Friday, March 21, 2014

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Superman 423

Superman #423 (September 1986)(cover by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson)
"Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, part one"
Alan Moore-Curt Swan/George Perez

Doug: Well, that was more than I expected! I bought both of the last issues of the original Superman titles off the newsstand ahead of the release of John Byrne's Man of Steel mini-series that would almost completely reimagine the character. But upon doing the re-read out of my copy of the deluxe edition hardcover Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (from which I'll be providing scans for these two reviews) I am quite sure that I never read these almost 30 years ago as new comics! I say that because when I set my eyeballs to doing their thing I was pretty taken aback at the content of both today's issue as well as the climax in Action Comics #583. This wasn't one of yer daddy's Superman yarns!

Karen: I've never been a Superman fan. Never read the title consistently. I picked up the Byrne issues for a while but they never felt right. Most of my exposure to Superman came through other books, like Justice League, or through cartoons or the TV show or films. I liked the character in his purest sense -the all-powerful, benevolent being who chose to do good -but never found him all that interesting to read about. I grabbed these issues off the stands and read them right in the midst of everything changing at DC, what with the Crisis happening. This two-part story made me care about Superman like I never had before -all when it was too late.

Doug: I'll tell you the first thing that took me aback -- the art! Now Curt Swan is as comfortable on Superman as a cozy-yet-worn sweater. But I'd neglected to look at the creator credits as I began reading, and by the time I got to the third page I was grimacing somewhat at the pictures. Something just wasn't right -- and I knew Murphy Anderson had inked the cover. But this definitely wasn't the "Swanderson" team on the inside! Wow -- it was George Perez! Now I'll stand in any line that exists for heaping the highest praises on Perez -- one of the all-time masters. Yet, this really didn't feel right. To be honest, I never did warm to this combination. At times I could really see Swan; at other times Perez. In the middle was some general mish-mashing, and that was troublesome for me. Honestly, in the second installment Kurt Schaffenberger's inks were much more in tune with the "classic" Superman. My two cents.

Karen: I had the same problems with the Perez-inked Swan art. I thought he over-powered Swan. Although I love Perez, I don't think it was a great decision to have him ink Swan. I would rather have seen a more classic look for this tale. Despite not being a Superman fan, when I think of Supes, Swan is the artist I think of. 

Doug: Agreed. And I don't want to take away from Neal Adams, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, or any of the other fine Bronze Age artists who worked on the Man of Steel. But Swan's the most easily-identified Superman artist for me.

Karen: And can we also talk about the writer? Does Alan Moore instantly come to mind when one thinks of Superman? Certainly not to me. I'm reading this out of the TPB, and the introduction by Paul Kupperberg says that outgoing long-time Superman editor Julius Schwartz had originally tried to get Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel to come back to write the book. But there were legal problems with that (no surprise). Alan Moore was having breakfast with Schwarz and reportedly grabbed him by the neck and demanded to write the story! Schwarz apparently thought it was a good idea (or was terrified of Moore) and agreed. Of course, Moore was a rising star at the time, so it makes sense from that aspect. But he was also someone who was involved (more than a little!) in breaking down the old vision of super-heroes and constructing the new, darker age -the exact opposite of what the original Superman was. It's an odd selection to my mind. Why not get a writer with a long association with the character, someone who believes in and respects the concepts the character was built upon? But you know what? It works. It works beautifully.

Doug: Didn't Moore jokingly (I hope) say to Julie that if he considered anyone else to write the story, he'd (Moore) kill him!? Julie Schwartz was a very nice man; I can't speak for Alan Moore. But I agree -- Moore did seem to be an odd choice. But, maybe in the midst of all of the rebooting hullabaloo, the marketing department wanted some guaranteed home runs. I guess this would qualify, although the creative combination does strike me as strange.

Doug: So we open at the home of Lois Lane... er, Lois Elliot. Our story is set 10 years after the alleged death of Superman, and the Daily Planet is writing a commemorative story about the woman who knew him best. Lois invites Tim Crane, the reporter assigned to the story, inside. Crane sets up his recording equipment while Lois gets them some coffee. I had to laugh, as this story takes place in 1997 -- to see the art team attempt to come up with some not-so-crazy futuristic features of the Elliot home is humorous. But it doesn't take long to establish the theme for Alan Moore's last Superman story: death.

Karen: The design aspects of the art is the one place you can really see Swan come through. The bizarre domed coffee machine just screams of a 1960s view of 'the future.' Same for the outfits of Lois and the reporter. 

Doug: Lois begins to answer Crane's question about the last years of Superman's life by telling of the deaths or deactivations of Superman's rogues gallery -- gone were Brainiac, the Parasite, Terra-Man... and Luthor hadn't been heard from in quite some time. Things seemed to be looking up in a way, until Superman returned from a space mission to find Bizarro in a frenzy of destruction. In his twisted, imperfect mind, he was destroying the Earth. He had begun by destroying his own homeworld before wreaking havoc on Earth. Superman attempted to reason with his imperfect duplicate, but to no avail. Bizarro exposed himself to blue Kryptonite, which proved fatal. Lois remarked that his rage had gone from genocidal to homicidal to suicidal. Another thorn in Superman's side, gone.

Karen: Bizarro had always been -at least to me -a joke. I recall my uncle had a big 80-page Giant that was all about the Bizzaro world and I must have read that comic several times over, and it was just the craziest, goofiest stuff. Yes, Bizarro was powerful. But he wasn't evil, just wacky. But here, he's a disturbing imperfect copy of Superman -a reminder of all the horrible things the Man of Steel could do if he wasn't the good, decent person we've always known. In his efforts to be the most 'imperfect' version of Superman that he can be, Bizarro has wiped out his world -that charmingly funky square planet populated with all those other weirdos. One of the most silly, innocent parts of the Superman mythos has plunged into a very dark place.

Doug: Crane next asked about the "unmasking" of Clark Kent, and Lois began to speak of it. While on the WGBS news set with Lana Lang, Clark received two packages. The smaller of the two was brought into the studio and opened. Inside were several Superman action figures -- but that seemed alive! They possessed heat vision and immediately set about destroying the set. Several fired at once on Kent, burning his clothes right off his body, revealing the blue and red costume of Superman underneath! Lana gasped, and then remarked that all these years, Clark Kent was Superman! The toys then say what all of us have been thinking -- how could everyone be fooled by a comb over and a pair of glasses? Superman deduces that this is the work of the Toyman and the Prankster, and asks how they got through his secret identity. They tell him to open the other, larger package. Using his body to shield his friends and co-workers, Superman moves toward the box. When he touches the lid, it springs open to reveal a very dead Pete Ross. Ross had been brainwashed (could we potentially read "tortured" into this?) and had given up Clark's ID. Now Ross was dead. Superman picked up the frequency the villains were using to broadcast, and flew at super speed to their headquarters. After a dust-up, they were sent to jail. Can we assume that Superman fought off any urges toward an eye-for-an-eye avenging of his childhood pal?

Karen: "Prankster... Toyman... Do you know what radio waves look like?" When Superman says this, the art team manages to convey the deeply serious tone that's needed here. And the implications -he can see radio waves! - once again lead us back to the era of the god-like Superman, who can do almost anything. His restraint with the two villains who slew his friend is remarkable, but again, this is what we've come to expect from our mysterious benefactor, isn't it? He always does what's right, he never acts out of anger or self-obsession. That's why he belongs to an age that is passing (back in 1986). He's not the Superman who would turn towards a foe, eyes blazing red, and say, "Burn!"

Doug:  What did you think of Moore poking fun at the secret ID trope? On the one hand, I suppose the comment about the glasses and combed hair was a tribute to the trope, but on the other I found it to be Moore speaking sarcastically.

Karen: Agreed. I also thought it was turning a page again on that era -an innocent time when no one was ever really in danger.

Doug: At Pete Ross's funeral, Superman detailed how he'd always feared this could happen. Perry White told him not to fret -- most of his enemies were now dead! But Superman couldn't shake the fact that he had no answer to the question, "what had turned a bunch of bozos into killers?" Lois told Crane that what Superman didn't say but that everyone was thinking was: what if Luthor and Brainiac did somehow come back? Now? Sceneshift to the Arctic, where we catch up with Luthor on a hunt for Brainiac; or at least, what was left of Brainiac. Using some sort of detector, Luthor located his former partner's head. Luthor gloats that he'll at last be able to open up Brainiac's skull and see about the alien technology. Not so fast! Suddenly small pieces of metal fly from Brainiac's skull and begin to adhere to Luthor's head! Before he knows it, Luthor no longer controls his mind or body -- Brainiac is using him as a host! Pledging revenge on Superman, Brainiac controls Luthor's body to begin walking. But to where?

Karen: The one thing I thought odd about this sequence is that they say once his identity was revealed, Superman dropped his Clark Kent side. So here we see Moore subscribing to the notion that Kent is a fiction and Superman is the real identity. I have difficulty with that. He was raised on Earth, by the Kents. I think there's a lot more of Clark in him than Kal-El. The question Superman asks at the funeral is a good one: what is compelling his old foes to act in such violent ways? One is tempted to say that it's simply they feel the new, 'grim and dark' age coming on. But we'll see. The scene with Luthor and Brainiac was almost comical -Luthor always sees himself as in charge. Not this time, pal!

Doug: You raise a question about heroes with dual identities that really stretches across the genre -- is Ben Grimm the Thing first, or Ben Grimm? Is Batman Bruce Wayne, or the Dark Knight? Which is the dominant personality? It's worth considering for most characters.

Doug: Back at Lois Elliot's house, she tells Crane a story of another tragedy that took place just days after the Ross funeral. On a sweltering day thousands of people had gathered outside the Daily Planet building. Suddenly, several of them ripped open their shirts to reveal the insignia of Metallo! The doppelgangers begin to scale the outside of the building, pledging to kill the friends of Clark Kent (see -- there's a whole lot of killing going on or being discussed here!). Jimmy Olsen uses his signal watch to call Superman, and the Man of Steel arrives in time to save a falling Lois. But Supes doesn't head back into the offices to engage this Metallo army. Instead, he flies Lois to the roof and begins to generate static on the column of the giant Daily Planet sculpture. Polarizing the sculpure, Superman uproots it and uses it as a giant magnet to attract the super-baddies; they were successfully rehumanized later.

Karen: There are a couple of things I really enjoyed in this scene, which was almost a throwaway scene, considering the no-name quality of these villains. One, Moore has Lois describe Superman streaking past her as "a violet comet," because he was flying so fast, the reds and blues of his suit blurred together. That's something so minor, yet a detail a person would notice. Two, the way Superman solves the problem, by magnetizing the Daily Planet globe, and as Lois puts it, magnetizing it just enough to attract the attackers but not the cars in the street below, once again demonstrates his intellect and god-like nature. He doesn't have magnetic powers? So what, he'll basically give himself magnetic powers by rubbing the iron rod so fast he makes a magnet. The guy is just incredible. 

Doug: As the Legion will be along shortly in this tale, it's interesting that you mention Superman's problem-solving abilities. I don't recall in any of the Legion of Super-Heroes stories I read as a kid that Brainiac-5 ever deferred to Superboy (I could be wrong). Here, Superman needs no higher-up to fix things -- he has solutions already in mind.

Doug: Superman decided that he needed to take action, with the attacks against him coming closer together and more threatening. He told all of his closest friends and co-workers that he would take them to the Fortress of Solitude, where he could better defend them if it came to that. Perry White's wife, Alice, was included even though she and Perry were on the "outs". Once at the Fortress, everyone began to settle in when Krypto arrived. Lois thought this was strange, as the pooch had been gone for several years. Back in Metropolis, Brainiac had managed to reconstruct his ship and had used it to spirit the Kryptonite Man to the city in search of the Man of Steel. But Superman was far away, getting his guests settled. As he talked to Krypto a bright light suddenly appeared in the room. It was a time bubble from the 30th century bearing Supergirl, Brainiac-5, Invisible Kid, and the three founding members of the Legion of Super-Heroes -- Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy. I thought it was interesting that they were wearing their Silver Age uniforms rather than the Cockrum/Grell re-designs.

Karen: The Fortress of Solitude and Krypto are more parts of a by-gone time. While the Fortress seemed to magnify Superman's godlike nature, I always felt Krypto bought him down to Earth. Is there anything that humanizes us more than sitting, talking to our dogs? I also noted that the Legion were in older outfits -I assume this meant they were coming from an early point in their history. Or perhaps the simpler explanation is that this is simply how they looked when Curt Swan was drawing the Legion.

Doug: Brainy says to Superman that they felt like dropping in because they thought he could use a friend. Superman thinks that's a little odd, and then has a moment alone with Brainy. Supes sort of lets him have it for bringing Supergirl, as Kara Zor-el had died in the recent Crisis. Poor Kara -- this one asks her cousin if she has grown up to be a pretty Superwoman in 1986; Superman assures her that she's beautiful. I'm telling you, by this point in the story I was about overwhelmed with the morbidity of it all. This was really a pretty tough read! I was no huge Superman fan back in the day; in fact, I've said often how much I loved Superboy yet stayed away from Superman comics. But most of us know the mythos, so to see this gradual culling of the layers of Superman's life was becoming difficult. Brainy turns Superman's chastisement right back on him, asking if Superman knew of something bad that would happen in the future if he would inform the Legionnaires. Superman said "no", so accepted Brainiac-5's gift of a small sculpture of Superboy holding a Phantom Zone projector.

Karen: The scenes with the Legion and Supergirl are just heart-wrenching. Like you, I was not a Superman fan per se but I was a Superboy and the Legion fan, and of course, we'd just had Supergirl tragically die in Crisis on Infinite Earths, so seeing the Legion muddle through what is obviously their final good-bye is hard to take. And they may be young but really? They brought Kara? Poor Clark! No wonder he snaps at Brainy. Brainy's apology isn't too good either. Does he really need to mention "some unavoidable doom awaiting" the Man of Tomorrow?

Doug: As the Legion was preparing to depart, Supergirl asked Superman why she could have materialized in an era in which she existed. Superman tried to brush off the question, saying that the Supergirl of 1986 had gone into the past. Supergirl accepted that, and as Brainy encouraged the team to board the bubble Superman was left with the sense that they'd come to see him for the last time. Lois narrated to Crane that when she woke the next morning, before the siege began, she knew something was wrong -- Superman looked funny. He looked as if he'd been crying.

Karen: That line, and that final shot of Superman alone with Krypto, his head in his hand, well, it was like all  the air had been knocked out of me when I saw it.

Doug: Despite my reservations about the level of violence in this story, I have to say that it was told with integrity to the history. I thought the Legion scene was especially emotional, and I'm sure if I hadn't been a dope and had actually read these two issues when I bought them I'd have been even more moved by Kara's questions. Curt Swan's art was also comfortable as I said at the top, but man -- were there times when it seemed like it was all-Perez and/or all-Swan. I guess you can't lose with that, but it was overall weird. So having read the conclusion, I can tell you that I'm already looking forward to writing that up and my partner's color commentary! We'll be back with that in two weeks!


Edo Bosnar said...

Love this story. I thought it was a really fitting send-off for the pre-Crisis Superman, as it was the perfect combination of sad, tragic and, at places, whimsical.
I also didn't mind the art at all, and I kind of liked the way Perez often "overpowered" the overall appearance. That's maybe because I've simply never been a really big fan of Curt Swan's art - I've probably mentioned it before, but it's one of the reasons I was never a regular reader of either of the main Supes title (Action and Superman).
Also, like both of you, I liked the little "retro-future" details of the world of 10 years from now in which the story was being narrated. However, I think it was intentional: either Swan and/or Perez came up with it on their own, or Moore suggested it, to sort of evoke the often corny visions of the future that appeared in Silver Age comics.

A point where I'd disagree with you is the nature of the Clark Kent identity. Not being the biggest Superman reader, I can't say this definitively, but my impression has always been that the pre-Crisis Superman basically used his "civilian" persona as a front, while Superman/Kal was supposed to be the real deal. Not that that made any sense, since, as Karen points out, he came to Earth as a baby and was raised by the Kents...

Anyway, great review. Looking forward to the conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Karen and Doug - thanks for a great review. As I have probably mentioned before, my "window" of interest in comics was really only for a short time in the 70s. And like the two of you I was not all that into Superman. So, just coming to the BAB and discovering the existence of such a story has already made my day. Your always insightful comments just make it that much sweeter.

As to the whole secret identity thing - has that been the main topic of any post(s) here before? You could probably do a whole series on secret IDs/who came first? and the psychological implications of same.


Doug said...

Thanks for the compliments, guys!

Tom, a long time ago we ran an Open Forum on secret IDs; it didn't get much traffic, so perhaps it's time to revisit the subject.

We also ran a query (even longer ago) about whether the man or the mask was more important, what with several characters being updated (Kyle Rayner Green Lantern, for example). That one got even less traffic! Feel free to check out either post.


mr. oyola said...

One of my favorites, if not my very favorite Superman story - I know that doesn't quite make sense since this story could not exist w/o a lot of other Superman stuff, but like a lot of people, the majority of my exposure to Superman is from cartoons and films, not the comics (though I had a few of those, too - but don't own any anymore - save for one Superboy/Legion issue where Tyroc is introduced and a recent Action Comics with "Obama" as Superman - oh and All-Star Superman, which I think takes its lead from this story).

The stripping away of the Superman mythos is done in a way that only Alan Moore can. The pathos is palpable (even reading the recap now, I felt a lump in my throat) - and I'd like to think this "last" Superman story is a kind of passing the torch to a new generation of readers who are going to get a new version with Man of Steel to grow up with, but that never quite happened like it should have. It was the beginning (or continuance) of the fragmentation and aging of the comics audience that would bring us to where we are now.

Funny, I am not a fan of Superman because he seems so corny (though I love a dedicated low-powered "Golden Age" Superman book with him as social justice hero), but at the same time I see him as an important touchstone to the genre and feel like he should continue to exist in that corny world for those who like that and those who want to dip into it from time to time. I think the goofy Silver Age Superman with the one-shots is probably the best Superman.

As for identity, like so many things in comics, I think it depends on who is writing him and when. I see the whole Clark Kent/Kal El thing as an example of the adopted and/or immigrant kid - who is given a "normal" name as a child, but grows up to research their cultural background and family history and takes back their old name or makes a new name that fits their cultural heritage. That kind of thing happens all the time. I had a friend who changed his name at 18 to fit his African heritage when he learned more about his past.

Oh, one last thing - this story was probably influenced by the really terrible book Superfolks - the conclusions are VERY similar. You can read my review of Superfolks, here.

MattComix said...

I've always loved and enjoyed the character of Superman but I just do not care for this story at all and I don't understand why it's so highly praised. It just feels like Moore doing his usual deconstructionist dance as characters and ideas die left and right and then Superman ends up powerless with a bad mustache. Not a great send off for the first 50 years of the greatest superhero of all time if you ask me.

I will say thought that I did like the art. I thought Perez really brought Swans work to life.

On the subject of secret identities I love em! One very basic reason is transformation. I like having the contrast of the heroes ordinary guise and their extraordinary one whichever the "real" one may be.

Pat Henry said...

Reading this again I am struck by the rich and deep (and, yes, goofy with arbitrary contrivances reinforced through repetition) Superman Mythos, and how terribly Byrne’s revisioning threw the baby out with the grungy bath water. Toward the end of the Bronze Age, a writer could easily build an entire series out of Kandor or some other backwater corridor of the Mythos. Quite amazing, really. Truly, modern Superman is impoverished without all the nutty Schwartz detritus.

Much as I appreciate Moore in his own work, I think Elliot S. Maggin would have written a much more loving and less bloody final tribute to the Man of Steel.

Regarding the Clark/Kal-El debate, even back in the days of the old Superman TV show, we were made aware that the “Clark” mask was just a loving con by the man called Superman, so that he could live among us and call us friends. Reeves would often break the Fourth Wall and give us a wink, his secret identity safe with us and secured from the dolts around him.

Doug said...

Matt --

Maybe the line for those who might love or hate this story is whether or not they were invested in the Silver Age Superman. As I was not, I think that's why I can like this story. When I think of what Bendis did in Disassembled!, I want to a) punch him and b) cry. That was utter destruction. I think DC needed the Superman mythos to come to a conclusion, nice-and-neat notwithstanding.

So I see many elements of this tale as a tribute to components of the Superman backstory that I was aware of, but not tied to. It's not the best Superman story I've ever read (I'll save that for Busiek's Superman: Secret Identity), but this one is pretty darned close.


Pat Henry said...

P.S., much as I enjoy this story, I've always considered the Superman Red / Superman Blue "imaginary" story" the best tying up and sending off tribute to Superman. Everyone lives, everyone ends happy, Supes gets BOTH the girls... and the whole thing is completely nutty in a way only Superman could be.

Doug said...

Pat, Moore's handling of Lana in part two of this is so sadly bittersweet. Personally, given the history of Clark and Lana as teens I wasn't sure why Lois had to come out on top at the end of the story. Well, from a marketing standpoint I'm no dummy, but you know what I mean. Lana is a true heroine in the next installment.


MattComix said...

I was actually more invested in Bronze Age Superman than Silver and I liked a lot of what came after in PostCrisis. there's nothing about tieing off the old continuity that requires some of the stuff in this story. I have to agree with the idea that Maggin would have provided a warmer send off. He really should've been the one for the job regardless of whatever threats were coming out Moore's beard.

Teresa said...

The Legion that time traveled to the fortress is a Legion Year One, basically.
When Brainiac 5 says to Superman "In your past as Superboy, you have seen some of our future. Would you tell us if you knew some unavoidable doom awaiting us?"
The next panel shows Invisible Kid with Saturn Girl. Superboy saw him killed in action. Lightning Lad was killed, later resurrected.

In the 70s Superman was all about being Kal-El and Clark Kent was a tether to the Humans.
In this era, DC comics is about super heroes who happen to be people.
As opposed to Marvel, which is people who happen to be super heroes.
That's the Ben Grimm / Superman comparison.

Ray Tomczak said...

I happen to think that the art in this story is perhaps the best that Superman has ever looked. Perez is rightfully famous as a penciler, but I'd like to see him do more inking. He really brings out the best in the pencilers he works with. Check out the Topps Comics adaptation of the movie Jurassic Park where Perez inks Gil Kane to see what I mean. The art is just beautiful.
The story of how Moore came to write this tale is, as far as I know, true. After all, I first heard it from Julius Schwartz himself at the SF convention Marcon back in 1994. Schartz said that "...not wanting to be an accessory to my own murder..." he agreed to let Moore write the story.
During the Bronze Age, the balance did tip toward Clark being the disguise and Superman the real identity. I think that may have begun with Jack Kirby in Jimmy Olson and Superman's guest appearance in Forever People #1. Anyway, that was something that Byrne consciously set out to reverse when he revamped the franchise.
By the way, the "nutty detritus", as Pat Henry calls it, is mostly a product of the Mort Weisinger era. Schwartz, in fact, deliberately downplayed most of that stuff, at least initially, when he became Superman editor. In his very first issue, after all, he, and writer Denny O'Neil, got rid of all the Kryptonite on Earth.
I really like this story a lot, but I was kind of disappointed in the second half. However, I'll save the reasons why for the follow-up post.

spencer said...

Great choice for a review! Growing up in the late sixties, I was never, ever, a superman fan. I bought everything Alan Moore wrote however, so this was a no-brainer for me. Unlike many, I like the de-construction aspect that Moore made a living on. I thought this was a powerful story, and a great way to "reboot" the character, if you ever really can do that to a character of this magnitude. Somebody above said that they thought it was a lame way to go out, but, to me, I loved the ending. After so many years of having everyone depend on you, wouldn't it be nice to just live for yourself?

Your Obedient Serpent said...

There's a nice touch in the exchange between Superman and Brainiac 5 that I think only us old-timers would catch:

In the panel where Brainy points out that Superman knows things about THIER future from his time with them as Superboy, the two of them are in the background. In the foreground are Saturn Girl and the first Invisible Kid.

He's the FIRST Invisible Kid because, over in the Legion titles, he'd been dead for several years.

And Saturn Girl had one of her twin sons abducted.

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