Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Comics Review: Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Alan Moore & Curt Swan, et al.

If there was ever a story that Alan Moore could be considered a pair of hands on, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? may be the one. By all accounts, the story concept was worked out in advance. In the mid-1980s, DC Comics had hired a popular cartoonist to reboot Superman, and the outgoing editor, Julius Schwartz, decided to leave with a bang. His final issues of the two ongoing Superman series, Superman and Action Comics, would feature a two-part series finale. The story would tie off every continuing narrative thread in the strip. Superman's relationships with Lois Lane, his friends, and his assorted enemies would be resolved once and for all. According to Schwartz, Moore, whose quality scriptwriting was fast making him an industry darling, lobbied hard for the assignment and received it. It was a story written to specifications, and given Schwartz's reputation for hands-on editing of scripts, it was may have been substantially rewritten after Moore turned his draft in.

As such, the story is not a piece one comes to with high expectations. The likely writing-by-committee aspects of its creation aside, it was intended as a going-away present to fans of Schwartz's run, and that sort of thing usually has an in-group quality that makes a story alienating, if not incomprehensible. The surprise of Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is how accessible and affecting it is. One may not be familar with many of the characters, or the assorted references to preceding stories, but one finds it doesn't matter. Schwartz and Moore quickly and deftly lay out the relationships of the various characters, and they find the pathos in the material as well.

The story begins with Lois Lane, now married and with a baby boy, giving an interview to a reporter. It's several years in the future, and she's asked to recall Superman's last days. The events she describes are a whirlwind of tumult and death. Superman is revealed to the world as Clark Kent, both friends and enemies turn up dead or are killed, and Superman must face the realization that these are his final days. He soon discovers that everything that has happened has been manipulated by his most dangerous enemy, and their final confrontation forces him to make a choice: abandon his principles as Superman, or see Lois Lane die. He saves her, but Superman can be no more.

As can be seen in another story, "For the Man Who Has Everything..." (review here), Moore sees Superman as an odd, even unhealthy personality. He's incapable of embracing happiness or becoming close to others. His emotional commitments are to abstractions, such as the legacy of Krypton, the homeworld he never knew, or the "ideal" of Superman. He's all about aggrandizing himself, not finding fulfillment, in his relationships with others. The drama in Whatever Happened comes from the conflict between the two impulses. It's implicit that Superman has always fancied himself as a savior to others, but the events in the story challenge this view of himself, and he has to face the fact that being Superman has opened his loved ones to the danger they presently face. This leads to him acknowledging the emotional pain he's caused by keeping them at arm's length. In the story's most poignant moment, he calls himself a coward, berating himself for letting others waste their love on him and messing up their lives. He's chosen the ideal of Superman at their expense. It's a powerful set-up for the climax, where he chooses to save Lois, the person he loves most, at the price of that ideal. Schwartz and Moore give the character a fittingly ironic ending: his heroism comes when he casts the ideal of Superman aside.

It's a remarkably subversive treatment of the character, and it may seem more typical of Moore than Schwartz, whose approach to costumed superheroes was about as traditional as they come. (Schwartz was a key definer of the traditions.) But if I had to choose between Schwartz and Moore as the principal author of the story, I'd choose Schwartz. The plot-heavy, first-this-then-that story structure is a Schwartz hallmark, as is the elegantly composed, cleanly rendered art (provided by Curt Swan with inking by George Pérez and Kurt Schaffenberger). The only thing about the story that's typical of Moore is the against-the-grain treatment of Superman, but Schwartz was too fastidious an editor to let something like that through if he hadn't been sympathetic to it. He certainly wouldn't have otherwise let a character say, without challenge, "Superman? He was overrated, and too wrapped up in himself. He thought the world couldn't get along without him." The story was conceived as Julius Schwartz's swan song, and that should be its legacy.

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