So it strikes me that there are two dominant strands of super hero writing these days: the Iconic Take, and the Revisionist Approach. I know I’m over-simplifying there, and maybe stating the obvious, too. But I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. With long-running corporate franchise characters, writers tend to either look at what’s made them work in the past and polish it up for a new generation, or they look for conceptual weaknesses and try to explain or retcon them to generate interest where interest has faded.
Now, personally, I prefer the Iconic Take. It plays to a characters’ strengths rather than his weaknesses, which seems like a smarter way to go about things. Plus, it doesn’t require a PhD in Spandex to enjoy it. I mean… I pretty much HAVE a PhD in Spandex, so I do generally understand it when someone does a deep retcon. I just don’t care anymore.
Nonetheless, the Revisionist Approach is the more common technique, and has been ever since Alan Moore popularized it with his work on Marvelman and Swamp Thing. Of course, that was 30 years ago, and the sheer number of revisionist comics we’ve gotten since has left me pretty sick of them. I mean, it’s still a valid approach, don’t get me wrong. But at this point, I just want someone to tell me a good Batman story, you know?
So when I do read a revisionist funnybook, even a good one, it’s got to be pretty damned great for me to like it. Take Tom King’s current corporate spandex crossover, for instance…
Heroes in Crisis 2
by Tom King and Clay Mann
King’s not re-writing history in this book, but he’s very much drawing his drama out of exploring weaknesses, defining his characters through how they’re broken instead of through what makes them work. Which is why I consider it revisionist. The changes are subtle, I’ll grant you. This book deals in emotional changes that affect the characters’ personalities moreso than their histories. And the character stuff is quite well-done, the major beats laid out in well-written monologues that impact the action as it happens. It is, by most measurements of good funnybook writing, quite excellent.
But I still don’t like it very much.
There are several reasons for that, most of them coming out of the fact that King’s view of these characters doesn’t jibe with my own. But the big one… the thing that made me start rejecting everything else in the comic… is an action scene. Harley Quinn has gone into hiding following last issue’s murders at Sanctuary (and, to King and Mann’s credit, she’s changed out of her “psycho slut” movie outfit into her original — and best — costume). But she’s still tracked down by Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. They confront her, then this happens:
Okay. I’ve got no problem with Harley getting the drop on Batman. It makes sense for her, and if she didn’t have the Lasso of Truth in her hand, he’d have found a way to turn the tables on her pretty fast. But everything around that moment doesn’t work for me. She couldn’t have gotten the lasso in the first place, for instance, if she hadn’t kneed Wonder Woman in the face. But Harley’s not nearly strong enough for that knee to make Wonder Woman stumble the way she does. And if she doesn’t stumble, Harley doesn’t get the rope.
But even if you write that off as Clay Mann drawing some confusing action, and Harley just getting the lasso via sheer surprise, there’s the Superman bit to consider. “She’ll break his neck before you break the lasso”? Well, maybe. If he needed to break the lasso to stop her. But he doesn’t. He’s Superman. He’s so strong, and he can move so fast, that he can take the lasso away from Harley before she even knows he’s done it.
And even if you accept all that… Why the hell wouldn’t Wonder Woman go after her when she jumps out the window? I mean, we’ve got a psychopath running loose, WITH A PIECE OF KRYPTONITE! And she’s right there. Wonder Woman could catch up to her easily, get the rock, and bring her back. And there’s no good reason at all why she wouldn’t.
So the scene just doesn’t work. Even taking into account how disturbed Our Heroes are by the killing spree at the crisis center they built, I’m not buying for a minute that Harley Quinn is going to be able to play those three characters for chumps that way. It’s necessary, I assume, for Harley to escape (and get a piece of Kryptonite in the bargain), for the rest of the series to play out the way King wants. But to get there, he wrote a scene that completely breaks my suspension of disbelief.
And that, in turn, broke the comic for me. I started picking at every little loose thread after that, and the whole thing just fell apart. Even the good stuff started to annoy me. Take Batman’s crisis center monologue, for example:
That’s very moving. But honestly, I’ve seen Batman deal with the trauma of a dead sidekick before. This is NOT an unexamined emotional area for him. Also… How many of Batman’s sidekicks have actually died? Jason Todd, certainly. But is there anyone else? Stephanie Brown comes to mind, but she’s been retconned so that she was never Robin and also never died, so she doesn’t really count anymore. And I’m having a hard time thinking of anyone else. So when he says that he’s seen “so many” of them die… I don’t buy it. So I don’t feel his pain as intensely as I think I’m supposed to.
The same thing happens when I read the Wonder Woman monologue. It’s even better than the Batman scene…
…but again, I don’t buy it. I don’t think of her as a character who nobly swallows her pain because other people have it worse. I could maybe buy that she doesn’t complain for that reason, or that she finds some kind of solace in the idea that, however bad she may hurt, she knows things could be far worse. But she still strikes me as a character who deals with her problems instead of burying them.
Then there’s Superman.
This one is tougher for me. The dichotomy between Superman and Clark Kent is certainly interesting territory. It’s a natural question to ask about him, and one that fans have debated for decades. Doug Moench explored the idea with Moon Knight a long time ago, and it was fascinating to watch that character struggle as his idea of who he really was fractured over time. I don’t think King has any intention of taking it that far, of course, but there’s still something about it that I don’t like. It just strikes me as something that wouldn’t really bother him that much. Not enough to seek counseling on it, anyway.
I mean, I know he says that he doesn’t need counseling on it, but it’s also the thing he chooses to talk about, and he’s clearly uncomfortable doing it, so it’s obviously something that’s bothering him. Or maybe we’re supposed to take his denial at face value, and assume that it’s breaking the image of perfection that’s really getting to him. That, I can get behind a little more. A Superman who struggles a bit with what it means to be a hero is more interesting to me. Though a Superman who worries so much about appearances that he thinks he has to seem perfect to be a hero strikes a weird note with me, so maybe that’s not much better.
That’s a lot of upset to unpack over one page. So much so that I think I missed the actual point of the scene. Because just before that, we get this:
So the real implication of the Superman page is that Our Heroes’ secrets… including their secret identities… are in the hands of the people responsible for the murders, and could be revealed to the world. But I was so busy being bothered by King’s take on Superman as a character that I didn’t even think of that until well after I’d finished reading.
So what’s my take-away here?
My take-away is that, though this is very well-done in most aspects, one glaring flaw turned me against it. And that flaw soured me primarily because I was already resistant to the character revisions I was being given. So the two things fed on each other, creating a vicious circle of…
I was going to say hate, but that’s really too strong a word.
A vicious circle of displeasure that prevented me from enjoying what was, in reality, a very good comic. Because here’s the thing: even though I don’t like King’s characterizations of Our Heroes, they’re actually quite strong, and quite smart.
Because what he’s doing here is updating the icons, making their problems relevant for a rising generation that’s grown up in the shadow of 9-11. This is a generation that’s never known an America that wasn’t at war. That didn’t have mass shootings happening multiple times a year. That wasn’t being scared shitless by a constant barrage of misinformation and scare-tactic politics designed to make them afraid of… well… pretty much everything. To the people ascending into adulthood these days, trauma and PTSD are just facts of life. And King is giving them heroes who speak to the world they know.
So that doesn’t mean that this is a bad comic, at all. It means it’s a pretty damn good one.
It’s just maybe not one that’s being written for me.
But like I say, I prefer the Iconic Take. I like how it accentuates what makes these characters work. It’s a more positive approach, which (god help me) seems to my mind like the more appropriate way to do the super hero genre. They’re heroes, after all. They can face all manner of horrible circumstances, and I’m fine with it, but at the end of the day, they’re aspirational figures rather than tragic ones, and I like to see that reflected. Plus, the Iconic Take also ensures that the story will retain something of the core of these characters I know so well (PhD in Spandex, remember), and I find that comforting.
Which is why I’m such a big fan of what Brian Bendis is doing with Superman these days…
Action Comics 1004
by Brian Michael Bendis and Ryan Sook
Keep in mind that we’re talking about Bendis’ work on ACTION COMICS, here. Not his work on Superman. Because his Superman is the worst kind of boring-ass revisionist crap, with a potentially-interesting-but-actually-one-dimensional-with-only-the-illusion-of-depth bad guy running around, claiming to have been responsible for the destruction of Krypton, thus undoing maybe my favorite part of Superman’s origin: Kryptonian hubris. The stories are certainly action-packed, but they have much else going for them, and (though it has its moments of good Superman character writing) I largely find the book unreadable.
But Action, now… Action is a different animal altogether. In this book, Bendis is giving us stories of Superman in Metropolis, working at the Daily Planet and, you know, fighting crime and stuff. Lois and Jimmy and Perry White are all on-hand, playing appropriately big or small roles as the plot calls for it. There’s some stuff about how tough it is to be in the newspaper industry these days, and a criminal mole on the Planet staff, and a new fire chief that Our Hero’s helping with an arson investigation, and a mystery villain who’s a murderous red mist, and a group of clever Metropolis mobsters who wait for Superman to leave town before they commit any crimes.
In other words, it’s exactly what I want out of a corporate spandex comic: just good Superman stories.
This is not to say that the book is without interesting new wrinkles on things. Bendis is redefining the Superman / Lois marriage as, pretty much, what it is: a relationship between two very busy and dedicated people who sometimes have to be apart. The conversation between them about that very thing in this issue, in fact, is one of the more believable relationship scenes I’ve ever read in a funnybook:
I like how Bendis is handling the character of Superman in general, though. He has the easy confidence I expect from him, but that doesn’t mean he’s perfect, or that he’s not troubled by what’s going on around him. He misses his family, but understands that Lois needs space. The crime waves that happen every time he flies away from Metropolis genuinely piss him off, as does the string of arsons. It’s a frustrating situation, but one that he’s dealing with as best he can. And if that means digging into things as Clark Kent instead of as Superman… So be it.
I’m also really happy with the genuine warmth Bendis and artist Ryan Sook manage to convey this issue when Our Hero visits the Daily Planet offices as Superman. There’s comedy, and camaraderie, and calm, everyday heroics. But mostly, you can just see that these people are his friends. It radiates off the page, from the dialogue to the body language. It’s truly a great Superman scene.
That Perry White moment, man. That’s pure gold.
(Plus, you know, not to make a big thing of it or nothin’, but… That’s how easy it is for Superman to disarm a non-powered opponent.)
Not everyone is happy with what Bendis is doing in Action, though. The most controversial thing so far, I think, is how he’s sent Lois and Clark’s son Jonathan off to spend the summer with Space Grandpa. By which I mean Jor-El, who is somehow alive as the result of a story I (1) haven’t read, (2) think is probably a really bad idea, and (3) don’t give a rat’s ass about in the first place. Bendis evidently doesn’t, either, because he’s written them both out of the book, at least for now.
But, crucially for my enjoyment of the story, he hasn’t retconned them out of existence, either. He hasn’t killed them, or re-written history to make them never was, and that’s a good thing. That would be a retcon of a retcon, and holy crap I hate that even worse than I do just a regular retcon. Besides, why destroy characters when you can just take them off the stage for a while? I’m sure there’s a market out there somewhere for the adventures of Jonathan and Jor-El… IN SPACE!
But I digress.
What I really like about how Bendis has handled Jonathan Kent is that he hasn’t just sent him away and ignored his existence entirely. Bendis’ Superman misses his son, and thinks about him in flashback, which has brought us some pretty great moments in the three or four months he’s been on these books. Being a parent fundamentally changes the way you see the world, and that’s not something Bendis is forgetting just because he doesn’t have any story ideas for Jonathan right now. He writes their interactions so well, in fact, that I hope he eventually brings the kid home. And that surprises me, because I really didn’t care about him one way or the other before this.
So! Bendis has returned Action Comics to an iconic set-up for Superman, polished up for the 21st Century. He’s handled elements from recent retcons with care, even as he’s taken them out of the picture while he concentrates on his “Superman Classic” take. And he’s given me a Superman comic that feels the way I want Superman comics to feel. It’s not perfect, but if more corporate spandex comics were written this well, I’d read more of them than I do.
Aaaaannddd… I guess that’s about it. If I’ve learned anything from my little exercise in looking at these comics through the “Icons vs Revisionists” lens, it’s this: whichever tack you take with these long-running corporate spandex characters, the one thing that will make or break the book is, ultimately, talent. Both approaches require inspiration, a creative spark of some kind, to produce work that’s really worth reading, and both these books have that.
Even if I do enjoy one of them a lot more than the other.
Today, I’m told, is the 7th anniversary of this incarnation of the nerd farm. Kinda cool. So happy anniversary to me, then. And here’s to another seven years of this nonsense!