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May 30, 2004


Kip Manley

Superman couldn't die, of course: he had an ad campaign with Energizer or something at the time (this was before Jerry got him the AmEx gig). Which is what made all those black plastic-wrapped comics smeared with bloody Ses instant fishwrap—beyond the fact that it was a wretched, wretched comic: no one with half a brain could believe that this, this was the Death of Superman. He still had products to hawk!

And anyway, it was a wretched comic book. Had the shit kicked out of him by some inarticulate thug-beast. Hardly arrow-into-the-air sublimity.

Alan Moore pulled it off, when he killed Swamp Thing and left him dead for a couple of issues before dragging him back across space and time, allowing him his spasm of revenge, and then letting him toddle off into the sunset with Abby. But next month: new creative team! Moreso, when Moore pulled John Constantine out of a cult-movie Sting performance, and let him disappear with a bad joke. But then Rick Veitch brings him back! (And not too terribly badly.) And then he gets his own Second British Invasion book! And 40 issues later Jamie Delano gives him a rousing send-off with art by Dave McKean! Next month: new creative team! (And all this is before what most folks think of as the definitive Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon run. Which doesn't even approach the reach of the forthcoming Keanu Reeves movie version.)

Even Frank Miller had to drag the Dark Knight back again.

What's fun to watch (from a distance) is how the comic books know it, in their bones. They know they have to make a gesture at an ending of some sort, which usually takes the form of clearing the decks, rebooting, getting back to basics, the core of the character(s). How many times has Batman changed the locks on the cave and shut out all the orphaned puppies and heartsick Shao Lin assassins he's accreted over the years, only to ruefully take them (or their siblings, or kids, or echoes) back? How many times has Daredevil been beaten to the edge of insanity? (Heck, isn't Elektra back these days? Again?) DC's bloated their continuity again with another round of Silver Age revanchism and corporate acquisitions—is yet another Crisis in the works? And how many times must Jean Grey-Summers die for the sins of, well, take your pick...

I don’t know if it’s the death-myth that’s important, though. The Definitive End. Stan Lee & co. ran an exciting (if not quality) shop for years, madly shuffling walnut shells across the table and never once showing the pea. (Blowing the dust off the status quo? Anyway.) And sure, everybody remembers the kid with the snow-globe, or Bob Newhart waking up next to Suzanne Pleshette, but that wasn’t the point, no mythic zing! is added, more a comic thump! and is Friends a better body of work now that it’s come to an end? —Maybe you shouldn’t answer that, and maybe it’s a cheat, jumping genres like that. (Okay: Xena died, and look where she is now.)

And I’m reminded of—I think it was Rose, over at Peiratikos, talking about the Hellboy movie, wondering why all superhero comics-to-movies have to be about oh-my-God end-of-the-world stuff. Why can’t we just have a movie, y’know, about these characters, going about their usual-for-them, unusual-for-us, quotidian routine? (Then, Master and Commander: Far Side of the World was an utter disaster in that department: how much fan service can we cram in? I don’t know! Let’s see! —Except leave out all the dull onshore bits that would be too expensive to shoot anyway. Go!)

Not entirely sure yet how to fold this in with pastorals, mock or otherwise. Much less queer evil castles of fake fake (fake?) science. (If the key is or will be building another world, must you always have its end in mind?)

Chun the Unavoidable

Man oh man have I wasted a lot of time reading this Alan Moore thing. It's really good.


Chun, always glad to be an anti-productivity tool. Kip, part II will have to do with some of these difficulties whereof you speak. I am thinking about calling it 'if it's the first Tuesday of the month, it must be Ragnarok'. As to the silly 'what or where' title, I was just struck by the odd poetry of its incompetence. It is truly a line worthy of the Rude Mechanicals, and it is very interesting that something written this badly could have so much resonance - for relative aristos like Michael Chabon, Dave Sim, Harlan Ellison. Even Alan Moore mentions in his treatment how he would dearly like to bring Mr. Mind back. (But mostly I just thought it was too damn funny not to make that my title.)

By odd coincidence, I myself discovered Peiratikos only just last night while randomly googling something vaguely related to my post. And I was struck by the top post there about reading comics for the first time as an adult. And I was thinking about working in something about how I have always sort of believed the opposite. You've got to get it in your bloodstream as a kid. (Don't know whether that's right or not.) Great minds link alike, anyway. Funny that you mentioned it.

Jacob T. Levy

Yeah, Twilight would have been better-- but you seem to imply that there was something actively wrong with Kingdom Come, which I think was a pretty impressive work.

(There was ongoing controversy, back when KC came out, about whether Waid or Ross had ever read the then-widely-available-online-despite-copyright Twilight proposal, and if so whether it mattered, whether there was any important similarity between the two.)

That Moore thesis from the intro to DKR has always seemed partly-right and partly-overstated to me. After all, DKR doesn't actually end with Wayne dead. We still don't get to see the great mythic death. We get to see an ending, a stopping place; but in principle Wayne could both put the batsuit back on and die some stupid, stepping-off-a-curb death. (Which death would have been better than the actual Dark Knight sequel.) DKR is a successful work; it concludes. It doesn't need to conclude with a death.

But most comics don't conclude at all. And those that do often get restarted later. It sometimes seems like, from the perspective of a creator in a shared universe, killing one's lead character is the only way to be sure that he or she won't get stuck on the Swamp Thing treadmill Kip describes. Gaiman killed off Morpheus. There've been lots of usually-mediocre comics set in Gaiman's universe (plus some wonderful Tim Hunter comics), but at least no one has dredged Morpheus up again. I think the Ostrander Spectre series is one of the most satisfying and complete long runs on a mainstream comic; and Ostrander gave Corrigan a good, satisfying death at the end. The green cloak has been picked up by someone else in a crappy comic, but at least Jim Corrigan's story has been allowed to remain finished (so far, anyways). By contrast, Peter David's very long, very high-quality run on the Hulk was succeeded by... same old, same old.

One of the interesting things about the Twilight proposal is how good Moore's sense of how to structure and pace a mega-crossover were. At the time he wrote that, there had really only been Secret Wars and Crisis. But, contrary to the image he cultivated later on, here Moore seems to have a very good head for the business side of mainstream comics and a good sense of how to work together with lots of other writers who have ongoing books and plotlines of their own. Very few, if any, of the creators of subsequent mega-crossovers seemed to have the same understanding of how to make them work.

Jacob T. Levy

In a sense Kingdom Come isn't quite the right comparison, since it was (like Dark Knight) not meant to be in continuity.

Beceuase we didn't get Twilight with its nice account of a few-decades-long window of time flux we got... Zero Hour. [shudder]

Scott Martens

But Moore is completely wrong. Of course superheros can't die, even after they've been killed over and over again. Might as well speak of the Twilight of the Gods. Oh, wait a minute, you say you're going there on Tuesday?

I had a hell of a time once explaining to my students that most of the classical Greeks didn't believe in the Gods - or at least didn't believe in a big family of omnipotent horny anthropomorphs atop Mount Olympus - any more than we believe in Superman. The Gods were born and lived and died and died again, and died again, and slept around and killed scads of heros, and yet no one ever stopped talking about them, reinventing them, or simply repurposing them to their own ends. Of course, there were no intellectual property laws in those days. But, as far as I can tell, there has never been any resolution to a single thread of the Greek pantheon.

Instead of resolution, there was simply social change. The empire fell, the masses converted to Christianity, or Islam, or Mithras, or Mancheanism, or several of those religions, and the old Gods became literary figures, painstakingly preserved in dusty old libraries until the Renaissance. I don't see any reason why it has to be different for DC or Marvel.

The timelines will never be rectified. Batman will never manage to unload that dorky Boy Wonder. Superman will never get Lois Lane. Peter Parker is always going to have a hard time finding a date. We'll never get a proper look at Wonder Woman's breasts. No amount of rectifying and editing, no pan-dimensional crises, no open-ended deus-ex-machinas, will ever put it to a proper end. In a decade or two or ten, the great superheros of the depression era will fall into the public domain, and one by one the most iconic comics books will follow them. The rest will be lost, little by little, like the minor plays of Euripedes. In a few generations, there will be a definitive Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and then Spiderman, the Hulk, the X-Men and all the other greats, which can sit on a shelf somewhere to the right of Ovid's Metamorphoses and Homer's Iliad, holding up the section marked "Anglo-American classics of the mid to late capitalist period."

In the mean time, we are already moving on. The eternal battle of the shining good guy and the diabolical bad guy has been replaced by moral doubt, personal conflict, social comment, postmodern self-reflection and every year more more ambiguous anti-heros. No one will ever read Superman vs. Al Qaeda. Batman would qualify as a terrorist himself nowadays. If we could invent him today, he would sound more like a high tech Unabomber than the Dark Knight, just like Zeus sounds more like an abusive parent nowadays than the eternal father of the universe. And can you imagine pitting Spiderman against a modern anti-hero like Tony Soprano?

That's how it ends for gods and how it will end for superheros. Really, it is the only fitting destiny for them after all they've been put through. The overcomplicated horrors of the the classic superheros' universes will all just fade away as artists die, then readers, then publishers... not necessarily in that order. The future will edit the rest into something digestable and integrate it into high school curricula. That way comic books can then come full circle, from something you read surreptitiously when you ought to be reading something educational, hoping the teacher wouldn't see it, to something you are forced to read for school when you would rather be doing something else.

It's the literary version of the circle of life.

Doug Muir

Damn, I read both the Sim /and/ the Moore at one sitting. And now I can't feel my ass.

I skipped most of the last 1000 or so pages of _Cerebus_ (though I did read the last 3 or 4 issues, to see how it all came out), so I missed out on the scene he's describing. As so often the case with Sim, my reaction is mixed. "That sounds interesting and even kinda cool, in a whack sort of way. But maybe you could have taken a few thousand fewer words to describe it?"

The whole business with the Christian symbolism of the branch... it's like Gene Wolfe turned all sour and cranky, y'know?

The Moore piece is really about two distinct things: the mega-crossover (which was already old hat by 1987) and the dystopic future, which may or may not come to pass, but whose depiction sheds interesting light on the present. That one hadn't been done so much, back then... IMS the first time was, oooh, probably _Days of Future Past_, Claremont & Byrne's Uncanny X-Men #s 142 and 143. And no, I haven't checked those numbers, but I'm pretty sure they're correct. Like the Death of Phoenix (#137) they got stamped indelibly on my teenage hindbrain, waaaaay back aroud the beginning of the first Reagan administration.

Anyhow, DoFP showed us a nightmare future in which killer robots ruled a post-nuclear world (this was c. 1981, remember), and the only hope of making things right was for one of the few surviving X-Men to travel back in time. That's been done and done and done to death in the comics since then, but it was pretty wild and fresh back then.

...I have to say, I'm sort of glad that Moore didn't do this. The trope got used up and mined out rather quickly, and very few of these scenarios have aged well.

And yeah, _Kingdom Come_ was pretty lame. Gorgeous art, stupid story.

Doug M.


The timelines will never be rectified. Batman will never manage to unload that dorky Boy Wonder. Superman will never get Lois Lane.

Those are actually particularly amusing examples, given that Lois and Clark are married in current continuity (unless something changed while I wasn't looking) and Jason Todd getting whacked by a bunch of irritated teenage readers is one of the great comic book moments of the '80s.

I think the problem is essentially that whatever artistic merits accrue to having your store end are inevitably trumped by the fact that there are only so many major characters to kill off DC and Marvel combined haven't developed a truly popular major character since... what, the Claremont and Miller Wolverine? And that was twenty years ago. If Batman got to go out like a champ (fighting Two-Face, please), who would replace him on the bottom line? Marvel's attempt to build a whole new set of characters to play with was a commercial and artistic disaster; I believe they actually did bring the New Universe to a crashing and noble end, cue bad Gaelic singing and gauzy landscapes, but nobody cared.

Scott Martens

Steve, I was half (well, maybe more like 20%) aware of all that. It's just that I expect in 2104 that lit and crit theory students will be talking about the eternally unsatisfied sexual desires of Clark Kent and how symbolic it is both of the specifics of social alienation and sexual repression in 20th century America, and about its more eternal message about the curses and benefits of uniqueness and the fragile humanity that underlies even the most heroic of men... or some such schlock. They may even cite how critically unaccepted the later Supermans - who did get some - were in comparison to the cultural importance of the "classic" Superman.

The later events of the various continua won't make much difference to them. The eternal Superman is already pretty much set in stone.

Anton Sherwood

For what little a dusty memory of a rumor is worth: circa 1982-4 I heard (probably on Mike Hodel's Hour 25, KPFK) that Marvel, after the successful death of the eponymous Kree guy, was about to kill off a handful of big names including Captain America - when Stan Lee got wind of it and said No Damn Way.

And a pony.

Kip Manley

Got to say: modern Lois-shaggin' Supes with the long hair and the anchorman wardrobe does nothing for me. He's always going to be the secret immigrant powerhouse hiding behind Chris Reeve's aw-shucks grin and Brylcreemed helmet. --Then again, much as I adore Gene Hackman in the proper context, he will never be Lex Luthor; much as I can't stand what little I've seen of the current TV show, that bald, magnetic kid has a lock on my mental picture. Much better than the Superfriends' Lex, with the magenta and green armored union suit.

But perhaps the archetypes of commedia del arte are better models for comparison than those carefully polished Olympians?

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