Classics Reissued: The Gil Kane Superman
Bob Rozakis, Martin Pasko, Marv Wolfman, et al. (script)
Gil Kane (art)
DC Comics, 2013
In a coals-to-Newcastle piece de resistance, DC Comics took the halcyon perfection of 1980s America and made it just that much better by briefly joining together the greatest comic book superhero of them all with the greatest comic book superhero artist of them all. For three years in the early ’80s, in the pages of Superman and Action Comics, the pencilling (and sometimes the writing) chores for the Man of Steel were handled by none other than industry giant Gil Kane, who’d by that point been drawing comics for roughly fifty years and who’d done iconic runs on Conan, The Teen Titans, The Atom, and perhaps most memorably Green Lantern - as well as briefer appearances and fill-in issues on virtually every other comics creation at either Marvel or DC. By the time he came on board the Superman family of titles, he was a legend on par with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
Legends don’t get where they are by bending to every new aesthetic wind that blows, and this was a cause for rejoicing among the ranks of Gil Kane’s fans: they knew ahead of time what they’d be getting, and they knew it would be exquisite. The artist’s visual iconography – bug-eyed aliens, tentacled monsters, bald evil geniuses, befuddled cops, wide-eyed damsels in distress, particularly baroque spaceships, and of course giant robots – was born in the era of the grand pulp magazine heyday. Unlike Superman’s premiere signature artist Curt Swan, Kane is visibly impatient with quotidian day-to-day scenes, or with civilian characters who don’t ripple and flex. His scenes in these issues set at the Daily Planet, featuring Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and most certainly Clark Kent, are universally unconvincing; you can feel the artist yearning for tableaux.
And when he does break his main character out of blue suits and sensible shoes, Kane stretches into a ground-eating gallop such as virtually no artists – then or now – can match. His superheroes (all men; the few female superheroes Kane ever condescended to draw invariably look like half-melted clothing store mannequins) have a fluid sinuosity of remarkably distinctive beauty, and his panel-sequences are compositions to astound, even in these issues when his aging hand is perhaps less sure of itself than in earlier decades.
Luckily, the writers Kane teamed up with for these issues – such long-serving veterans as Bob Rozakis (speciality: sentimentality), Martin Pasko (speciality: dorkiness), and especially the superb Marv Wolfman (speciality: scripts so good and real and even funny that it almost doesn’t matter who’s drawing them – almost) – knew enough to play to his strengths: this nifty 400-page hardcover volume, collecting 13 issues, is virtually one long action sequence.
Superman fights in these issues. He doesn’t sail serenely over the fray, solving problems with his super-brain, as he did for far too much of the 1960s, and he doesn’t excessively agonize, as he did throughout much of the ’70s. The Superman here – fighting such bad guys as Brainiac, Lord Satanis, Vandal Savage, and even Captain Marvel’s old foe Doctor Sivana (plus starships full of the aforementioned bug-eyed monsters) – isn’t subtle, and he isn’t all that restrained; he punches the bad guys, including one misbehaving politician.
It’s true that there are some unfortunate hold-overs from the bad old days of a Superman who lives in a constant fog of lies and equivocations and hair-splittings in order to avoid revealing his secret identity to the prying, snooping ladies in his life. The low point of this kind of nonsense – a low point bewailed quite loudly by fans at the time (DC received a particularly stinging letter from Boston, for example) – comes early on in the collection, when Lois Lane turns to a visibly ailing Clark Kent and asks him point-blank, “Are you Superman?” and he answers point-blank, “No – I’m not Superman.” And then thinks to himself “I don’t know what I am anymore. I’m certainly not the Superman I’ve always been.” Wolfman, the writer of such cowardly drivel, might have hoped that fans would concentrate on drama of the hero’s self-doubt, but no amount of Hamlet-style internal crisis can blunt the fact that after decades of coming up with one doozy of a trick after another to divert Lois Lane’s suspicions, here simply resorts to telling her a bald-faced lie. Even after thirty years, it can still rankle the more fanatical echelons of Superman fans.
But such missteps are rare in this collection (part of DC’s apparently ongoing initiative of bringing out hardcover reprint volumes honoring their finest artists – this one no doubt given a little scheduling boost by the fact that Warner Bros. has a new $300 million movie coming out in a few months), which mostly features Wolfman’s writing at its meat-and-potatoes most reliable. The villains are single-mindedly villainous (the turn by Dr. Sivana features not only Superman but Captain Marvel and the original Superman of Earth-Two, a geek-fest unrivalled until DC’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” a couple of years later), the plots are neat and comfortable, and our hero is throughout characterized in unapologetically glowing terms:
He is every silent knight marching off to battle the dastardly foe. He is every hero born to save the distressed maiden. Without thought for himself, without concern of danger, without a moment’s hesitation, he does what must be done. He is … Superman!
The high point of this antique charm is surely the story “If Superman Didn’t Exist …” in which two young boys – Jerry and Joey – respond to an alien threat to their home by dreaming up a great protector, a hero for their hour of need: Superman. It might be a little ironic considering the lengths to which DC went in order to short-change Superman’s creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, but it’s a sweet little tribute all the same.
At roughly the same time these simple, openly nostalgic issues were appearing at newsstands, the comics world was changing forever. Marvel’s new, updated X-Men and DC’s own revamped Teen Titans were raising the dramatic stakes in ways these pat, monster-of-the-month issues couldn’t hope to match. In a way, the run collected here represents the final, epic incarnation of that older, more paternal, all-powerful Superman; after this, there would be a bit of chaos and then a massively popular and creatively bankrupt re-design by fan-favorite writer/artist John Byrne. The Superman (and his supporting cast) countless fans had grown up with would disappear then forever, but oh, what a glorious send-off he gets in these pages.