Friday, January 20, 2006

The Comic You Should Be Talking About for January 18, 2006:

You were probably expecting me to talk about All-Star Superman today. Well, I was expecting to be receiving thrice-daily blowjobs from a member of the Big 12 Cheerleading All-Stars by the time I was 24, so I guess we’ll both just have to learn to live with disappointment.

Instead, here is Action Comics 835, which turns out to be an excellent example of what DC can do right, and what they are doing wrong.

With last April’s 826, Gail Simone (Birds of Prey, Villains United) and John Byrne (Man of Steel, Doom Patrol, Blood of the Demon, etc., etc.) took over the principal creative duties on Action. That the run has been talked-about is an understatement; between a heavy tie-in to Villains United, accusations and acrimony regarding inker Nelson's sometimes wholesale redrawing of Byrne's pencils, and the controversial "Sacrifice" crossover in July, there's been plenty to discuss. The conversation has centered, though, around how gosh-darn good the stories have been. There have been detractors, of course--nothing can be liked by everyone, and everyone has to dislike something--but by and large the feedback has been positive. I've heard more than one person say "This is the best a regular Superman book has been in years." I never read a regular Superman book on a monthly basis until this run, so I'm hardly qualified to judge the accuracy of that statement, but I'm quite comfortable with giving it an official rating of "Pretty Darn Good."

Which is why it baffles me that this is the team's last issue. There have been no serious creative conflicts (despite the problems with Nelson, Byrne has gone on the record as saying that he'd love to stay on), and they haven't run out of stories to tell; instead, the departure is by fiat from DC's Executive Editor, Dan Didio. It's apparently Didio's feeling that Superman creative teams should stay on the books a maximum of one year, to "shake things up." Now, Didio's gotten a lot of flack from his ideas, and not all of it has been deserved, but I wholly join with the legions of readers who heard this statement and responded with a rousing chorus of, "Bitch, are you on crack?"

Digression: My actual response was more along the lines of the classic South Park moment where, after George W. Bush explained his rationale for bombing Heaven, a UN delegate asked him, "Are you high, or just retarded?" To which Bush responded, "I can assure you, I am not high." The hand motions he made don't work in text, but it was a killer.

I can understand wanting to keep a book fresh. I can understand wanting to replace a creative team if (a) the book isn't selling or (b) fan and critical reaction is uniformly negative (and if only those two actually went together in practice, the industry would be so much better off, but that's another entry). But I can't understand kicking off a popular, acclaimed team that sells just for the sake of "shaking things up." Is this just one of those things that makes sense to people who've gone through business school, but baffles ordinary, sane humans?

Issue 835 alone is proof that Simone and Byrne *get* Superman perfectly. The story introduces Livewire, a shock-jockette super-villainess from the late '90s animated series, into the comics proper. But more than that, it also uses her as a perfect foil for Superman, highlighting why he's good, and why we love him. Superman is trying to race across Metropolis in time to save Lois from a crazed stalker, but Livewire insists on stalling him with a pointless slugfest in the middle of a Times-Square-like neighborhood, so she can televise her physical and philosophical victory over the Man of Steel. This is a highly potent metaphor, not just for selfishness versus selflessness, but for the continual debate of classical heroics versus cynical antiheroics that's been waging in comics since Wolverine popped his first claw. And, of course, Superman wins, not just because he's Superman, but because he's smarter, more honest, and above all has the heart of a hero. The good guy wins, and he receives the appropriate praise: lauding from the people of his city, the heart of the maiden fair, and, in a scene that serves as a perfect coda to the run, the respect of one who once doubted him (not the irredeemable Livewire, but the good-natured Josef Schuman, a reporter who was concerned about how Superman's heroics inspired young Jimmy Olsen to constantly risk his life).

This is how Superman should be: unequivocably the good guy, facing challenge after challenge, making us sweat as we see him in real danger, but in the end standing tall. Other characters can examine the mold, reexamine it, and alter it as they and the times see fit, but Superman should be different, above that. The discord between the dream and reality deserves to be pointe to, but Superman exists to remind us that the dream is worth having, worth making into the reality. Anyone who does this, and does it well, deserves more than an unceremonious shuffling off due to an arbitrary dictate born more of crass marketing than of a desire for good storytelling. Stunts don't make good comics; good writing and art make good comics. If you build it, we will come. Suggesting otherwise, as this dictate does with its implication that fans can't be trusted to hold attention on a book long-term, is a slap in the face.

I don't begrudge the oncoming team of Kurt Busiek, Geoff Johns and Pete Woods, certainly they'll do a good job, but this idea of "one year and out" is ridiculous "if it ain't broke, fix it" thinking, and an insult to creators and readers alike. And that's something you should be talking about. Thoughts?

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