When Words Collide

Wed, May 13th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: May 13th, 2009 at 5:30pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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SUPERMAN: SAVE ME

"For Tomorrow" Begins

When Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee launched the twelve-part "For Tomorrow" arc in the ongoing "Superman" series during those early months of 2004, they were following the likes of Joe Kelly, Michael Turner, and Talent Caldwell, who had just completed the six-part "Godfall" story.

While there may have been a superficial resemblance between the Image house style of Caldwell and the penciling of Image founder Jim Lee, "For Tomorrow" was a jarringly different kind of Superman story. Heavy in religious overtones, the first installment of "For Tomorrow," originally published in "Superman" #204, was all shadows and guilt. For a character who debuted in something called "Action Comics," Superman spent the first part of the Azzarello/Lee story surprisingly inactive, obliquely confessing his sins to Father Daniel Leone. The one action sequence that does occur -- in flashback, as Superman recalls his flight into space to rescue an imprisoned Green Lantern -- continues off-panel, as Superman leaves Kyle Rayner to fight his own battles while the man of steel heads home.

What he discovers when he returns to Earth is that his wife, along with one million other citizens of the planet, had disappeared.

I have to admit that I gave up on the story after that first issue. It seemed ill-suited for serialized comics -- too introspective, too brooding for a Superman story in particular. I hadn't been reading the regular Superman Family monthlies at that time anyway, but like many comic fans, I couldn't resist seeing what Azzarello and Lee would do with the character. What they did didn't impress me very much on first glance. They seemed to fall into the trap that few can avoid: to make Superman matter they were forced to diminish him. To make him less "super."

If the story did have any merit, ultimately, I figured I'd find that out when the collected edition rolled around. But when the "For Tomorrow" hardcovers and trade paperbacks came out, I had lost any interest in trying to care. It was a misstep for the creators, I'd decided by then. An attempt to do their version of Superman, and it had failed.

I don't know where I got that negative opinion from, honestly. I guess it was a combination of my frustration at decompressed comics, my initial reaction to the first issue of the arc, and the general murmuring I heard in the corners of the internet. "'For Tomorrow' is exactly what's wrong with comics," someone, somewhere, probably wrote on a message board, and I was foolish enough to let it sink in.

Slipcase Cover for the Absolute Edition

So why did I bother to shell out the cash for a gigantic Absolute edition of a story arc I'd long since bothered to care about?

Two reasons: (1) I'd began to hear more positive things about "For Tomorrow" in the intervening years. If not outright praise, then at least a few, "yeah, it's got some major problems, but it's much better than everyone says" kinds of things from people whose opinions I tend to trust. And (2) I wanted to see if I could learn to love Jim Lee again.

For a time, Jim Lee was the greatest artist who ever graced the comic book industry. Or, at least, that's what I thought when I was 15. Though his earliest work (and I first saw it when I picked up "Alpha Flight" #51 -- and does anyone still remember that his run on "Alpha Fight" lasted well over a dozen issues?) is a bit different from his later, Image-honed style, to my young eyes, he was like the second coming of John Byrne! (That statement sounded much cooler in 1987.)

I followed Lee's career enthusiastically, gleefully devouring his "Punisher War Journal" and "Uncanny X-Men" comics, even if I never much liked the stories his art accompanied. For me, Lee's chiseled men and long-limbed women were the perfect comic book figures, even if I could never figure out why Captain Britain's sister was an Asian lady all of a sudden.

I don't remember exactly when I soured on his work. I'm thinking that it was around the time of "WildC.A.T.S." #5. My blind enthusiasm sustained me for the first four issues of that series, but by the time the delayed issue #5 came out, I realized, "wait, this comic isn't any good at all." Jim Lee's art seemed like a parody of its former self by that point, although, in retrospect, it was just more of the same, and I had probably just grown tired of it. (It couldn't have helped that all those twelfth-rate Jim Lee clones started popping out of the woodwork in those early years of the 1990's.) I just didn't like his stuff anymore.

Jim Lee Does Canada

I continued to buy "WildC.A.T.S." and other Jim Lee projects out of habit, and perhaps because neither Marvel nor DC were producing much in the way of memorable work in those days. Those were the days when I bought barely anything from the big two, except the occasional Vertigo series, and instead spent most of my limited comics budget on Tundra comics, Dark Horse's Legend imprint, and the cream of the Fantagraphics crop. Yet I stuck with Lee's Image work through that time, even though my passion for it had almost totally disappeared. "Deathblow" was the once exception, coming as it did along the time that I had begun to sour on Lee's other work. But Lee's heavy use of black and his non-Scott Williams inking style was just a post-"Sin City" experiment and didn't stick. Perhaps his "Deathblow" work was the very stuff that pushed me away from him. Once I saw how great his artwork looked when it wasn't crosshatched and overly chiseled with pen nibs, I couldn't accept the razor jaws and etched musculature. It started to look more and more hideous to me.

"Batman: Hush" was more of the same, really, even though it was some kind of phenomenal success and people seemed to love it mostly for the art. I suppose a few readers bothered to defend Jeph Loeb's story -- maybe they still defend it -- but it's a quantifiably terrible Batman story. I like plenty of Loeb comics, from his deconstruction of the "Challengers of the Unknown" to his silly-fun "Hulk," but "Hush" was nothing more than an extended advertisement for Batman Family action figures with a central "mystery" that was about as well-developed as a lesser episode of "She's the Sheriff." I did enjoy Lee's use of ink wash on the flashbacks, though. That was a step toward building a better Jim Lee comic, in my opinion.

So I guess it's no surprise at all that I didn't have much patience for "Superman: For Tomorrow." Lee no longer did it for me and hadn't for over a decade, and I'd already fallen victim to the perils of reading "Hush" each month. Azzarello is no Loeb -- the two could not be more different in their approaches to comic book scripting -- but it seemed at the time that this was just going to be another Jim Lee showcase, and I'd had far more of that than I ever needed.

And yet.

The big "and yet."

And yet, I did buy this glossy, oversized "Absolute Superman: For Tomorrow," and I did indeed learn to love Jim Lee again. The size helps. Absolutely.

The first chapter -- the one I'd originally read when serialized -- still didn't impress me all that much, visually. Talking heads for a few pages, and Lee has never been good at showing emotion on character's faces anyway. It's safe to say that's not his forte. A splash page of a Christ-like Superman descending from the domed ceiling of the church? Better, but more workmanlike than surprising. Even Superman's excursion into deep space to rescue Kyle Rayner was less spectacular than it might have been. The details looked nice, enlarged to Absolute size, but it was those stock Jim Lee poses cropped to fit the panels as usual. But near the end of the first chapter, as Superman reaches the climactic moment of his admittedly ambiguous confession, Lee gives us a panel in which Superman's unshadowed face blends into the pillars of the church, and nestled inside that organically-designed smaller frame is the image of the repentant Superman. The page that follows, a series of four vertical panels, swings the reader down from a crane's-eye-view to a close-up, sideways Leone-style, until the sliver of whiteness is filled with Superman's noble, sad visage.

Zod and Equus

"My sin?" says Superman, "was to save the world," and the accompanying image, blown up to Absolute size, takes on a more haunting quality than I remember from the original publication. The Scott Williams' crosshatching, enlarged like this, becomes more supple, like something from Barry Windsor Smith's later years. The larger format serves the art well, thickening the lines and giving Lee the page size needed to amplify the scope of his drawings. He's not adept at subtlety, and the spectacle here, even if it's an emotional, almost internalized spectacle, is made all the more effective by the scale.

And though "Superman: For Tomorrow" is an uneasy mixture of introspection, lamentation, and explosive action (think "Hamlet" mixed with "Godzilla"), Lee's art only increases in spectacle as the story unfolds. Sure, the Superman/Zod image that replicates the famous Michelangelo painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is silly (so Zod is Adam and Superman is God? How clever!), and some of the inking in the later chapters seems wispier and hastily done, but Superman vs. the Elemental Spirits of the Earth is some great-looking superhero spectacle. The Water Elemental is majestic enough, but who can deny the glory of the Mount Rushmore-headed Earth Elemental? At this size, it looks as grand as grand can be. And some of the close-ups border on abstraction when enlarged to this Absolute degree.

My favorite image, though, is the cover for Part Nine, "Superman" #212, which shows how boldly striking Jim Lee can be when set free from the noodling and over-rendering that saps the life from his often-dynamic work. That single, almost completely black image of Superman burning from the lightning within shows what Lee can really do, even if the interiors of this story often fail to match that kind of visual kick-to-the-gut.

So, yes, I did learn to love Jim Lee again.

But what about the story of "Superman: For Tomorrow"? What about Azzarello's meditation on the burden of being the one and only Superman?

It certainly deserves a spot in the hallowed halls of the Superman canon.

Though far from perfect -- its philosophical musings are at odds with its relatively routine moments of slugfestery -- "Superman: For Tomorrow" tackles some big ideas and offers a narrative that's more layered than you'd expect from a big, glossy Jim Lee-driven project. Azzarello's Superman is a dark version of the character, but not dark in the typical comic book way. He's not a grim vigilante in Azzarello's hands, but rather a tormented soul who feels the weight of two worlds on his shoulders -- he must prove himself worthy of being a Kryptonian and an Earthling, though he can never truly be either.

Striking Imagery by Lee

Azzarello uses the refrain "save me" throughout the twelve chapters, and we realize that Superman alone feels the burden of saving everyone, because he alone can hear all of their cries, every single time.

But the darkness also comes through in his choices, as the typically noble and usually flawless Superman confesses his sins to a man who he knows is not long for this world. This Superman cannot trust anyone fully, except maybe Lois, and the notion that he would bear his soul to a priest who he knows is suffering from cancer, while at the same time keeping the priest ignorant of his own imminent mortality -- well, that's a far darker version of Superman than we tend to see anywhere else.

I'm not sure the confessional scenes really work all that well, and the Catholicism of "Superman: For Tomorrow" seems pressed into service of the story's iconography at the expense of consistency and logic, but the dialogue in those scenes does help to layer the story. On first read, Superman's confession seems to be about his failure to save everyone, and we can't help but think, "let yourself off the hook, Superman. You can't be everywhere at once. You aren't God." But after we find out the truth of "The Vanishing" and how it came to be, Superman's confession takes on a completely different meaning. When he blames himself, it's not because he failed to save everyone and fell short of godhood. It's because he literally caused the problem precisely because he decided to act like a God. He tried to create paradise, and like all constructed utopias it failed.

One of the things I love about the structure of this story -- even if the General Nox/Equus subplot devolves from an interesting thematic parallel to a perfunctory annoyance -- is that it centers around a Silver Age-style contrivance. It's like something out of the Mort Weisinger era Superman comics, where Superman would be able to shoot a little man out of his hand, or where Red Kryptonite would turn his world completely upside down just long enough to mess with Lois Lane. "Superman: For Tomorrow" might well have taken its central conceit from stories like that, as Superman modifies a Phantom Zone projector to create a safe haven for humanity and then decides to wipe his own memory of his creation because he decides it would be a terrible idea to use such a thing. Azzarello's story begins well after a Weisinger story would end, as Superman's foolish Silver Age-style idealism leads to tragic repercussions in the present.

Silver Age Superman Splendor

This isn't a story that uses Benday dots or Curt Swan pastiches to signify its link to Superman's comic book past, but implicit in the very center of its plot is that this is a Superman who once was the kind of guy who would tinker with crazy machines in his Fortress of Solitude and hang out with the likes of Lori Lemaris on the weekends. And those innocent days have come back to haunt him now that he's grown up into the "serious" hero of the Modern Era.

"Superman: For Tomorrow" has more layers that I haven't even begun to unpeel for you -- and, by the way, it's also a pretty major love story, for all you romantics in the crowd -- but there's plenty going on beneath the glossy Jim Lee-injected surface of this story. It may seem an unlikely candidate for the Absolute treatment -- it's certainly no classic like "Watchmen" or "Sandman" or even "New Frontier" -- but I'm glad to have it on my shelf. It's a religio-philosophical Superman action comic with art by the one and only Jim Lee, and I'm again able to appreciate what that means.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, absolute superman, jim lee, brian azzarello

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