Thursday, November 18, 2010

On how the day Superman graced your village was the most important day of your life...

If you put aside all the vitriol about the choices JMS made for his (abortive) run on the series, Superman #705 is a nice little story.  Pretend it takes place in Metropolis or something.  The fact that he's walking the Earth like Kaine is ancillary to the idea that he wants to get down to Earth and interact with people on a more personal level.  But that's another conversation we've been having endlessly, and as I say, we'll just table it for now.

The core of the story is how Superman saves a mother and child from an abusive father.  The boy puts his faith in Superman utterly to save them, making a banner to hang from their home to let him know they need help.  The father is about to attack the mom, and the boy steps in between, warning his dad to stop.  Now in endless stories (and often in real life) that's the turning point in such a relationship - the father backs down, the child finds the strength to fight him, or some other heartwarming result.  But that's not how it goes.  The dad backhands the kid, who drops like a sack of batteries, and the dad throws him down the stars to the basement.  Played slightly differently, and if it weren't about a little kid, that could be a moment of evil black comedy, on par with the first issue of Kick-Ass.  But alas, it's just how it really happens too often.

The kid screams loud enough for Superman to hear him, and he comes to their rescue.  Again, heartwarming, makes you feel good, and Superman even makes a little comment about this is something anybody could have stopped this by keeping their eyes open.

But consider this.  The kid has learned what he pretty much knew at the beginning of the story; he's not able to solve his own problems, Superman has to do it.  It's exactly the argument Luthor was making all along.  Not exactly the best way to grow up, is it? 

Compare this story with G. Willow Wilson's fill-in from last issue.  That was a story about humans, and missed opportunities and roads not taken.  Again, taken with a cynical eye, the summary of that story was "Thank GOD I got out of this burg!" But it was a set of characters who could understand each other's lives and problems.  Nothing got magically fixed at the end.  If Superman had been in that story, he'd have called Bruce Wayne and amazingly, a fat architectural and graphic design contract would have landed at their door. 

Because that's how Superman is being treated in JMS' stories, like a primary-colored Santa Claus, touching down in selected lives, changing them forever by direct action, or sometimes just by showing up.  It's very difficult to write a story that deals with both gods and commoners.  Eagles and ants, to allude to a controversial Peter David comment.  It begs the question of how Superman can choose to help this one individual over another; who can guess how many other abusive homes he's passing on his constitutional, or other crack houses?  The only thing you can go with is the idea that Terry Pratchett put forth in Hogfather: he doesn't have to actually visit every house, just certain selected ones, and the help for the other people just sort of...happens. 

There was a real good JSA story from a while back where Jakeem Thunder decides he's going to start using his Thunderbolt magic to help people individually.  He has the T-bolt build a whole row of houses for people.  The next day, more people come for serious help, and he helps them. Eventually, people are coming asking for large-screen TVs. He also learns that for everything he creates out of nothing with magic, a similar item crumbles and collapses elsewhere in the world, in accordance with the law of conservation of personal possessions, or something.  Alan Scott sums the lesson up in two parts:

1) You can't use magic to solve people's real-world problems, they have to fix them on their own.
2) People are greedy dicks.

OK, he didn't actually say that part, but it was pretty damn obvious.

These "one on one" stories work better when done rarely.  "The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man" is an awesome story, but if they did one every month, you'd be wishing the kids dead.  The Superman books used to do the annual "Metropolis Mailbag" story every Christmas, and they were delightful, and hilarious and heartwarming all at the same time. And most importantly, they were a year apart.

That's been my problem all along here.  Once in a while, these kind of stories are fun.  All in a row, they get tedious, and both in the DCU and in the real world, people start asking, "Don't you have something better to be doing?"  For all the talk JMS made about what an inspiring character Superman is, he's not been doing a whole lot of inspiring here.  Personally, I think the idea of Superman as inspirational figure was better done by Mark Verheiden in his "What Would Superman Do?" story in Superman #225.

JMS's stories have been good, but so far, I'd have to describe them with a very ironic adjective. 


1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, with much food for thought. It just goes to show that in fiction as in real life, you can't make things too easy for people; you have to make them work for their happy ending in order to really appreciate it.