Comic Review: “Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (TPB)”

A more appropriate title might also include the titles, “The Jungle Line” and “For the Man Who Has Everything…” before the capitalized word review, but I think that’d be stretching it. This is a review of the trade paperback titled after the legendary two part story that “finished” Superman’s first continuous run, which lasted since his debut in 1938 and “ended” here in 1986, in order to pave way for the relaunch DC would be doing once Crisis On Infinite Earths was completed. For the record, I would never have known any of that if it weren’t for the book’s introduction. You see, first of all, I’m not really a Superman fan. The only comic I think I’ve ever encountered him in is in The Dark Knight Returns, and that’s an older version of him / Frank Miller’s version of him. Which brings me to our second problem, which is that I don’t really know the character all that well. Frank Miller’s, for example, is the type who’s seen working with the American government (although I recently found out that DC had the character reject his own U.S. citizenship a few years ago, which is kind of interesting) and fights Batman because he poses a threat to the country. My point being that I don’t know how often other writers behind the character have decided to personify him as “the good ol’ American way”. The only other Superman book I have in my possession, for example, is All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and the cover of that alone suggests that Morrison chooses to focus on the character being a symbol of hope instead. Not that I’m saying one is better than the other; I think it’s pretty cool that there’s room for both, and probably a lot more – I just don’t know in what way the character’s presented most of the time, though I imagine it’s something that simply varies from writer to writer, as these things tend to do with any characters not owned by one single person.

Good thing we have that introduction to the book then, eh? It’s actually one that was used in prior printing of this story but I can see why they chose to use it again. It’s actually really great, written by Paul Kupperberg, who was editor at DC several years after this and a writer of the comic beforehand, and  hot on the heels of three intriguing opening pages: when I pulled back the cover – which is a recreation from Brian Bolland of the one inside that was used for the second part of the story, although not as good (it was pointed out to me in the introduction that Curt Swan’s Superman has tears in his eyes as he flies away, whilst Bolland’s doesn’t even look sad to me) – a picture of Superman with a dog wearing a cape greeted me. As I was to find out, this dog’s from Superman’s planet, and can indeed fly, which is not as ridiculous as I expected it to be.  The second page was a close up of a panel in the book of Superman crying, which had me even more intrigued. That doesn’t look like someone filled with hope. The third image, finally, was of a statue of Superman with the words “In Memoriam” engraved on the bottom so, indeed, I was dying to get into this at this point. The introduction, of course, stopped me briefly, but I’m glad it did since it certainly explained some history which was insightful and probably made me appreciate the story and artwork more. I won’t go into detail about it alone, but you might as well know this if you’ve never read or heard of this comic before: the idea they had going for this story, or editor-at-the-time Julius Schwartz to be specific, knowing that Superman’s previous history would essentially become a blank slate for the slew of new writers to toy around with once this reboot launched, was to create what Kupperberg calls a “make believe” final story that would tie up some final plot threads, such as (and I couldn’t believe this, by the way) Lois Lane finding out her boyfriend’s actual identity, y’know, of a dude from another planet who can fly and shoot laser beams from his eyes amongst other things. But, of course, the reboot could come along and ignore all this, as it apparently did.

How suitable then that Alan Moore opens the tale with the words, “This is an imaginary story”, and ends this first page with a question about comics themselves: “Aren’t they all?” The story’s told through flashback as Lois Lane, or Lois Elliot now, recounts her involvement during the last days of Superman to a reporter writing an article in memory of the hero who people continue – and I love this piece of writing from Moore, by the way – to “glance up hopefully from the sidewalks” to look for, simply to find that “it’s only a bird, only a plane”, these ten years later. There’s surprisingly powerful stuff like that throughout the book. Characters die around our hero and friends are put in danger, and he seems genuinely sad, as portrayed through the fantastic art from Curt Swan. That panel of Superman crying that I mentioned as part of my initial intrigue comes at the end of the first half of the story, when a bunch of heroes from the future come to meet with him for the last time, knowing his fate. And, yes, he does die, though not in the way you’re led to believe. In fact, as soon as the second part of the story begins with Lois’ husband returning home, I’m sure most readers saw how this was going to end. And it ends well, I suppose.

“I suppose” because, sadly, my lack of knowledge about the character meant that the story as a whole left me with less of an impact than I otherwise would have felt. Indeed, this is one tale that really requires prior reading of the character. I mean, straight after the start of Lois’ interview she recalls where it all began, which was when Superman returned to Metropolis from space, only to find that a dude called Bizarro, who confusingly looks like Superman, has killed a bunch of people and destroyed part of the city. He then kills himself in front of Superman and the plot, as they say, thickens when a close friend turns up dead after revealing his identity as Clark Kent, murdered by some petty criminals who haven’t killed before. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor is joined with an apparently powerful villain who was considered dead prior to this tale. Then the flying dog, Krypto, returns from space, and then a bunch of heroes turn up from the future. Of course, you’re not supposed to know what’s going on, even as a long time reader. There’s even some lines that joke about this, like the future superheroes making a gag about “dropping in”. The thing is, I literally had no idea who the majority of these characters were so, until I read All Star Superman and For Tomorrow, I probably won’t bother reading this again.

Of course, that’s no fault of the book itself, but even if I did have prior reading, I’m not actually sure that I’d leave all teary-eyed and stuff anyway because this isn’t actually Alan Moore at his best if I’m perfectly honest. There’s certainly some great moments in there. Aside from the few I’ve mentioned, my favourite was probably of Lois describing what Superman looked like as he moved at that lightning speed of his to catch her: the blue and red blur together into a purple. But like that very motion, which only lasts a panel, the whole thing moves along too quickly. Even if I did know my Superman lore, I still couldn’t keep up with the pace of this fake final tale and still find time to enjoy it. Granted, he does his best with two short issues, and the concept itself is sound – he just doesn’t hit the ball out the park unfortunately. Incidentally, this is probably the only Alan Moore story I’ve read thus far in my life that I wanted to put behind him, which is funny because the next story in this book is much better, and the one after that better again.

The first’s called “The Jungle Line”, and is a crossover between Superman and Alan Moore’s run on the character Swamp Thing.  As you may have noticed in my post detailing all the books on my to-read list, I have the New 52 line up of Swamp Thing at the ready, having never read Alan Moore’s popular time with the character (although I’ll get round to it one day), so this serves as another introduction to a character I’m unfamiliar with. And some introduction it is. Not only is the character really interesting, despite no details of his background being mentioned, it’s top quality Alan Moore writing. Like the previous tale, it’s concerned with Superman dying after he’s exposed to a meteorite believed to be from another world. Of course, it’s actually where Swamp Thing ties in, and not of alien origin (I think it’s the Rot I’ve seen mentioned in the New 52 reboot). Anyway, for a story that has a similar idea to that of the first, it’s honestly told a lot better in a short amount of time, and is way more exciting than that story’s cramming-in of everything possible. As I’m to understand, Moore’s Swamp Thing also crosses paths with Batman during that run, and I’d be curious to read that after this short story. It’s actually a shame it’s not a bit longer as I got the impression that the “alien origin” of the meteorite is explained at some future point in Swamp Thing. It does look the Rot of the New 52 story, though I can’t say with complete certainty that I’m right. Anyway, Rick Veitch is on art duties for this, the artist who I believe also worked with Alan on Miracleman, and he does a great job, although the artist of the next story beats him out.

The final story is “For the Man Who Has Everything…”, and it’s up to par with Moore’s usual quality of writing like the Swamp Thing story before, but even better than that. Although Superman isn’t dying in this story, or about to die, he is in a coma-like state where he experiences a different life than that of Superman; a classic “What if?” scenario, in this case one in which his home planet was never destroyed. Yet again prior knowledge would have helped me here, but I gathered enough in order to enjoy it. What was interesting about this usually terrible cliche of an idea is that a lot of the problems on this make believe version of Krypton parallel our own, with Superman / Kal-El’s father mentioning drugs and immigration troubles, so it’s easy to go with for the short story that it is, compared to it being possibly too complicated in another writer’s hands. Anyway, as Batman, Robin (in that stupid fucking costume, mind – you know the one I mean) and Wonder Woman try to work this out, the villain reveals himself and explains that what Superman is experiencing in his mind, the “What if?” of Krypton, is his heart’s desire. Which is an amazing idea that I believe Brian Azzarello uses in For Tomorrow, where the Superman there fantasizes about not being under constant pressure to protect the world.

Anyway, this little gem of a story’s quite well presented. Someone may say something at the end of a real world page, and someone may something similar in Superman’s little fantasy, the line between the two blurring as Superman begins to see through the trick. The way they’re distinguished is that the panels of the dream world are bordered red, I think quite cleverly implying that, underneath his desire for this world in which Krypton was never destroyed and he was never sent to Earth as its last survivor to be brought up with his powers being used to defend humans, he’s Superman at heart; he’s that red cape at heart; he’s hope, and he’s justice, and he’s the American flag, and whatever else writers have made him represent. Anyway, the writing’s best here with a structure that works so well, as you might imagine, and I think the artwork at this point is my favourite too. It’s from Dave Gibbons. You know, that guy who kicked absolute ass on Watchmen on which he an Moore collaborated. His artwork’s nothing like that seen in Watchmen, mind you, but that could just be the difference in colouring playing tricks with me. Either way, it’s pretty amazing and compliments the story wonderfully. And like I said, it’s some story. Even after they get Superman back to normal, it’s Batman’s turn and his heart’s desire is, as you’d expect, that the bullets that ended his parent’s lives actually missed.

This short story did get me thinking if Gibbons and Moore did any other small pieces together like this before they worked on Watchmen because here, right enough, you can see Moore almost toying with some of the ideas he’ll use in that amazing graphic novel, such as the aforementioned panel structure. Hell, maybe it’s no coincidence that Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman find Superman and the enemy called Mongul who has tricked him out in a frozen tundra, like Ozymandias is found by the characters in Watchmen at the end. Double hell, the…thing that causes the characters to experience their “What if?” scenarios looks kinda like the alien put in the middle of New York. Triple hell, it takes Superman, a hero possessing actual super powers like Dr. Manhattan, to stop Mongul. Coincidences or not, though, it’s great and easily the best thing here.

And that wraps this trade paperback up. It has no extras apart from the introduction and covers to each issue, but I suppose that’s fair enough with such older stories. There is actually a hardcover copy and I’d actually recommend that over this if you were to pick it up. It’s a very thin book with very thin, glossy pages which, although won’t turn yellow over time, will probably tear one day, whereas I’m to understand that the hardcover edition of the book has much thicker pages. So I’d pick that up. But I’d only bother to pick either up so long as you know what to expect from the story’s collected inside, and that it’s probably best to have had some prior reading of the character under your belt, unlike me. These aren’t considered essential to reading Superman I’m sure, so they’re perfectly skippable. Likewise, it’s not Moore at his outright best and if it was for him that you were buying this, you might do better elsewhere unless you’re interested in reading some obscure stories that are more likely to be forgotten over time than the likes of his graphic novels. The last two are definitely worth it, but the actual story the book’s titled after was pretty disappointing, which meant I only really enjoyed half the book.

Still, the good news is that I’m actually looking forward to both All Star Superman and For Tomorrow all the more. Wasn’t sure that I’d enjoy Superman but, if those two are as good as the last two stories here, and I at least expect that Morrison’s story will be better than them all combined, then I think I’d look for further reading of the character. Next up is Neil Gaiman’s similarly-titled story, “Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” Like this, it collects one large story, concerned with Batman’s death instead, and a few more, although I’m to understand that they’re not quite of the same subject. Either way, I’m actually looking forward to it a bit more, and to “The Killing Joke” after that where we’ll return to Moore in a story I’m at least familiar with, and have things to say about.

On second thoughts, let’s not talk about why I bought so many graphic novels

So, I had a plan on how to do this, and it seemed quite neat. What I had been writing up until a short while ago was the first of probably four, maybe five, parts of the one whole post, intended to make for easier reading, discussing my reasons for buying this book and then that, and so on. But as I was closing in on finishing the first post, which was only about the Judge Dredd books I’ve bought over the course of the year, I realised that I was spending ages talking about each one, which will be better left for when I come to actually read and review them properly.

Here, instead, is a basic list of the books I’ve bought over this entire year, many of which are from the last few months, and all of which except Cradlegrave have gone unread until I hopefully start tomorrow. My intended order, if you’re wondering, is to begin with both Whatever Happened To…? stories, read The Killing Joke, then read Jeph Loeb’s four Batman graphic novels, then finally read Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, at which point I’m not sure what I’ll do. We’ll start with the 2000AD stuff to kick us off.

Judge Dredd: Volumes 6 – 15 of the Complete Case Files, as well as supplementary stories that I consider essential which are America, Tales of the Dead Man and Chopper: Surf’s Up; the Tour of Duty storyline; the Day of Chaos mega epic; Trifecta; and the Henry Flint collection, which I think is Dredd stories only. Although not Dredd, I also bought both volumes of Mega City Undercover set in Mega City One, featuring characters that cross paths with Dredd on numerous occasions.

Other 2000AD stories: The Ballad of Halo Jones; both volumes of Zombo; both volumes of Shakara (you should see a pattern in that I bought a lot of stuff with Henry Flint on art duties); Cradlegrave; both volumes of Caballistics Inc. (although the second volume doesn’t actually finish the series, I do have the remaining stories from when I collected the strip); and the recently released sequel of sorts, Absalom: Ghosts of London.

A lot of books already, eh? Well, prepare your pants because here is the list of DC stuff, and god fucking help me for this.

Batman: Jeph Loeb and Tim Sales’ run on the character (having bought Haunted Knight and The Long Halloween in Times Square during a sale, I decided to buy the other two as well); The Killing Joke; Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?; Grant Morrison’s entire Batman run, including the Black Casebook to help understand some of the events that take place; The Black Mirror; Scott Synder and Greg Capullo’s New 52 relaunch of the character, including Night of the Owls; The Joker – Death of the Family, also part of New 52; Batman: Hush (yet to be arrived); and, finally, Hush Unwrapped, which is basically the same book as the last but only with Jim Lee’s pencil work – no inking or colouring, except in the captions.

And if you think that’s insane enough…

Other DC Stuff: Scott Synder’s New 52 run of Swamp Thing (have never read Alan Moore’s popular run, so I saw this as a good joining point); the New 52 relaunch of Animal Man (unarrived), which ties into Swamp Thing and also happens to be one of the more popular stories in the New 52 line; Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? which I bought figuring that, since I bought the Batman equivalent of this, I might as well see Moore’s popular idea, even though I’m not a Superman reader at all; and, because I’m not a Superman reader, I decided to buy the massively popular All Star Superman by Grant Morrison which I’m actually dying to read because of that fucking amazing art.

“Is…is it over…?”, you might be asking. Well…no. There’s the first two Deluxe volumes of Fables that have yet to arrive but, thankfully, since those hardcovers are nowhere close to being as up to date as the trade paperbacks of each volume (the Deluxe editions collect two at once), I can take my time coming up to speed with that series. There is, however, one more book on top of the 50+ that I’ve listed above, and I’ve saved it for last because I figure that I might as well end this sad, sad post on a comical note. The last book I bought was Alan Moore’s Lost Girls. Look it up if you like. It’s a porn book.

The From Hell Companion

Perhaps writing a short review of a companion book to a tome-sized graphic novel is a pretty unusual way to reboot your blog after a month’s hiatus from a giddy, excited first post, but oh well. A review of From Hell itself, and then this, would indeed probably be the better way to do things, but that would mean re-reading the god-only-knows-how-long book, and I don’t currently feel like I could manage that underneath all the other books I plan to read (more on this in a forthcoming blog post). Besides, my sole caveat to people who’d consider picking up From Hell’s complete edition would be that it’s a graphic novel, wordy in length itself with something like sixteen chapters (that includes the Prologue and Epilogue), which has a further ridiculous number of words on top of all that with a 42 page appendix. Indeed, this is no small book.

Incidentally, that’s a great starting point for talking about its Companion. You see, as Alan Moore says in his long appendix to all the chapters of the book, it took over a decade for he, Eddie Campbell, and others who assisted with the book to finish it. This is partly due to the comic’s difficult publication life, as Eddie outlines throughout this companion, and – wait. I should probably explain what this companion is exactly. It’s written from Eddie’s – he’s the wonderful artist of this comic, by the way – perspective, and what he’s done is split the book into separate parts around various themes. Taking up the bulk of the book is Alan Moore’s insightful script (which I’ll talk about a little later) but he does find time to talk about his own job as the artist; as the man who brings Alan’s story to life. Okay, so where was I? Ah, yes. Well, although trouble with publishing the comic in its serial format proved difficult, especially with censorship butting in (if you’re not in the know-how, the story’s centred around the Whitechapel murders, known more famously as the Jack the Ripper killings, in 1888 so, needless to say, this is a rather violent comic we have here), the thing is, so much research went into this book, and to such an extent, that at one point – as I found out from reading this book – Alan had to have the murderer change the position of one of our main character’s cut-off breasts because he found out that where he initially had Eddie place it was in the incorrect position that forensic evidence had revealed. And this was apparently on a re-read of such an investigation into the final murder. If you’re wondering how this mistake was made in the first place, it’s because Moore would send Eddie his scripts quite irregularly over the years so that, in this case, he’d already drawn the murderer place the breast in one place when Moore was on the next part of the script and realised he’d made a mistake.  This irregularity certainly must have lent itself to the long time it took to complete this too, no doubt, but that would only be because, as you find out in the first appendix, Moore read quite a lot of books on this grisly subject to such an extent, as it happens, that he and Eddie mock themselves in the second appendix alongside others who have obsessed over this unsolved series  of murders.

And hopefully that large paragraph illustrates why a Companion of 288 pages isn’t as unnecessary as you might think. Trust me, this is one hell of an ambitious book for the comic medium. The good news is that they pulled it off, as I’ll one day discuss in the future, I hope. This Companion admittedly isn’t as amazing as I’d hoped it’d be, however, and that’s for a few reasons. The biggest reason, and only one I’ll bother to discuss, is that 288 pages isn’t enough! That must sound quite silly but, as I’ve said, the bulk of this book is Alan Moore’s script. That isn’t a slight against his writing, of course – in fact, I found it to be very revealing not only about From Hell itself, but how to write about the comic book medium. In double fact, it’s a shame more graphic novels don’t have accompanying Companions like this, as I feel like there’s quite a lot that could really benefit from such treatment, albeit perhaps on a shorter scale than this.

But where I was a little disappointed was that such a large amount of this book being given to the script means we don’t really get to explore what drawing for the comic book medium is like, which was really bloody strange since this was written by the artist. Certainly, you see Eddie’s finished pages to compare with Alan’s scripts on every page the two share, which is fascinating in itself, but he doesn’t always spare time to explain his thought process before we dive off into the script. Certainly too, he does spare several pages of the book to talk about what went into the art, but it’s never in-depth unfortunately, which is a great shame because he talks a lot about his thoughts on things like panel compositions in comics, with some great examples no less (his knots and crosses analogy of the nine panel page blew my mind, especially when he pointed out a diagonal sequence that I completely missed in From Hell), leading me to believe he’s a very interesting men. As it is, though, the book’s main focus is on Alan. Perhaps if it were a bit lengthier, say by an extra hundred pages, the book could have been split in focus between the writer and artist. Then again, I imagine it must be quite difficult to talk about your own work, so I don’t know if I necessarily blame Eddie, to be honest.

Whatever the case, although I left a little disappointed because of this big reason, and some smaller ones, it won’t stop me from recommending this Companion to the following people: to those who take a great interest in how comics are written and drawn, and to those who loved From Hell, and appreciated its chunky appendix. Just bear in mind that, in terms of insight into the craft of making comics, this is mainly focused on the writer so, if you’re looking for insight into the drawing aspect, you’re better off picking up something like Hush Unwrapped.

Before I sign off, I’ll just point out something that amused me. I own several first edition copies of books, several of which are ones collectors would probably freak out over, and this is another, having pre-ordered it, but funnily enough the first I’ve consistently noticed mistakes with the printing and spelling in. For example on the former, Eddie, as I’ve said, splits the book into several parts, and these come with page references for that theme. But, quite humorously, they are almost never correct, to the point that one part actually begins two pages before it’s supposed to. Sometimes he’ll even say something along the lines of, “I talk about this some more on pages 232-233”, only this is usually incorrect. Remind me never to buy a second edition copy of this book, ever, because finally I have a first edition book with plenty of mistakes to treasure.

In my next blog post, I’m probably going to talk about the frankly insane amount of graphic novels I’ve bought over the last several months, and how I intend to tackle them, because I will indeed be talking about them here. Until then, cheerio.

– Jordan Smith