CHRONICLES OF COMICS – SUPERMAN ADVENTURES #5 – ‘BALANCE OF POWER’

The Man Wit No Voice and The Pure Mood dig out and review a comic from their expansive back issue collection. It could be a pivotal story, a forgotten classic, or even a giant mistake not worth the staples binding it together. From the ’40′s to the ’00′s, come by every week as we take an in-depth look at comics history in CHRONICLES OF COMICS!

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When it comes to superhero comics, it seems like every so often you find yourself floored when someone tells you about a run you can’t imagine you’ve a) never heard of and b) shocked that not everyone is talking about all the time. Walt Simonson had a run on an ORION solo book? Steve Englehart on the JLA? Karl Kessel on DAREDEVIL? There’s just so much product put out there that it’s easy for things to fall under the radar, and for whatever reason, even hardcore fans find themselves forgetting to spread the gospel of these criminally undervalued series.

Case in point, Scott McCloud on SUPERMAN ADVENTURES. That’s right, the guy who taught us how comics work as a language had a run on Superman. I can’t believe it took me this long on the planet Earth to find out about it, but I’m glad I did – McCloud wrote some of the greatest Superman stories of all time, particularly in SUPERMAN ADVENTURES #5.

A tie-in to the animated series, SUPERMAN ADVENTURES had the same freedom that the now legendary Dini/Timm animated cartoons had – without the constraints of a shared universe with a complicated history, mutliple reboots and plenty of linewide crossovers, the talented writers and artists (being unabashed and passionate fanboys didn’t hurt either) behind the DCAU could streamline characters’ mythology in a very fresh, exciting and approachable way.

With this sort of carte blanche in terms of continuity, Mcloud was able to write Superman stories the way all of the best ones have been – many modern readers may look to ALL STAR SUPERMAN as a love letter to the Silver Age of superhero comics, but to me, if anything, it’s an argument as to why the storytelling style of that era isn’t outdated. SUPERMAN ADVENTURES works in a similar way, as anybody reading this series would find themselves hungry for more of the world’s first superhero, despite the fact that these are done in one stories, with no continuity and a Superman of God-like power (all supposed no-no’s for the modern Superman).

I don’t think that same reader would find themselves as motivated after putting down H’EL ON EARTH or NEW KRYPTON, not that those are necessarily bad stories (I actually quite like NEW KRYPTON as a fan), but that they don’t work to Superman’s strengths. Which is what’s so weird about the modern treatment of the boy in blue – it’s like DC wants to do everything they can to make him unrecognizable for what he is. It’s undeniable that Superman’s most popular days seem long behind him, and even if hardcore fans would like to think otherwise, the sales of JMS’ EARTH ONE prove that there is a large group of people out there that would like to see a more ‘badass’ Kal-El. This all being said, I think it’s possible to move a character forward while still being true to their core concept.

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Which is exactly what SUPERMAN AVENTURES #5 is about – progression. McCloud has always been fascinated by the correlation between technology and human advancement – REINVENTING COMICS may have it’s detractors, but his passion for what the internet could make the medium capable of was palpable – and in ‘BALANCE OF POWER’, we see how the online connection helps spread the hunger for universal change.

I don’t think any civil revolution gathered as much explosive momentum as did women’s rights in mid-century America (except possibly the gay rights movement we now find ourselves in, which new technology has played a massive part in), and the way media and scientific knowledge was evolving played a huge part in that. Of course, as we all know, the fight is the farthest thing from over, and McCloud explores that with the character of Livewire – set immediately after the events of her first appearnce in the animated cartoon, she finds herself in a coma at the Metropolis Hospital, with only the sound of the radio to accompany her. Unfortunately, some backwards-thinking pundits and expounding on their desire to see women out of the workplace and back in the home, and Livewire’s sheer disgust motivates her out of the land of the eternally dreaming, escaping the confines of the hospital by traveling through the radio waves.

Soon, Livewire has taken over all media, refusing to air any program, print any article, or post any blog which features the involvement of a man. Though what she’s doing is obviously criminal, and at the very least cencorship, some women find it hard not to get behind her. “I like the chance to play SERIOUS JOURNALIST for a change.” anchorwoman Angela Chen tells Lois Lane, “That’s what journalism is all about. Taking your opportunities when you can get them.” Though Lois Lane’s belief in the power of truth and the refusal to bow to terrorism is empowering, it’s hard not to sympathesize with the petty human frustrations of Angela – it is endlessly frustrating to live in a society where the world will treat you differently by something like the sheer cosmic chance of what gender you’re born as, and you can understand Angela’s frustrations that she’s had to work so hard, only to see chavunistic and air-headed Reggie Banks hog the spotlight of their news outlet.

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As interesting and complex as McCloud paints the concept of feminism and cencorship, his characterization of Superman is probably the highlight of the issue, and as multifaceted and deep as the character has ever seen. With Livewire continually besting him, Superman must look for help in the last place he wants to – Lex Luthor, who finds himself gleeful at Livewire’s constant defeat of his arch nemesis, but also concerned about the money he’s losing in his many media conglomerates. Luthor invents an Electromagnetic Pulse Generator capable of taking the revolutionary feminist down, and with that, the two rivals have formed a co-allegiance.

McCloud brilliantly and subtly shows the difficulty Superman has making such a decision – not only to team up with Lex, but to stop someone who is fighting for something legitimately worth fighting for. When Luthor turns on Superman, turning up the power of his device so high that it nearly kills Livewire, the real injustices of a male dominated society are laid clear. “Think of it as a free gift…from the Old Boy’s Club.” Luthor smirks to Superman. Clearly, Livewire never had a chance – most tragically, she failed for the exact reason she was fighting – she failed because the deck was stacked against her, men who had greater opportunity held power greater than she could ever hope to achieve.

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Though a difficult story, McCloud ends on a hopeful note. As Luthor leaves Superman to save a dying Livewire, he beckons his assistant Mercy to follow him, and for a moment, she hesitates. These are the true moments of revolution – the small spark of free intellectual thought that says ‘Things aren’t right, they shouldn’t be this way” – and even if Mercy does eventually follow Luthor back to Lexcorp, even if Angela does lose her position back again to Reggie Banks, even if Livewire finds herself once again in a coma, forced to listen to the empty opinions of misognistic hateful men, the hope for a better world is there. And really, that’s what Superman is all about – not the achievement of Utopia or perfection, but the fight for it. ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #5 is a morally complicated and difficult read, a brilliant examination of technology and human rights, and an uneasy examination of women’s treatment of our society.

 

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