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Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Good and Bad of Comics in the 80s and 90s

As my search through my old boxes of comics continues, I came across a few more oddities and other stuff yesterday. The one I was really happy to find was my set of the Giffen-Bierbaums Legion of Superheroes from 1989, which carried the "Five Years Later" story arc - somehow this turned out to be my first initiation into the Legion, and so all subsequent (and even previous) versions have kind of paled.

To make a long story short, the idea behind it was that the Legion, a super-team in the 30th century, is now disbanded and scattered throughout the galaxy - some members are dead, others have retired and one or two are still trying to do good in limited ways. Aesthetically, Keith Giffen's art in those first few issues is the grimy middle-style he adopted at the turn of that decade, and is redolent of the "used future" aesthetic that George Lucas employed for Star Wars.

Giffen had his weird visual tics at that time, including the seriously over-used shot of someone in profile, looking up, but beyond that he used some really neat techniques, including framing a single view with the traditional nine-panel grid to act as both establishing shot and give the sense of movement.

I'm not sure who influenced whom, but his technique in those books is very similar to that of Charlie Adlard in The Walking Dead, which is one reason why I've also always loved Adlard's work.

Story-wise, I don't know if I can say that those Legion books influenced me that much - certainly not in a very overt way - but I've always loved that kind of long-form story where characters are separated and fighting their way back to safety, or to another objective. Another comic that did this well was Chris Claremont's late-80s work on the X-Men, when they weren't anchored at the school anymore.

It's a type of story I've always wanted to tackle, but haven't gotten to - though I hope to do it someday!

On a less positive note, I also found a Superman annual from a couple of years later. This was from 1991, during DC's Armageddon 2001 crossover event (there was a time, weirdly, when the crossover events by both of the Big Two were limited to annuals rather than the regular monthlies). Now that we're nearly 15 years past that iconic year, it seems quite quaint, but the story was that in 10 years a superhero would go mad and take over the world.

This caused one man to undergo an experiment to turn himself into the time-traveling Waverider, and use his powers to imagine possible futures for each superhero. It was a pretty clumsy way of doing it, and probably didn't need to be done as a company-wide crossover (DC did it right a few years later, where each book got the Elseworlds treatment, showing alternate takes on the characters).

This particular issue was Waverider's second look at Superman's future, and ended up being mostly - even nauseatingly - positive. In short, Superman ends up becoming president of the US, and absolutely nothing goes wrong. There are hints here and there of trouble, but are either brushed aside or never developed:

Lex Luthor (who at the time was masquerading as his own son; long story) gets arrested within two pages of Superman's election. Rogue Green Lantern Guy Gardner takes issue with Supes' agenda, and tries to fight him, only for Superman to take his ring and get him drummed out of the Green Lantern Corps. When Superman's offered the ring, which would make him even more powerful, he hands it back without much soul-searching. And then, when Superman's looking at all the work he's accomplished, some of it by intimidating his fellow world leaders, and is worrying about how to ensure his legacy, the story ends.

It's probably 20 years since I read that story, and with each page I kept waiting for something to go wrong: assassins shooting kryptonite bullets, someone killing Lois Lane, Superman himself taking an expansionist line and intimidating the rest of the world into kow-towing to American interests. But at each point I was balked.

I actually quite like Superman stories, because when they're told well, they're a good look at how that specific character interacts with the world around him, mindful of how easily he could destroy everything. This wasn't a well-told story, though. After he was rebooted by John Byrne in 1986, after the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superman fell into the hands of a bunch of not particularly distinguished writers (and artists), who completely took away all of the charm of the character.

It made me, in fact, want to revisit Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar's Elseworlds story looking at what might have happened if Kal-El had landed in 1930s Soviet Russia instead of Kansas. Millar had a lot more pages to work with there, and he made them count: instead of positing a completely nightmarish vision, which we might have gotten in the 1980s (or from Frank Miller), he adds the conflict of two men both trying to do good but from different viewpoints, while also examining how Superman's powers worked with the built-in authoritarianism of the USSR.

The "Five Years Later" Legion and the post-Crisis Superman make for an interesting contrast, as the former represented a spirit of risk-taking and innovation that DC hasn't recaptured. Other examples were the "Bwah-ha-ha" era Justice League (which Giffen also co-wrote), as well as books like Sandman, Hellblazer, Grant Morrison's Animal Man and Mike Grell's Green Arrow. Those first three were among the books that formed the basis of Vertigo, while Green Arrow, along with Dennis O'Neil's run on the Question, took a more mature-readers approach to the less fantastical heroes - and Grell's work now is a big influence on the Arrow TV series that I love so much.

That era's Superman, on the other hand, kind of stands for a lot of what DC did later - using gimmicks to try and spice up badly handled characters, which led to an arms race of terrible stories that were intended to top one another and only resulted in making things more confusing. It's no wonder they keep having to retcon everything.

The poor old Legion has also suffered this fate, since it was rebooted after the Zero Hour crossover. But it also served another function for me: whenever a property is rebooted or retconned into something unrecognizable (and shit), I can remember that the old stories are still there, even if they aren't canon anymore.

Or as Alan Moore said in "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", his farewell to the Silver Age:

This is an imaginary story... Aren't they all?