“A sentimental replica of a planet long since vanished.”
That is a moment heat-seared into my brain. It is of Superman within his crystalline Fortress of Solitude, powers freshly returned and in rematch with the evil Kryptonians who have invaded his adopted planet and his refuge. He reaches to his chest peels away the S-shield itself and throws it like a slow-moving Frisbee! It expands and encases the big mute one in super-strong colored Saran Wrap and he falls out of the air!
It really didn’t do much but make Non (“as without thought as he is without voice”) fall down and it made zero sense but it looked cool as hell, and when you’re a kid that is all you damn need! Superman 2 was the movie that pit Superman against villains as powerful as himself, three of them even!, in an action-forward sequel that was pure magic. The first Superman movie, released in ‘78,is recognized as one of the (if not the single) greatest comic superhero movies ever made, weknowdis, but Superman 2 added punching and was therefore was in a whole ’nother category. In addition to punching, we had the ludicrous move mentioned above, completely Silver Age comics in its charming absurdity and we were thrilled. So, I goddamn give you this news; he does it again in SUPERMAN ‘78 #2, baby!
SUPERMAN ‘78 is a recently launched series from DC Comics dropping monthly and planned to run for 6 issues. Inspired by the success of Batman ‘66, a comic series continuing that specific television iteration of the character’s adventures in comics form, DC has added BATMAN ‘89 and SUPERMAN ‘78, doing the same thing for arguably the greatest silver screen versions of these characters. While this might appear a cynical cash-grab aimed at folks like me, middle-aged, nostalgic for these iterations of these characters from my youth, enjoying some measure of disposable income, well it probably is. That doesn’t make it bad, though, and thankfully the talent working on the book are doing it out of the same nostalgia and love (in addition to the paycheck, I suppose). The writer is Robert Venditti, art is supplied by Wilfredo Torres.
Issues #1 and #2 begin a story that could easily have been any Superman sequel. We are returned to early/mid-80s New York City, which I am sure they called Metropolis but was just the Big Apple in every way. The flavor of the Metropolis pages is strikingly similar in overall tone to the films’ street scenes and it is obvious both creators have worked hard to capture this. The story introduces classic villain Brainiac, who almost made the film franchise in Superman 3 but was reduced in concept to the the supercomputer that Richard Pryor made. Brainiac here is an alien conservationist who seems to have been involved somehow with Krypton’s destruction or possibly just ‘saved’ some specimens from destruction. He discovers a Kryptonian is on Earth and considers them a hostile invasive species, prompting him to come after Superman.
If my favorite panel is the display of that kooky S-shield superpower, my favorite extended sequence is Lois Lane getting breakfast (hot dogs!) and Clark Kent navigating that conversation while unobtrusively using his superpowers to stop a purse snatcher. That I was given a purse-snatcher is in itself a piece of dated innocence that I appreciated and Superman handling so small a situation reminded me more how much I love him.
Torres draws characters that are recognizable as their 40-years-gone film selves without actually looking much like them. Too great a resemblance in an adaptation is often distracting and too little wouldn’t have made me feel connected to the original media. Here there’s a sketchy line work to the faces that evokes a memory more than it achieves a likenesses. That is enhanced by references; to body language we remember (check out Clark in that street scene mentioned above, or Superman’s crossed arms when he visits Lex Luthor in #2), the dress and clothing (Lois’ 80’s business-fashionable gear, Luthor’s brown suit) and even backgrounds. I spent 12 years in and around the Time and Life Building and this comic captures the “newspaper office” indoor settings, and that Midtown Manhattan outdoors feeling better than most comics.
When Clark Kent opened his shirt and exposed the Superman S for the first time, I swear I heard the Williams score come up around me. Torres bottled that screen moment, distilled it and used it in his ink when he drew this one. He does it again when Superman flies; Superman’s posture is that of Chris Reeves, hanging from wires, shoulders and weight steering his flight.
Brainiac’s designs are locked solidly in late 80s comics - this is the drone robots with weird robot-skull faces and the pink crystal brains. Brainiac himself flies around in a robot-face skull-head giant-octopus spaceship. If this sounds more WTF-exclamation point than WTF-question mark, stick around! There was a one-panel teaser of the green and purple Lex Luthor power armor, so that might be coming into play at some point. I know there was an old script for Superman 3 featuring Brainiac and Luthor considered, before going for Richard Pryor vehicle, so maybe this is inspired by that?
Venditti has similarly studied his source material in such detail that I just about found myself hearing voices at times. Margot Kidder’s frenetic ‘three conversations at once’ verbal meandering and declarations of “this could be the STORY of the CENTURY!”, Clark’s uhm-Lois’ing, his Goshes and his resigned “aren’t they all” response, all spot on. There’s a rhythm to their film dialogue that Venditti nails, again pleasantly feeding nostalgia and in turn getting it do do some of the heavy lifting. The voice of Gene Hackman, actor among actors and man among men, rings loud and clear when Lex Luthor declares himself to be the “keenest criminal genius of our generation”.
Let’s be clear; Kevin Spacey and Jesse Eisenberg are all well and good at what they do, but there is only one Lex Luthor on film and that is Gene Hackman.
Venditti has updated Brainiac, a character not seen in the movies but active in comics at the time, giving his motivations a heavy ecological overtone. Climate change was a big topic in the 80s; we just called it ecology and ‘the environment’ and while we strongly suspected that we were destroying the planet, we didn’t yet have daily evidence. The presentation of this environmental message feels like it might have been done just this way if this really had been some never-happened 80’s Superman sequel, as it uses a villain to represent ecological danger like in Superman 4 (Dolph Lundgren started a trend we still see today, with certain actors portraying multiple superheroes on film for both major comics publishers).
SUPERMAN ‘78 #1 and #2 are available now at your favorite comic shop and if they don’t have them on the shelves, just ask. They can probably still get copies and they will gladly save future issues (#3 is due November 2) or pre-order the eventual collected edition. If digital comics is more your bag, you already know how to get them (legally, I hope) - but if you don’t, please feel free to shoot me a note and I’ll be happy to get into more detail on the topic.
Until next time, friends, and as Raymond Chandler wrote, ‘to say goodbye is to die a little.’
Plenty of Pulp, by Max Cage, for The Wednesday Pull List