The Review: Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Alan Moore and Curt Swan

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Alan Moore and Curt Swan
9781401227319
DC Comics, 128 pp
$17.99

Reviewed by University of Toronto Bookstore Staff, James Bell

Soon students will be returning to university campuses across the country in pursuit of degrees in English literature, and some of them will be taking courses dedicated to a subject that not many years ago wasn’t acknowledged as appropriate for study, let alone a serious art form.  In fact, being caught reading it would have been an embarrassment, a sign that the student hadn’t outgrown childish pursuits, and indicative of a level of immaturity that would have called into serious question whether the student should even be attending an institute of higher learning.  Cries of “Nerd!” or “Geek!” would have rained down upon them without mercy or apology.

Professors and their students will say they’re studying graphic novels, but often they’re really reading comic books.  The “graphic novel” rose out of the comic book tradition, but as a designation it has a complicated history.  It is often a term used to add a patina of respectability to a story that is clearly a comic.  Chris Wares’ Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is a graphic novel, and so is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: they were written as complete stories, meant for the form in which they exist.  Dave Sim’s Cerebus “phone book” compilations are collected comic books.  So is Watchmen, the comic book that everyone loves, as long as they can call it a graphic novel and elevate it to the status of “literature”, because then it’s safe to study it in a way that’s still not possible with mere comic books.

Let me state unequivocally that I’m a huge fan of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and that it was a revelation to me when I read it at age 15 in 1986–month by month, eagerly awaiting the release of the next issue.  That’s how I read it, and I still have every issue, prized possessions amongst more than a thousand other comic books (pared down to just the essentials from close to two thousand–some comics, after all, don’t stand the test of time).  It’s because I read so many superhero comics that Watchmen means so much to me: the themes, rituals, and cliches of the superhero comic were embedded deep within me, just as they were with Moore himself, so that his deconstruction of them was, for me, a coming-of-age that marked a passage from childish pleasures to adult understanding.  I often wonder how much people who never grew up reading superhero comics can appreciate Watchmen or, when I’m being more generous, how their appreciation of it differs from mine.

But that sublime story, almost twenty-five years old (has it really been that long? Am I really that old?) has overshadowed the other work Moore has done in comics over the years, and people should understand that however much of an innovator and iconoclast Moore has been, most of his work has been within the comic book medium.  And as much as he was capable of writing extended story lines that played out over years in comic books like Swamp Thing and Miracleman (both of which I will proselytize about given even the slightest encouragement, so beware) he was also great at writing concise, brilliant single issues of a mere twenty pages.

“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is an example (this compilation includes that story as well as two stand-alone stories written by Moore).  For reasons too complicated to go into here, but in part due to the seismic changes taking place in comic books thanks to creators like Frank Miller and Moore himself, in the mid-1980s Superman, the literal grandfather of all superheroes, was facing an overhaul.  A new creative team would be taking over, introducing changes in an attempt to make Superman more “relevant”.  Superman, unleashed on the world in 1938, had a lot of history, and the new team would be scrapping much of it and starting with a clean slate.  Thankfully, someone at DC Comics had the brilliant idea of revisiting that soon-to-be-dismissed history one last time, and the even more brilliant idea of allowing Alan Moore to write it.

Moore perfectly encapsulates the history of an icon, his friends, and his enemies, stories that had played out month-by-month for almost fifty years, in less than sixty pages.  He allows the reader to revisit the characters who had become so familiar, so much a part of our lives, in a way that honours the past, and yet acknowledges the changes to come.  The reader is surrounded by the markers of more innocent times while witnessing their destruction.  The genius of Alan Moore is that, given the opportunity to revel in the past, to lose himself and his readers in youthful nostalgia, he also finds a way to speak to very adult concerns.  Moore doesn’t transcend the genre of comic books; he elevates it by his presence.  And that’s why students will be studying his work this semester, and for years to come.  Watchmen may be the pinnacle of Moore’s career, but perhaps some brave professor will add Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? to the reading list.

Buy Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow Now!

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