DC’s trinity has seen better days. While Batman remains quite popular, profitable, with his reach extending to making family books like Red Robin and others successful, Superman and Wonder Woman have struggled to varying degrees including their satellite books. Is there a lesson to be learned from the success of Batman? Maybe. Is it directly transferable? Maybe. The BatMAN aspect of things may just be the ticket.
Too Much “Super” in Superman?
As a kid, I naturally gravitated to the fantasy and wonder of Superman more than I did Batman. I bought and read about both heroes sporadically from the corner store spinner (back when decompressed storytelling and writing for the eventual trade paperback wasn’t the norm; back when you could actually miss an issue or two and not be bewildered when you rejoined your favourite hero’s exploits). However, as I got older Superman became harder to relate to. He was all powerful and could move mountains. While I could enjoy his feats of strength, I didn’t “get” him in the way I could relate to the very human (and “limited”) Batman. Superman feats of strength, visits to alien worlds, etc. got a bit passé after a while. How many times could a very human Lex Luthor outsmart the alien powerhouse? How many times could Mister Mxyzptlk pop by and be foiled in the same way?
That’s why when John Byrne upended the franchise in 1986, with his Man of Steel mini-series and later with work on the Superman and Action Comics titles, making Superman more unique, alone, and more vulnerable, he started to become a bit more accessible. He searched for his identity in a world where he was the only survivor from the doomed planet Krypton. That feeling of loss mixed with survivor’s guilt mixed with a thirst of knowledge was something many readers could understand in a way that racing a training on foot and winning we couldn’t. He also tried hard to fit into life in Smallville being “different” and even transitioning to Metropolis where he yearned to be accepted by his Daily Planet newspaper peers and capture the eye of one Lois Lane… as “human” colleague Clark Kent not as the super-powered Superman.
And then, Superman died and we realized that we missed him and appreciated him more when he wasn’t around than when he was. Naturally, he returned to the living, but DC’s attempts to make him more engaging was marked (or marred?) by very superficial tactics from letting his grow to wardrobe and power changes, etc. It wasn’t about the “man” in Superman. It was always about the “super”. And when he got married to Lois Lane it felt less organic and felt very rushed to tie into the wedding of the Lois and Clark TV show.
However, since that time, DC has done so much to remake Superman into his Silver Age persona and all-powerful forsaking his marriage and all those around him in a fashion. How long can Lois Lane really tolerate his extended stays on New Krypton (1 year) and now a walk across the U.S. in JMS’ grounded (likely another year at least)? All the efforts to humanize Superman through marriage, a job at the Daily Planet, and connections with colleagues and non-powered friends seem to be back-seat distractions at best. However, in the real world our spouses, employers and friends are not so forgiving when we turn our backs on them in deed or word.
How much “Wonder” is there in Wonder Woman?
I really didn’t get that into Wonder Woman lore in comic form until George Perez’s relaunch of her title in 1986, however I was a fan of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman TV series in the late 1970s. Not being a female, I always had difficulty as a boy relating to the comic book character as well showing your male friends you were reading about Wonder Woman would open you to ridicule in a way that reading Green Lantern wouldn’t.
That said, what attracted to me to her in print form was George Perez’s awesome art and mythology heavy story-telling. The latter part of that equation, I know, isn’t as much of a selling point to others.
That said, George did try to make her a bit accessible by tying her to a very human Greek family which helped her manoeuvre and better understand “Man’s World”. However, like with Superman, what attracted readers was likely a hot creator, her costume, or some of her larger-than-life smash-up story arcs.
Beyond some of the Perez issues, I wasn’t a regular reader, unless there was a cross-over that would seem interesting as it related to her (War of the Gods was one I think) or another creator intrigued me, e.g. John Byrne, and some of his JSA related and other work through his run.
However, like with Superman in the 1990s where after his death others assumed his mantle or with Batman being replaced after his back was broken, DC tried that with Wonder Woman too with Artemis becoming THE Wonder Woman for a time. DC banked on us missing Diana as Wonder Woman and it worked for a time, but when Diana nestled back into her role, the downward spiral of interest continued.
JMS takes SuperMAN on a Stroll
JMS knows how to get people talking. He’s sending Superman on a walk across America where he’s Grounded so that he can reconnect with his adopted country and we can see him as his countrymen see him. And, he’s also changing Wonder Woman’s past, her costume, and sending her on an Odyssey that is intended to make the character more accessible, contemporary, and show us why she matters.
Now, Superman has achieved far greater success in the medium than Wonder Woman. The accessibility problem to fix with him isn‘t as extensive as with Wonder Woman.
However, the recent New Krypton arc and War of the Supermen continued DC’s focus on the all-powerful Superman at the expense of the accessible Superman. In fact, DC likely banked on removing him from Action Comics and the Superman comic hoping absence would make our hearts grow fonder. The only problem was that DC still saturated the market with a year-long New Krypton book featuring Superman on that planet. Although the book had some dynamic covers and explored New Krypton’s and Superman’s (sorry I mean “Kal-El’s”) relationship with Thanagar (home of the Hawkpeople), Saturn (home of Jemm), etc, it really failed to be a smaller more human story that contrasted the values of a Kansas-raised boy with the detached alien Kryptonians. There were glimpses, but even as sci-fi epic the World of New Krypton book failed to live up to the standards set by books like the Tony Bedard penned R.E.B.E.L.S.
During this time DC also made the mistake of casting Nightwing and Flamebird as really uninteresting Kryptonians in Action Comics. That book is in far better hands with Paul Cornell and featuring Lex Luthor… a well known and relatable Superman human rogue.
And, with self-titled Superman comic where DC previously spotlighted Mon-El (an almost Superman-level powerhouse hero), although a fitting move, readers knew it would be short-lived with the character eventually becoming a Legionnaire in the 31rst Century. Also, in I believe one panel, all of Mon-el’s hair and costume changes were erased, which was probably DC’s acceptance that they bungled the whole Year of New Krypton and changes to the Action Comics and Superman books.
Now, JMS has come in and fix the franchise. And, he’s swing wildly to the left from the extreme right-field of the last year. We go from detached alien-world bound Superman to a grounded Superman with feet firmly to the Earth (for moments in time). Now, there are some “outs” already in this story, namely that Superman will need to save people across Earth and on other worlds, so he’ll need to fly off and do that, BUT he’ll always go back to where he last stopped on his walk across America to continue his tour of the U.S.A. Ok, while that all sounds ludicrous, I do think JMS does deserve a letter credit for being a risk taker. The question is really going to be can he capture what I would term the “John Byrne” magic of yesteryear that characterized the first year on Byrne’s Superman run where he struck a balance between humanizing Superman, but also exploring his powers and inter-relations with some sci-fi heavies like the Legion of Super-Heroes. Time will tell.
Let’s give JMS the benefit of the doubt. JMS has gotten comic fans and external media attention, so perhaps there are some satisfying surprises in store.
JMS embraces Wonder WOMAN’s inner-prude
Gail Simone, one of DC’s top creative talents and writer on two books that I adore, namely Secret Six and Birds of Prey, had an interesting recent run on Wonder Woman. There were decent artists on the book over the run too including Nicola Scott. However, I understand that despite how good those issues were, they did not set the market ablaze nor bring the numbers of readers DC felt the book should have. As such, DC needed to consider how to bolster interest in the iconic Wonder Woman. Enter JMS… and Jim Lee.
No matter how good a writer Gail Simone is, DC’s handling of Wonder Woman over recent years had tainted the franchise. This includes the Amazon Attacks event that pitted the DCU against Amazons in a truly uneventful mini-series with little lasting impact. And now, JMS comes in and changes her past which leads to a very different today for Wonder Woman in the DCU. The Olympians have withdrawn their support of the Amazons some time in the last 20 years. Diana is smuggled off of Paradise Island , which is destroyed, leaving the Amazons dead or dispersed across the globe. Diana grows up very differently in an urban setting and has a more practical costume designed by comic superstar and DC co-publisher Jim Lee.
While much of this hardly an original premise, and DC seems to have a lot of time travel going on recently (e.g. Booster Gold series, upcoming Time Masters series, Batman: the Return of Bruce Wayne, and now Wonder Woman), it will put Diana on a different journey and hopefully have us realize what about Wonder Woman we really should admire, respect, and miss. Out of the all this DC intends to revitalize the character and franchise. DC and JMS admitted as much in an interview, I don’t recall where, during which time JMS praised Gail Simone’s work on Wonder Woman and seemed to cite it as being good for fanboys and existing readers, but cited the need for someone like him to bring in a brighter media spotlight and resulting interest to the character.
Time will tell with this too whether this more grounded Wonder Woman will appeal to readers, new and old, and in a sustained way.
Make your views INFORMED ones
While these changes, particularly with Wonder Woman, seem jarring, they are nowhere near as outrageous and misplaced as the recasting recently of Green Arrow as a bloodthirsty murderer. THAT was totally out-of-character.
In contrast, the journey with Superman seems to be on is an evolution from recent events, and with Wonder Woman JMS has changed the past so it’ll be a test to see if Diana grows up differently or whether she will have the same moral code, and other virtues, as she did as the Wonder Woman we’ve known in-continuity for the last 25 years or so.
If you are lapsed Wonder Woman fans and are angered by these changes, don’t be. If you had been supporting Gail Simone’s run we might have had a different outcome today. You can’t expect the character and series to stay static when fans don’t buy the book. If you want to complain, read the first few issues and see what you think. At least then, your views will be informed ones. You might even like the book.
In terms of lapsed Superman fans, same goes for you. Read the book and make up your mind then.
For fans who have stuck with both characters through thick and thin, you are already used to the rollercoaster DC editorially has put you on. You are the best judge of whether these changes and stories are “true” to the essence of the characters and I know you’ll at least sample these new runs before rushing to judgement.
I fall somewhere between the lapsed fan or “frequent vistor” categories. With few exceptions, my sampling of books featuring Wonder Woman or Superman in recent years have been arc-based decisions. If the arc looked interesting, I’d try it. If I liked it, I’d see the arc through. To that end, I will be trying the Wonder Woman arc and a few issues of JMS’ Superman to see what the buzz is about.
That said, on the super-front, I’m really jazzed about Paul Cornell’s Lex Luthor centric Action Comics arc.
Throwing Back to the Past
And, since this column is about Superman and Wonder Woman, I thought I’d leave you with this classic in-continuity moment (Post-Crisis on Infinite Earths, but pre-INFINITE Crisis). 😉
Cheers and thanks for reading.
Tags: Jim Lee, JMS, One Fan's Trials, Superman, Wonder Woman