Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"I've Never Seen a Man Fly.": Superman #700 - #702

What will Clark Kent do when The Daily Planet finally sells it's last hard copy and succumbs to the final death blow that has struck the newspaper industry? Surely, the greatest and most powerful daily document of journalistic integrity will go on, marching into the future on the web and iPad, just as every newspaper from The New York Times to Bild has already done. The lavish art nouveau monument that is the skyscraper that houses the Daily Planet offices will stand, but will the offices themselves shrink? Will the paper lose a few floors of space, as staff is downsized, and most writers and reporters work from their homes and beats scattered around the world? When the hustle and dynamic energy of the bullpen and the news-floor dies to a soft tone, where will that leave Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter?

Does it matter, really? We see Mr. Kent in suit and tie, with press pass and notepad in hand, so little these days, it could easily be forgotten that he even is a journalist, and supposedly a pretty damn fine one, too, for if it is to be believed that The Daily Planet stands as one of the world's greatest newspapers, home to Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lois Lane - amongst others one assumes - then the fact that Clark Kent is on staff and in the inner circle with Ms. Lane, top photo-journalist James Olsen, and long-serving Editor-in-Chief Perry White, that he, too, must be a reporter of record? Why bring this up? Why bring up the resume of the alter-ego of the world's greatest hero Superman? Because, apparently, there are those who've forgotten this, and they are, unfortunately working on the book that bears our heroes name.

Let's take a step back. Right now, Superman is in a crisis of confidence, and so, starting in the anniversary issue #700, he decided that he had spent too much time in outer space, messing around with his Justice League buddies, saving the multiverse from absolute enslavement and destruction, and needed to get back to the important things in life, namely, exercise. So, Superman, a being more powerful than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, decides to become an Olympic power-walker, and get himself in shape for London 2012. OK, I'm being slightly facetious here (read, sarcastic). Superman isn't training for the London games, and his motivation isn't to emulate senior citizen mall-walkers, but he is walking. Superman. Is. Walking. Across America. Because he needs to get back in touch with the people of this fine nation. He needs to eat a Philly cheesesteak in Philadelphia. He needs to play school-yard basketball with some black-stereotypes in Detroit. He needs to help a man fix his truck's severed fuel line, and help a diner organize their stockroom. Superman, the worlds greatest hero, as part-time busboy and auto mechanic. Someone thought this was all a good idea.

Again, the reason Superman is walking across the United States of America is ostensibly so he can see first-hand the problems facing the hard-working, everyday people of the country. A group of blue-collars in Philadelphia tells him about the drug problem facing their community, about the gangs who've moved into abandoned foreclosed homes and transformed them into crack-houses. An old security guard in Flint tells Superman about the ravages the global recession and credit crisis have had on the auto-industry, tours him around a closed-down factory while spewing forth jingoistic platitudes straight out of a Chevy truck commercial. ("The smell of hot steel being we were pouring the future for all the world to see.") All of this so that Superman can learn about the problems facing the human race, the people he has sworn to protect. This is the main conceit of the story arc by J. Michael Straczynski entitled "Grounded". This is also it's biggest failing.

Is one to believe that reporter of record, one of The Daily Planet's finest, husband of the acclaimed Lois Lane, needs some diner folk to teach him about drugs and gangs in the urban inner-city? That he needs a security guard to tell him tale of the massive global recession that has mired the world in economic trouble for nearly two years, causing the near-complete shut-down of American manufacturing? Jeesh, maybe Lois was right all those years; maybe Clark Kent is an idiot.

For a being that can hear a pin drop from miles away, who can see through all but one substance, who can fly and move beyond the limits of physics; who has been in every part of our world and the universe thousands of times over; has dealt with world leaders, prime ministers, presidents, warlords, dictators, and all-manner of politicians; this sudden need of his to learn about the problems facing the "real" people of America comes across as, at best, slightly insane, and at worst, downright condescending and ill-conceived.

This all leads to a story-line that is absolutely fraught with laughable contradictions. There are moments when JMS wants to have it both ways, wants to play up the intelligence of his main character, even while he has mired him in a construct that requires him to appear ignorant. At the end of issue #701, Superman is engaged in conversation with a random citizen (no doubt one of those hard-working Americans Superman is supposed to be learning about) a gentleman who asks him why he is walking around Philly and not out "saving the world". Superman summons forth his latest power, that being the power to transform into a University humanities professor, and proceeds to regale this private citizen with the tale of the night Henry Thoreau was jailed. It's a verbose and belittling monologue that makes Superman seem arrogant and self-righteous, like an annoying party-guest trying to woo a sex partner with his book-learning. One is surprised when the passage ends and we are not given a term paper to write by Professor Superman. (The hard-ass!)

It also serves to throw a stone in the glass-house of JMS's story construct. Superman as Thoreau scholar doesn't jibe with Superman as oblivious hero. While I like the idea that Superman takes advantage of his super-speed-reading ability to get the classics in, it leads me to believe he would use that same ability to pick up the Times every day, or perhaps, even, the paper he works for. This scene coming at the end of the issue serves to invalidate everything that comes before it.

There are holes and contrivances all over the place. In issue #702, the old factory security guard who tours Superman around the plant, falls into a coughing fit and collapsing in near-death. Superman scoops him up and flies him to a group of local space-aliens he recently discovered were living in secret disguise in Detroit. He bursts in and shouts for them to save the old man's life, because, "His condition is beyond me, beyond any Earth medicine...." Superman isn't a doctor, but he plays one on TV, so well, in fact, he can tell within a matter of split-seconds that a coughing fit is beyond all the limits of modern Earth science. Apparently while Supes speed-reads Thoreau he takes time out for the New England Journal of Medicine. Lucky break those highly-advanced aliens happened to be in the neighborhood, and lucky for him he happened to stumble upon them just hours before this emergency. These kind of lucky coincidences add up to form a very contrived story, one that feels greatly unfocused.

Those alien beings, the ones living in secret in Detroit? Well, if you guessed that they are meant to serve as a very obvious metaphor for our own current struggle with immigration policy in this country, then you would be right. Don't pat yourself on the back too much for getting it, though, because JMS spells it out pretty implicitly, having Superman deliver the line, "Could you possibly have picked a worse time to immigrate here illegally...?" Superman understands this because he knows what's been going on with the battle over immigration legislation, over laws passed in the state of Arizona, laws subsequently vilified by the Federal government. Superman must obviously keep up with current events. Maybe he watches CNN clips on his iPhone? Or maybe a taco vendor in Mesa told him all about it while they sat on a bench sharing a carne asada burrito.

The issue ends with Superman on his mobile phone, chatting with Lois who sits back in her cubicle in the Daily Planet. (Still in that shoddy cubby? You'd think that Pulitzer would have moved her into an office.) It's actually a charming little scene between husband and wife, where the road warrior reporter Clark Kent engages in playful and flirty banter with his wife back home. It's a moment that serves as a bittersweet coda, for it shows what's truly missing from most of this story: whimsy and playfulness. If one goes back and re-reads the original Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster Superman stories from the first issues of Action Comics, one sees a very hard-edged and aggressive Superman, surely. One also finds a Superman full of child-like charm, dashing across telephone lines, delivering quick puns worthy of eye-winks. Superman solves crimes, fights for justice, serves as a champion of the oppressed; but he has fun while doing it. It never occurred to Siegel and Shuster in those early days that having superpowers could be a pain or burden. To those men with the hearts of children, leaping tall buildings could be nothing but joy. Perhaps they were mired in too much innocence, an innocence that we see as unsophisticated with our modern eyes? I disagree. I want to watch Superman fly, not walk. I want to watch Superman have fun, because flying would be fun.

Superman #702 written by J. Michael Straczynski, with art by Eddy Barrows and J.P. Mayer, was released on 11 August, 2010 by DC Comics.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"I'm a Zombie, Plain and Simple." - iZombie #4

Up to this point iZombie has seemed like an innocent take on the far more deviant horror comics of a bygone age; the New Trend comics of the classic EC line that traded in as much gore and menace as could be fit into the average page. Here we had a zombie-hipster girl named Gwen, her best friend Ellie, a charming little ghost in the grooviest outfits, and their mutual friend Scott, a boy who upon a full moon turns into a terrier. Gwen eats brains of the recently deceased (she is not even a killer, herself), and in doing so sees the memories of those people, and thusly feels compelled to fix things they left behind, or solve something for them they may have left unresolved. Part Medium, part Ghost Whisperer, part Scooby-Doo, and part Friends, all tied together by the wonderfully dynamic art of Michael Allred, and iZombie had charisma to spare. Underneath it all, though, one suspected that there be darker times to come. After all, one cannot tread in the world of the undead without getting a little blood on them.

This issue is by no means a darkly twisted turn into the macabre, and there is barely much blood in this entire series, so far, to really warrant any disclaimers for gore; but what this issue does do is reveal to both the reader and to it's main character, Gwen, that this seemingly simple world she has been living in, and therefore this seemingly simple construct of a comic book we have been reading, have been but mere surface. We have only been treading water on the very tips of the waves. Below lay the vast sea, and it gets murkier, certainly, but also more splendid.

This is a natural progression in the life of any ongoing serialized story; the first few chapters or episodes tend to display the major players, set up a few relationships, and then proceed to play a simple formula in order to ease readers and viewers into this new world. But this can only go so far, and soon, the story must blossom into something greater, bigger, with more depth, or suffer the waning interest of an audience that feels it has seen the trick already. This is how a series must mature, if there is hope for long-term survival.

iZombie #4 formally introduces the character of Amon, an ancient Egyptian mummy, who survives much like Gwen does, by consuming life. He has "lived" for millennia, and thusly has a greater understanding of the world of the undead than our heroine. His purpose here is to school Gwen, and us, about it all. Suffice it to say, Amon is a verbose professor, but then again, what would one expect when his curriculum is the very explanation for the existence of every ghost, ghoul, vampire, and monster there is? His task is wordy, sure, but entertaining, imaginative, and necessary.

What writer Chris Roberson provides us in this issue is an understanding that the randomness of life does not end with death; the afterlife, the world of the undead is one just as random and ruled by chance. Upon death, one has as much chance of coming back a ghost or a vampire or a zombie as of resting peacefully in whatever hereafter they ascend, or descend to. One is not made a vampire through a bite, nor made a zombie through some virus. It comes about by mere luck, or un-luck, of the draw. Pick a card, any card, and one's fate be on the other side. For Gwen, this means that her curse as a brain-eating zombie may actually turn out to make her one of the lucky ones. She has been given a chance at immortality, to live a new life and to live it better and more fully than she may have the first time around. If the meal of a dead brain must be feasted on periodically to keep that engine purring, so be it. At least she is no killer, as Amon and the vampires are.

The belief in a second-chance at life stands at the core of this book. The trick is to not waste this second opportunity, to not sit idly in coffee-shops and live this new life as one did their old life. Amon serves as both bearer of hope and warning against sloth. Are we to recognize ourselves in these monsters? Are we to see the struggles of our lives in the struggles of these creatures to cope with the oddities of their existence? Of course we are. It is explicit. We all have brains to eat, some form of that anyway, some form of coping mechanism that we have created our life around. The question is whether we become consumed by those coping mechanisms to the point where they become our whole lives. Gwen's life revolves around her need to eat a brain frequently, so much so, she has taken a job as a grave-digger. That which sustains her has become her whole existence. She's a wage-slave in perpetuity.

Amon lives his life dressed in smoking jacket and ascot, ensconced in a luxurious home complete with exotic pet, in this case a white leopard. He sips his dry martini and speaks with the passion of a world-explorer; he's an immortal zombie in Hugh Hefner disguise. He sees nothing unnatural about his existence, nor the existence of any of the undead. They are all simply part of the coil and cogs of the machine of the world, no different than any other creature. Amon speaks as a liberator, a civil-rights activist for the undead, railing against millennia of intolerance from those who see them as abominations against God, against the natural order of things; those with wooden stakes and silver bullets who see themselves as protectors of what is "normal".

What started off as though it had aspirations to be only a simple homage to the horror comics of yesteryear, has shown itself to be a much more complex animal. iZombie does this all, however, without sacrificing any of the whimsy and gee-shucks fun of the genre. For all the allegory and analogy we as readers can infer from this comic, there on the page still lay the bright pop-art colors and bold dynamism of a world of zombies, vampires, a videogame-playing "WereTerrier", a groovy ghost, monster-hunters in white lab coats, and one parka-wearing hipster girl trying to understand it all. What will happen next for this mad-cap gang? Will the secret sect of vampire-supermodels be revealed at long-last? Will Gwen find romance with the very man seeking to hunt her kind out of existence? And what of the mysterious life and death of Frederick Harris, Amon's last victim, and Gwen's last brainy meal? Looks like you'll have to come back next month, kids.

iZombie #4 written by Chris Roberson, with art by Michael Allred and Laura Allred, was released 4 August, 2010 by Vertigo Comics.