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Steel #1 and the state of the superhero comic

by  in Comic News Comment

There’s so much I find fascinating about Vaneta Rogers’s Newsarama interview with Steel #1 writer Steve Lyons that I hardly know where to begin. I suppose I’ll start by saying that there’s a lot to be excited about in the comic, which kicks off DC’s “Reign of Doomsday” event. For example, I’ve long argued that Steel is one of the most undervalued characters and designs in DC’s pantheon. Iron Man’s powers, Thor’s hammer, Superman’s cape, and an African-American folk hero’s name? That’s pure gold. And seriously, what a great design: The Alex Garner cover to the issue — itself part of DC’s genuinely awesome iconic-cover line-up for the month of January — is practically payoff enough. Plus, in a genre often (and accurately) decried for its lack of strong non-white heroes, John Henry Irons is an armor-clad, hammer-wielding, ‘S’-shield-wearing super-genius whose role in Metropolis’s scientific and business community is basically “the anti-Lex.” Tough to top that.

Similarly, at nearly two decades’ remove from the controversial “Death of Superman” storyline, I’m much better able to appreciate Doomsday him/itself. He’s no longer just the out-of-the-blue newcomer who got to deliver the coup de grace to the Man of Steel over more “deserving” villains like Lex Luthor (and set sales records in the process). Rather, he is to the villainous side of the superhero genre what the Hulk is to its heroic half: The power fantasy in its purest form, i.e. giant unstoppable guy pounds the crap out of everyone in his way. On an inner-eight-year-old level, that’s a thing of beauty. And remember how in his original appearances he slowly shedded a Kirbyesque jumpsuit-and-goggles look to reveal badass bone spikes and claws jutting out of every possible place on his body? He’s basically a microcosm of the direction of the entire superhero genre from that period, a walking symbol of ’90s excess at its boldest and best. Finally, in story terms, he accomplished the pinnacle achievement for any DCU villain: He killed Superman! Okay, so he got better, but still. As I believe Geoff Johns has argued, Doomsday’s name alone should scare the crap out of every character in the DC Universe. As such he’s a terrific basis for a crossover event.

Finally, writer Steve Lyons is an unknown quantity as far as DC goes — this is his first ever work for the company. But he apparently comes with a recommendation from Paul Cornell, his colleague from the Doctor Who universe, and as such is part of DC’s promising, risk-taking outreach to new writers (of which Cornell himself is of course a part as well). It’s kind of exciting to see DC take a flyer on a brand-new writer for a high-profile event launch — it’s like something Nu-Marvel would have done ten years ago.

But…Well, actually, I don’t know if I should start this portion of the post with a “But” at all. The comic isn’t out yet, so it’s way too soon to tell what effect all the things Lyons talks about in his interview will have on the final product, if any. But it seems to me that the real-world logistics behind Steel #1 bear noting, both for what they say about this comic specifically and what they could indicate about how superhero comics are made today.

First of all, when DC approached Lyons and asked him to pitch some ideas, the one upon which Steel #1 would eventually be based didn’t have Doomsday in it at all. The original villain was Metallo, who in fact was named as the book’s antagonist in the initial solicits for the issue. “Then, everything changed,” says Lyons, and voila, Steel vs. Metallo became Steel vs. Doomsday and the launchpad for a crossover that also involves Superboy, Justice League of America, and Outsiders. Lyons himself isn’t involved with any of those issues, or with the overall direction of the crossover, which is being overseen by editors Matt Idelson and Wil Moss. Indeed, Lyons says “even I don’t know the full answer” to why Doomsday is attacking Steel in the first place. It strikes me as a pretty remarkable situation for the writer of a comic not to be privy to the motives of the antagonist in the comic he’s writing — the apotheosis, perhaps, of working as a writer in the top-down event-comic era.

Speaking of which, you may recall that Doomsday too died at the end of “Death of Superman,” killed by Kal-El in a mutual-destruction scenario. Of course, you can’t keep a good superhero-comics character down (or even a lousy one, these days), and Doomsday didn’t stay dead for much longer than Superman himself did. (Actually, I think he was revealed to be alive first!) What’s interesting about Doomsday starring in an event now is that he was dead again as recently as two years and one Superman era ago — beaten to death by the people of Kandor in November 2008’s Action Comics #871, during the “New Krypton” mega-story. That event had its cake and ate it too when it came to Doomsday, killing him for effect, then almost immediately revealing that his body was in the possession of the evil General Sam Lane (Lois’s wingnut dad), who turned it over to Lex Luthor for “improvements.” Apparently, whatever Lex did was good enough to get Doomsday up and running in time to headline his own event comic just a few short months after the one in which he “died” ended. If you want to make the argument that death and resurrection are devalued currencies in contemporary superhero comics, you probably need look no further than ol’ Bone-Brows.

Moving on, the identity of the villain isn’t the only thing that changed since Steel #1’s conception and solicitation — so too did the identity of the artist. The book was originally slated to be drawn by Sean Chen, but “[t]he revised schedule interfered with his other work,” according to Lyons, and Ed Benes has drawn the issue in Chen’s stead. Benes is a DC mainstay and fan favorite who’s worked on multiple marquee titles for the publisher, so he’s certainly about as good a “fill-in” artist as one could hope for, but he’s not Sean Chen, he’s Ed Benes. That’s another big change, and I think it may speak to how thin the top talent — writers and artists with craft chops, personal style, and a dependable work rate — can be stretched at the Big Two.

Finally — and I’m extremely hesitant to go here because, again, the book isn’t even out yet — but there’s every indication that Steel may not survive Steel #1. Lyons understandably plays this one coy, as a writer really ought to if he hopes to maintain some suspense about what will happen in his action-based comic book. But given readerslongstanding and vocal dissatisfaction with the treatment of non-white characters in the DCU, killing off one of the company’s most prominent such characters — the one who wears the Superman ‘S’ on his chest and cape to boot — would surely touch off a firestorm of controversy. (Sorry, Jason Rusch.) Discretion is no doubt the better part of valor when it comes to potentially spoiling the outcome of your big “Death of Superman”/”Reign of the Supermen”-based hero-villain grudge match, but the same can probably be said about (unnecessarily, I hope) freaking out your audience that yet another bastion of DCU diversity is about to bite the dust.

So, when the Steel coin is finally flipped, how will it land? Heads — a fun, exciting face-off between two underrated superhero-comic characters brought to you by a promising newcomer and a talented veteran? Or tails — a trail of odd production hiccups leading to the death of a beloved character in service of comics’ umpteenth event? Or will it land on its edge, with vocal fans arguing mightily to push it to the side of their choosing? I’ll say this much: I’ll be reading it to find out.

(via David Uzumeri)