Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Subtext in Supertown

Three things have got me thinking rambly about stuff (stuff that I spent way too much time thinking w/o any stimuli anyway): 1) Wade's comment on my post about the JLA movie, 2) another Douglas Wolk article, this time about two books looking at Jewish themes in superhero comics, and 3) Roger Ebert's late review of Spider-Man 3.
Wolk says in his second paragraph "superheroes are loaded with subtext—that’s sort of the point of them" and basically nails what I've been narrowly missing in most of my comics thinking over the last four years. I had more or less replaced subtext with metaphor--a subtle distinction, but a key one nonetheless. Over the last year and a half, I've been stealing ideas from David J. Skal's The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror and jamming them into comics stuff. Specifically, I've been thinking about how superhero comics reflect the culture they're produced in, the way that Skal says early horror films processed the traumas of the First World War.
It's the kind of thing that's most transparent in the Golden Age comics, when Superman was still a fresh idea, warm and malleable desipite skin impervious to a bursting shell. As Wolk notes in his Nextbook.org piece (which sorta dovetails with my thoughts on Chris Knowles's book Our Gods Wear Spandex), Superman reflected the immigrant experience of the early 20th Century. But he was also tied up in Rooseveltian ideals (both Teddy's Strenous Life manliness and Franklin's New Deal sense of fairplay and optimism). Tom De Haven's curiously good 2005 novel It's Superman exploits this aspect of Superman's secret origin by sending young Clark Kent on a coming-of-age adventure against the backdrop of the Great Depression.

Over the last couple of years, in tandem with their Showcase Presents line of black & white, mostly Silver Age, reprints, DC Comics has been publishing a Chronicles line of full-colour reprints of Batman and Superman comics in chronological order, starting with their first appearances in the late 1930s. I picked up the first three volumes of each Chronicles series, expecting to be mostly impressed by the Batman stuff and mildly curious to see if Superman was as much of a creampuff in the 30s and 40s as he was in the 50s (and pretty much through to the present day) (though Superman himself is something of a douchebag in the Silver Age stories reprinted in the Showcase Presents line, the scenarios are wonderful). Lo and behold, it was Batman, that weird avenger of the night, who came across as the sort of benignly bland, square-jawed authority figure that Superman is so often accused of being. Superman, meanwhile, in his earliest adventures, was a total badass. Smashing slumlords, forcing fat cat tycoons to visit the unsafe mines they profit from, and fixing a college football game. Okay, I'm not exactly sure how rigging college sports fits in with the rest of his social activism, but the point is that for a brief period, Superman was more interesting than Batman (Batman was actually an even bigger douchebag than Superman in the 50s and 60s--without the benefit of Curt Swan, Al Plastino and Wayne Boring art! Sure the Infantino stuff is pretty good, but for the most part, the Showcase Presents Batman volumes are kinda dreadful).

I'm not sure when Superman stories started being lame, but I suspect it was around the time Batman stories stopped--the late 60s when Neal Adams started drawing the strip. During that period (which, coincidentally, also featured lots of Neal Adams covers, if not interior art) Clark Kent left the Daily Planet to become a TV anchorman for WGBS. The thing was, during the late 60s and early 70s, you could still read excellent Superman-related stories in Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen (whose title character was the Scott Pilgrim of his day).

--I like how I'm writing here as if I was reading comics in the 50s, 60s, and 70s--

I don't even know what my point is anymore. I've been writing this since last Friday and I've just learned of the death of Heath Ledger, who plays the Joker in the upcoming Batman film The Dark Knight. Filming has wrapped on TDK, so this grim news shouldn't affect the eventual movie we'll all see in the theatre the weekend it comes out, but it will probably affect the marketing of the film.
Regardless, it's a shame and a waste. Even though the cause of death isn't yet known, there's no good reason not to say this: Don't do drugs. And if you can't not do drugs, don't do them alone. Most overdoses don't need to be fatal. Immediate medical treatment, simple first aid even, will save lives. If you're going to do drugs, have 9-11 on speed dial. Stay alive. Stay alive long enough to figure out a way to get off drugs. Like Smog says, "No matter how far wrong you've gone, you can always turn around."
I've gone so far off track here, I might as well close this post. I'll try to come back to some of the ideas I wanted to put out here (talking points: Green Arrow as successful Batman proxy; Shazam! as failed Superman proxy; the untapped filmic potential of DC Comics' second and third tier characters; the importance of supporting casts; Clark Kent vs. Peter Parker; etc.) in future posts.
In the meantime, the Black Mountain album, In the Future, came out today. It's awesome, and also makes me kinda sad. It's awesome because it's a brave and bold epic of chug-o-mystic rock. It's sad because it means I probably won't be seeing drummer Josh Wells around for a while as the band tours the world. I like Josh, he's got a great sense of humour. So here's a track from the new alb, which just happens to have previously appeared on the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack.

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