The HOT-T-T news in comics this week is that, in Superman #13, Clark Kent has quit his job at the Daily Planet to start a website because print is dying and internet something something. I hate when they do this crap.
This is the kind of event in comics1 that gets mainstream attention precisely because mainstream society is not paying attention to comics the rest of the time. Think about all the times you’ve read about a comic book storyline in a newspaper article. Some character died. A character that’s been on TV is getting a new look. The Avengers are fighting the X-Men. All of these things are “dog bites man,” which does not become newsworthy just because some people do not pay attention to dogs. Comics Alliance put it best in their headline: “Superman Leaves ‘Daily Planet’ Newspaper For Third Or Fourth Time.”
Still, I can’t beat up on mainstream coverage of comics; after all, somebody has to make sure my dad hears that Green Lantern is gay. (Of course, somebody else ends up having to explain that it’s the Green Lantern he’s never heard of, in one iteration of a parallel universe. That person is usually my brother.) What really steams my hams is DC’s crude attempts to revitalize Superman with these stunts. Ultimately I do not trust that Scott Lobdell has any stories to tell about this event, or that DC particularly cares.
I complained about this last year when Superman renounced his citizenship (which led to exactly zero stories before being retconned away by the reboot), and I would argue the problem has only gotten worse. DC does not know what to do with Superman–sometimes I get the feeling he’s been lumped together with Aquaman in terms of “this character is embarrassingly silly but we have to publish stories about him anyway.” 2 In lieu of actual ideas about how to properly use Superman, DC can only constantly invert aspects of the character. Superman is the sole survivor of Krypton, so let’s introduce more survivors. Superman can fly, so here’s a story where he doesn’t fly. Superman has a thing for Lois, so now he doesn’t. Superman works at the Daily Planet, so here’s a story where he quits. Experimentation is fine, but it’s been about six years since I saw a Superman comic that was saying anything except “Look how hard we’re trying to make this not be a Superman comic.” If I wanted to read not a Superman comic, I’d buy Batman.
Past a point, these gimmicks lose meaning because the model they defy has been left so far behind. After everything else that’s been changed about Superman in the past year, is anyone really all that impressed that he’s going to break with tradition? Lobdell wants to jump into writing Superman with a cannonball splash, but so did Geoff Johns, J. Michael Straczynski and Grant Morrison, and by now all the water has been splashed out of the pool. So when Andy Diggle comes aboard with “Check this out…Superman’s abandoned his traditional costume for a black outfit!!!” it means absolutely nothing.
What Superman needs, I think, is consistency. Not necessarily tighter continuity, but just a general sense that this is the same character as he was 70, 20, or even three years ago. 3 Any idiot can decide to have Clark Kent, the most famous newspaper reporter in fiction, quit the newspaper business because “print is dying” and Superman has better things to do. What would be far more interesting is to explain why Clark would remain a newspaper reporter in spite of reaching those conclusions, which have presumably crossed his mind long before this week.
Personally I ain’t no writing genius or nothin’, but I’m willing to take a stab at rationalizing Superman’s adherence to a dying medium. First off, in the DC Universe the Daily Planet is on the same level as the New York Times, which is not going to cease print operations anytime soon and already has an online edition. Second, if Clark is so butthurt that the Planet covers trivial celebrity gossip, I’m pretty sure he could balance it out by posting some hard-hitting journalism to whatever blogs are on dailyplanet.com. Leaving to complain about it on his own website sort of sounds like giving up and running away, which are two things Superman doesn’t tend to do. Third, while the old “Clark uses the Planet‘s reporting to tell him where Superman is needed” concept doesn’t make sense anymore, the inverse is perfectly acceptable: Clark uses his exploits as Superman to discover the sources of injustice in the world, and reports those injustices in the Planet to tell the public where its help is needed in the never-ending battle. Headlines like “America needs to stop taking Lexcorp’s shit” or “Superman can’t end famine by himself, you guys” have more clout coming from a great metropolitan newspaper than the blogosphere.
Now, the rationalizations stated above may not be to your liking. But the point is, every incarnation of Clark Kent has worked at a newspaper for most of his adult life, so there must be some reason that overcomes the obvious problems with that arrangement. Figuring out what that reason is makes the difference between leaving your mark on an iconic character or petulantly deconstructing something that someone else is going to reconstruct once you’re gone. For example, “Lois doesn’t seem to notice Clark is Superman because she’s actually protecting his identity as an anonymous source” might be kind of clever. “Lois doesn’t notice Clark is Superman because comics are stupid so now Lois is suddenly not stupid” would be a childishly simplistic solution to the problem, which would not stand the test of time.
- “Event” as in “something that happens,” not “Secret Wars II continues in this issue.” [↩]
- The difference, of course, is that Arthur has gained faux outsider cred; he’s the Pabst Blue Ribbon to Clark’s Bud Light. [↩]
- Grant Morrison’s effort to revive Superman’s 1930s style of fighting for social justice was in this vein, although revising the role of the Phantom Zone in Kal’s origin story for the 900th time was not. [↩]