Summer is officially over, so this is a little late, but I’ve been meaning to talk about a certain arc from the summer of 1993. It was the height of the speculator bubble, when everything came with cover enhancements, trading cards, unfortunate hairstyles and/or superfluous pouches.
For many DC Comics readers, 20 years ago was also the summer of “Reign of the Supermen!” That’s not necessarily enthusiasm — the exclamation point was part of the title, which in turn was inspired by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s early proto-supervillain story, “The Reign of the Superman.” The third (and by far the longest) chapter of the “Death of Superman” saga began with teasers at the back of Adventures of Superman #500, published around April 15,* and ended with Superman Vol. 2 #82, published around Aug. 26.** Those four and a half months may not seem like much, but they saw 20 issues of the four regular Superman books (including Action Comics and Superman: The Man of Steel) spread over 20 weeks. In fact, “Reign” was front-loaded, with all four titles marking the official start of the arc on April 29 or so, two weeks after Adventures #500. That meant there were some weeks without a new installment, and those were sometimes hard to take.
“Reign of the Supermen!” is not the greatest Superman story ever memorialized in print. On one level it is very much a product of its era. However, for the Superman books, that era was energized not just by the efforts of their creative teams, but by the overarching framework the books had developed. While “Reign” wasn’t the only big DC event of the summer — for one thing, the debut of DC’s imprint Milestone Media has much more historical significance — it’s a reminder of the ebbs and flows of serial superhero storytelling, and it remains instructive today.
Warning: This is a very long post, because I think there’s a lot of background to be explored.
In news that will surprise no one, I enthusiastically add my voice to the chorus advising comics companies to give Jerry Ordway work. Mr. Ordway represents, for better or worse, a particular style of superhero storytelling. His detailed, textured work is both realistic and stylized. He’s also become associated with a traditional approach to superheroes, mostly by drawing the Golden Age characters and their descendants. Similarly, his modern-day Superman and Marvel Family work gave those books a pretty “classic” look.
In fact, for a long while Jerry Ordway helped define Superman. He was an original contributor to the 1986 John Byrne-led revamp, penciling Adventures of Superman first for writer Marv Wolfman and then for Byrne. When Byrne left, he took over writing Adventures before moving over to the main Superman book. In one way or another, he was involved with the Superman titles from 1986 through 1993, when he started working on Captain Marvel in the Power of Shazam! graphic novel.
“I am thrilled to be well remembered, and respected in the comic book community, and to have fans willing to pay me to draw commissions, but I got into comics in order to tell stories, not to draw custom art. I still feel vital, and still want to be at that table. Do I think DC comics owes me anything? Yes and no. I understand that no company owes anything that isn’t contractually stipulated, but in my heart, I think I deserve better than being marginalized over the last 10 years. I’m not retired, I’m not financially independent. I’m a working guy with a family, working for a flat page rate that hasn’t changed substantially since 1995. I may have opportunities at smaller companies, companies that pay less per page than I made in 1988, with no royalties or ownership of any kind. I’m not at all looking down at that, but it is hard to reconcile, as I can’t work faster, and refuse to hack my work out to match the rate. I have pride in what I do, and always have. As to my part in the history of DC for the past 33 years, I was a highly visible and successful part of it, not a minor footnote. [...] all I ask is for some of the same consideration my generation of creators and editors gave to the older guard in the 1980′s. My work is still sharp, my mind is still full of stories to tell, and I’m still willing to work all hours of my day to meet my deadlines. Why am I out of work from the publishers? Why are my friends, people who turned in great work, worthy of hardcover and trade paperback reprints, not able to get work?”
– veteran artist and writer Jerry Ordway in an essay titled “Life over fifty,” lamenting the lack of regular work from DC Comics, where he once worked on such titles as Adventures of Superman, All-Star Squadron, Infinity Inc. and The Power of SHAZAM!
Mimicking comics in more ways than one, Warner Archive is offering a variant cover to its upcoming release of Shazam!: The Complete Series. The standard cover features a photo collage of the series’ main actors (see below), but the variant will have artwork by Jerry Ordway, creator of DC’s well-regarded Power of SHAZAM! series from the late ’90s.
It’s pretty smart marketing, too, because according to Super Hero Hype (who’ve confirmed with Warner Archive), the Ordway cover is only available to those who pre-order the series before its release date on Oct. 23. A lot of older fans have fond memories of watching the live-action show over a bowl of Fruity Pebbles on Saturday mornings, but haven’t seen it since and don’t know if it’s as good or fun as they remember. Younger fans don’t know what it’s like at all. Waiting to hear some buzz by others who’ve seen the new DVDs before spending $34.95 on the set is a reasonable strategy, but the Ordway cover makes it more enticing to go ahead and plunk down that $35 on a blind buy. Fortunately, we have more than a month to make up our minds.
Warner Archive isn’t so cruel as to make this the only way to get the art from Ordway’s cover, though: The Warner Archive podcast has a promotion going where you can get a poster version for free.
Different interpretations aren’t a problem for Batman, who’s taken on everything from Adam West and Bat-Mite to Frank Miller and Kelley Jones. Same goes for Wonder Woman (the original Marston/Peter crusader, Gail Simone’s steely warrior, and the current Brian Azzarello/Cliff Chiang monster-killer) and Aquaman (Ramona Fradon, Jim Aparo, Peter David). Likewise, each new Robin, Flash and Green Lantern puts a different spin on the core concept.
And yet, among all the elasticity of DC’s superhero line, Superman stands out as somewhat inflexible. More and more I am becoming convinced that there can be only one valid interpretation of Superman. That interpretation might work for a variety of storytelling styles, but the character at its core must fundamentally be the same.
For starters, let’s run down the list of everything the main-line Superman — the character, not necessarily the stories in which he appears — is not. Superman is not arrogant, manipulative, cruel, boastful … well, you get the idea. I’m not rewording 1 Corinthians 13 here, but that’s not a bad place to start when thinking about Superman’s motivations. “Love never fails,” begins the New International Version translation of verse 8, and that’s pretty much the idealist at the heart of Superman, isn’t it? Superman never fails, not because of invulnerability or super-strength or heat vision, but because his indomitable faith in the goodness of humanity keeps him going.
Hello and welcome to What Are You Reading? Today our special guest is Tim Seeley, whose work you may know from Hack/Slash, Bloodstrike, Witchblade, Colt Noble, the upcoming Ex Sanguine and Revival, and much more.
To see what Tim has been reading lately, click below.
This Wednesday marks the return of Peter Krause to monthly comics as the artist on BOOM! Studios’ Irredeemable. The series is described by BOOM! as daring to “ask the question: what if the world’s greatest hero decided to become the world’s greatest villain? A ‘twilight of the superheroes’-style story that examines super-villains from the writer of KINGDOM COME and EMPIRE!” Many people, including myself, fondly remember Krause’s great run on the 1990s DC series, The Power of Shazam. My thanks to Krause for this email interview regarding his return to monthly fun, as well as BOOM!’s Chip Mosher for facilitating the interview.
Tim O’Shea: This marks the first ongoing title you’ve done since Power of Shazam–but you’ve been a busy and happily employed artist outside of comics all these years. How has your non-comics work served to help improve your artistic skills overall and are there certain chances you’re now willing to take–or visual experiments you want to try now that you never would have considered earlier in your career?
Peter Krause: Wow…what a great opening question. I suppose there are some chances I’d be willing to take, but I’m not sure if I can point to the non-comics work specifically as the reason. After a time, I think you get a bit more comfortable in your own skin, and you’re not chasing the artistic flavor of the month. You can be a bit more confident in the decisions you make.