Ask Chris #280: Reigning Supreme
Q: In light of your recent discussion of Copra, what's the best comic riffing on another comic? -- @davidwynne
A: Listen, Dave, if we're honest with each other here, the answer is definitely Batman. He might not have been riffing on a comic, but it's hard to get around the fact that those earliest adventures were just Bill Finger and Bob Kane filing the serial numbers off the Shadow and putting him into a slightly more ridiculous outfit. I mean, the guy even has an autogyro, and if that's not a dead giveaway, I don't knoW what is.
But at the same time, Batman only really gets good once he evolves into his own thing. If you're talking about comics that were created with the clear intention of riffing on something else and staying that way for the duration (and I say this knowing there's a whole lot of good riffing in Jack Staff), there's really only one answer: It has to be Supreme.
Originally created and published by Rob Liefeld --- and in the interest of full disclosure, I'm currently working with the Rob on an upcoming graphic novel --- Supreme was never that hard to pin down as an analogue for Superman. Even if you somehow missed the name, the familiar silhouette and that big red field on his chest that looked like the perfect place to put a letter of some kind, there's the idea that he represented an older generation of superheroes, returning for a conflict with this new generation of Image characters.
When Alan Moore took over the character, alongside artists Joe Bennett and Keith Giffen (with the incredibly important flashback sequences in future issues by Rick Veitch), they leaned into the idea of creating a Superman analogue in a way that was deeper and more thorough than any other analogue character I've seen.
Under normal circumstances, creating an analogue is all about stripping things away while still keeping just enough that everyone who sees it knows what you're getting at, and one of the reasons it works so well in superhero comics is that they've always been great at working with a very specific sort of visual shorthand.
Because of the way that comics work --- building stories around these distinct moments in time that form panels --- it's easy to capture a feeling just by tapping into the iconic imagery that came before. If you draw someone standing on a sunny rooftop in tights, with a cape blowing in the wind, hands on hips as they look out over a city, then anyone who's familiar with the genre immediately knows what you're trying to invoke without having to read a single word.
It's all clear from that, and that's the vaguest, most generic version of that idea. Take that same person and have them smash a car against a rock or break free from chains just by flexing, and you're getting an even more specific image --- and if you throw in a mask, make the city a little grittier, and have them sweep the cape over their face like Dracula, and you're invoking an entirely different part of the genre.
Characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman --- heck, most of the major characters, really --- have been refined to become so iconic, built around simple, striking imagery like lightning bolts and spiders, many of which are handily drawn right on their chests, that they can be referenced or called back to with something as simple as a pose, or even a color scheme.
And really, that's the beauty of analogues: They're efficient. It's the simplest, quickest way to tap into a genre, giving you a baseline that you can use to take as much or as little as you need while still being interestingly (and legally) distinct from the source material.
The thing is, Supreme goes about it a little differently. If most analogues are formed by taking something iconic and filing off the serial numbers, Supreme was all about taking a hammer and chisel and engraving those things right back on there.
For all intents and purposes, Supreme is Moore, Veitch, and the others doing a 20-plus issue run on Superman, to the point where you'll occasionally hear people refer to it as their favorite Superman story --- although to be fair, you heard that one a lot less after All Star Superman came out. But I'll get back to that in a second. The point is, it's explicit in what it's doing, and what it's doing is using an analogue for Superman to look at Superman-in-italics --- not just the character, but the stories that made up what was at the time 60 years of modern mythology.
The very first thing that happens in Supreme, the foundation of everything that's going to happen over the next couple of years, is the introduction of the Supremacy, a kingdom in Limbo where alternate versions of the title character go once they've outlived their usefulness and been retconned out of existence:
From a storytelling standpoint, it's the model of that kind of efficiency that I was talking about earlier: a scene that gets a whole lot done in a very short time. For starters, it makes for a pretty great visual, a bunch of variations on a single character that do that same analogue technique that we're working with in "our" Supreme, but drill it down to specific eras and subgenres. And within the story itself, it sets up the shift in continuity that will give Moore, Veitch and Bennett's run its new status quo, and gives Supreme a good excuse to be suffering from the "memory lapses" that'll lead him to Veitch's incredible flashback sequences as the story goes on.
More than that, though, it sets the two thematic truths of the rest of the run: First, that superheroes are mutable, and that even if you have an attachment to the older stuff, it's inevitably going to have to clear the way for the next thing to come along. Second, that all of those previous interpretations and incarnations, no matter how strange or forgotten, are all valid pieces of the story that help to make the characters what they are --- everything from the cheerful, underpowered Golden Age version to the silly cartoons, and all the way to the grim and gritty 80s.
With that in place, Supreme takes its main character on a tour through his own history as he pieces together his past and figures out what defines his current incarnation, while at the same time showing the reader how stories from the past can interact with and form the basis for stories of the present. The flashback sequences that run through each issue are the major device that it uses for all of this textual and metatextual commentary. In each one, Moore and Veitch re-create a piece of Supreme's past in the form of a Golden or Silver Age story:
And they are incredible. Moore's scripting is usually what gets the most attention --- his is the only name that appears on the cover of #41 --- but while he's great at capturing the writing style of the Silver Age, Veitch's art is what makes it all work. Throughout the course of the series, he does dead-on artistic impressions of Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Wayne Boring, Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman and more, and when you combine them with Moore's pretty great attempts at aping Jerry Siegel, Otto Binder, and Gardner Fox, those pages sell the conceit of the book more than anything else about it. It even makes the pages that aren't in flashback work better, since the contrast with Bennett's decidedly '90s style only serves to reinforce what's going on with the character.
And it's all done speaking the language of Superman. There are analogues in here for the entire universe, with pretty much everyone represented: Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, Supergirl, Krypto, Mr. Mxyzptlk, even Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League. It's commenting on Superman while using all of these elements that are intrinsic to the character, while also telling a compelling superhero story in its own right. It's about as close as you can get to being Superman without actually being Superman.
Except that means that it's not actually Superman at all.
Because they're working with a character who's one step removed from Superman --- one tiny, tiny step, but still a step --- the creators behind Supreme are able to blend their story with commentary in a way that I'm honestly not sure would work if they were doing it with the genuine article.
See, the reason Supreme works is the same reason it would never work as a Superman story, in that Superman already has that long and very specific history that's being recreated here. Taking the same approach with Superman, with "flashbacks" that tweaked that existing history to fit the narrative, would have muddled things just enough to lessen their impact.
And on top of that, you've got the part where Superman sits at the center of a truly massive shared universe, and restructuring him means shuffling around a lot of other moving parts. Even though Moore and Veitch in particular do a great job filling the necessary roles with characters like Professor Night and Glory, doing this same story with Superman would mean you'd have to shift things around at the expense of Batman and Wonder Woman, setting off even more ripples that would detract from the core of what you were doing. As an actual, proper, in-universe Superman story, it just would not work.
Or at least, that's what I thought for a while after I read it. After All Star Superman, I'm not so sure.
The two stories are very comparable in terms of tone and structure. Each one is taking a very modern look at Superman through the lens of the Silver Age, and while All Star fits into that big, weird meta-narrative that runs through 20 years of Grant Morrison's time at DC --- a truly amazing feat of planning, improvising and thematic callbacks that effectively makes DC One Million a prequel and sequel to All Star --- it's very much off in its own universe. If it had run for 20 issues, there's a pretty good chance we would have seen Batman in there, and it's hard to imagine that it wouldn't have gone down a lot like the Professor Night story in Supreme, at least in terms of the characters' relationship.
Still, I think Supreme works better not as a story where you can just go in with a marker to color his costume blue and draw a big S on his chest, but as a story that does an amazing thing that you can only do by taking that one tiny step away from the source material and building something that speaks the same language.
Ask Chris art by Erica Henderson. If you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris.