Thursday, October 29, 2009

Must-Read Superman Graphic Novels

As promised, here is the list of what I consider to be the best Superman graphic novels of recent times.

- Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

After 'Crisis On Infinite Earths' effectively obliterated the original DC Universe, leaving only one solitary universe behind, it was decided to revamp and reboot the Superman mythos. John Byrne accomplished this in his six-issue 'Man of Steel' miniseries. However, before Byrne launched his new version DC felt it necessary to bid the Superman of the Silver and Bronze Age a fond farewell in a story that deconstructed the character and brought all of his major story and plot points to a close.

The story was written by the legendary Alan Moore (who had already shook the comic book industry to its foundations with 'Watchmen', arguably the best and most important graphic novel ever) and penciled by Curt Swan (who many consider to be the definitive Superman penciller). The story saw a mysterious villain attacking Superman from behind the scenes and making it clear to him that his remaining time on Earth was limited. The story features the popular villains of the time including (a very dated and different version of) Metallo, Bizarro and The Kryptonite Man as well as the heavy hitters, Lex Luthor and Brainiac.


The story isn't quite the masterpiece it is cracked up to be, in my opinion. The writing style is different from Moore's usual fare (probably because it was being marketed to a more mainstream audience) and is dated as a result. Not to mention the reason Superman loses his powers in the end is a bit ridiculous and not entirely true to the character's motivations.

The last page is magnificent though and the perfect ending for this particular iteration of Superman.

- The Death of Superman Trilogy

The Death of (the Steel Age) Superman was one of the factors in the unprecedented comic-book industry boom in the early 90s, that saw particular comics regularly selling in the millions (and made untalented, untrained yuppies like Rob Liefeld rich and famous).

The story of the first part of the saga is simple: Superman encounters a ferocious, unstoppable, mindless, Hulk-like villain named 'Doomsday' and engages the creature in a vicious battle until both fighters die (thus proving that Superman can die in a fight that doesn't involve Kryptonite). While simple, the story is impressive and deals with some of the moral choices Superman has to make. In one particular issue, Superman is forced to grapple with the choice of either saving a family (who previously voiced their hatred of him) who are trapped in a fire or quickly neutralising Doomsday by attacking him off-guard from behind. Guess what he does.

The second part, "World Without a Superman" deals with the world's reaction to Superman's death, as well as showcasing a subplot of various forces trying to steal Superman's corpse in an effort to study it and (hopefully) clone it into a new super-creature. While the funeral scenes are heart-wrenching and there are some great moments of characterisation for Superman's supporting cast, this part of the story is very dragged out and a lot of the sub-plot is unneccessary. It does hold a special place in my heart as being the first graphic novel/trade paperback collection I ever read.

"The Return of Superman" is easily the best part of the saga and probably the most action-packed set of Superman comics I have read, ever. If I had to recommend just one part of the story, it would be this one. The collection of stories obviously revolves around Superman's return from the grave. The specifics of this return involve four new Supermen emerging in Metropolis, all either claiming to be Superman, or just not answering enough questions for anyone to know any differently.

The self-proclaimed 'Last Son of Krypton' believes himself to be Superman 'reborn', with new abilities and a new, darker outlook on justice following his death and resurrection. He has vague memories of his origins and past, but none of the character traits of the original. He sports a darker costume and a visor and shoots energy from his hands, an ability he regularly uses to punish and kill those he considers to be evil.

The 'Man of Steel' is literally a man in a high-tech suit of steel armour that allows him to fly and adds greatly to his strength. Metropolis believes this man to have acquired the 'soul' of Superman.

The 'Young Superman' never actually claims to be Superman, but readily admits that he is a clone of him. He quickly discovers that while his image is based on the man of steel, his DNA is not and his powers are quite different. Throughout the story, he gets angry anytime anyone calls him 'Superboy'.

Finally, there is the 'Cyborg Superman' who claims to be Superman, reborn after being augmented and sustained by cybernetic modifications.

I won't give away the ending, but needless to say, it's full of non-stop, popcorn action. It's pure-nineties, leave-your-brain-at-the-door fun and the ending is great.

The saga was so immensely financially successful, that Warner Bros. spent the better part of the 1990s trying and failing (often hilariously) to make a profitable movie out of it. All kinds of scripts were written (most notably Kevin Smith's 'Superman Lives' script) but it simply wasn't meant to be (maybe this wasn't the worst thing in the world). Eventually, a movie was made based on the storyline, although it was an animated movie, rather than a live-action one.

'Superman Doomsday' is a decent watch and well worth the reasonable price for the DVD. It deviates greatly from the original storyline (none of the 'other' Supermen feature in the story), but the basic themes and spirit are still present. Check it out.

- Superman for all Seasons

A Superman book I would give to aliens if they had never before heard of Superman. This book is nothing short of sensational. It takes the basic, streamlined Steel Age origin of Superman and expands on it, by examining the thoughts and motivations of the supporting characters that feature in the issues, namely Jonathan Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and Lana Lang. The writing and characterisation is utterly superb and makes up for the lack of any major plot. Not to mention the art, which is so beautiful you can gaze upon some of the pages for minutes on end.

- Birthright

Birthright is yet another attempt at retelling Superman's origin and is to date the finest effort. The best way of describing the story and what it does is to think of the movie Batman Begins, only with Superman instead of Batman. As well as the events that lead up to Clark Kent becoming Superman, we are shown the motivations. For the first time, we are truly given a sense of why Clark would decide to don a cape and suit in order to help people.

The story's other most important aspect is to portray how a 'Super-Man' would exist and function in the cynical, paranoid, media-saturated society of the 2000s. Unlike other versions of Superman's origin, people don't necessarily respond positively to him straight away. Lex Luthor (still a businessman, but re-imagined as more of an alien conspiracy theorist) is obviously at the forefront of all of this and the guts of the story revolves around Superman trying to convince the world that he is indeed there to help, in spite of the image Luthor is trying to convey of him. Writer Mark Waid is basically making the point that no matter how cynical the world can ever be, if you are true, honest, strong and good enough, no amount of deception or deceit can destroy you. And really, that's the essence of Superman.

It's a pity that this story wasn't properly incorporated into mainstream continuity, but I'm not even entirely sure that it would work as anything other than what it is. That being said, I would definitely enjoy a standalone sequel (or a series of sequels) to this story.

- Red Son

Red Son is a flawless, perfect, masterpiece of Superman literature. The fact that it involves Kal-El landing in Soviet Russia has no bearing on how true it is to the Superman legend and the character, not to mention exploring the inherent flaws involved with an all-powerful being landing on Earth and saving us from all the little problems we create for ourselves.

The story starts at the beginning of the Soviet Superman's career and spans hundreds of years, showcasing Superman's rivalry with Luthor (who is an American capitalist in the story, thus allegorically portraying the real-life animosity between the two states) and the eventual end of both men.

I really can't recommend this story enough. I'm still really annoyed that Mark Millar (the story's writer) wasn't allowed to write a new Superman movie, as he seemed to be taking the time-delayed approach this story took (except, obviously that the movie would be set in America, instead of Russia).

- All-Star Superman

In spite of its press, All-Star Superman isn't actually the greatest Superman storyline ever, but it is still extremely good. There's no real point to the story other than to bring Superman to the point of destruction in a story that examines him, his effect on the world and all of his supporting characters, in a traditionally fun and enjoyable way. It achieves this wonderfully and has a magical ability to fill you with the wonderment and excitement of a ten-year old reading his first ever comic book.

Superman is definitely closest to his Bronze Age incarnation in these stories, as he is immensely, impossibly powerful (probably more so than he has ever been) and is technically shown as being a God in one of the later issues, but he still can't save everyone as evidenced in one of the issues.

My favourite part of All-Star is the artwork and the environments created by the two-man team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Quitely's unconventional artwork is so bizarre that you can't help but stare at it until you realise how curiously beautiful it is. The world is closer to the kind of candy-floss fantasy lands you would find it in a Roald Dahl novel (indeed, Superman's eccentric-scientist-ally Leo Quintum might as well be Willy Wonka's brother in every respect) and this crosses over into Grant Morrison's writing as well. For example, in the very first issue, while Superman is battling to save Earth's Sun, the staff of the Daily Planet aren't trembling in panic, Lois Lane is already writing the headline "Superman saves Sun from destruction." For the first time, the supporting characters are (quite humourously) shown as being complacent in the face of grave danger because they know that Superman will save them as he always does.

An excellent series that won't soon be forgotten. It is the perfect blend of serious, thought-provoking characterisation and good old-fashioned superhero fun (which can often be an impossible balance to strike). I can't wait for the rumoured one-shot specials.

- Last Son

The most recent story on the list and one that is unfairly dwarfed by the immense success of the previously listed story.

This tale sees the Modern Age Superman (whose origin is only now being released in monthly format) meeting the villainous General Zod of Krypton for the first time and doing battle with him and his army of Kryptonian Phantom Zone criminals, all for the sake of protecting a young, Kryptonian boy who Lois and Clark adopt and name 'Chris Kent'.

If the story sounds an awful lot like the Superman II and Superman Returns movies, it's because it is. Richard Donner (the man responsible for the original movie and much of the second) is listed as the co-writer of the story and many of the visual choices of the movies are translated into the comic (including Donner's version of The Fortress of Solitude and the S-shield buckle on Superman's belt).

The story is one of the most genuinely enjoyable, action-packed Superman tales of recent times and would make for an excellent movie, if most of the story elements hadn't already been utilised by the previously mentioned films. In fact, 'Last Son' often seems like an attempt at fixing what those movies got wrong. Nevertheless, it's a whole bunch of fun finally getting to read Superman comics in a style that's familiar to me, as someone who grew up watching the classic Christopher Reeve movies.

- Kingdom Come

Another, earlier story written by Mark Waid and probably his crown jewel and indeed one of the finest superhero novels to come out of DC Comics in recent times.

The story deals with an overload of super 'heroes' creating all manner of havoc and chaos due to their careless disregard for humanity in the madness of their constant battling. Superman has ceased action because he has lost faith in a people who would prefer him to be a murderer. Finally, he springs back into action after a period of over ten years and recruits several other heroes to create a new Justice League sworn to bringing discipline and sensibility to this new breed of senseless, violent heroes.

The story is another excellent study on the effect superheroes would probably have on the real world as well as the difficulties someone like Superman would face. It deals with very similar themes to Watchmen, albeit with far more superpowers and a very different, more mythic style of artwork by Alex Ross (whose style is so deeply rich and profoundly personal that it would be a gross underestimation to refer to him as a 'comic book artist').

So there you go! If ever you felt it hard to find anything interesting about the Man of Steel, please read one of these comic books and I guarantee your opinion will be changed. I'll definitely be posting some more of my favourite graphic novels, so check back soon.

Friday, October 23, 2009

"I'm not a player! I read Superman comics!": A Brief History of The Man of Steel in Comics

Last night, during a very interesting conversation with a close friend about some of my...actions over the Summer, the above was said (by me) in a fit of semi-inebriated theatricality, while brandishing a copy of 'Superman Legends' at said friend. This statement sums me up almost perfectly (in a way, it probably would have been wise to substitute 'Superman' for another, equally popular, darker, more Knight-like hero). Since I promised superheroics on this blog and thus far it's just been a random smattering of thoughts, I figured I'd go for broke and do this, one of the most obvious blogs.

Disclaimer: I don't own Superman or any associated character of DC Comics or anything like that. Please don't sue me, these are just honest opinions based on years of me spending money on your fine publications.

So here we go:

The Golden Age:

For anyone wondering, the 'Golden Age' refers to the period of time where Superman (and other superheroes) were just created. Superman is a very different individual in these stories (unlike Batman, who was just as dark and awesome as he is today. He didn't change into the fun-loving Adam West version until a little bit later). In most Golden Age stories, Superman isn't seen fighting aliens or giant monsters; he's seen tackling crooked oil-rig owners, wife-beaters, drink drivers and other social menaces. He's very much a hero for the common man, the little guy, the 'oppressed' (as co-creator Jerry Siegel put it) and unlike his later incarnations, he's not afraid to use his fists and his temper to get his way, as the legendary first issue cover of Action Comics clearly displays:

Aesthetically, he's probably not the Herculean demigod he would become in the fifties. In these early stories, Superman can't even perform his signature superpower of flight and is relegated to super leaps (hence the origin of the popular phrase 'Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound'). He does acquire his most original power of x-ray vision fairly early on, though. Also unlike the stories of the 50s, through to the mid 80s, in these early stories Superman occasionally gets wounded and knocked out and various villains (including an early incarnation of Lex Luthor) even manage to find different ways to conk his powers out for short periods of time.

Probably the best aspect of these early stories is how Jerry Siegel writes Clark Kent. Clark Kent is a bumbling, clumsy weakling and isn't at all popular in the newsroom of The Daily Star (which would later be renamed 'The Daily Planet'). The most fascinating aspect of the Superman mythos (in my opinion) which is the love triangle between Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Superman is given its roots in these early stories and it's nothing short of spectacular entertainment watching Lois shun Clark in favour of the man of steel, not knowing that they are in fact one and the same.

The early stories in Action Comics are great little tales of what Jerry Siegel believed a really strong guy with the best interests of society could do. It would be remiss of me to mention just one issue that I really liked so I'll just recommend you check out 'Action Comics Archive: Volume One' as it's the perfect showcase of this iteration of the character.

The Silver Age: when everything got a bit wacky.

The Silver Age (for Superman, anyway) refers to the period between roughly 1945 and 1970. The emphasis was put on science fiction and fantasy (remember that the Atomic Age had begun and everyone was interested in sputnik and spacemen), which led to all manner of wild and wonderful stories.

As previously mentioned, it was around this time that Superman became something of an unstoppable God. He could easily stave off atomic blasts and essentially nothing could so much as ruffle his skin, other than the dreaded 'Green Kryptonite' which could kill him after prolonged exposure of a few hours. While he only had a basic roster of powers (flight, superhuman senses, speed and strength) the writers employed laughable pseudo-science to find ways that would allow Superman to do basically everything. During this era, Superman is regularly seen travelling backwards and forwards in time (with some very hilarious visions of what would have been 'the future' at that time), he can split himself into separate beings and even employ super-hypnosis for a variety of uses. The most popular of these 'makey-uppy' powers was when Superman would use "the heat of his x-ray vision" to melt or burn something or as an offensive measure against his enemies. This later evolved into 'heat vision' which basically involved Superman being able to shoot beams of heat from his eyes, completely unrelated to his x-ray power.

The Silver Age was also the first attempt at deepening Superman's origin and making it a fuller, more mythic tale than the single page origin Action Comics #1 gave him back in 1939. Superman's alien origins (which were originally relegated to a single panel) are fleshed out and it is revealed that he is the last son of the distant planet 'Krypton' and is the son of Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van. It seems that Jor-El knew that Krypton (at this point envisioned as being a colourful, fantasy, candy-floss land with Jewel Mountains and flying cars) was going to explode and tried to warn 'The Science Council' who shunned his claims. Jor-El then hastily built a rocket and sent his son to Earth, knowing that the lighter gravity and the yellow sun would endow his infant son with incredible abilities that would sustain him.

Superman's youth, which was originally envisioned as being spent in an orphanage was entirely revamped and showed an elderly couple by the name of Jonathan and Martha Kent adopting him and naming him 'Clark' (Martha's maiden name). By the age of 10, young Clark is immensely powerful and decides to use his powers for the good of mankind as 'Superboy'. Superboy's adventures took place in his hometown of Smallville (which, as we all know, is a quaint little country town in Kansas), which was in stark contrast to Superman's later home, the aptly named 'Metropolis'. Even Lex Luthor was given an origin (by Jerry Siegel himself, to the best of my knowledge, who was still writing several Superman comics a month). It seems that Superboy and Lex were originally friends in Smallville until Superboy accidentally ruined one of Lex's most important experiments during a chemical fire, causing Lex's hair to fall out in the process. This led to the life-long animosity we have come to see from Luthor.

Some great stories from this era include the above origin for Lex, as well as the two-part epic 'The Return to Krypton' which sees Superman going back in time to his homeplanet and falling in love with Lyla Lerrol, before having to leave, unable to avert the tragedy of the exploding planet.

The Bronze Age

An era that often gets overlooked, this is the point in Superman (and DC Comics in general for that matter) where things got a little bit more serious, partly because of an audience that was growing up with the medium, partly because of the troubled times and partly because Marvel Comics were making so much money with stories that were more accessible to readers of all ages and not just children. This led to some truly magnificent stories by the likes of Denny O'Neil (who I would credit as being the creator of Batman as we know him today) and the legendary Elliott S! Maggin.

In the stories of this era, Superman was still incredibly powerful and utterly unstoppable (he even became immune to Kryptonite), but his inner angst and loneliness was explored a lot more, as well as setting up some limitations to his godly powers; for example: while Superman could travel back and forward in time, during his travels he would only exist as a ghostly phantom, unable to have any effect on future or past events (or communicate with lost loved ones). Also, the aforementioned ability of Superman being able to split himself in two was done away with and stories explored the sad truth of while Superman was extremely fast and immensely strong, he just couldn't be everywhere at once and this meant that there were many people he couldn't save (one of the most important counter-arguments for people who believe the character to be too powerful, in my opinion).

Also, in an awkward attempt at updating the mythos, Clark Kent was moved from The Daily Planet to Galaxy Broadcasting and was changed from being a mild-mannered newspaper reporter to being a sexy, action TV newsman, with the sharp suits and the winning smiles to match. While Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White still made regular appearances, Clark was now usually seen dealing with boss Morgan Edge (who later turned out to be a crime boss with ties to mega-villain Darkseid) and Lana Lang of his youth (who was now a weathergirl).

Lex Luthor's hatred of Superman was made even richer, in the classic story 'Luthor Unleashed!'. While battling Superman in his new 'WarSuit' (which was brought into the comics to sell 'Super Friends' action figures) on the distant planet Lexor (where Lex is praised as a hero and has a wife and child), Luthor accidentally destroys his beloved planet. Naturally, he blames Superman and claims that he has only "just begun to hate!". The story, while a bit melodramatic, is really effective as a study of the classic Luthor and how in spite of his incomporable genius, he just can't get over his irrational hatred of this hero.

The Steel Age

One of the most important eras in Superman's history and the point where he was solidified as a character for all audiences and not just children, 'The Steel Age' refers to the twenty years between 1986-2006 where Superman's vast, often confusing comic book history was thrown out entirely and a bold new one was forged. In the six-issue miniseries 'The Man of Steel', Superman's new origin was shown.

In this version:

- Krypton is envisaged as being a cold, sterile, emotionless world where children are born in a 'birthing matrix'. Jor-El sends Kal-El's unborn matrix to Earth, thus allowing Superman to be 'born on Earth'.

- Clark never operates as 'Superboy' and does not become Superman until the age of about 22, after travelling the world and experiencing all manner of its cultures.

- Clark Kent is seen as being the 'true' identity, while Superman is merely a disguise he uses to help people in trouble. Unlike the earlier stories, Clark is shown as being a likeable, confident reporter who is successful in his own right as a novelist. In the early years of this era, Clark repeatedly states that if he is to win the affections of Lois Lane, he has to do it as his 'true' self, the normal guy from Kansas, as opposed to Superman (whose arms she would happily fall into).

- Superman is "powered down" drastically. While still being immensely powerful (and probably one the most powerful hero on Earth), he can be killed with brute force and generally isn't nearly as indestructible as his 1950s counterpart, who would laugh at the power of atomic bombs. He can no longer travel back in time (at least not by using his own powers) and he can't move anywhere near as fast as the speed of light (compared to the Silver Age, where he could travel several times faster).

- Superman truly is the 'last son' of Krypton. During this period, he never encounters other Kryptonians. Even General Zod is just a Russian guy.

- Probably the most significant change is to Lex Luthor, whose every motivation and status is changed entirely. In this era, Luthor is envisaged as a successful businessman, who has made billions legally through his genius. However, behind the scenes is a highly corrupt, white-collar criminal who essentially 'owns' Metropolis. When Superman comes along and shows that not everyone is afraid of him, Luthor makes it his business to destroy him, creating an entirely new and different dynamic.

The stories of this era were highly entertaining for the most part and for the first ten years or so, demonstrate the only time in Superman comics where the story was an ongoing, soap-opera-esque adventure, that would carry on from the last story every week (at one point, there was a different Superman comic every week, all continuing from the same story threads). While some of the writing is a bit sensationalistic when read with a current frame of mind, they're still damn entertaining and it's always funny reading how the writers try to make references with pop culture of the time. Some view the Steel Age as being a bit too 'hip' and that Superman shouldn't have been 'depowered', but I view it as the most accessible and cohesive period in Superman comics, where Superman was more of a normal person rather than a God. Plus, it inspired the greatest superhero show ever:

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman incorporated most of the elements of The Steel Age (Clark as the 'true' identity, Luthor as a crooked billionaire) and crafted what is (in my opinion) the finest television version of Superman, ever. The plots were sometimes a bit mundane and didn't always seem like 'a job for Superman', the villains were often a bit too hammy (and sometimes flat-out farcical) and the special effects are obviously quite dated looking at them today, but the performances of the two leads, the unlikely Dean Cain and the breathtakingly definitive Teri Hatcher, carried the show throughout its four seasons. Not to mention John Shea (who looked even less like his comic book counterpart than Cain; he had a head full of hair!) gave a truly deceptive portrayal as the conniving white-collar criminal Lex Luthor and gave the most under-appreciated performance of a comic book villain, ever. If the other villains were a bit silly, Luthor's appearances throughout the series made up for it.

Up next: The 'Must-Read' Superman Graphic Novels

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Devilishly Good: Why you need to be watching 'Supernatural'

Supernatural has always been a series I was aware of (it was always advertised on TV3 and the DVD sets seemed to be available everywhere), but it's only recently that I have come to realise its brilliance.

The show is a stunning, ideal blend of one-shot adventures and mythology-arc based storytelling. That is to say, most of the time you can watch it without ever having seen an episode before, but gradually, seeds are planted that develop the overall story. It's a far safer formula than that of
Lost or Heroes; shows that insist on demanding constant viewership - or you won't know what's going on. It helps that most of Supernatural's 'filler episodes' (episodes that don't move the overall story along) are mind-rapingly brilliant.

The premise is laugably simple: two hunky brothers drive all over America in their '67 Chevy Impala, fighting ghosts, vengeful spirits and all kinds of other demonic presences. The concept is almost a love-letter to the classic, action-detective shows of the 70s and 80s that featured manly men and manly cars (I am of course talking about the likes of The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider and Miami Vice). To be fair, the concept is so criminally basic that the show should be awful. This is probably why it's not as incredibly popular as it deserves to be. People are judging the book by its cover. However, closer inspection reveals superb acting from the two leads (Jared Paladecki and Jensen Ackles), deceptively good writing and consistently badass choices of non-diegetic background music (no David Gray for me! We're talking AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many, many other classic rock bands).

Having viewed the first two and half seasons, I can tell you now that there is basically nothing unentertaining about the first 44 episodes. It was about ten episodes into Season One where I began to question whether I had enjoyed a TV series as much as this. The third season (so far) has displayed some awkward bumps, but has been saved by some excellent one-shots on par with the first two seasons. You have to keep in mind that Season 3 suffered greatly from the Writers' Strike of the time. From what I hear, Season Four is an improvement and Season Five (which is currently airing) is something "F****** magical".

With Halloween coming up, it is the perfect opportunity to go out and buy the first three seasons. They are available in a complete set at a very attractive price of just €46.99 (less than a euro per episode) in your local HMV.

Believe me, you will not regret this.