Thursday, August 12, 2010

On the ability to believe a man can perambulate

There's a recurring question that pops up among comics readers to the effect of "With all the alien tech that falls to Earth in one form or another, how is the Earth of DC or Marvel not decades or centuries ahead of us technologically?" And believe me, we can go on for HOURS coming up with explanations - the government grabs it all, there are advances but they're minor and in the background, etc.

But in simple fact, the reason is far more logical. If the world of the DC Universe were as advanced as it should logically be based on the number of alien devices and superintelligent inventors, it would become a world of the science-fictiony future. And that’s a world a lot of readers wouldn’t be able to identify with, and it’d turn them off. A superhero comic and a science-fiction comic aren’t the same thing, so the general standing is to keep the street-level world as similar to ours as possible. Unless they’re collateral damage, people on the street only see the superheroes when they look up.

In Superman, JMS has brought Superman down to street-level in his “Grounded” arc. Superman is taking a Forrest Gump-like (I am SO sure he’s sick of that comparison) walk across America, partly to help restore their faith in him after the New Krypton mishegas, partly for him to re-connect to the “normal” people of the country, and partly to get a cheap pop in sales and publicity as he walks through each city. This month in Superman #702, he walks through Detroit, a city with no small number of real-life problems. He talks to a number of city-dwellers, but spends more time talking to a group of alien scientists who are hiding from their oppressive home planet in human garb. They make it clear that they mean Earth no harm, just want to live their lives in paranoid solitude, etc. Superman believes them, but feels they shouldn’t just hide out; like all immigrants, it’s almost their responsibility to contribute to the country, either culturally, or in their case technologically.

The aliens do a good job of calling him out on this, pointing out that he’s an alien as well, resulting in a nice “That’s different” moment. And considering that Superman and his family isn’t exactly peppering the planet with Kryptonian technology, or forcing the Amazons to send plans for the Purple Ray to the countries of the world, etc, his request isn’t exactly fair.

Long story short, he convinces them that sharing their technology could result in an astounding amount of benefit to the world, as well as to the city of Detroit. In the span of two panels (and what HAD to have been a period of weeks if not more), the aliens have cut a back-room deal with the government to allow them to buy up a bunch of disused auto factories and start manufacturing products extrapolated from their alien tech. So in the proverbial swell foop he both makes the aliens more safe on Earth and helps provide jobs for many thousands of Detroit workers, very possibly bringing about a total revitalization of the city.

I’m curious how the people are Detroit are gonna feel about that ending when they read the book. I fully expect some profiteering headline-whore to chastise it, saying it in some way diminishes the plight of the city or some such crap.

But it’s an example of what I’m talking about – with all the aliens and such in the DCU, this kind of thing should be happening left and right. I know Luthor wasn’t able to grow wheat in Africa back in Heroes for Hunger, but that was DECADES ago – I’ll lay odds that with sufficient impetus, he could grow turkeys in Astroturf.

But by doing so, it potentially minimizes the severity of the issue in question. It’s why Babs Gordon remains wheelchair bound. It’s why there’s no World Trade Center in comics anymore. In the Marvel U, Damage control could and should have rebuilt the Twin Towers almost immediately. Yet they remain down.

YES, Superman and his new alien friends could cure cancer. Superman brings them a ex-autoworker obviously dying of some massive lung complaint and says to them, “fix him or I’ll blow the whistle on you”. But by doing so, it changes the rules in which that world plays.

Watchmen is one of the only comics that really looked at the effect of a godlike being would have on the world. The Cold War ended instantly. He was able to generate the materials to build low-size high-capacity batteries, so electric cars became plentiful and cheap. But interestingly, the street-level world didn’t change all that much. There were poor people, there were newsstands; it wasn’t THAT different. So maybe all that technology wouldn’t make that much a difference after all.

Will these aliens ever be mentioned again? Or the sudden renaissance of Detroit they will likely cause? I’ll bet no. Unless it’s a seed for a plot he’s working on later, they’ll likely fall into the disused plot pile, along with all the other things that you’d think would change the world, but never seemed to get used for anything more complicated than robbing banks.

I’m liking JMS’ Superman issues, don’t get me wrong. The stories are working. But placing this godlike creature among mortal men just drives home the point of how hard it is to have them both in the same story. You need a hell of a big lens to keep them both in focus. It’s easier to write a story where he’s towing Saturn back into orbit than one where he helps build a house. Because some smart-ass is gonna ask “Why don’t YOU just build it?”

He’s doing it well, but I’m not sure how long it’ll stay interesting. Eventually I’m going to want to see Superman face Superman-level threats. Till then, I’ll be happy to read this 21st century superpowered remake of Route 66.