Roadblocks sighted on the path to transfiguration.

*Very interesting that these two very different books, both released today, are so very much alike. It's all in the telling, of course.

All Star Superman #3


In which the superhero of the title tries gamely to use his abilities to constructive, progressive ends, even when confronted with lesser, irresponsible forces that seek only violence and selfish things. The superhero triumphs, but not entirely.

Faithful readers of this fun superhero series will be pleased to note that this latest issue does not terminate the title’s standing as a fun superhero series - actually, this is probably the most purely entertaining issue yet, certainly the funniest. It’s another spin at the old Lois ’n Clark relationship, with Superman asked to engage in great feats to ‘win’ Lois’ heart away from some powerful new suitor or two. Of course, these days Lois must initially blanch at the concept of anyone ‘winning’ a lady’s hand, but her ultimately bemused reaction to it all nicely tracks writer Grant Morrison’s own posture: sure, it’s silly, but why can’t we enjoy silly things? Especially silly things as old as this, dating back to ancient myth - as Lois herself confides, “Superman, please, we both know you’ll win any contest these losers can dream up. It’s my birthday! Have some fun.” And thus, fun is had with classic concepts.

But Superman also wants to have fun on his terms. Pay close attention in this issue; just as Superman took every opportunity possible to help people in issue #1 (even ‘bumping into’ a man while disguised as Clark Kent in order to rescue the fellow from a falling hunk of metal), here Superman exclusively uses his powers in nonviolent ways. This stands in contrast to Samson and Atlas, a pair of haughty, archetypical supermen of lore, who constantly use their own amazing powers for personal gain and combat. Thus, when Samson tosses a villain clear out into space to demonstrate his might to Lois, Superman uses his super-speed to save the baddie from certain oxygen-free doom. The rogue in question is the bead-wearing Krull, son of the brilliantly-named Dino-Czar Tyrannko, who lives at the center of the earth where tensions are high and there’s not too many backgrounds for penciler Frank Quitely to draw - it turns out the rebellious reptile was goaded into action by Samson and Atlas. Another problem soon arises when the Ultrasphinx of the First Dynasty of Atom-Hotep shows up looking for some jewels S&A jacked, again to delight Lois - the older men of steel instantly presume fighting is in the cards (why not? they started it, so they expect it!) but Superman uses his brain. Even the jewels themselves are violent - their radiation would easily kill Lois if not of the super-science of our enlightened modern man of myth.

The trouble ends thanks to thinking, and maybe Superman’s own sensitivity to his and Lois’ relationship - Lois later asks Superman what attracts him to her, but what else can as unstoppable an inquisitive force as Lois do when meeting the immovable might of the Man of Steel, but surrender to their emotions? As usual, Morrison also tosses in a lighter possible source for the riddle’s answer, just as he keeps his play with super-tropes as deft as possible. Surely the lines are better than ever; for my favorite, it has to be a tie between “I swear by the everlasting snows of Olympus, Lois Lane, you’re practically dripping allure in yon clinging garment.” and “We’ll dine al fresco on triceratops bourgignon in the twilight of the Cretaceous Era, then end the evening with drinks at the crucifixion.” There’s more great cameos by the Daily Planet gang, including the increasingly awesome Jimmy Olsen, who kills me by just standing around, so great is Quitely’s design - never mind how hairy-chested man’s man Steve Lombard looks like Ron Jeremy in profile.

And yet, there’s a definite sense of wistful resignation to it all. Superman tries to make Lois his equal for the day, but he still has to rescue her from danger. She still doesn’t quite accept the whole Clark Kent thing, and she’s clearly a bit miffed over the lack of trust on display. Superman still can’t get the big questions out. And most pertinently, he can’t even remain non-violent. In the end, he finally relents to a battle of strength with his oafish ‘rivals,’ and instantly mops the floor with them. But he stoops down to their level, to beat them their way - he does it primarily for Lois, sure, but maybe there’s some recognition here that for all the magnificent things he can manage, Superman still needs to kick a bit of ass at the end of the day.

But hey - it’s Superman, right? There’s demands on this genre!

And even if Superman doesn’t quite get what he wants, the play of kissing on the moon and rocks cracking off of invulnerable heads reacts to Superman’s good nature, a universe too sweet to not love his efforts, and thus the landscape of faces and skyscrapers speaks for itself.

Iron Man #6


In which the superhero of the title tries gamely to use his abilities to constructive, progressive ends, even when confronted with lesser, irresponsible forces that seek only violence and selfish things. The superhero triumphs, but not entirely.

Many moons after it started, writer Warren Ellis draws to a close his relaunch of the man in the metal suit. It always seemed like the most applicable vehicle amidst Marvel properties for some of Ellis’ typical concerns, and surely such notions were validated by the actual story. Much like in the world of Planetary, potentially good technologies are being put to very bad uses, and the seemingly roguish yet ultimately good-hearted hero must utilize his tremendous skill to save everything for everyone. Iron Man in particular wants to turn his weapon-developing ways toward creating things that will promote humankind rather than letting it obliterate itself more efficiently, but he’s confronted by a nasty foe who’s literally taken new technologies inside him to promote violent revenge. In response (and out of necessity), Iron Man also internalizes fresh advancements, and that leads us to this concluding issue.

It’s primarily action, which is good news for artist Adi Granov, as he’s proven himself over these six issues to be most adept at that. There’s many instances of things exploding, energy crackling, crushing blow after crushing blow, a nice little trip through a building - Iron Man is working for peace, but he’s not Superman, so he needs to fight hard. Still, he bends over backwards to not kill his foe, utterly desperate to convince himself that he hasn’t just gone and cooked up yet another means of destruction.

He might be trying to convince us too; by the end of last issue, this reader couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Tony’s nebulous chatter about higher ideals wasn’t just poking out uninterestedly from a fog of better ways to punch things. Fortunately, Ellis makes such concerns the focus of this issue, explicitly positioning the villain as Iron Man’s double, though not a funny mythological one - now that both of these contemporary men have internalized new science, they can act as symbols for the different ways in which the future can go: hateful murders or force without undue venom. Unfortunately, Iron Man can’t really help but resort to one more death, so bad has the situation gotten.

Really, Ellis is doing the very opposite of what Morrison has planned for his own costumed icon - boardroom-bound gun merchant Tony Stark uses his Iron Man armor as a type of freedom, a means of proving himself against the misunderstanding world and becoming a social beacon for a better day. Morrison’s Superman also has improvement on his mind, but it’s in the context of a world that responds well to him. Maybe like the icon itself, Superman hasn’t much to prove, so his struggle goes inward, his failures largely personal. The hazardous, violent outlook of Ellis’ and Granov’s environments don’t allow such posture, and Iron Man must suit up to go outward with his mission. There’s also a final twist in this issue, which serves mainly to pull the themes together tighter; just like in All Star Superman we have a romantic interest who, for her own reasons, plays right into the system, forcing Our Hero to set aside his progressive agenda and do what’s expected.

But hey - it’s Iron Man, right? There’s demands on this genre!

And it’s clear, then, that Iron Man doesn’t quite get what he wants; a head blown off, a corpse kicked, a flirtation snuffed, a pair of gleaming, glowing eyes staring out against a slate gray wall. The antiseptic rooms and cold motivations clash with brightness of the hero’s heart, literal yet again. He must look up, up past us readers, verbally assuring everyone that he’s still trying, and we can't see under the mask to glimpse what face he makes when he says it.