Quarterbin Follies #10: Whatever Happened to the Man Under a Yellow SunDecember 9, 2014
Several weekends ago we were doing some cleaning at my place, the wife and I. I had just gotten a new filing cabinet for my comic collection (for a total of four cabinets), which was really cool, as I had run out of storage space a few years ago. Anyway, in all the cleaning and rearranging, I re-discovered somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-300 comics just sitting in boxes waiting to be found, read, sorted, and filed. Suffice it to say, I have a TON of old comics and a few new ones newly rediscovered for review here on Quarterbin Follies. GET READY FOR THE RIDE!
So anyway, prior to my “great discovery,” I had been down to Game Time, our local game shop, and grabbed up a copy of Under a Yellow Sun, the Superman graphic novel from 1994. This has been on my “to read” list for years. When it first came out, I did not have the spare bread (well, that I wasn’t spending on Bat-books) and since that time, I haven’t seen it anywhere, at least never when I had spare bread, (again, that I wasn’t spending on Bat-books). Anyway, I read the thing, and enjoyed it much more than I had anticipated. In fact it might have taken its place as my favorite Superman comic.
Now, I need to explain something. I am not, and never really have been, a Superman fan. I don’t want to get into the theories of “why,” but for this-and-that, Supes was never “my boy.” And, so, I want to make very clear that my favorite Superman story is very likely not the best Superman story ever. Bear that in mind.
For years on end, my all-time favorite Superman story had been Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Now, I am not going to say Yellow Sun unseated Whatever, but there is a real contest going on! So, join with me as I walk the road between this thing and that, to see how these stories stack up. Whatever was, as previously mentioned, penned by the legendary Alan Moore, but it was the brain child of Silver- and Bronze-Age Supes editor, Julius Schwartz. It was 1985, and the Crisis on Infinite Earths was just the excuse DC needed to reboot the Boy Scout for a new Generation. Problem was that the last generation, well, they weren’t quite done with the Man of Steel.
In the DCU, before the “Crisis,” Superman could do about anything in about 24 pages. It was a world that was bright and remarkably happy, where villains were thwarted before they could get murderous. And sure, the Pre-Crisis DCU, especially Superman, was a bit (or a lot) silly, but that was the charm, I think. It was not a world that denied evil, but it was one, I suppose, most committed to HOPE.
For the previous 30 years, writers like Schwartz himself, Elliot S! Maggin, E.Nelson Bridwell, and countless others had left bread crumbs and plot threads scattered like ticker-tape-beacons that could light the road to decades of more Superman stories. And it was this world that needed-must come to an end there in 1985. Ol’ Julie wanted to seize upon the chance to really knock out a grand finale to this version of the Kal-El before John Byrne and his Man of Steel mini flipped the script, as it were. And it was Alan Moore, the creator of John Constantine, the fellow behind the Swamp Thing, and the guy that destroyed the world in Watchmen, who was given the task to close-out the world of Superman. And this is how he began:
“This is an IMAGINARY STORY (which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good. It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed; of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights; of the women he loved, and of the choice he made between them; of how he broke his most sacred oath, and how finally all the things he had were taken from him save one. It ends with a wink. It begins in a quiet midwestern town, one summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future. Away in the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky…but no: it’s only a bird, only a plane–Superman died ten years ago. This in an IMAGINARY STORY…aren’t they all?”
Moore sets up a framing sequence where Lois, now an Elliot–now a wife and mother–sits down to share her memories of Superman’s last days. And, just like the introductory blurb above, we are treated to the show where all of Supes’ most notable foes take it up a notch, and all of those ideas and threads I talked about before are brought together in a four-color spectacle so remarkable that is really must be seen.
For many years, this was at the top of my very short Superman list. Moore’s story telling was simple, but serious, everything that was best about the Pre-Crisis Superman. While not avoiding the necessary severity of the subject material, from murder and suicide to siege warfare to divorce, Moore couched them in a dressing that children can still glom onto–he put the cookies on the bottom shelf.
“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” was originally published in Superman #423 and Action Comics #58 with classic pencil art by Superman veteran Curt Swan with inks by George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger respectively.)
Under a Yellow Sun is a very different story. Like Whatever, it relies upon a framing device to tell its story, but it in fact has two stories to tell. On the one hand, we are dealing with the somewhat younger and green Clark. He is dating Lois and faces off against Lex Luthor, the untouchable business tycoon. Plus, Clark is stressed out because he is also battling a far less tangible foe– writer’s block! He has a novel deadline to meet, and his noir-influenced thriller is stalled.
The graphic novel, written by John Francis Moore, bounces between the telling of Clark’s day-to-day life as a crusading journalist/superhero and the telling of his novel, with illustrated excerpts from the novel (colored like a faded black and white film print and illustrated by Eduardo Barreto) intersecting with Supes “real” life as rendered by Kerry Gammill and Dennis Janke. You see, when Clark cannot figure out where to lead his ex-Spec-Ops David Guthrie, he draws some inspiration from a metropolis gang war. The street thugs known as the Griffins have somehow ended up with a stolen cache of advanced Lexcorp military-grade blaster rifles. Clark suspects Lex is behind the whole thing, but he can find nothing to support his suspicion. And so, he writes.
The streets of Metropolis are traded for the beaches and jungles of war-torn Corto Maltese (in DC’s fictionalized Carribbean). Lex Luthor is exchanged for real estate mogul and war profiteer, Preston Trager, and gang warfare is replaced with the violent aftermath of a questionable revolution. As things progress in the world of Clark and Lex and Lois, so too they progress with Guthrie and Trager and medic Rebecca Carr, each of the two tales blending closer and closer together before a final, distinct diversion.
As a writer and a comic fan, I loved this. The level of meta-fiction is something that I have lived with my own self, and played with in my own fiction. Clark’s creative struggle, his balancing the creative with the commercial, lent a real relatability to Clark that most Superman stories seem to lack.
And that is where the rubber meet the road between these two stories. In
Whatever, you have an end to Superman, an almost divine if not faultless entity. He is a dream of an idea that becomes something more tangible, and perhaps something more meaningful. In Yellow Sun we see the story of a man, albeit a super-man, who defines his humanity by his relationships. But this he does from the outset, not at the end of all things. And I think that might be why I like Yellow Sun so much–because Clark takes the time to “get it right” the first time around. Yellow Sun is a “middle” that will lead to an ending, whereas Whatever is an ending that wraps up a story never intended to end