Thursday, 15 September 2016

[Comic Review] Superman : Dark Knight over Metropolis

Superman #44, Adventures of Superman #466-467, Action Comics #653-654, + Annual #1

Many people look back at the 90s as a dark time for comics and super hero comics in general. There are some infamous story lines as well as some truly absurd costume designs that are the subject of ridicule to this day. Yet for me the 90s remains a fascinating time for superhero comics and one that I personally believe to be, in its own way one of the best periods in comics.

One of the things that make this period so special to me is how the comics evolved with my own personal growth into adulthood. Coming out of the 80s comics still followed some very naive narratives, things that would be ridiculed by the cynical minds of today and seen as kitsch or corny. Yes, we had some stand out adult comics like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, which changed comics forever but that change was not felt in a glut of adult content, especially in the early 90s. For every Hellblazer, Sandman and Batman : Lengends of the Dark Knight there was a host of ultra-violent, decidedly juvenile comics which infested the 90s, particularly towards the middle of them.

Comics become popular as they had blood, gore and sex. Teenage boys loved them, I loved them. These garish and hedonistic endeavours eventually gave way to actual adult themed content which matched some of the trend setters that bloomed in the mid to late 80s (facilitated by the British Invasion). This growth in American comics produced an arc in the style and narratives that went from hopefulness, into juvenile rebellion and then into maturity. An arc that was matching my own growth as a young man.

Yet during this time that comics grew into the a true generationless medium, they lost something. Something which divided the older comics from the new into the category of relics, containing things no longer seen in today's major publications at all. The efforts to be edgy and adult lead to characters being weighed down by narrative demands that forced heavier and heavier story lines and character actions which completely removed some of the charm that made these characters so compelling in the first place.

Superman : Dark Knight over Metropolis collects a few short stories as well as one major Intergang tale that involved Batman and Superman teaming up. It was published during the turn of the decade around 1990. It sets up some themes about Superman and Batman's relationship that have become iron clad lore but the remarkable aspect of this book is that it in may ways it represents the transition from the Bronze Age into the Modern Age.

Superman himself was one of the most resistant to the new reality of comic publication pressures during the 90s, as he was the poster boy for the "boy scout" ideal and if you look in the late 80s and early 90s of the Superman's ongoing tales you can find a kind of comic fossil that represents the last breaths of the Bronze Age and a great place to experience that feeling is to start with this trade itself.

Pages like the one above show a charm and characterisation you rarely see in modern comics. These panels show Superman going for a zip around Metropolis for the pure pleasure and feeling of freedom that flight gives him. There is no threat, no mission, just Superman having super fun.

There is a growing concern in my mind about the changing face of comics. This is not necessarily a new change, in fact I think it can be tracked back to the X-Men of the 1960s, but wherever it started there is no doubt that superhero comics have lost what I feel is a critical component. The Secret Identity.

During the Golden Age of comics the majority of many books would have the characters in their secret identities for much of the story. In fact the "superhero" part of the story was a serial, and the ongoing tale that linked everything together, the story you actually followed form book to book was the lives of the characters in the human world. This matched the wish fulfilment of the readers. We are all humans, trying to get partners, dealing with jobs and jealousies and the like and we imagine a fantasy world were we... well, where we can fly; for example.

Over time comics have moved into what I call the "high-hero" level. The characters are spending more and more time in the superhero persona and interact nearly solely with other super beings. I believe the root of this shift is technically in the Fantastic Four as the FF4 never had secret identities as we known them now, but it followed much of the romance and family orientate story lines that were prevalent during the Golden Age. Yet it was the X-Men that fully transitioned from mundane stories to ones completely populated by superhumans, dealing with superhuman problems.

This creates a disconnect in the reader that never existed before. Plots and character interactions became less and less grounded in the readers experiences and I think some of the charm of these characters got lost during this transition. Not only in the actual stories themselves but in moments where our beloved characters, simply act more human, more relatable, and therefor in many ways more likeable. A great modern example of this is the recent Superman films Man of Steal and Batman vs Superman. Through efforts to focus on on the "reality" of the superhuman experience much of the charm we like these characters for in the first place is lost.

These comics feel like a breath of fresh air. You read them and you are instantly transported to your childhood and that feeling which I am having a hard time thinking of a word for besides "charm" or "pleasant" to describe. Even in moments of deep action, Batman and Superman act so differently to how they do now. Yet they act how any random person that dose not read comics thinks they should act.

We used to have secret identities to make it easier for us to relate to these crazy characters, which enabled the super persona to be a perfect example of some ideal. Now that we are in the High-Hero style of comics we imbue our heroes with very human faults to enable us to relate to them. Leading to to our heroes sometimes behaving very un-hero like. No longer can the failure to get a date with Mary Jane be enough, there needs to be some kind of torturous event or moral failure to be experienced by the characters in their Superhero persona to give the story texture. This brings the entire vibe of the comic into a darker place as no longer are the heroes allowed to be symbolic to perfect ideals.

Now I class these stories as transitional fossils in comics because it has the charm and feeling of the older comics, yet much of the main tale of the story is completely dominated by Superman and Batman interacting as Superman and Batman, much like the High Hero form that comics are stuck in right now. While there is the same charm you get in many Bronze Age comics there are also moments that stick out as brutal. There is one particular short in this trade that has such a callous ending that I felt nearly betrayed and I read some pretty violent comics. It is the juxtaposition form the happy and hopeful vibe that makes these events so jarring.

So why am I talking so much about nostalgia and the changing face of comics anyway and not speaking directly to the stories in this trade themselves?

Well, I enjoyed the book immensely and I mean; I loved it. So much in fact I tracked down a physical copy for my shelf, and that is the highest complement I can bestow on a comic. The stories are great, some are a little weaker than others, but I came out of this book not thinking about the particular tales.

Instead I came out with a feeling of discovery about how comics have changed. You read this book and you can see and feel something that comics do not even try to capture anymore, something I never knew I was missing. The things I used to read comics for when I was a child. It made me nearly stop reading modern comics for a few weeks and I have to tell you, I haven't enjoyed reading comics on that scale for a while.

So even though I do not want to talk about the specifics of the book, as for me the draw is something much broader. I do have to mention a particular short "The Limits of Power". You may have heard of this as it is an relatively famous tale that makes a satirical reference to popular marvel characters and puts a very decidedly 90s spin on them. The realism spin. I mean would getting a massive dose of radiation really improve your health? Look out for it, as it is a treat and the kind of thing that you can bring up in nerd chat and get some kudos! hehe


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