Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Sword of Superman

Phallic object upon phallic object, the basis of all mythology. 

Among the workhorses on the writing staff of the Pre-Crisis Superman, Elliot S(!) Maggin was your go-to guy for bird’s-eye view myth building. He wasn’t down in the trenches or generally coloring within the lines, pulling familiar Phantom Zone villains into the dirt like Cary Bates and Marty Pasko (Which I say with Res. Pect. The tattoos on my eyelids read “Bates” and “Pasko”).

Maggin’s cup of tea was invention: It’s from Maggin that we get Miracle Monday, Thirsty Thursday, 29th Century Superwoman Kristin Wells, Albert Einstein wrapped up in Superman’s origin, that obnoxious intergalactic rhyming bard that pops up in a couple of stories, Lex Luthor saying cuss words … you know, the high end stuff that no other writer in his right mind ever touched again.

Don’t get me wrong - I love Maggin like I love all the pre-Crisis Superman writers. Summarizing his contributions to the character, though, I’d suggest he specialized in the outlying territories. He loved adding new planks to the fence, some of which worked and some of which – well, some of which are the Sword of Superman.

"Ma, what did you mean
when you said I was
growing up into a very
handsome young hilt?"
The story in question – “The Day the Cheering Stopped” - ran in Superman Annual #10 in 1984. The DC Annuals had just been revived and revamped to behave as a transitional state between normal comics and longer, proto-graphic novel books – two issues earlier, the Annuals had been your typical reprint collection, two issues later you’d get “For The Man Who Has Everything”. True to the new format, Maggin wrote a big story – he revisited his familiar theme of “the totally made up and sort of indistinctly defined legend” – the problem with it being that it was too big.

Not so much answering a question no one thought to ask, Maggin invented a question no one in their right mind would ask because the answer was already so simple, obvious and commonsense: Why does everyone in the universe know Superman, revere him and call him by his name, “Superman”?

Your obvious answer is “He went there, was memorable, and that’s his name.” I have never asked why the clerk at my credit union knows my name – she’s seen me before, for crying out loud. Same goes for my parole officer, the checkout guy at the liquor store and the fellow who power-washes the vomit out of the alley beside the OTB. Bros, every one.

Mind you, this isn’t even taking into consideration the more obvious answer of “Actually, they probably don’t all call him the same thing on different planets, I mean, they call him a bunch of different things in different languages here on Earth, alone!” BUT since they call him “Superman” on every intergalactic backwater slum, we’ve apparently got to have an intergalactic backwater reason.

Now, before I share with you the apparently really real and bugnuts as hell reason – and trust me, it’s not a good reason at all – lemme explain why this is a bad idea.

He's saying "Sometimes you're a real
condescending ass, pal."
One of the reasons why Superman even works as a character at all is because, at the end of the day and no matter how unlikely or unrealistic he may be, you only need to suspend your disbelief with him once. You only have to accept the idea “He is a super-powered alien from a highly advanced civilization”, and everything else follows. How can he fly, why does he have super-breath? He’s a super-powered alien from a highly advanced civilization. How come no one recognizes him when he wears glasses? He’s a super-powered alien from a high advanced civilization. Why the red pants? He’s got a super-powered dog? How does Lois Lane still have a pelvis? Super-powered etcetera from etcetera etcetera … it’s the do-all, be-all answer, you can harvest from it any answer you realistically need.

When you add something to the character, you have to make sure it’s covered by that one suspension of disbelief, because if it requires a second suspension of disbelief – if it requires another coincidence or far-fetched explanation or willful indulgence of ignorance – then the whole story starts to sag under the burden.

Okay? Okay, so here’s Maggin’s reason for why everyone in the universe recognizes Superman and says his name the same way: At the Big Bang, a big chunk of roughly sword-shaped primordial matter coalesced, and after time it was polished by space-rays into being not just a sword and not only not just a sword but also a sword that basically looks like the kind of sword you could get from 14th century Europe even though this is billions of years before the Earth even existed AND also on the hilt it has Superman’s S-insignia on it and it is apparently magical and also sentient and used mind-rays to give Jonathan Kent the idea of the stylized “S” on Superboy’s uniform and it floated around eluding capture by space-faring races who eventually called it “The Sword of Superman” even though those are English words from 20th century Earth that, again, didn’t even exist back then and also it was Excalibur (!) but mostly it floats around in space waiting to help Superman fight a pretty middle-weight super-villain and then to piss the fuck off back to space or something.

Ta-daa! Say, does anyone else feel like they have a head injury?

"This story! I don't want it in canon!"
The rest of the story is a pleasant boilerplate pre-Crisis tale, and there’s a lot to love about Maggin’s writing – he’s not afraid to have the characters be flippant or casual with their dialogue, he’s willing to let the plot coast for clever character moments, and he’s charmingly unashamed to have a villain named Oswald Mandias floating around.

I’ve always wondered about the world which comic book people inhabit – are they, as a general population completely ignorant of classical literature and wordplay, or are they far too aware of it? If your last name is Mandias (and trust me, I’ve tried putting the stress all over that word, it never doesn’t sound ridiculous), is it just accepted that you’ll name your kid Oscar Mandias or Osbourne Mandias, it’s just a given you’ll be introducing “This is our little Ozzy, say hi to everyone Ozzy”? If your last name is Hood, does heavy cultural weight determine you’ll name your kid “Robert N. Hood?” “Meet my youngest, Stephen Hakes Spear…” Does Edward Nigma only fly under the radar because it’s among the least dumb pun names these people have ever heard?

Man, this was frustrating.
Anyway, Mandias smuggles himself aboard the space shuttle, gets taken over by a Maggin baddie named King Kosmos who hypnotizes everyone on Earth into loving him and perceiving Superman as a horrible monster that they’re scared of and it shakes Superman’s confirdence, at which point the sword shows up and takes Superman to a library where it shows him a book and is all “I am all hell of Excalibur, baby” and then unrelatedly Superman hypnotizes himself into thinking that all the people who are scared of him are actually cheering him and he uses that self-confidence boost to punch King Kosmos in the pecker real hard a bunch of times.

The sword goes on to do something indeterminate to tip the tide of battle in Superman’s favor, and then flips out like a crazy maniac and tries to give Superman all the power in the universe, which Superman refuses, whereupon the blade disintegrates and Superman hucks the hilt into outer space and then we get a very Elliot S.Maggin-ey epilogue where a space-vagrant recounts the dumb story we just heard as “a legend”.

I’m sorry, like I say, I like the guy and everything but at one point he has Superman look at the sword with his microscopic vision and say “If I’m right – and that is nearly impossible in this case - this is made of the original material of the universe!” Of COURSE it’s made of the original material of the universe, the only thing we’ve got in this universe is the original material of the universe. We haven’t been spooning in brand-new Helium or anything*.

(* I await corrections, science nerds)

Still – hey, you know how Maggin’s Superwoman stories always implied that she would go down in history as the greatest hero of the twentieth century, but he never actually got around to explaining why? I’d pay him fourteen dollars to hear the real answer, although I got a theory of my own that I’d bet seven bucks at two-to-one odds is better. I’d also bet at two-to-one odds that half the comments for this article are going to be people chiding me for not liking Elliot S!Maggin even though I said like five times I totally love Elliot S!Maggin. Nobody reads all the way to the end on these things, anyway. 

Bust on this story all I might, this panel is fuckin' perfection. 


7 comments:

Bram said...

I'm pretty sure my only real exposure to ES!M was when that first Superman movie came out, he did a novel, The Last Son of Krypton (?). Not a novelization of the movie, though it had photos from the movie in the middle there, but a brand-new, completely off-the-rails story. I recall Lex Luthor and his robot Macduff, maybe Abraham Lincoln, and filtrums.

I think I need to track this down.

SeƱor Editor said...

While I love DC Fifty Too, it's great to see new posts on this blog! Will we see any Luke Cage foes in the near future?

Calamity Jon said...

Final part of the Luke Cage bit comes next week.

-Your Humble Editor

James W. Fry 3.0 said...

Oklay, Bram, you TOTALLY need to track down Last Son of Krypton. As much as I liked Maggin's comics work, I think almost ALL of his best bits came from the two novels: Breathtaking prose descriptions of some fairly spectacular Super-stunts. Superwoman reveals Luthor's eventual fate to Superman---kind of. Albert Einstein's direct involvement in Kal-El's rocket being discovered by the Kents! Bob Dylan's earliest, career-making hits having actually been written by a young Lex Luthor! And my favorite---Luthor has never wasted any time trying to figure out Superman's secret identity, because he imagines Superman must have dozens of them. Among the people he believes to secretly be Superman: Pete Ross, Bruce Wayne, Muhammad Ali and Henry Kissinger! Also, filtrums! That's right, baby---ours and ours alone! BTW, Jon, why don't you like Maggin's writing? KIDDING!!!KIDDING!!! Write me, dammit!

James W. Fry 3.0 said...

Ooops. Sorry, Jon. My first version of that post seemed to have--uh--vanished, so I reconstructed it and hit "publish", only to find out that the first one had gone up. I'm a tired old man.

Calamity Jon said...

Oh, I was remiss in letting Bram's comment lie fallow - YES, I am on James' side, you need to track down Last Son of Krypton AND the Miracle Monday novel. Immediately. No Superman library is complete without either of 'em ...

Calamity Jon said...

James: Technology is treacherous, it betrays us all at least once...

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