Superman: The Unauthorized Biography
Glen Weldon (Author)
A celebration of Superman's life and history - in time for his 75th birthday. How has the Big Blue Boy Scout stayed so popular for so long? How has he changed with the times, and what essential aspects of him have remained constant? This fascinating biography examines Superman as a cultural phenomenon through 75 years of action-packed adventures, from his early years as a social activist in circus tights to his growth into the internationally renowned demigod he is today.
Hardcover: 352 pages
Cover date: December 2004
Writer: Chuck Austen
Penciller: Carlos D'anda
Inker: Carlos D'anda
"Wail of the Banshee"
Reviewed by: Neal Bailey
Banshee screams through the room and takes Artemisia. She tongue kisses her and takes her body.
Jack Ryder, meanwhile, tries to explain why he encouraged a woman's son into a battle that got him killed. He fails.
Banshee finds a crowd of trick or treaters, and slaughters them all. Superman hears the screaming, and he finds her choking the last kid. He tells her to let the girl go, and she figures out that Superman's fear is losing people. He grabs Banshee by the neck and threatens to pop it off her neck. She says to him that he isn't serious, and Superman says that he is.
Banshee throws the woman high up into the air. Superman goes to rescue her, and when he gets back down. Banshee is gone.
Silver Banshee walks into a bar, and...
No, that's not the start of a joke! Pay attention.
Silver Banshee walks into a bar and finds a whole bunch of adults in costumes. Creeper comes up on her and punches her in the nose. In response, she shows Ryder his fear, shuts the door of the bar, and lights the place on fire.
Superman busts in, blows out the fire, and freezes Creeper and Banshee together with his ice breath.
Superman frees Creeper, who turns back into Ryder, shaken.
Epilogue: Doomsday comes upon a child trying to save a cat from a tree. Doomsday brings the cat down, examining how it makes him feel in words. The child identifies Doomsday, and Doomsday smashes the child and the kitty to death on the pavement before walking off, pondering the nature of good deeds.
Story - 1: I have a friend who writes non-letters to the DC people. They're called non-letters because they don't publish letters at DC any more. Like the country at large, they've taken an increasingly hostile, take-us-or-leave-us approach to malcontent and disagreement with the opinions of those who have the power in this situation.
But like the country at large, DC will soon realize the fruits of a public scorned.
My friend, he's been reading DC for a long time. He's a rabid fan. He's got some great insight into the characters, he reads a lot of comics.
Because of this issue, he is no longer purchasing the Superman titles. I have read similar sentiments across the board from multiple sources. In his bid to make Superman his own, Austen is alienating Superman fans on a scale only previously before seen by Joe Casey. I thought I'd never see a writer so scorned by the fans, but Austen is becoming so.
This makes me incredulous, because his "Superman: Metropolis" series was so incredibly good. Seriously. It was my favorite series of last year, and it's hard to even conceive that a man who could write so good a story could come up with this nonsense, but nonetheless, he has.
First off, we have the opening sequence, with the introduction of Artemisia. Artemisia, we find, is a woman who likes a nice and orderly world, but finds Metropolis none of these things. She finds it full of scum, dirty, and disorganized, to the point of which papers stapled together, with even one off, drive her nuts. She hates kids, and she's almost OCD.
The problem I have with this is that it took me four readings to figure out that this wasn't Lois. Four readings. Why? Because in a continuity where there are Greek Gods, when Jack Ryder looks to the sky and says, "Oy, Artemisia!" It's really easy to think he's making some odd reference. And when Banshee babbles about switching hosts, you figure she might be referencing what Ryder was saying, because you know that Banshee is what this issue is about. I'm not the only one who had this confusion. Steve, my editor and I, discussed it when we saw the preview of these four pages, and we though that this was actually Austen depicting Lois, from the way he's spoken about her in interviews. This is one of the rare cases where I let something from the writer's words outside of the story influence my take on the story itself, but I'm expecting Austen to break out his Lois any day now and make her a B*$%^. And if it confused Steve and I (and we live, eat, and breathe Superman), it likely confused a lot of you.
So I finish figuring out what the heck has been going on, and then I go back through and read again, and I realize that this is an example of the writer making the setting meet the story he wants to tell. The woman says Metropolis is like Gotham, and so magically it becomes so. I don't know about you, but I think if Metropolis is going to become a haven of cynicism and dirt, which this woman not only thinks but SEES, the changes have to be made in the story beforehand, because Metropolis is a clean city of optimistic people, the City of Tomorrow. Just because Austen wants a scene with a dirty Metropolis doesn't make Metropolis dirty, any more than Casey wanting to liven up Mxy by making him destroy the Earth makes any sense at all.
I hate conformity, but I'll state my case here again. Superman stories are an exercise in conformity, at least to begin with. You have 60 years of stories, fans, and history to work from. The way you make your mark on that is not to say that a city which has been clean for 60 years is now dirty for one issue because you think the generalized city of tomorrow is dirty, you change the city somehow after you've started working within the mythos presented. And from the gate, Austen has been more concerned with "his" Superman than ours.
I know, you're saying, it's just city dirt. But what about when it's Superman's non-violence, or when it's Superman being family friendly? He violates those, as well. I'll get to that.
Why are we seeing a story about the catharsis of the Jack Ryder character. We just had a twelve issue mini-series which dealt with his character very well. It was called "Superman: Metropolis". But we're in "Action Comics" now. How long has it been, outside of "Adventures of Superman", which rules the world, how long has it been since we've seen any plausible Jimmy, Lois, or Perry? Seriously, folks. Tell me. It's like no one cares that in the effort to get the "name" artists on the books we're forsaking the things we like about Superman in the first place, the main characters. There's no reason that a fan who picked up the books three years ago completely ignorant should not know, and well, Jimmy, Lois, Lana, Perry, and Ma and Pa. One who picked up every issue save "Action Comics" would know about President Luthor, maybe Jimmy (if they got "Metropolis", which was always understocked), and the Lana that is a total b*^$# who wants to take Clark from Lois, which isn't the Lana we all know. And they would see a violent, near homicidal Superman. No Perry, really. No Ma and Pa.
Who cares about Jack Ryder compared to Perry White, even? How does Ryder rate the forefront of an issue when Perry hasn't been seen in time out of mind?
And now, the research section.
On thing I usually promise when I write my reviews is that I will not research. I will read the book as the common man. But this time, just because I was curious, I looked up Artemisia.
Artemisia Gentileschi did paintings of beheadings in the 1600s, and was one of the first and important female painters of her time. She made pictures with graphic, horrific beheadings as a standard about half the time. This is ironic, because get this. Austen names the new Silver Banshee Artemisia, and WHO is it is that threatens to pop her head off? Superman.
Oh ho ho. That sure got us with a oddly vague post-modern allusion to a feminist painter. But then there's the end result of that irony, which is SUPERMAN THREATENING TO POP SOMEONE'S HEAD OFF.
Now, you can get mad at me and say, "Well, Neal, he was just trying to say that to get her to stop."
Okay. Then why did he reaffirm that he was going to pop her neck off when she asked him if he was serious?
Look, this shouldn't have to be said, but SUPERMAN DOES NOT POP PEOPLE'S HEADS OFF. He solves problems as non-violently as is possible, and in failing, sacrifices not life, but capture. He's not a pacifist, in that he will kill if he must in self-defense, but Banshee was no threat to him.
Silver Banshee is actually a cursed woman named Siobhan McDougal, not a "Lacy", and her use is not as a spirit going from person to person (as this issue suggests), but rather she's a malevolent spirit that can be used by demons to do their bidding. For instance, in her first appearance, McDougal was trying to get a book that would remove her curse, and later, she worked for Satanus as a conjured spirit. Thanks to the Who's Who of the Superman Homepage for that, along with the unofficial guide to the DCU.
In other words, she doesn't leap from host to host as she gets bored. She's an old curse that has to be inflicted on someone, and as far as we know (without Austen even providing any continuity to suggest otherwise), she's still with Siobhan as of the start of this issue.
She last appeared in Public Enemies, so we know she's still around. But why would she go hopping from person to person?
And hey, nothing like gratuitous lesbian kissing to mark the transfer. That's the way to go to keep people reading, right?
Hey, parents! Guess what? You want to get your kids into comics, just pick up this issue! They get necrotic lesbian kissing, children and kitties getting murdered, Superman threatening to rip people's heads off, and a mean lady who shoos nice kids off her doorstep, only to turn into a demon woman who kills men by making blood spurt out their mouths as she sticks her long tongue down their throats. They also get splendid mass killing, fire-filled clubs with blocked exits just a year or so after the Great White tragedy, and a man so scared of his own inadequacy that he cries before Superman freezes him. What more could kids want?
I think half of the reason that comics are only for adults is that they don't have any comics that are appropriate for children any more. If they tried to make them acceptable to anyone under 18, there might be more of an audience and the editors could stop complaining about not having one any more. But then, try getting a kid to read these days. Good luck. I don't envy them their position in needing to get readers, but is the solution to go as low as you possibly can? TV does it, and I hate TV. Comics, seriously laugh me off the stage, but comics folks, they're one of the last untapped bastions of literature in the reading world, and we're paying them to make it such indecipherable smut that you can't tell the Dostoevskys of comic writing from the Danielle Steeles, but nonetheless, each and every one of the writers has more name than content to their work.
And this book is what comes of it.
The scene with the family and Ryder is incredibly awkward, and not because of what he's telling the family, but because he says that the mother's neighborhood is crappy and she just basically ignores it. Why is this scene even in here? What does it establish? Is it supposed to be funny? Or cathartic for Jack. It is unclear because the writing is not clear. That is a bad thing.
Get this. We have, as the focus of the entire issue, the Silver Banshee, right? And what do we know about the Silver Banshee. Well, she's a magically based villain who came from a curse whose main power is the ability to shriek really loudly, and the shriek can hurt Superman. Am I right? That's what I think when I think of the Banshee. And yet, for this whole issue, despite all the murder going on, Banshee never ONCE uses her wail. And get this. In this issue, the TITLE is WAIL of the Banshee. He taunts us with it.
So in other words, as I see it, Austen needed a proxy for murder, and thinks we'll forgive it if it's the Silver Banshee. That's the Toyman school of how to make a villain cooler. Make him a killer. Well, that's sure worked for the Toyman, who has shown up in HOW many books since he became a killer? One?
And don't get me wrong, I liked that original Toyman murderer story, but why? Because it hadn't been done before. No one had taken a rather innocent villain and made him a horrible killer. They spent a lot of time doing it, too, and the story made sense. And it involved supporting characters, like Cat Grant, who we haven't seen since Our Worlds At War. Now we have normal villains going killer every other issue teamed up with the likes of Jack Ryder, and I'm sick of it.
There were two completely unnecessary splashes. There is nothing dramatic about Superman coming upon Banshee, unless there is action in the pose, and though the full page of Creeper examining himself is interestingly put, it doesn't establish anything the previous page did not. I'm a comic writer, and an average one at best, and one thing I've learned as I go from my first to my 20th comic and seeing them brought from conceptualization to reality, if you make a splash without a really dynamic focus and reason, it's usually the mark of lazy writing. I concede that. I've done it myself, so I'm just as guilty, but in this issue there were 3 pages of splashes out of 22 total, and if you count the page where Ryder has his awkward scene in the house, that's 4 of 22 wasted so far, which is a high ratio. Add in two distinct scenes of Banshee repetitiously murdering people, and you begin to see why I have contempt for this issue. The writing structure is very base and unsophisticated.
Only the third splash makes sense, with Superman dramatically sweeping in and saving the people from the fire. That's when you should have a splash, when something incredible and fascinating that could fill a whole page is happening.
And then the crux of the issue. The point that has a lot of people asking me why.
Doomsday appears, and crushes a young boy and a kitty to death.
I'm not a guy who's squeamish. To give you an idea, I hunt. I am not against killing things, if there is a purpose, if there is fruit to the efforts. When I first saw Doomsday in the early nineties, I'll concede that what made me afraid of him is that he took a thing which I revere (even though I take it for meat), a deer, held it up, and snapped its neck with callous disregard. I flinched even as a hunter, and though that it was pushing the line. He crushed a bird in his hands, and we knew Doomsday was just a pure evil being.
And it was said that in the Doomsday rampage, he murdered people all up and down the East Coast. But how many did they show? Well, not many.
My point being, okay, you can argue that this scene with Doomsday and the kid, it just REALLY establishes how much of a fink he is. And yes, it does. But if I believed that it were just that and not gratuitous violence, I would rest at ease. I do not.
Because when Doomsday crushed that deer, he immediately moved on a coarse to attack Superman and the story commenced. He was punished for his evil.
Next month, we do not have resolution, we have Preus. And my guess is that Doomsday will show up soon, for sure, but not next month.
Ergo this scene showing Doomsday was to make us go, "COOL! DOOMSDAY IS COMING BACK!" And yeah, that's true. It is cool that Doomsday is coming back.
But he killed a kitty and a little boy. That's like having Doomsday kill a Grandmother. If this scene were part of a story where Doomsday will be punished, it would be different, but it's not. It's just a random instance of Doomsday killing. It's the reason I and many find the Joker so implausible. He plays innocent deaths for yuks in a serious universe. I think when you have a straight shot Joker story of his evil, you end up with an all right end result, like when Batman confronts Joker about killing Jason in Knightfall, way back when, that was probably my favorite Joker moment.
But imagine you saw a Batman comic that ended this way. Batman has fought a B villain all issue, say Mr. Freeze, and then we cut to a kid at a Circus. He's smiling, carrying a balloon, and he accidentally lets it go. Joker catches it from above, hops down. The kid says, "Are you the Joker?"
Then Joker unloads a gun into the kid, laughs, and runs away.
It's in character, but it's not really something we need to know that that's the kind of thing the Joker would do.
I might be more kind to this if the rest of the issue followed, but the reality of it is that the whole issue was fairly gruesome and violent to no end, as has been the whole Austen run save the brief break to make Lana evil, and Superman is not the subject of this book, some violent Punisher-like entity is. So I don't forgive it.
In fact, Austen has officially lost all good graces with me he'd earned since "Metropolis", and were this not my capacity as a reviewer to continue reading this book, I would stop reading them.
And for a Superman nut like me, that says a whole lot.
Art - 5: If you take the context of what is being said away, D'Anda does a pretty darned good job here. His Banshee is fantastic, his Superman is pretty realistic, and you could see all of the scenes rather plainly. Hate to put it this way, but the Doomsday smashing the child sequence wouldn't be nearly so horrifying had not D'Anda been so good at drawing it. You can't blame the artist for the content, and I don't here. Good work.
Also, there is a cool reference to the girl from Majestic Trade in the lower left corner of the splash in the fire. It was obscure, but I caught it, and thought that was cool. Nice reference.
Cover Art - 5: My head says to slam it for not happening in the issue, but my whole gut says that this is just a fantastic image, so I told my head to shut up. It's babbled enough about Superman in the last six pages. The pose is stunning, the background is fantastic, I love the logo, and I can even forgive the words, the picture is so well done. More, please!
Check out the Comic Index Lists for the complete list of Superman-related comics published in 2004.