Friday, April 4, 2014

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Action Comics 583

Action Comics #583 (September 1986)(cover by Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson)
"Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, part two"
Alan Moore-Curt Swan/Kurt Schaffenberger

Doug: Welcome back to the conclusion of the tale that ended the run of the original Superman. Two weeks ago we reviewed the first installment from Superman #423. Both of us remarked that the art was a bit off -- if you'll recall, that first story in the 2-parter was drawn by Curt Swan with inks by George Perez. While both men are among the greats of the industry (truly of any time throughout the history of the comic book), the combination just seemed odd to us. Today, however, we find Swan on the lead again but this time embellished by veteran Silver Age Superman artist Kurt Schaffenberger. We'll see how we like it. One thing's for sure, and I said this at the top last time: this ain't yer daddy's Superman story!

Karen: Some of our regular readers remarked in the first half of this review on how they felt Moore was perhaps not the best choice to write this final tale of the Silver Age Superman. I think for me, as someone who reveres Superman as the first super-hero but has no special feelings or fondness for the character, it's easier to read through this story, so serious and final, and accept it for what it is.

Doug: Perhaps it's Moore's distance from the character (he'd written Superman only a couple of times prior to this story, I believe) that allows us to stomach this story. Had it been commissioned to Elliott S! Maggin or some other Bronze Age Superman scribe, it most likely would not have turned out this way (for better or for worse). But I feel that those who eschew Moore's superhero work at DC have a point. We've not reviewed The Killing Joke yet, but the outcome of that story for Batgirl has certainly left more than a few Silver and Bronze Age fans with a bad taste in their mouths.

Doug: We open where we began the first part -- at the home of Lois Elliot (nee Lane). As Tim Crane continues the interview, Lois's husband, Jordan, enters. He's a big guy, sort of down-home looking with a speech pattern that matches. Crane remarks to Elliot that he hopes he doesn't mind the interview about Superman. Elliot comes off as a real jerk when he states that Superman wasn't anything special. Lois doesn't flinch, but it seemed really callous. As Elliot leaves the room, Lois picks up the story where she left off -- in the Fortress of Solitude right before the siege began. Superman used his heat vision to melt the giant key, effectively locking him and his friends inside. But outside, the death-dealers began to mass.

Karen: "Jordy" hardly seems like the kind of guy Lois would settle down with, right? I can already tell you, I'm more comfortable with the art in this issue than in the previous one. It doesn't seem like it's fighting itself, you know what I mean?

Doug: First to arrive to the Fortress were the new Brainiac-Luthor combination with the Kryptonite Man in tow. Brainiac walks Luthor's body boldly off the aircraft, when a time bubble suddenly appears. Disembarking are the Legion of Super-Villains: Cosmic King, Saturn Woman, and Lightning Lord. They have come to see the final fate of the Man of Steel at the hands of his greatest enemy. Of course Brainiac calculates that it must be him for all of his wrongdoing through the years. But the Villains tell Brainiac that Superman's friends will come to his aid; Brainiac heads into his ship to erect an impenetrable forcefield around the Fortress of Solitude. Even just a few pages into this, the ill feeling of death and destruction that had come over me while reading part one was again weighing on me. Alan Moore was crafting a story unlike we'd seen in DC Comics to this point (one could argue that Gerry Conway had done a story of similar magnitude in Amazing Spider-Man #s 121-122).

Karen: You wouldn't think the situation could feel so dire with such classic Silver Age art and characters like the Legion of Super-Villains hanging around. Yet I share your assessment. There's a definite feeling that all of this is very wrong, which of course is what they were going for.

Doug: I think the fact that the LoSV showed up to watch is its own kind of morbidity. So in a throwback to the days when the Great Refuge was encased in a field that kept Johnny from Crystal, we see the Fortress under a huge yellow dome. Using conventional weapons Brainiac had brought on his ship, the villains began to assault the Fortress. Superman fought back from afar with his heat vision and even ventured outside with Krypto to attempt a full engagement. The Kryptonite Man nixed that strategy. Outside the dome the Justice League assembled, but couldn't punch their way through. As evening turned to night, a stalemate was declared. Superman stopped by Perry White's room and sought his counsel. Perry remarked that he'd just been sitting around, thinking about the doom that was coming, and of divorcing his wife Alice. Superman said that he felt that he was going to die soon, and lamented that he'd strung both Lois and Lana along all these years with no intention of fulfilling either relationship. He commented that he'd been a coward.

Karen: Not to break the mood, but why were Batman and Robin just hitting the force field with what looked like sticks? Good grief! I think someone needed to put a little more thought into that one. But onto the meat of this segment: Superman's talk/confession to Perry. It's disturbing to have Superman state that he believes he's going to die. He just keeps clutching that statuette that the Legion gave him and staring at it. It's as if he's staring at his own tombstone, or monument, perhaps. The fact that he recognizes that he's wronged both Lois and Lana all these years throws a different light on the Superman of the Silver Age who seemed to fall for every woman with the initials "L.L." -Lana, Lois, Lori Lemaris, Lyla Lerrol, Luma Lynai! It always seemed so callous of him to let these women pine over him. Perhaps there was more to it?

Doug: It's funny that you mention that scene with Batman and Robin. I got a real Super Friends vibe from that -- very childlike in nature. In regard to Superman and his women, and his ignoring of their love for him, it's a whole new level of Superdickery.

Doug: In another part of the Fortress, Jimmy and Lana ran into each other while exploring. Both were looking for a way to help Superman, and both knew that Superman kept elements of their super-heroic pasts in the Fortress. Jimmy found the Elastic Lad serum, but I was a bit confused (showing my Superman-lore ignorance here) at Lana taking a dip in some sort of super-power enhancing bath. I had expected her to don the Insect Queen garb, but instead she came out dressed in a costume I did not know. Anyway, as part of Lana's powerset, she had all of the powers of Superman, including super-hearing. She was able to hear Supe's confession to Perry, that as a child he had loved Lana, but as an adult he loved Lois with all his heart. He said he'd never tell Lois he loved her, as that would hurt Lana -- and he'd never hurt Lana. So with that forbidden knowledge now her own, Lana led Jimmy outside to attempt to break through the barrier.

Karen: Moore did his homework obviously! I too only knew of Lana's Insect Queen identity, from reading so many Legion comics. Superman's statement about the two loves of his life really made sense, although it does seem cowardly when you come right down to it. He should have let Lana move on. It does however, help to explain what seemed to be a very cruel pattern of behavior by the Man of Steel for many years! Lana's determination to show everyone that "Nobody loved him better than us!" is just crushing.

Doug: Lana and Jimmy take it right to Brainiac and the Legion of Super-Villains. Lana engaged the Kryptonite Man first, but her attention was almost immediately drawn to Brainiac. He boasted of his impending victory, when suddenly Luthor managed to wrest control of his own mind for a brief moment, long enough to tell Lana to kill him. Taken aback, Lana nevertheless struck Luthor on the side of the neck, shattering his spinal column. Luthor's body crumpled to the ground as Jimmy was atop the Brainiac ship, working feverishly to destroy the generator. The Super-Villains had been observing, when Saturn Woman scanned Lana's mind to see who she was and where she'd come from. Quickly deducing that Lana had received her powers from a radioactive bath, Cosmic King used his powers to transmute some of her cells and remove her powers. Lightning Lord stepped forward to "help her up", but instead incinerated her. Lana Lang died a pile of ashes.

Karen: Things really start to get brutal again. Lana quickly and easily dispenses with both Kryptonite Man and Brainiac-Luthor. Luthor's brief plea for death was welcome, but I do sort of wish we'd seen more of Luthor in this story; somehow, it doesn't seem right that he was so marginalized in the "final" Superman story. Lana's incineration is horrific, even though it is not shown in detail.

Doug: You know, in a way I think Moore was giving Luthor the ultimate comeuppance. Let's face it, behind the Batman Luthor was the most arrogant character in the DC Unverse. Of course he would fancy himself "Superman's greatest enemy". Not so fast... And Moore takes him virtually out of the story.

Doug: Jimmy died right after Lana, as Brainiac used all of his resources to raise Luthor's body and fire a blast into Jimmy's back. This scene was pretty disgusting, as Brainiac struggled to keep Luthor's body upright -- Luthor's eyes were rolled back in his head. The Kryptonite Man noticed that the barrier was still intact, in spite of Jimmy's disruption of it. Ignoring that fact, Brainiac ordered a nuclear strike against the Fortress. Blowing a gaping hole in one side, it didn't destroy it. Inside, Perry quickly made amends with his wife. The Kryptonite Man was the first to enter the Fortress, and he did it loudly, ordering Superman to show himself. While he began to search the premises, he was attacked without warning by Krypto. The loyal pet went straight for his enemy's throat, tearing it open. But the close exposure to the radiation and the direct contact with the contaminated blood ended Krypto's life.

Karen: Oh boy. Call me a sap, but seeing Krytpo die really gave me a lump in my throat. Such a loyal companion, a source of much joy and comedy over the years, here becomes a fierce protector. His final death howl had me holding back a tear. And yes, I know Jimmy died too!

Doug: I loved the scene with Krypto. And Moore played that straight, choosing not to include the other Super-Pets. Kara's mention of Streaky in part one seemed enough. In another part of the Fortress, Superman flew with Lois, looking for refuge as well as for the others. They flew through a trophy room, where we saw destroyed images of Lori Lemaris and of Titano the Super-Ape (because everything's better with gorillas -- never forget that). The Legion of Super-Villains have entered the Fortress and gloat over Lana's death. Superman did not know that had happened, and goes berserk. His heat vision burns Lightning Lord's arm, and Saturn Woman warns that the Kryptonian intends to kill. They flee immediately, board their time bubble, and make tracks back to the 30th century. Superman (oddly still carrying the statuette given to him by Brainiac-5) and Lois fly outside to find Luthor. His body has fully quit on Brainiac, and with that their symbiosis is ended. Brainiac disengages from Luthor's skull, and despite his last threats also dies. Pete Ross, Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luthor, the Kryptonite Man, Bizarro, Krypto, Metallo, Supergirl (in the Crisis), and now Brainiac... all dead. Lois remarked to Tim Crane that it was over. Except for the fact that they couldn't figure out why all this had happened in the first place, and why the force shield was still in place.

Karen: How times change. Whereas it is now common place to have Superman turn his heat vision on foes, this Superman would never do such a thing -until now. The shock and fear on Lightning Lord's face gets across the point that things have changed. Yet -Superman does not kill them.

Doug: Superman thought for several minutes, going back over the chain of events. He had an a-ha moment, and called aloud for Mr. Mxyzptlk to appear. And sure enough -- vwoomf! He appeared, floating in the air. He told Superman that he was bored, that as an immortal life needs to be changed up every couple of thousand years. After a do-nothing phase, followed by an altruistic phase, Mxyzptlk figured he'd try his hand at general orneriness. That had ended, and beginning with Superman's death, he was going to try evil for a while. In another of the Silver Age tropes blown apart by Moore's script, Mxyzptlk says as he shows his true form: "Did you honestly believe a fifth-dimensional sorcerer would resemble a funny little man in a derby hat?" Superman fled with Lois -- after all, Mxyzptlk's magic could not be defeated.

Karen: In retrospect, it might seem obvious -make one of Superman's goofiest villains into his most dangerous -but at the time, it was truly a "wow" moment. Given the imp's powers, he certainly could hold that position. I liked the way Mxyzptlk's true form was shown. More of an energy being than anything else. It's the whole 'Wizard of Oz' theme all over again.

Doug: In the crescendo of the story, Mxyzptlk pursued Superman and Lois throughout the Fortress, finally catching them. Superman told Lois to run, figuring that this was his end. But she looked in her hands at the statuette that she still held -- and in the clutches of the figure of Superman, a familiar device. She told him to look at it, and instantly he knew what had to be done. They flew again to another chamber, where Superman picked up the Phantom Zone projector. Pointing it at Mxyzptlk, he told him that it was indeed over. Turning on the projector, Mxyzptlk spoke his own name backwards in an effort to escape back to his fifth dimension; the going-two-places-at-the-same-time effect ripped him in half. Superman's greatest enemy didn't win the day; Superman did. Or did he?

Karen: Those clever 30th century kids! Giving Superman a tribute that was also a clue to how to defeat his greatest enemy! Of course, Lois is the one who figures it out, even though the Man of Steel has been staring at the darn thing for hours. About the Phantom Zone though: so Superman felt it was alright for him to pass judgment on his enemies and imprison them forever in this other dimension, but not to kill them? Some might consider imprisonment even worse than death. 

Doug: The Phantom Zone was sort of DC's version of Marvel's Limbo, wasn't it? I suppose since the Phantom Zone was not under the influence of any sun, the Kryptonians imprisoned would not be immortal. So that they didn't die, can we assume that there was no time in the Phantom Zone? Mon-el never aged... Talk about 20 years-to life!

Doug: Superman killed Mr. Mxyzptlk. But the Man of Tomorrow was crushed, emotionally void. No one, he said, had the right to kill another -- and especially not Superman. He began to walk away from Lois, she pursuing him frantically. He walked to a chamber marked "Gold Kryptonite" and "Keep Out!" Superman turned the handle and entered the chamber, a smile across his lips as he looked back at Lois. She told Tim Crane that she never saw him again, and it was assumed he'd walked out a secret passage in the back of the room only to die of exposure, powerless in the Arctic winds. Around the grounds of the Fortress of Solitude, the JLA picked up the pieces. It had been a blood bath.

Karen: This was Superman as we, children of the Bronze Age, knew him: a god with a conscience, the one person we could trust to always do what's right. Even if it means the end of Superman.

Karen: Just a side comment: who the heck was that guy shown cradling a body (is it Lana? The chest insignia looks like hers) wearing go-go boots, hot pants, and a vest? I think he was shown earlier attacking the force shield. How the heck  does he merit space and not Green Lantern or Aquaman, etc.?

Doug: Search me -- I didn't know that character, either.  I also don't know who the woman is in red and blue with the Superman shield on her cape. Call me dumb, but I'm just not up on the mythos in the era right before the Crisis. So with the interview over, Tim Crane got up to leave the Elliot household. As he packed up, Jordan reemerged with baby Jonathan. He spoke a pleasantry to Crane as the reporter headed down the sidewalk. The door closed, Lois said it was good to be free from the media again -- at least for another decade. Lois and Jordan small-talked, planned for their evening... while baby Jonathan sat on the floor, playing near a bin of coal. And then he set a diamond back into the bin. A diamond...?

Karen: Notice how 'Jordy's' speech pattern changed as soon as the reporter left? That was well done. And Jonathan has a nice spit-curl hanging down on his forehead. Jordan Elliot... Jor El... Jonathan -a name we know from Jonathan Kent. And that little wink by 'Jordy' at the end -it reminded me of the old Superman cartoons in the 60s. I enjoyed this ending, corny as it was.

Doug: So did you feel that Mr. Mxyzptlk was really "Superman's Greatest Foe"? As I finished and was writing the plot synopsis, I couldn't help but wonder if Moore didn't have something else in mind. I guess options for other "greatests" would be Superman himself, maybe even Clark Kent. I also wondered if Superman's moral code could have been considered his greatest adversary. Or was it Lois Lane? As long as she was around and loved Superman, could he ever be complete as a man? Did Superman have to die to fulfill Lois's love for him? In the end, that's where Moore ended up.

Karen: Perhaps Superman's greatest foe was the coming age of grim and gritty comics.How could such a morally upright character survive the times to come? Look at what they've done to him today, in this 'New 52' universe? No, the old Kal-El would be spinning in his Kryptonian tomb. 

Doug: Regardless of what you feel about John Byrne's re-imagining of the Man of Steel mythos, this Moore/Swan two-parter has to be among the best Superman stories of all time. As I've said several times, it's so atypical of a Superman story mood-wise. The body count is high, there's a level of distress unseen prior, and the conclusion is not all that sunny. Yet it's an honest homage to what had gone before over almost 50 years of Superman stories, at times playfully making fun of elements of the backstory, at others breaking our hearts with the relationships between characters that even as casual fans we'd known and maybe even loved. I'm glad to have read this for the first time all these years later, and regretful still that I did not read it when I bought it almost 30 years ago.

Karen: Although there are aspects of the story that seem to playfully poke some fun at the Silver Age past, I too felt that this was a respectful treatment of the classic Superman, a respectful farewell to him and to all of his supporting cast and accouterments. The Superman in this story is pretty much how I still think of him: all-powerful, yet also supremely good. Today most depictions of the Man of Steel seem to forget that second part.


Edo Bosnar said...

Excellent review, Karen & Doug (I mean both parts). And your conclusions about why you like this story pretty much echo my own thoughts on it - so I would say that Moore was indeed an idea choice to serve as its writer.

I definitely agree with Karen about Krypto's death. The whole story had its sad and tragic moments, but nothing puts a lump in my throat as much as seeing Krypto die, and doing so quite nobly, defending Superman's life by sacrificing his own.

By the way, the hip-boots and hots-pants guy is called Vartox. I didn't know that initially, but I got curious after rereading this story a few years back so I looked it up. And it's rather amusing that the character is apparently a sort of tongue-in-cheek tribute to Zardoz.
The woman in the mask and cape is Superwoman, whom I recognized right away: her true identity is Kristen Wells, a character introduced by Elliot Maggin in his novel "Miracle Monday" and who later assumed the identity of Superwoman in a DC Comics Presents Annual (both of which I read back in the day). I thought it was a nice touch to include her. In fact, I think that plus Superman adopting the surname Elliot (instead of say, Ellison, Ellington, Ellman or something) were little hat-tips to Maggin on Moore's part.

J.A. Morris said...

My dog was curled up on the couch next to me when I read this earlier. I petted him so I didn't get upset about poor Krypto.

Doug said...

Thanks, guys!

I had a heckuva time with the art. Every time I turned the page I wanted to use an image. I did end up with 15 scans for this issue, which is about 2-4 more than we usually use. But I feel this story merits it.

In regard to the updated coloring, if I didn't say it before, this is one of the better efforts in this trend. It's not muddy or steeped in browns as we've complained about with some of the Conan or Tales of Asgard reprints we've reviewed. This is really quite nice and enhances the tale. Well done by those folks responsible.


Anonymous said...

Okay, getting down to brass tacks, Superman's biggest threat is Superman? As long as there is a Superman, there will be threats TO Superman. Take away Superman, threats go away.....

Fakes his death, lives the rest of Lois' life with her and now there's a BABY!?! Doesn't that just start the whole cycle again!?!

For this Lana died, Jimmy died, Krypto died? To be right back where we started..... a baby that could grow up to be Superman???

And when the spit hit the fan, where was the Justice League?

The Prowler (keep dreaming Martin, keep dreaming).

Doug said...

Oh, Prowler Prowler Prowler...

As Alan Moore said at the top, this is an imaginary story. Aren't they all?

Smiles for the weekend,


Karen said...

Ah, Vartox! Thanks Edo. I recall reading about him some time ago. I am actually a fan of Zardoz (hard to believe, I know) and I thought it was beyond amusing that Superman had a foe based on him. But I didn't make the connection while reviewing this.

We better get Prowler some sedatives...

Dr. Oyola said...

yep. one of my favorites.

I was discussing this with a friend a few weeks ago and we agreed that the shift in tone is important to make it a _LAST_ Superman story. I think a more straight up sentimental nostalgic "look back" kind of story or wedding kind of issue (those usually overlap) would have felt too much like everything else and lost that sense of ending that Moore was going for and that I think is important.

The irony is, of course, that this was just one end of many, just as there have been many beginnings. The fact that a new Superman series was about to being gave Moore the ability to do what he did here.

The "real" last Superman story will likely be whatever DC happens to print just before civilization collapses or nukes are fired or something.

Oh and the Krypto part gets me every time, too - I really have a soft spot for Krypto.

Pat Henry said...

'Jordy' looks an awful lot like how Stan Lee was being depicted in comics at that time. Purposeful wink?

I recall what Karen said earlier about preferring Superboy to his adult analog, and I agree. Superboy was a fun, adventuresome character without a lot of baggage. His apprehensive “hang ups” about girls, the pranks he played with friends, seemed natural to a boy of that era, but weirdly out of place and silly grafted on to an adult man.

And Lana always seemed more natural, too. You could understand her prickly noseyness and busybody naivete as a young girl in a way that was just clumsy with Lois. Where Lana sometimes comes off as a brat, Lois comes off as a—well—an unpleasant harpy. And Lana’s friendship with young Clark always felt more natural and sincere, too; she was not a professional rival, and at times they almost seemed like girlfriend / boyfriend. She never showed the contempt for Clark (oh, exasperation, yes) that was the hallmark of Lois. Of the two, Lana was the more charming and theirs was the more easygoing and respectful relationship.

Pat Henry said...

BTW, I understand what is going on with the coal scuttle in the final panels, but it does seem a goofy thing to allow an infant to play with, especially given his "golden" origins as a an ordinary infant...

Garett said...

This story seems too morbid for me, despite the wink at the end. The art looks pretty good here, even though I'm not usually a Swan fan. There has to be a halfway point for Superman stories between the silly/lighthearted Silver Age and "everybody dies" by Moore!

Edo Bosnar said...

Ah, Karen: Zardoz. Still not sure what to make of that one. I wouldn't call myself a fan, but I'll concede that it's a rather fascinating movie nonetheless.

Pat Henry said...

> There has to be a halfway point for Superman stories between the silly/lighthearted Silver Age and "everybody dies" by Moore!

I think the animated series and subsequent animated Justice League handled Superman pretty darn fine. As did most of the All-Star stuff. I think most writers didn't "get" Superman, whose greatest fear wasn't that he could be defeated (and therefore had to get angry and struggle) but that he could very seriously destroy.

I know it's their premier property, but I've always felt DC should have aged Superman. I thought the E-2 Superman had a lot of dignity, and it was sort of fascinating to think of a middle aged Superman still invulnerable, still able to lick anything that came his way. He'd suffer the passage of years in a uniquely painful sort of way, I think.

His central cast became more or less cliches over time, and my guess is DC could've probably dispensed with all of it for a new sort of identity. I don't know how invested modern readers are in Jimmy Olsen; in the recent films Clark is mostly a cipher, barely there and never missed.

I've liked the idea that maybe he would become a U.S. senator or something.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Elasti-lad.
We hardly knew ye.
What might have been if only...ah, forget it.

William Preston said...

I only read this sequence a few years ago; I followed it, not long afterward, by reading "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader," which was just a strange mess. This, at least, had a feel for the tone of Superman comics I read in the early '70s (till I dropped him and Bats for all things Marvel). This captured that mix of whimsy and direness that ran through the comic I remembered. I felt, with every issue of Superman and Action, that just about anything might happen, that the narrative rules were quite loose . . . and comic-booky. That wasn't the case for Marvel, which was crafting a different sort of comic world.

Garett said...

All interesting ideas Pat! I'd like to see a comic about Earth 2 Superman as he gets older. Also about having a whole new cast--has this ever been done? That would add something new to the stories.

Doug said...

RE: the Earth-2 heroes --

Come back in two weeks for a tale of the Golden Age Batman (and Catwoman). Our pal Edo has requested it a time or three, and I've got it ready to roll. It was a good read -- a pleasure to do the write-up.


dbutler16 said...

A well written story, but not really to my liking. Sending Bronze Age Superman out with such a dark tale I could do without, but then, I've yet to read something by Alan Moore that I've loved as much as the majority.

Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, re: that Batman/Catwoman story. As the Knights of the Round Table said after they ate Sir Robin's minstrel, "yay!"

Brian Hague said...

Vartox was a recurring character throughout the Bronze Age. He had an ongoing romantic relationship with Lana, which is why his heartbreak over her death in that panel is so powerful for those of us who read the stories.

As a character, he never really had much connection to film "Zardoz." During the early 70's when he was introduced, the comics were borrowing an awful lot from whatever was in the cinema.

Marvel, of course, embraced horror with Satana, the Son of Satan, and Ghost Rider following the success of "The Exorcist," "Rosemary's Baby," and the like. Martial arts were popular, as were "Blaxsploitation" films. DC's Terra-Man was originally supposed to look a lot more like Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" than the Burt Reynolds look he wound up with.

Vartox was simply a part of that trend. He was an alien Superman who originally held Superman responsible for the death of his wife. Over the years, the two became friends, despite the great distance between their two worlds, and Vartox found love again with Lana, who nevertheless preferred to live on Earth rather than Valeron.

Jonah Falcon said...

I have the original books stored away, saved for the past 30+ years. It's funny, the story hits me harder more than than it did then.

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