Superman and the Image problem

Recently, screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) posted a video to YouTube where he took down the 1992-1993 Death and Return of Superman storyline (it was his commentary accompanied by several famous friends playing roles).  It’s snarky, mean-spirited, and wildly inaccurate, and the best rebuttals have been from Michael Bailey and Jeffery Taylor, the guys behind a great podcast called From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast (their mission is to cover every Superman comic published between 1986 and 2006 and right now, they are covering this very storyline).

Nothing more needs to be said about Landis’ video, but it did remind me of another time Superman’s death was used as a springboard for commentary on the state of the comics industry.  What’s funny is that like Landis’ commentary it comes off more as a poor reflection of the commentator rather than the story.  You see, in the world of comics, there are great stories, great artists, and then there are those who just think they’re great.  Sometimes, they intersect in a way that at the moment seems important but looking back borders on the ridiculous.

Spawn #10 was written by Dave Sim as part of a four month-long string of issues that were written by notable guest writers (Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Sim, and Frank Miller) and penciled by series creator Todd McFarlane.  Moore, Gaiman, and Miller’s issues served to introduce new characters nad help build the Spawn mythos; Sim’s spot in issue #10 seems to serve the Image Comics mythos.  It’s a piece of meta-fiction about the nature of creativity that is a reinforcement of the attitude that McFarlane and his Image co-founders had when they left Marvel twenty years ago.

In the story, after the conclusion of the previous issue where Spawn touched the mystical staff of that issue’s villain, Angela (a move that “removed” him from the continuity long enough to tell issue #10’s story), he meets up with Sim’s Aardvark, Cerebus, who teaches the hero a lesson about creator-owned characters and the happiness that comes with being able to have the rights to what you make.  It even ends with “Spawn is trademark and copyright Todd McFarlane/Cerebus is trademark and copyright Dave Sim FOREVER” written in the same way it would be airbrushed onto a license plate Gina made for Tommy’s IROC.

Pithy comments aside, the most important few pages in the story are in the beginning.  Spawn walks down a dungeon hall where men stand with hoods over their heads and their hands tied behind their backs while several costumed hands reach out for his help.  Many of the hands are identifiable (in fact, shortly after this issue came out, Wizard–never one to miss a chance to promote an Image comic–had a contest where they challenged you to name all of the characters displayed on that panel), and the hooded men with their hands behind their backs are obviously the creative teams of those various heroes’ books.  It is Sim and McFarlane’s comic book version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, although I think that the Greeks were a little more subtle.

The biggest point made in the whole sequence, however, comes not from the multitude of hero hands reaching out from inside their prison, but from a single hero who tells Spawn that he is the “original hero.”  In a two-page sequence, he offers Spawn his power because he claims that Spawn has the ability to free all of the prisoners.  Our protagonist takes it, and fires, but it is to no avail, as the villain (a version of Spawn’s archenemy The Violator wearing a dress made of money) claims he is too powerful and there will be no justice for those creators because even that “original hero” has succumbed to his will.  This is confirmed when the hero utters one word:  Doomsday.

If you don’t get the reference, it’s that Superman has gone from being an inspiration for many heroes to being a corporate stooge who finally succumbed to the gimmicks of the 1990s comics industry, a money-making scheme that would not net a dime for Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, or any of the other creators on the four Superman titles during the Death of Superman storyline.  At the time Spawn #10 came out in February 1993 (at least according to the time machine at Mike’s Amazing World of Image Comics, but Image books shipped notoriously late in those days, so it may not have come out on time), the four titles had actually ceased publication following the “Funeral for a Friend” storyline and the only Superman comics on the stands were the Superman Gallery and a one-shot called The Legacy of Superman.  Reign of the Superman, the storyline that brought the character back, would begin two months later and conclude in August.

At the time, I owned every single one of the comics that make up the death and funeral, including the polybagged “deluxe” edition of Superman #75 that I never opened (and eventually sold, in its bag, on eBay) and was anxiously waiting for Adventures of Superman #500 and the beginning of the “Return” part of the story.  Reading Spawn #10 made me feel like a sucker.  Then again, I was an easily influenced fifteen-year-old kid who didn’t really know what the argument was about so much as I knew that Todd McFarlane was the cool guy in comics at that point and I had always wanted to be a cool comics fan.  Granted, that didn’t prevent me from buying the rest of the story–although I did buy several Image #1’s as well as all of Deathmate–and with the power of the internet and two decades of perspective, I can laugh a little about what Sim and McFarlane were saying.

The back cover of the trade paperback for The Death of Superman, showing the individual comics covers.

It’s kind of ironic that McFarlane would posture about creator’s rights when he would go on to start a toy company that made millions off of other people’s creations, and then try to claim full ownership of the characters Gaiman created in the previous issue.  The two of them went through a lengthy court battle over those rights (and at one point the rights to Marvelman/Miracleman, which is a whole other can of worms, trust me).  However, I can see where Sim and McFarlane were coming from, especially when you consider the age-old story of how Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster sold their stake in the Man of Steel for very little and for years never saw the amount of money that they could have, as DC made millions off the character.  Then again, in the 1940s the comics industry was very young and you didn’t have the George Lucas model of business as a guide.

And I guess that taking the Death of Superman storyline and using it as an example as the ultimate way to make a point about Nineties moneymaking gimmicks is a good tactic, but the facts of Sim’s and McFarlane’s case ultimately don’t add up.  Superman editor Mike Carlin and his creative teams did not sit down and say “What can make us money?”  In fact, the idea came about when they were told from the higher-ups at DC that they needed to delay Superman’s wedding to Lois Lane because Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was coming on the air and they wanted the relationships to match up as much as possible.  Jerry Ordway, as he apparently always did, suggested they kill him and editorial actually took him up on it.  It was a way to solve a creative quandary; furthermore, I don’t think Sim nor McFarlane were privy to the knowledge of how much money the creative teams made off of the comics sales, trad paperback sales, or any other royalties.  They may actually have made out pretty comfortably.

In fact, if anything symbolizes the greed and speculation of the 1990s comics market, it’s not The Death of Superman, but McFarlane and Image.  His success–along with that of his fellow co-founders–led to the variant covers, platinum editions, overprintings, polybagging, and every other idea that had people “investing” in ten copies of an issue and therefore inflating their value.  I’m not letting DC off the hook here, but there is so much pot calling the kettle black in Spawn #10, it’s hilarious.

The Death and Return of Superman marked a very important point in my comic book collecting career.  I had started reading comics in 1990 with Batman and New Titans.  Superman was a character I always liked but only read occasionally.  But when the death was announced, I wanted in on it and went to the comics shop that day.  Bob had posted a list of the comics that were going to be a part of Doomsday and Funeral for a Friend and he was offering a slight discount if you ordered all of them and paid for all of them ahead of time.  I did, and when the issues hit the stands in November and December, they were waiting for me in a box.

One of my favorite pages from Funeral for a Friend, showing Lois Lane’s grief over the loss of her hero and fiance.

The same thing happened when Reign of the Supermen was announced: I pre-ordered and had a bag of Superman comics waiting for me.  But when it was all over, Bob told me about something else I could do: become a “Club Member” at Amazing Comics and have what he called a “pull list.”  Yeah, I know it took me two years of collecting to realize that you could have the comic book store pull your weekly issues for you, but if it wasn’t for Doomsday I wouldn’t have known you could do that at all.

Plus, I would have missed out on what really is a great story that holds up very well even after nearly twenty years.  I now own the Death and Return of Superman in three trade paperbacks, and read them a couple of months ago as I got ready to listen to From Crisis to Crisis’s coverage of the storyline.  I hadn’t read the story since I was in high school, and back then my focus always seemed to be on “figuring it all out.”  I distinctly remember being bummed that I didn’t correctly guess who the “real” Superman was in “Reign of the Supermen” and felt a little cheated by the ending.  But again, I was fifteen at the time and I thought comics were supposed to be about cool art, swimsuit editions, and last-page payoffs.  Reading The Death and Return of Superman again with the point of view of someone who loves a good story, I’m amazed that four different creative teams could keep this going for the better part of a year and not have it devolve into something “gritty” in that Nineties sense.

In fact, it seems like the entire time, the team held true to the fact that they were writing … well, Superman.  That’s a character that isn’t supposed to be EXTREME in any sort of way, and while I get that he’s got powers that “everyone else has by now,” it’s the simplicity of the character and most creators’ not straying too far from it that has made him timeless.  I mean, I’m not going to make mean comments about Odysseus because he could string a bow whereas this day and age there is Nerf weaponry in the toy aisle at Target cooler than bows and arrows.  The powers don’t make the man, the actions do; furthermore, by the time this had been published, the Superman creative team had build a deep supporting cast, and that cast is able to carry two months’ worth of books without the title character in “Funeral for a Friend.”  That part of the story–especially Lois Lane and the Kents dealing with their grief–is some of the most solidly written comics of the time.  The epic itself, while flawed in places, stays true to the character and the world that those people worked so hard to build.

In the end, I do owe Todd McFarlane some thanks since I made $80 from selling the first 60 issues of Spawn on eBay about a decade ago, but I don’t think that he or Spawn will ever be as important or influential as the Man of Steel.

The last page of the “Return of Superman” trade. And a perfect ending, if I do say so myself.

As for the “important message” sent by Sim and McFarlane?  Well,  to write this post, I actually had to buy a copy of Spawn #10.  My current LCS–Atlas Comics in Charlottesville–had more than a few copies available and I paid about a buck for it.  After he remembered that the collaboration happened in the first place, the owner and I talked about Spawn and Nineties comics for a moment and I told him that I sold the first sixty or so issues of the series for about $80 on eBay about a decade ago.

“And that’s probably the best you were ever going to get for those,” he said.

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3 comments

  1. 2 Image characters, Grifter and Voodoo, gave their best when they began having a solo series.
    Do you remember the action movies in the 90s? There was a Rambo – like leading character (usually played by Stallone himself, or by Schwarzenegger) forced to fight against innumerous enemies: any other man would have been doomed, but our hero, with his guns, muscles, fight techniques and (last but not least) brain, was always able to find a way out.
    Grifter is exactly like this: no matter how many enemies he has to face and how complicated their plans are, you can be sure he will find a solution to all his problems. Like Batman, a big part of Grifter’s charm is his talent in getting out of troubles despite being a normal person, without superpowers. There’s only one, big difference between them: Batman is a hunter, while Grifter is a prey – but it’s the shiftiest prey you’ve ever met.
    More or less, Voodoo’s plot was always the same in each issue: she meets an enemy of her; she shows him tits & ass; he instantly get very interested in her, so he follows her wherever she wants; they get a room, and she kills him, or takes from him the objects and informations she was looking for.
    As you can see, her solo series was almost entirely built on tits, ass and violence. And you know what? It was so bad it was good.
    Also, I liked the merciless of Voodoo, who killed the obstacles on her way without any resentment. Not because I like violence (on the contrary, I repeatedly complained about the excessive amount of violent scenes in contemporary comics, Voodoo included), but because Voodoo was a punch in the face of those politically correct comics, where the leading character has strong moral values (and gives a lot of sermons about them), never kills anyone, and doesn’t even hold a gun. It was something new, and, even if the violence was exaggerated, I appreciated it.
    Now Voodoo’s solo series closed, and Grifter’s one is about to end too. At least we’ll go on seeing Grifter in Team 7. I could share my thoughts about Team 7, but I’ve already written way too much, so I’d better stop myself. : )

  2. I always felt that one reason behind Superman’s death was DC’s atomic response to the mounting gimmicks battle against Marvel with the whole polybagged/issue#1/issue#0/3D cover/glow-in-the-dark cover/etc. The other reason, the rampant popularity of dark comic heroes over classic “boy scout” caped superheroes, Superman being the king of them all. The Kingdom Come series did a fun job covering that dynamic, but at that time it seemed like DC felt that outright killing off the goody two-shoes Superman would be a unbeatably hip move against a backdrop of so many Ghost Riders, Punishers, etc.

    I think the comic gimmick craze was the product of an era where the fans’ love for the artists and giant metal shoulder pads outweighed interest in storytelling. Instead of fussing over gripping story lines, the easier way to sell comics was making instant collector’s items with cheap thrills, especially many new number 1’s and really pointless issue zeroes to already established series. Hence, variant covers to McFarlane’s Spider-Man, Jim Lee’s X-men #1 variants, Rob Liefeld’s polybagged/trading carded X-Force #1. Though to be fair I don’t recall these guys continuing that same tradition when they formed Image.

    “…McFarlane and Image. His success–along with that of his fellow co-founders–led to the variant covers, platinum editions, overprintings, polybagging..,”

    I agree, but again, unless you meant while the Image bunch were still a Marvel bunch.

    Strange how back then Image was really booming, yet today most of those original Image books are long dead. Ok so the Savage Dragon is ongoing, and Rob Liefeld met his Kickstarter quota to bring back Brigade and giant shoulder pads. But Jim Lee and former Spawn artist Greg Capullo are both at DC doing Batman. Spawn, published sort of sporadicly, is nearing the number of issues where Amazing Spider-Man was when McFarlane first worked on that series. Yet Spawn hasn’t become the household name that Todd was wishing he would become back in the 90’s. McFarlane’s own toy company isn’t even making Spawn figures anymore (that I know of) but are instead producing The Walking Dead figures, probably the most popular Image book at the moment. Go figure that when many of Image’s core books died, there were no limited edition black polybags to bury them in.

    1. There were a handful of Image covers that relied on cardstock, foil, and other gimmicks, but nowhere near to the degree of what Marvel–who was definitely the pioneer and biggest offender, perhaps next to Valiant–put out. Then again, Image in it early days, both didn’t necessarily need to rely on gimmickry because of their star power and Wizard hyping them at every turn, and had problems getting the books out to begin with.

      You cannot deny that at least a certain portion of the entire Death and Return of Superman saga wasn’t there to sell books–DC, after all, is a company whose business is to make money off of its comics–but my issue with Landis is that his video is very one-sided for the sake of tired shtick.

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