the “secret history” kicks in. Artus gathers up a small army of like-minded aliens and leaves his planet for good. At some point, he discovers one of those marvelous alien powersources called “The Blue Flame,” and uses it to transform himself into Helspont and grant his followers other special powers. Helspont et al. arrive on Earth in the era of the Ancient Egyptians — because of course they did — and discover that there’s a kick-ass meta-gene in mankind just waiting to express itself. So the Daemonites integrate themselves into Earth society so they can lie in wait of this gene-activation. But they become fat, lazy and undisciplined and grow lax in their mission.
Centuries later, we’re in the present. Helspot reappears in orbit around Earth and sends his various blue-flame empowered minions to invite a handful of alien superheroes to join them. They court Martian Manhunter (of Mars), Starfire (of Tamaran) and Hawkman (of Thanagar) – none of whom really seem to understand what Helspont’s goons are offering. Superman doesn’t wait for an invitation, but rather shows up unannounced at Helspont’s space ship. There’s some fighting with a monster dude called “Biomass” and Grifter is there, but mostly Helspont just kicks Superman around for a while before revealing the secret history I detailed above. Before taking his leave, Helspont thanks Superman for watching over his investment (e.g. humanity) and says that he’ll be back when it’s time to harvest them.
Admittedly, I’ve got a Superman-shaped blindspot, so I shouldn’t be surprised when reading the Superman Annual feels like being thrown into the deep end without a swimming lesson (or even a set of floaties). But Superman knowledge be damned, this Annual asks that you have a cursory understanding of B- and C-list characters like Starfire and Grifter. The Animal Man and Batman Annuals from earlier this year told amazingly isolated stories – stories that could stand strong with or without any other context. The Green Lantern and Flash Annuals that just came out are unmistakably integral parts of their series’ continuity, but both stand as supersized issues, focused and on-point. What I get from Superman is sort of a scattershot across the bow of the science fiction end of DC’s expansive universe.
But that’s clearly not all it is. I mentioned in my first sentence that there’s a Superman problem. Well there’s a second Superman problem: how do you create a conflict that can’t be immediately solved by Supes’ myriad special powers? There’s the generic way (introduce a villain that’s somehow more powerful), and then there’s the interesting way (make Superman’s morality a weakness). This issue starts as the former and develops into the latter. Not only does Superman find himself powerless to stop… whatever he thought Helspont was going to do, but the 11th hour revelation that protecting humanity is actually part of the villain’s plan leaves him doubting his role as protectorate of his adopted planet.
Unfortunately, most of that interesting morality struggle is simply being forecast here. There’s an awful lot of wordy exposition here, and while that may establish some interesting choices for Superman to make in the future, it makes for a dense, dull read. Which is a shame because the dueling-space-titans action is sorta fun when they deal it out. Take, for example, Superman backhanded into the moon.
It’s clear, it’s huge, and it even has a nice little laugh-line at the end of it. These moments are precious few however, buried in overstuffed volume that refuses to narrow its focus. In addition to everything else, there’s also a few pages of Clark’s home-life and his new job at the Daily Planet. There’s a fun sequence where he takes the subway to work and revels in the wholly earth-bound nature of the experience. I like that sort of thing, but it too easily gets lost in the shuffle of like 10 billion other things going on in this one.
And any ‘gee-whiz!’ optimism that shines through in those early Clark Kent pages is wiped away by some weird – occasionally off putting – character moments. Superman is impulsive and oddly dismissive of Grifter (even though he recognizes how impressive it is that this normal dude survived and encounter with Helspont). And then there’s this:
“What the hell is your problem?” Kinda bitchy and impotent for the strongest man on Earth right?
I know we get ourselves into a weird echo chamber with our discussions. Drew, you and I pretty strongly championed Scott Lobdell’s writing in Red Hood, and I never understood how he had such a negative reputation with the rest of the community for his work on Teen Titans and Superboy. But I think I see it now. Lobdell employs the kitchen sink method – tossing everything he can think of at the reader and hoping something sticks. This works in Red Hood precisely because his protagonists are world-weary heroes that have been abused by the same mythology that’s confusing the reader. It seemed thematically relevant; in retrospect, maybe it was just a happy accident.
Oh and come on, if this ship is in space, there’s literally no way it appears this big in the sky above Metropolis.
Drew: Patrick is right — there’s a lot going on in this issue — but I hesitate to blame Superman or Lobdell for that particular problem. Patrick is also right in pointing out that this issue is very different from any of the other Annuals we’ve seen. This is not a self-contained one-off, nor is it a payoff to a long-building conflict. Instead, we have a 38-page introduction to Lobdell’s Superman, which I don’t feel fully equipped to judge.
Being relatively new to monthlies, I don’t have a lot of experience with creative changeovers, which are an ever-present reality of superhero comics. Sure, I checked out Justice League Dark once Jeff Lemire took the reins (though I would just about read anything that guy writes), and we all had a good laugh over the absolute mess that was made when Rob Liefeld took over Deathstroke, but the relative stability of the creative teams on the titles I’ve been reading have kept me pretty well insulated from any truly traumatic changes. It makes sense to me, though, that those transitions would often be awkward, as one writer’s voice, ideas, and plans are swapped for another’s. Perhaps more importantly, the new writer is tasked with tying up loose ends that they didn’t create, and doesn’t have the benefit of having planted seeds for new ideas earlier in the series. Some awkward exposition is warranted in those transitions, especially when the villain you’re introducing has so much backstory.
That isn’t to say all of the exposition here is warranted. There are some good parts of Helspont’s backstory, but I’m not sure the initial flashback to Daem really serves any purpose. I’m also unconvinced of the necessity of seeing Helspont’s minions propositioning the myriad Earth-bound aliens.
Don’t get me wrong — showing is always better than telling — but it seems odd to devote space to colorful details like Lord Defile’s (who?) relationship to Thanagarians when the rest of the issue is straining to fit Helspont’s massive soliloquy. Perhaps a simple line about those visits would be enough.
Then again, those breaks from Helspont’s history lesson are not only welcome, but are actually some of the most interesting parts of this issue. You have to hand it to Lobdell for integrating so much of the larger DC mythology, managing to generate editors notes pointing to Superman, Stormwatch, Grifter, and Red Hood and the Outlaws, as well as name-checking Savage Hawkman and Green Lantern. Moreover, including those characters gives the art a chance to shine. There are a ton of artists on this issue, and far from distracting, the changes between artists actually becomes one of the issues biggest assets, as the stylistic changes between the vignettes emphasizes the differences between these characters. I was particularly fond of the panel of the Martian Manhunter losing his shit.
Looking past the sheer volume of exposition is a feat — and requires a bit of faith in Lobdell to make this all worth it — but I actually don’t think the problem with Superman lies in the complexity of his universe. To me, the problem with Superman is that his tone doesn’t really fit in with modern comics. The tendency to go grim ‘n’ gritty directly contradicts the light ‘n’ bright tone that is more strongly associated with the character. Where I expect Batman to be dark and profound, I’m perfectly comfortable having Superman be kind of silly and fun. Lobdell does a brilliant job incorporating that lighter voice in Kal’s thought bubbles, but it’s so unlike anything I’m reading, I’m not sure I really have an adequate context to judge it against. In spite of the race-bating villain, this issue feels almost quaint, fitting in perfectly with my image of a Superman comic. I still don’t know if I like it, but I’m willing to stick around a bit longer to find out.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?