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.

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

  1. Pingback: Comic Review: “Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (TPB)” | Jordan Smith

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