Reviews of two of this week's more notable comics.
Tomorrow Stories Special #1: I never was a huge fan of Tomorrow Stories; Greyshirt aside, the features didn't do much for me (not even that inexplicable fan darling, Jack B. Quick). But now the gradual closing down of the America's Best Line, and my continued interest in Rick Veitch's work on Greyshirt, and a little more disposable income (it's nice, being out of grad school) have conspired to purchase two Tomorrow Stories features, the Greyshirt and Cobweb ABC A-Z and the first Tomorrow Stories Special.
The latter features three stories by Alan Moore, and as such is the main attraction. The book includes two of the better Jack B. Quick and Splash Brannigan tales, but its high point is "A Greyshirt Primer," a Will Eisner tribute done in the style of the "primers for adults" that occasionally graced the pages of The Spirit and chock full of visual quotations from that strip and other works from across Eisner's career. I suppose the Eisner tributes have been coming thick and fast this past year, but with good reason; this one stands out because Veitch replicates the visual inventiveness that has endeared Eisner to so many comics artists and fans.
It's also a chance to revisit some of Eisner's finest works: Max's Candy and adjoining stoop from "Ten Minutes," the underground sewer world of "Life Below" (a missed opportunity to do a little "Slippery Eall" homage there, I'm afraid), the first-person viewpoint from "The Killer," Gerhard Shnobble, the alien agent from "The Visitor," P'Gell, Dr. Cobra, Mr. Carrion, Commissioner Dolan, the Octopus (lovely panel, that one), P.S., the characters of "A Contract with God," a street teeming with faces from the graphic novels, and Wildwood Cemetery. Even Ebony is there, his problematic aspects not swept under the carpet but cast as a kind of tragedy. It's a truly heartfelt tribute that can acknowledge its subject's mistakes and still come across as a love letter. I've already read this one three times and will doubtless come back many more.
I wish every homage worked so well. Steve Moore pens a Cobweb story that suffers from two insurmountable problems. It duplicates, sometimes word for word, the Cobweb calendar pin-up from last week's A-Z, rendering one or the other superfluous. But this story would be mistaken even if it were one of a kind. Cobweb was supposed to be an homage to the racy heroines of comics' respectably disresputable Golden Age, but Moore's story reads like one of those Silver Age DC tales where Superman has to solve a birthday mystery in the Fortress of Solitude or Batman takes a tour of his collection of costumes. He's homaging the wrong stuff, forcing salacious cheesecake into the story structure of a prepubescent Wayne Boring comic.
Even worse, some of the references are just plain embarrassing. Alan Moore's attempts at comedy can sometimes feel too programmed, generating mild amusement at the concept rather than laughter on the page. I feel like Steve Moore is replicating that in his Cobweb stories, crafting jokes that are twice removed from unforced comedy. Not that I'd call them "cerebral," either. Namely: Cobweb has a wall of specialized weapons, like Batman's bat-gear or Green Arrow's arrows--but they're all dildos. She's got an annoying imp friend named Cob-Mite, because Moore couldn't be bothered to come up with two new syllables. Her secret weakness is chocolatite, because every superhero needs one and every gal goes nuts for chocolate am I right, fellas? Huh? And it makes her fat! And of course the stuff comes in giant ant's head varieties, because every superhero has a kryptonite analogue that comes in giant ant's head varieties, because it's 2005 and our comics have been homaging the same two characters for the last ten fucking years. "Doom Date of the Dusk Duo!" is the cold dead end of nostalgia, its ironically retro Silver Age title included. Let's put it to rest, please.
The story ends with an homage of a different sort: Cobweb and Clarice declaring their (marginally) forbidden love for one another in the midst of a villain's deathtrap. It reads like a pivotal scene from Robert Mayer's Superfolks. I suppose you could argue that's a kind of Alan Moore tribute...
All-Star Superman #1: A much more original and appropriate spirit of homage pervades the week's most exciting comic; the first issue of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman reads like a love letter to Christopher Reeve's version of the character. Quitely draws Clark Kent as a stumbling goofball, equal in bulk to Superman (of course) but perpetually hunched over in a slouch as he stumbles over Lana Lang's handbag or his own disarranged sheaf of papers. The difference in body language and behavior reminds me of Reeve's portrayal, especially when we see that there's a method to Clark's maladroitness: my favorite moment in this comic--and it has plenty of competition--is when Clark slams into a fellow pedestrian, knocks him off his feet, and quite covertly saves his life. Clark's clumsiness isn't just a ruse or a private joke, it's a way of doing Superman's job without breaking out the costume, and something about that reminds me of Reeve's similarly humane interpretation of the character.
In fact, the whole production takes on a seventies vibe--not by plundering the Salkinds' production design for Krypton, the mistake Byrne made in his rehash of the character, but by resurrecting the state of grace from the Elliot S. (sorry, S!) Maggin comics that were contemporaneous with the movie. We've got a sexpot Lana Lang, a Steve Lombard (I presume) who's hitting on Lois, a Lex Luthor who concocts grand planet-shaking schemes on nothing more than vanity and hubris. Morrison's written a good Luthor since his days on JLA, but this take in particular shows a strong Maggin influence.
So what separates this from the ossified nostalgia of the Cobweb stories? Only that you don't need to have read any of those comics or seen the first Superman movie to get the joke. In fact, there's no joke to get, another point in Morrison and Quitely's favor. The seventies elements don't exist to reference old stories but to build a brand-new continuity that's already complete, and yet accessible to anybody. As Jog and his commenters remark, the comic's implications of a history of untold stories lend a feeling of lived-in-ness to a book that wastes no more than four panels and eight words retelling us what we already know.
That admirably abbreviated opening isn't the only indication that these stories have one foot firmly planted in the realm of myth. Everything is slightly magnified, from a Metropolis with flying mass-transit cars (watch out for falling mufflers) to the philanthropist Superman saves in a daring opening rescue; he isn't just any old industrialist, he's Willy Wonka in all but name. And Lex, of course, is driven by a jealousy, a fear, and an ego that all play out on a stellar scale.
It's interesting, and very indicative of Morrison's storytelling, that his Luthor has fundamentally the same motivation as earlier versions, even the depressingly mundane Wolfman/Byrne "fat man in a suit" incarnation, but he pursues them with an inventiveness and a grandiosity that set him apart from his predecessor, elevating him to the level of the primally hateful archvillain of the sixties and seventies. Byrne's Luthor was merely petty; Morrison's fancies himself equal to a hero of mythological proportions, he wants to best that hero, and in trying to do so he manages to magnify himself up to those proportions, a little.
Luthor gets exactly what he wants in this first issue, setting up a terrific premise for Morrison and Quitely's twelve-issue arc. I won't spoil it for you. I'll only say that it provides an opportunity to do something with Superman that hasn't been done in a while: tell some new stories. It also leads up to a novel twist on a rather old story (about fifteen years old, I believe), presented as if it were the first time. That freshness, that sense of dusting off the classic elements and polishing them until they look reinvigorated, should make All-Star Superman an enjoyable comic for new and old fans of the world's first and greatest superhero.