Comic Fodder

Superman and the Sprawling Storyline

Congratulations to Comic Fodder's TPull! Travis got himself hitched this week to a lovely woman, who I assume has the patience of Job putting up with how much time Travis puts into reading and writing about comics. Not to mention his insistence on dressing as Dr. Doom and making lots of decrees about "the accursed Richards".

While Travis is away, I'm going to add a column or two. So let's talk some Superman.

The Set-Up

In 2006, DC Comics made a sweeping editorial decision to change the direction of their Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman comics (and to a lesser extent, Justice League and Justice Society).

It's fairly clear to anyone who picked up Justice League, Justice Society, parts of Countdown (I know, I know), and related Superman titles that DC did start with a master plan. At the time, Geoff Johns was writing Action Comics and Justice Society. Characters like the Legionnaire, Star Man, appeared from the 31st Century. Simultaneously, Triplicate Girl and Karate Kid had popped up as well in Countdown and the pages of Supergirl.

Ah, Karate Kid. Traveling 1000 years into the past to die stupidly in a terrible series.

In those first Action Comics issues, Superman headed for the future in a pretty great story called "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes".

Superman has some kooky friends.

Rebuilding the SuperBooks

We'd soon get General Zod, Ursa and Non released from the Phantom Zone (a la, "Superman II), and a version of Brainiac fit for the modern Superman comics. Along with a version of the Kryptonian bottle city of Kandor.

All of this meant that a status quo imposed in 1986, that Kal-El was The Last Son of Krypton, would no longer have any relevance. Kryptonians were running all over the place, and elements of the Silver and Bronze Age were back in play, discarding the faux-Kandors, non-Kryptonian Supergirls, and half-baked Zods that had appeared in numerous forms over the years. Rather than continually try to cram a square peg into a round hole in bringing back classic concepts, DC finally bit the bullet and recognized some things just work. And while it would be painful to take the slings and arrows of a fandom raised on the Byrne/ Wolfman version of Superman, if the story worked...

Apparently smarting a bit from how the Super-books had lost focus during the pre-2006 shake-up, editor Matt Idleson and his writing staff had decided to remind readers of the expansive supporting cast that had once been a large part of the Superman comics and the DC Universe. We've seen the return of much of the classic Planet staff, The Guardian, Jimmy Olsen received some spotlights, and the Legion has returned with some of the continuity intact from prior to 1986's Crisis on Infinite Earths.

I've read a lot of Jimmy Olsen. If they wanted him dead, they just needed to leave a trail of Skittles leading off a cliff somewhere.

The Grand Experiment...

Its hard to say that DC did the job particularly smoothly. When they chose to roll Superman out of his own titles and replace him with Mon-El of Superboy and Legion fame, and an all-new Flamebird and Nightwing in Action Comics... well, a year was a long time to sustain the stunt they were trying to pull off, which I'd guess was build momentum for new characters for their own books (see: the success of Batwoman in Detective earning that character her own title).

There was nothing wrong with World of New Krypton, the maxi-series where DC placed Kal-El for 12 issues. It just didn't seem to justify the stunt. Nor did the stories of Mon-El and the Guardian in Superman or Nightwing and Flamebird in Action seem well plotted enough to withstand a year's worth of comics. Readers absolutely felt taxed, and the whole thing had an odd feel of editorial mandate superseding sensible writing.

The oddest part of the whole mess is that over so many titles, and over so much time, elements seemed to get dropped or forgotten. At some point, John Henry Irons duked it out with Atlas (who had been fighting Superman), but for months, nobody mentioned that fight again. Krypto got a big public build up with a great cover by Alex Ross, and has since been relegated to crowd shots. Jimmy Olsen, one of my favorite characters, was apparently shot to death and disappeared, and we've had maybe one panel of the Daily Planet staff idly wondering if Jimmy has stepped out for coffee...

Its been a mind-boggling experiment in telling a sprawling and interwoven story across several years and several titles... but it also demonstrates the difficulty of doing so.

But it kinda worked

As Last Stand of New Krypton wrapped up the penultimate chapter of the saga (in its own mini series, Adventure, Action, Supergirl and Superman titles), and it actually read surprisingly well if you've been bothering to read every single darn Superman book since 2006, there's no question that (a) this was way, way too complicated for the pay off, and (b) that this sort of long form storytelling was going to take some more work to figure out. It's difficult to ask anyone to wait on your schedule, and to afford all the separate pieces to put the story together (let alone identifying what they should have been picking up from various points around the DCU). Not to mention, replacing your most iconic character in his own books for a year: perhaps not the best gamble for growing your audience.

During this whole fight, the piano player never quit playing his merry, old-timey melody

All that said, with March and April's Last Stand of New Krypton, the pay off for readers finally arrived. Plot threads that had seemed like extraneous and shelved ideas by the creative team came back together, from the re-appearance of Zod to the partnership between Luthor and Toyman.

In May, DC's line of Superman titles; Superman, Action Comics, Supergirl and Adventure Comics is on hiatus while DC releases The War of the Supermen, also billed as "The 100 Minute War". Issue one has already provided additional insight into some of those left over plot points (what's happening with John Henry Irons, for example). And by Superman #700, we should see a new creative team taking The Man of Steel in a new direction.

So did DC screw up?

One gets the feeling that DC's periodical division is of the opinion that this sprawling, long form narrative would serve the monthly side of the business. With the significant sales drops, that experiment likely will not see a repeat. In March 2010, Action Comics sold 29,460 copies. In March 2009, Action was selling 47,079 copies.

However, these days the stories from monthlies live on in trade collections. It will be interesting to see if, collected into a few volumes, the story won't find a second life. It's not too hard to see how this project might read better as a series of books rather than dealing with the constraints of the monthly system. Unfortunately, as DC tried to make assumptions that their readers were picking up series from Superman to Justice Society to Countdown, events referred to within the story will certainly be left out, such as the death of the time-transplanted Karate Kid.

In short, if DC planned for readers to follow what they were doing with the time-lost Legion storyline, they needed to clue readers into the fact that it was happening at all.

Don't touch Brainiac, Superman. You have no idea where he's been.

However... I believe I did read most of the tie-ins. In comparison to the sloppy continuity wreck that was the pre-Infinite Crisis world of Superman comics, I'll forgive some of the seeming rudderless-ness of Action and Superman of the past year in exchange for the scope of vision DC has employed in getting to The War of the Supermen.

This IS a strong disagreement of the super men!

So if the sprawling, series-spanning epic becomes too much for readers, what is the answer?

DC has a similar experiment underway in the Batman titles, but to be truthful, you can likely have skipped Batman for the past year and been none the poorer for it. I'm not reading Red Robin, Batgirl, Azrael or Gotham Sirens, and as long as I read Detective and Batman and Robin, I feel like I'm keeping up.

It would be a shame for editorial to go back to the idea that continuity doesn't matter, but it certainly doesn't seem the case that they're ready to quit minding the store again at this point.

Coming up, Lois's co-wokers watch her cavort with a guy who is not her husband.

In conclusion...

As a final note, Superman editor Matt Idleson participates in a column at the Superman Homepage wherein Superman fans can write in and ask questions. In the column, Idleson does a bit of a mea culpa, openly admitting that not all choices were great.

I think the drop in sales mostly tells us that readers didn't really cotton to the idea of Supes being replaced in his books. That's actually a portion of the reason we took the WAR event, which was slated to run monthly starting in June, and shifted it into May as a weekly event. We want to make sure we tell as satisfying a conclusion to the New Krypton stuff for the readers that have remained with us, while also shortening the length of time the story will take to tell.
For those of you who follow comics journalism, its kind of unheard of for editors and writers to not blame the fans when things go poorly, or to shrug and say they'll try harder next time. this reader, anyway, was impressed.

We'll see if War of the Supermen can complete the multi-year story begun by Geoff Johns. And it will be very interesting to see what the new creative teams have in store for June.

Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.


Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages his new blog, The Signal Watch.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan at The Signal Watch email