Thursday, July 11, 2013

More Moore part 20: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (1986)

As previously stated, 1986's Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot changed the face of DC forever...for a little while. At the time though, it was a pretty radical direction to take with their 50-year-old property, to dump everything and essentially start over. In September of '86, after the Crisis but before the official reboot, the decision was made by longtime DC editor Julius Schwartz to give Superman a sort of proto-Elseworlds treatment with his last two issues before the reboot hit, a "what if?" closing out the stories of Superman, his friends, and his foes before the post-Crisis world fully began. Schwartz originally wanted Superman creator Jerry Siegel and Curt Swan, who had then been drawing the character since 1948, to take a crack at the 'last issue', but Siegel wasn't able to work on the book due to legal hoops that needed jumping through, so our ol' buddy, our ol' pal Alan Moore, then flush with success from Swamp Thing and about to launch into the stratosphere with Watchmen (chapter one of which came out the same day as chapter one of ...Man of Tomorrow) was given a crack at writing the final chapter in pre-reboot Superman. The result is Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, partly-groundbreaking, partly-safe, a Superman story where nearly everyone ends up dead that still feels innocuous and even a little forgettable. But is it bad? Not really, it's just proof-positive that they can't all be knocked out of the park, even with a character as iconic as Superman.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? uses a framing story an interview with a middle-aged Lois Lane, with all the main action taking place in Lois' flashbacks about the day that Superman vanished. Lois is now married with a child, as Lois Elliot to her husband's Jordan Elliot, which is about as clever as the Devil in Angel Heart calling himself Louis Cypher, so I don't blame you if you figure out the plot twist in the first couple panels. Her story details all of Superman's enemies suddenly getting more vicious and homicidal, goofy b-listers like Bizarro (and d-listers like the Fearsome Funsters) picking off Superman's pals and even outing Clark Kent as the Man of Steel early on in the plot. While Supes has his hands full of the losers, the real threats in his rogue's gallery start to stir as well; Lex Luthor's brain and body are hijacked by Braniac, who leads an assault on the Fortress of Solitude to eliminate Superman once and for all.

Even early going, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? has a surprisingly high body count for a Superman story, though merely average for an Alan Moore one. Pete Ross, Kryptonite Man, Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, even super-dog Krypto (with no tears shed from me) all bite the dust as Braniac-Luthor assaults the Fortress. He seals off the area in an indestructible bubble, which leads to a great scene of the Justice League trying to superpower their way in...Batman and Robin reduced to hitting the thing with clubs. Moments before her own death, Lana actually manages to break Luthor's neck...and in easily the most chilling moment in the novel, Lex rises again, his dead body still manipulated by Braniac until rigor mortis sets in.

With the dust cleared and everyone pretty much dead, it's revealed that the one behind all the death and destruction is none other than Mr. Mxyzptlk, the prankster god of the Superman world  who, like Bizarro, is usually confined to goofing around until Supes gets tired of his annoyances and banishes him back to the Fifth Dimension. Well after 2000 years of being a magical pain in the ass, Mxy has decided to try being evil, so he manipulated minds and events to bring down all the terrible things that have happened so far, which I have to admit I actually kind of enjoy as a motivation. It gives him an arbitrary cruelty somewhat like The Joker, and fits in nicely with my earlier assessment of Superman's trickster god status, like Loki or Susa-no-o. Superman wins in the end, of course, but only by breaking his own rule and killing Mxyzptlk. Grief-stricken, Superman walks into a vault of Gold Kryptonite, stripping himself of his powers, and vanishes. We cut back to modern day, where Lois finishes her interview and her husband Jordan grins like a doofus and winks to the camera. Curtain call, goodnight Superman.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? is the closest Moore's ever come to doing a kind of Christmas special-type comic like A Christmas Story. Even with the body count, it feels surprisingly safe and corny, with Curt Swan's silver age style artwork not helping to diffuse that feeling (though incidentally I wonder what his thoughts were killing all these characters that he had a hand in making what they eventually became). I used to loathe it, it was possibly the first Alan Moore comic I really didn't like, though looking back at it now I don't know, it's not so bad really. Like those selfsame Christmas specials, it's hokey and will make your eyes roll, but it's not a bad way to close that chapter in Superman's life and is kind of a fun look back at his first 50 years. It's incredibly slight, I had about as much to talk about in the entire novel as I did with a couple chapters of Watchmen, but it never overstays its welcome. Moore was asked to finish off Superman before the reboot, and he did alright. Ten years after this, in the midst of the '90s, this might even look like one of his highlights.


Best quote: Now, two thousand years later, I'm bored again. I need a change. Starting with your death, I shall spend the next two millennia being evil! After that, who knows? Perhaps I'll try being guilty for a while."


Up next: Being mad isn't bad in The Killing Joke

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