One of my favorite comic pages, despite being from a series I didn’t like all that much.
This is from Justice, the limited series from DC as created by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger and Doug Braithwaite. I read this when it first came out and just couldn’t follow it, a problem I attributed to the immense cast of characters (there’s probably something like a hundred in these twelve issues) and its bi-monthly publishing schedule. With so much going on, I assumed I was just losing the thread from issue to issue.
I recently re-read the whole thing in a single sitting and, no, it’s no more coherent. I get the larger plot, but making heads or tails of individual scenes within the comic is more like making hay. Part of the problem is that the actual mechanics of story-telling take a backseat to dynamic layouts and cinematic spreads, so that the illustrations are stunning but make for a lousy, cloudy read.
Part of it also has to do with the fact that this series emerges from the legacy of the oversized Dini/Ross books, and like those books this is not a book about a story; it is a book about ideas. This is a series about who Ross and Kreuger believe these characters are, essentially, at their core. When things happen in this book and the plot moves along, it’s mostly to get us to another scene or another caption where a character’s monologue can tell us something about themselves, or their friends and allies.
Here, Ross and Kreuger get Captain Marvel and his relationship with his deadliest and most persistent foe, all in a single panel.
Confronting the insidious Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana in his cell at Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane - and observing the torment Sivana is suffering as near-microscopic alien parasites riddle his bodily tissues - Marvel turns with the grave, bright seriousness of a child and explains to his companion ”This is my greatest enemy.”
For good or ill, Sivana is a part of Captain Marvel’s life, and Captain Marvel is -at heart - still a child. Here he reacts to the threat of losing his greatest enemy the same way a child might respond to death or divorce, the fear that some day everyone will go away. When he describes Sivana as his greatest enemy, he may as well be saying “This is a member of my family, and I want him to be okay” …
Another page from Justice, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger and Doug Braithwaite.
What makes Lex Luthor Superman’s most implacable foe?
Over the course of many decades, Superman’s greatest power has proven time and time again to be the rightness of his convictions. In the earliest stories of the 1930s and 1940s - either by example, encouragement or threat - Superman won his battles not by knocking out the teeth of his enemies but by convincing them that they were wrong to be cruel, greedy, selfish, craven or hard-hearted. The vast majority of Superman’s adventures in his first fifteen or twenty years ended with the villain swearing off his wrong deeds or the victim picking himself up and realizing that the things he held precious are worth fighting for.
Even after that, Superman’s victories more often came in the form of solutions rather than knockouts - invading aliens were provided alternatives, mad scientists were made sane, discomfited spirits found peace. Eventually, even some of his classic villains either reformed - take, for instance, the original Toyman, or the tyrant sun Solaris - or found themselves allied with Superman as often as opposing him, such as with Mxyzptlk.
But never Luthor.
In All-Star Superman - arguably the greatest Superman story ever written - even though Luthor is given a chance to literally see humanity as Superman’s elevated perception allows the Man of Steel to see us, even though Luthor has an enlightened moment to perceive all life as a vital and interdependent connected network of which even he is only a part, he refuses to let the experience change him. He finds comfort in, at the end, being the man who killed Superman and nothing more.
Paul Cornell tackled the same idea in this week’s Action Comics #900, which I’ll avoid discussing in detail inasmuch as it’s such a recent release.
Suffice it to say, the lesson at the end is always the same: Luthor cannot be humbled. He will always refuse the lessons and ethical code which Superman represents, no matter how right or relevant, and that is what makes him the greatest ever enemy of the Man of Tomorrow…
Doc Shaner asked me to tackle Black Adam, so here we go:
Black Adam is a villain of the thru-a-mirror-darkly variety - he may, in fact, be the first of that kind in comics, or at least the longest-lasting, although I don’t know that anyone has done the research and I’m frankly not up to it. Gifted, like Billy Batson, with great power and a charge to do good by the wizard Shazam, Adam ultimately turns on his patron and attempts to seize control of Ancient Egypt. For his betrayal, he is banished by the wizard to an empty bleakness millions of light-years from the planet Earth.
Much of the Shazam mythos has the occult, vertiginous, and agoraphobic atmosphere typically endemic to fairy tales; the wizard and the looming stone tied by a string above his head, the seven enemies of man transformed to leering statues, the shrouded figure and the long looming tunnel, the magic word, the long-lost sister, the virtuous friend.
Black Adam is, in the context of these things, the ominous unseen nemesis. Figuratively, he is the death. He spends literally thousands of years flying like an arrow across featureless space in order to exact vengeance on the wizard. He is cruel and lean, he is dressed like the storm of a terrible night, even his name is a christo-pagan fairy-tale inversion - Black Adam, the dark and imperfect reflection of the bearded magician’s true number one son, the ancient night at the end of Captain Marvel’s eternal day …
In the years since comics lost their taste for fairy tales, Black Adam has become DC’s equivalent of Doctor Doom; they have given him a country which he protects with violent paternal authority, they have raised the question as to whether he was an evil man or only a man from a time and place when moral distinction was less precise, but mostly they have made him more dangerous. He is handily capable of murder and even, literally, capable of genocide - which seems to put the rest the question of his relative ethicality, if that’s not a discussion for another time.
It’s frustrating that answer to “How do we make this villain more interesting?” inevitably seems to be “Let’s make him more powerful”, and then they give him diplomatic immunity and a knife. To make a villain more interesting, you give him weaknesses which are as compelling as the hero’s strengths.
Here, Ross and Krueger manage to encompass a lot about both Marvel and Adam into very few words. What Billy understands about his opposite number is how great the difference between their human and magic personas truly are, and when he demands Adam say his word and return to his human form he is making him confront not just mortality, but perspective.
This answers an important question which persists about the Marvel Family - why would street orphan Billy Batson and crippled Freddy Freeman ever give up their magical super-powered adult bodies if they didn’t have to? The answer is because they would never appreciate them if they didn’t, and without appreciating them they would lose the focus to do good.
Aficionados can tell you that the magic word SHAZAM means something acronymically, that this letter corresponds to that god or this hero. That’s a technical definition, the etymology of the word. What the magic word of power MEANS is parallax, it is a word of perspectives, it is a word the magic of which is that it serves the purpose of a greater good.
So Marvel demands that Adam utter their shared magic word, their word of power, and he says it in a very specific way. When he tells his captive for “Say the word, surrender, and you may become free” he is very literally giving meaning to the word “SHAZAM”. In this case, the magic word means ‘surrender’. In this case, the magic word means that Adam will confront his greatest fear and, in doing so, “will be free” …
I’ve been wanting to do a series of Superman villains for ever, so here’s classic-style Brainiac to start it off …
A thousand times yes!
Last month, I founded and curated a project called DC FIFTY-TOO, taking advantage of the major relaunch of DC Comics’ entire catalog to invite independent cartoonists to create their own vision of what they would like to see if given an editorial-oversight-free absolute rein on the characters or titles of their choice.
When the shutters closed on the project, a number of the artists approached me and asked about setting up a similar project for Marvel Comics, which has been running since October 3. My cover - featuring Puck, the diminutive acrobat from Alpha Flight - runs today.
I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to see these talented and skilled artists so excited about participating in something I put together, and then putting together such an amazing collaboration. It’s especially exciting that there are so many more great covers coming down the pike …
Second part of my series of Superman villains. This’ll take a while to wrap up, I’ve got a lot I want to do and I’m only doodling these up in my free time …