Abhay: Quickly on Two Recent Superhero Comics

(Work on getting back to this year's Inquisition series is proceeding slowly.  Sorry for the delays.  I just woke up and started to write a little brief thing about two superhero comics that I'd read the other night, to get my fingers moving for work-- I thought I'd write one or two paragraphs. Anyways, it started running long, so I'll just put it here rather.  Just a quick pointless little note:)


Read Mastermen and the last issue of Supreme: Blue Rose — both by dudes who made their names (less so with Ellis) in a mode of superhero comics that seem to have fallen out of fashion.  The "superhero genre interrogation" comic.

Mastermen’s part of Morrison’s Multiversity project of DC one-shots.  I have a hard time with those, how little the stories in the issues seem to add up to anything, all the cliffhangers.  I like the part where it all feels like watching a guy happily rolling around in filth, you know?  The good bits, at least for me, have been where it's felt like he's trying to create one definitive catalog of all the images in that genre that he likes.  But my least favorite thing about superhero comics is that unresolved nature of them, and I guess Morison doesn't feel the same way, probably sees that as a cornerstone of their appeal.  I understand the necessity of the cliffhangers, the logic of them--  I just don't find it particularly entertaining, the way this project just stutters.

Plus: I just don’t think he’s going to stick the landing; he didn’t on Final Crisis; he didn’t on Seven Soldiers; the Invisibles was a long time ago.  Being pleasantly surprised would be nice, but.

This Mastermen thing was probably my least favorite of the project so far in that it’s him playing with my least favorite type of that story, the “dark everything went wrong alternate universe” story.  First off, it’s almost always the same exact story— “what if there was a dar—” “all of the superheros would kill each other single tear rolls down cheek. NEXT!”  Why can’t anyone just cook a nice dinner in a dark alternate universe?  I made meatballs last night -- they came out pretty good; our actual universe is extraordinarily dark; we actually exist within a really bleak horseshit universe, all the time, but the meatballs are still tasty; I think that's got to mean something, right?

Second, I grew up a Marvel kid where there was a continuity and things were set in this analogue of our world, for the most part.  So even though they had their dark alternate universes, the Sentinels or what have you, anytime that kind of superhero story would pop up, I remember greeting them with an enormous impatience, being irritated about having to wait around to get back to the "real" story, the "real" universe where what happened mattered.  The stuff with consequences, dammit!

Even though I'm old enough to see the illogic of that... I think I still have that a little.  I don't think I've shaken that.  Which is pathetic, but hopefully in a slightly adorable way, at least.  Makes me laugh, at least.

Third, I didn't find it a very good instance of that type of story in that it felt like it tried to have its cake and eat it too.  "What if the Nazis found Superman?"  "Oh, he'd still be a nice guy-- the entirety of the Holocaust would've happened in the three months he was away from Germany.  But he'd still be a super-great guy."

I don't know if this Mastermen universe is a homage to a specific DC comic -- with Morrison lately, there's always some annotation out there ready to assure me that it is, I suppose.  But setting aside how "Nazi Superman" might've been portrayed in some 1967 comic, that just seems like a fucking dumb idea.  (I've heard of that comic where Superman gets raised by commies but skipped that one, too, for the same reason.)  Super-baby only becomes Superman because he was raised by cool Smallville middle-American people with Midwestern bourgeois small-town provincial values -- to me, that's part of the core schtick of that character, and it's one of the better features of that character, I would even say.

Having other folks raise a super-baby and he stills ends up as Superman...?  Maybe I'm nuts, but I don't think the math quite works there.

Also: the Freedom Fighters?  Really?  No.  Nope.  No no.

In addition, boy, Jim Lee sure seemed especially uninspired.  He had to draw a splash page of a rocketship at one point, and the most interesting thing in the splash wasn't the rocketship -- it was the detail on the girders in the warehouse that the Nazis kept the rocketship in.  Like, I'm looking at this splash of the most amazing thing I'd ever see in my life, if I were in that room, and instead saying to myself, "that's some nice detail work on those girders."

The rocketship's just this dildo shape with speed lines on it for no reason.  Alien rocketship made of extraterrestrial metals hurtled from an exploded planet  ... yawn...?

I’d actually been enjoying that Supreme Blue Rose comic more, even though its title was "Blue Rose", which sounds like the name of an album by an earnest young singer-songwriter, crooning about blind dates she went on in the pouring rain, stuff like that.

Even if the investigation frame or specific moments didn't feel entirely fresh (e.g., the "weird priest" scene), I did like that it was built on a concept that felt a little fresher -- watching characters flail around in a deformed aborted-reboot universe.  (I wonder a little if it'd have been better or worse if I hadn't have read the Alan Moore run).  Sure, it was another “dark everything went wrong alternate universe” story, but I like that it didn't stop at defining "everything went wrong" as just being that "Superhero fiction never happened."  I like that it was instead "Superhero fiction never happened ... but the broken fragments of that fiction are trying to reemerge into the fringes of this deformed reality anyways."

I'm sure there are superhero comics that've played a similar card, but I like how this one was executed as almost a horror thing (though the horror quality never felt fully realized). Actually, I'm not sure if any quality of that comic ever felt fully realized, though I might chalk that up as part of the appeal, the indeterminate state this comic existed in.  Not so much a full-on ghost story as a sort of barely-there exorcism of the genre.

I guess I liked that Supreme book overall more, though, of the two projects,though it's certainly the less ambitious.  I just felt like it was more committed to at least pretend to investing some novelty into the genre.

A bland ending, though.  Or more time spent on the Dax-Ethan meeting just would’ve been nice at least.  I felt like that meeting was the promise that had been made to the reader, at the outset, and that just never paid off.  Seven issues build to a two-page scene...?  Look: based on other Ellis work, I went in not expecting much character work, not expecting any drama or emotion.  So I can't pretend to be too upset -- I was never that invested.  But seven issues is a lot of road to travel for two pages of nothing-but-plot.

I understand the logic of the underwhelming ending to the deformed, aborted reboot universe; I don't entirely understand the "entertainment" part.

I just especially like Tula Lotay's work -- she was very much the star of that Supreme comic, more than anything else about it.  I liked how Lotay always made every panel feel very liminal, without going for obvious tricks.  Plus, the character designs always just seemed really fashionable and stylish without losing a certain superhero-adjacent appeal; really swell fashion choices in this comic. Sure, Multiversity had Quitely and Cameron Stewart, at the top of their games.  But even if both drew better, had better storytelling, made fewer "bad choices" (there's a sound effect "No" in #7 that's really pretty ghastly), neither felt as entertainingly alien; as new; I'd seen their moves before.

What was most striking about the two comics, though, was just how out of step they both feel now.  Besides Astro City (which has been around since the 90's), I don't think "the clever superhero comic that questions how the superhero comic works in some way" is a very populated genre at the moment.

I grew up with folks playing around with superhero comics in weird, interesting ways.  For a long time, that was 100% the kind of comic I constantly wanted to read.  Heck, I still like the idea of that kind of comic.  It's just such a weird genre, superheros, the most comics-y genres that the idea of watching someone take a scalpel to it in any way has such an appeal for me.  I like that genre because it’s the imagination’s trash heap— every dumb fantasy idea anyone’s ever had could fit into a superhero comic somewhere, if you just slap a mask on it, which makes stuff that’s more in an analytic mode fun to me, going back to Watchmen or The Enigma or what have you, that so much geography of the imagination could potentially be interrogated in some way.

But boy, it doesn’t feel like a very “hip move” in 2015. Which is kind of interesting.  Because superhero stories have only become more ubiquitous in the overall culture, and yet "statements about the superhero genre" just seem more unnecessary than ever within comics. Both of these comics felt like relics.  Supreme Blue Rose still had some wriggle to it, but Multiversity very much feels like an "old folks play their hits" act.  There's a disconnect there, maybe, though I don't think I can explain it.

It feels exhausted.  It all feels like such exhausted, fallow terrain, at the moment, notwithstanding their cultural ascendancy, notwithstanding being at the peak of this rather massive fad.  Even setting aside my own exhaustion of hearing about dumb casting announcements and dumb projected schedules and dumb spinoffs of spinoffs of TV projects, even setting aside my own feelings of being very tired and wanting a nap, just look at the stands and those comics aren't really there, except Astro City, still plugging along, after all these years.  (And maybe some people might count Powers, though reasonable minds could differ as to that book's intentions).

Why did people have more interesting things to say about superhero comics in their dead-est years?  Wouldn't you expect the opposite?  Or is there some quality of a thing being culturally ascendant that makes people who would be inclined to think about those things just throw their arms up and surrender?  Maybe, it just feels more imperative for creative people to find something, anything else to do with their time, just to distinguish themselves if nothing else.

I don't think it's a bad thing-- if Multiversity is any indication, I wouldn't enjoy reading those kinds of comics very much at the moment; it's not the part of the store I really go to first.

It just seemed like a curious thing, maybe worth a brief note.