Supurbia #1 and the over-analogued superhero industry
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen—specifically Alan Moore’s side of it—was Topic A in comics circle for a few weeks after DC announced Before Watchmen a while back (10 years, in blog time). During that time, one of the many “arguments” anonymous online commenters were making against Moore’s expression that he wishes DC wasn’t doing Before Watchmen was that since the work featured characters somewhat inspired by the DC-owned Charlton characters, he should therefore be cool with DC continuing to exploit them.
Moore and Watchmen and that argument were all quite present in my mind while reading Supurbia #1, or Grace Randolph’s Supurbia, as it appears on the cover of the issue. The premise is “superhero Desperate Housewives,” and that premise is so strong in the first issue you can practically hear that very pitch ringing in your ears as you read.
The super-people are all obvious and, in the first issue at least, barely-extrapolated-from analogues of DC (and two Marvel) superheroes: Sovereign, the caped demigod in constant Superman Is A Dick-mode; Night Fox, billionaire playboy with an underground cave lair; Batu, warrior woman from an ancient culture of warrior women; Cosmic Champion, current member of the Cosmic Corps who inherited his mantle; and patriotic super-soldier Marine Omega and his grown-up sidekick, Bulldog.
It may simply be symptomatic of my having been reading superhero comic books for too long now, but when by the time writer Grace Randolph and her artist partner Russell Dauterman introduced the third obvious analogue, I started sighing. Moore didn’t invent the use of analogues, of course—Marvel and DC were using thinly veiled versions of one another’s characters to comment on them for fans’ sakes at least as far back as the last Silver Age—but Watchmen sure made the strategy more present for the generation of comics creators and readers that followed that work.
So when I see Sovereign flying off on a splash page of Supurbia, I can’t help not only thinking of Superman, but also of Supreme, The Samaritan, Mr. Majestic, Apollo, The Sentry, The Saint, The Homelander, The Plutonian (from another Boom book!) and a dozen others.
“Analogue” books have become so numerous at this point that not only do the analogues in them allude to their source material and inspiration (usually intentionally, so as to comment on them, while having a layer of legal cover), they also evoke all the other comics to use analogues of the same characters.
I wonder if the messy cloud of suggestions that can arise in a reader’s head whenever a new comic uses a Basically Superman or Pretty Much Batman character now cancels out the advantage of using such characters in the first place—can a comic comment on some aspect of Superman by using a Superman analogue now, or has that just become another meaningless trope of super-comics, an empty gesture, a once-potent ritual that a reader may now regard as simply a habit of the makers of the genre, rather than a creative choice?
Does having this Batman-esque character hook up with his sidekick say anything about homoerotic undertones in the original Batman comics, or does it simply repeat the observations and jokes of Bratpack, The Authority and The Pro and so on?
I don’t know if Randolph does have a great, sweeping statement to make about superhero archetypes or their relationship to the world in Supurbia. As the title no doubt tips you off, it’s entertainment, not literature. Supurbia is something light and fun, not dark and serious.
The above-mentioned superheroes all live with their wives or partners (and, in Practically Wonder Woman and Kinda Steve Trevor’s case, their kids) on the same street in an innocent-looking suburban development, a Super-Wisteria Lane, with their secret headquarters underground. The normalcy, even the banality of the above-ground setting is the security they count on.
There are a bunch of conflicts introduced in this issue, about one per household—Batu favors her daughter to the point of neglecting her son, Night Fox is cheating on his wife with his sidekick, etc.—but the big ones include Sovereign’s shacking up with a reformed (or is it “reformed”…?) supervillainess, Marine Omega suffering from a mysterious illness, and the touchy-about-being-called-a-sidekick Bulldog’s new, nosy former fangirl wife.
The focus is on the spouses, not the heroes—each of the spouses gets introduced with a few color-coded narration boxes—and this is apparently their story. And so far at least, it’s a fine, diverting story.
The art by Dauterman is a real treat, and, for me, even more of a selling point than the concept (Note: The cover is by Ale Garza, not Dauterman, so don’t judge the book by it). The figures are smooth and free of any extraneous details—there’s just a touch of cartoony exaggeration to most of them, underlining particular essential character traits about many of them.
It’s not exactly Watchmen. Nor is it Astro City or The Pro. Or Promethea or WorldWatch. But it’s hard not to think of all those comics—and a dozen or so others, some better, many worse—while reading it. That’s not necessarily a failing of Randolph and Dauterman’s work with the book, which is fairly top-notch (if it suffers from anything its from broadness and obviousness), but rather a failing with the medium and industry as it stands a generation after Watchmen.
Simply put, too many creators have had too many high-concept ideas about Superman and his super-friends.
That, or there are too few truly good superheroes with mass appeal; superheroes have been too narrowly defined as riffs on Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and three or four other Golden Age heroes.
Or I’ve simply read too damn many comics to be able to divorce a book like this from all the other books to be founded upon the same character-generation technique.