Comic books sure do love their stunts. Those are the big events that run through the company’s entire line, featuring Earth- (and universe-) shattering storylines where heroes die, heroes are reborn, the fates of everything hang in the balance, and readers are expected to buy 72 separate comics in order to be able to read every last bit of the story. And at three or four bucks a pop these days, the True Fan can wind up spending well over 200 smackers for the whole thing. With FINAL CRISIS and SECRET INVASION running simultaneously, said True Fan is Truly Screwed.
Or … they can wait for the novelization and save a few hundred dollars. Well, at least if it’s a DC Comics event; Marvel, which has produced more novels than their Distinguished Competition, tends not to novelize events. Thus, despite my efforts to keep the column balanced between the output of the different companies, this entry will, by necessity, be all-DC and includes, by way of full disclosure, a book I edited.
Until THE DEATH AND LIFE OF SUPERMAN by Roger Stern in 1993, any novels based on an existing story would have been the adaptation of a movie, such as 1966’s BATMAN VS. THE 3 VILLAINS OF DOOM by Winston Lyon (aka William Woolfolk). But until “The Death of Superman” storyline that ran through some 80-plus individual comic book issues during 1992-1993, there had never been an event in the comic books themselves large enough to warrant that sort of attention.
“The Death of Superman,” which became a national, hell, an international headline event (the story having broken, to DC’s fortune, on an otherwise slow news day), sold millions and millions (and millions) of comic books and kept the world outside of the fans interested for the duration of the year-long stunt. This story’s legacy is still being felt today both in the comics and as a licensing moneymaker, including last year’s direct-to-DVD animated feature SUPERMAN: DOOMSDAY.
The story is this: Doomsday, an unstoppable killing machine in the shape of a craggy gray humanoid full of nasty bony protuberances is revived from his resting place beneath the Earth and makes his way to freedom and general mayhem. The army, the marines, the Justice League of America … nothing can stop him. Then comes Superman, who, in a heroic battle to the finish, kills the creature, but dies in the doing. The world mourns Superman; other heroes arise to take his place; a new threat bent on destruction, death and conquest hits Earth; and pretty much the entire DC Universe takes part in the titanic denouncement. And, oh, yeah: Superman was dead, but he got better. (Kryptonians are funny that way.)
Stern, one of the primary writers on the SUPERMAN comics, took this massive story, with its dozens of issues and scores of characters involved in all these intertwining storylines and turned it into a 416-page novel. Like Superman’s death, Stern’s effort was heroic, but, unlike the death thing, unnecessary. DEATH AND LIFE was published in hardcover by Bantam Books and achieved bestseller status on the NEW YORK TIMES list — a heady feat for a funny-book novel and an indication of the widespread awareness of the event. Because it needed to be accessible to a mass audience, an überlarge cast set in a fictitious universe required a lot of explanations for the lay reader.
Everyone knows Clark Kent is Superman, but who the hell is Oliver Queen or Kyle Rayner? (You fanboys can put your hands down; we know you know they’re Green Arrow and Green Lantern, but does Joe Bookstore Browser know this?) Stern, a knowledgeable and able writer, kept too much of the story from the comics when the novel would have been better served by whittling the narrative down to three or so pivotal characters and telling the story from their points of view, rather than including the kitchen sink, where it came from, when it was installed and by whom, and who used it to wash what.
Still, as said, Stern is a good writer and, for those of us into the history and heritage of the DCU (and who else is going to be reading a column like this, written by the author of THE ATLAS OF THE DC UNIVERSE, an early-1990s role-playing manual?), THE DEATH AND LIFE OF SUPERMAN is a good read and a fine representation of one of the biggest stories ever told therein.
I’ve lauded Elliot S. Maggin’s accomplishments as a writer of prose fiction in this column before — in the very first installment, as a matter of fact. His two Superman novels — LAST SON OF KRYPTON and MIRACLE MONDAY — were, at their time, the best prose representations of a comic book property in print. Maggin topped himself with 1998’s KINGDOM COME, based on the graphic novel by Mark Waid and Alex Ross.
Fueled by Waid’s powerful storytelling and Ross’ popular painted style (which shot him to fame with Marvel’s MARVELS), the four-issue miniseries told of an alternate DC Universe in which the old heroes were pushed aside by their offspring, the next and less concerned, generation of super-powered people. The kids were callous and their sense of entitlement as the new “gods” of humanity leads to a disaster that sends Superman into retirement. But things eventually get bad enough that the old guard come calling upon him to help stop the new in a battle between good and evil, young and old, right and wrong.
Though on the surface just another story highlighting the Spider-Man credo (but applicable to all superheroes) that “with great power comes great responsibility,” KINGDOM COME (featuring a painted cover and color interior plates by Ross) moves the story beyond this hoary concept by having it told through the point-of-view character, a retired minister with doubts aplenty, who doesn’t understand why God, above whom there is no greater power, has abdicated His responsibility by allowing the super-youth to walk all over humanity. Maggin’s retelling in prose is beautifully written and, while entirely faithful to the original, his deeper delving into the characters’ hearts and minds are entirely consistent and seamless additions to the original by Waid. (An unpublished chapter from KINGDOM COME, along with some other fine unpublished prose pieces featuring the Superman cast of characters — including a lovely Krypto the Superdog novella, as well as chapters from Maggin’s novel-in-progress — can be found at http://theages.superman.nu/Maggin/.)
Published in 1985, DC’s CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, written by Marv Wolfman and penciled by George Perez, was a milestone event, destroying millions of worlds and dozens of alternate-versions of characters across the Multiverse and leaving just one Earth, with one version of all the heroes in its wake. (If that sounds like gibberish to you, don’t worry; not understanding is a sign of mental health.) The impact of that seismic event has never ceased to send ripples through DC’s meta-story and is causing major tremors again in the current company-wide crossover event (now in its third or fourth year), FINAL CRISIS. In 2004, with the 20th anniversary of CRISIS fast approaching, a publisher contracted with DC for a novel based on CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, which I was to edit.
Wolfman, no stranger to prose (he and partner Len Wein packaged the 11 Marvel novels published in the late 1970s by Pocket Books, of which they wrote several), adapted his own story for this hardcover novel. The scope and cast of CRISIS was even vaster than those of THE DEATH AND LIFE OF SUPERMAN, and rather than try to tackle every single event along this long and complicated road, CRISIS focused on the doomed Barry Allen, aka The Flash, who is destined to perish midway through the miniseries.
However, thanks to all sorts of nifty time paradoxes and alternate-universe hopping via the Speed Force and other conceits, death doesn’t stop our hero from traveling about and being a witness to all the key interstices of this vast storyline and, in the end, having a ghostly hand in saving the universe. The writing style is sparse and clicks along at a sharp pace, Barry’s narrative alternating with short chapters focusing on pivotal moments and characters elsewhere in the story.
Speaking of CRISIS and its current-day counterpart, FINAL CRISIS, we come to INFINITE CRISIS, a CRISIS follow-up of sorts that falls between those other two crises, this one written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Phil Jimenez, George Perez and Jerry Ordway. In CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS (hold onto your hats; here comes more gibberish!), the original Superman, who debuted in 1938, was now gray-haired and married to old Lois Lane, and lived on Earth-2, one of the alternate universe Earths destroyed in CRISIS. Rather than kill off Old Superman like they did so many other characters, they left him and Old Lois “alive,” gone off to live in some pocket universe where they can still exist even though their real universe was gone. For reasons too long to relate, Old Superman and Lois are also locked up with a Superboy and a Lex Luthor from different alternate worlds, and once they bust out, all hell busts out with them, threatening the universe and leading to the recreation of 51 more alternate Earths.
Once again, a novelist is handed this storm of concepts, characters and ideas and told to make something coherent out of it. The job on INFINITE CRISIS (as well as on the novel based on the follow-up stunt to that stunt, 52) fell to veteran Greg Cox. Again, Cox is a writer who understands the wisdom of focusing on a few characters and telling the story through their eyes, treating the rest as supporting cast with important roles to play, but which play out against the backdrop of the larger story.
For INFINITE CRISIS, Cox went with the Big Three: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, assigning each an emotional arc in sync with the main story. Plot threads and character arcs from the comics are deleted or downplayed, giving him room to devote the proper time and energy to those elements he has chosen to highlight. And, in the process, clearing up some of the confusion from the comic books by making sense out of chaos.
Next time: a random assortment. —Paul Kupperberg