Words and Pictures: Enter the Superheroes, in Gotham Central and All-Star Superman

Superheroes are going to feature in this column quite a bit over the next few installments. Not exclusively, but pretty regularly.

I could waffle on at length about the fascinating idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of the whole superhero sub-genre that’s essentially run in the US by Marvel and DC, but I’m not sure anyone else would find it half as fascinating as I do (although, honestly, it’s one of the most unusual systems for creating, publishing, distributing and selling fiction you could ever imagine). So for now here’s just one proposition that sets the scene for the two titles I thought I’d talk about today.

Quite a lot of the long-running superhero series display a couple of apparently contradictory characteristics that can be an obstacle for the objective, casual (i.e. non-‘fan’) reader. They revel in dense and new-reader-hostile continuity, the established canon of past stories that exists in their respective shared universes; yet they also play fast and loose with the narrative, psychological or physical plausibility and internal consistency that are staples of most other kinds of fiction. Sometimes, superhero comics require not so much the suspension of disbelief as its ritual sacrifice upon an altar dedicated to the gods of never-ending, bombastic soap opera.

There are all kinds of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons for the development of these odd characteristics. To an extent they’re features, not bugs, of stories that are produced on a remorseless, indefinite monthly basis, by temporary creative teams that do not own the corporate intellectual property upon which they’re working, and primarily for the diehard fan, not the aforementioned casual reader.

Because I was once one of those diehard fans, I don’t have too much trouble switching my brain into ‘superhero-reading’ mode, though it’s nothing like as easy as it once was. But I thought I’d start my Words and Pictures venture into the world of superheroes gingerly, by talking about a couple of recentish comics that don’t really need that kind of mental adaptation. They approach the topic of superheroes, their continuity and their narratives, in imaginative and entirely different ways, and do it so successfully that there’s no need to cut them any genre-specific slack. They’re just plain good.  And fittingly, they’re about the two most famous superheroes of all.

GOTHAM CENTRAL, written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, art by Michael Lark, published by DC Comics

Here’s a Batman comic in which Batman hardly appears. In effect, Gotham Central is a police procedural TV series masquerading as a superhero comic.

The focus is entirely upon the men and women of Gotham City PD, specifically the unit that gets involved in crimes committed by supervillians. This is a rich and diverse group of characters, handled by two talented writers, Rucka and Brubaker, with a particular interest in and affinity for crime stories. A perfect match, in other words.

Gotham Central is firmly set in the DC Universe of the time – Batman’s key villains show up one after another, as he and other superheroes do now and again – but it takes its tone and tropes and structure from the police procedural far more than from the superhero, and thereby makes itself not only distinctive but more conventionally comprehensible to the non-superhero reader. It imposes a certain logic and grounded plausibility on the narrative (once you get past the inherent implausibility of superheroes and villains, of course).

And that plausibility, along with the quality of the writing, gives the whole thing a weight, a certain leverage upon the reader’s engagement, that is absent in the more flashy kind of superhero tale.

The stories are good, which also helps. The cops investigate unsettling kidnappings and murders in ways that are just realistic enough to convince. One of them is involuntarily outed as a lesbian, with similarly believable consequences. More than one of them dies, caught in the crossfire between Batman and his superfoes. In normal superhero comics those deaths would probably be somewhat incidental, and quickly forgotten; here, they have meaning, and persistent consequences.

Batman’s place in Gotham Central is interesting and plausible, too, and illustrates how Point of View can profoundly shape a narrative. Despite his absence much of the time, he is the structuring, defining presence at the heart of the book. The reader is never allowed inside his head, or his life, and sees only what the police see: his actions and (few, dispassionate) words. In Gotham Central he’s a remote, cold figure; an ally of sorts, but an uncomfortable, unsympathetic and not entirely welcome one. A cipher, a force of Nature.

I’ve read the first two of the four trade paperback collections, so can’t absolutely guarantee the quality is sustained, but it seems pretty likely. These guys knew precisely what they were doing with this series.

ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, written by Grant Morrison, art by Frank Quitely, published by DC Comics

Superman’s a paradox. He’s the ultimate icon of superheroic virtue, enjoying near-universal public awareness, yet has proven a distinctly problematic assignment for writers over the years. And I admit: I never warmed to him, not even in the heyday of my superhero fandom.

In All-Star Superman, arguably the most creative current writer in superhero comics – Grant Morrison – and a truly gifted artist – Frank Quitely – created something I therefore wasn’t expecting: a Superman comic I really like. One of the most accomplished, perfectly judged superhero comics for a very long time, in fact.

They do it by taking what might be the only really satisfactory imaginative approach to the character, the only one that gets to Superman’s essence and his symbolic transcendence: they imbue him and the stories about him with mythic resonance and import. This is not a caped crusader fighting supervillians; it’s a dying demi-god performing his Twelve Labours and, ultimately, ascending.

What’s so brilliant about All-Star Superman, though, is that while it is playing that mythic game with great effect, it is also (a) a funny, moving and deceptively straightforward (if very idea- and narrative-dense) comic about Superman’s final days, him and Lois Lane going on a date, Clark Kent losing his adoptive father, Jimmy Olsen getting into trouble, Lex Luthor being mad, bad and dangerous to know, and (b) a loving homage to the frankly rather silly goings-on in mid-20th century Superman comics.

In fact, those three levels of meaning and tone are one, because the mythic is fashioned from the substance of the mundane, elevating the superficially silly to a higher level entirely. It helps considerably if you’re familiar with some of the basic elements of the Superman mythos (Bizarro world, the Negative Zone, the bottled city of Kandor, etc.) but the beauty of All-Star Superman is that it’s a concise stand-alone story with beginning, middle and end, unconnected to any specific, restrictive continuity in the DC Universe.

It’s also, incidentally, stuffed with Morrison’s trademark inventiveness, in this case often applied to sf and fantastical ideas. There are Voyager Titans, gigantic humans genetically engineered for deep space exploration; a vision of Superman as divine blacksmith, hammering miniature suns into being on a cosmic anvil.

The art is nothing short of wonderful, and a good 50% of the reason I think All-Star Superman is something of a masterpiece. Quitely has a clean, clear style reminiscent of Euro-comics. Immensely detailed, immensely thoughtful in its attention to nuance (Superman’s body language and posture change subtly but completely, for example, when he is in his Clark Kent persona).

This is, for me, pretty much the ultimate Superman comic. In a mere twelve issues, Morrison and Quitely delivered more heart and smarts than most superhero comics manage no matter how many instalments they’re allowed.

3 thoughts on “Words and Pictures: Enter the Superheroes, in Gotham Central and All-Star Superman”

  1. Interesting post. Actually, I would like a post on the waffling idiosyncrasies of the superhero genre. Sounds like it would be really informative for both a comics fan and non fan alike.
    My one quibble about your post is your harping on the suspension of disbelief and plausibility/ implausibility. It seems, to me, that there is some kind of magical suspension of disbelief level. A line that, once crossed, becomes “ritually sacrificing” the concept. I don’t know if this is just me, but I have no problem with the plausibility/ implausibility of superhero comics. In the alternate and mutated Earths in which these comics are set, the events of the story work. (of course, this raises the question about the role of willing suspension of disbelief and its likely uses in science fiction and fantasy.)

    1. Thanks, James. I nearly left the stuff about suspension of disbelief out of this post, because I do seriously doubt my ability to talk about it sensibly at anything other than dreadfully waffly length, but I’ll try a couple of briefish (or possibly not) points.

      Suspension of disbelief is, as you say, a fundamental component of most (not quite all, I guess, but most) speculative fiction. The willingness of the reader to play that game with the author is a function of a whole load of factors, including but not limited to: quality of writing, internal consistency of speculative elements, the reader’s pre-existing commitment to the basic material (and consequent predisposition to gloss implausibilities), etc etc etc – it’s a potentially long list.

      My notion is that long-running, continuously published superhero comics are almost unique in their testing of the limits of reader willingness to suspend disbelief, because they don’t play by the normal rules of the game.

      The most basic, and easiest, bit is buying the basic notion of superheroes (even though their powers are often imprecisely and inconsistently defined, sometimes at odds with known laws of physics). Like you, I don’t have any trouble going along with that initial premise, and the specific events that take place in any individual superhero story.

      Once the reader’s bought into that, though, a lot of superhero comics, especially if they’ve been running for decades and take place in a shared universe, begin to chip away at the illusion.

      Just a few examples, off the top of my head: characters will behave differently depending on who’s writing them (and look different, sometimes); their powers will work differently; idiot plotting is not infrequent, because the immediate need for the writer is to keep everything moving, month in, month out and there’s no time to acknowledge ever logical or sensible wrinkle in the narrative; characters endlessly repeat the same mistakes because if they actually developed and grew psychologically – as they might in more ‘traditional’ forms of fiction – they would cease to be lucrative intellectual properties that diehard fans (who support the entire comics market) recognise and love.

      I could go on and on, but I won’t.

      In most forms of fiction, this stuff would – sooner or later – leech away the reader’s willingness to suspend their disbelief in the basic premise: that these superheroes are real people with real powers and real problems.

      For some reason, for superhero comic fans (amongst which, as I said, I’d still – sort of – count myself) it’s not such a problem. My pet theory is that it’s because for the real long-term fans, the individual story, and its plausibility or otherwise, is not what they’re fundamentally invested in. Instead, it’s an array of other features of superhero comics such as the iconic symbolism of specific characters (as opposed to their day-to-day psychology), the continuity-based shocking reveal or twist that’s a staple of many stories, the visual bombast of costumed fisticuffs and so on. This predisposes them to be far more ‘forgiving’ of all manner of stuff that would break the non-fan right out of engagement with the text.

      You see what happens when I try to talk about this stuff without adequate preparation? All over the place. Maybe I’ll get back to some of it in future superhero-related posts, although it really does feel all a bit self-indulgent and inside-baseball.

      1. What you’re saying ties in to work I’m doing on superheroes as mythological figures. Essentially, the individual stories are less important than the myth of the superhero. This is why many fans will gloss over “minor” inconsistencies as long as the core of the myth stays intact.

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