A Spot of Adventure: The In-Between Age


Most people agree upon the periods of the Golden Age and the Silver Age of Comics, though there’s room for argument as to the Ages that have followed. The Golden Age, from Action 1 to All-Star 57, covers the years 1938 to 1950, whilst the Silver Age starts with Showcase 4 in 1956. That leaves a gap that has never been tagged onto any Age, metallic or otherwise.
For the second instalment of my review of Adventure Comics, I’m calling the period in question the In-Between Age, and I plan to go up to 1958, for two reasons. One is that, although the Barry Allen Flash debuted in 1956, he only made four appearances in three years before finally being unleashed on his own series, in 1959. I’d call that the true beginning of the Silver Age, but before that, in 1958, National would introduce a new idea in the pages of Adventure that was as Silver Age as you could wish. This essay covers the years leading up to then.
We begin with issue 167. The Shining Knight was fallen casualty to the times, leaving Adventure with a line-up, front to back, of Superboy, Aquaman, Johnny Quick and The Green Arrow (still with the definite article). Superboy has the perky, red-headed teenage beauty Lana Lang trying to uncover his secret identity, just as his adult contemporary has Lois Lane, and Lana gets the idea into her pretty head that an ancient helmet brought home by her archaeologist parents gives her Superboy-esque powers. Instead of just taking her for a long, slow ride at the next hayride and enjoying some enthusiastic smooching, Superboy has to pretend the helmet works to keep her from getting the right idea about why a robber’s bullet just bounced off him. Silly boy.
Lana was a seeming fixture for a few issues but then dropped out, which was a shame because she brought an element of personality to Superboy’s strip. It was still a mostly domestic strip, calling for no great effort on the kid’s powers but without the pretty redhead it was empty.
Indeed, going into 1952, the comic as a whole was dull. Aquaman, who was clearly the favourite of the DVD maker who manages to come up with the Sea King’s story even when nothing else of an issue is available, tends to fight pirates, Green Arrow and Speedy can’t even come up with new trick arrows anymore, and only Johnny Quick comes up with an interesting read, mainly because it still hearkens to its Golden Age look instead of the bloodless DC art of the era.
I’ll mention the story in issue 181, which featured Joannie Swift, Queen of Speed. Joannie is a typist who accidentally gains the same powers as Johnnie when a list of equations she reads out duplicates his Magic Formula. Joannie turns out to be brave, resourceful, athletic, intelligent, in short bloody good at being a super-speedster. Johnnie only wants her to go away, at first to save her from injury because, being a girl, she’s bound to be a weakling, but, as soon as he realises she knows her stuff, a rather too revelatory reason comes out: Johnnie doesn’t want to turn out second best to her.
Of course, that fate will never happen because, inevitably, Joannie’s afraid of mice, which causes her to forget the Formula. So, instead of a skilful, brave, worthy foe of crime, using her potential to the fill, Ms Swift is condemned to go back to the steno pool, because she’s a girl. Sometimes this stuff can make you want to barf.

Johnny Quick

Meanwhile, a whole year of the DVD goes by with only two complete issues but with every Aquaman story. These are formulaic, uninspired affairs, six pages of nothing: no wonder DC struggled in the early Fifties. Piracy still turned up, but also silly ideas like Aquaman running an undersea hospital or an undersea fire service.
When full service resumes, for a while, in issue 201, there’s another delightful Lana Lang story, with Superboy thinking he’s blown his secret identity to her Dad, and so relieved to find he’s wrong, he welcomes Lana’s determined pursuit of his secret: just kiss her, you chump, she’d be a great girlfriend.
The American comic book package started off at 64 pages. Thanks to paper restrictions during the Second World war, it was reduced to 56 pages, and then to 48, all at 10c, irrespective of size. But with issue 205, Adventure Comics was reduced to the 32 page size that’s been standard ever since. Johnny Quick missed out, though he returned the following issue at the expense of Green Arrow. But his final appearance was in issue 207, sadly not on the DVD. Henceforth, Adventure had only three features, and if I say that Superboy is the pick of them, you’ll appreciate how dull it is.
There was a landmark story in issue 210, with the initially temporary appearance of Krypto, the Superdog, nearly giving Clark Kent’s other identity away again to guess who? This was the only story for that issue, whereas next time we only had the Aquaman so I can’t say whether it was that or its absent predecessor where Aquaman switched from yellow gauntlets to the green ones we know so well. Either way, he was back to yellow for issue 212, that is, when he was coloured at all in a bizarre approach that saw him monocoloured pale blue in the majority of panels. Nobody seemed to be able to make up their mind as green and yellow alternated. Meanwhile, Krypto returned in issue 214 to prove that stories of the Superdog were likely to be pretty stupid.

A typical Aquaman plot

The Superboy story in issue 216 had the Lad of Steel meeting Superman without time travel, but its twist was that the adult version was really archaeologist Professor Olsen. Rescuing him endeared Superboy to Olsen’s young son, Jimmy… And speaking of costume changes, Green Arrow started wearing a red cap as opposed to his usual green one in the occasional story.
Frustratingly, Superboy’s real parents, Jor-El and Lara turned up in issue 217, having escaped Krypton after all, preparing to take their son to their new off-world home. It’s a trick alright, from Superboy’s callous ignoring of the Kents to the con on death row who pieces together his identity as Clark Kent, even down to how the Els are only seen flying when Superboy is holding their arms, but this was a very rare two-part story and we only have Aquaman for issue 218.
One of the interesting aspects of reading Adventure during this period (it’s more fun than the two back-ups) are the in-house ads for DC titles of the In-Between Age. Lists and covers of all manner of titles unwanted and forgotten, a publishing era lost permanently. But the cusp of change is approaching. Issue 22 carries an ad for yet another new title, starring Fireman Farrell. He never set the world alight, and we know that the ad is full of lies when it describes the new comic as a response to all those reader letters requesting different subjects, requiring a new kind of comic to fit them all in. We know that the real reason was to try to control the losses, both in money and reputation, from the way nothing new was catching on. Fireman Farrell was the first subject, the star of Showcase 1. In six months time…
In fact, the Showcase ads are fascinating. No-one ever cares about the first three, overshadowed utterly by no 4. The second issue featured Kings of the Wild, three outdoor adventures. These adverts are a history lesson in themselves.
So they stop printing inhouse ads at all, and I don’t get to see 3, or 4, come to that. Has nobody any sense of responsibility to future generations?
Meanwhile, the Aquaman and Green Arrow strips are growing dumber. Aquaman no longer has to pursue pirates, not when his time can be taken up with nonsensical ‘stories’ about how he schools his finny friends to obey his instructions or how he apparently turns into an egomaniac except it’s all a secret scheme, whilst the Battling Bowmen go trading places with other archers or else emulate their own trading cards. Truly this was an age of inanity.
Superboy’s own series continued to be both silly and sententious, but the occasional nice moment came along. Taking advantage of the fact that a leaking special gas would give everybody amnesia for an hour, the Boy of Steel decided to reveal he was really Clark Kent to test if a secret identity was more of a burden than a benefit which, this being DC Comics in 1957 it self-evidently was a benefit. But there was a touching moment when Lana, the teenage pest so set on proving Clark and Superboy were one and the same, began to cry at the proof – because Clark was a dear friend and she would never see him again.
I had a surprise in issue 239, which saw Krypto’s return, for I had read this story before, a very long time ago. Not in Adventure but in a British Superboy hardback annual, reprinting this in black and white. The first in well over a hundred Superboy stories that I had previously seen.
And harking back to Lana’s genuine distress at the thought of losing her dear friend Clark, how does the Boy of Steel repay her in issue 240? By becoming as big a Superdick as his adult self and humiliating her in front of all of Smallville to conceal his secret identity. What did I say about this stuff making you want to barf?
Obviously Lana got over it by the next issue, in which Green Arrow and Speedy were joined by Queen Arrow, aka Diana Dare (any relation to Dan?), who temporarily hypnotised herself into acting out her deepest desire, namely to be told by her heroes that what they do is too dangerous for a girl. Once he joined the Justice League, did Ollie ever try that line on Wonder Woman?

Some superheroes, huh?

Issue 243 is the last complete comic for this section, the next three issues represented by one story only, two of them the simultaneously tedious and ridiculous Aquaman. The last of these is cover-dated March 1958, making its actual publication most likely January of that year. Two issues of Showcase thus far have featured The new Flash. Two more would appear this year. The Silver Age was cranking up for the off. The next issue of Adventure would see a change that I’ll explore in the third essay in this series.

Film 2019: Superman IV – The Quest for Peace


For a working Sunday, a film is needed that can be summarised quickly: very well then, Superman IV – The Quest for Peace is crap.

On the other hand, I can’t summarise it that baldly, so here’s a few words about why it’s crap.

After the failure of Superman III, the Salkinds took a decision on the future of their franchise. They decided that Superman was played out as a movie character, instead of the more logical explanation, which was that fans thought Richard Lester’s approach was moronic. So instead of getting in writers and a director who could restore the character to a measure of the dignity displayed in the first film, they sold the rights to Golan and Globus, the Israeli producers who operated as Cannon Films.

This was not a good move. Yes, Cannon got Gene Hackman and Margot Kidder back, but they did not get New York back. Instead, ‘Metropolis’ was filmed in England, near Milton Keynes, on a shoestring budget. And doesn’t it show. Whether the franchise could have been revived or not, it wouldn’t be this way and Superman films were dead in the water for twenty years.

My viewing this morning is only the second time I have ever seen this film. And there are parts of it I have never seen, since I took a date with me and snogging in the middle row was much more entertaining than the film, trust me it was. And whilst that was not the mostsparkling ever relationship of my life, I could have done with a bit of snogging today.

One day, if I have the time and the energy, I might watch this film again with a view to a point-by-point demolition of it’s… qualities, starting with the rancid credit scene where names loop and swoop across the screen in a manner dangerous to those easily nauseated, and ending with the closing ‘battle’ in which the Laws of Physics are not so much ignored as despatched via warp-space to another dimension entirely, and about how parts  of the film display some of the worst aspects of DC Comics of the Seventies whilst others are more akin with the stories of the Forties. Just not today.

I described the film as crap. On more detailed thought I’d like to expand that to three words, these being cheap, moronic and deadly dull (technically, that’s four but I’m choosing to regard deadly dull as a single unit, since it is distinct from merely dull).

Cheap is self-evident from the awful blue-line special effects. There are many, too many ‘flying’ scenes where Superman or his newly-created opponent approach the camera head-on. In films 1 and 2, despite the primitive technology of forty years ago, these were never seamless but were convincing. In IV the bluescreen technology is shoddy at best, with the actors not merely separated from their backgrounds but lit from a completely different, nd queasily unnatural source.

Moronic is self-evident from the film’s theme. I’m sorry to say this about the late and entirely delightful Chruistopher Reeve, who suggested and helped develop the story out of a genuine concern for the proliferatiion of nuclear weapons world-wide (as who wasn’t under President Ronnie Reagan?), but the idea that you can dramatise that in a cartoon-like manner using a superhero is theEncyclopedia Brittanica definition of moronic.

Firstly, Superman declares war on nuclear weapons, prompted by a letter from a small boy, and chucks every single one into the sun. So Lex Luthor uses a strand of Superman’s hair to extract his DNA to create a Nuclear Man (a cardboard cut-out, crappy uniformed, mulleted piece of beefcake played by Mark Pillow who gets to roar but not speak as all his dialogue is dubbed by Gene Hackman: I hope the poor sod was well-paid).

So the threat to World Peace is symbolised by a long, drag-out punch-up between Suuperman and Nuclear Man that is not even as well-choreographed as your average ITV World of Sport Wrestling Bout in the late Sixties (4.00pm up to the football result), which Superman wins even thoough Nuclear Man is stronger than him.

And deadly dull? The film’s whole 86 minutes demonstrates tht. It’s loose and unstructured. It takes 40 of it’s 86 minutes (including lengthy credits at each end) to even introduce Nuclear Man. It wastes a lot of time on an uninteresting sub-plot whereby a Rupert Murdocch-like tycoon buys the Daily Planet to turn it into a raging tabloid whilst his slim, chic, long-legged daughter lusts after Clark Kent (I have never yet seen a convincing performance by Mariel Hemingway, nor have I ever fancied her in anything).

In short, it’s a mess.

But I was pleasantly surprised by one aspect of the film, which I found genuinely appealing, and that was the relationship between Lois Lane (welcome back Margot Kidder, even if you had to be horribly dressed to prevent you from outshining Ms Hemingway, which didn’t work) and Clerk Kent. True, the film borrows shamelessly from both Superman – a flying scene, this time round the United States – and Superman 2 – revealing his identity and removing it with another amnesia-inducing kiss – but in both this and, more tellingly, elsewhere, the film portrays the pair as genuine friends, caring about each other, and Kidder’s performance is full of a warmth and a relaxed nature about her friend. He’s still a klutz, still annoying in that respect, but Lois understands how genuine Clark is (the irony) and accepts and respects him as that. These are moments of illumination in a film that can’t otherwise be taken as anything but dim.

The only other comment I want to make now is something I picked  up on almost from the film’s beginning that I can’t decide if it is a subtle element in Reeve’s as usuaal brilliant performance in distinguishing between Clark and Superman or which is projection by me, but I thought I detected a subtle strain of underlying exasperation, never remotely overt, from Kal-El over the continued absurdity and minor humiliation of everything he has to do be ‘be’ Clark.  I know I’d be sick of it by now.

Film 2019: Superman 3


The problem with Box Sets is that, sometimes, in order to get the things you want, you also have to have the things you don’t want, a dilemma exemplified by this mornings film. Though one mustn’t be too harsh about Superman 3, which has one massive saving grace: it is not Superman 4.

Actually, I think Superman 3 exemplifies the reason why this version of the Superman franchise failed so quickly and so substantially, despite having a massively successful film to lead it off and an actor perfect for the role: nervousness. Or, if you prefer, lack of conviction.

The Salkinds brought in Richard Donner to direct the first Superman movie, who did as he had done on The Three Musketeers, simultaneously filming the majority of its sequel. But the Salkinds fell out with Donner over the direction of the films and brought in Richard Lester, who re-filmed a lot of Superman 2 in order to get his Director’s credit, and who was solely responsible for Superman 3.

The two Directors had substantially different viewpoints. Donner was attuned to the myth and the substance of the Superman legend: watch the first film again, and, with the exception of Lex Luthor’s two unfunny accomplices, Donner treats everything with a seriousness absent from Lester)’s treatment, which goes for the silly and the foolish and the comic with the same directness as the old Dozier/Semple Batman TV series.

It’s not to the same degree as Dozier and Semple, who thought that anyone who liked Batman was stupid and worthless, but Lester can’t take Superman seriously, or cannot bear being thought to take Superman seriously. The whole idea has to be undercut with jokes, and silliness, conspicuously signally to Lester’s equals that he isn’t so gauche as to believe in what he’s doing, that he looks down on it.

And as the Salkinds preferred Lester over Donner, we have to assume that, despite the money they pumped into the first film, and the money they got out of it, they too could not be comfortable with people thinking they actually took superheroes seriously.

And you can’t take Superman 3 seriously.

I actually read the tie-in novel first. I don’t usually read tie-in novels at all, but I’d been recommended to the E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial novel because it was written by William Kotzwinkle and was hilarious, and I saw his name on this book. And Kotzwinkle made the novelisation fun, which was more than Lester managed with the film.

Probably, I’ve only seen this film once since going to see it in the cinema, and that likely a couple of decades ago. It hasn’t changed but I have, and from finding it tedious and unworthy first time round, I now found it to be utter trash, inept on practically every level, from start to finish.

There’s a near complete change of cast, not in itself a bad thing. The Daily Planet aspect is substantially downgraded and Lois is shipped offstage for most of the film, appearing only at beginning and end (it’s claimed that both Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman took exception to Richard Donner’s treatment, as a result of which Kidder was shunted off, and Hackman refused to appear), though Ilya Salkind has denied this).

Lois’s replacement is her greatest rival in the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman comics, Lana Lang, the girl from Smallville, Clark Kent’s teenage crush. She’s played by Annette O’toole and is consequently sweet, and the best part about this picture. Tellingly, Lana is more interested in Clark than Superman, reversing the roles of Lois, though she brings baggage in the form of six-year old Ricky, who restores that balance.

But Lana, and Clark’s obvious interest in her, is the understory, and the overstory is a disaster. It involves Richard Pryor (doing some low-key mugging and grinning and generally operating at one-quarter power) as Gus Gorman, unemployed layabout who discovers a genius-level talent for computer programming. Pryor may be a guest star but he’s obviously intended to be the lead so, given the man’s genuine presence, it’s pathetic to see him being given such a cheap script as this.

Gus comes to the attention of megalomaniac millionaire Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn with the brave resignation of a good actor who’s realised that not even his legendary charm can animate a turkey of a role like this) and his unattractive younger sister and bulldog Vera (I feel sorry for Annie Ross).

Ross also has a ‘psychic nutrionist’ (‘she feeds my ego’, a line used in the book but cut from the film). Lorelei is played by Pamela Stephenson as a pneumatic blonde bimbo, who, naturally enough, is hiding a considerably high IQ (she reads Kant’s Critiqu of Pure Reason and disagrees with him, and if that isn’t one from the cliche drawer, then I can’t recognise a lazy gesture if I fall over it in broad daylight).

To cut a long story short, and avoid having to go into unending detail about the shit writing that burbles through the clumsy plot, Ross instructs Gus to help him corner the world’s coffee market by having him use the US’s weather station to manufacture a typhoon and destroy the coffee crops of Columbia, the only hold-out, only Superman intervenes to stop it. So Ross wants Gus to kill Superman by presenting him with a misshapen rock of artificial kryptonite, except that they can’t get a perfect analysis of kryptonite’s chemical make-up: there is 0.57% on unknown, for which Gus substitutes tar.

Tar K doesn’t kill Superman, it just turns him bad. Here is where the film truly shows its inadequacy. Superman turns bad. He wants to make a pass at Lana on her couch rather than save a truck-driver from falling off a bridge. He straightens up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, fer’ Chris’sakes, and, oh my gods the depravity, he gets drunk in a Metropolis bar and flicks peanuts at the bottles behind the bar, smashing them! Is there no end to the depths this hero has fallen?

(Actually, he does puncture a rogue tanker and create an oil-slick of approximately two hundred yards length that threatens the Metropolis seaboard despite no land being in sight in any direction, and he fucks Pamela Stephensonand I wonder what she thought about these two being treated as equivalents when she read the script? – so it’s not all impoverished imagination.)

All it takes is Ricky popping up in Metropolis to forlornly bleat at Superman to make a comeback and he does, courtesy of a fight in a junkyard between Superman and Clark Kent which the latter, after taking incredible punishment, wins. The fight is slow and overlong, though the first part of that is due to the limited technology of the time, but it does contain the film’s solitary psychologically penetrating line, when Superman throws Clark into a metal compactor, saying he’s been irritated by Kent and wanting to do this for a long time.

So Superman is back, as signalled by him getting his costume laundered, ready to tackle the four greedheads who, in the meantime, have built a supercomputer in the Grand Canyon. Two points about this ‘climactic battle’ that illustrate the level of stupidity and inconsistency on which this film is built.

Firstly, Gus – who has previously attempted to kill Superman face to face without the least level of qualm – breaks from Ross and Co because he thinks killing Superman is going too far. Second, this supercomputer can recognise danger and independently act against it yet it decides a container Superman is holding behind his back is completely harmless, when it’s an acid that, once heated, gets super-acidic and destroys the supercomputer from within. Where’s Julius Schwartz when you need him? He would never have let Gardner Fox get away with an idea like that, not that Fox was ever so stupid as to even try it?

I’m not going to go on any longer. Seen on a rainy Sunday morning in 2019, Superman 3 is a dozen times worse than I remember it. It’s stupid, petty and mundane, because neither writers not director have enough respect for their source material to even think of showing it as respectable in any manner, and certainly not seriously. Only O’Toole as Lana, and Chris Reeve, still putting his all into this dodgy material, are any reason to watch this film ever again. It was a franchise killer from the credits scene onwards (mass slapstick in Metropilis after Lorelei wobbles past in high heels, and completely unfunny at that: Kotzwinkle made it work, though). Only O’Toole as Lana, and Chris Reeve, still putting his all into this dodgy material, are any reason to watch this film evr again.

There was one more, though not produced by the Salkinds. I remember that as being worse that this film. When I get round to watching that, I’m seriouly hoping it hasn’t deteriorated as much as this has…

Film 2019: Superman II


I dunno. And I used to like this film so much.

Superman II came out in 1980 and I saw it back home in Manchester. I liked its breeziness, I liked how it focused on the superheroing to a much greater extent than the original film, without the long introductory sequence that told Kal-El and Clark Kent’s origin, and I liked that it put Superman up against opponents capable of giving him a good fight.

I wasn’t unaware of its faults, such as the plot-holes you could drop the Fortress of Solitude down, and the way it cheated on the ending, but I loved its relaxed nature. It was fun.

Unfortunately, it’s now forty years ago fun, and all the things it set out to do and achieve have been done far better, far more often and far more convincingly in the Marvel films. The effects in Superman II just don’t match up (hell, they don’t even match up to Superman I!) and the inability to generate any pace in the film because of the laborious natue of those effects, not to mention the way everybody struggles visibly with the walls they knock down or the things thrown at them, now leaves it looking very feeble indeed.

And a large part of my loss of pleasure at the film is down to the controversial decision to replace Richard Donner, Director of I with Richard Lester as Director of II.

The two Directors have opposing approaches to their material. Donner was heavy on the mythology of Superman. No matter how far his depiction of Krypton and its destruction varied from the comics’ visual canon, Donner is faithful to the spirit of Jerry Siegel’s original, as is his vision of the paradoxical grandeur of Kansas, the open spaces in which Clark grows, and which gives the film such a grandiose structure that the later loss of confidence and descent into silliness can’t quite spoil.

Lester, on the other hand, was actively looking for silliness from the outset. Yes, he ditches Otis (Ned Beatty) quickly, and makes minimal use of Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine, mostly covered from head to toe) before letting her slip, forgotten, into the first of what is not so much a crack as a cavern, but Lex Luthor is still the bombastic clown of both films, playing both ends against the middle unavailingly.

The three Kryptonian villains are slightly better. Terence Stamp, as General Zod, phones in a generic peformance of unperturbable command, Sara Douglas, as Ursa, camps it up wonderfully in a performance of Batman TV show slinkiness, looking hot in leather slit up and down all limbs (Douglas has spoken of how, to get the right effect, she was constantly sucking her cheeks in), but Jack O’Halloran, as the dumb brute Non is just daft and not half as tough as he ought to be.

But everywhere, if there’s a cheap option that undercuts any dramatic aspect to a scene, Lester heads for it like a bloodhound scenting a man on the run, and insists  on cramming it in. It creates an imbalance that, to my eyes in 2019, leaves the film feeling uncomfortably close to the atmosphere of the Batman tv show: Lester can’t take his material seriously enough to layer the humour into it instead of faintly pointing it up. I feel condescended to for my enjoyment of the subject.

Naturally enough, the movie’s biggest plot hole is the most obvious one. Clark subconsciously gives his secret away to Lois, because he loves her and wants to share with her. The genuine love between the two is evident in the scenes that follow this, despite Lester’s desire to load things up with banality (‘I’ll just go and slip into something more comfortable’, forsooth).

But the plot, as conveyed to us by Susannah York as Lara, Kal-El’s mum (they couldn’t afford Marlon Brando twice) means that if Superman wants to shag Lois Lane as much as she wants to shag him, he has to lose the powers: we have all read Larry Niven’s ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex’, right? Though Phil Foglio found a way round that in his Inferior Five mini-series. And he has to lose them permanently, as in permanently permanently.

Unfortunately, whilst Clark Kent is losing his virginity, Zod’s taking over the world. Clark and Lois discover this whilst still under the afterglow of bonking their brains out, calling in at this roadside diner as they travel south in the hire-car they had delivered to them at the cracked and broken Fortress, way in the Arctic Circle, along with Lois’s complete change of outfit. Lester’s way of playing the scene makes it look as if Clark is determined to recover his irrecoverable powers less to deal with this earth-shattering crisis and more because he’s decided that dipping his wick is less meaningful than it not hurting when loudmouth shitbags punch him out.

So Clark walks back (walks back in a short jacket and bare hands where it takes fully-wrapped-up Lex a snowmobile to arrive) and retrieves his powers offscreen in a manner we’re left to infer from the fact the green crystal was lying on the floor and didn’t crack up.

Bollocks.

Where the film does rise above itself is in the first part of its ending. Clark’s Superman again, the Kryptonians have fallen down ice-chutes and been forgotten like Eve Teschmacher, and Lois has got to learn to live with the knowledge that she can’t even let on to Clark Kent how she feels about him, let alone ever sleep with him or even kiss him. And she loves him, oh how she loves him. Kidder portrays it in every quaver and attempted calmness of that delicious husky voice, in the haunted eyes that look everywhere but at Clark, in the words that the scripters, for once in the film, have chosen well. And Clark/Superman is for once helpless to prevent this private but altogether real tragedy, the pain he has brought to this one person who means more to him than anyone else, that he can’t let mean more to him than anyone else, this one person that he cannot save.

So toss in some fucking mumbo-jumbo about kissing Lois and she’s forgotten everything, including loving Superman and the audience is so fucking dumb they won’t spot that we’ve just shat on them.

I dunno. I used to like this movie. Now, all I can see is where the ridiculous Superman III is coming from, and why the franchise failed after IV, which I’m not looking forward to watching for a second time in case this time it starts to resemble Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice….

 

Film 2019: Superman


We begin Phase 2 of Film 2019 here: for the remainder of this series I’ll be watching and commenting on films I have in box sets of differing numbers. Some of these box sets are of films that tell a complete story between them, trilogies if you want to call them that without giving away the least clue, oh no, gollum. These will be watched over consecutive weekends. Others, like the film that starts this sequence, are part of compilations, and these I will dip into serendipitously, at random. Let us begin.

For me, Superman, the Mario Puzo scripted, Richard Donner diected, Alexander and Ilya Suskind produced, Christopher Reeve starring film, is a glory and a nostalgic dream. It’s not perfect, it’s not impervious to criticism, but it represents something that goes deep inside me and for that it will always soar above its flaws.

Superman was released forty years ago this year, on January 1, 1979. It had been promoted for months, and the tag-line was You will believe a man can fly. And we did. I saw it within a week of it arriving in Nottingham, on the ABC1 screen, a big, old-fashioned cinema that foresook the intimacy of today’s multiscreens for the gigantic spaces of old and was thus the best ever venue for a film like this. I took my best friend, the woman I was in love with and from whom I was concealing my feelings (I thought) because she was in love with someone else. We both loved it. And despite the occasional green screen mismatch, of colours, usually, we believed.

Superman was the big daddy of them all, the first big budget effort at putting a superhero on screen and taking him seriously. You look at it forty years on and see the roots of what is present in the Marvel Extended Cinema Universe films. You see the relatively primitive special effects, you see the naivete of many elements in the film, you see where the courage of convictions wears thin and the film just has to resort to silliness because, after all, we’re grown-ups, aren’t we? And you watch the film take a time over things that would have audiences poring over their smartphones long before the scene is over. And if you are me, you say a great big flaming So What?

Because this was the great big validation. This was all of us who loved comics and who kept that love, or even the very merest mention of interest, concealed from everyone we worked with. This was Superman, first of them all, and this was Superman being taken seriously, in a way that let us openly celebrate what we otherwise hid, without being exposed. Before I got to see the film, I was hearing Barristers in their Robing Room discussing the film delightedly.

Speaking of slowness: the film opts for a very long introduction/origin. We begin on Krypton (after that glorious John Williams theme has played out to its full) with Jor-El conducting the trial of General Zod and Co.  This is very much a teaser for Superman 2 which Donner, in the manner that he’d taken with The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers, was filming simultaneously. But it also establishes Krypton for us, or a film Krypton, of a massive and frozen aspect, an ice and snow planet with elegant crystal technology (a controversial departure from the comics Krypton, a planet of glorious, abounding life and wonders). And it establishes Jor-El for us, in Marlon Brando’s massively expensive, impassively composed performance, as the classic story plays out and baby Kal-El is placed in a star-shaped rocket to be sent to Earth where, as we are told twice round, his Kryptonian metabolism will make him super-powerful.

Then we cut to Smallville, Kansas, childless middle-aged couple Jonathan and Martha Kent, who adopt the baby that crashes in a falling satellite, raise him, teach him honesty, humility and a sense of purpose that will be built upon doing good. It’s old-fashioned, it’s hokey, but it’s unashamedly presented as natural, and it captures an essential part of the superhero DNA that’s so badly overlooked in these cynical times when everything is insistent on exploring the dark heart of the myth, that these brightly lit fantasies of superiority are about being good and doing good, because that’s what is important.

All of this is seen through the life of Clark Kent aged 18, and played so far by Jeff East (with dialogue redubbed by Christopher Reeve), and but for an unrealistic scene where the Special Effects aren’t up to convincingly showing you Clark running faster than a speeding locomotive (it had to be) it’s superb. The Kansas setting is evoked wonderfully in its sheer massiveness, a spaciousness that subconsciously echoes the grandeur of Clark’s powers.

Then, after Jonathan dies of a heart attack, Jeff East goes away for twelve years, to the Arctic, his Fortress of Solitude, and further holographic education from Jor-El, and, forty five minutes in, yes, a whole forty-five minutes, we get a brief glimpse of the Superman costume, and then it’s a cut to Metropolis, to the Daily Planet, and finally Christopher Reeve comes onscreen, not as the hero, but as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter.

Christopher Reeve, poor damned Christopher Reeve. He is the movie. A more or less complete unknown, at first rejected for the part for being too young and too skinny, Reeve is Superman, and he is Clark Kent, and he is two completely different people and he brings total authority, complete conviction and massive authenticity to both. As Superman, you believe a man can fly not because the Special Effects show it but because Christopher Reeve shows it: he’s brilliantly adept at working with the machinery that supports him, and when we watch him in flight, we believe we are seeing this, because Reeve treats it as the most natural thing on Earth.

And as Clark, he is funny, clumsy, klutzy and sincerely outdated to the exact point before his performance could turn into parody. His posture changes, his apprehension of an unkind world increases, his voice is higher-pitched and light without sounding unnatural. To demonstrate my point, there is a scene in Lois Lane’s apartment that condenses Reeve’s performance into about sixty seconds: Reeve has just left Lois as Superman and returned as Clark Kent for their ‘date’. She is still in a haze of distraction. As Clark, he looks at the room into which she has just disappeared, to fix her hair. He takes off his glasses, straightens up, his voice drops in register. With no make-up or effects, he has turned from one man into the other. Then doubt affects him, he restores his glasses, shrinks and dissolves into Clark. All in one scene, no cuts.

Margot Kidder, poor damned Margot Kidder, plays Lois Lane. There’s an early and nasty attempt to undermine her by portraying her as obsessed with violence and sex and unable to spell properly, and she ends the film as the classic victim, dependent upon the hero to rescue (please bear in mind that this version of Superman is based on the pre-1986 John Byrne reboot), but she’s perfect in the role, mixing the character’s underlying independence and forthrightness with the effect of being thunderstruck in love (and lust). Kidder was a lovely woman then, with a wonderfully throaty way of speaking. Like Reeve, she was an unknown, but the pair have chemistry that leaps off the screen at you, and the film was so right to cast unknowns in these two vital roles, since that enables us to see them as Clark/Superman and Lois, instead of actors.

These two carry the film. There are, as I said, flaws. Gene Hackman plays an ebullient, imperious, self-congratulatory Lex Luthor (the original Luthor, the openly criminal scietist). He gets the two best lines in the film, one of them the justly celebrated “Everyone has their faults. Mine’s in California”.

The other’s a bit self-referential, “Why does the world’s greatest criminal surround himself with nincompoops?” which, having already seen Ned Beatty’s face-stuffing Otis, is surely being said before the audience can ask the same question. His other assistant is Valerie Perrine as Miss (Eva) Teschmacher, and we all know why Luthor keeps her around: Miss Teschmacher is a cartoon sexpot (if she were a real cartoon, she’d be a Hentai).

The ending to the film was also very controversial. Luthor’s nuclear missile hits the San Andreas Fault, causing massive earthquakes, collapses and a lot of work by Superman in saving people. So much so that by the time he realises Lois is in a car being swallowed up by the Earth, it’s too late, she has been crushed to death.

Comes the moment. Superman struggles with his loss, his grief. He looks into the sky, screams, “Noooooooooooooo!” and takes off faster than at any time in the film. He flies into space. He is challenged by the image of Joe-El, reminding him that it is forbidden to change the course of human history (isn’t he already doing that, the way all of us do, just by being here day after day?), he recalls the words of Jonathan Kent, that he is here for a purpose and that is to use his powers to help people. Two fathers, two philosophies, two cultures. Kal-El chooses Earth. He spins round the planet so fast and persistently that it begins to turn backwards. Footage rolls backwards. Cracks in the earth close up, dams heal themselves, boulders roll uphill. Superman lands by Lois’s car and she’s alive. They’re about to kiss when Jimmy Olsen turns up.

I don’t care. I loved it, then and now, the eucatastrophe. Of course it’s a cheat. It was called as such then, the action of a big baby, stamping his widdle foot and screaming, and I don’t care. Above all else, this is a peculiarly comic book film in a way none of  the modern breed are. It plays by comic book rules, not cinema rules. It has a sense of wonder unpunctured by too much realism. The DC Cinema Universe may one day run to 100 films, and I still won’t have watched Man of Steel, but this will still be greater than all of them, because we do believe a man can fly, and we can go fly with him and feel that first thrill over and over again. It can even tell us that Superman fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way and not have us laugh with embarrassment.

One final comment. My DVD has the amended credit sequence. When I saw this in Nottingham in January 1979, there was no line crediting Superman as the creation of Jerry Seigel and  Joe Schuster. Truth and Justice did, eventually, triumph over the American Way.

From Watchmen to Doomsday Clock


From this…

I suppose you’d have to say that in the Eighties, I was one of those for whom Alan Moore was God, at least when it came to writing comic books. I discovered him on, simultaneously, Marvelman and V for Vendetta, in Warrior no. 1, and gleefully followed him to DC Comics, where he rapidly became the first superhero writer. And why not? Even in an eight-page back-up, Moore had the priceless gift of being able to see angles upon stories, situations, sensations that no-one had previously thought to look for, let alone discovered, but once seen seemed entirely inevitable. Every Moore story seemed to unpick and re-make the Universe, a piece at a time. Dialogue, captions, notions: no doubt Marv Wolfman summed it up for a lot of people when he said, “if he could plot as well, we’d have to gang up and kill him.”

All this culminated in Watchmen. The official story was that, once DC acquired the rights to the Charlton heroes, Managing Editor Dick Giordano invited Moore to come up with a treatment for them. Giordano, who, as editor at Charlton in the Sixties, had shepherded most of these characters onto the page was looking for something to introduce this group en masse into the DC Universe. Moore, seeing that there was only one genuine superhero among the lot, saw something different.

Moore saw the opportunity for a deconstructivist superhero series. With the exception of Captain Atom, nobody really had any powers. They were human. Conceiving his idea as, initially, a murder mystery – who killed The Peacemaker? – Moore wanted to directly address the notion of ordinary humans who put on bright costumes and went out into the streets to fight crime, hand to hand. When it came down to it, why would someone do that? How would they do that?

It wasn’t until a couple of issues had been carefully devised that Moore, who by now had Dave Gibbons attached to draw, saw the even bigger, and more fundamental question: if people did things like that, what would it do to society? And if there really was a superhuman, in the middle of the Cold War, what would he do to the world?

Reportedly, Giordano blenched at what Moore had done to his babies. In practical terms, DC hadn’t paid out for all these rights just for one use, which was all they would be getting, so Moore was asked to go away and revise his story to utilise newly created characters. This was, on one level, a good thing: Moore and Gibbons could archetypalise their protagonists, emphasising this approach’s universality, whilst using the shadow of Blue Beetle, The Question et al. to equip the likes of Nite Owl, Rorschach etc. with shadow backgrounds.

Watchmen was a massive success. It was different in many respects, deliberately so, heavily, almost obsessively designed and hyper-detailed, and alongside Frank Miller’s contemporaneous The Dark Knight Returns, was massively and misguidedly influential, ushering in the grim’n’gritty era.

It was also be be collected as a Graphic Novel, to be published on book publishing terms: once it was out of print and not in publication for two years, the rights would revert to Moore and Gibbons.

No-one expected just how successful it would be, or that it would still be in print and still selling over thirty years later. That had never happened in comics before. The rights never reverted. Moore has always regarded this as a betrayal, and it was a part of the cocktail events that led to his refusal to work again for or with DC.

Legally, DC were within their rights: the book sold and sold, it made profits for them year or year, who was going to be stupid enough to withdraw it? But this was the letter of the agreement, not the spirit, an unforeseen outcome that worked to their advantage. It would have made more sense to have re-negotiated with Moore and Gibbons retrospectively, to revise the contract in a way that reflected what had actually happened. But DC Comics were, and are, a commercial company. Why should they give away any part of their goldmine when they didn’t have to? And this was the company that had already tried to rip-off Moore and Gibbons by classifying a successful set of spin-off badges as ‘Promotional Material’ instead of ‘Merchandising’ so they could deny the creators the royalties.

Moore withdrew from DC permanently. It’s cost him a lot of money, which has got up the noses of those people, many of whom being comic book fans, who, never being prepared to sacrifice anything to principle, have attacked Moore for determinedly living by his ethics, no matter the cost.

One thing that can be placed to DC’s credit, or rather that of President Paul Levitz, has been the refusal to countenance spin-offs. Levitz, who entered the industry as a writer, though he was always primarily a businessman, refused to allow any proposals to use the Watchmen characters that did not mean Moore and Gibbons. It was not so much a door held open as one perpetually resting against the jamb, but Levitz insisted upon it. Whilst he was in charge, the Watchmen characters would not be used by anybody else, even though at all times DC had the legal right to do so.

But Levitz would not last forever. DC’s management was restructured in the 2000s and he stepped down. The company fell under the creative control of Managing Editor Dan DiDio and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. Johns certainly was one of DC’s most popular writers, though I have never rated him as highly as his general reputation would demand: DiDio I know more from the many decisions heavily criticised in the fan websites I follow in preference to actually following the DC Universe.

In 2010, DiDio, free of Levitz, decided he was not bound by any questions of morality or ethics, and initiated a series of spin-offs under the overall title of Before Watchmen. It was incredibly controversial. Debate raged between those who saw it as a breach of the sanctity, the book publishing sanctity that had always been afforded to Moore and Gibbons’ creation, and those who saw nothing wrong on any level with letting other writers and artists play with the characters. It’d be cool. We want more Rorschach, more Dr Manhattan, etc.

I sided with the former. The latter represents the age-old comicbook position that the character, not the creator, is what makes a comic good. It’s backwards-looking. To me, it’s no different than, say, Rob Wilkins deciding to write the 42nd Discworld novel. I know he wouldn’t but that, to me, is the level of sanctity demanded.

Although the creators included people whose work I would otherwise be eager to read, I was among those who boycotted Before Watchmen. I have not, nor will I ever read any part of it.

I’m laying this out because, tomorrow (as I write this section) I am going to breach that strict ethical stance, and I want the chance to consider my position before I do.

Five years ago, when DC rebooted their Universe for the fifth time, I wrote a lengthy piece about why I wasn’t going with them. The New 52 Universe was a radical departure that threw out all sense of history and legacy. It was controversial, a lot of it was crap, and last year, DC initiated a line-wide reboot-that-was-not-a-reboot in the form of DC Rebirth.

The underlying structure of Rebirth is the concept that someone, with the deliberate intent of weakening the DC Universe, stole ten years out of it. From the first, it was heavily implied that this had been done by Dr Manhattan. For a very long time, the mysterious and manipulative figure of Mr Oz in Supernan’s titles was expected to be revealed as Ozymandias, from Watchmen, though in the end it was another and even more major character return.

But a few months ago, DC announced a twelve-month limited series under the title of Doomsday Clock. It’s heavily implied that this series will lay out the complete background to Rebirth, although it’s also been stated that it will not have cross-overs into the DC Universe. Nearer the time, it was indeed confirmed that this was basically Superman vs Dr Manhattan.

We all know that, in terms of sheer power, and the ways in which it can be applied, Dr Manhattan can wipe the floor with Superman. We also know that Superman will win over him. DC would rock to its veriest foundations if Superman didn’t win.

Ethically, morally, the position is no different. This is a trespass on Moore and Gibbons’ creative rights in Watchmen, and I should boycott it as completely as I have and do Before Watchman. But tomorrow (as I write this section) I am going out to collect and pay for the copy of Doomsday Clock 1 that I reserved almost as soon as I heard of it.

The ethics are the same but the story isn’t. Doomsday Clock is going to be a major story (or that’s how it’s pitched), it’s going to bring the Watchman Universe and the DC Universe together, it’s going to spring surprises, make changes, be significant. It will change the (comics) world.

I’m not necessarily desperate to read that. I never read Flashpoint, which initiated the New 52. I read the original Rebirth issue, but I haven’t read anymore, and I made a profit, selling it on eBay. But despite the hypocrisy it entails, I do feel the need to read Doomsday Clock 1. And maybe the other eleven too. If it’s too crap, or inessential, or I just can’t stomach it, I shall drop the series and turn to eBay again. But I need to know what’s going on.

It came out on Wednesday. I’ve already spent half the week avoiding spoilers, not entirely successfully (I know Rorschach’s back). Usually, it’d be at least another fortnight before I visited Forbidden Planet again, but I can’t keep avoiding the spoilers that long. So, having addressed my hypocrisy and come to no better reason than necessity, the second section of this will be a review of Doomsday Clock 1.

I would seriously wish to loathe it and explain its multiple deficiencies and crassnesses.

…to this

Since first learning of Doomsday Clock, I have been deliberately starving my imagination of what it could possibly be. That it’s been a massive commercial success right off the bat went without saying. What it is is a comic that, so far, is so slavishly imitative of its original and yet without an ounce of its point as to question the entire point. But this is only issue 1, and it’s entirely set-up, and not much of that either.

First, however, let me record the ways this is an imitation of Watchmen. There is the nine-panel grid layout on all but one, significant yet confusing page. There is the odd title, ‘This Annihilated Place’, that epitomises the chapter and which comes from a larger, also apposite quote. And there’s the four post-story pages given over to newspaper cuttings filling in details of the intervening period. It’s a copycat, all right.

Until the end, the story takes place in the ‘Watchmen Universe’. Seven years have passed since the end of Watchmen. As hinted at at the end of the series, Robert Redford stood for President in 1988 and was elected. Rorschach’s Journal was indeed published in The New Frontiersman, but was completely ignored. Instead, trailing in the polls, President Redford drops the bombshell on the eve of the Election about Veidt’s trick.

Redford got re-elected and promptly headed straight back to the golf course: the world went to shit. Adrian Veidt, the most influential man on the planet for the last seven years, is now the most wanted man. The EU has collapsed, Russia has invaded Poland and the US has given them four hours to get out. Everything’s broken. Veidt can’t fix it a second time. The only man who can is Dr Manhattan, Jon Osterman. A small team, Ozymandias, Rorschach and The Marionette, plus her unrequested but still present husband, The Mime, has got about three and a half hours to find where Dr Manhattan went, and get him back, with enough breathing space to win.

Now that I put it that way, I can see what a stupid, comic book story it is, all fake, hyped-up apocalypse.

Now there’s a few things about the summary where we’re going to have to track back and fill in some details. Ozymandias is as expected but let’s add in the detail that he’s now got cancer, and the implication is that it’s both fatal and well-developed. Hopefully, this will be more than a plain steal from Moloch, first time round.

Rorschach? But he died, blown to smithereens by Dr Manhattan. This is not Walter Kovacs, however, but rather a new Rorschach, about whom all we know is that he’s black. He’s also a pale imitation, no pun intended. Though he’s clearly meant to be the same bull-goose looney as the original, he’s nothing like so absolute. Not only is he working with Veidt, perpetrator of the biggest crime in human history, but he’s breaking out of prison two criminals.

Actually, he’s only there for the Marionette, aka Erika Manson, but she insists she won’t go without her husband, Marco Maez, the Mime. I mean, first he has to effectively ‘bribe’ her to go by offering her the chance of being reunited with her lost baby son, but he gives in to her insistence on springing her husband. Compared to the real Rorschach, this one’s as flexible as Plastic Man.

Either Johns can’t or doesn’t feel comfortable with writing a character so absolute as the real Rorschach. The fake narrates the issue, except that instead of a Journal, this is in his head, and Johns can’t get anywhere near the genuinely disturbed mindset of Kovacs: he just cannot get the words right.

As for the two new characters, I am incredibly dubious. Apart from her being a vicious psycho, we know nothing about her nor what she does and especially not why Ozy needs her on the Get Dr Manhattan Project. Him, he’s mute, and acts like a mime. His special tools are invisible and intangible. Rorschach’s ‘joke’ about pointing an invisible gun not being funny is exactly that: not funny.

But I’ll wait for more. So far, he’s just a vicious psycho, but if either of them start manifesting superpowers of any kind…

Of course, Doomsday Clock isn’t simply a sequel to Watchmen. It’s supposed to be about some kind of merger, or at least planned relationship between it and the DC (Rebirth) Universe, so there’s a four page coda, introduced by Ozy’s tail-off line about “Wherever (Dr Manhattan)’s retreated to” which sees us transition to the bedroom of Mrs and Mrs Clark Kent.

Clark’s dreaming. It’s Prom Night, and Jonathan and Martha have made him put on a tux and go, even though Pete Ross has asked out Lana Lang. Significantly, this page abandons the nine panel grid for a twelve panel grid, three tiers of four. A shift that is immediately rendered meaningless when the next page – still the dream – reverts to nine panels. On which page a lorry shunts the Kent’s truck into a tree, killing both.

(This, I have had to look up, is current continuity, holding over from the New 52. I will make no comment about it).

Lois wakes because Clark’s screaming and hovering above the bed. She comments that she’s never seen him have a nightmare before. He comments that he never has had one before. The episode title is then revealed as coming from a poem called, appropriately, Ozymandias. Only it’s not the well-known one from Shelley but the contemporaneous effort by his mate Horace Smith (I am not making this up, nor is Johns, though I have learned about Horace and his deservedly lesser known Ozymandias only as a consequence of this quote, and since writing the preceding sentence: I presume there is a point to this wilful obscurity).

So, there we have it. In and off itself, Doomsday Clock serves to convince me that Geoff Johns hasn’t got an original idea in his fucking head. If any of his thousands od dedicated fans read this, they will no doubt seek to howl me down, most likely by accusing Alan Moore of only ever ripping off other people’s characters. This is a far from unfounded accusation, though I would draw a massive distinction between Moore’s genuine ability to bring original viewpoints to superhero comics and other genre, expanding the range of possibilities available to both story and concept, and John’s narrower field of vision which seems limited only to producing slicker, more efficient and violent superhero comics, by strip-searching other people’s creations for things he can then distort way beyond their initial ideas.

Frankly, that’s what Doomsday Clock is to me. Watchmen was created as an inherently unitary idea, with a beginning, middle and end. None of the hordes baying for Alan Moore’s head for the crime of wanting to deny them endless exploitation of the characters can deny that that was what was in the mind of both the creators and the company when the series was commissioned. What Geoff Johns is doing is pissing around in someone else’s flowergarden, and I don’t like that.

Having read issue 1 has freed me up to read those recent reviews etc. One indicates the notion that part of Johns’ purpose in this series is to comment metafictionally on the effect Watchmen had on comics. We’ve all been sadly aware that, down the years, it’s been more a case of writers and artists grabbing onto the ‘grim’n’gritty’ and amping up the blood, rapine and violence: Darkness Uber Alles, and I’ve read a lot of people suggesting that that’s a large part of Geoff Johns’ modus operandi, though I haven’t read enough of his work to comment, and far less a case of looking for the strange, the unusual, the innovative in this world of fictional characters we have available to us.

It’s a sour taste this leaves me with, but I’ll stomach it for now. Come back in about a months time and I’ll rip into issue 2. Or praise it, if praise is due. Don’t count the days, though.

PS:

Among the reviews I’ve read so far, which unlike my own have been universally impressed, I’ve read a couple of comments about the metafictional aspect of Doomsday Clock, as an intended commentary on the effect of Watchmen on comics in general.

It’s been suggested that part of Johns’ personal remit is to answer what Watchmen (and The Dark Knight Returns) did in creating the grim’n’gritty era. That he will be showing that the Universe of hope that is the DC universe in its present form is inherently superior to the Universe of cynicism that is the Watchmen Universe.

I hope not, I truly hope not. I’ve already said that I expect Superman to prevail because, as we all know, there’s no way DC are going to allow their most iconic character to come second best to anyone.

But to me, that metafictional intention, if it is correct, is nothing more than the intention to shit, comprehensively, upon Watchmen, long and hard, to diminish and destroy it by proving the orthodox DC Universe to be *better*, with bells, trumpets and whistles all over it.

Watchmen was the product of a particular time, and a particular set of circumstances. It was not meant to show up the DC Universe as inferior, but to offer a different perspective, completely separate and parallel. It wasn’t about anything so petty as who’s stronger, who’s better? Superman and Dr Manhattan didn’t co-exist, never would co-exist, meet or match up against each other, and Watchmen was the better for that.

It sounds to me as if that’s eaten at Geoff Johns, and maybe Dan DiDio until they can’t stand it. Watchmen has to be cut down to size, proved to be second class. Shat on, to put it bluntly. Then it can take its place as nothing more or less that just a facet of the DC Universe.

I’d like to be completely wrong about this, to be proven paranoid and raving. And if that is the case, I will admit it. But I’ll be there all the way, watching, hawk-like, for anything that indicates to me that this is the direction we’re going in. And I won’t mince my words about Johns if this is what is in his mind.

We shall see.

The Fall Season 2016: Supergirl season 2


What the World is Waiting for
What the World is Waiting for

After Arrow, Supergirl is the series nearest to the edge for me. On balance, I enjoyed season 1, but almost all of that was down Melissa Benoist as Supergirl and Kara Danvers, who was born to play the twin leading roles. Apart from that, the series had a lot of good things going for it – I have never previously liked Callista Flockhart but she was great as Cat Grant – but was clunky far too often.

Now the show has been bounced down from CBS to The CW, where it sits alongside the other DC series, but it hasn’t merged into the so-called Arrowverse, and remains in a separate Universe. Which is all too the good because the feel of this lightweight, optimistic, good-hearted show, with its lightweight, optimistic, good-hearted heroine, is inimical to the increasing darkness of everything connected to Oliver bloody Queen.

Changes are to be made, however, and some of these were teased in an opening episode that, as we were all aware, brought the Big Blue Boy Scout, ol’ Supes hisself, into town to visit little/big cousin Kara.

Tyler Hoechlin, who I believe has been better known for playing bad boy roles before this guest stint is, IIRC, the sixth actor I’ve seen playing Superman. He comes onscreen as Clark and, to my great delight, his Clerk is pure Christopher Reeve, which won my support instantly. His Superman was similarly clean, straightforward and open, just as Superman should be: no darkness, no brooding, no sullenness. The perfect hero.

For a while, Hoechlin outshone everyone else. Superman references abounded. Cat Grant’s new assistant, who she summoned with a wonderfully Gene Hackman-like growl, was Miss Teschmacher, Winn – who’s moved from Catco to the DEO this year – got all excited about the technical aspects of when Supes was fixing the San Andreas Fault and, whilst Supergirl can’t have Lex Luthor, there’s a new recurring character in Town (presumably taking the Maxwell Lord role) in his adopted baby sister, Lena, a (so-far) good girl.

Oh, and since Supergirl is now filming in Vancouver with the rest of Greg Berlanti’s DC series’, and Callista Flockhart is only going to be available as a recurring character, Kara’s choice of future career-path is, somewhat disappointingly, a reporter. The show does rely entirely too heavily on nicking things out of the Superman mythos as it is without going down that particular copycat route.

Still, it’s early days and with the mysterious young man from Krypton who landed in season 1’s cliffhanger, and Project Cadmus converting the English assassin, John Corben, into Metallo, not to mention the revelation that all this time, Hank (J’Onn J’Onzz) Henshaw has been sitting on a bloody great Kryptonite meteor (lessee, last season’s recurring big baddies were Kryptonians with limitless powers, he’s got Kryptonite, doesn’t use it against them… does not compute): enough material to keep us going I think.

One definite minus mark was the way the episode treated the Kara/James Olsen relationship. I thought the idea was wrong-headed and stupid, but season 1 went for it with Kara puppy-doggishly following James around with her tongue hanging out until she gets the date she’s been longing for.

Only to decide, now she’s got it, that she doesn’t want it, actually she doesn’t want him, but he’d make a great friend instead.

It’s a step in the right direction but it  was handled appallingly badly, because the writers couldn’t come up with a reason for this change of heart. I mean, hell’s bells, it’s supposed to be only twelve hours since season 1 ended and Kara suddenly thinks differently when nothing has changed except James suddenly wanting to go out with her… In the absence of an in-story explanation of any kind, the viewer has to construct their own rationalisation, and the only explanations that fit are inherently negative about Kara. Dumb writing, completely dumb.

So: overall summary, changes are being made, but on the surface things stay the same. If it were anyone else but Melissa Benoist in the title role, I would probably have bailed by the middle of season 1. This year needs to tighten up, and I am already deeply sceptical of the new character who will replace Cat Grant on a daily basis.

Still with it, but with an option to sidle off if the season’s not very careful.

Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero


Though it was published in 2012, I’ve just discovered Larry Tye’s biography of Superman, though I’m a bit disgruntled to have paid £19.99 for a copy of the import edition when I could have picked it up through Amazon for less than £3.00.
Tye is an experienced journalist and writer of non-fiction who’s best known for his previous book, Satchell, the biography of Satchell Paige, the first black pitcher in American baseball. In his Introduction he explains why he wanted to write about the Superman story, and how this book would be different from those that came before it, and would follow.
The outcome is an interesting and decently comprehensive of Superman’s career, from his birth in comics to his expansion into other media: cartoons, radio, movie serials, television, big budget films. Tye has researched thoroughly and presents a clear picture of each stage of Superman’s career.
That’s the thing about this book, though. Tye is interested in the phenomenon of Superman, in his colonisation of so many different spheres, and his study is about them. The first three chapters deal with Superman’s background: his creators Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, their background and personalities, the artistic influences that they synthesized to create the Man of Steel, and the route by which he took into first publication.
There is even a chapter upon how Superman, despite his assumption of Christian characteristics, is at heart, and not even secretly, Jewish, like his creators, his publishers and virtually the entire Comics industry.
So far, so simple. But once Tye has gotten this background out of the way, his concerns are solely with Superman’s colonisation of succeeding differing media: radio, cartoons, Saturday morning serials, television, the Broadway stage and blockbuster films. What happens to Superman in his only truly natural home, in the comics, becomes a matter of indifference to Tye, a subject to which he returns only intermittently and, except in one instance, with faint distaste.
Because from start to finish, it is clear that Tye has little or no time for creative individuals. Tye only respects success, which is measured in dollars and cents, and to him the true heroes are not those who create stories, who exercise their imagination to thrill, enliven, astonish or move, but with those who exploit a property to its fullest commercial sense.
The standard narrative, which hones to the truth, portrays Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster as naive, inexperienced, lacking in social skills, full of dreams and desires that they have no means of fulfilling. Out of their shared needs and inadequacies, they create Superman, the great adolescent wish-fantasy, the more than man, perfect, brave and strong, the idealisation of everything they would want to be, who hides his light under the bushel of a mild, meek, Caspar Milquetoast coward, especially from the woman he loves, who loves the superman and despises the alter ego. It’s a very deep well of psychological urges and fears and is a fundamental reason why Superman spoke to so many people from the very beginning, and why he is still relevant and popular seventy five years later.
So Seigel and Shuster, these nebbishes and proto-geeks, invent a near-Universal symbol that has expanded through nearly every medium there has been created, and made uncountable billions of dollars in every conceivable format and licencing product.
But at the very outset, Seigel and Shuster – young innocents without legal advice – are given no option but to sell their character to two practiced sharks in Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz, who take ownership and control for a mere $130. That Donenfeld and Liebowitz were sharks is beyond disagreement: they own the comic book company that will publish Superman because, though it was a profitable enterprise for Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, they manipulate him into a cash-flow crisis at the wrong moment, that forces him into bankruptcy, out of which they buy his company for a song.
At the hands of Donenfeld, Seigel and Shuster, who have created this money fountain, who have created not just Superman but the superhero per se and the entirety of the comics industry that has existed for seventy years, get a fixed pittance of that income. They cannot control their own creation but have to follow the orders of people who do not have even the creative capacity the boys possess. Though they have an exclusive contract to supply Superman pages, from almost the beginning DC try to get round that, undermine and undercut them. Eventually, they are dismissed from consideration at DC, without even the page rate they were earning. Much of their lives are spent in poverty and misery.
As comics writer and historian Mark Evanier perceptively noted, Seigel and Shuster’s story is the contravention of the American Dream.
Tye acknowledges all this as a matter of historical fact. But throughout this book, it is plain that his sympathies lie not with the exploited but the exploiters. His enthusiasm lies in what Donenfeld and Liebowitz – actually, the more chummy sounding Harry and Jack – did to promote Superman (at the least possible cost and most profitable terms for themselves). And in due course, he is equally awed by legendary Superman editor and all round offensive human being Mort Weisinger, who completed the job of levering Superman out of Seigel and Shuster’s hands and into his own.
Indeed, it’s clear that Tye holds Seigel and Shuster in contempt. He cannot bring himself to mention Shuster – who was next to legally blind throughout his entire career, who found drawing physically difficult and who increasingly directed the work of assistants who he paid from his own income – without sneering about his ‘work ethic’.
And though he recognises that advantage was taken of the pair, Tye is dismissive of Jerry Seigel’s insecurity and fear of being exploited by those with more power than him, which the historical record demonstrates was very real. Seigel was paid a comparative pittance compared to the money Superman brought in, and Tye’s attitude is clearly that he should have been grateful for it and stopped bothering Leibowitz.
And he shouldn’t have kept bringing lawsuits.
This displacement of sympathy towards the excessive winners instead of the exploited losers runs through all the book. Even Weisinger ranks higher in Tye’s lexicon than Seigel and Shuster, because despite being a truly monstrous person, he made Superman sell. Tye tells stories of Weisinger abruptly sacking Wayne Boring after nearly thirty years and callously dismissing him with “Do you want a kick in the stomach to know when you’re not wanted?”, and condescendingly crediting Seigel as being the best Superman writer (after originally forcing him out by claiming Seigel had so little idea about his creation he would destroy it).
And these stories are told with approval fo Weisinger.
When he has to, Tye acknowledges the comics career of Superman. He covers the Wertham-inspired attacks of the early Fifties, the rebooting of Superman under John Byrne, and the early Nineties Death of Superman sequence, but even then he can’t but sneer at the fact that Superman’s audience in comics is very tiny in comparison to his reach in any other media. He describes the comic book world as insular and dependant upon detailed knowledge of characters and history that drives away new readers (which is true, but which Tye sweeps away as unworthy of consideration).
Overall, Tye acts as if he would really rather that the comics Superman might disappear and let me concentrate upon more important things.
Good as it is, well-researched and comprehensive, especially with regard to the non-comics Superman, I really can’t get on with this book because of this essential dichotomy. Tye’s respect lies in too many wrong places for me and his fawning over Jack Leibowitz in particular is too much for me.
There’s a genuine argument to be made for a dispassionate study of Leibowitz’s business success, which would be interesting, but this isn’t it. Tye’s contempt for creative individuals cannot be ignored (there is a passing reference to writer Harlan Ellison, author and social activist, writer of short stories, screen and teleplays, columns and commentary: Tye refers to him as a ‘pop culture maven’). It’s an attitude that wholeheartedly describes the attitude that comic book professionals have had to their freelance minions throughout the entirety of the industry: businessmen who couldn’t write or draw a line are far more important than those who provide the comics people read.
Not to me.