Saturday, November 04, 2006

Kryptonian Fathers, Kryptonian Sons

Action Comics #844 – I wasn’t sure about this at first, but now that I’ve adjusted my brain to recognize this as a Richard Donner Superman film in the form of a comic (not a regular DCU Superman book), I’m enchanted. The orphan’s fantasy of recovering the absent father that pervades the Donner films is the driving force here too as Superman intervenes in what appears to be his own story being played out a second time. This is a compelling premise because while Superman’s intervention in this issue brings his own position in the orphan/foster-father narrative full circle, it does so in a way that may allow him to heal the initial gap between himself and the ghost-father/Mighty Oz, Jor-El. By becoming the space-boy’s guardian, Superman consciously steps into the role of archetypally good foster-father, Pa Kent; yet, because he and the boy are (apparently) both Kryptonian, Superman potentially transcends the position of “alien” foster-father to symbolically recover the original absent father, Jor-El—that is, he recovers his own father by “becoming” a “real” Kryptonian father in relation to a “real” Kryptonian boy/self.

No doubt, complications will ensue to muck with the promise of such mythic fulfillments. But it’s a tantalizing premise all the same, and its pathos is enhanced by the “filmic” visuals supplied by Adam Kubert in this issue. By “filmic” I don’t mean “grand” or “panoramic,” but quite the opposite: strangely subdued, realistic, plain. The banal details of the lab make it feel ordinary. Superman hovers cross-legged talking with the boy as he eats a sandwich on plastic toy furniture. The cubicles at the Daily Planet where Lois is working late have an exceptional degree of cinematic vraisemblance. There are no “supervillains,” yet. Barely any powers. That’s why the action sequences feel heavy—rather like “special effects.” (Could the producers not afford a conceptual artist to design a convincing spaceship? Is that why the child is “delivered” to earth in a giant wheel of brie?)

But this isn’t a criticism. What I am describing is the “austerity” that Hollywood cinema brings to the superhero movie because budget constraints require a stingy and very deliberate parceling out of visual departures from everyday realism. Superpowers are expensive, which is why the movie-Superman and his spandex-clad fellows spend so much time acting as brooding metaphors in superhero cinema rather than tossing bad guys around. When this kind of situational austerity is transferred to comic books—usually in adaptations of superhero films—the effect is almost invariably ugly, boring, and depressing. (I don’t think I’ve ever read a comic book movie adaptation that I’ve liked. And of course, that’s partly because such things aren’t written for me anyway; the adaptation is a “mediating” genre written for film goers who don’t read comics, though it’s hard to imagine that they’d be convinced to try more by such labored introductions.) Here, however, the Johns/ Donner script and Kubert’s translation of the restraint and austerity that comes from Donner’s (and Johns’s) film background produces a deeply gratifying effect, perhaps because the story is not an adaptation and because the paring down of the “color” of the regular DC Universe in the pages of Action Comics gives the plot a melancholy and nostalgic feeling that fits.

And there’s something else too. In a story like this, whose main concerns are thematic (and not intrinsically tied to the superhero genre, even if they find in its tropes a particularly congenial form of expression), the shift from a comic book aesthetic of spectacle to a filmic aesthetic of superhero “realism” confers a significant advantage. Namely, the reduction of ordinary spectacle means that the moments in which “special effects” are employed resonate with unusual power. The image of the boy holding the entertainment unit over his head is extraordinary, but we’d barely notice it in an ordinary superhero book. The same is true for the remarkably evocative illustrations of Superman sitting with the boy as he eats his sandwich or talking over his case with the scientists while the boy lays asleep in the racecar-shaped bed. These images take us to the heart of an emotion that runs deep and is, I suspect, fundamental to Superman’s continuing appeal, particularly for men who can no longer lay claim to the territory of boyhood, despite their most ingenious and self-flattering efforts. That these images are set within a story about relationships between sons and fathers is not coincidental. The feeling they evoke is not one that I expected myself to be moved by, because it is almost too corny to name. But as I get older, it’s one that, increasingly, gives me pause. Especially when it is presented as delicately and earnestly as it is here.


Anonymous said...

I'm waiting for the trade on this one but Adam's art blew me away when I flipped through it at the shop -- far superior to his bro's in Batman. Hope its subtlety and detail don't require any delays.

I love his Clark as well, similar to Quitely's. Thank goodness Byrne's is finally buried -- do we credit Waid and Yu for getting that ball rolling in Birthright?

Anonymous said...

Jim - You left out the spoiler all your readers are dying to know! At the end of the issue does Superman make the world spin backwards to turn back time???

Jim Roeg said...

nobody - I haven't read the Waid/Yu mini; when it came out, I was feeling sort of Super-phobic (though now, I'd probably be more into it). Byrne's (and Wolfman's!) relaunches were actually my introduction to Superman. I had never read a Superman title prior to Byrne's Man of Steel. I didn't think much of that original mini, but I was sufficiently intrigued that I hopped on board all the regular titles and was a regular Superman reader up until the Bogdanov left Man of Steel (I miss Bogdanov) around the end of that silly Earth Giants story, I think. I didn't love all of Byrne's work on the series, but I have very fond memories of much of it. My favorite Superman scribe of that period, though, was Roger Stern (though I'd have to go back and reread a lot of those issues to make sure I'm not forgetting someone). Anyway, I haven't been reading Superman for some time; leave it to Morrison and Quitely to lure the old fans back... And I love the disheveled Clark Kent that Adam pinched from Quitely. Makes one's suspension of disbelief in Superman's "secret" identity almost plausible.

thomas - I'll never tell! But I have a strong suspicion that the giant wheel of space-cheese Superman catches in this issue may be a clandestine nod to the tone of the movie-moment to which you refer. Where would a Donner Superman story be without a healthy dose of cheese?

Anonymous said...

In all fairness, I should say that I have long liked the Man of Steel mini, one of the first Superman stories I picked up when I returned to comics around '96. I love Byrne's artwork in it, if only because he didn't ink it himself (I can't stand his sekf-inked work, as practically all his recent stuff is). I love his visual design of Kryptonian culture as well, some of which Bruce Timm adopted for the animated series.

I was also attracted to Byrne's idea that Clark was "native" to Earth, having been born only after his rocket landed, and it is only in retrospect that I have decided this negatively obscured Superman's role as "immigrant" and took away the pathos (too strong a word?) of his desire to fit in, if not become human.

Byrne's birth-on-earth also made it natural rather than ironic that Superman is more humane than most humans, as his citizenship by birth made his Americanism similarly too simple.

Anonymous said...

I just read this issue, and I agree wholeheartedly about the increased impact the "superpowered" scenes have -- and, isn't it great? When Superman catches the wheel of brie I experienced a very strange and exciting sensation I hadn't associated with Superman for a while: amazement. Well, mild amazement, to be sure, but even so...

And as I seem to keep harping on about in various places, the powers of superheroes aren't just tacked-on to their characters, so this emphasis on the powers made lots of stuff about the character work for me, that often doesn't. As much as I like Byrne's "human" Superman -- and I do! -- I like his "immigrant" nature too, but only, it seems, when it's connected to the amazement-thing of the powers. Because obviously the powers are the sign of the Kryptonian identity, and vice it all works together a bit better when they're punched up.

Hmm...I guess I think that in recent years people have run a little too far and too fast with Byrne's "human" Superman, again much as I like him. It's made Supes into a one-note kind of a guy, and stifled the enthusiasm I had for the character when I was young. I mean, stifled me from feeling it again in a nostalgic way! So, yeah: I agree, I thought this was terrific.