Posted by: John Kane on January 10, 2013
I hear your pain, people! January is a real nutcracker ain’t it. What we need, as Bonnie Tyler advised, is a hero. And, yes, Virginia, there are still heroes. It’s just sometimes you have to root about in the back issue bins to find ’em. I found one. I found a Hero.
What’s the best Superman story ever, ever, ever? It’s a question that has occupied many minds for many decades; a real bone of contention with the self explanatory importance of the issue justifying every brutally curtailed friendship, divided family, and more than one instance of burning dog poo being forced through someone’s letterbox. Sorry about that, Mom, but it’s an inflammatory subject and fiery faeces spoke more eloquently than I ever could. Look, tempers can run high. Luckily, I’m here to solve the conundrum for all time for I, as ever, am totally right once again. It’s a gift and yet, at times, a curse. Don’t envy me too quickly. Anyway, the best Superman story ever, ever, ever is:
ACTION COMICS #554
“If Superman Didn’t Exist…”
Art by Gentleman Gil Kane
Written by Mighty Marv Wolfman
Coloured by Bountiful Ben Oda
Coloured by Tiny Tony Tollin
DC Comics, $0.95 (Apr 1984)
Superman created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster
The title is such an obvious construction that you’ve probably already completed the missing words signified by the ellipsis. “…then it would be necessary to invent him.” And you would be 100% correct. Take a bow! But this is ACTION COMICS where Superman already exists so what, by the ruby rays of Rao, the dingdangdong is going on here? Specifically here being ACTION COMICS #554 and unbeknownst to most ACTION COMICS #554 is the glorious summit of Gil Kane and Marv Wolfman’s run on the title. A run which I believe has just been collected in a hardback from DC Comics. A book which Babylonian Brian Hibbs will gladly sell you in return for cold hard cash. That’s how he works, it’s too late to change him.
When I first read this comic a while ago though I didn’t know it had been preceded by a long build up, it was just this weird story where there was a world without a Superman but which sorely needed a Superman. It had, in fact, been a world with a Superman but due to a series of quite magnificently preposterous events throughout GilWolf™’s run (I later learned, because it’s never too late to learn!) Superman had been erased from the fabric of this (his) world as thoroughly as your mother erased those adolescent stains from the fabric of your underoos. Although in this case via the use of “power pyramids” rather than a boil wash and some sturdy tongs.
The details don’t matter, all that matters is that the course of world history has been changed retroactively. Not only is there no Superman there is no “heroic concept“! This is because there is no War and never has been. Rather depressingly this has led to an agrarian plough level civilisation of scattered settlements. People wear baggy clothes and sport bowl haircuts like some horrific world-wide Madchester revival and while technology is rudimentary they have, astonishingly, developed corrective eye wear. On balance the drab content of life in 20th Century Earth in exchange for millions of years of suffering and violence is probably a fair trade but, crucially, it has sadly left Earth open to a full on conquering by an alien race. Which was said alien race’s plan all along. All resistance has been removed, yea unto the very fish that crawled onto the shores and walked. Cunning, perhaps but thorough, most definitely.
The source of earth’s salvation comes from two wee tow-headed scamps renowned about the township for their useless dreaming and pointless imaginings. Two tow-headed scamps by the name of Jerry and Joe.
Jerry and Joe.
Oh, you worked it out.
(Someone give that guy at the back a hand. ‘Sokay we can wait.)
Jerry and Joe realise that to resist the invaders the Earth needs a hero so they hide in a cave and chalk upon the walls the design of this man who “…comes from the stars…“, this man who’s “GOOD instead of being BAD…” this man with “...a Cape…to CATCH THE WIND!” This man ends up being Liberace, who while very entertaining isn’t much use against an alien invasion, so they try again and come up with “…a…SUPER MAN!“. This seems more like what they were after and in short order this creature birthed from the human imagination and powered by human belief sets all things aright as Superman is restored to the world and all is well again. Of course, that mean’s War is back but so are aspirin and microwaves but, hey, comme ci, comme ça, amiright? That’s rhetorical, we already established I am always right back at the top.
Now, this isn’t exactly what you might call a realistic premise. It’s not terribly likely is it? I mean I love this comic but even I don’t think you can imagine Superman up, believe in him and he will exist and sort it all out. I’ve been trying long enough and hard enough I’ve given myself a hernia and – no dice so far. I will keep you posted though. No, it’s not supposed to be realistic. It’s supposed be inspiring and entertaining. Heroic even. And I like that. I like that a lot.
Most (but not all) of the success here can of course be laid at the feet of Gentleman Gil Kane whose art is present in all it’s ’80s prime. The ’80s was, for me, Gil Kane’s Shining Time. The time when he had the inking nous to finally do his own pencils justice and the editorial clout to ensure he got to ink himself. While in previous decades Kane was often a hostage to unsympathetic inking the ’80s saw Kane unleashed as never before. Yes, I quite like Kane’s ‘8os art. I see ’80s Gil Kane in much the same way as ’70s Kirby (KOIBY!!!) – a thing unique and entire unto itself. Both styles are so complete that no further development is desirable or, I strongly suspect, possible. Even Kane’s shortcomings work to his advantage here. His perfunctory space ships and goofy aliens play into the childish naivete of the narrative. For it is an intentionally childish narrative I think. It’s often thought that people like Kane and Wolfman were unsophisticated storytellers since, um, craft apparently only got invented ten years ago or some such horseshit which flatters the current generation. But there are many levels of sophistication and one of these levels is surely being able to pitch a tale to appeal to children while at the same time winking at adults.
Here kids can thrill to the scrappy youngsters showing the adults what’s what despite the initial disbelief, get a little fearful frisson when the parents die, be reassured when it turns out the aliens were kidnapping not killing the adults and, finally, soar with Superman as the impossible becomes possible because two children dreamed a dream which became real. Adults of course can get a kick out of the goofy antics as well as enjoy the cheeky moments of humour such as when Joe enquires after his parents and an adult just blandly states, “They’re probably DEAD. Buried under the RUBBLE.” or when the plucky pair outline their insane plan only for a kid to say “But that makes no semnffmfm” his latter words muffled because an adult has just shut him up with a stern hand. GilWolf™ are not unaware of the daffiness they are dealing in and handle it with a balance and surety easily missed. But you can’t miss, no one could miss, the glory of Kane’s Superman. Initially appearing as a chalk drawing (an amazingly detailed and preternaturally accomplished chalk drawing – a lot like a Gil Kane drawing (another wink)) Kane’s Superman is revealed in an amazing sequence that thrums with power, so much so that Wolfman has little recourse but to resort to the Greatest Wordsmith of all – The Shakespeare. The insane and impossible magic achieved by combining words and pictures and imagination reaches its magnificent apogee here. After this things necessarily fall off a bit (or the risk would be that the reader’s head would melt) but Kane’s Superman is still like unto a God or at least a Roman Hellenistic statue of a God. A stutue that moves, because, boy, does Gil Kane’s Superman move. When he’s in motion, and he is mostly in motion, Kane’s Superman is fluidity and power in perfect union. Kane’s Superman looks delighted to be alive. Kane’s Superman is so transported by the act of living even his cape blooms like a physical flare of joy.
And as Superman flies off to heal the world on a monthly basis once more the story shifts scene a final time to another pair of kids. An older pair but a pair engaged in a similar exercise of imagination. The exercise of imagination known as creation. Two kids called Joseph and Jack.
Joseph and Jack.
Joseph and Jack.
‘Nuff Said, right?
And maybe that, in the end, is why ACTION COMICS #554 is the greatest Superman story ever told. Because although it could only whisper it tried to tell us the truth. About creation. About imagination and the people who have it and where the real original value in all these creations, all these billion dollar making creations, resides. It resides in the act of creation and it resides in those who have imagination enough to create.
For Joe and Jerry.
For Joseph and Jack.
For the creators.