Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Books: Superman: Birthright


Superman: Birthright
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Leinil Francis Yu

Available now from Islington Libraries
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So yeah: last night I went to the IMAX and saw Man of Steel on the biggest of big screens and then today I read this book: Superman: Birthright which is (for those of us who know) one of the very few actually pretty good Superman comics out there: you know - one of the ones you can read without feeling like it's sapping a IQ point for every page you read - or at least (oh dear): that's how I liked to remember it...

I mean: everyone knows that the only good Superman comics out there [1] are: Superman: Red Son, Superman: Secret Identity and Superman: All Star Superman - right? Those are the three that you can comfortably hand to any one and not feel like you have to make some kind of excuse as you do it "Or yeah - maybe just ignore the cheesy dialogue" or "I realise that the story doesn't quite hang together" or whatever.

And for me the very telling detail here is that the first two books aren't really "proper" Superman stories - (in that - technically speaking you know: they're not really about the Superman that everyone knows) Superman: Red Son telling the story of what would have happened if Superman's baby rocket ship thingie had crash-landed in the Ukraine instead of Kansas and Superman: Secret Identity telling the story of a whole different Clark Kent (it's kinda complicated to spell it all out and I don't want to spoil it any - so you know: just go read it). And the third on the list - Superman: All Star Superman - whilst being the closet thing to the Superman everyone knows - kinda exists in it's own (beautifully constructed) unique little space. Or - to put it another way - it's not really Grant Morrison telling a Superman story - it's more Superman being used to tell a Grant Morrison one (I don't know if that's the best way to put it - but it's hard to go into detail without falling into talking about pocket universes and parallel worlds and stuff: so maybe I should just leave it).

But yeah - point being: if you're looking for some pure unadulterated Superman comic fun there's not really that many places to turn to [2] and so (or so you would think) thank heavens for the delights of Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu and this little book called Superman: Birthright [5].

Except - well.

Well: let me digress (just a little)....

So I realise that this might be a little bit contentious (and yeah - maybe I should do a little bit more research before I occidentally put my foot in anything - but what the hey: this ain't a scholarly text or something like that - it's is a blog right? Which I'd say puts it only one one step above someone chatting nonsense in a pub: so just pretend you're sipping on a pint sitting across from me and roll with me a little here...) but the notion of a god of light isn't exactly a new one: you know - there's Horus, Sol Invictus and - yeah - Jesus - sent from above, powered by the sun, pretty much invincible and all very big on the notions of forgiveness etc.

Now I'm saying this in order to score any cheap shots - (although god knows I sure do love scoring a good cheap shot now and again) - but more to say that if you care to look at things in a certain way [6] there's loads of stuff embedded in the Superman myth that's centuries old and that just to go with a "hey - isn't Superman a lot like Jesus?" thing which Man of Steel traffics in an awful awful lot [7] is kind of setting your sights a little bit too low: like you're only referring to Oasis when you could be referring to The Beatles or something.

Because yeah Superman is old. I mean - this is the month that he celebrates his (goddamn it) 75th anniversary (and my brain is struggling to come up something else that's been around for that long and coming up with nothing so yeah) and - yet - the go to idea with both Birthright and Man of Steel (I'm going to try and bring both of them together a little bit in order to make sure that I can somehow finish writing about this today with it all fresh in my head) is how do we re-invent Superman for a modern audience? How do we make him fresh and dynamic and sexy and new? And I guess that my feeling (having ingested both the film and the comic in the same 24 hour period) is that you can't. I mean - you don't dress up other 75 year olds in revealing-skin-tight outfits because let's face it (sorry 75 year olds) that kind of thing just ain't right. And it's the same thing with stories. You know: when they're done right it's because they're products of their environment and social blah and whatever and trying to retell the same story with a fresh spin when the original people who told it are long since dead seems a little - I dunno - dumb.

I mean - I'm not saying it can't be done: but like I said at the start - all the best Superman stories comics has (at the moment at least) are the ones that approach the issue sideways and don't just keep retreading the basics [8]. I mean - one thought which crossed my mind as a watched Man of Steel was - wouldn't it be easier (and maybe more interesting?) to make a Superman story that was set in 1938? Or would that be a step too far? I mean - at least it would (maybe?) make us feel like we're seeing something that we hadn't already seen before?

Which I guess is what would have made Birthright and Man of Steel feel a little bit - I dunno - significant. So instead of having the legend bend to our circumstances - we should bend to its. And instead of thinking in terms of Jesus (which yeah - I realise for a lot of people is the be all and end all of everything) - it set it's sights more towards the epicness of - yeah: human's worship of the sun (or something) [9]. I don't know.

And I guess what this misses is that - hell - Man of Steel (albeit unintentionally) ends up saying quite a bit about our present head-space as like a global society - namely (I mean - if you want to go there) that life is over-rated and - hey - if someone needs to die in order to make a point about something then: oh well. I guess that's the way it has to be [10]: which (damn) isn't exactly the hopeful message I was expecting to be left with when I left the warm comfort of the IMAX [11].

But - then again: maybe the real problem isn't that enough is being made to properly ground the story (or whatever it is I'm trying to say) and more that - well yeah: it's 2013 and we're all still sitting around and watching multi-million dollar films based on the same story that our grandparents used to read? I mean - I'm not saying that everything needs to be new, new, new all of the time: but yeah - Man of Steel in lots of ways is pretty much the perfect superhero film: it does just about everything that you could want: there's lots of fightings and explosions and large-scale destructions and blah - but to what end? I mean: I felt like this was a film that got to grips with who Superman is much more than the Nolan Batman films - but God: does any of that really matter? I mean: the way that all of us fans react to these blockbuster superhero films is: well - how faithful did it manage to stay to to what has happened before in the comics and the canon and the blah blah blah - when instead it feels like maybe we should be asking: well - did this film do anything to me as a human being? Did it make me appreciate the world in a new way? Did it make me see or feel things in a way that I hadn't before? I mean yeah - ok - I can believe that a man can fly [12] but so what? Why should I care? You know....?

Instead it feels like that the attitude of the people telling these Superman stories is that we're already invested in things and really we're just supposed to admire the small little personal touches that they can to the overall legend - like The Aristocrats [13] but with less swear words and a cape or something. And - man (another totally obvious point yeah): but it's just a bit depressing to realise how much of a male fantasy Superman is. Because we know that every guy harbors the twin feelings of being an outcast and a freak and an alien at the exact same time that they think that (given the right chance) the could be superheroic and all powerful and better and kinder and more good than everyone else around - but (come on) could they not at least try and give things a bit more of a feminine touch so that it doesn't feel like a total sausage fest? (Or - let me put it like this: everyone knows who Jor-El is - but what's Superman's Kryptonian mum called?).

Because - yeah: even tho (having read Birthright a few years back) I remembered it as being a hot and delicious slice of Superman pie - rereading it in the cold light of day (having placed it in my head as "oh yeah - that really cool Superman story that makes it all feel fun and brand-new") I was dis-hearted to realise that it was all just a little bit stale and tasteless.

I mean - maybe part of the reason is that I do get Mark Waid confused (for some reason?) with Kurt Busiek (I have no idea why [14]) so I was thinking that I was going to get something a little bit more canny: I mean - yeah - Mark Waid did write Kingdom Come and the (at times brilliant) Irredeemable - but I guess one of the points I've been circling around is that: if you want to write a Superman story that actually sings (instead of just grunting in a semi-tuneful fashion) - you need someone who's willing to mess around with things a little and - well - Mark Waid doesn't really seem to be that type of writer.

And Leinil Francis Yu (who some of you will recognise from his work on the Ultimate Avengers books) has a very snappy art style with loads of foreshortening happening everywhere at once (so everyone's limbs looks like they're  pointing away in triangles) - but - well: it feels like something that's maybe best for short sharp bursts rather than something made to be sustainable over time (and man - I don't know what it is: but there's something about the way he draws that makes me feel like I'm not getting my full recommended daily dose of iron or something. It's like having something at McDonalds: half an hour later and I'm still hungry).

So - well: yeah - after all that - what have we got? I mean - I'm pleased that I saw Man of Steel because it meant I could entertain myself with some interesting internet reading afterwards [15] and yeah: it's actually pretty impressive how superhero films have finally got to the point where they can wreck some serious devastation and make the end of the world seem like a real possibility (I mean - as much as I love the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films - in terms of action - they felt more like expensive television rather than an epic wide-screen no holds bared film: but maybe that's just me?) and - as an aficionado of what I'd like to call the "cinema of transcendentalism" [16] I did get a kick by the climax that basically got just a little bit abstract with all the white light and all: because - yeah: that's something that I feel film does really well (and that I never really get to see enough of).

But at the end of the day: I guess what I'm trying to say is that - it's the 21st Century and we need some new myths and we're not going to get anywhere if we keep going back to wells that are already long since dry.

And saying that: when the sequel comes out I'm probably going to be first in line at the IMAX again because I'm a stupid idiot.

Oh well.

[1] I mean - (well yeah) - some people out there might try and argue that Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Superman for All Seasons is not a colossal waste of time: but those people would be wrong.

[2] I should admit that actually All Star Superman is probably the best place to turn to for a really good Superman story and that I've kinda stacked the deck a little by saying it's not really a "proper" or whatever and saying that it doesn't really count. But I guess thinking about it - it's more that it's too refined or something maybe? It's like a burger, chips and a milkshake [3] as prepared by a gourmet chef - I mean: yeah - it's refined and tasty and delicious and I've never had a milkshake so finely blended or chips so crisp and a burger so juicy and succulent- but it's cooked so well that it's almost too much you know? Like: sometimes you want a burger, chips and milkshake that's just a little bit cheap and nasty: and that's part of the fun of it? So yeah: All Star Superman is where you should go if you want something upper class and distinctive and something to hold up as one of the pinnacles of what comics can achieve as actual - (oh fine let's just say it) art while -  Superman: Birthright is what you want if you just want something that's going to show you a good time and leave you with a smile on your face: or what we tend to call - just plain old entertainment [4]. Yeah?

[3] My go-to metaphor for superhero comics / films for all the obvious reasons.

[4] Although I wrote that when I was only still a few pages in: and - well yeah: by the time I'd waded all the way in up to my waist I kinda realised that maybe "entertainment" is maybe stretching it just a little bit.... But yeah: let me try and sum up my feeling somewhere up above instead of down in a footnote.

[5] Or - if you're looking for it on the Islington library catalogue "Superman: Birth Right." which makes it sound a little more dogmatic or something somehow.

[6] Reading this Wikipedia page (Jesus Christ in comparative mythology: "For over a century, various authors have drawn a number of parallels between the Christian views of Jesus and other religious or mythical domains. These include Greco-Roman mysteries, ancient Egyptian myths, and more general analogies involving cross-cultural patterns of dying and rising gods in the context of Jesus myth theory.") I discovered the marvellous word "Parallelomania" which basically translates as: "Just coz you see - doesn't mean it's there."

[7] As pretty much everyone else on the internet has already pointed out (there's a reason that this Grantland article is called Jesus Christ Superman) - there's a moment when he steps out of a spaceship and seemingly for no other reason than to be like "oh - hey - check me out I'm just like Jesus" he turns around and does an arms-outstretched Christ pose because - erm - because (?) - because of the wonderful things he does? I don't know. Personally I preferred things when they were a little bit more subtle and referred the whole being tested by the devil in the wilderness thing and having his standing on a Terminator-style desert of skulls. But what can you do?

[8] Although - yeah - credit where it's due: Man of Steel does manage to dole out the basics in a pretty nice way (even if it does end up making itself feel just a little bit like a particularly glossy episode of Lost).

[9] Or in other words Superman that's less Passion of The Christ and more Sunshine crossed with 2001: A Space Odyssey. That's the Superman film that I would like to see.

[10] And oops - Mark Waid is not a fan: "Seriously, back in Metropolis, entire skyscrapers are toppling in slo-mo and the city is a smoking, gray ruin for miles in every direction, it’s Hiroshima, and Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich are somewhere muttering “Too far, man, too far”…"

[11] Also (am I reading too much into this?) - but did they set Superman up as - like - the standard bearer of the forces of Creationism? Check it out: at one point one of the bad guys says "And if there's one thing that History teaches us it's that Evolution always wins." which (seeing how it's a bad guy who says it) kinda lines up Evolution as being boo-worthy and - if that's the case - then: hell yeah - let's hear if for Intelligent Design! (Or in other words:  I would not have been at all surprised if Superman had responded with a punch to the face and a quip like: "Evolution that.")

[12] Although I've got to ask: how exactly does that work exactly? Like is it a physical thing or a mental thing that propels him through the air or what?

[13] ""The Aristocrats" (also known as "The Debonaires" or "The Sophisticates" in some tellings) is an exceptionally transgressive (taboo-defying) dirty joke that has been told by numerous stand-up comedians since the vaudeville era. Over time it has evolved from a clichéd staple of vaudevillian humor into a postmodern anti-joke. Steven Wright has likened it to a secret handshake among comedians, and it is seen as something of a game in which those who tell it try to top each other in terms of shock value. It is thought of as a badge of honor among expert comedians and is notoriously hard to perform successfully. It is rarely told the same way twice, often improvised."

[14] And gosh - looking through who's written what - it's pretty clear that Kurt Busiek (Marvels, Arrowsmith, Astro City and - oh yeah - Superman: Secret Identity) is much more the more talented one: but I guess that doesn't answer why I get them mixed up: maybe it's because they're both kinda B-list when it comes to comic book writing or something? Like - you know: the directors whose names no one ever really remembers (like Andrew Niccol or Peter Weir). 

[15] And if you're the same as me then I would recommend you read this, this and this.

[16] Which - yes - is a term I have just made up now: but basically means - films which stop trying to portray physical reality and instead try to portray mental states (as in: this and this and - yeah ok - this).

Links: Grovel Review, The Place Where Things You Love Die Review, Comic Book Resources Article: Super-stars (part 1): Mark Waid's "birthright," The Official Origin.

Further reading: Superman: All Star SupermanSuperman: Secret Identity, Superman: Red Son, SuperiorIrredeemable, Kingdom Come, Ultimate Comics: AvengersDC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.

All comments welcome.

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