Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? - Alan Moore

As veteran comics writer and editor Paul Kupperberg points out in his introduction to this volume, by the mid-Eighties major changes were occurring in the comics industry, from the primary distribution method – comics shops had grown tremendously in importance in the past few years, and spinner racks full of comics were already disappearing from the usual venues such as grocery stores, drugstores, and convenience stores – to the creative, where at DC especially, decades worth of continuity were about to be wiped out.

I first heard about the landmark mini-series CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS when it was in the planning stages and thought that simplifying the DC Universe was a pretty good idea. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that for me, a lot of the charm of the DCU was its very clutteredness. I mean, Gardner Fox’s classic story “Flash of Two Worlds” was still one of my all-time favorites. Then when I found out that DC was planning to kill off some of its major characters in the mini-series and do a total reboot and relaunch of others, I liked the idea less and less.

Which brings us to Superman.

Now, I was never a huge Superman fan, although I read a bunch of comics featuring the character over the years. In fact, it’s safe to say that the first superhero comics I ever read featured Superman. But there were other DC characters I liked better, such as Batman, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Even so, when I heard that DC was starting over with the Superman franchise, starting with John Byrne’s MAN OF STEEL mini-series, I didn’t care for it and didn’t see the need for it. When I first read the stories reprinted in SUPERMAN: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW?, they just reinforced that feeling.

Alan Moore had already written a couple of Superman stories, one a team-up with the other major DC character he was writing at the time, Swamp Thing, when he was asked by editor Julius Schwartz to write the final two-parter that would close out the current Superman continuity. I had read and liked those earlier Superman stories written by Moore, and when I read “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, which was split up between SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS, I was more convinced than ever that excellent, relevant stories set in the current continuity could be written. Alan Moore had just proven that by turning out one of the best Superman stories I’d ever read.

But of course, nobody at DC listened to me (not that I actually shared those feelings with anybody there) and Byrne’s MAN OF STEEL reboot appeared on schedule, the first of many reboots that spread to Marvel in the Nineties and eventually had the effect of alienating me so much that I didn’t read a single comic book for years and years. Although I have no statistics to prove it, I’m convinced that a lot of fans who grew up reading comics in the Sixties and Seventies stopped reading in disgust and never came back. Eventually, of course, I did, and I’ve read and enjoyed some of the newer stuff. I still like the reprints of the older stuff better, though.

SUPERMAN: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW? reprints all four of Moore’s Superman stories. The title two-parter features art by Curt Swan, the classic Superman artist, and serves as a beautiful (if unnecessary) farewell to the classic Superman continuity. The other two stories are excellent as well. If you’re a long-time comics fan and didn’t read these back in the Eighties, you should pick up this volume to see what you missed. If you read them then, like I did, I think you’ll enjoy them all over again. They’ve aged well (unlike grumpy, reactionary old men such as myself).


Scott Parker said...

Having recently read the Batman version of this type story (Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader by Neil Gaiman), I'm going to re-read the Supes one. I have a collection of all Moore-penned stories from the DCU. This includes all four Supes stories you mention plus some Batman, GL, and Vigilante.

James Reasoner said...

I have that same collection of DCU stories by Moore and need to reread the others in it. His work is a little hit-and-miss for me, but when he's good he's really good. Check out a collection called SUPREME: THE STORY OF THE YEAR if you haven't read it. It's sort of a love letter to an alternate Silver Age DCU.

Richard R. said...

The great minds at Marvel and DC believed then, and still do, as far as I can tell, that there are 3 Laws to be adhered to:

1) Keep comics "fresh" and provide frequent starting places for new readers.

2) squeeze out or consume small competition.

3) Copy or push the major rival, often through "major events" which usually are published in the summer months, often a big crossover.

The Superman reboot (and the Batman, and Flash and most of the DC-verse) was an effort to pull in new readers who may have been scared by all that background continuity, and to swing readers with Marvel loyalty to DC with a blockbuster event.

Consider: one of the most-read comics in history was the "Death of Captain America" issue a year or two ago. The "Death of Superman" was another huge seller, also the demise of Batman. Of course these characters always come back, but they never regain the charm many of us found in the original version. Of all the modern versions of DC characters, I think the best is Geoff Johns term of writing the Flash, starting about issue # 170 and continuing past issue # 200.

This particular collection? I think I have it, but it's boxed, not with the ones in the collected comics & graphic novel bookcase. Thus I can't get at it easily and can't comment except to say I may well have read one or more of these when published.

Finally, I admit to being a Batman fan, not Superman. I think they lost me for good when they made Lex Luthor President of the U.S.

Randy Johnson said...

I'm one of those that drifted away from comics, except for an occasional standalone, as characters I was familiar with changed so much. At one point, I never missed a Marvel comic each month. Then they became too many and too pricey.

Batman and green Lantern were my favorite DC characters, though I too read a lot of Superman.

James Reasoner said...

Considering how overall sales of comics have plummeted in the past twenty years, I don't think their strategy is working. However, some of that is just cultural change and would have happened anyway, no matter what they did. Would I buy single issues if I could get them off a spinner rack at Wal-mart instead of having to drive thirty miles through bad traffic to the nearest comic book store? Maybe, although they're awfully overpriced. But that drive has a lot to do with why all the comics I read now are in trade paperback or hardback format that I can order on-line so they come right to my door. There are services like Mile High that'll do the same thing with single issues, but it seems like too much trouble to me.

By the way, I agree that Geoff Johns' version of The Flash is pretty good, from what I've read of it. I think he's one of the better writers working in comics these days.

Richard Prosch said...

Not caring anymore if I actually own the physical book, I plunked down the cost of a year's subscription to Marvel's digital comics online. Once I got the hang of moving through the panels onscreen (and there are a variety of ways to do it) I've read dozens and dozens of stories I never would have seen --ranging from the Golden Age ALL-WINNERS to the current run of MS. MARVEL.

James Reasoner said...

I didn't even know such a thing was possible, that's how far out of the loop I am.

Evan Lewis said...

For the ultimate in cheapness, I get all my graphic novels from the library. WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ALAN MOORE?

Richard R. said...

I'm really lucky in that there is an excellent comic shop a couple miles from my home, and they have pull lists, so I can tell them what I want pulled each week and swing by every 2-3 weeks to pick up the stash.

James Reasoner said...

I did that, too, for many years, but then all the shops that were convenient for me to get to closed down.

Scott Parker said...

As a devoted comic collector in my younger days, I loved comic stores and getting pristine copies. However, I can also remember the spinner racks in the Utotem or 7-11s. That sales structure is completely gone now. That saddens me, now, as a fortysomething. It's now more difficult to see comics as something cheap and fun rather than something to collect and rarely read. To me, digital comics is a great way to recapture the joy of reading comics. Would like to see DC do the same thing.