I’ve begun a series of essays that, for lack of a better term, I’m going to categorize as “FIAWOL.” Fandom is and has been a way of life for me, like it or not, for a long time. Consequently, I’ve derived a lot of life lessons from fandom, and from the things that bind us together. So I’ve decided to start sharing them. These will not be “reviews” in the true sense. They’ll be observations which ties to things I’ve read, watched, heard or experienced in fandom. Like all my writing, they’ll be personal to me. I plan to share them, of course, on the holiest day of the week: Wednesday, when the new comics come out. Hope you find them at least thought-provoking.
Action Comics is, if I’m not mistaken, the first comic book ever to reach 1,000 issues. It is not the oldest comic book. It’s not even the oldest comic book from its publisher, DC Comics. That honor goes to Adventure Comics,which, sadly, was canceled just after its 500thissue back in the 1980s. Action’s millennium celebration is, like its first issue back in 1938, an anthology of stories. Like its first issue, it is headlined by Superman. Unlike its first issue, it features only Superman stories.
One of these stories, much-lauded by DC, is by Brian Michael Bendis, who is taking over the reins of Superman for the foreseeable future. Bendis doesn’t tell comic stories like anyone else, and this is our first taste of what is to come.
But it’s not a story.
This is a single scene in a comic story, not a story. Superman crash-lands into said scene, two ladies try to help him by dragging him to what they assume is safety. They have an extended conversation about his underwear being on the outside, to include that one of them heard that, on his world, the underwear stands for hope. (Ouch. Just ouch.) Superman is battling Doomsday—sorry, it’s actually Rogal Zarr. He only looks like Doomsday. Supergirl shows up to prove that it’s possible to draw an ugly Supergirl and for comics uber-star Jim Lee to do the drawing. And then Rogal Zarr announces that he’s going to kill both of them, because he has to finish what he started when he blew up Krypton.
For the uninformed, the “DC” in “DC Comics” originally stood for “Detective Comics,” their third-oldest title, and the one which introduced Batman. I joked often during the early years of this latest century that it stood for “Dismemberment Comics,” because they didn’t seem capable of publishing a story that did notfeature a character losing a limb or a head. But I think the most deserving translation of this very short acronym is probably, “Doesn’t Compute.” Because DC has a long history of just. Not. Getting it. They’ve been playing catch-up to Marvel since there wasa Marvel. Nowhere is that more evident than when one compares the artistic accomplishment that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the act of public defecation that is the DC Expanded Universe of films.
But there are countless examples from way before the film competition began. In 1968, DC revamped its whole line, making all the books darker, more “realistic,” no doubt trying to parrot what was working so well at Marvel. In 1972, DC scored a major coup, signing Marvel Comics co-founder Jack Kirby to a contract. They peppered their pages with “Kirby is Coming” house ads. They gave him, as his first assignment, one of the Superman books to write and draw. The experiment was a failure. Jack created some memorable characters, most notably Darkseid, but he didn’t hang around, and he didn’t revolutionize DC Comics.
In 1988, DC scored a major coup, signing Marvel’s X-Men and Fantastic Four artist John Byrne. Byrne was a major part of the team that had brought the X-Men from a forgotten, canceled book to undying fame. They did not pepper their books with “Byrne is Burgeoning” house ads, but they did give him complete creative control of Superman. Byrne’s reimagining of Superman did touch off a memorable run for the character—a lot of it by other creators. But his changing of the mythos—getting rid of Supergirl, Superboy and Krypto, de-powering the Man of Steel, turning Jor-El and Lara into some sort of computer-generated plant-creatures (that’s not accurate, but the whole thing never made sense to me) did not last. His only lasting contribution was the continued survival of Jonathan and Martha Kent. And now that’s gone by the wayside as well. Creators spent decades undoing the un-funning of Superman that Byrne had committed.
In 2018, DC scored a major coup, signing Marvel’s “architect,” Brian Michael Bendis. They once again peppered their books with house ads announcing “Bendis is Coming.” And they once again gave the Marvel superstar Superman to write. And they once again let him reboot the Man of Steel in a series called, well, Man of Steel. (Note to DC – this descriptor as the title for a Superman vehicle has a spotty history at best.)
So Bendis came. No, that doesn’t sound right. Bendis arrived. And so far, it looks like he’s phoning in his work on Superman. Nothing new here. Nothing that reaffirms the legend. Nothing that fixes Superman, because he wasn’t broke to begin with.
I’m judging by 12 pages, but, honestly, that’s a hell of a lot more than an editor gives the average new writer. And, if I’m brutally honest, Bendis has never done anything to elevate himself, in my eyes, much beyond the status of average new writer. He writes some witty dialogue. That’s about the best I can say. He has never created a character that I loved, nor has he changed, in any important or positive way, a character that I loved. And he’s killed or ruined more than a few.
I feel no qualm about saying that I will not read his Superman run. I gave him 12 pages and I don’t feel like he even made an effort to impress. He and/or his editor just assumed that everyone would be wowed by his name and reputation. And that just strikes me as arrogant.
So what’s my moral takeaway?
It’s time to change the wallpaper, that’s all. Every now and then, the wallpaper gets changed. Some people like that, some people don’t.
We (the Wilsons) don’t use a lot of wallpaper in our house. It kinda went out of style with Flock of Seagulls and Spandau Ballet, if it was even still in style then. We wallpapered our first kitchen, back in 1988. Had to. It had yellow and orange-striped metallic something-or-another, painted (badly) in apartment white. We had to cover up the something-or-another and warm the white. So we bought wallpaper that had, I think, butter churns and blue flowers on it. Renee will probably rebut that and tell me it was circus clowns or the Eye of Argon, and she’ll be right. Our second house waswall-papered, and only seven years old, if memory serves, when we bought it. So we left whatever that was up. Our current kitchen we papered in strawberries, because the existing wallpaper was a less-garish 1960s pattern than the yellow and orange, but still dated. But Renee firmly told me, sometime after the turn of the Century, that wallpaper was officially passé.
We paint, though. We paint frequently, compared to the painting habits of my birth family. My mother and father believed that you painted a wall once and that was it. Consequently, because painting was serious business and you didn’t want to get it wrong, I grew up in two houses with 21 rooms between them, only four of which were painted. A couple were paneled. The rest just had exposed wallboard for 50 or 60 years. So the fact that my current family paints a room roughly every five years seems extravagant.
Nonetheless, every now and then, I wake up, after sleeping in on a Saturday, to the smell of paint. I trudge downstairs, putting my clothes on first (because the children complain if I don’t) and find that Renee has already been to Home Depot, had paint mixed, and one of our rooms is now half a different color. “I got bored with the old color,” she tells me on these occasions. “It was dated, and it was starting to depress me.”
Not everyone gets bored with the old color. When we bought our 1870-built house, back in 1996, it had ivory walls, avocado and brown appliances, linoleum floors (everywhere, except for nice hardwood in the living room and family room) and lime-green, textured wallpaper in one bedroom. It had clearly not been updated since the previous owners, who had been already late-middle-aged when those styles were popular, had last decorated it 30 years before. Often, as we get older, we lose interest in making changes to the world around us and grow more prone to try and keep it “the same.” This probably has something to do with, as we grow older, the fact that we lose first our grandparents’, then our parents’ generations, and, finally, start to lose members of our own. It makes us feel lonely and groundless, so we derive comfort from things staying the same.
Pardon me if I generalize. The youngest old people I know do not do this, or do not take it to extremes. I think of my friend Marty Gear, who barely qualified as “old” when he died in his mid-70s, and how he embraced new trends in his beloved science fiction, how he stayed active with an ever-younger group of friends and fans. But even Marty’s house, tasteful, comfortable and welcoming as it was, still had orange shag carpeting and orange, Naugahyde barstools till the day he died. (And, God, I miss going to that house. It’s someone else’s now, and Marty’s décor is long gone.)
Sameness comforts some of us. At its worst, that inclination drives us to stagnation as human beings, and makes us pains in the ass to live with. Change invigorates some of us. At its worst, that inclination causes us to demand change for change’s sake, to fiddle, to fix what ain’t broke, to not leave well enough alone, and that makes the people who can’t keep up very uncomfortable.
Back to Mr. Bendis’s contribution to Action 1000, which is meant to show us the tone of the Superman of the 2020s… This may just be change for change’s sake. Let’s bring back the red underwear. Let’s introduce some new supporting characters, since the old ones are badly dated and generally not representative of the demographics of modern America. Let’s use Superman to address our political concerns. Let’s make Superman stories, which, through all the changes in comics, have managed to largely maintain a tradition of having a beginning, middle and end in every issue, look like more modern, decompressed comics, where one issue may only bring us half of a conversation and two punches in an ongoing battle.
Revolutionary new direction? I don’t think so, but I won’t argue. But stipulating that it is a revolutionary new direction, is that good or bad? Will Bendis take Superman’s original role—as a defender of the poor and helpless—and make it relevant for a new generation? Or will he tip over the edge, and create a fascist daydream, where the strongest man forces his will on the next-strongest, but always with the best intentions? Time will tell.
Or is Bendis’s arrival, like Kirby’s, like Byrne’s, merely just changing the wallpaper? Same walls, same foundation, same house. Just with a different look that makes us ooh and ahh, and might make future generations say, as our generation does of avocado appliances, “What werethey thinking?”
Me, I think it’s changing the wallpaper, and, based on the swatch I just looked at in the big box store that is Action Comics 1000, I think the new paper is garish and cheap. My reaction is to cancel my subscriptions, keep an eye on the comics news, and say to Lois, Clark, Jon, Kara, Perry, Jimmy, Krypto and the rest, “Stay safe. I’ll see you on the other side.”
But maybe I just like my old wallpaper. Sort of like Marty and his orange shag carpets.
Yeah. I can live with that.