Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Comics Review: Superman: "For the Man Who Has Everything," Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alan Moore’s 1980s superhero stories are frequently constructed around critiques of the superhero genre. They take an especially cutting view of the escapist and nostalgic impulses that are typical of superhero protagonists. When confronted with a character who seems devoted to a rosy view of the past, often in rejection of one’s present circumstances, Moore’s response is to pull the rug out from under that character’s fantasies. His 1985 Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything...,” produced in collaboration with Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, is perhaps his most overt use of this thematic approach. (The story was originally published in Superman Annual #11 (1985). It has been reprinted in the collection DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.)

The story’s taking-off point is Superman’s birthday. Batman, Wonder Woman, and a novice replacement Robin named Jason Todd meet outside the Fortress of Solitude, Superman’s Arctic retreat. Once inside, they discover a catatonic Superman with a strange plant wrapped around his chest. It’s gradually revealed that the plant immerses anyone it bonds with in a fantasy of their heart’s desire. It is part of an attack on Superman by an alien villain. The scenes in the Fortress of Solitude are intercut with Superman’s imagining of his life on his home planet of Krypton if it had never exploded.

Like Snoopy in his daydream battles with the Red Baron, Superman finds no satisfaction in his fantasy world. He’s content with his imagined wife and children, but his being the son of Jor-El undermines his happiness. The fantasy Jor-El, once Krypton’s leading scientist, was permanently discredited when his predictions that Krypton would explode turned out wrong. He’s become a reactionary crank and radical-group leader who’s estranged from most of his family, and he castigates his son for being a terrible disappointment to him. Worse, Jor-El’s invention of the Phantom Zone banishment for criminals decades earlier is viewed by many as a means of torture. As a result, a fringe protest group has targeted members of Jor-El’s family for violent attacks. After Superman’s cousin is hospitalized after an assault, he and his family are forced to flee the city where they live. The heart’s desire of Krypton’s survival becomes a nightmare.

Moore constructs the story so that engagement with the circumstances of one’s present life constitutes a triumph. On the one hand, Superman cannot escape the villain’s clutches until he rejects the fantasy of Krypton’s survival. On the other hand, the villain is defeated by the one character who consistently engages with the reality around him, no matter what anxieties or frustrations it holds. Superman isn’t the hero of “For the Man Who Has Everything...” The Jason Todd Robin is. Moore opens the story by showing how intimidated Jason is by everything he encounters. He doesn’t know what to make of Wonder Woman’s brief outfit, he feels embarrassed by his failure to remember one of Superman’s powers, and he’s all but unnerved by Superman’s catatonia and the alien’s attack. But he ultimately overcomes his fears. Through his own initiative, he manages to contain the alien plant, and it is he who defeats the alien villain. He lacks the older heroes’ assurance and skill, but he’s not hobbled by their illusions, either. His courage and determination allow him to take advantage of a serendipitous moment and prevail.

The story’s moral about the desirability of rejecting fantasy outlets is a pleasant one, but it feels a little too pat in execution. In a rather heavy-handed metaphor, Moore has Batman’s birthday present, a specially-bred rose called the Krypton, crushed underfoot during the battle with the alien. When Superman is told, he says, “Perhaps it’s for the best.” And Moore isn’t able to create enough emotional resonance with the scenario to make it feel like much more than a better-than-average superhero story.

On the other hand, I appreciated Moore’s implicit view of Superman as someone who cannot avoid being dissatisfied with what life presents him. This is what led him to fetishize a homeworld he never knew, and it’s what enables to him to escape the alien’s fantasy prison. Moore underscores Superman's inevitable dissatisfaction with his circumstances during the exchange between him and Wonder Woman in the story’s epilogue. She kisses him, and he replies with, “Mmm. Why don’t we do that more often?” She jokes that it would be too predictable, to which he resignedly says, “You’re probably right.” Something in him resists real-life happiness when it presents itself. (One can read this tendency in his traditionally frustrated romance with Lois Lane.) In real life, it’s a psychological block characteristic of adolescents, and it represents something to grow out of. It’s fitting that Moore, whose work with costumed heroes has done the most to transcend the genre's adolescent appeal, should be the one to highlight, however subtly, the presence of that tendency in one of the greatest adolescent fantasy figures of all.

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