Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Look, up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane... It's a middle aged father of two and a communist dictator!

All-Star Superman, being a comic of such intense power that it causes violent erections, whetted my appetite for more Superman stories that I'd meant to read but had never got around, even if they would pale in comparison next to its sheer luminescence. Two stories that fit that bill recently were Superman: Red Son and Superman: Secret Identity.

Both are non-continuity (or Elseworlds, or whatever DC's calling it these days) Superman stories that put a different spin on the Man of Steel's mythos. They both also follow his story from the beginning of his career (which is common) to the end (which isn't, at least if you haven't read a lot of Superman Elseworlds or imaginary stories from the Silver Age). That's pretty much it as far as similarities go.

Red Son is a high concept kind of story, in the sense that "It's Superman... as a communist" is like "It's Die Hard... on a bus!" The whole story flows from Superman's arrival in Russia and his rise in the Communist Party. Lex Luthor opposes him not just out of petty jealousy or to prove he's better (although that's part of his character) but because Superman's the weapon that's shifted the balance of power in the world in the Soviet Union's favor.

Like the other superhero story of Millar's I've read in its entirety, volume one of the Ultimates, there are moments here that I really like. The ending, for one thing, is very clever and actually fairly sentimental, which is rare in Millar's work (and yes, I've heard it was Grant Morrison's idea, but I think I've done enough fawning over him for at least a week). Lex Luthor's characterization is excellent for the most part, although he gets a little too over the top malicious at times for my taste. He's where the humor comes from, too, as this Superman is such a dour sort and the other supporting characters don't add much.

Millar does a good job playing around with how being the dictator of the Soviet Union changes Superman from the do-gooder boyscout we know to a fascist, well, dictator. At heart, he's the same character; he's trying to help humanity and doing what he thinks is best. It just so happens that it Red Son, that involves lobotomizing dissidents and spreading communism around the globe. Absolute power corrupting absolutely isn't an original idea, in fiction or superhero stories (at least since Miracleman in the latter case; a little bit before that in the former), but much like what I've read of his Authority, Millar does a good job exploring how that works. It's also an interesting take on how much Supes's upbringing (yeah, I said Supes; eat it, Byrne!) played a role in who he is as a character. He wouldn't be about truth, justice, and the American way growing up on a collective farm. Also, I have to give Millar credit for starting the story with Superman as an adult instead of reinacting his origin instead of reinacting it, except on a collective farm in the Soviet Union.

The art comes from Dave Johnson, best known for his 100 Bullets covers (and best loved by me for his cover art on the Marvel Knights Captain America issues), and Killian Plunkett. I'm not sure where his work is best known from, but he's good. It's nice, clean work, in the same vein as someone like Darwyn Cooke or Bruce Timm without the Kirby-isms (and not as good). It looks slick while still telling the story well. Plunkett has to be given credit for meshing so well with Johnson, who leaves the book somewhere in the middle of the story. Johnson comes up with some nice cover images, although I don't think they're as good as his 100 Bullets or Cap work. They're still striking, though, and really, what do you care about the covers when the book's in trade format? You probably wouldn't have even thought about it had I not brought it up.

Oh, yeah, I really liked Russian Batman and his fuzzy hat, too.

Secret Identity takes a different tack. As Kurt Busiek says in his intro, the story started out as an idea for a Earth Prime Superboy ongoing series around the time of Crisis on Infinite Earths, when Earth Prime became obsolete, and changed over the years until he finally pitched the story to DC. This is also a high concept, in the sense that if "What if a real life Clark Kent gained Superman's powers?"

This idea is fraught with peril, as it could turn in to metafictional wankery or the same Superman story we've read a million times before. But Busiek has a talent for taking familiar premises in superhero comics and casting them in a new light, as he showed in Marvels and Astro City, and he doesn't disappoint here. Through Clark's first person narration, he creates strong identification with the character, creating that elusive connection to Superman that wouldn't be possible in his "canonical adventures." Like Bendis did in the early issues of Ultimate Spider-Man,

This is the perfect book for anyone who has ever complained about the lack of change and growth in superhero comics and wanted to see the story move beyond the "continuing adventures" of a character. The story follows Clark from his adolesence to his dotage. He starts a career, gets married, has kids, and retires. Johanna Draper Carlson put it best in her review of issue #4 when it was published: " This contemplation of mortality, of simple gradual aging, is a theme rarely explored so thoroughly and so well in superhero comics." I was also heartened to see that this Superman was all about helping people in danger and that Busiek didn't try to recast Superman's rogues gallery in to the "real world." It might have been fun to see Clark have a rivalry with an industrialist named Lex Luthor or something, but I'd rather see Superman save people's lives than get in to fist fights, and Busiek provides that here. There's some material with the goverment that, again, could have been horribly cliched, but Busiek handles it in a way that goes beyond the "superhero controlled by shadowy government officials" trope that's been rehashed sice the '80s, even if it is more than a little reminiscent of Barry Windsor Smith's Weapon-X for a bit.

As she also put it, "...the art is, as always, simply gorgeous, beautiful to read over and over." She's right there, too. I've liked Stuart Immonen's work since I first encountered it, but this is a step beyond anything he's ever done. In the place of traditional pen and ink, Immonen paints his pencils, creating some absolutely gorgeous visuals. I'd love to own some of these pages. If I were the kind of person who could buy original comic art. But only the richest kings in Europe can do that.

Neither of these comics gave me an erection, but I enjoyed them quite a bit. Secret Identity especially is definitely worth your time if you're looking for a different take on Superman or just a satisfying, self contained superhero story.

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Blogger Apodaca said...

I am curious about Secret Identity.

1/03/2006 08:03:00 PM  
Blogger Brad Curran said...

I'd be interested in seeing your opinion on it. It's not a high octane kind of thing, but I really liked it.

1/03/2006 08:40:00 PM  
Blogger Ed Cunard said...

For what it's worth, I really liked Secret Identity as well.

1/03/2006 09:49:00 PM  
Blogger Iagorune said...

I really enjoyed both Secret Identity and Red Son and thought that both were really enjoyable takes on the Superman mythos, especially Secret Identity, since it goes to the most basic core decency of the character.

But I do have to say, that with the exception of the "farting" Superman cover, All-Star didn't really hit me as all that good.

I keep seeing comments from people who are just falling all over themselves talking about how great it is, but honestly, I'm just not getting why.

- rick

1/04/2006 03:54:00 AM  
Blogger markus said...

I personally hated Red Son. Most grating were the omission of the atrocities under Stalin, the Batman not making a lot of sense and the ending, which IIRC has Supes give up so Luthor can do basically the same thing, including the central planning stuff.

1/04/2006 04:00:00 AM  
Blogger Marionette said...

I am a big fan of Secret Identity. To the point where I give it to people as christmas presents if I feel they really deserve it.

1/04/2006 06:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Martin R said...

I agree with iagorune. I liked both Secret Identity and Red Son, but All-Star Superman was pretty weak. I had hoped for a "definitive" Superman, not one with awful jokes, weird new powers and page after page about Willy Wonka.

1/04/2006 02:43:00 PM  
Blogger Brad Curran said...

I was joking around about All Star Superman. Sort of. I enjoyed it a lot, and it did whet my appetite for more Superman comics, but I was mocking the hyperbole its recieved in these reviews. I really just wanted to set up the joke about these books being good despite not giving me a boner.

"For what it's worth, I really liked Secret Identity as well."

I thought you might, actually.

"I personally hated Red Son. Most grating were the omission of the atrocities under Stalin, the Batman not making a lot of sense and the ending, which IIRC has Supes give up so Luthor can do basically the same thing, including the central planning stuff."

I can get the Stalin criticism. Yeah, Batman was a little contrived, but he amused me, both for his fuzzy hat and his personality. As far as the ending, I was speaking specifically about the very, very end, which is what Morrison apparently contributed. But I also liked Superman deciding to retire because humanity didn't need him running things. I thought that was a really good way of ending things. I also liked all the double crosses toward the end, although that was more of a gut reaction thing.

1/04/2006 05:00:00 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

I think Red Son suffers from being left half-finished for a decade. Still, I quite enjoyed it even if it was a bit hit and miss, and it's infinitely better than the yes-I-know-it's-a-spoof-but-it's-
still-shite True Brit.

But Fuzzy Hatman rules. We need an ongoing Fuzzy Hatman series.

1/05/2006 12:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

"the very, very end, which is what Morrison apparently contributed"

I keep hearing this, although when I read it I thought, "Wasn't that just Alexander Luthor's origin from COIE #1"?

I liked Secret Identity a whole heapful, but I had pretty much the same problems with Red Son as iagorune did. Superman can presumably hear everyone dying in the gulags, but does nothing about it, which pretty much undermines the whole "he's doing it for the good of humanity" point; although Superman is ostensibly communist, there's nothing really all that communist or even that Stalinist about his rule - he's just a totalitarian dictator who happens to use wack-ass Kryptonian brain-control on dissidents; Batman gets a chance to kill Superman and end the evil world-stomping alien menace, but instead goes all James Bond Villain on him and leaves him to escape; Lex's "Luthorism" is pretty much the same as Superman's faux-communism, but under a different dictator; what was up with the whole Kennedy thing?

Neat concept, haphazard execution, unfortunately.

1/05/2006 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger MarkAndrew said...

Fetched Secret Identity from the Library on your recomendation.

I'm not USUALLY Busiek's biggest fan. There's a lot of re-heating of other people's ideas in his work which makes me bored.

But Secret Identity was really good. Any superhero comic that's not afraid to pause for a double page spread of the sunset gets a thumbs up in my book. And I liked the "Jumping Around From Time To Time To Tell Four Interlocking Stories Bit," which was recycled from Marvels, but worked better here as we saw Clark's world expand and grow through time.

But I had ONE major bitch, but it served to yank me out of the story at least five or six times...

The whole book was just too geeky.

People just aren't that knowledgable about Superman, and don't CARE that much about Superman.

The main characters name is Clark Kent, right? (But not THAT Clark Kent.)

In one scene, during, school, bullies steal his backpack and say "What's In Here? Schematics for Metallo? Hur hur hur.")

Schoolyard bullies do not know who Metallo is.

(For that matter, seventh grade bullies probably don't use the word "Schematics" in casual conversation, much.)

Even if they DO know who Metallo is, it's certainly not in such common usage that they'd expect their FRIENDS to know who Metallo is, and laugh at the joke.

Later on, Clark says that his friends have tried to, at 18 differnt junctures, tried to set him up with chicks named "Lois."

Which underscores the major problem I had with this book...

In regular, adult society, (Even including high school)

When people know you, even as a very casual aquaintance, they no longer CARE what your name is.

I hang with plenty of unfortunate Children of Hippy Parents, (CHP) and they say that after the initial "Moonbeam? Thas a funny name!" nobody cares how whacky their name is.

And, really, while most of the population knows Superman, I don't think that more'n a couple percent of 'em would immediately associate the name Clark Kent with Superman without some serious thought. Or Lois Lane, either, for that matter.

Psychologically, you form a clumping-association between the person and their name which removes any other associations. So, unless Psych 101 has lied to me, Busiek committed a minor-but-consistent screw up when depicting how the minor characters interact with the lead.

Now, this might seem kind of a petty gripe in a book where the main character shoots lasers out of his eyes, but when a major component of yer work is depicting the growth and change of human relationships, you need to make damn sure those relationships are related in psychological 'an sociological truth.

And the way the world responded to "Clark Kent" felt ludicrously exaggerated to me.

(Oh. And the art was really nice.)

1/06/2006 01:45:00 AM  

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