Friday, 24 March 2017

The Life and Death of New 52 Superman

In 2011 writer Grant Morrison reinvented Superman for a new era as part of DC Comics' 'New 52' relaunch. This version of Superman wore a t-shirt and jeans and dangled corrupt businessmen from buildings. He was strikingly different from the version of Superman that preceded him; an older, married man, who used his great power a lot more cautiously. This week, in Action Comics #976 both versions have been 'merged' to create a new Superman, and Morrison's young, two-fisted, champion of the oppressed is no more. This new direction has been met with a lot of positive reviews and seems to be selling well. Nevertheless, is it possible that we've lost the perfect Superman for our times?

Superman was born in the 1930s, the era of the Great Depression, Al Capone, and the rise of the Far Right. His creators were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They were both the sons of Jewish immigrants, in fact Shuster's mother had left Russia after pogroms. Neither could afford college and so Siegel earned four dollars a week in a printing plant while Shuster sold ice cream and delivered groceries. In between they tried to sell their Superman comic strip to newspapers. When Superman finally debuted in Action Comics #1 (1938) their brand new hero was depicted saving a man from being wrongfully executed, beating up a wife beater, and dangling a corrupt lobbyist off a building. In the subsequent issue Superman intervenes in a foreign war between two nations who had forgotten why they were fighting in the first place. It's difficult not to see these early stories as a form of catharsis for two young men who possibly felt helpless before the injustices of the world. In those first two issues, miscarriages of justice are overturned at the last minute, wars are ended, and bullies are punched in the face.

Times changed, and Superman changed with them. During the space race Superman's power expanded and he explored other planets, while in the era of Vietnam and Watergate he questioned how he chose to use his mighty power.

In 2011, the 'New 52' arrived, and Superman changed once again. Grant Morrison, along with artist Rags Morales took the Man of Steel back to his roots. Within the first few pages of the first issue of a relaunched Action Comics, Superman dangles a corrupt businessman from a building and runs from police bullets. Over subsequent issues we see him helping ordinary people to rebuild their homes and telling a jaded, cynical police officer to "be the cop you wanted to be when you were a kid." Later in Morrison's run more cosmic foes begin to surface, such as the alien Collector, the hyper evolved Adam Blake, and the fifth dimensional Vyndktvx. But even these are dispatched like the old-fashioned bullies they really are, with a smile and a strong right-hook. The very last page of Morrison's final issue, Action Comics #18, depicts a bruised Superman having just defeated his multi-dimensional foe, sitting in a crater and saying "Yeah, but you should see the other guy."

Morrison's angry, proactive, working class Superman seems to reflect the age in which he was born as much as Siegel & Shuster's Superman did in the '30s. The world currently has many disturbing parallels with the world that birthed Superman in the 1930s. There has been much economic hardship, and the Far Right is once again on the rise in America and Europe. We're living in an age of conflict and many people feel unable to trust their own media. The UK has been torn by it's decision to leave the European Union, and the President of the United States is quite frankly a despicable human being who has surrounded himself with corrupt businessmen, near-Nazis, and actual Nazis. The cathartic right-hook of the New 52 Superman seems tailor made for our times. New 52 Superman however, lasted only five years before being killed off, replaced, and then 'merged' into a new version. Why then, did this occur?

Consistency was one of the main reasons, or rather a lack of consistency. Writers other than Morrison struggled to hit the the right note with this version of the character. In his otherwise entertaining Justice League: Origin, Geoff Johns seemed to interpret Morrison's passionate, headstrong man of action as a guy who's just spoiling for a rumble. Johns' Superman slaps Batman and Green Lantern around as soon as he meets them and literally flies head first into bad guys. George Perez left the main Superman title after only six issues, citing conflicting direction from his superiors and a lack of information from Morrison as reasons for his departure. Scott Lobdell, who began writing the title with issue #13 initially seemed to grasp what Morrison was trying to do. For example, he had Clark Kent dramatically walk out of the Daily Planet to start his own blog that would focus on the injustices that a newspaper beholden to their advertisers and dwindling readership would be unable to cover. Sadly this plotline, like much of Lobdell's Superman run, went nowhere. As for Action Comics, Morrison's successor, Andy Diggle was driven away from the book by behind the scenes tension after just one issue and his story was completed by the artist, Tony Daniel.

It wasn't all bad, New 52 Superman featured in some great stories during his time. These included Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder's Action Comics run, Charles Soule's run on Superman/Wonder Woman, a series by Scott Snyder and Jim Lee called Superman Unchained, and a great run in Superman by Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr. Overall however the quality was inconsistent and hardly any of them captured the spirit of Morrison's run. Pak and Kuder came the closest. Their Superman was significantly de-powered and once again clad in a t-shirt. They had him defending the people of his Metropolis neighbourhood from corrupt police officers, which made for some fantastic and iconic imagery. Unfortunately Pak and Kuder soon had to weave their stories into the larger arc running through the Superman titles, and so this status quo wasn't explored for very long.

New 52 Superman was eventually killed off and replaced by his previous incarnation as part of DC's Rebirth relaunch. This old version of the character was now trapped in the New 52 Universe with Lois Lane, and together they were raising their son Jon. The quality of the books was suddenly a lot more consistent, and while Superman was far more mature and level-headed than the version Morrison gave us, his characterisation was also a lot more consistent. This week New 52 Superman returned from the dead long enough to merge with his counterpart. But the fact that he remains married to Lois, and is still the father of Jon is an indicator of which version is the dominant persona.

It could be argued then that Morrison provided us with the perfect Superman for our times but DC mishandled the character to such a degree that they were forced to take a creative step backwards. However, it's also possible to argue that Morrison's Superman wasn't the hero we need right now. Perhaps the perfect heroes for our time are in fact the new Rebirth Superman, his wife Lois Lane, and their son Jon Kent.

Despite the many parallels, this is not the 1930s. People all over the world are unwilling to stay silent in the face of injustice. We're living in an age of protest. That's not to say that the people of the 1930s remained silent in the face of injustice. On the contrary, they fought and died against it. But thanks to the internet many of us are living in an age of personal empowerment where we can share our fears, voice our frustration, and organise demonstrations of our discontent. We don't necessarily need Superman to punch injustice in the face for us. What Superman can give us instead is hope for the future, and hope that we actually can make a difference. In the world of Rebirth this hope is embodied in the son of Superman and Lois Lane, Jon Kent. Jon is Rebirth's contribution to the Superman myth. He's what has prevented Rebirth from being a step backwards for Superman, and he's what has kept Rebirth Superman relevant.

I'm by no means arguing that Superman comics can save the world, or any such nonsense. But I am arguing that Superman comics can still be as reflective of the world in which they're produced as they were in the 1930s. A few years ago it seemed like we were reflected in an angry young man in jeans and a t-shirt. While Grant Morrison's Action Comics run remains an amazing Superman story in it's own right, perhaps now we are more accurately reflected by a man, a woman, and their Super-Son, looking towards the future.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Superman vs the Alt-Right

I was reading an old Superman storyline from 1999 today, where Superman finds himself cast into four separate realities based on different eras of his career in comic book history. I was struck by how relevant to today the chapters set in Superman's Golden Age were, particularly Superman: Man of Steel #80, by Louise Simonson, Jon Bogdanove, & Dennis Janke. In fact, for a comic made in the 90s and set in the 30s, it was scarily relevant. For example....

Here's some "patriots" taking the lying, mainstream, liberal media to task for their #FAKENEWS, and presenting them with some alternative news sources.

Here's some courageous Mens' Rights Activists.

Here's a celebrity turned politician promising to put "America First".

And here's how Superman deals with all that bullshit.

'Nuff said.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Peter Capaldi's leaving Doctor Who! Who will be the 13th Doctor?

Peter Capaldi announced this evening that he will be leaving Doctor Who after the 2017 Xmas special. The announcement doesn't come entirely as a surprise considering head writer Steven Moffat will be leaving at that point too, but quite frankly I'm gutted. I like the Tenth & Eleventh Doctors a lot but I'm so much more heartbroken about Capaldi leaving than I was when David Tennant & Matt Smith left. Capaldi is one of the best actors to have ever played the Doctor. As great as they all are, very few of the previous actors who have played the Doctor could have delivered the anti-war speech from The Zygon Inversion quite as effectively as Capaldi. Also, he always brought the best out of his co-star Jenna Coleman in a way that Matt Smith never could. His finest hour however remains Heaven Sent, an episode he carries completely by himself, sharing the screen only with a faceless memory of his companion Clara and a relentless, silent monster.

Of course, amidst all the sadness there's the excitement surrounding who will play the 13th Doctor!  I was initially against the idea of a woman playing the part (typical fanboy, hates change) but I've recently come around to the possibility. I'm not the most knowledgeable person when it comes to British actors working today, but I've got a few ideas about who I'd like to see in the TARDIS. Here are a few of my suggestions. They're all great actors, some of them are unlikely to be interested in the part, while others have been happy to appear in Doctor Who on previous occasions. A few of them are Welsh, as it's about time we were represented in the pantheon of Who actors.

Rhys Ifans

Paterson Joseph

Kathy Burke

Colin Salmon

Sophie Okonedo

Luke Evans

Hayley Atwell

Sean Pertwee

Michael Sheen

As for Peter Capaldi? There's always Big Finish.....

Who would you like to see play The Doctor?

UPDATE: I'm adding Richard Ayoade and current bookie's favourite Olivia Colman to this list as they'd both be perfect.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Zod! Show Me Magic Podcast - Episode #8: Luke Cage, "The King is Dead, Long Live the King"

Long Live The Chief
Here it is, the eighth episode of the podcast presented by me and my friend Rhys L. Griffiths! It's aimed at fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe who fancy dipping their toes into the comics. The set up is that we both discuss superhero movies and TV, while I also explain aspects of the comics to Rhys. It's all done (hopefully) in a fun, accessible way for the new or casual fan, and can be enjoyed by hardcore fans too.

It's called Zod! Show Me Magic.

This episode is about the recent Luke Cage Netflix series, but we also find time to discuss Neil Gaiman's 1602 in Zod's Super Book Club, the ethics of teleportation, elves with guns, and Brian Conley - the King of Saturday Night Light Entertainment.

It can be found on Itunes:

Zod! Show Me Magic on Itunes

And also on Soundcloud:

Also, join Zod's Super Book Club! I've made Rhys read Warren Ellis & Lenil Francis Yu's Wolverine: Not Dead Yet by next month and we'll be discussing it in Episode 9.

If you've read it or are going to read it let us know what you think of the story via Twitter (@ZodShowMeMagic)Facebook, or here on my blog!

Spread the word for the love of Zod!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Best Stuff of 2016 (according to me)

(Click here for The Best Stuff of 2015)

Best ongoing comic series of 2016
Peter Tomasi & Patrick Gleason's Superman

Fair play, there have been a lot of great comics to choose from this year, and thanks to DC Rebirth most of them were by DC Comics. But my personal favourite has been Superman, and not just 'cos he's my favourite character.

If you'd told me a couple of years ago that Superman would be married to Lois Lane again and they'd be raising a Super-son together I'd have dismissed it as twee fan-wank. But this series has everything. Yes, this Superman is much more of a pure-hearted farmboy than his New 52 counterpart, and he and Lois are instilling traditional, heroic values into their son Jon. But Tomasi and Gleason aren't afraid to explore the darker aspects that are naturally inherent in the story of a young boy suddenly discovering that he has inherited massively destructive powers from his alien father, and that both his parents are from a parallel universe. Also, some of the enemies Superman and Jon have faced during this series have been downright creepy (for example The Eradicator). As a result of this, the lighter, more heartwarming aspects of this story feel well-earned and are hugely effective. All of this, combined with the compelling ongoing mystery of this Superman's place in the DC Rebirth Universe, make this series the best of a great year for superhero comics.

Runner Up
Green Arrow

Benjamin Percy has given us the ultimate Green Arrow series. The best of every era of Green Arrow is represented. Ollie is beginning a relationship with Black Canary and they're fighting for social justice, just like in the O' Neil/Adams stories of the 70s! But their relationship (as well as their adventures together) have the sophisticated, mature feel of the Mike Grell era. John Diggle is there, representing the Arrow TV series, and Ollie's sister, Emiko from the New 52, is also present. Artists Otto Schmidt, Stephen Byrne, and Juan Ferreyra have been making sure it all looks amazing.

Most underrated comic of 2016
Gene Luen Yang and Viktor Bogdanovic's New Super-Man

I'm sure this series has been well received (most of DC Rebirth has been), but I'm not hearing nearly enough praise for New Super-Man as I feel it deserves. This tale of China's answer to the Man of Steel, Kong Kenan, is a fun super-hero origin that feels almost classic. However the Chinese setting gives it a fresh spin and stops it from feeling too familiar. Yang's knowledge of Chinese culture gives the book an authentic voice, and he manages to make a flawed central character with a lot of growing up ahead of him come across as incredibly likeable. Bogdanovic's cartoony and expressive art is also a large part of the book and it's protagonist's charm. If you love super-heroes do yourself a favour and check out this book.

Best limited comic series of 2016
Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta's The Vision

Androids trying to be human is such a tired, old sci-fi cliche, particularly in the world of superhero comics. It's surprising then that the most innovative and original superhero comic of 2016 was about exactly that. King and Walta tell the old story of an android trying to be human in a new, dark, sad, scary and beautiful way. They discuss humanity, superheroes, good, evil, family, death, the concept of a soul and whether it's truly possible to be normal. It's obvious that both writer and artist are in perfect synch with each other, and along the way they use (among other tools) repetition, Marvel comics history, and Shakespeare to suck the reader completely into this world. Believe the hype. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

Best comics event of 2016
DC Rebirth

DC Rebirth has something for everyone. The best elements of the New 52 have been retained and the best aspects of past incarnations of these characters have returned. It's all moving forward in a mysterious and compelling new direction involving characters that we've never seen interacting with the DC Universe before. I feel as if every aspect of DC Rebirth has been planned out and that all the creators are singing from the same hymn sheet. Perhaps this isn't the case, but DC have successfully given the impression of a company that knows what it's doing (finally!) and so I feel safe investing in this story and in these characters. I liked the New 52, but DC hasn't felt this focused and exciting since the build up to Infinite Crisis in 2005.

Most disappointing comic of 2016
Brian Bendis's Invincible Iron Man & International Iron Man

I had high hopes for Bendis' Iron Man as I'm a massive fan of his work on Spider-Man (which is still consistently brilliant, check it out). Sadly however all of Bendis' worst excesses as a writer are on display here. Story moving at a glacial pace? Check. Completely ignoring established continuity and previous writers' work? Check. SHIELD crowbarred into every aspect of the character's life? Check. 

To be fair, International Iron Man wasn't bad. It offered an intriguing look into Tony Stark's youth, an absorbing backstory for Tony's real mother and a touching reunion between mother and son. But it was also about three or four issues worth of story stretched out to seven. Invincible Iron Man was even more drawn out. It really felt as if Bendis was treading water until the events of Civil War 2 (the most contrived, unappealing Marvel event ever) were played out and he could properly introduce his new Iron Man/Girl, Riri Williams. Bendis has also replaced Pepper Potts with former Spider-man supporting character Mary Jane Watson, and yet inexplicably he's given MJ exactly the same role and personality as Pepper. It's a bafflingly pointless move. 

I've got nothing against Riri Williams and I genuinely hope the character takes off, but I was reading the book for Tony Stark, and it's far from Bendis' best work so I'm out.

Best Comic Book Film of 2016
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

2016 has been a good year for comic book movies, and BvS was my favourite of the lot. It was the bane of the critics however, and I'm aware that it has it's flaws. The extra scenes from the Ultimate Edition that made the plot more coherent should have been kept in and the fun but the pointless set-up scenes for Justice League should have been removed. But it's still an ambitious, gorgeous looking, gloriously over the top, huge, operatic thrill ride with a magnificent cast who bring their A-game. I absolutely loved it.

And I especially loved the "MARTHA" scene, so there! :P

Best non-comics related film of 2016
The Nice Guys

I had high hopes for director Shane Black's latest effort and I wasn't disappointed. It matched and maybe even surpassed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for charismatic lead performances, humour, plot twists and action. I love this film.

Best TV show of 2016
Luke Cage

No Doctor Who this year so Luke Cage gets the top spot for TV shows. It's as gripping as Jessica Jones and as viscerally thrilling as Daredevil. Simone Missick's performance helps make Misty Knight the best character in a whole series full of great characters. The only flaw this series has is Erik LaRay Harvey's Diamondback. After the standard for sophisticated, multi-layered villains set by Vincent D'Onofrio in Daredevil and David Tennant in Jessica Jones, and indeed by Luke Cage's own Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard, Harvey's swivel-eyed, metaphorical-moustache-twirling, "I kill my own men", revenge motivated, walking cliche just doesn't cut the mustard.

Best things I discovered in 2016 that everybody else already knew about

I watched New Zealand vampire mockumentary, What We Do In The Shadows. It was hilarious and it's made me really excited for Taika Waititi's upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.

I finally got around to reading Marv Wolfman and George Perez's New Teen Titans and John Ostrander's Suicide Squad and they're just as groundbreaking and brilliant as everyone says.

I also checked out Warren Ellis' ongoing James Bond comic. It's staggeringly excellent stuff. I would love to see the first arc, VARGR adapted into the next film.

Best things I did in 2016

I moved to Bristol with my partner, Jenny and got a wonderful new job that I love loads. I received a fantastic and amazingly kind gift of hundreds of Silver Age DC Comics from an old friend and as a result I now own some truly legendary old comics. I also started a podcast with my friend Rhys that I enjoy doing immensely and that you should all check out!

As for 2016 as a whole, it began with David Bowie's death and went down hill from there. The UK has voted to leave the European Union, leaving our future a lot more scary and uncertain, and our country a lot more divided. The United States of America has voted for a President who is openly racist and misogynistic, has admitted to assaulting women, and who has proven himself to be a petty, childish, spiteful, vindictive, ignorant, greedy, corrupt and abusive bully. It's heartbreaking and terrifying and I genuinely don't know what kind of world we'll be living in next year.

Donald Trump: Horrible Bastard

Still, there's some good films out in 2017, including Wonder Woman, Spider-Man Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Thor Ragnarok, Logan, Lego Batman, Justice League, John Wick 2, and Star Wars VIII, so at least Western Civilisation will be going out in style.

What have been your geeky highlights and lowlights of 2016?


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