Thursday, December 22, 2011

I'd really defend my opinion that the new Superman #1 was objectively bad. A plot synopsis: Superman fights bank robbers too dumb to live and some random monster no one cares about, vague hints are dropped foreshadowing doom in an attempt to give a bump to less surefire series, the writer does a bad job of handling the state of modern journalism, and the status quo for the series has been rebooted to a state that doesn’t make sense. As for the art, it's competent but not interesting. There’s no experimentation with panel layouts or characters’ proportions or a certain artistic style, there are no particular splash pages that stick out in my memory, there's nothing particularly daring or interesting about it. It's more meticulous than average, but no one will remember it in six months. All in all, the book was pointless except for making money for DC.

But like I said, I've bought a bunch of comics since the store moved to my neighborhood, and it's not like I particularly enjoyed most of the rest of them either. So I should consider the possibility that capes-and-tights superhero stuff isn't my kind of thing any more.

There's one title I've read for years and I'm still happy to read regularly: Invincible, by Robert Kirkman. (For non-comics readers, he's the author of The Walking Dead, which the AMC show is based on.) In addition, there are three ongoing series that I bought or borrowed in trade paperback form over the past six months or so and I thought they were great: Nextwave, Transmetropolitan and Irredeemable.

All four of those have something in common: they're nothing like your traditional superhero story. Transmetropolitan isn't a superhero story at all; it's a science fiction series. It was published in the same format and by the same company as Superman, but the story and characters have more in common with Johnny Mnenomic or Snow Crash than they do with Big Blue. Nextwave is a superhero story, but it's a comedy or parody rather than the usual straightforward story of heroic conflict. It's great, but it's ridiculous. It uses characters in the Marvel universe, but tells a story almost like Futurama.

As for Irredeemable and Invincible, they're superhero stories all right. But they're both really dark, grim superhero comics, pessimistic about power and humanity in general. They're realistic* about just how badly most people would actually handle superhuman powers and how many problems they couldn't solve.

In Invincible, the main character Mark Grayson is the son of Omni-Man, a costumed hero that's nearly an exact copy of Superman... except rather than being a refugee of a doomed world, Omni-Man is a scout for a race of world-conquering, mass-murdering space imperialists. This is revealed in a storyline where he murders the world's greatest superheroes and beats the main character nearly to death. Horrible, right? Sure, but it's a great superhero series because it would have that kind of plot twist and how it handled it - not "oh no, Omni-Man was mind-controlled" or something, but "oh no, Omni-Man is really evil". After that, the storyline mainly follows Mark as he moves on with his life. He's gone from high school to college to a real job (well, sort of), his relationships with his supporting cast have changed greatly over time, some of them have died, the world has changed around him and he's changed in his approach to it. Again, this is stuff that plenty of other superhero comics do, but rarely in this way or so well.

And then there's Irredeemable, which is even grimmer. Its premise is not "Superman was secretly a would-be tyrant"; its premise is "Superman bottled up all his negative emotions all along, one day finally snaps and goes postal and starts killing people, cities at a time". So far (I'm less than halfway through), it's very psychological, about exactly what kind of pressures would get to a superhero that's seen as a paragon and how much could go on behind the scenes before anyone notices.

So, not counting the recently-relaunched-or-revamped stuff I'm still trying out, the comic books I've been reading regularly recently are not a superhero book at all, a parody of the superhero genre, a very mature version of a superhero coming-of-age story, and a very pessimistic version of a very standard superhero story. Put it like that, and I should probably have known better than to bother with Superman in the first place.

* Volumes have been written about whether adding more explicit blood and gore and sadism to fiction is actually more realistic rather than just a different choice in tone, if realism in fiction is something to aspire to, and what "realism" means anyway if you're taking the existence of superpowers for granted. I realize it's an inexact term. It'll do for now, though.

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