Monday, May 26, 2014

Opening Contract - Superman:Red Son #1

Since the beginning of this column I’ve spoken a few times about the concept of the opening panel and the idea of circularity – where the narrative’s beginning is somehow referenced once more in its closing moments. A perfect example would be the discussion on Jacques Tardi’s West Coast Blues. This time around I’ll be taking things a step further (or at least in a different direction), and discussing the opening of Superman:Red Son in relation to the concept of circularity itself and how it neatly dovetails with one of comics oldest characters, and the genre of superhero comics as a whole.

A word of warning, I’ll be discussing the climax of Red Son and other assorted Superman titles, so spoilers abound after the cut.
Red Son is an Elseworlds story, setting itself in a reality where the rocket carrying Superman crash lands on in a farm in Ukraine in 1938, giving us a Superman who’s all for the communist cause.

Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman starts with Superman’s beginning, and in a sense so does Red Son’s. Its opening panel depicts Metropolis in all of its glory as the sun rises on another day. The Art Deco architecture and the airship in the sky harken back to Superman’s Golden Age origins and his earliest adventures.

But the image is also accompanied by two caption boxes, narration by Superman himself. He describes the growing nervousness amongst the American populace as they come to learn of his existence:
“Even in those dim and distant days, I could hear the insect buzz of a million conversations from California to Metropolis and back again.”
The idea of beginnings is quite evident here – we have the architecture and time period evoking memories of Superman’s earliest adventures, serving to remind us that Superman was one the first, the herald for the coming wave of superhero characters.

Not only that, but the captions here place us into the same position of the average American. Superman is just a voice at this point, a concept, a rumour that’s maybe got out of hand. We don’t get a glimpse of Superman until the fourth page, viewed in black and white as part of a Russian propaganda film on a TV screen (a shout out to George Reeves and/or the early Fleischer cartoons maybe?). In this universe this is how America came to know Superman, their first interactions with him taking the form of nervous chatter and speculation.

These captions perform a similar function, fostering anticipation in us, the reader. Like the citizens of Metropolis and America we’re left waiting (and wanting) for our first look at Superman.

In Red Son, Superman’s actual arrival on Earth is also shown, albeit at the narrative’s climax. The end of the story deals with Superman seemingly sacrificing himself to save the world, leaving Lex Luthor’s vast intellect free to focus his efforts on improving mankind. Luthor expands the average man’s lifespan, dispels diseases, and generally turns the planet into a technological utopia. As the narration lists the great deeds of Luthor’s ancestors we see humanity become a cold and unfeeling race.

As the Sun threatens to destroy the planet, we watch as the last relative of Lex Luthor, one Jor-L, sends his only son shooting into space aboard a rocket. We watch as the ship shoots through a tear in time before it crash lands on a farm in the Ukraine in 1938. We’ve come full circle, the reader finding themselves amidst Superman’s origin story (or at least this universes version of it).

When circularity is used in comics it can be an excellent tool to sell the themes and ideas of the story. We’re trained as readers to pick out familiar images, words and repeat motifs, all combining to show us what’s changed since the story began, or even what's remained the same. But there’s something about circularity that speaks to the nature of storytelling itself. We find it in diagrams explaining the concept of Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey, or even in Dan Harmon’s story embryo. Story, beats, action and structure rise and fall, round and round.

In a way these structures and diagrams of circularity are microcosm’s of superhero comics as a whole. Characters learn, adapt and grow and we start all over again. These structures and stories provide the genre with the illusion of change. These structures have been at the heart of storytelling for centuries, and perhaps that’s why they work so well in superhero comics, the modern day equivalent of the myths of old.

When we look at Superman as a character he’s one of the more traditionally mythological, combining elements of pulp sci-fi and fusing them with more traditional ‘champion’ figures like Samson and Hercules (not Jesus though – don’t even get me started). It could be argued that Superman taps into something more primal than most, something at a base storytelling level, accessing parts of what Campbell called the Monomyth (All-Star Superman very much follows this template).

This may explain why all of the best Superman stories focus on his beginning or his end. John Byrne’s Man Of Steel was a retelling of his origin post-crisis, Mark Waid’s Birthright retold the origin for a modern audience, and Jeph Loeb’s Superman For All Seasons gave us the early days in Smallville. I’ve already mentioned Morrison’s All-Star Superman of course, and there’s also Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened To the Man of Tomorrow?. Even Waid’s twisted iteration of the Superman character from Irredeemable, The Plutonian taps into this idea of a loop or paradox, giving the character a kind of immortality and rebirth at the narrative’s climax.

Red Son taps directly into and exploits this death/birth dichotomy that seems to serve the character so well, giving us the character’s ‘coming out’ to the world, and then his ‘death’ before the whole thing starts over again – a paradox destined to play out over and over.

This is why the opening panel serves as a great gateway into this idea, it hints at a similar omniscience. But it’s only when we get to the end of the story that we understand the totality of this. As the story reaches its conclusion we realise Superman is the one still telling his story long after he has left the public eye, recounting events thousands of years into the future – a constant presence, watching over us all, if only in spirit.

Like the stories that herald him and the panels that contain him, he is forever.

Note: Whilst we're on the subject of endings, it's with a heavy heart that the next edition of Opening Contract will be my last. More on that in two weeks. See you there!

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