Spotlight Sunday 8.26.18

Spotlight Sundays

Some thoughts on the nature of comic book storytelling and an interest in checking in on how things are going mean that that there are spoilers ahead for…

Action Comics #1002
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Patrick Gleason
Cover: Patrick Gleason
Rated T

“Up in the sky!”
“Oh look! Tourists!”

Between Action and Superman, Bendis is now four issues into his post-debut regular run, so I thought it was worth taking a look at how things are going.

Before I get into that, I will, of course, take a bit of a detour and discuss something seemingly unrelated, because that’s the kind of thing I do here.

As a young comic book reader, like so many others both young and old, I really liked The Uncanny X-Men. In the period during which I was reading the series, there were many different artists who worked on it for stints of various lengths, such as Dave Cockrum, Paul Smith, John Romita, Jr., and Barry Windsor-Smith, so while at any given time you were likely to find a good, fan-favorite artist working on it, the only real constant, and I would say the driving force for the book’s enduring popularity, was writer Chris Claremont.

I stopped reading the X-Men titles – by that time there were two – not long after Claremont left, but long before that I had found that my enjoyment of the series had waned. Part of it was due to my own changing tastes and personal growth, part of it was due to a loss of interest in the narrative and to some of the storytelling trends that were developing in mainstream comics, but mostly it was what I’ll call the Claremontisms.

These were some of the tics that Claremont had as a writer, a combination of recurring themes, dangling sub-plots that often seemed to go nowhere, and, more than anything, the dialogue.

Even in the early days of reading, I found certain aspects off-putting, such as the tendency for people to use expressions that no else in real life or in other media uses, and for one person to always insert the name of whoever they were speaking to into a parenthetical.

Sometimes it would be an insult rather than a name, as with…

“The phrase, dunce, is ‘fer shure.’”

…but it always followed the same pattern.

Or hey, how about this gem:

“You should’ve let him splat – serve the rude, crude, nasty boy proper ‘n right!”

In fairness, some of the tics served expository purposes intended to bring new readers up to speed, which is why we got so many reminders that Psylocke’s Psychic Knife was the focused totality of her telepathic powers, but as a long-time reader the cumulative effect just wore me down.

All writers have their tics – I certainly have plenty of my own – but some are more noticeable than others, and some have a greater impact on the reader, to the extent that the writer comes to be defined by them.

Claremont is one such writer.

Bendis is another.

But here’s the thing. When it comes to writing comics, Claremont was an absolute master of the craft. Despite everything else, he knew how to get to the emotional core of a character and knew how best to take advantage of the storytelling form.

Writing comics comes with a unique set of challenges and opportunities, and the best writers know how to work around and with them.

Throughout his career, Bendis has demonstrated such a mastery of the craft, and it’s why he’s become the fan-favorite comics superstar that he is, and why, as I mentioned in the Spotlight post on The Man of Steel, his defection to DC was such a big deal.

But…just as Claremont is Claremont, Bendis is…Bendis.

With Claremont, characters spoke in a way that was unlike the way anyone spoke, but with Bendis, characters all speak the same way, and it’s the one area in which he is less-than proficient in his mastery of his chosen medium.

Bendis dialogue is undoubtedly more naturalistic than anything Claremont ever wrote, and while the sardonic tone and cutting wit can be kind of charming and entertaining – see the opening quote – it seems, as others have noted, to be written for the stage rather than the page.

Read aloud, by actors, his dialogue would likely have more pop, and the different voices and intonations would help to alleviate the flatness and sameness that it has in print.

But this isn’t the stage, it’s the page, so we’re left with that flatness and sameness, no matter how hard we might try to give it more life and distinctiveness with our own internal voices.

With all that said, there is much to recommend his work with Superman so far; Bendis has demonstrated that he as a clear understanding of the core of who Superman is, particularly in his most recent issue of Superman in which the Action Ace provides – via voiceover monologue – an explanation for how he retains his sanity despite being able hear every scream, every cry for help, and to see every disaster, every atrocity around the world. Like Mr. Rogers, he does the Superman equivalent of looking for the helpers.

It was a great bit and provided a clear and true insight into the nature of Superman.

Hey, wasn’t I supposed to be writing something about Action Comics here? Oh, yeah, I was.

The issue opens on the busy streets of Metropolis and the tourist look up to see the kind of sight that jaded Metropolitans have learned to ignore over the years, as up, in the sky, they see neither bird nor plane, but Superman…dropping a man to his death?

That’s the story according to new City Beat reporter Robinson Goode, at any rate, the one running on the front page of The Daily Planet.

Or it would be, if not for Perry pointing out that it was impossible, not simply because it’s not the sort of thing Superman does, but because it’s something that Superman couldn’t have done, given that he was in Coast City with the Justice League when the man – a low-level crook known as Yogurt – fell from the sky.

Last issue we learned that the accusation that Superman had been starting the fires plaguing the city resulted from the real culprit – who just so happens to have been Yogurt – paying the kid who made the accusation to do so.

This leads Perry to instruct Miss Goode to scrap her already-debunked story and go out and find the real story of what’s going on with these clumsy attempts at framing Superman.

Meanwhile, as he reveals he often had Lois do with Clark’s stories, Perry tells Clark to pursue the same story from a different angle, to see if he can find something that Goode is missing.

Last issue we also got a look at how organized crime operates in Metropolis, with a network of mobsters who meet in giant, sound-proof lead tank, and pay someone to keep an eye on the skies to determine whether the Big Red S is in town.

In this issue – in a scene that will be edited to remove the use of the word “autistic” as a slur in future printings – we see one of those mobsters calling in to check on Superman’s status and learning that yes, he is on his way out of town.

Whatever plans he had next come to a halt, however, thanks to the intervention of the Guardian, who Bendis seems to be merging with Gangbuster, given that the shield-carrying hero proves to be considerably more vicious – and unhinged – than Jim Harper has ever been shown to be in the past.

Guardian is very unhappy with the mobster – Boss Moxie – not only for starting fires in his city, but also for dropping dead bodies from the sky and traumatizing children.

Before Guardian can do whatever he’s planning, however, he meets a new villain we met last issue, the person who actually did drop Yogurt from the sky, Red Cloud, who is a sentient…well, red cloud.

Cut to the hospital where Maggie Sawyer and team are visiting the room in which the Guardian has ended up. He’s in rough shape, though Boss Moxie is even worse shape, having ended up in the morgue.

The initial thought is that Guardian went over the edge and killed Moxie, but the signs point to someone else, as there’s no indication that the Guardian laid a hand on him.

Barely conscious, and through gritted teeth, Guardian warns Maggie of “Rrdd! Cloudd!”

Meanwhile, Clark heads to a bar where the friends of Yogurt are gathered to mourn their lost friend.

He learns that Yogurt was the Firestarter – though he didn’t start all the fires – and that that whole point of the fires was simply to distract Superman so that he couldn’t interfere with other crimes the crooks were committing. He reports that information back to Perry, who is disgusted by the crooks’ complete indifference to the lives they put in danger just for the sake of keeping Superman distracted.

“That is some Gotham City level psychotic sociopathic nightmare. If I were Superman, I would fold this entire city up into a quesadilla.”

Instead, Superman takes his frustrations out on the asteroid belt.

Back at the Planet, Cat Grant stops by for a visit, and lets Clark in a secret that she didn’t know was a secret: Lois has finished her book.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s right; last issue we learned that Lois is back from her jaunt into space, but left Clark in the dark about that fact.

Elsewhere, we see that Miss Goode is working with the mob, and she has one small request:

Got a pocketful of…

We get a little background on the person in charge who is “always listening,” and is a she; presumably it’s Red Cloud, about whom the only thing we do know is that in human form the cloud is a woman.

The employer says she will see what she can do about fulfilling Miss Goode’s request.

There is also some discussion about a certain reporter – whose name they don’t say out loud, for obvious reasons – who, as Miss Goode notes, seems to have a certain someone wrapped around her finger.

This leads us into the final page in which we see a woman out walking the streets with her carryout order looking up at the sky and then trying, and failing, given who she is trying to hide from, to be inconspicuous.

And so we end with another mystery, along with the mystery of “Who is Red Cloud?”

One thing I’ve noted so far in the regular run is that the mysteries don’t seem to endure for too long – the cliffhanger ending of The Man of Steel in which Superman was accused of starting the fires was resolved right away, and the attempt at framing Superman for the murder of Yogurt was resolved immediately, just as the attempt at framing the Guardian was resolved immediately.

(Per some house ad copy, the Red Cloud identity will remain mysterious for two more issues, anyway.)

I’m sure there’s some reasonable-ish explanation for Lois not telling Clark she was back – she wanted to isolate herself to work on the book would be my guess, though that doesn’t tell us where Jon is – but that will nevertheless lead to some drama, as will the continuing issue of the financial problems at The Daily Planet and the snooping around of Miss Goode.

There are a lot of little elements I like that Bendis has introduced, such as the various ways in which criminals try to operate in a city occupied by a living panopticon. It’s mostly things that others have touched upon, but that’s bound to happen with a character who’s been around for eight decades, but there’s still a lot of narrative potential to mine from the idea.

Of course, as I continue to say, Bendis is Bendis, so for every bit that I like, and every example of his mastery of the craft, there are things like this:

*gritting of teeth intensifies*

It’s interesting that he’s given Perry so much time in the *ahem* spotlight, but I don’t think he quite has a handle on the character, and while there are attempts to give him his own voice, well…you know who is you know who.

Patrick Gleason does solid work, and provides a sense of continuity, as he’s been on art duty for many of the Metropolis Marvel’s adventures over the past few years.

Overall, the Bendis run is going better than I’d expected, and that ability to reach the emotional core of the character is serving him well enough to get me to overcome my resistance to some of the other elements of his work.

I like the idea – at least, the idea as it exists in my head – that there’s sort of a war of attrition with these clumsy attempts at framing the heroes. Granted, Yogurt was killed because his attempt at deflecting attention by framing Superman for the fires served as something of a Streisand Effect, but I think the remaining members of the mob have come to see some value in it, realizing that over time, the public may lose some of its skepticism as the accusations continue to pile up. I’m not certain that’s where things are headed, but if they are, it’s a solid approach, and would lend a certain verisimilitude to the narrative.

Whatever the case, I’m sticking around for the foreseeable future.

Recommended Reading:

Something a little different this time. I’ve been reading this book and enjoying it a great deal. You might like it, too.

Comic Book Implosion: An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978

It’s an interesting look – from multiple perspectives – and a pivotal point in comic book history, with lots of insider information on some of the inner workings and interpersonal dynamics that provides a lot of detail on the stories behind the stories.

As always, special thanks go out to my comic shop, Comic Logic Books & Artwork. Please remember to support your local comic shop, and if you need to find one, click here.

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