Revolution Number None

Oh, and there’s just one more thing, ma’am…

You see, once upon a time there was a comics company, that had a culture.

Now, I’m not saying people got treated fairly by the company. But there was a culture, there. And it was a pretty interesting one while it lasted, because it came out of a particular grouping of interesting people, with interesting things to say about their world, and themselves. About where they’d come from, where they were at, and where they were going. So welcome to Seven Soldiers Of Steve Number Zero Number Two, in which I realize I didn’t get to all of what I had to say the first time, and so I come back around to go over it again. See, the problem with this project is that it’s gone on for so much longer than I originally thought it would, that along the way I’ve forgotten a lot of the connections I saw swirling before me in other people’s essays, that I wanted to save my comments on for the end. And I still can’t remember all of them, but I do remember that, thanks to sparks struck in my head by Sean Kleefeld and RAB, there was something else I wanted to say both about Steve Gerber’s epilogue-like run on She-Hulk (boy, is it! Nice catch there, Sean), and his ill-fated Omega The Unknown from years earlier, that finished off the last chapter of the main text of his Marvel opus…

More or less.

It’s kind of a little thing, really. Just a little bridge, hardly big enough to run across. But it speaks to the concerns of the old Marvel creative culture that Gerber was so influentially a part of, and so I think it’s got a place here. Especially since it may perhaps help to show something about the character of his Big Seventies Marvel Adventure, and the way it flamed out, that might otherwise remain obscure.

And my, but Omega The Unknown is a disturbingly apt title for Gerber’s last major effort in his Seventies Marvel run, isn’t it?

Especially considering what it consisted of.

 

Because no matter how you slice it, Omega was a failed blending (a deliberately failed blending?) of the same straightforward superhero stuff, and corresponding not-so-straightforward psychological dimension, which blending Marvel had always made its bread and butter on. Gerber takes Gerberism itself to brand new heights, here, and doesn’t necessarily stop along the way to preserve his own hallowed techniques; the standard superheroic allegory he’s wont to employ is blown apart by the same skill that usually gets it to hang together freakishly well, so well that more things are possible to be derived from it than would usually be the case…but that’s the old stuff, now, and Steve is moving on. Omega is something different. And what he’s moving on to might be taken for obscurity, easily enough; because the fights and the tights do mean something, but that something isn’t integrative as it has been — quite the opposite. Instead separation, even what we’d ordinarily think of as undue separation, or even radical dissociation, is the key here: the boy and his hero-self are aggressively split apart, and the transformation is not climactic, and the mirror is broken into pieces.

The superhero concept is broken into pieces.

And the mystery man practically wallows in the resulting opacity, or rather in the resulting refraction…let me make it clear, his thoughts seem opaque rather than reflective, but really they are neither: really they are refractory. Which also means stubborn: all the little declamatory pieces of the script don’t add, but rather simply agglomerate, and the path of understanding…is at least difficult to find, and at worst not there at all. Because, what’s the upshot of all these battles? Where once Gerber’s omniscient narrator could be counted on to explain for us how the fight is just a symbol of the emotional realities that pass to and fro beneath it, now Omega himself is constantly challenged to interpret the meaning of the superheroic activity even as he participates unwillingly in it, and explanation is much more elusive because of that. Every fight scene is an encounter with the Alien, to him: not speaking, even in caption, he presents a chilly picture of affect struggling to keep itself aligned with (unknown) purpose in a circumstantial world that makes little to no obvious sense. A mirror for James-Michael’s struggle in the “real” world? Superficially, yes; but also no, because the mirror’s all busted up. What’s the upshot of the battles? Well, what’s the upshot of James-Michael’s adventure with public institutions and public identity/society? He runs away, you see, that’s all. He runs off to the desert. He doesn’t beat the bully, find his identity, rehabilitate his society. He merely gains an impetus. And thus the organism doesn’t have clear goals; the boy’s answers are not just about successfully negotiating obstacles. Even Omega’s thoughts are introverted, distanced from the fights he gets into…as his thoughts are distanced from the reader through not being conveyed directly as first-person-centred thought or speech. The fights are spurs to the development of his character, but at the same time they are distractions, digressions.

Defusings.

Well, that’s probably on purpose.

Because this is the superhero story without its usual centripetal force, you see: the pieces are all there — identity, anxiety, etc. — but they’ve spun off away from each other, to become fractured and fragmented. To become incapable of addressing a notional centre, and therefore difficult to rationalize, lacking a rule. Disconnected; a jigsaw puzzle without a box; well, and after all why has the mystery man come across all those light-years to Earth? He has only the vaguest of notions, as do we. For what ultimate reason must James-Michael come to the big city, and human society? Only his parents knew…except they weren’t his parents anyway, and so this fractured superheroic fairy tale doesn’t just include Captain Marvel in its disquieting embrace, we might notice, but Superman too…only here’s a Superman whose backstory was a lie, an invention whose obscure purpose must be found out, but whose purpose may be undiscoverable despite all best efforts. Because all the lines of communication, information, and memory are fatally broken up, and only the antagonistic forces have any clue what’s going on…and you can’t ask them. It’s them you’re running from, racing against. And anyway they won’t tell you. Because who are you, to be told?

Just a strange visitor, from another planet. That’s all.

The superheroic fights are broken mirrors: Omega’s, and James-Michael’s, true conflict/quest/purpose is only visible through being obscurely reflected in the nonsensical obstacles presented by Marvel’s brightly-coloured, purely reflective superheroic world. Pattern lurks there, but it’s only visible in the distractions and digressions: it can almost be seen, but not quite. It’s terminally elusive. Almost seen: Omega almost learns things as he fights. And intimation is everywhere, but it’s only intimation. As James-Michael’s encounter with society, and the obstacles it presents, is only intimation too. Because somewhere there is a true, overblown, expressly-meaningful symbolic battle he has to find and get into; and so he can’t stay in the school, or in Ruth’s apartment. He does actually have a destiny. Somewhere is the symbolic clash that will bring clarity (that will also, presumably, be a genuine fight!), and he has to find it, and it will be, indeed, deliberately science-fictional and allegorical. Everything else, all the refracted images from the bits of broken mirror, is just foreshadowing. Yes, it will have to be something like this, something like that…something like fighting El Gato, something like making friends and losing them. But what it will actually, exactly be, rather than be like, is not known yet. Not until the lost centre, not until the puzzle-box of identity, can be found.

And this is pretty goddamn ambitious stuff, for a Marvel comic of its time. Although partly that’s because it is a Marvel comic of its time: and so the distracting fights are part of the point, the uneven joining-up of character to conceit is no accident…the fractures that get in the way of concision and symmetry are supposed to be there, as part of the play against type that creates our mystery. You can say these things in this language; better still, you get to push the limits of the language while you’re saying them. It’s all very site-specific.

It could have been Void Indigo.

It could have been Adventure Into Fear.

It could have been The Defenders.

But none of those would have been quite right for it. Here we have Omega, and he is indeed a commentary, he is indeed a clever bit of play…on Alpha, naturally: who is Superman, prototype for the whole damn grammar of this genre in the first place. Marvel’s full of quasi-Supermen, if you think about it. This is something that gets applied all the time. Marvel frequently comments on Superman, to comment on itself, its own “culture” and raison d’etre as a superheroic universe, and usually under very flimsy cover, too. Well, whenever anyone wants to say anything about comics, they have to refer to Superman, don’t they? Because he’s the only symbolic conduit that goes direct to the source. Because, well…he is the source. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that Marvel, that company founded on Superman-sampling in the first place, on Superman-jazz in the first place, has got a lot of semi-Supermen in it. Nefaria’s been one. So has Wonder Man, Wundarr, lately the Sentry…so has, even, the Human Turnip…and ultimately (and I do mean ultimately) we have She-Hulk’s first critical threat in her Gerber incarnation, Pseudo-Man.

And, there are actually more of these Marvel Supermen at large.

But in my opinion (hence this essay) Pseudo-Man’s still their ultimate exemplar.

And I’ll tell you why: here we have Nefaria, whose weakness is too much age and too little time; and Wonder Man, whose weakness is (correspondingly youthful) about having too little will and too much desire…meanwhile Wundarr’s weakness is too much simplicity and too little regulation, and the Sentry’s is too much significance and too little reason…and listen, this is just a bit of an intro: but Pseudo-Man’s weakness makes it all crystal-clear, what it’s all about. It’s all simply too much fantasy, and too little reality. Hey, just like the Space Turnip! Well, but of course: fantasy is the ultimate superheroic Achilles heel, after all, precisely because it is also the wellspring of superheroic power and actualization. I mean, that barely needs noting, right? Because as I said, it’s always been the Marvel culture’s bread and butter. Because if Marvel is anything, it’s a world without a Superman…and Marvel’s publishing (if not corporate) ethos is something that grew up to this (originally business-oriented) necessity, that there are no Supermen.

Not a bad philosophy, even if partly accidental, for a modern Pop Art company.

There are no Supermen.

Well, but of course there aren’t. Because what there are, instead, are endless conflicts between power and personality that put the individual who’s suffering from them in an intractable ethical bind. Power certainly can corrupt, at Marvel…but more importantly, power can trip up, and confuse, and distract from the proper goals of life, even as it also can’t be done without, or ignored. And thus, Omega: a Superman re-envisioned as a protagonist through the Marvel filter of the thoughtful Seventies New Wave scripters — not just there for Captain America or the Fantastic Four to fight, not just there to be defined-as-opposite to Peter Parker, but there as a Marvel Superman.

Or, as a Marvel Captain Marvel?

What would that look like, anyway?

Well, at first it started out looking like the Thing, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Cyclops…but here we are at the end of the “Pop Art” era that Stan was so excited by, at the moment before the Exodus of the New Wave scripters, and so the ethos of the Marvel story that they’ve been elaborating for the last few years is reaching up to more ambitious conclusions, now. Because it’s the beginning of the end, which is only to say it’s the apex of the power, skill, and influence of an innovative culture…and therefore though diaspora, and then decadence, is coming before long, right now this is where Ditko meets Deathlok, if you will: where all the early ethical influences detonate, and make a big explosion that closes the last chapter of the first half of the Book Of Marvel. From here, it’s the long and frequently brilliant (yet always downward-sloping, do what you might) afternoon of the Eighties, before the sun finally sets on that ethos in the Nineties. And then there’s only the Green Flash of the early 2000s to go…

We sometimes forget, you know: none of these guys will be around forever.

We’re passing through history, here…so take a good look…

Anyway. So finally we have a Marvel Superman/Captain Marvel in his own right take the stage, and it’s quite a compelling show. Because it’s Gerber, of course: and who else but Gerber ever made protagonists who so desperately needed rescuing from their own lugubrious natures? By the necessity of action, naturally…

Well, but what else? Let’s not forget, this is the same Gerber who wrote Man-Thing: we should know what fascinates him, by now. Stan and Jack’s old trick of the fatal flaw, the feet of clay, in Gerber’s hands became expressly a problem of ethics rather than powers. To put it another way, for Gerber the powers stood in for the ethics, inasmuch as they formed excuses for the fights. The powers (to the degree that they were functions of the fights) originated in the ethics. And therefore all the fight scenes primarily put the ethics at risk, which is why all the fight scenes had to be populated by people, striving against necessity, or fate.

And could a true Marvel Superman/Capt. Marvel be any different, in this respect? Wonder Man, Nefaria, these are cases which demonstrate the inadequacy of mere power, mere self-actualization, to solve problems…because these are all speculations on the necessity of the fatal flaw and the feet of clay, or to put it another way on the manner in which heroic self-awareness is sourced in imperfection. And without this awareness of imperfection a character’s “destiny” simply takes over — external (sometimes arbitrary) limitations bring them, inevitably, to a ruin that the internal limitations of introspection and self-consciousness would otherwise make it possible to avoid. In a world of No Supermen the freedom that power embodies is either subverted from within to make character, or demolished from without to make moral. So either way, plot becomes critique

But then there’s Omega, who turns Marvel’s traditional Superman syndrome on its head. Because in Omega, character (as the unification of power, purpose, and personality that thwarts a ruinous moral destiny) is not yet formed, and its pieces are so broken-up that, hey, forget Spider-Man, or even Man-Thing: this is Pilgrim’s Progress, right here. Or, the Inferno? Yes, it’s the Inferno: because superheroes and a certain species of allegory may have always gone hand in hand with each other, but Omega takes them much further off the marked path, into a more conventionally literary forest of allusion. And suddenly the typical relationship of Marvel’s No-Superman-Superman to his universe is inverted, you see; the ethos of Marvel’s publishing culture is no longer seen as simply ascendant over hypostasized Men Of Steel, no longer trumping them with ethical destiny, but rather through Omega’s eyes everything that was previously solid in Marvel’s universe is made shaky. Phantasmal: since the organism knows nothing of hero and villain, but only wants to live

But then, unfortunately, as we all know…

He doesn’t.

So now to Pseudo-Man. And it’s twenty-five years later, as we pick up this part of our story: the time of the Green Flash, and so the complex ethical Gerberverse of the Seventies is long dead and buried. Sean Kleefeld remarks on Gerber’s curious concentration here, in the few issues before Howard appears to help She-Hulk navigate the Baloneyverse(!), on what seems to be a rather slapdash indictment of Modern Culture. Our stand-in for Lex Luthor, Pseudo-Man’s enemy, tells us in so many words that reality is an irrelevant concept now; Pseudo-Man’s power is itself a testament to the supreme elevation of simple Belief over any sense of real-world proportion. And so, where exactly the villainy is located in this satirical superhero fable isn’t quite plain to the reader — except for Jennifer herself, it seems like everyone’s the asshole of this story.

So…what’s Gerber trying to say?

Well, I submit that his critique — for that’s what it is — isn’t quite as slapdash as it looks: because it isn’t Modern Culture that’s really being skewered here, but Marvel Culture. And did Steve mean it to be read this way? I don’t know, of course…but he’s good at it. He’s had a lot of practice at it. And he’s always sought a centre to oppose himself to, one way or another, wherever he’s gone…so that She-Hulk (improbably!) becomes both a good comic and a good character under his whimsically humourous pen is probably not merely coincidental with the appearance of encroachiverses, Critics, and old boyfriends. Can it be coincidental, then, that the Marvel Superman featured in its pages can be read as screaming “cynical irrelevancy” out to the reader? Because this No-Superman is a creature of no meaning, just like his nemesis; this isn’t the misplaced and overwrought idealism of Turnip-Man, this is an encounter with the forces, not of stupidity, but of just not caring anymore.

Or, if you like: too much fantasy, and not enough reality.

If Marvel has anything like a “post-” hero, born out of bullshit but reaching for higher things, She-Hulk may well be it, these days. Or, she could have been. Anyway, the upward reaching of the pre-“post” Marvel heroes is long over…and especially Omega, of course. Additionally, as time goes on Marvel’s “Superman Syndrome” seems more pointless each time it crops up: because what is really left of it, to riff on? As Pseudo-Man’s episode in She-Hulk may well be trying to tell us, the ethics of power and personality that made the Marvel Supermen such fruitful locales for commentary right up to the Eighties, and which (I am saying) were instrumental in forming what was once Marvel’s writing and publishing culture…well, those are really dead issues, now. And maybe their bones were finally interred in West Coast Avengers, or something: I don’t know.

But I’m pretty sure their future died with Omega.

Who — of course — remains unknown to this day.

Okay, thank you for your time!

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34 responses to “Revolution Number None

  1. Hiya – good to be back, at least until the obligations sweep me up again.

    I’m considering the idea that Marvel titles fail because they don’t manage to field a good supporting cast; that is, fail as soap opera. If there’s too much fantasy and not enough reality, it’s because telling stories about people exposes your sense of reality, not least to yourself. If you pitch for your hero only on how powerful, or fantastic, or tormented or badass or otherwise sensational he is, well you’re forced to keep hitting that one key. Eventually it loses its impact, no matter how forceful or clever you are.

    The theory would account for the failure of the Silver Surfer, Adam Warlock, various horror-themed heroes, say Morbius or Deathlok, and figures who looked as if they should work because they worked so well in the popular titles where they began. They weren’t grounded in the vital story-telling milieu of a background cast; or their main concept kept dragging them away; or the cast never became more than props. But equivalent conceptions, for instance Shang-Chi, Wolfman’s Dracula and Moon Knight, sustained themselves on the energy of their little bands of secondaries as they coped with the eruption of the tragic or terrible new personage into their world.

    Of course Stan knew this from the start. I don’t think there was ever a superhero better supplied with naturalistic company than Spider-Man. The reason that Superman burlesques never work is that everyone thinks of the costume and the powers in isolation, and forgets about the Daily Planet. When – as you’ve so rightly pointed out – Marvel was about taking the old monster yarns and making them continuable characters – Lee was sure to give them Rick Joneses and Betty Rosses and Glenn Talbots positioned to keep up with them. But with the Surfer, he forgot and thought the concept alone was vivid enough to carry the story; and I think that was the point at which he ceased to be an effective author.

    Now, I remember Omega as the loneliest of superhero comics – far more than titles like the Silver Surfer or Frankenstein which made such an overtly big deal of it. These two inarticulates exiled to alienating worlds, with only one another’s shadows in sight, like Friday’s footprint in the sand. I think Steve was trying for a specific affective target here, and I guess he hit it. But I also think he was in despair of human intercourse. The progress of Howard makes me think that personal interactions might have been quite painful to him. Cause otherwise, he could have taken Winda Wester, and the Gnostiocology Dork etc and made a serial fiasco out of them – which would have lampooned Stan’s pleasantly formulaic soap operas (compare Alan Moore’s 1963) to much more effect than his easy shots at power fantasies. He could have gone on having fun.

    I’ve probably forgotten important things you’ve said in the SSoS articles. I mean I know you’ve detailed Steve’s explorations into community and identity, so maybe you’re right to see Omega as a necessary structural terminus of serial superheroics. Not sure, though. I feel as if he was reaching out for something too uncomfortable to grab hold of.

  2. Hey, Jonathan — hmm, I guess I dunno. Omega has a powerful flavour of therapy to it, and I think I do believe it was a natural “end” of Gerber’s Marvel work (and even Stan’s Pop-Art-Modern-Myth aspirations) in that way, because it utilized superheroics as psychodrama to a pretty extreme degree…I mean, hell, people are forever bandying about the notion of superheroes as archetypes, aren’t they? But if they really are archetypal, clearly what they’re lacking is a therapeutic employment of some kind…and if Steve could do that sort of thing in Man-Thing handily enough, it’s not too surprising to see him try to carry it over into more of a Real Deal…

    And yet, you know, it also didn’t happen! Right? So that’s kind of funny in itself: because I think Omega’s name gets real real resonant when you think of him that way, as the first and only eschatological superhero. Not that I’m willing to say Gerber and Skrenes intended that, obviously, but…wow, the way it ended up, it surely does stick out like a sore thumb, don’t you think? The unknowable end-point. Good God. Hits you in the face like a fish.

    (Now, for some reason while I was writing this, too, I was thinking about Englehart’s Coyote, the whole time…I just couldn’t get it out of my mind, and I haven’t yet doped out why that was. Any ideas?)

    Of course James-Michael does have some supporting cast members, and they’re good ones, too…however. Since, as you notice, the point of it all is isolation, they’re not seriously ameliorative of the mood of loneliness. Well, really they help to ramp up its complications! And anyway I’m actually beginning to suspect that Omega really is The Inferno, only in convenient superfolks form: I could see that, actually, as a sneaky ambition of its creative team — plug that stuff into a Superman-type conceit, and see if anyone notices. But again, I dunno. It could be; Steve’s certainly got the wherewithal as a scripter to pull it off, and I don’t doubt that Mary’s a gutsy enough plotter to have put it in.

    “In despair of human intercourse”, though…you may be right about that, by which I mean to say it may after all be as simple as that. Certainly Gerber never feared to expose a little misanthropy in his characters, even if it was only so they could find a reason to beat the impulse back (or at any rate survive it — that’s one of my favourite things about his Luke Cage, actually: that as a guarded idealist he was especially vulnerable to a misanthropic failing. Which is also one of the things that made the Cage/Belinski relationship work so well, come to think of it…), and I don’t think it’s any great mystery that he put a lot of himself into his characters for one purpose and another, so…

    I’ll say yes?

    Well, I’ll say I’m still not sure. I’m quite convinced that Omega wasn’t just flailing, that it was definitely going somewhere…possibly somewhere therapeutic for its creator, too. But lacking any knowledge of where it was supposed to end up, a lot of what I say above must necessarily be three parts pure gas. Ordinarily when you run across such miscarried works I think it indicates that the whole thing was really going to just…fall like a souffle I guess is a good way of putting it, but I resist the idea that Omega was ever going to wander as Howard occasionally did, and I’m sure there really was a nice, clean ending to it, that we just didn’t get to see. Man, but if I wasn’t already such a big believer in Steve, then I couldn’t be blamed for having my doubts, could I? So many fascinating-but-truncated stories, that turned on a mystery! And yet Englehart had his fair share of those too: Marvel in the Seventies had way more than its share of long-form auteur-ish plots that inexplicably seemed to always fall into somebody else’s hands in their ultimate installment. Grrr, Marvel, grrr…

    That all being said (kind of), I think I’ll agree with you that the Surfer was Stan’s Delilah — wow. Notably, when Englehart successfully resurrected the Surfer’s own title, he got him off Earth and into a world quite rich with secondary-character support…a trick not repeated very well by Starlin’s Warlock, at a guess because Starlin’s secondary characters in Warlock were more full-on second bananas than Englehart’s were — probably the only character associated with Starlin that came equipped with a decent assortment of friends and associates was Mar-Vell, and unfortunately we all know what happened to him…poor bastard got resurrected to run the jailhouse in Civil War. Shudder.

    Well, but then again it gets plainer and plainer every year that most of Marvel’s current architects can’t be freakin’ trusted with secondary characters anyway…

    I do believe you have a point, Jonathan.

    Taking off for a couple of days, by the way: work. But I’ll be checking this tomorrow morning, and then again on Friday…see if you can’t figure out why I kept thinking of Coyote, eh?

    Cheers.

  3. I thought I was really on to something for a second there. Because what I (who have never read a Steve Gerber comic that I know of) first noticed was the similarity in names between James-Michael Starling and Jim Starlin. So when you said:

    Well, what’s the upshot of James-Michael’s adventure with public institutions and public identity/society? He runs away, you see, that’s all. He runs off to the desert.

    I thought, Aha! And Starlin was an escape artist! So it all fits!

    But then I went and looked it up to check that I was right, and I’m not. It was Steranko who was the escape artist. So there’s probably nothing there. Oh well.

    But I really like that world-without-Superman thing. That’s what is technically referred to as a Damn Good Point.

  4. Further research reveals that I have read some Gerber! The miniseries he did for DC, The Phantom Zone. I only had three out of the four issues, but I loved them. I wonder what happened to those comics? Must’ve been decades since I’ve seen them…

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  6. That’s funny, Matthew — funny and weird. Me personally, I was thinking of Jerry Siegel’s last project, about a half-huma half-alien kid…called “The Starling”. Came a few years after Omega, but you can see great minds think alike…

    Also, it had more than a touch of Moonshadow about it, as I recall…

    And hey, I’m just gonna put this somewhere, since we were talking about Morbius, and since both Englehart and Gerber did editorially-truncated stuff with Arcturus…you all remember the theory that Arcturus is an extra-galactic star that just wandered into the Milky Way from God-knows-where?

    Just the sort of thing that could’ve been spun up into something really cool, if anyone had been paying attention…

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  8. Omega and Coyote step outside the social image to deal with the people and things society ignore. An essentially countercultural project (remember this), it really starts with the Green Arrow Green Lantern road trip.

    Haven’t this kind of outsider characters made up the majority of original heroes from the ’70s on? I’d like to triangulate our pair with Longshot, who partly resembles both, and there have also been Nomad, Deadpool, Cloak and Dagger, and the persistence of the Punisher. They all operate to a fair degree on the premise that society is broken, and righteousness will have to be rediscovered as much among the ignored as anywhere. The few new exercises in myth-making meanwhile have mainly emerged from the X-Men, who are an epic unto themselves.

    I don’t have a proper grasp of DC’s development over the same period. If they were conscious of an Outsider Gap, I don’t think they started to bridge it until Morrison’s Doom Patrol (Night Force and the Suicide Squad had too much cool stuff happening to count this way.) And then they started Vertigo, and had outsiders coming through the windows.

    So anyway, Omega and Coyote, fringe dwellers, but with big differences. James-Michael’s powers are involuntary and unexpected – they come on like puberty, honestly. Yes, that’s typically Marvel, and it became a big part of X-Men; but as I remember it, it was at a scary extreme here. A greater distance from Billy Batson can hardly be imagined. By contrast, Coyote claims his powers as naturally and gleefully as Tarzan.

    Getting closer to the crux: though I don’t know how Gerber meant to develop it, it seems as if the stakes are the end of the world, and there’s the impression that Omega, or even J-M himself, might be the helpless carrier of the robot plague. And mainstream society seems too indifferent to be any help. You feel like J-M could shout from the rooftops and no-one would comprehend.

    Last night the thought came to me suddenly: He’s a Doomsday Machine! They both are. The business of Omega being the last survivor is a false front – he was the cause, and that’s where James-Michael is headed too, unless he can crack the mystery and find a place to make his lonely stand. That would certainly make sense of the name Omega. I don’t know if that’s true but if it were it would have been the most disturbing rejection of the Superman myth to that point. Don’t even dream of it, guys, with absolute power comes absolute destruction.

    (I don’t think anybody has done this one: “We intend to destroy your species. How? We will randomly give one in every ten thousand of you superpowers, and leave you to your own devices.”)

    Popping back, how different all this is from Coyote! Perhaps you were thinking of him in order to test your own conclusion, i.e. It will be impossible to conceive a new heroic myth after Gerber has injected such doubt and dread into the whole enterprise – but what about this guy then?

    You know who Coyote is, don’t you? He’s the first Invisible.

    Almost all the big tropes from Morrison’s story are present in Engelhart’s. The spirit world, the secret agents, the evil cabal on untrusting terms with the evil aliens. And Engelhart must have got it from Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy, and they got it from William S. Burroughs and an eldritch pile of Kennedy Assassination conspiracy theory, right-wing exposes of the role of Masonry in the French and American Revolutions, Ayn Rand, Charles Fort and H.P. Lovecraft. Grant wasn’t just stealing of course, he was working in a rich known tradition.

    Coyote is such a hell of an outsider, he hasn’t even noticed that the American indigenes were defeated. He’s all cheek, he can infiltrate society anywhere because You Fools Are All Blind, or walk into the heart of darkness and bluff them silly. I want him back!

    You know there’s this trope called the Magical Negro. It’s a just indictment, but some of the people who make it don’t seem to realize that there are magical Indians, magical geriatrics, magical bag ladies, and in general any class of people despised and rejected of men are accorded exceptional powers in one or another Secret Reality. Gerber did it quite a bit, but it’s Morrison who’s specialized in running a Boom Tube between the gutter and the glory. Schizophrenics, basket cases, child prostitutes – his symbolic vocabulary of power. The new Kryptonians, as it were. He doesn’t do it only to be subversive, it’s a technique of his for bringing a wide range of naturalistic material into the realm of the fantastic.

    Well, a hero of such origins, like Coyote, is never going to be Superman in the sense of the renowned protector of society who will always be there to save the day. His victories will always be unknown. At the end of the day he may wander off like Tom O’Bedlam, back behind the Somebody Else’s Problem Field from which he had emerged. In this sense, the method is conservative: we are not left with an ideal to follow, we’ll just have to work out our own solutions. But in another sense it’s radical, because it provokes us to look around with new eyes. And here’s the thing: hidden by the blinders of our actual SEP fields, there are real live people. Maybe they’re worth a second look.

    For instance, the problem kid on the run who nobody listens to.

    Okay, back to focus. There is the Superman model. The ideal champion exists and is acknowledged. All very well if you have an ideal and can put it across. Even so Superman has to limit himself, because if the ideal he embodies limits our own then it becomes oppression – see Miracleman. He’ll be okay though, if he can just borrow a moral compass from the Daily Planet staff.

    There is the Outsider model. The champion is allowed to duck out briefly from a hidden reality, but must always return there. Indeed, the hidden reality may be where he accomplishes his purpose. As with Coyote and other Engelhart occult heroes, it can be loads of fun. But as with James-Michael Starling, if the stakes are too intimidating, and you have to operate entirely from behind the world’s SEP field, and you don’t know what you’re doing yet, then the burden can be nigh intolerable.

    (And this is Steve Gerber’s warning to all would-be counterculture activists – that it will be like that, at times, and maybe till you drop. But this is Steve’s consolation for you all – some of us know what that must feel like.)

    And there is the Democratic model, pursued pragmatically in old DC, but with increasing artistic and ideological intent by Stan Lee and pals, where a motley bunch of B-movie types must settle on a common cause, manage to work together, luck out, and get on with their lives until the next time.

    Now I think there is still vital work to be done in all three modes. At present I have a slight excess of sympathy for the Superman model, because of late I think things have gotten too cynical, and I want more people to do the hard work of articulating their own ideals and defending them. If that leads to a new generation of Bill Marstons with loopy physical culture utopias and Steve Ditkos with implacable Mr A’s, it’s a price I’ll bear with becoming stoicism, nay bugger the irony it’s exactly what I want.

    Hmm, haven’t got back to Longshot. But any hero whose arch-enemy is Reality TV needs no other defense.

  9. Jonathan: your comment is so great I wish I had something to contribute beyond this:

    Superman has to limit himself, because if the ideal he embodies limits our own then it becomes oppression – see Miracleman. He’ll be okay though, if he can just borrow a moral compass from the Daily Planet staff.

    …and his parents, of course, and Batman. Am I forgetting anybody? Not Wonder Woman. Not the Legion.

  10. Thanks ever so, Matthew. It does veer and jolt along without warning, as I read it again. I should have provided dramamine and barley sugar. And I spell Steve Englehart’s name wrong, aarrgh.

    Yes, yes! From the Planet, from the Kents, from Smallville … from America!

    Here’s a necessary counterbalance for counterculture authors, especially you hardcore Britpunk geniuses, with your V for Vendettas and your Dan Dare travesties.

    “Once there was a country so good and just and decent, that just to grow up there was enough to foster and tame the most powerful alien castaway, and lead him to the path of heroism.”

    “Good grief, who ever believed that?”

    “Bunch of Jewish kids. New York, end of the Depression.”

    “Oh, come ON!”

    “No, really. Nietzchean superman, plus American values as they saw them, equals good guy. They were very convincing.”

    “Bugger me.”

  11. I was forgetting somebody! (Sorry for hijacking these comments.) The other key person that keeps Superman’s moral gyroscope in trim is, in a weird way, Luthor. He isn’t borrowing Luthor’s moral compass, but he is a source of moral perspective for Superman.

    I found the Omega TPB in the three-for-a-dollar bin at my comic shop a week or two ago. I was going to get it, but when the cashier saw it in my hand she was compelled to admit that it wasn’t precisely priced at 33 cents. But would I be willing to pay $15 for it? It was only about eight feet from the bin to the cash register, but it was a pretty expensive eight feet: the price went up by a factor of 45 in that distance. Anyway, I didn’t want it fifteen bucks worth, so back to the bin it went.

  12. Oh, look, our posts crossed, and I was vague with some pronouns.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever read the two-book fantasy series ‘Mordant’s Need’, by Stephen R. Donaldson (the guy who also wrote the Thomas Covenant stuff). It’s the best thing he’s done. Anyway, the king of Mordant is King Joyse, and back when he was founding the kingdom he tried to recruit the Domne, a local lord, and his men. The Domne said, basically, Can’t help you; it’s lambing time and I need my men here to help with these sheep. Joyse couldn’t believe it.

    The Domne and King Joyse were friends for life after that. They recognized that they were in a position to give each other perspective. King Joyse was a guy who had a huge vision and wanted to found a kingdom and save the world. He was larger than life. He needed someone like the Domne around to ground him, to say things like, “Don’t forget we need to make sure these sheep are okay.”

    That’s what I’m reminded of by this Superman discussion.

  13. Plok, Jonathan, Matthew:

    This is me, clapping my hands and cheering as your intellectual jam session continues. I got nothin’ to contribute myself, but I am loving this thread! “Go, cats, go!”

    -The Once and Future Mikesensei

  14. Matthew –

    Weren’t there stories where Luthor or Mr Mxyzptlk would try to manoeuvre Supes into breaking the law, so that his integrity or reputation would be crucially marred? Kept him on his toes, they did, and helped define him – or rather to define the icon to which he was inexorably forced to conform.

    It used to be canon that Superman not only never took a human life, he would never even break the law. That was why everyone trusted him with ultimate power and never made him file a flight plan. When Frank Miller, revitalizing Daredevil, said that he was doing “Batman without the lies”, something was lost as much as gained. The conviction in the old ideal, of harmony between transcendent power and real life, had finally been abandoned as unfruitful and constricting.

    And Supergirl, of course. You’re giving me grist for my mill, that characters flourish when their supporting casts play strongly against them. But note as well, Superman’s supporting cast – Lois, Jimmy, Supergirl, the Legion, all with their own mags – came to be the only places anything surprising could still happen, with the primary hero frozen at his apogee.

    Now I think I’m in danger of hijacking Plok’s topic, which is not so much the harmony – society’s renowned protector, who gets a free pass because he can do no wrong – as the promise of transcendent power itself. Simply, that Superman comes from another planet, where human nature has perfected itself. Everyone is just better there, in all the ways that you, my child, are proud of being good. Stronger, smarter, wiser, braver, kinder.

    Plok’s proposing that Marvel, in particular Gerber, put that concept to a succession of tests and found it lacking; with Omega as the final failure after which there was nothing more to say. But the harder I look at it, the less it adds up. A quickie look a Marvel’s Superman analogs:

    Warlock – the best of them and therefore the best test, I think. Make the hero the messiah of a Manichaean version of the world. There’s plenty of potential here: you can do The War in Heaven, or Job, or Exodus, or the Gospel story; or if you’re Jack Kirby, you can combine your mastery of theme with the force of Scriptural poetry, just as you see fit. Sadly, for Roy Thomas, it was too early in the game. He had not developed an articulation of political or existential evil, sufficient to justify his hubris in deploying the primitive exaltation of the HIM figure, let alone the Scriptures. There is nothing on Counter-Earth terrible enough to motivate Adam from the outside, and being HIM, all potential, he has no inward motivation either. As a result he is tongue-tied, and Roy isn’t sure what to do with him either. Even so, there’s some potent good vs. evil symbolism, some tragedy simply and effectively managed, and a nuclear bombing, making the point that at least he’s managed to get the military establishment upset. The concept was beginning to realize its potential, and in the right hands at the right time it might have played out deeper themes. Such as, why do we blow our chances for making peace and new ethical foundations? And how strong or callous do you have to be to let your followers die for you? Warlock could have been Superman at odds with the world, because, tragically, he’s better than us; and indeed he went on to play a stronger part, as a nemesis of false religion.

    Hyperion – what a mess. There isn’t even one character here, only a peg on which to hang a various discourse about Superman. From which I gather, if you’re too powerful for anyone to stand up to you, you never learn politeness, and if you think you have the only good idea about how to run things, you’ll mess it up no matter how genuine your intentions. It’s an attack on a straw man, because these issues had been addressed in many, many Superboy and Superman stories. Just about any analysis of Supes will come around to saying that he really is good enough for the world to give him carte blanche as its protector, but he knows he isn’t wise enough to make everyone’s decisions for them.

    Wundarr – the Superbaby as Buddha. I never got him. Looking back, I think Gerber might have made occasional good use of him, when some sympathetic bad guy, or some over-anxious good guy, is trapped in a bad pattern by obsessions from which the right demonstration or a kind smile could release him. The analog Krypton from which he comes is good for just one thing:

    [quote] (credit Wikipedia)

    In July, 1951, Wundarr’s ship was caught by Earth’s gravitational pull, and passed through a layer of cosmic rays before entering Earth’s atmosphere, and crashing in a Florida swamp. An elderly couple known only as Maw and Paw observed the crash from their car. Paw considered checking out the crash site, but Maw insisted that it might’ve contained Martians or Communists and demanded that he ignore it.(Maw and Paw being possible parodies of the couple that found the crashed Superman). He therefore stayed in the ship for a number of years, growing to physical maturity, though keeping the mind of a child.

    [end quote]

    Of all stories which have played with the idea of how Superman could have turned out if his upbringing had been different, this is the Most Abysmally Stupid. It does serve though to point out how much of the Superman we admire is due to the Kents and others.

    Others – well. Wonder Man could count as a Superman analog, but I have to say the emphasis hasn’t ever been his omnipotence and its downfall, so much as his having been dead, and his relation with the Vision. He hasn’t wanted to be more than a team player. Villians with temporary supremacy would count, if they had any impulse toward social acceptance – you know, people putting up statues spontaneously, the President shaking their hand? Well there’s one good case I know, that’s the younger Zemo when he was ruling (the younger) Counter-Earth. Definitely aspired to be their revered protector. Nefaria and Graviton would have been satisfied just to be feared. And the Marvel culture has their number, of course, always did. As much as from monster comics, Marvel starts from all those stories of crooks and fools who thought they had the winning advantage.

    So we come back to Omega – a study in indefiniteness. Omega seems to have failed somehow, and until we find out how, the costume and powers are vacuous. Plok – dude, I’ve tried, but I can’t nail this down specifically as a refutation of costumes and powers. A personal renunciation, perhaps. But not a conclusion on explicit terms.

    If it was a refutation, though, it doesn’t seem to have put a stop to the illusion that the Marvel heroes were going somewhere, as advertised. Now me, I was always happy with the formula, the interplay. I didn’t think that their roles demanded supremacy, or even completion. Continuity would have been fine, and if continuity was going to be incompatible with the piling up of history, I didn’t mind if it was going to have ragged holes and retcons, so long as it was signified that the creators were making the effort.

    However, if there was a dialectic on the Superman (possible at all? inherently unethical? reducible to absurdity?) going on, and it ended with a whimper in Omega and a shallow grave in West Coast Avengers, a lot of people don’t seem to have cared. At some point I’ll catch up with the Earth X trilogy, which sounds like it’s constructed out of apotheoses for all. And the End stories, especially the Hulk’s seem to have both apotheoses and infernos portrayed with conviction. So I’m casting my vote here that Steve’s terminus was a personal one, and not the revelation of a structural failure.

    Personal and temporary, by Tim Boo Baa! One of my prouder achievements is having a crazed paean to Gerber and his works published on the LOC page of Nevada. And if the Las Vegas Chorus Girl, the Ostrich and the Killer Lampshade can rise again, then there’s hope for the zonkiest.

  15. Weren’t there stories where Luthor or Mr Mxyzptlk would try to manoeuvre Supes into breaking the law, so that his integrity or reputation would be crucially marred?

    Probably, but the best example I know is in the Elliot S. Maggin Superman novel Miracle Monday (which is fantastic, if you don’t know it, and the text is freely available online at, I think, the superman.ws site), where none other than the Devil tries just such an approach with Superman. (Trivia note: this is the novel that introduced the character Kristin Wells, who later became Superwoman in an Annual of DC Comics Presents, and who was just this week (I think) pulled out of the filing cabinet and dusted off as the mysterious ‘third Kryptonian’ in an issue of Superman or Action or something.)

    Plok’s proposing that Marvel, in particular Gerber, put that concept to a succession of tests and found it lacking; with Omega as the final failure after which there was nothing more to say.

    That’s not how I read it. I read it as, Marvel would never try to do a Superman character for a variety of historical, legal and aesthetic reasons. But they have done some almost-Superman characters, characters who aren’t quite Superman, and their stories are partially the stories of how they aren’t quite Superman. Sort of like how when craftsmen make a blanket or whatever, they make sure to include a flaw so that they don’t anger the gods with their hubris. (I am aware that this analogy casts DC’s lawyers in the role of gods, but I can’t help that.)

    Anyway, I would have said that if there was a final refutation of superheroes, it was Kingdom Come, but then again I haven’t read Omega or West Coast Avengers or anything. But even Kingdom Come can be countered by, say, the Powerpuff Girls or something.

  16. Holy crap! I take my eyes off you two for a couple of days, and you move right in!

    Ha.

    Okay, how awesome is all this? Just give me an hour or two to secure the evening’s beer supply, and I’ll do my best to pitch in.

  17. Holy…

    So much to say! I may have to break this up a little, I don’t know. But first off:

    By contrast, Coyote claims his powers as naturally and gleefully as Tarzan.

    Yes, he does, doesn’t he? Magnificent how Englehart is able to reclaim some of the vigour of the superhero’s pulpy forebears, while at the same time creating something unambiguously new to apply that vigour to. I’ve wondered before what might have happened if the “Epic experiment” (and I don’t just mean the Epic line, obviously, but all its cognates at other companies too) had been allowed to run properly for another decade or so, and I see no reason not to wonder it again! The idea of these fantastic writers brought up in the superhero ghetto suddenly being allowed to take their old conventions and twist them, extend them, expand them…Coyote, The Price, Void Indigo, etc. etc. seemed to be pushing towards a reconception of what could be done with the superheroic tropes, that had for various reasons been stymied at the big companies (even if the name on the byline was Kirby!), and I like to imagine that, given another ten years or so, these things would have grown to include their implications, to become a rich new vein of pictorial fantasy that was unapologetically superhero-ish without actually being superheroic.

    But, oh no…I digress already.

    This is all going to be a bit scattershot, I fear.

    With the idea of James-Michael being a Doomsday Machine, ha HA! Jonathan, you’ve just independently discovered Steven Grant’s “conclusion” to the Omega storyline in his Defenders, and possibly you’ve even given me (and RAB?) a clue as to how our funny feelings about it might be resolved: as you state it here, yes, it works okay. Makes great sense. The comic was TERRIBLE…but maybe that’s mostly because of how it betrayed its own blueprint, which you handily describe? Steve flat-out says that wasn’t the end of Omega, and of course I believe him…but maybe Grant’s initial conception of how to end the thing wasn’t too bad, just woefully mistranslated. And it still may very well not have been “right”, but the way you put it here makes me think it coulda been a whole lot righter, but wasn’t permitted to be. I mean it was one issue. It was crammed in there. It wasn’t even the right set of Defenders. And nobody really learned anything. But maybe Grant’s heart was in the right place after all, and he just got screwed by editorial.

    Short of asking Steve, I guess we can’t know. And I don’t think I’d like to ask him, so I’m happy to leave it a mystery. But what you say, yes, that does seem to be a legitimate take on Omega by someone (like all of us) not its authors, and that it actually is EXTREMELY similar to the pitiful round-up the thing got makes me…hmm…thinkthinkthinkthinkthinkthinkthinkthink…

    So thanks for that, Jonathan!

    And thanks for the image of Coyote as the first Invisible! HA! And you’ve got a point about Omega and Coyote both being in fringe spaces, but (not to get too much into the Superman thing too fast, because I totally am going to break this up into different comments) I don’t think I was thinking of Coyote as a test case for my “limits of psychological Supermanisms” thing — because you get right at it with the Tarzan reference, I think: Coyote’s partly there to reject certain old superhero-storytelling paths, by recognizing they’ve become fetishes, and thus obstacles. I say this, because actually the bit from Coyote that kept going through my head during this Omega thing was the scene where Sly tries to ride a motorcycle, and gets thrown: “You piece of JUNK!” he yells at it, turning with perfect smoothness back to Coyote, as if he had ever been anyone else…oh, pretty allusive, eh? Yes, I think so…

    One does wonder if this same impulse to reject superhero orthodoxy (except, while simultaneously/unfortunately holding onto it) did play a part in the creation of Longshot…who didn’t begin life in the X-Men but in a Marvel 4-Part Limited Series, if you recall…I remember not liking Longshot much, except I thought having luck as a power (and of course Coyote is a lucky bastard, he’ll tell you so himself), if one could ignore the background of Larry Niven, could sort of be quite a cool idea…luck vs. control, you know. Luck vs. Destiny. That’s always an evocative story, as witness every twentieth-century time-travel story ever written…as witness even a recent Harry Potter book. That shit never gets old.

    Unless it’s made to screw itself, that is, which I think is what happened to Longshot. Really, becoming a bit player in somebody else’s story, not the protagonist? Longshot, the lucky guy? Doesn’t sound like luck to me…playing second fiddle to Sunspot or Magma…

    But anyway. Waitress, more beer! Thank you, here’s a gratuity.

    …And I’m sure Matthew will chime in with me here, Jonathan: this was not a comment, this was a frickin’ GREAT POST…I can’t even address most of what you say, it’s phrased so elegantly I’d only screw it up if I tried to monkey with it. Morrison running a Boom Tube between the gutter and the glory? The SEP Field? Wanting people to do the hard work of defending their ideals? The Magical Negro? Coyote’s supreme cheek? “We intend to destroy your species?” The Paranoid/Revolutionary trace in American letters?

    YES!!

    [...T]he premise that society is broken, and righteousness will have to be rediscovered as much among the ignored as anywhere.

    Well, that’s it, isn’t it?

  18. Yeah, Epic had a lot of oomph, didn’t it?


    Do you have a problem?

    Is your problem impossible to solve?

    Consult Boswell and Flynn, Private Detectives.

    They enjoy solving other peoples’ problems.

    It helps them keep their minds off their own.

    And why – in all the earnest back and forth between the potency of George Perez’s Amazon revival and its subtheme of abject victimization, these days, does nobody ever bring up Christie Vosberg’s Sisterhood of Steel? I swear I’d write it up somehere if I still possessed the issues.

  19. And, next: I’m feeling a lot of love for Superman too, these days (Sleestak’s put up a couple of scans of the old strips recently — wow), and I do think Morrison’s All-Star version captures a lot of the…well, a lot of the a lot of the, and I think his take on Superman is enormously defensible, if nothing else. He is reinventing superheroic tropes, and making them accord with his own purpose. Jonathan, you must’ve loved Superman’s adventures in the Underverse, with Zibarro, that seems like it’s right up your street.

    But now the whole dialogue between you and Matthew comes in, because it’s the Superman Syndrome we’re talking about.

    Scattershot again: the power of the Luthor character as a contradistinguishing (and thus socializing) influence on Superman can not (in my opinion) be overestimated. The only thing Marvel’s got to approach it is the Reed Richards/Doctor Doom thing — which is AWESOME, and possibly even a bit better, but which wasn’t first…and certainly hasn’t been so powerfully elaborated. The Superboy stories alone create such a freaky dialectical tension between American Right and American Wrong that if they weren’t essentially meant to be fun they’d read like Hegel…note that Superman has always been smarter than Luthor, but can he create like Luthor? Can he cure cancer on a whim like Luthor? Only Morrison, and the sainted Maggin, have ever really explored Luthor’s human — no, you knew I wasn’t really going to say “human” — Luthor’s American genius, so much like the Roman genius but with a uniquely American flaw that hearkens back to Supes’ original conception. Hell of a good point, Matthew: everyone should read Maggin. In his hands, Luthor is the key to the whole thing. Well, if I may mash together Superman and Captain Marvel again, look at Moore’s (and Gaiman’s) Miracleman! The Gargunza in the hypno-dreams may be Sivana, but in the real world he’s Luthor: the creator of his own nemesis. His own salvation? Yes, that too…but it’s complicated, you see.

    (Mikesensei, feel free to jump in anytime here…oh, you remind me, I still owe RAB and Sean W. each a prize…damn it…oh wait, well as it so happens…!)

    As to Supergirl, Mr. Mxyxptlk (I know, I misspelled it), everybody really with the exception of AMERICA…Jonathan, you’re so right, but you’ve also got some Jim Roeg reading to do…Superman’s an interestingly overburdened figure, isn’t he? Well, Jung tells us that when an archetypal relationship seeks multiple expressions, it means it’s still striving for concise articulation…Pete Ross and Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang, Lois Lane and Lex Luthor and Lori Lemaris…Perry White and Pa Kent, Mxy and Brainiac, the ever-changing Batman and Jor-El and Zod…and Steve Lombard…Mon-El…

    I mean, anyone who’s ever read Superman knows for sure that there’s just too much goddamn stuff in there! Right? For such a simple meaning, it sure makes a hell of a maze…

    Sorry, my point?

    Oh. Whoops!

    Got carried away there for a moment. But back to business:

    Plok’s proposing that Marvel, in particular Gerber, put that concept to a succession of tests and found it lacking; with Omega as the final failure after which there was nothing more to say.

    That’s not how I read it. I read it as, Marvel would never try to do a Superman character for a variety of historical, legal and aesthetic reasons. But they have done some almost-Superman characters, characters who aren’t quite Superman, and their stories are partially the stories of how they aren’t quite Superman. Sort of like how when craftsmen make a blanket or whatever, they make sure to include a flaw so that they don’t anger the gods with their hubris. (I am aware that this analogy casts DC’s lawyers in the role of gods, but I can’t help that.)

    Yes and no. Jonathan’s correct in that he assumes part of the Marvel project (back when there was such a thing as an organic Marvel culture) was to test the Superman concept…but Matthew is also correct when he basically points out that the test was rigged: Marvel’s goal, surely, was not just to test the Superman concept but to refute it, time and time and endless time again. In a way this was the root of all Marvel’s claims of “realism” or “character” — that the overburdened, eventually purely symbolic Superman (because all his meanings were stretched out to be embodied in other characters, leaving him an empty — but moral! — centre, natch) (and oh God is there a lot to be said about the only moral centre having to be an empty centre) (why that’s contradistinction taken too far!) could be profitably done without. No “purer, braver, wiser” planet; just planets and dimensions full of people like people, people with the same problems as people, world without end. Initially — doubtless — this began as “fine, NPP, don’t want us to trample on your “super” thing so much? Well how ’bout an anti-super…”

    But it soon became something else.

    The Marvel Supermen: Wonder Man (I was actually referring to Wonder Man in his pre-death phase, that sneakily Judas-like empty seat at the table eventually filled by the Vision — the Ghost — and once upon a time a death as un-take-backable as any Bucky Barnes or Uncle Ben — until genius Englehart saw how to make it even better), Hyperion the angry or overconfident Sun-God (how did I miss him, first time around?), Warlock the bland Christ, later under Starlin his own self-inflicted Cross…and pawn of Life and Death and Destiny

    And Wundarr: as Jonathan puts it, so perfectly, Superbaby-As-Buddha.

    Me want choc-o-late
    Oops! Criminal gang is caught
    In nasty black tar

    Unca Ben says that
    Life isn’t always fair so
    Watch me masturbate!

    Well it’s the same thing.

    Uh…

    Where was I?

    Oh yes:

    If Kingdom Come was
    Supposed to be Watchmen then
    Mustn’t read Earth X

  20. Just a quick note – Kingdom Come doesn’t understand what it’s saying, comes up kind of terrifying as “the old ways and nothing else”, kind of the opposite of any great zombie movie. Really nice on the top but hollow and possibly damaging underneath. Sure the Batman and Superman characterizations are dead on, but the overall story?

    Earth X on the other hand (I’ve only read the first one) ends up being a really beautiful explanation of the Marvel cosmology – simplifying everything in a way that enriches rather than tearing down. It’s about evolution, combining all the great aspects of Marvel from Kirby to the late eighties into a whole.

    I think a large part of that is the distance Alex Ross had from Earth X ans his involvement in starting Kingdom Come.

    And shit, I’m lacking in my knowledge of 70s marvel – its a huge blind spot for me so I’ve got no input (I had Coyote #1 back in the day and loved it but i was around eight at the time…) but I’m reading the hell out of these comments.

  21. Finally, I don’t think I’m trying to say that eschatological Omega represented an ultimate failure, even in psychological terms, of the Superman concept. Or even that it represented Gerber’s final treatise on it. Like you, Jonathan, I still think there are vital scenes to be staged with these props. And I don’t think Steve necessarily disagrees.

    BUT!

    I do think that if Marvel ever flirted with these ideas, chastely or otherwise, Omega marked the end of the time when they could claim to be doing so out of love. Or even (and like it’s so different?) criticism. Omega was the natural end-point of Marvel’s desire to take this seriously, as Pseudo-Man was the natural end-point of Marvel’s willingness to admit they didn’t actually care too much anymore, about the difference between them and their Distinguished Competition. Pseudo-Man said: nah, it’s all just so much crap, now. We all go to the same parties. We all fellate the same people. Cynicism has triumphed. It might all have been incidental bullshit from the beginning, just “yay yay us! boo boo you!”, but now the bullshit’s intended rather than incidental…because now whatever irony remains is made to be dumped on the reader, and we’re all in on the joke, and we don’t care at all, and don’t even think it’s that funny, but what the hell. Screw it.

    Whoops!

    Sorry, editorializing a bit there. What I meant was, not that the point of talking about a world with No Supermen has drifted away (anymore than the point of talking about a world with a Superman has drifted away), but that Marvel can’t possibly have any more to say on this subject, since Omega got canned, and Nefaria’s ironic weakness (boy, Shooter really did a great job there!) got undermined in the last two panels (oh no he didn’t, after all!), and Hyperion chilled out (but then got angry again, for fuck’s sake!), and Wonder Man came back to life but wouldn’t help bring the Vision back to life, and Wundarr transcended this mortal plane as some kind of mental(!) energy, and the god-damned Magus came BACK!

    And Thanos too! Like, fifteen times!

    What I’m saying is, potentiality is pretty much over, as a typical Marvel theme, or even adornment to a theme. Now, believe me, I wanted it to die. In the Eighties, you have no idea how completely I catalogued the number of ridiculous, more than half-forgotten characters who “went cosmic”. I mean Blue Diamond did. I won’t say a word against Da Groo…I mean I said it when he was alive, but I won’t now, because we all know how much he loved the innocence of our favourite comics, as ham-fisted as he sometimes was…but it’s quite simple to say that Marvel abandoned the idea of potential as an ethos as soon as HIM became Adam Warlock…just as Jonathan says, but they didn’t quite finish the job, by which I mean they didn’t quite abandon the idealism that went along with the job…

    Until now.

    Because I think you’ll agree with me that the last Marvel writer to flirt with anything like idealistic potential was…and I hate to say it, because I hated him for years and years, but now he’s grown up and I guess I have to admit that…

    Is Fabien Nicieza.

    Somebody give that guy an imprint called Malibu. Or a mini-series from Image. God forgive me, I think he gets it.

    “It”.

    You know: the Marvel thing.

    Gee, coudja tell I been drinking beer?

  22. Oh, except one thing — really, Sean? You vouch for Earth X?

    I’ll reconsider it, only because you say. I still may pronounce you insane, though.

    Meantime…you only have Coyote #1, you say?

    Okay…DONE!!!

    You’ll have to pick up “Voice Of The Fire” on your own.

    I have spoken.

  23. Kingdom Come doesn’t understand what it’s saying, comes up kind of terrifying as “the old ways and nothing else”, kind of the opposite of any great zombie movie. Really nice on the top but hollow and possibly damaging underneath. Sure the Batman and Superman characterizations are dead on, but the overall story?

    Not sure what you mean about ‘the old ways and nothing else’… That was sort of Superman’s attitude in KC, but… well, hold on a sec. Because I should say that I haven’t read the comic book of KC. I’ve read the novelization. (Why? Because I wasn’t collecting comics at the time, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the novelization was written by (say it with me!) Elliot S. Maggin.) I assume that there are no significant differences between the two, but I don’t know. But the message of KC is similar to the message of Watchmen and in fact of almost all superhero epics that try to get really ‘realistic’ (recalling that plok had a long-ago post about this whole business of superhero comics aspiring to realism), all the ultimate ‘would’ stories, which is that it will always end in apocalypse. But: KC offers a solution to this! The superheroes have to stop being superheroes and start being just people. People with powers, of course, but human beings without capes and masks and codenames to hide behind.

    You could easily interpret that as saying that they have to shift from a DC paradigm to a Marvel one! (Anyway, it’s certainly not ‘the old ways and nothing else’.)

  24. Well then that novelization must sure be good…

    The zombie metaphor makes the most sense to me if Night of the Living Dead and Shivers are about a revolution swallowing a society from within – Kingdom Come is about destroying anything new out of fear, because new things have no merit, and can only be damaging. Damaging to our precious DC universe that must remain in its gold and silver age glory for all eternity.

    It’s Alex Ross hating everything that came into 90s superhero comics and making a blanket statement by Killing Everything, then having Superman learn that killing normal people is wrong. Yay!

    And the religious implications… Not to mention the similarites to “Twilight of the Superheroes”…

    Also, Watchmen also ends with Silk Spectre and Nite Owl deciding to spend the rest of their lives adventuring, right? The message of Watchmen is a lot more complex than that… it’s about what lengths a person would go to in order to save the world and how awful that really can be. Watchmen is about capital-M Morality.

  25. Well, I absolutely hated Kingdom Come, actually, in large part because I found it weird that someone would go over the Watchmen ground again just for the sake of inverting its arguments…although I’ll always be pleased as punch that DC pissed Moore off before he could write Twilight Of The Superheroes (oe else he might still be writing Big Two super-types to this day, instead of being Alan Moore!), I’m sure he wouldn’t’ve used it to reverse his own previous conclusions. But Kingdom Come? I pretty much agree with Sean: every time I look at KC, I can’t help thinking that Ross is riffing on Triumph Of The Will a little too much for the story’s own good. By investing the DC icons with his particular brand of static majesty, he practically turns them into out-and-out power-porn, for our errant Pariah (how’d he get in here?) to gawk at and feel conflicted by…which, okay, is kind of the whole point, and I suppose it’s nice that you can’t miss it…but I do think it was never the right point, in the first place, and the power-porn ends up hitting it with a little too much of the wrong sort of irony, for the whole thing not to be fatally undermined. All this striving, just to save spent reputations, and reanimate dead ideals? Of course it was Waid who spent ‘em and killed ‘em in the first place, obviously, so it isn’t like any of the first-string superfolks could’ve stopped it all from going wrong anyway; and for that matter, it’s Waid who brings these things back, too, so what the hell? Ross’ lifelessly shiny superpeople pose for us, and we watch them do next to nothing as the quasi-religious plot contrivances push them around from place to place, resurrecting shit that already failed to save the world the first time around because no one can think of anything that might profitably replace it. And I’m sure Maggin’s novelization was better than that! It would’ve had to’ve been.

    And for God’s sake, this is from a time when I liked Waid and Ross!

    But Waid’s love of dystopian future scenarios just gets too damn old after a while, and therefore really hard to believe in. What’s he trying to say? I suppose he’s just trying to prop up status quo values by offering a contrast with some apocalyptic perversions of them, but the funny thing is those status quo super-ideals don’t really need propping up, so all he does is destabilize them. I never bought the whole Kingdom Come thing, really: by the end of it, I just wanted all the superheroes to die. Which I’m sure wasn’t the point, but then again it kind of was, because it was written and drawn that way.

    And, it’s still going on! DC’s recent “dark future” problems are even worse than Marvel’s used to be, come to think of it: I swear, if I have to see another morally-compromised Teen Titans future with Tim Drake behind the Batman mask, I’m gonna freak OUT, you know? Because these futures are all so dire, they just look really suspicious. Everything just goes so wrong, that even when the day gets saved there’s still all this funereal goop lying around afterwards. Bah. The heroes never win, get it? They always, always fail, and the future always sucks, and then the younger heroes — the heroes of the present — have to learn not to do whatever it was that they did, that made them blow it all up the first time. And so they just can’t have any faith in the future, at all: not future generations, or even future iterations of themselves. Just: the present. Or, to look at it another way: the past. What a terrible moral. And it’s line-wide. Yikes. So thanks a lot, Kingdom Come…

    I suppose on paper, “the old-school superheroes have to come back and save the day” doesn’t sound all that bad. But something gets turned around in it through the execution, I believe. It does kind of come across as new = bad/old = good, even while at the same time it clearly screams out old = bankrupt/new = nightmarish.

    Well, but then again I hate Kingdom Come, obviously! So I would say that…

  26. But Waid’s love of dystopian future scenarios just gets too damn old after a while, and therefore really hard to believe in.

    Which is interesting, because Waid has been the designer behind the two reboots of the Legion of Super-Heroes (and how strange we should find the conversation going in this direction!), and those futures, even the threeboot future that has drawn so much criticism, are anything but dystopian. Furthermore, the existence of the Legion takes the sting out of all those near-future dystopias for me, because I know everything’s gonna turn out all right in the end anyway.

    But it is strange how DC seems to have decided that KC is the impending destiny of the DCU. Why not just treat it like an Elseworlds story and let it go at that? If for no other reason than the very practical storytelling reason that the KC story has been told and if your stories are homing in on it then that just means you’ve gotta tell it again.

    And I do think I agree about Alex Ross. Didn’t I hear that he insisted on drawing the original Legion at the end of Justice because, for him, no other Legion version existed? I can’t put up with that kind of attitude; if Alex Ross commented on my blog I’d have to smack him down.

    (Another thing about the KC novelization (if not the comic): one of the best Mr. Miracle scenes I know of.)

    Getting back on topic… I said before that KC, as a final refutation of superheroes, could be countered by something like Powerpuff Girls. Could this also be said of Omega?

  27. Well, I don’t think so, because Omega’s not a final refutation, just an ultimate encounter with Marvel-style Superman-critique, that actually avoids the usual trick of blowing Kal-El up…because it’s on its way to a bigger point. Whatever that was.

    Mind you, I don’t think Kingdom Come stands as a refutation of superheroes either; almost certainly, it was intended as the opposite…and if I hated it, it was only because Waid and Ross got it wrong, and screwed it up. If the superheroes are all hateful, it’s not their fault, it’s Waid’s! He can be a great writer, but sometimes he makes unfortunate (if ambitious) choices — such as mushing up the worst parts of Crisis, Watchmen, and Marvels into an overheated (and repetitive!) plate of leftovers. The man should just be kept away from time-travel and alternate timelines altogether: he likes ‘em too much, like Stan Lee with the Silver Surfer.

    And that’s why I think you can lay it as his feet, that Kingdom Come now appears to be the main “future” of the DCU…even though it’s now supposed to be tidily tucked away in a 52 universe all its own! But the flavour of it seems to go everywhere, regardless. Maybe the most damning thing I can say about it to you, Matthew: I don’t see how anyone gets any LSH future from that starting point.

    So to Kingdom Come and its grandiose, zombified emptiness, yeah: Powerpuff Girls is a terrific antidote.

  28. Pingback: Steve Gerber « supervillain·

  29. Pingback: Comics Should Be Good! » Snark Free Corner for 2/11·

  30. Wow, and here I am again, touching down on this thread after long absence…my, it’s good. Thank you, Jonathan and Matthew, thank you Sean…Miksensei says it, I think. This thing verges on the educational, for God’s sake.

    But just one more thing. And how did I miss it? I must’ve known it, he even mentioned it once on his blog, but I guess I glossed over it…

    Apparently TV’s The Adventures Of Superman was one of Steve Gerber’s most profound childhood influences, one of his perfect imaginative First Loves. Basically, he was a Superman-Baby. So, how huge Omega must loom as a riff on Marvel Supermen, all themselves riffs on the original, in light of that! Wow. Of course in his DC work he explored a lot of marginal Kryptonian territory no one else was interested in or had given much thought to…not just The Phantom Zone, but also A. Bizarro, and a rumoured project he had been pitching at one point about an ancient Kryptonian showing up on Earth…like an “Iceman” Kryptonian, if you will. I remember reading the long, long comments thread about that one on his blog, absolutely fascinating stuff, worth checking out. And then there’s that reminiscence by someone on his blog recently about where Lexcorp really makes its money…

    I mean, I almost want to rewrite this post, I missed so much.

    So maybe I’m not quite finished finding things to say about Gerber after all. Maybe Ed’s Headmen/Nebulon piece won’t be the only entry left to come. I recall that I badgered Jim Roeg some time ago about doing something on the Iron Man Annual featuring the Molecule Man and Man-Thing…

    Can’t do that one myself, but maybe I should badger him about it again. Or maybe, badger Jonathan instead?

    We’ll see. Just noodling. But man I enjoyed re-reading these comments, absolutely great and looney stuff. I could’ve shut down the blog right here, and been happy. Best comment thread since the time-travel meme.

  31. Pingback: Comics Should Be Good! » Steve Gerber, the Son of Satan, and Evil·

  32. I don’t know if anyone will ever read this comment, but I thought I’d mention: I finally read the comic book of Kingdom Come. And I like the novelization a lot better. There’s more detail; things are explored in more depth; characters are more sympathetic; Norman McCay isn’t so cranky. Elliot S. Maggin definitely did right by the material.

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