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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, December 18, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: THE RETURN OF SUPERMAN (1993)



In the Christian tradition this time celebrates the birth of a redeemer, but in some pagan traditions the birth of the “new year” is immediately preceded by the death of the old one. Since the “Adam Strange” story dealt with a “consummate myth” about death-and-rebirth, it’s incumbent on me now to survey an inconsummate myth on the same topic.

I stated here that there were two ways for mythic discourses to be inconsummate. “The Return of Superman”—a narrative that didn’t receive nearly as much fannish attention as the “Death of Superman—is inconsummate in that it deals with a mythic topic but represses the free-flow of symbolic associations in order to “overthink the overthought.” This time it’s not for the purpose of promoting some abstruse philosophy, as seen in my commentaries on Sim, Moore and Ditko. Rather, "Return of Superman" is similar to the story-example cited in the above essay-- "The Wedding of Jimmy Olsen"-- in which symbolic potential is nullified by editorial considerations. For the "Return" narrative, the main concern seems to have been that of keeping the train of "overthought" running on time; an overthought concerned only with the bland maintenance of a soap-opera continuity.

This blandness dominated the creative tone of DC’s Superman titles since the beginnings of the “post-Crisis” Superman. Most of the stories, whether produced by wunderkind writer-artist John Byrne or by those who followed in his creative wake, were depressingly sterile in terms of any symbolic depth. Editor Mike Carlin may deserve most of the blame for continually keeping the Superman titles oriented on a particularly dreary version of superhero soap-opera, and many fans were particularly cheesed at the ham-handed handling of Superman’s death at the hands of the monstrous Doomsday.

“The Return of Superman” story-arc offered a little more potential for mythic storytelling. Superman’s return from death was inevitable, but it was probably beyond Carlin’s abilities to emulate the Jesus-parallels seen in the Richard Donner films, even if Carlin had wanted to pursue that line of discourse. It’s often been suggested that the follow-up to Superman’s death was modeled less on Christ than on Elvis, for as soon as the Man of Steel has been declared deceased, four “Superman-imitators” show up in Metropolis. All four assert some claim to either being a reborn Superman or a hero capable of carrying on the Kryptonian's tradition.




Two of the four had detailed backstories as to why they wanted to carry on the tradition, making it plain that they were designed to be spin-offs-- and indeed both got their own independent features. One was “Superboy,” a teenaged clone grown from the original Kryptonian’s DNA. Superboy was not a particularly complex character but he did enjoy a longer career as a featured hero than the other spin-off, “Steel.” Steel, an Afro-American who patterned his heroic persona both upon Superman and upon the legendary “John Henry the steel-drivin’man,” had more symbolic potential than Superboy. As I’ve not read Steel’s spin-off title, I can’t judge how successful he was in his own feature. But within the sphere of the “Return” narrative, Steel’s symbolic persona is generally underwhelming.

The other two Superman-imitators—one garbed in a futuristic visor and the other looking like a half-cyborg—claimed to be the Man of Steel reborn, but altered by that rebirth. Both had evil or at least undesirable aspects. They were eventually exposed as previous adversaries of the real Man of Steel, but before that happened, they offered the most potential for drama in the narrative, to wit: what if the DC Universe’s ultimate symbol of goodness came back from death, but damaged in some way, either physically or ethically?

Not surprisingly, DC chose not to open that can of worms. What’s surprising in retrospect, though, is how little buildup the narrative—constructed by a small coterie of writers and artists—gives to the rebirth of DC’s linchpin hero. There’s no attempt to invest the Big Event with deep symbolic resonance. After a few cagey references to some mystery personage being nurtured by robots in a secluded refuge, it’s soon revealed that it’s a fifth Superman, and that he’s the Real Deal. His life has been restored by a set of unique circumstances that in theory could never be repeated, and I’m certainly not going to repeat them, as they comprise one of the most tedious explanations in the history of superhero comics.



There is, to be sure, a lot of action in the narrative, but most of it—even when executed by formidable talents like Jon Bogdanove— resembles the artless fight-choreography of the then-popular Image Comics line. Only Tom Grummett, working on the “Superboy” sections of the narrative, brings anything like class or style to his contributions—and, sad to say, none of the writers, even the talented Louise Simonson, distinguish themselves.

Given the possible inspiration of Elvis to this storyline, I’d sum up the whole mess with one slight alteration of a classic Presley song:

“Return It to Sender.”

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