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Why No One Wants to Be Superman’s Pal – or Girlfriend

by  in CBR Exclusives, Comic News Comment
Why No One Wants to Be Superman’s Pal – or Girlfriend

Welcome to the fifth installment of Adventure(s) Time, where I examine a notable episode of a classic animated series and an issue of its comic tie-in that shares a similar theme. This time, we take a break from Gotham City and explore the follow-up series by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. “Superman: The Animated Series” debuted on September 6, 1996 and was immediately followed by its comic tie-in, “Superman Adventures.” The comic never quite caught “Batman Adventures” in popularity, but it featured no shortage of talented creators, and managed to last an impressive run of sixty-six issues.

“Superman Adventures” is most famous for featuring early work by Mark Millar, but it’s important to remember that the Millar issues only constitute around a third of the series’ run. “Superman Adventures’” initial monthly creative team consisted of Scott McCloud (a well-known name in comics, even if his output on mainstream “Big Two” superheroes is rather thin), Rick Burchett and Terry Austin. Bruce Timm was around for the initial cover, and you’ll notice that there’s an effort to replicate the painted, futuristic backgrounds of the series in the covers that immediately followed. The interiors, however, never attempt to capture that look, and the bolder palette of the cartoon never matches the softer colors used by colorist Marie Severin. Terry Austin also isn’t a name that immediately evokes the dense lines preferred by Timm, even though Rick Burchett is quite adept at incorporating Timm’s look into comics. The result is a “Superman” tie-in comic that’s clearly inspired by the cartoon, but has also adopted its own look. It’s certainly possible that this was a conscious choice made by DC (there’s no law that says a tie-in has to be slavish in devotion), but it does create something of a disconnect with the series. Visually, I’ll always remember “Superman: The Animated Series” as the show that embraced the anime flourishes we occasionally glimpsed on “Batman: The Animated Series.” Conversely, “Superman Adventures” is about as far from anime as anyone could imagine.

Since the first issue of “Superman Adventures” was guest-written by Paul Dini, the full creative team didn’t debut until the second issue, entitled “Be Careful What You Wish For…” The story opens with Superman passing by the apartment of a young woman named Kelly, who calls out for the hero’s attention. Not because she’s in danger, but simply because she wants to see if he’ll actually stop by her apartment. Superman, annoyed that this is the third time this has happened today, flies off in a huff. Kelly sarcastically calls out “Thanks for the flowers, honey!” while Superman exits for the Daily Planet building.

As Clark Kent, Superman walks in on Lois and Jimmy watching an “Up Close and Personal” broadcast by Angela Chen, who’s reporting on the Superman phenomenon. In only the opening three pages, we see just how closely Scott McCloud is following the show’s bible. The original concept, as expressed by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in interviews, was to play up the public’s reaction to Superman, the first hint of the supernatural ever to appear in this world. Some love Superman, others fear him, but no one is without an opinion. We also see an effort to cast Angela Chen as the voice of Metropolis, even though Chen never really took off the way her creators intended. There is a hiccup, however. McCloud has Superman once exclaim “Great Scott!” — the catchphrase that was avoided in the animated series, deemed too corny for a modern audience.

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Unbeknownst to Kelly, her sarcastic remark to Superman was overheard by her neighbor, a pretzel salesman who works by Hob’s Bay. She plays along with the joke, which isn’t the smartest thing to do when a shadowy man in a trenchcoat is nearby reading the paper. As the man stalks her, Kelly has a brief monologue explaining why she’s gone along with the absurd lie that she’s “Superman’s Girlfriend” — she’s originally from Topeka, can’t find a job after graduating, and has discovered Metropolis isn’t as exciting as she thought it would be.

Nearby, Clark Kent and Lois Lane are investigating a series of robberies at a warehouse. (Notice in the early issues that Clark is wearing a black and khaki outfit that he never sported on the show. Were the creators provided the wrong reference or was this an effort to give Clark a unique look for the tie-in comic?) Clark thinks he overhears someone cry out for Superman, but is distracted by Lois, who wants to investigate their only lead on the story. What he heard was a cry for help from “Superman’s Girlfriend,” who’s been taken hostage by Metallo.

Luckily for Kelly, Lois and Clark just so happen to be checking out Metallo’s houseboat as a part of their investigation (why Clark can no longer hear Kelly’s cries for help, even as he travels closer to her location, makes no sense, honestly.) Metallo bursts out of the houseboat with his hostage, knocks Lois into the water, and is soon at the top of what may or not be Metropolis’ equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge. Or maybe the George Washington Bridge…I’ve been confused ever since the night Gwen Stacy died.

Superman arrives to confront Metallo, and predictably collapses after being exposed to the villain’s Kryptonite heart. Metallo is a victim of his own brutality, however, as a police helicopter he previously knocked out of the sky crashes directly behind him, seemingly killing Metallo in the explosion. Superman rescues the police officers and his “girlfriend,” and Angela Chen rushes in for an interview. Kelly has a chance to come clean, but instead decides to publicly break up with Superman and accuse him of cheating on her with the nearest female…Lois Lane.

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And with that quickie, jokey ending, the story is done. But clearly Metallo isn’t going to die in a tie-in comic, which brings us to “Superman’s Pal,” the February 20, 1999 episode from the show’s final season. It’s written by DC Animated Universe mainstay Robert Goodman and directed by Kazumi Fukushima, one of the Japanese animators brought in after impressing producers with his ability to oversee the full production of an episode. Much like “Be Careful What You Wish For…”, “Superman’s Pal” has Metallo kidnapping an innocent who’s been drawn into the orbit of Superman’s fame as bait to attract the hero. If “Superman’s Pal” is remembered for anything, though, it’s the episode’s designation as Bruce Timm’s least favorite “Superman.”

Some fans were already cool to the episode before Bruce Timm made his proclamation on the third season DVD, but it does seem as if Timm’s dismissal of “Superman’s Pal” invited a new round of criticism. The backlash against the episode then led to a new backlash, with fans proclaiming that “Superman’s Pal” was getting a bum rap. So, is “Superman’s Pal” really so bad?

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The episode opens inside the Daily Planet, as the audience is introduced to intern Tina, a punky blonde with a “thing for metal.” Lois has taken Tina under her wing, while the insecure Jimmy Olsen harbors a crush. Clark advises Jimmy to ask Tina out, but he reveals that she’s rejected him twice already. Later, the Daily Planet staff learns that they’re only a few feet away from the latest televised car chase. While Superman is busy apprehending the criminal driver, reporter in the sky Angela Chen (she’s back!) orders her pilot to get closer to the action. This inadvertently causes a crash with another chopper, and a bridge collapse. After Superman takes care of the mess created by Angela, he’s in no mood to give her a statement on anything.

Jimmy Olsen is still around, though, and in her desperation for an interview with anyone, Chen begins bombarding Jimmy with questions. His answers are edited, heavily, in a scene reminiscent of Homer’s interview in the “Simpsons” episode “Homer Badman.” Jimmy’s words are twisted so that he now comes across as a close confidant of Superman’s…or at the very least, his pal.

The news broadcast makes Jimmy an overnight celebrity, drawing the attention of Tina. Jimmy quickly grows uncomfortable with his celebrity status, but he’s excited to finally have Tina’s attention. On one of their early dates, Jimmy is accosted by a thug whose brother was apprehended by Superman, which leads to Superman making a personal appearance that saves Jimmy’s life.

Eventually, after growing more exasperated with his fame, Jimmy is pursued by a Beatles-level mob of young females. Tina offers to take him to her private place, a small trailer onsite of a junkyard. She also reveals that she really is “into metal” — Tina is Metallo’s lover, and her interest in Jimmy has been a sham from the beginning. In fact, Lois was the intended target, but Tina found her too clever for the plan. Tina screams a phony cry for help, attracting Superman’s attention. Within a few minutes, Jimmy faces off against Tina, who’s a better fighter than he could hope to be, while Metallo ambushes Superman.

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Eventually, Jimmy is able to trap Tina inside a closet and use a conveniently located car battery to save Superman from Metallo’s Kryptonite heart. After the criminals are taken to jail, Superman reaffirms to a disheartened Jimmy that they are truly pals, and offers him a signal watch to call for help whenever he’s in trouble.

superman

Okay, is this the worst “Superman” had to offer? At the risk of sounding contrarian for the sake of it, I would argue that the episode doesn’t deserve its reputation. Visually, the episode isn’t on the level of the best Japanese-produced shows (like “World’s Finest”), but it does look nicer than most of the episodes from the American directors. I’d say a good half of the first season doesn’t look as good as “Superman’s Pal,” so I don’t think critics can truly use the animation as a valid complaint. Regarding the plot, it does move along steadily, and more than a few of the jokes land. Jimmy’s cut-up interview, and the response of his coworkers, is genuinely funny.

Robert Goodman has spoken earlier on the DVD commentaries about the importance of stories that are actually about something, and not merely conflict/resolution. As silly as the episode might be at times, it does have a clear character arc for Jimmy. He’s lonely, rejected by his new crush, and the only exciting aspect of his life (his connection to Superman) is exploited by an unscrupulous journalist, turning his world upside down. After facing a second rejection from Tina, Jimmy bolsters his self-esteem by saving his superhero pal, and receives a final confirmation that they are truly friends. Really, the entire episode has personality. I believe this is the only time Angela Chen is given more than two lines, and the viewer learns she’s not that great a person. Superman finds himself irritated by Angela’s sloppy journalism, which enables him to display more emotion than we normally get out of him in this series. Lois doesn’t play a large role in the story, but she has a few decent quips, and a wonderfully indignant reaction to Angela’s dishonest report. I suppose you could argue that there isn’t much depth to Tina, but truthfully, the twist that she’s Metallo’s girlfriend did surprise me the first time I watched the episode. I also admire just how mean the producers were willing to play the character.

The Wrap-Up

 

Design-y

I love this specific panel from “Superman Adventures” #2. It’s moody in a way that doesn’t quite fit the aesthetic of the animated series, but it’s a great image.

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Continuity Notes

“Superman’s Pal” provides the animated continuity’s origin for Jimmy’s famous signal watch. The watch later appeared in both “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited.”

Over the Kiddies’ Heads

I should mention that this is the episode that features Lois’ somewhat notorious “I gotta start wearing pants!” line, after Superman flies past and inadvertently blows her skirt up. The truth is, Lois’ skirt was played ridiculously short in the series, and I personally found the joke funny enough to justify the brief fourth-wall break. I was also stunned that the impracticality of Lois’ outfit was acknowledged at all on the series.

Battle of the New, One-Off Female Characters Who Exist Mostly to Drive the Plot Forward

While I appreciate McCloud’s efforts to humanize Kelly and justify why she’s willing to lie about her relationship with Superman, I personally find Tina more interesting as a character. Again, I like the fact that she’s just nasty, while not really crossing the line into generic super-villainy. Also, the design is nice — Tina has the pixie quality of many of the Timm females of this era, but seems to have more personality. Overall, in spite of its reputation, I consider “Superman’s Pal” more entertaining than “Be Careful What You Wish For…” even though McCloud deserves some credit for getting to this idea almost three years before the cartoon.

That’s all for this installment.  If you have any suggestions for future Adventure(s) Time entries, just let me know in the comments, or on Twitter.

“Yeah, Shut Up.” on Noisetrade || Not Blog X || Twitter || The (David) Milch Studies on Real Gentlemen of Leisure

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