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Ask Chris #39: Superman, Continuity, and You

Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s why we’ve given Senior Writer Chris Sims the punishment pleasure of stepping into the grand tradition of the Answer Man as he responds to your reader questions.

Q: Are there any great Superman Stories that are actually part of current DC continuity? #AskChris #allstar #whateverhappened

A: The short answer to this one is yes, but if you’ll allow me to use your question to launch into a diatribe that’s only slightly related — my specialty here at Ask Chris — there’s a much, much longer answer too. I left in the hashtags on this one because I’m pretty sure what you’re getting at is that the stories we commonly think of as being the best Superman stories — All Star and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow — aren’t part of the current Superman continuity, such as it is.

But if they’re great Superman stories, does it really even matter?Don’t get me wrong, I’m a guy who absolutely loves continuity. The creation of a massive shared universe that draws on itself to create new stories is probably my favorite thing about super-hero comics, and it’s the one thing that they’ve managed to perfect, to the point where they do it on a scale that no other medium even approaches. I’d even go so far as to say that continuity is necessary for the genre as we know it. Serialized storytelling only really works if it’s depicting a series of events, and if events are ignored — like that time Superman fought four different guys named Zod in the span of a decade and never once mentioned any of the others — then the illusion of a shared universe is shattered.

At the same time, the idea that sits at the core of continuity, that some completely fictional, made-up stories about a character are more intrinsically valid than others, is one that’s gotten completely out of hand. Again, I think you can easily make a case for it being a necessary element of serialized stories and I’d agree, at least until people start dismissing stories outright based on something that can be so arbitrary, and which often has no impact at all on whether or not it’s a good story.

For an example, you don’t need to look any further than one of last year’s biggest heartbreakers: the cancellation of Thor: The Mighty Avenger. This was a book that received an overwhelming amount of praise for both the story and the art, which is eye-catching and absolutely gorgeous. It had action, comedy, romance, guest stars, fights, Volstagg — it had everything you could possibly want out of a comic with Thor in it. And yet, the sales weren’t there.

I’m sure there are people out there who gave it a shot and didn’t like it, or who just flat-out weren’t interested in reading a comic about Thor, and that’s fine. But there were others who skipped it completely because it “wasn’t canon,” or even worse, because it was “for kids.” They didn’t read it because it wasn’t the real Thor.

One more time, for those of you in the back: There were people who didn’t read this comic because it wasn’t the real Thor. The real Thor who was made up by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962.

Now, far be it from me to tell someone who gets joy out of following only the Core Marvel and/or DC Universe that they’re doing it wrong, but seriously, that’s a dumb reason for not liking something, especially when you consider that I know for a fact that some of the people who skipped out on Thor: TMA because it wasn’t in continuity were buying and reading comics they hated because they were in continuity. In essence, they’re letting someone else dictate their entertainment, and that’s only good when it’s me doing the dictating.

Continuity is a wonderful tool, and in fact, the ironic thing about All Star and Man of Tomorrow is that while they’re no longer considered to be “in continuity,” they use that tool better than almost any other stories.

Man of Tomorrow, for example, should never be anyone’s first Superman story. It’s a bookend to Silver Age Superman, and that means it’s absolutely steeped in continuity and references to previous stories, from the Phantom Zone projector to the fact that the ending’s only really a good twist if you already know Mr. Mxyzptlk and what his deal is — and if you haven’t already read Superfolks. Even this scene, where Superman talks to Supergirl, is drawn directly from “canonical” events:

It’s explained later in the story — and it’s easy enough to piece things together based on Superman’s reaction — but these panels only really have the emotional impact they were designed for if you know that Supergirl had just recently died during Crisis on Infinite Earths, a book that’s all about some continuity.

Even All Star, which was roundly praised for its accessibility, is full of elements that it draws from the established Superman mythos. The Bottle City of Kandor, Bizarro World, Jimmy Olsen’s signal watch, even the Sun Eater (from Legion of Super-Heroes) and Solaris the Tyrant Sun (from DC One Million):

These are all pieces of previous stories that are used to enhance and give context to something else, and that’s exactly what continuity is. And along the same lines, there are plenty of comics that go out of their way to get everything exactly right in terms of continuity that are still absolutely terrible. It’s a tool, just like anything else.

The problem is when it stops being a tool and starts being a shackle. Not for the creators, but for the readers.

Every time you read a comic, or decide not to read a comic, or decide that the comic you just read was worthless, or tell your friends they have to read it because it’s the best thing you’ve ever read, you’re building your own continuity. You’re deciding on a personal level which stories mean something and which ones don’t, and while that might very well overlap with what exists in the official “canon,” it’s just as possible that they don’t. And in my view, what counts isn’t whether or not the stories “matter,” but whether they matter to you.

Which brings us back to great Superman stories.

When I think about my favorites, the first one that comes to mind is a three-part story in Action Comics #510 – 512 by Cary Bates and Curt Swan, in which Lex Luthor falls in love, reforms, and becomes Superman’s partner in crime-fighting:

While it’s undeniably the Silver Age Lex Luthor — if the purple high-collar shirt he wears in the story wasn’t enough of a tipoff, then the fact that he’s kicked back in a Nefarium would probably be a dead giveaway — it’s also a story about the depths a man will sink to in order to destroy something when he’s completely consumed with hate, and those themes are applicable to any version of the Superman story. I don’t want to spoil it because if you haven’t read this, you really ought to track it down (it’s not hard to find), but I don’t think it’s going to surprise anyone when I say that there’s a master plan at work here that’s so depraved and so legitimately disturbing that it’s one of the few times in comics where Superman gets completely enraged over the evil of it, and it’s completely believable that he’d react with that kind of anger.

Along the same lines, another one of my favorites is “How Much Can One Man Hate,” from Superman Adventures #27, by Mark Millar and Aluir Amancio:

Superman Adventures is unquestionably the best thing Mark Millar’s ever written, and this issue has a legitimate claim at being the best story of the run. Luthor puts a plan into motion to not only kill Superman, but destroy him, turning Metropolis against him before he deals the deathblow. It doesn’t work, of course, but not only is it extremely cleverly done, but again, you see how utterly devoted Luthor is to eradicating his foe, and how even though this is a man who spends billions of dollars trying to kill him, Superman still tries to convince him that he should do something good with his life.

These stories set in two wildly different continuities: the Bronze Age Earth-1 Superman of 1980 and a book that, as a kid-friendly tie-in to an animated series, was about as far from “canon” as you could possibly get. But both of them are great, and both of them are incredible stories of how these characters work, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re both equally valid as far as what I think of as being the “real” Superman and Lex Luthor.

Also, it’s worth noting that Millar’s run also included the “22 Stories in a Single Bound” issue — #41 — where he and a team of artists do a complete story on every page, and I don’t want to be reading comics in a world where that doesn’t “count.”

But while all that gave me a nice opportunity to rant and rave about Big Problems, none of it actually answers your question, so I should probably get to that. And like I said, the answer’s yes: There are some great Superman stories in the current official continuity, although figuring out what that current official continuity actually is can be a pretty nightmarish task.

As cold as I am on a lot of his work, I’ve got to say that Geoff Johns did some really, really enjoyable Superman stories, which also featured some incredible art. Superman and the Legion, Brainiac, and the recently completed Secret Origin, all with Gary Frank, are great and play to Johns’ strengths, although the latter can get pretty heavy-handed. For me, though, the standout was Escape From Bizarro World, which featured fantastic art from Goon creator Eric Powell that helped underscore the surreal comedy of the story, and in which Superman gained Superman Vision, which was the power to shoot beams out of his eyes that turned people into Superman.

I don’t care what continuity it is, that is brilliant.



And now, the Lightning Round!

Q: What is your favorite comic book synonym for “criminal,” i.e. thug, scum, etc?

A: It’s a tossup between “no-goodniks” and “a superstitious, cowardly lot.”

Q: Is Lone Wolf McQuade the proto-Walker, Texas Ranger or what?

A: This is a question that’s on par with whether or not The Prisoner is actually John Drake from Danger Man. Personally, while I see the appeal of creating a greater tapestry of Walker-related works (a Walker-Newton Universe, if you will), I don’t buy it. Cordell Walker is far more straightlaced than J.J. McQuade — I can’t imagine McQuade being heavily involved in charities — and since Walker’s background is so fleshed out (really!), it’s a stretch to consider him as the same character having turned over a new leaf.

But on the bright side, that means the groundwork is totally there for a Lone Wolf McQuade/Walker, Texas Ranger crossover.

Q: Is the “Richard N” from your letters column article actually Richard NIXON, former president?

A: I’m not at liberty to say, but I can confirm that the letterhack in question was later revealed to be an agent of the Secret Empire.

Q: Semi-recently there was a story involving Spider-Man and Wolverine teaming up as, like, assassins or mercenaries, possibly along with someone else. Spider-Man didn’t have any problem with killing people and he seemed happier that way. Neither my husband nor I can remember where we saw this one, but we both liked it. Any ideas?Dawn, via email

A: I believe you’re looking for What If: Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, by Jeff Parker, Paul Tobin and Clayton Henry:

It takes place after the events of the original 1987 Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one-shot by James Owsley (alias Christopher Priest) and Mark Bright, which is one of my favorite stories for either character, and Parker, Tobin and Henry do their usual spectacular job with it.

Q: What is that Cure song you like?

A:

That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just put it on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to comicsalliance@gmail.com with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!

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