Today, Drew and Mark are discussing Action Comics 958, originally released June 22nd, 2016.
Drew: What kind of themes do you expect of a Superman story? Morality? Alienation? Hope? Love? Over his 75+ year history, Superman has come to represent many ideas beyond that handful of suggestions, but those might serve as a reasonable starting point for the character, describing at least the ballpark he tends to play in. With Action Comics 958 — an issue by its very numbering necessarily recalls a good chunk of Superman stories — Dan Jurgens and Patrick Zircher make a compelling case for voyeurism as a key element of the Superman mythos.
To some degree, voyeurism is baked into any visual medium. From Velasquez to Alfred Hitchcock, artists love to mediate our own view of a scene through the voyeuristic eye of a character within that scene. In some cases, that layering of perspectives may serve simply to bring us closer to that voyeuristic character, but in others, giving us such an explicit audience surrogate forces us to consider the act of viewing the work in question — is doing so creepy? Passive? Heroic?
Superman is not a character that immediately springs to mind when I think about voyeurism, but that’s of course because he’s rarely the voyeur. Instead, the watching is usually done by bystanders and non-powered friends, who watch in awe as he leaps tall buildings and outruns bullets — somebody has to wonder if that’s a bird or a plane up in the sky, after all. That’s the voyeurism that Jurgens and Zircher tap into in this issue, as virtually every character — including Superman himself — watches the fight with Doomsday unfold.
The issue opens with Superman explaining his reluctant decision to go public, already aware of how much the role of Superman is about being watched. That theme really clicks into place after the page turn, though, as Jimmy Olsen describes the very image we’re looking at (as he’s taking a photo of it).
Clark and Jimmy are both observers, remarking on the excitement of the images in front of them.
Of course, Jimmy’s isn’t the only camera on the scene, and many of the transitions in this issue are via television screens. The scene is also being watched by Lois and Jon from their living room, and both scenes are being watched by Mr. Oz (via a probably-not-coincidentally Ozymandias-like TV screen array). The result is an almost dizzying spiral of voyeurism: Mr. Oz watching Jon and Lois watching Clark and Jimmy watching Superman and Doomsday. And we’re one level deeper, watching Mr. Oz watch all of those watchers.
The result is a story where virtually every character is a voyeur, so virtually every character can be related to as an audience member of at least part of this issue. Even Superman has a moment where he can remark upon the events of the fight, wondering if he might have been wrong about this Earth’s Lex Luthor, who has leapt to his defense.
Beyond that relatability, though, is a comment on the nature of voyeurism. Mr. Oz falls on one end of the spectrum, as his delight in watching all of this unfold feels downright evil. From there, we have passive helplessness from Lois, slightly more active helplessness from Jimmy, and straight-up active engagement from Superman. What interests me are the different reactions of Jon and Clark, which end up being quite revealing. Jon leaps to action (in spite of his mother’s decidedly ineffectual protests), while Clark shrinks from the battle, meekly explaining that, somehow, he isn’t Superman.
(That mystery may still be a driving force for this series, but for me, the knowledge that Clark wouldn’t help is enough to confirm for me that he really isn’t Superman. Superman would step in. Superman’s son would step in. Heck, even Lex Luthor steps in in this case. Clark doesn’t, which suggests that he simply can’t — he’s of no more use in a fight against Doomsday than Jimmy or Lois are.)
For me, those different voyeurs lay out a kind of moral landscape for voyeurism. Voyeurs can revel in or be horrified by the events they see, but heroes don’t simply watch; they join the fray themselves. Mr. Oz and Lois aren’t quite the same — Mr. Oz clearly had some hand in this (perhaps making him closer to a creator or editor than an audience member) — but their actions in this issue have about the same impact on the fight, which is to say, none at all. It’s not enough, it seems, to sit on the sidelines and wring our hands — we need to actually do something to do good in this world.
That’s a theme that works at any point in history, but feels particularly resonant in the politically volatile climate we find ourselves in today. It’s easy to find passive commentators, but harder to find anyone actually doing anything about the problems in the world. Or maybe I’m just mad at the Senate right now. Mark, were you picking up on any of these themes? Also, I never really commented on the art beyond the nature of some of the panel/page transitions — do you have any thoughts on anything else?
Mark: Superman is a man of action, and Action Comics is an interesting choice for a book to reflect on the merits of action versus passive observation. There’s certainly too much of it in the issue to be a mistake, but at the same time I’m not sure what Jurgens is trying to say here. Take Lois Lane for instance.
It’s beginning to feel like giving Lois and Superman a son was a mistake. Or rather, there’s yet to be a good reason to introduce him. Drew, you bring up Lois watching the carnage on TV and wringing her hands, and my concern is that’s the sole role she’s been relegated to. Lois Lane was one of comics’ original kick-ass women of action, and a sort of hero in her own right. Yes, her hardnose attitude could get her into perilous situations, but she was never one to just sit on the sidelines. But ever since Jon was born, she’s played one of two roles: fretting wife and mother or damsel in distress. I’d like to see her returned to a more well-rounded characterization. The birth of Jon means an author is always going to have to have an answer for “but who’s taking care of their kid?” I’m just disappointed that answer has made Lois such a passive observer.
And what do we think the odds are that Mr. Oz turns out to straight up be Ozymandias from Watchmen?
This is outside the scope of this particular Action Comics issue, but I hope you’ll indulge me because it’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since Rebirth casually introduced Watchmen into the main DC continuity. Alan Moore has essentially become a crazed hermit you’d warn your children away from, but he’ll forever be right about one thing; DC really fucked him when it comes to the rights to Watchmen. When Before Watchmen was announced, the general feeling from comic book readers seemed to be “this is an awful idea, but if it’s done well then all right.” But there was also a lot of discussion about DC completely violating the spirit of their agreement with Moore. Yes, the letter of the contract allowed them to do it, but that’s because they pulled one over on Moore to begin with. Worries about maintaining the integrity of Watchmen aside, it felt like a slimy move on DC’s part.
Before Watchmen was, of course, almost entirely worthless, and is now basically forgotten.
Now DC has gone a step further and integrated Watchmen into the DC universe proper with hardly a peep from observers. It’s a bold step narratively, but it’s also a complete “fuck you” to Alan Moore. Look, I know Moore has gone off the deep end, and it’s easy to blame him for signing the original contract or whatever, but I still think the way he’s been treated by DC is pretty gross and it’s one of the things nagging me about Rebirth in general. But maybe everyone’s so tired of Moore’s harrumphing that it’s hard for anyone to want to ally themselves with him too strongly.
I’m hoping Mr. Oz turns out to be completely unrelated, but it feels unlikely to me.
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?