Was reading the recent Superman books over the weekend. (A reminder to the real cynics out there: yes, I still read comic books. Virtually every one that crosses my desk. Part of my job, y’know? Since Bob Schreck took over as editor, I’m even reading BATMAN again.) I guess someone thought it’d be a great idea to make Lex Luthor president of the United States. (Not sure, but I guess he planted his own Squeaky Frome to elicit the sympathy vote.) It might even have been a great idea had Al Gore won the election. But George Bush? Hard to get Luthor across as the evil mother of mothers when the real thing is worse. (Because, after all, he’s real.)
What’s the worst thing Luthor’s done since taking office? Repainted the White House with lead paint so Superman can’t look in. (All these years and Superman still hasn’t figured a way around that?) Meanwhile, he introduces the most comprehensive education program ever, ensures the Justice League will always be funded to need, and appoints Black Lightning secretary of education. (How the hell did he manage to justify the choice of a minor schoolteacher for that level position? Or was there Black Lightning continuity I missed?) Maybe he’s got some secret agenda, or maybe he just wants to win the hearts and minds of the country, but aside from old history, there’s nothing to suggest he’s planning to be openly detrimental to the country.
On the other hand, there’s Dubya, the self-proclaimed “Great Uniter,” who’s not even inaugurated yet, making the surprisingly underreported statement before a collection of rights groups, “You people have to understand we’re the ones in power now and we’re going to do what we want.” (Apparently Dubya thinks “president” is synonymous with “king.”) Who wants to be known as “the law and order president” in an era when crime is way down from the heights it was at during the last Republican administration. Who has stated, in the face of parodies, that there ought to be limits to freedom. Who wants to turn the foreign aid budget entirely over to private groups like Worldvision to dispense, unanswerable, per their own agenda. Whose candidate for secretary of the interior favors the far right (and misnamed) “property rights” movement, at the expense of our national parks. Who’s pushing an extremist attorney general who has proclaimed the king of America is Jesus (I’m sure the Jews, Moslems, Buddhists and Hindus will be happy to hear about that), who cut the legs out from under the appointment of a black judge because the man questioned one death penalty conviction in his entire bench career, who has consistently promoted the most devisive form of states rights against the power of the federal government yet wants to use federal power to universally banish abortion in the country, whose favors for political cronies have been a consistent argument for campaign finances reform, and who, the President-Elect insists is “a model of integrity.” While we get this little song and dance about unity, you can hardly miss the background scritching of power broker knives being sharpened to carve up the government in a frenzy unheard of… well, since the Reagan-Bush era, because, like Reagan, Jr. is going to be perfectly happy to let his amok advisors do his thinking for him, the exact same way he ran his campaign. (And, hanging chads aside, anyone who doesn’t get a considerable jolt of suspicion from the fact that his brother runs the state that squeaked him in just hasn’t been living in this country since 1963.)
Yeah, yeah, I’m a liberal dupe and it’s all propaganda from the mythical “liberal press” blah blah. Don’t even bother writing me about it. It’s not my point. It’s not like anyone who can read a newspaper doesn’t already know all this about George Bush, or that he won’t prove every word of it himself within three months. It’ll be an entertaining couple of years, particularly when the Republicans get routed from Congress in ’02 in a surge of public disgust that’s already been building since November (unless, of course, they mind their p’s and q’s and actually seem to be trying to govern instead of snatching at one last desperate chance to ramrod their narrow, regressive agenda down everyone’s throats), which seems unlikely in a milieu where the man elected by the narrowest margin in the history of the United States has the stones to say he’s going to rule as if he’d received a mandate). Who knows? Maybe he’ll make a fool of me. I really hope so. Doubt it, though. And, trust me, I’m well aware Al Gore would have brought his own vast sea of sickening aspects to the game.
No, my real point is that, in slotting Luthor as a funnybook parallel to Washington politics, DC risks crashing on the shoals of the real world, as comics, particularly superhero comics, so often do. It’d be nice if they have some quick, exciting way out of it. I mean: here’s a guy, Superman, who’s theoretically the model of decency and the American Way, and his archest enemy, a guy he knows to be corrupt and evil through and through, is now in the highest office in the land, legally elected, and there’s nothing he can do about it. I realize that’s the whole ironic point, but the upshot is: every day Lex Luthor sits in the Oval Office, Superman looks like an impotent dick. Every other hero in the DC Universe looks like an impotent dick too. You telling me The Flash couldn’t make Luther vanish like Jimmy Hoffa if he had a mind to? Fact is any number of those guys could make Luthor just disappear and no one would ever have a clue what really happened as long as they kept their mouths shut. Legally elected? Sure. So was Hitler. Goes back to the old question: if you knew Hitler would do all the evil things he did (and there’s another Superman comic, with some time traveler showing Superman all the evil Luthor’s going to do – just so we can all be sure he’s really an evil guy, I’m sure) would you be justified in killing him before he could do it? Let’s face it: in the Marvel Universe, Luthor wouldn’t last a week. Think the Punisher would give a rat’s ass if the Kingpin were duly elected? Superman started as a guy who solved international crises by dropping dictators from great heights to watch the splatter patterns, but when time came for the country to really face up to Hitler, Clark Kent had to flunk out basic because when real soldiers are dying there’s not a lot you can convincingly have Superman do. In comics Superman could have ended WWII in 1941 but in reality it still would have gone until 1945. Just like ending hunger in comics won’t keep people from starving even though if the job of the superhero is to promote the good of all rather than get into fist fights, ending world hunger would be the first item on the agenda.
There was a brief point where relevance was a big rallying point in comics, and it crashed and burned on one simple precept: superheroes can’t solve real world problems. Or, rather, they can (some readers might remember the original “Superman-Red And Superman-Blue” story, a “full-length novel complete in this issue” from the Mort Weisinger days, where Superman split into two Supermen, ended crime and hunger, cured disease, brought peace, prosperity, amazing scientific advancement and a perfect golden age to all the world – and married both Lana Lang and Lois Lane) (I often wondered if they occasionally switched costumes and went to each other’s homes, since the costumes were the only way to tell them apart) but if they did the result would be so far removed from our world publishers might as well publish sword-and-sorcery comics.
Which I wouldn’t mind seeing, actually. Watching superbeings create utopia and facing new conflicts as a result would be far more interesting than watching the same three conflicts – Man vs. Woman, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. The Empire Brain Building (an admittedly ludicrous Was (Not Was) reference, but it’s for effect) – played ad nauseum throughout book after book. The only comic I can remember doing this in any way resembling seriously was the abortive Miracleman. Marvel’s SQUADRON SUPREME came next closest but ultimately disintegrated into a standard superhero slugfest. Even THE AUTHORITY, which prides itself on taking superheroes to the limit, having them meddle in politics to the point of overthrowing Asian governments and develop cures for cancer (if throwaway comments from cast members can be taken seriously), hasn’t made any apparent real changes to the world they live in. Is it possible to? Despite a semi-separation from other continuity, The Authority still plays in a Wildstorm universe, meaning major changes in that book have to be reflected in all the others or the whole underlying structure of their little world falls apart. Even in THE AUTHORITY, they spend most of their time fighting supervillains.
|“…every day Lex Luthor sits in the Oval Office, Superman looks like an impotent dick.”|
Back in Los Angeles I met a comics fan who made his living writing porn movies for the mob, and he spelled out how similar porn films and superhero comics are. (And that was before “bad girl comics” made 48 D cup heroines de rigeur.) In both, everything revolves around a handful of characters who are really just fetishized body types, both male and female. (I forget who pointed out that gay porn icon and physique fetishist Tom Of Finland was probably the ultimate superhero artist – and his art bears a striking resemblance to much superhero art in print today.) Both exist in their own insular worlds into which real-world concerns barely intrude, and then rarely as anything more than window dressing. “Plots” exist in both only insofar as they’re (usually truncated) springboards to the prerequisite “real action,” and “the money shot.” (In the last couple years, it’s become increasingly common for comics editors to specifically ask for “the money shot” when they want either the big punch that ends the battle or a cheesecake pinup of the heroine.) Both, for their audiences, are basically voyeuristic exercises calculated to allow the viewer to imagine himself a participant in a highly stylized pseudo-world that he could never be a part of even if he were really there.
And both have core audiences – he counted himself among both – that demand a basic sameness in structure, content and payoff from product to product, that bristles at actual change, while demanding a veneer of continually shifting novelty. Despite consistent right-wing warnings on the moral dangers of pornography, in fact while most people find brief doses of pornography titillating they find extended exposure pretty dull. How many variations on sex are there, really? Enough to keep us interested if we’re participants, but not enough to keep us interested for long if we’re only watching. Unless we’re among the particularly obsessed. How many variations on fist fights are there?
Can a fist take down a president of the United States? I don’t know that it has ever been tried in the real world, but I can’t imagine it would be anything permanent. Bullets, sure, but that’s kind of frowned on in any circles not rich and powerful enough to afford a patsy. (In real life, assassination only removes figureheads anyway – here comes the new boss, same as the old boss – and Bush may be the ultimate figurehead president; unlike Luthor, he has no preferable v.p. waiting in the wings.) But in comic books, where any problem worth solving can be solved with a fist?
Now that I think about it, this could have been a really fun storyline. Luthor runs for president, gets elected, nyah-nyah’s Superman but now he’s not a private citizen anymore, he’s a public figure and suddenly everything he’s always been able to sue or threaten people off revealing is all over the tabloids, then all over the “real” papers and the evening news. Because you know that’s the way it would work. Dubya’s history as a partyboy cokehead was carefully excised from the campaign (making you wonder what hidden stuff remains in Gore’s background that would keep the Dems from playing that card) but you can bet it’ll play into the next four years, the way Genifer Flowers kept creeping into the Clinton dialogue. Every little dirty secret of Luthor’s life gets out there, alongside a zillion half-truths and fabrications, and everybody – everybody – in the country overnight figures out he’s just another rat scumbag. His life becomes a total nightmare overnight. Congress – let’s face it, he’s third party so none of them ever liked him anyway – votes overwhelmingly for impeachment. They pass a special one-time resolution, authorized by the Supreme Court, allowing Superman to personally drag Luthor out of the White House by his sorry ass and plop him in Marion prison. Luthor, virtually invulnerable all these years, trashes himself on his own hubris, and truth, justice and the American way triumph without Superman even having to lift a finger. He just stands by, laughing. The whole thing can be over in six months.
It’s conceivable DC will go in this direction. It’s conceivable they’ll figure out a way around the Luthor presidency that doesn’t continue Superman on the long road to feeble doofus. It’s conceivable comics will make an attempt, when trying to be topical, to get ahead of the arc of history instead of six months behind it. It’s conceivable some publisher may even decide to stop pussyfooting around and take a universe totally and entertainingly over the top, since they seem incorrigibly wedded to them. It’s conceivable George Bush will turn out to be the greatest president in the history of the country.
But, as G.K. Chesterton put it, there are likelier things.
Out this week: the next to penultimate X-MAN, #73, and LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE #38’s finale to both the Green Lantern two-parter and the six-part “Traitor Saga” that’s been running on and off for the past couple years. Go buy ’em. I need the money. (I’m sure there are Chaos Comics I’ve done floating around out there too. It’s not that I’m ashamed of them or anything, they just never tell me when the release dates are.)
Speaking of money, I hope this week’s political rant doesn’t send too many of you away for good because some of you may recall “The Hit Campaign,” in which I postulated that enough people checking in on this column each week enough generate enough money that I could forego the main outlets for comics and self-publish, and hopefully you’ll be happy to know that December, while not quite attaining that Elysian goal, was the biggest month for hits ever. Like: we’re finally beyond the lunch money stage. Thanks for your support.
Jonah (the guy who runs Comic Book Resources) and I were batting around the notion of the first bit of MOTO merchandising: MOTO Year Of Blood ’01 t-shirts. It’s far from a given, but anyone interested?
Question Of The Week: What one talent (writer, penciler, inker, editor, colorist, letterer, or any combo thereof – but only one) do you feel is the finest talent working in the industry today? Why?
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.
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