Today, Mark and Michael are discussing Superman 14, originally released January 4, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Mark: There was something in the air starting around 2005 that demanded male-driven pop culture be characterized by “grit.” Space marines were to be bald, worlds were to be painted in shades of concrete, and heroes were meant to be broken. It’s perhaps unfair to lay the root of this phenomenon at the feet of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins — but here we are. Whatever you think of the movie itself, there’s no question that Nolan’s take on Batman had the (unintended?) side effect of making the character joyless. Everyone wants to be Batman, but who would want to be that Batman? By the time The Dark Knight Rises was released in 2012, this No Fun Allowed Batman was so ingrained in the public consciousness that when Nolan and his brother Jonathan attempted to inject a bit of levity into the proceedings with a handful of actual jokes, some fans of the series balked. And who can blame them? For many, this was the only Batman they knew, and Batman — an adult man who dresses as a bat to beat up clowns and squat fat men and women squeezed into male-gaze fetish gear — was nothing to joke about.
Whether by decree of shared corporate Time Warner overlords or just an attempt to reinvigorize their lineup by capitalizing on the trends of the time, DC’s 2011 New 52 re-launch became an exercise in Nolanization. And while perhaps never as literally grey as the video games of the time, the race to appeal to the same Mountain Dew Gamer Fuel-fueled demographic had the (again, unintended?) side effect of slowly and fundamentally eroding what was so beloved about many of DC’s characters to begin with. To be fair, before Rebirth DC had already begun course correcting toward a more vibrant, diversified, and generally happy lineup of characters, but in some cases the rot was considered too deep. Let us pour one out for New 52 Superman, a sacrificial lamb killed off as a sign of good faith toward spurned fans.
And while we are now a little over 2 years past what I consider the turning point in DC’s direction (the 2014 launch of Grayson and soft reboot of Batgirl), I still crack open every issue of Superman or The Flash or Green Arrow or whatever and brace myself for a slog through affected grit.
All of this is to say how much I appreciate Superman 14. I’ve praised the pulp qualities of this Superman run in the past, and it continues to hold true. Here is a Superman who punches inter-dimensional death soldiers into the ground while making a crack about Santa Claus. This Golden Age enthusiasm isn’t a throwback, it’s a fundamental understanding on the part of writers Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason about what makes (and has always made) Superman appealing.
The issue is divided into three parts. In the first, Superman and his Red Son Earth counterpart battle against Gatherers, alien creatures sent by someone called Prophecy to travel the Multiverse and round-up all of the Supermen who are on “The Lyst.” It’s not clear why some Supermen are on The Lyst, but not others. The Gatherers were sent to capture Red Son Superman, but have no interest in our Superman (Maybe because this Superman is here because of the events of Convergence, and by all accounts shouldn’t exist).
After defeating the group of Gatherers by way of double-heat vision, the second part of the issue begins with a visit from the Justice League Incarnate, led by the Superman of Earth 23. Aware of the threat to all Supermen, the JLI is scouring the Multiverse in an effort to protect them. Kenan Kong, better known as New Super-Man, is next on the Gatherers’ list. Finally, a short epilogue takes us Elsewhere, where we see the Gatherers have been successful in capturing many Superman from across the Multiverse. Poor Captain Carrot is dragged from his cell and sapped of all his power, becoming just a normal bunny rabbit.
One of the keys to good pulp fiction is never winking at its inherent ridiculousness. Once the barrier of ironic distance is broken, the whole thing becomes broken. Tomasi and Gleason play the situation completely straight, and it’s why the issue works. Captain Carrot is an inherently ridiculous character, but here he is alongside all of the other Supermen and no joke is made at his expense. In this situation, Captain Carrot is just as important to Prophecy as, say, Red Son Superman.
But, again, not embracing ironic distance doesn’t mean having no sense of humor. When the JLI appear out of thin air, all it takes is for Kal-El to mention the Multiverse for Superman to drop his fight stance.
I’ve had Star Wars on the brain recently, but Superman’s “The Multiverse…I’m a little familiar with it,” is such a Han Solo-like understatement.
What’d you think, Michael? I didn’t really dig into the art, Ivan Reis and Joe Prado are credited with layouts and finishes respectively, but it similarly carries a sense of adventure. And even though I’m really high on this issue, maybe my enthusiasm is blinding me to some failings?
Michael: Mark, I don’t think that your excitement for Superman 14 is blinding you to all that much. I think that the artwork is the biggest failing of the issue, as you already pointed out. Ivan Reis’ layouts set up the issue for success but Joe Prado sort of stumbles through in the finishes. There were multiple points in the issue where one of our two starring Supermen seemed a little too oafish in their close-ups. The wider action panels played out a little better however. Whenever the characters started fighting off the gatherers it was as if they entered another plane of existence, filled with Marcelo Maiolo’s bright reds and oranges. I wasn’t clear if this was a byproduct of the energy blasts or heat vision but these colors were prominent throughout the issue. Then again, red skies are always appropriate when you’re dealing with Crisis-level multiversal events.
Superman 14 marks the first time the characters of Multiversity have interacted with the current continuity of DC Comics. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise because Pete Tomasi and Patrick Gleason are big fans of Grant Morrison’s work and characters, but it was still a welcome surprise. I wonder how the metafiction narrative of Morrison’s original Multiversity will fit into the “Multiplicity” arc, if at all. The unseen multiversal villain of Multiplicity is “The Prophecy”, whose beastly henchmen “The Gatherers” are collecting the Supermen of many different worlds for a mysterious purpose. As Mark said, the end of Superman 14 shows Captain Carrot transformed into an average cute bunny rabbit. Is The Prophecy’s goal to depower the Supermen and turn them into mortals? Is it just to take them out of the picture for something greater that he has in store for the multiverse?
The titular Superman’s place in all of this is very interesting, because as the Gatherers are trying to acquire commie Superman they disregard the preservation of our Superman. It’s possible that since Superman is somewhat of a multiversal anomaly he doesn’t fit into The Prophecy’s larger plan. Since Superman is not on “The Lyst” he is to be “processed, consumed. That is what a commodity is for.” Red Son Superman and Captain Carrot are on the Lyst, making them valuable items where Superman is something that is something of a resource that is to be used and discarded. This is where the Multiversity metafiction comes into play.
Since we don’t know the exact goal of The Prophecy and his Gatherers it’s hard to craft the precise metaphor, but it’s clear that Tomasi and Gleason want us to think about how we as fans view our treasured comic book characters. The Prophecy’s collection of Supermen obviously reminds me of Brainiac but also makes me think of Toy Story 2. Woody is “kidnapped” and becomes a collector’s item and once you make a toy a collectors item you don’t get to play with it. Maybe the message is that we place too much reverence in the actions of these fictional characters? Is The Prophecy taking our Supermen away because we’re not playing with them the right way? Perhaps none of this, perhaps all of this.
Speculation aside, I thought that Superman 14 was an enjoyable ride of a comic book. Once again Tomasi and Gleason tap into what makes classic Superman so wholesome and lovable. In addition to the absolute sincerity of that “Santa Claus” line, I loved how Superman asked questions first before throwing a punch. Of course, many superheroes would benefit from a simple conversation instead of laying down fisticuffs, but it is absolutely vital that Superman do this sort of thing. Conversely, I was a little shocked at how Superman encouraged his commie compatriot to unleash the heat vision on the gatherers – do they have a stun setting for those things?
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