Monday, December 24, 2012

Superman: Peace on Earth, Part One

Superman: Peace on Earth (January 1999)
"Superman: Peace on Earth"
Paul Dini-Alex Ross

NOTE:  Due to the size of this book, there was simply no way to get entire pages scanned on the equipment we own.  In some cases, even individual panels had to be compromised.  We regret any inconvenience toward your viewing pleasure.

Doug:  A few weeks ago we solicited from our readers their favorite holiday stories.  We received several great nominations, and will dip into that well in the future.  But today, and next week on New Year's Eve, we'd like to examine a book that no one mentioned -- not even your moderators!  While surfing the Internet for holiday images, I came across some scans from today's book and was suddenly hit with a big "Well, duh!".  Although this tome falls a good decade-and-a-half beyond our general Bronze Age parameters, the fact that it's treasury-sized puts it squarely in our wheelhouse.  Because of the length of the story, Karen and I will take turns shepherding you through these wonderful pages.  We hope you'll have as much fun reliving this tale as we did reading and writing about it.

Doug: As stated by me many a'time in days of yore, I am a huge fan of Alex Ross's work.  I know he has his detractors, but I have a difficult time even getting myself to a point where I can agree to disagree.  I know we've had commenters argue that realism in comics is almost oxymoronic; for my money (and it is my money), it's the realists who tend to draw me in.  Give me a Buscema brother, a Neal Adams, John Romita, Jim Aparo, the Filipino masters -- any day.  Ross is the next generation of those larger-than-life pencilers of the Silver and Bronze Ages.  And on top of all that, he's a heckuva nice guy!  He's never been anything other than a gentleman in the four or five times I've met him, including the opening of a gallery show in Chicago where I also met his dad, Clark.  You may recall that he was the model and inspiration for the Kingdom Come character Norman McKay.  But I digress.

Karen: You'll get no arguments from me; I absolutely love Ross' work. 

Doug:  One of the neat features of the Dini-Ross collaborations was the inclusion of a two-page origin of the star character at the beginning of each of the four editions that did feature solo heroes.  The "updated" version of Superman's origin, sans any mention of Superboy, is used here.  After a page where each creator thanks certain folks instrumental to the project, we dive in.  We'll find that the story is framed by agriculture, of all things, and seemingly by a morality play akin to the parable of the sower (found in the Bible in Matthew 13: 18-23):

18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

Doug:  Clark Kent reflects on time spent as a youth with his father Jonathan, a Kansas farmer.  Clark's father spoke to him about seeds, and about nurturing them.  He spoke of some not having much chance to mature, and others that would produce bountifully.  Clark took all of that in, and knew that his father was telling him a story with a deeper meaning.  Clark has always given of himself, and reflects on compassion and kindness as he delivers Metropolis' Christmas tree.  The throngs of people cheer him as he plants the tree in its base, and then using his super speed decorates it in a flash.  While those present want him to linger and speak, he instead flies off -- knowing there will be other less festive events to tend to.  And as he takes to the skies, he hears a cry for help behind him.  It's a young girl who's fallen in the midst of the onlookers; Superman swoops from above and whisks her away.  As he cradles her in his arms, he feels her bones through her clothes.  She's fainted, and it's not from the excitement.  The girl is starving.

Karen: I love how the flashback scenes with young Clark and Pa Kent are bathed in a soft golden light -the warm glow of memory but also perhaps the warm glow of the nurturing sun. I'm so pleased that it is Clark's upbringing here on Earth that is so integral to the story - I'm really not a fan of the more Kryptonian Superman that seems to be popular now. Ross' choice of angles as Superman carries in the tree really convey the size of it and the magnitude of his feat -all through the book, I am constantly impressed by Superman's various actions, which Ross manages to make look so much more majestic than ever before.

Doug:  Clark takes the young lady to a homeless shelter that he's dealt with in the past -- one that has a health clinic.  She's taken in by Dr. Rebecca Mason, who reminded me of Dr. Leslie Thompkins from the 1970's (and beyond) Detective Comics Batman tales.  Dr. Mason offers to care for the girl and make sure she's nursed back to health; Clark can't get the situation out of his mind.  He asks to run a feature on the homeless during the holidays, to draw attention to their plight.  He tells himself it's really just an excuse to check up on the girl, which he does.  And while there, the doctor tells him that Superman saved the youngster's life -- but it's too bad Superman can't be there for everyone in need.  Clark skips the Daily Planet's holiday party the next night and instead spends his evening in the paper's archives, researching issues related to world hunger.  Dini tosses in a nice bit of characterization in telling two things -- "in the blink of an eye I zip through pages of statistics and volumes of reports." and "I don't need to eat.  I will never know hunger."  While I found the first line entirely possible in the mythos, I've never really understood the latter idea.  We all know that Superman gets his powers from the yellow sun; but does he draw his very life force from it?

Karen: I love looking at the faces of all the people Ross populates the shelter with -everyone is different, and real-looking! As for Supes not needing to eat -I too wondered about that. Does he really get all of his energy from the sun? He draws nothing from food? No need for the minerals or other substances found in food? I find that a bit hard to believe. But it's a minor point.

Doug: Clark thinks again of Kansas, and of the teaching of his dad.  He determines, through his research, that there is more than enough food in the world for every person on the planet; it's getting it to those people that is the issue.  Issues of geography, politics, sectarianism, culture -- those are the walls that have been built by man.  But what if one man could leap those walls, in a single bound?  And on a single day?  Clark broods over this for several days, and here is where the story becomes many things, including the worth of one man, but also the values that one person can show that can start a chain reaction.  Clark decides that he will become an example of altruism that the world can follow.

Karen: Unfortunately this is a road that even a superman cannot tread down easily. This is a problem so enormous that to even consider doing something about it either requires tremendous courage or a huge ego. In fact, you have to wonder what Superman really hopes to achieve with this mission of his.

Doug:  Superman requests to address the Congress of the United States of America.  The story takes somewhat of an Americentric turn here, but I don't think that's out of character -- after all, Jerry Siegel's and Joe Shuster's Superman fought for "truth, justice, and the American way".  And even though Superman is going to tackle world hunger, it is with the resources of the fields of the U.S.A. that he will fight.  He requests access to the surplus, and while there is some skepticism he eventually carries the day.  Over the next two pages we see Superman gathering the grain, carrying train cars and ships as if they were toys, and towing a legion of combines through the fields in a super-harvest.  His first delivery is to a reservation in the American southwest, to an old Native American.  The man is grateful, and Superman leaves him, feeling good about the mission.

Karen: Again, the visuals here are simply stunning. We've seen some similar things in comics before but never like this.

Doug:  Superman next heads to Latin America with his deliveries, and ponders the dichotomy that large cities like Rio de Janeiro pose -- a sparkling jewel from the sky, but a cesspool of human suffering on the ground.  He flies in a huge pallet of foodstuffs and places it on the ground.  The people clamor to touch him, to thank him.  Although he acknowledges that it is only one day's food that he's brought them, he is proud of himself for making the effort, and optimistic that the world will notice and stand up alongside him.  As he thinks to himself, "With every minute I feel more sure I have made the right decision."

Karen: He gives us too much credit...

Doug:  It would be very easy to say that the art carries the story in this exquisite storybook.  But even stopping here halfway through it, I think we see that the creators are weaving a tale that is many-layered.  What are Clark's motivations?  Is it really altruism?  Is he self-absorbed?  Is the situation hopeless and he's just fooling himself?  Paul Dini maximizes meaning in each of Ross's paintings with his very few words -- it's truly a marvel to see how his minimalist script brings full meaning to the already poignant images.

Karen: I do think Superman's actions stem from good intentions more than ego. But does his faith in mankind come from his apartness from us? Or from his smalltown upbringing? He wants to believe in mankind, even when we fail him at every turn. Man, there really are a lot of religious overtones in this stuff!



Dougie said...

I've thoroughly enjoyed your analysis today. My very favourite of this series is the Capt. Marvel/Shazam edition. I feel it's the best portrayal of the character I've ever seen- although Jerry Ordway and Jeff Smith are close contenders.

Comicsfan said...

I haven't read this book, but right off the bat what's caught my eye is the clever twist of narrative taking the place of "thought balloons" we'd perhaps see if this work had been done in a more traditional format--as well as the lettering resembling something you'd see carved on a memorial. I find myself paying closer attention to the words here than I normally might, and they seem to have more impact for me, as well. Combined with Ross's art, the final product reads wonderfully.

Edo Bosnar said...

Hmmm, I've said before I'm not a big fan of Ross (I like his covers and posters, but that's about it), and the panels you've posted here don't change my mind. I'm a big fan of everyone from the Buscema brothers to the Filipino masters you mentioned, but I just don't see Ross as a natural progression from them.
The story, however, looks quite good, and I agree with Karen's comment about Superman's back story: I think it's crucial to the character that he had a rural, Midwestern upbringing which informs his whole worldview.

Doug said...

Edo --

Is it Ross's figurework that you don't care for, or his oft-use of monochromatic tones?

I love his figurework, but then I'm much more a fan of realism in comic art. However, sometimes his tones bother me. For example, while I love his recent cover to Back Issue! #61 (his version of Mike Grell's classic Legion cover from the treasury era), I wish he'd not so dominated it with yellow hues. I usually know what he'd going for, but I don't "see" life like that. I felt his work in Marvels and Kingdom Come was exemplary -- figures, faces, and coloring.



Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, sorry, didn't mean to turn this into a debate on the relative merits of Alex Ross' art. Since you asked, I can't really say whether it's his figures or colors/tones: what bothers me most is that all too often his art, mainly his figures, look like painted-over photographs or motion picture stills. I almost hate to say it, because I know he probably puts a ton of work into his paintings, but I find it more distracting than anything, and I pretty much never go back and re-read any of the books he's drawn, no matter how much I liked the stories.

Edo Bosnar said...

So as to not end on such a negative note, and since it's already eve over here, I'll just say Merry Christmas (Eve) to all, as I enjoy yet another traditional holiday meal here that I forgot to mention in that other thread: bakalar (from the Italian baccala - dried & salted cod that's stewed and mixed with pototoes and seasoned; believe me, it's much, much better than it sounds). And yes, I have an ice-cold glass of coke right next to my plate...

Doug said...

Edo --

No - you're fine. I love debates on creators' work. Your comment on the use of photography is spot-on. In many of his books, including today's fare, Ross thanks his friends who model for him. Some of his cityscapes are direct from Chicago - in fact, there's a spread in the Batman: War on Crime book that I can tell you exactly where it is.

However, all this being said leads me to why I hold John Buscema above all other comic book artists -- the man never used a photo reference. The greatest story about him is the fact that he drew the Wizard of Oz treasury all from memory! He'd only seen the film once or twice, and hadn't seen it for years when he started to draw that adaptation. Roy Thomas has commented that Big John nailed it for the most part; I think I read that Roy said there were only two scenes that had to be flip-flopped. Other than that, Buscema nailed the script and of course the look of all of the characters.

Comicsfan -- you may want to check out Back Issue! #61, as there is an interview with Dini and Ross in it and they discuss the look of these treasuries. They were definitely going for more of a storybook feel in the presentation.


Anonymous said...

i cant get past the stiffness of the art. there is no illusion of movement in slex ross art. makes it unreadable to me

Doug said...

Anonymous (man, if my mom had named me that I would not have been happy at all) --

So you're more a fan of the speed line, as per Rob Liefeld?

Can anyone name a painter (even all the way back to the Renaissance masters) whose work exudes dynamism? Personally I don't have this "static" issue with Ross's art, so I'd be interested in hearing more about this notion.


Karen said...

The only slight I would ever give to Ross' art is that sometimes I feel his story-telling is a bit off -the flow of it I mean. Otherwise, as I said in the review, I love it.

Edo - Merry Christmas to you as well! Glad you are enjoying a Coke with your Christmas Eve meal!

Garett said...

Thanks for this review outside normal Bronze parameters. I love these Dini-Ross books, with Shazam and JLA being my favorites.

I find Ross's art to be almost overwhelming, in a good way. Impressive compositions, figure art, human warmth, color and lighting. I suppose the downside is a lack of cartoony fun in the realism. Also the "actors" in the roles may not be spot on--I'd rather see a Christopher Reeve look to Superman here.

Painters who exude dynamism: Tintoretto, Frazetta.
Check out Tintoretto's "Miracle of the Slave" partway down this page:
A superhero from the 16th Century!

Bruce said...

I can see both sides of the argument. I agree that Ross' art can be static (which isn't a quality you usually want in superhero comics). But there's no denying that he creates beautiful works of art. I loved what he did in Marvels, for example.

My take is that I enjoy Ross' work, but I wouldn't want everyone in comics to emulate him. He works well as something different, rather than the norm. Does that make sense?

CarterHall81 said...

Hello Doug and Karen! Just wanted to let you know I just found this review through a Google search and loved it. I've been to your guys' blog before and think you're doing a great job!

So I'm actually a Greek Orthodox priest in the Bay Area who is a huge comic book nerd and couldn't help but notice your references to religious metaphors in this story. If you're interested, I recently started my own blog about just this topic, and my latest post was on Peace on Earth. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to check it out here:

And for the record, Alex Ross is awesome. :) Thanks again!

Karen said...

Thanks for stopping by, Father! I enjoyed your post on this wonderful story as well. It's really a great read for the season, isn't it?

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