Wednesday, July 20, 2011

DC Giving Superman a "Coolectomy"

DC has done many things to piss me off over the last few years, but judging by this article on the Superman reboot at DC's "The Source", this may be first time they've actually angered me into coining a new word. That word is:


The definition is as follows:

Coolectomy (Cuul-ec-toe-mee) - The removal of all or most of what is appealing, unique and/or original (i.e. cool) about a person, group, place, or thing.

This removal may be performed in one stroke (as graphically demonstrated by this footage of Subject: Arthur Fonzarelli) or in a series of smaller procedures performed over time. The motivation behind "coolectomies" usually stems from greed and crass commercialism leading to a misguided pursuit of quick and easy financial gains.

The "coolectomy" phenomenon occurs in a wide array of fields. In music, one well-known example is Liz Phair, who had three rough-hewn but charming releases before she decided to become Sheryl Crow in 2003. In politics, there's former Rep. Anthony Wiener, who was a strong and humorous liberal voice in Congress before..... well, you know.

Sometimes coolectomies involve the subject not being as hip and edgy and gritty as before. But just as often, coolectomies make the subject more edgy and "grim and gritty" than previously, to the point of ruining the subject's character and appeal. This is especially true in recent superhero comics.

The most glaring example is Roy Harper aka Arsenal. Losing the arm was one thing. But DC also killed off his daughter Lian and restored his heroin habit after nearly 40 years (our time) of sobriety, thereby depriving Roy of two of his best and most unique elements: his triumph over drug addiction and his responsible single-dad status. Coolectomies don't get more thorough than this.

Another recent coolectomy victim was Prince T'Challa aka the Black Panther. Not only has he recently been removed from his unique role as ruler of Wakanda to take Daredevil's place in New York, but he also has to wear this:

Other infamous coolectomy horror stories include Post-"One More Day" Peter Parker (not Spidey, just Peter), and JMS' Wonder Woman.

And now we may be looking at the latest and perhaps the most heartbreaking coolectomy statistic yet: Superman.

According to "The Source", here are some of the radical changes in store for the post-Flushpoint Supes (blue boldface and italics are mine):

* This Superman is very much an alien, one struggling to adjust to his adopted home. In the series, he must come to terms with both the loss of his home world, as well as the loss of both of his adopted parents. He is more Kal-El from the planet Krypton than Clark Kent from Kansas. He’s a loner trying to find his place in the world.

* The series’ first storyline will explore the origins of Superman’s costume, as it evolves from a look that includes jeans and work boots to a new look: a suit of battle armor that pays tribute to his Kryptonian past.

* His great powers have limits. When the series begins, Superman can leap tall buildings, but his ability to fly is in its infancy.

And in the SUPERMAN ongoing comic book series, by writer George Perez and artist Jesus Merino, will be set in present day continuity and will unleash a series of new challenges for Superman and his alter ego Clark Kent.

* Clark Kent is single and living on his own. He has never been married.

* Lois Lane is dating a colleague at the DAILY PLANET (and his name isn’t Clark Kent) and she has a new position with the paper.

Timeless and modern, classic and contemporary, but younger, brasher and more brooding, this is Superman. The New Man of Tomorrow.

In other words, DC is taking away Supes' entire established past history, his entire marriage, his entire romantic history with Lois, his last surviving adopted parent, and much of his connection with humanity. In other words, much of the Clark Kent aspect of Superman. That's not a few minor tweaks. That's completely altering his entire personality.

Making Superman more Kryptonian is not without precedent. There was the "Krypton Man" storyline from the 1990 Superman books, where an artifact called the Eradicator was making Supes' personality more Kryptonian and less human, concluding with an intervention by Ma and Pa Kent and Supes shaking off the Eradicator's control. (Siskoid has more about that story arc here.)

Another later storyline where Supes' Kryptonian side came to the fore was Mark Waid's "Man and Superman" arc in JLA. Here, a sixth-dimensional artifact caused the each of the JLAers (except Aquaman and Wonder Woman) to split into two beings: their superhero identities and their civilian identities. The split progressively altered the personalities of both sets of split Leaguers to extremes. The Green Lantern half, for example, progressively lost Kyle Rayner's imagination and resorted to only constructing big guns and armor, while the Kyle side was overwhelmed with imagination but lacked both the willpower to control his impulses and the ring to channel his creativity, compelling him to draw all over all the walls of his apartment nonstop. Likewise, Supes' hero side was becoming increasingly more Kryptonian and less emotional to the point of changing his costume, while his Clark side became consumed with human emotions, particularly fear. Clark and the rest of the Leaguers were restored to normal at the end, thanks to some quick thinking by Wonder Woman.

Other examples of Superman subverting his Clark side are Cary Bates and Elliot S! Maggin's pre-Crisis classic "Clark Kent, Get Out Of My Life" (you can view that full story here) and the late 90's "Superman: King Of The World" storyline.

All those above story arcs feature Supes losing, abandoning, or submerging the human Clark Kent part of his persona, but all of those instances were caused at least in part by manipulation from outside sources, and they were all treated as anomalies that were fixed by the story's end.

When Superman's detachment from humanity is treated as the normal default, on the other hand, the stories can get, well......extremely rough.

Take the 2006 movie Superman Returns, for example. This film had a strong, caring, and very human hero that viewers could rally behind and relate to. Unfortunately, that character was Richard White, Lois Lane's on-screen boyfriend (ironically enough). It certainly wasn't the title character, who left Earth unprotected and Lois with their love-child for 5 years to look for Krypton.

Want another example? How about Brian Azzarello's 2004 "For Tomorrow" yearlong arc in Superman, which ranks as one of my biggest Superman-related disappointments of all time? Synopsis: Superman is investigating the cause of the mass disappearance of half of Earth's population. He later learns that he a) built a device that would transport the Earth's population into the Phantom Zone in the event of the world ending, and b) hypnotized himself into forgetting he built it but c) told Lois about it first. Huh??? Azzarello is generally a great writer (his current Batman Flashpoint mini is the most recent proof of that) and a fellow Illinois resident, but he should go nowhere near the Superman character (although his characterization of Supes from Lex's POV in Lex Luthor: Man Of Steel was interesting). Everyone has their weaknesses, Brian. Not everyone gets Superman.

Unfortunately, judging by this Newsarama article, that group of people who don't "get" Superman also includes DC honchos Dan DiDio and Jim Lee who, unlike Azzarello, are stewarding Supes's direction for the forseeable future.

"We've made Superman such an iconic figure over the years that we've lost some of the character and the ability to tell stories with that character," said Dan DiDio, co-publisher at DC. "There's so much continuity that's been built on this character. We really wanted to get a Superman that is more accessible to the audience."

That first sentence is the typical "poor craftsman blaming his tools" excuse. Newsflash, Dan: The fault for any inability to tell Superman stories doesn't lie with the character, but with you, your writers, and your editors. If you're having problems telling stories about the Man of Steel, it's not because the character's too iconic, but because you lack imagination.

Let's put it this way, Dan: When I play video games, and I'm constantly hitting the "reset" button to start a new game, it's not because of a flaw with the games themselves. It's because I suck at video games.

And here is Lee's take on the Super-Marriage and its dissolution post-Flushpoint:

"Marriage brings about a certain degree of comfort and security in one's life," Lee said. "If you have a life partner, you always have someone to rely on. So from a story conflict point of view, it makes for a less dramatic story. I think a lot of writers can agree that one of the most dynamic periods of Superman's history was that period where there was a love triangle between Clark Kent, Superman and Lois Lane. There's a lot of tension and interest you create in the characters by having that kind of dynamic."

Yeah, maybe that Superman-Lois-Clark love triangle was a dynamic part of Superman's history.... for the first 30 years. Then it got as old and played as "Stairway To Heaven". And yet DC has already run out of ideas on how to write married Superman after only 15 years???

Here's where it's obvious that they really don't have a clue what makes Superman unique:

“We wanted to have that sense of isolation that might come with being an alien among men,” DiDio said. “The two choices that were made, with both his parents being dead and not being married, isolated Clark a little bit more, so that he really had to do more exploration about mankind. There wasn’t that one strong human tether that he was bonding with and learning through.”

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to explore much more,” DiDio said. “We’ve told so many great stories over the years where Superman has embraced his human side and built stories around that side of the characterization. Now we’re flipping it around a little bit and really embracing his alien side, so we can understand what it’s like to be a man from another world, living amongst men, but not feeling like you’re a part of it, but belonging to them all.”

That "strong human tether" that DiDio wants to get rid of? THAT's what makes Superman different from other extraterrestrial strongmen like, say, the Martian Manhunter. He's still something of an outsider because of his powers and Kryptonian heritage, but he's not really struggling with how to relate to Earthlings because he was raised as one. Isolated and broody? Sure, everyone feels that way at some point, even Supes, but that shouldn't be his default mode. As for trying to connect with humanity? Nobody should be more connected to humanity than this guy. He's probably been to nearly every location on Earth at some point. His reporter identity gives him access to the news of the world. Plus, he has super vision and hearing. He can hear a fart in Indiana and watch dust settle in Russia all the way from the moon. Hell, Oracle isn't as connected to Earth as he is.

Superman embracing his human side is what makes him unique from your standard alien powerhouse. What makes him Superman is that despite his alien heritage, he does feel like he's a "part of it".( I can think of only one other extraterrestrial character whose perspective is even close, and I'll identify him in a moment.)

That's what makes Supes unique. That's what makes him.....COOL.

And that's what DC apparently wants to take away.

See why I call it a "coolectomy"?

The DCU reboot in general, and the Superman one in particular, is symptomatic of a growing problem with superhero comics over the last several years. Instead of adapting their outlooks around the character's history, creators are changing the character into what they really want to write about. Instead of moving out of their comfort zone to keep the character consistent, they're warping the character into something more in their comfort zone. Why make the attempt to work around the character's history, no matter how recent, when you can simply say "This never happened?" Why bother to understand what makes a character tick when you can simply remake him or her in your own image?

It seems like they're trying to turn Superman into this guy.


That's Mark Milton, aka Hyperion from Marvel's Squadron Supreme book. He's all the things DiDio and Lee say they're saying they want DCnU Supes to be: Alien, isolated, and broody. That seems fine for Hyperion, but that's just not Superman, at least not to me.

Instead of Hyperion, Superman is in fact closer in personality to another similarly-powered superhero also named Mark: Mark Grayson aka Invincible.

Created by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker for Image, Invincible is kind of an updated hybrid of Superman and early Spider-Man. His childhood is similar to the Byrne-era Supes in that he was raised in his formative years as a normal Earthling. As was the case with Clark, Mark Grayson's Viltrumite powers did not begin manifesting until his teens. Despite his Viltrumite heritage, Mark, like pre-DCnU Clark, is an Earthman at heart. In fact, he's even more of a naturalized Earthling than even Clark. (Whereas Clark has a love and some loyalty to Krypton, Mark really doesn't give a rat's ass about Viltrum other than his dad, his half-brother, and a select few Viltrumite allies. He even helped destroy the planet.) His personality is more similar to Kyle Rayner than J'onn J'onzz or Dr. Manhattan.

That's not to say that Kent and Grayson are exactly alike. Clark is older, wiser, worldlier, and more knowledgeable. He's also more morally certain. Mark's moral code, while strong, is still a work in progress. He has had to kill on more than one occasion. (In fairness, he is only in his late teens.) But it just seems like Supes is, or at least should be, much closer in spirit to Mark Grayson than to Mark Milton.

Judging by Invincible's popularity, I'd say readers can relate to him, too. His book's lasted 80 issues and counting, which is already longer than any of the Aquaman volumes.

Look, maybe I'm judging this whole thing too soon. I remember the articles leading up to the John Byrne reboot in 1986. They stated that Superman under Byrne would be "more like Reagan and Rambo", "a Reaganite", and "not just Republican, but Super-Republican". They also wrote that Clark Kent would be "more like Jimmy Breslin" and that the Lois-Clark relationship would resemble that of Cybil Shepherd and Bruce Willis in "Moonlighting". None of that really came to pass, thank God.

And there's also the fact that one of the writers involved will be Morrison, so writing off at least his Action book may be premature.

But for now, judging by what I've heard so far? It looks like a major coolectomy. I can only echo the sentiments of Joanie Cunningham:

"Oh, why did you have to take so much?????"


At 5:18 AM , Blogger Siskoid said...

And you mention Oracle, that's another coolectomy right there!

Nice post.

At 9:14 AM , Blogger notintheface said...

Keep in mind that Barbara will still be written by Gail, who infuses cool into whatever she touches. Look at what she did for CATMAN, for heaven's sake!

At 2:24 PM , Blogger SallyP said...

I feel your pain. If your writers cannot write good stories about an iconic character...then GET BETTER WRITERS!


Not EVERY comic book hero or heroine has to be brooding, angsty, bitchy, hard-assed, or whatever. It is ok to have NICE people be heroes. I know that seems to be an alien concept anymore, but for the love of God, you can't keep just writing for 18 year old boys, who don't have a clue.

If you take away Lois, if you take away the Kents...then you are no longer writing Superman, but some OTHER character. And one that I will have NO interest in.

At 9:19 PM , Blogger snell said...

Minor point: In a nice surprise, that's not T'Challa is that costume--"American Panther" is one of Hate Monger's racist minions thrying to drive T'Challa out of Hell's Kitchen and take is place as a hero for "true Americans."

Color me was pretty good.

At 2:19 PM , Blogger Saranga said...

"We've made Superman such an iconic figure over the years that we've lost some of the character and the ability to tell stories with that character," said Dan DiDio, co-publisher at DC. "There's so much continuity that's been built on this character. We really wanted to get a Superman that is more accessible to the audience."

WHAT THE FUCKITY FUCK??? I'm sorry, i couldn;t read the rest fo your post, that particular quote got me too angry.


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