Friday, 28 March 2008

Thoughts on "Superman: For all Seasons"

In telling their early-years tale of Superman Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale have put a spirit of vulnerability and youthful uncertainty into the character not found in most of our modern TV and film heroes, who tend to achieve success through shows of strength of will and brilliant feats of deduction or heroic rescue. But the home-grown symbol of America, Clark Kent, is far from superhuman in many ways in this book, as he struggles with the impossible task of finding out his own identity, forging it from the things he experiences and the little he knows about his past and even the very alien nature of his body. He struggles with the burden of having the power to do what’s right, and knowing that much (lives and livelihoods) depends on him knowing what’s right – indeed it is his ability to do this, to act selflessly to protect and serve the people of Metropolis, that strikes Lois as perhaps most miraculous of all! Yet this volume also carries across the miraculous aspects of the Superman story: his impossible strength and flight; his incredible history as a child from the heavens, being found out in the fields, being raised as a normal emotional human being, and gaining parent figures in Martha and Jonathan Kent.

Another distinctive feature is the effectiveness of the story-telling. As we read we experience four seasons in Clark's life, from four points of view, and the story's action seems somehow governed by these seasons. Indeed it's the interplay between humanity and the rhythms of nature that brings this story of this idyllic American alien to life, and, to some extent, helps us to examine humanity itself. How powerful are we really? Are our big cities really a farce, expressing a doomed determination to master nature, when nature is so powerful? Can we tame it? Which is better, a life of ambition and achievement or a humble, unnoticed existence, and a contentment with little? Are the two modes of American life (city and farm) both worthy ways to live, or is one more fruitful?

A real sense of place is created through Sale's artwork as it combines homely attention to detail and character with broad, bold vistas of farmland around Smallville and moody or energetic action shots in the bright, towering city of Metropolis. These two settings are clearly paralleled and show us visually, among other things, the conservative past and the ambitious (and aggressive) future. In Smallville the times of crisis arise arise from natural events such as a hurricane that threatens to sweep the whole neighbourhood away. But Smallville is also a place to grow up and pass the time by philosophising about one's life; it is place to measure oneself in a family environment and to take stock of the world around. It's here that the hurt of failed dreams and fragmented relationships leaves its mark on the younger generation, as shown by Lana's discovery of her foolish and naïve attachment to Clark. It's in the city, however, that you assert yourself with strength of character. Clark admires this in Lois, whose represents the future in a positive way, as she works for a newspaper that often exposes what's wrong in society. But in the city, profit and self rule together. You make business and your own way, as represented in an extreme way by ruthless men like Luthor, who lives to dominate the city and to define himself as a success story. Big business looms out of the sky like ordered (but still cataclysmic) storms in its growing blocks of sky-scrapers. Yet even the city seems to recognise the rhythm of nature, intensifying the heat of summer with busy schedules, becoming cold, clinical and uncaring in the winter.

As the seasons pass, Clark grows. He inspires hope in others beyond what he himself feels, perhaps. But despite pain and difficulty adjusting to his role of saviour, the optimism of this book is wonderful, and shines from its pages. Indeed, it is far too fantastic a moral, that one's balanced home-grown upbringing, combined with a strong sense of selfless service and justice, is good enough. It only remains for me to point out then, that Superman is indeed fantastic at every level of his character, the fulfilment of what we can hope to achieve in our lives, in many ways – and this difference from us is what makes him fascinating.

If you enjoy this volume I would also recommend Superman Confidential, a ongoing series which started in 2007 and tells us more about Superman's early years, including his first encounters with Kryptonite. (It is also brilliant at showing the young hero's vulnerability and fear - he doesn't know if he can die doing the things he does or not!) There are a lot of bad Superman stories out there too, but I'd recommend everyone to pick up John Bryne's classic Man of Steel series, begun in 1986, and Grant Morrison's recent and absolutely brilliant alternative All-Star Superman series , which is full of crazy concepts and characters (issue 10 is pictured above). Finally, I'd like to let everyone know that two stories which show the problem of what to do when Superman is controlled by villains, “Sacrifice” in "The OMAC Project" graphic novel and “Lightening Strikes Twice” in "Day of Vengeance", put to shame pretty much every other modern Superman story I've read.

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