Lately, I’ve found myself geared and ready to spend the money on Marvel and DC super hero comic books. I wouldn’t say this interest is spurred by any deep sense of “giving it all another go.” It’s more like an understanding of what’s available, and yet being interested enough to engage with a system of predictable odds, just to watch men and women of talent rise or fall.
There’s something joyful of when those little, callous hands between the gears slip through and gesture something pure. Even if they get caught in the machinery and bleed, the color red is a sign of life. The job of comics is probably, ultimately, a heartbreaking one, but it must be rewarding when brief moments of success come to and resurrect something cold and dead inside the 9 to 5er. That’s always meant more to me than the lone cartoonist taking all the time in the world to say something calculated; it’s more lifelike to stumble through something. It’s not as if we’re provided forever to sit around and get it together. You have to leave the house by 8 if you’re to make it to work on time, and mainstream grind comics reflect that by they very virtue of what they are. So when something good happens in the scope of all the shit inherently fused to that system, it’s sort of miraculous.
It doesn’t seem that anyone cares about the John Romita Jr.-drawn Superman, despite the fact that John Romita Jr. is drawing it. But I get it. Until last week, I really didn’t either. It’s hard to fucking care about a DC comic book when aware of the company’s mostly awful content and treatment of people. It’s also tough to care about any sort of super hero project, currently, when the genre suffocates all others as well as the men and women working in creative industries. Let alone our larger cultural identity, a subject many have thought and written about. But I like the super hero stuff, just as someone may like crime dramas, pornography or Aphex Twin records. It’s a thing. It’s just a thing that’s wildly popular, marketable and obnoxious in this moment, but surely that will pass, taking us to the next obsession. And when that transition happens, I’ll still like the super hero stuff.
Superman from John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, Laura Martin and Geoff Johns isn’t something I’ll always remember, but it is good meat and potatoes comics, easing some of the natural, early-20s pain I’ve experienced of late by entertaining me for minutes. It’s also an example of four talented people – talented enough to have found financial and professional success in a system made to exclude nearly everyone – making something unexceptional, though still good. I could sit here and try to decorate some grand reason for this, but in all actuality, it’s a matter of the script these visual artists were given. Johns’ story only calls for so much. A month-in, month-out Superman romp. A fun one, sure, but still a romp. And maybe I shouldn’t even blame Johns. Superman is a DC comic produced for an audience of a particular caliber, sold by a company maintained by consistent product. In fact, there probably isn’t one entity or individual to blame for its regularness. This is most likely a small, left-field detail affected by the world we live in – a world we created in order to always, hopefully, be comfortable.
But if I’m to sit here and type reasons for its faults, I’ll then point to Geoff Johns and say, despite the guy’s ability to write consistent, plot-driven machines (perfect for the market of super hero stories), this one isn’t necessarily very interesting, nor is it uninteresting. Numerous times Superman has met and foiled powerful beings similar to himself. The character of Ullysses marks another addition in that roster. The only real change in “The Men of Tomorrow” is that Johns drags out the inevitable switch in the character from good guy to bad guy, making you wonder if he’ll keep Superman and Ulysses as allies in order to explore other thoughts. With the end of the latest issue, #35, that doesn’t seem likely, so we’ll go back to the usual program.
The program distinguishes things. Mostly, what goes against or isn’t the program. Romita Jr.’s style and storytelling feels that way to me, especially in this context. At Marvel, despite the objective difference in his work, his contributions come across as something rooted in the company’s history, naturally arrived at through time and evolution. His work is the boiled down effort of Kirby, Miller and his father, Marvel Architects, encapsulated in the plastic figurine of a boy nurtured from day one. But at DC, the antithesis, his work isn’t foreseeable progression but, instead, his own. You can really see it in the way he draws their characters. His Superman, besides the controversial costume adjustment, is still different as this lean and energized version believable in a bar fight as well as outer space. Romita Jr. gives the character a range that’s unfamiliar, that’s against the certain stature of broad shoulders and photo taking Superman usually portrays. Yet the artist never forgets the power essential to this icon. The splash piece above (which in it’s proper form, is actually part of a great layout of panels) conveys exactly the alien force beneath the red and blue carnival clothes, and by covering the pupils of the eyes with solid red, it’s not a moment of lifting a boat to trap a villain, but an instance to release what’s really inside.
You can call this run of Superman a few issues of Romita Jr. doing Romita Jr., and historically, yeah, that’s how we’ll look at this. But that’s essentially why they’re interesting and enjoyable. Because we’re watching an artist simply do his thing, and do it to a highly profitable and recognizable piece of corporate intellectual property. Not everyone in comics gets to this level, and even when the work may feel ordinary for the circumstances, there’s still something amazing about it when you step back and actually look.