"The Last Days of Superman", by Curt Swan, George Klein, and Edmond Hamilton. From Superman #156 (1962), as reprinted in Superman in the Sixties (1999). DC.
Here are some reasons why.
- BECAUSE Shaky Kane was totally right. In the interview I did with him a while back, plug plug, he extolled the virtues of Curt Swan's recolored, computer-sharpened art in the Superman: Bottle City of Kandor collection. Recoloring old comics is something a lot of purists, myself included, balk at -- but I've got to say, Curt Swan's stuff is the exception to the rule. It's so brilliantly drawn, saying so much with the precision and the smallest little lines, that the buoyant essence of it can get lost underneath the waves of newsprint grain and benday dots that old comics printed with. I mean, I have a bunch of old Swan issues and they look great, but seeing his work on white matte paper, every millimeter of linework perfectly on-register, in a setting where the color purple doesn't look like a laborious undertaking and you can get effects like the "ominous red splendor" of the sunset above? I've got to say it feels like the way this art was meant to be seen, the highest expression of what Swan was trying to do. (It also definitely helps that DC prints on matte as opposed to glossy, and that their color reconstruction is generally miles above any other company's.)
- BECAUSE the real stuff isn't in the repro, it's in the art itself. This is the best-drawn Swan comic I guess I've seen, and considering the standard of utter dream-level quality that guy set in his Weisinger Superman work, coming from me a McCay comparison would be lesser praise. Swan more than any other hero artist is the man who could draw anything: he fills his city scenes with an unmatched mixture of jumble and vacant space, his landscapes move from Antarctic friezes to painted deserts without losing anything on the way, and his glorious, classical figures wear faces that display as full a range of human emotion as any comic, superhero or not, has achieved to date. Swan creates the most tangible world of any of the great Silver Age artists, one that differs from ours only by degrees -- the holding lines around things and the wonderful things that happen in it. Every element of this most fantastic of Superman stories (time travel, space viruses, re-terraformation of multiple planets, more heroes than you can count) is grounded in the dappled, slightly idealized reality Swan gives his panels. Perry White is a paunchy man in bad suits, but he's got the face of your kindest uncle. Lois Lane and Lana Lang have none of the faux-sexy accoutrements of typical comics girls; they're just drawn as beautiful women. Even the most ridiculous elements, the flying midgets with heat vision and the lightspeed construction of iron pyramids, are worked through with Swan's methodical, emotion-tinted vision, presented with no artifice or apology, made to look like something that really happened in a reality not too different from our own.
That's not to say that this comic is bland or visually boring, however -- quite the opposite. Swan's look-it-in-the-eye approach to material that only the wildest dreams are made of doesn't just give this comic conviction, it casts a proto-Chris Ware surrealistic aura over every panel. Superman lies in a lead-glass coffin in the middle of the desert waiting to die as he weakly gives final orders to a squadron of his robot duplicates, and damn if it doesn't look exactly like that's what's happening. Swan's style is no style; he's a gifted cartoon illustrator whose portrayal of things as they are brings his comics to vivid life in a way that Kirby's crackle or Infantino's design sense never could for theirs. What's more, Swan's compositions are almost totally unique among the Silver Age greats for their lack of filmic techniques. These are comic book panels as pure comics, dynamic, dramatic single images that bleed right to the borders and always lead you into the next one. And lest anyone harbor the impression that Swan is a stranger to atmospherics or the "big image", he takes panel after panel of this comic to to give us the most indelible pictures of Superman the 20th century produced. The tautly pitched story of the perfect man going up against death by the Kryptonian "Virus-X" brings out the Ingmar Bergman drama in Swan here...
... the Bernie Krigstein high-intensity portraiture in him here...
... and his Mad Magazine satirical side here.
It's the equivalent of a virtuoso director working with top-notch actors in film: Swan finds the big comicky moments, the flowing wells of emotion, and the feel of reality, and puts it on the pages all at once. Sometimes it's there in the script too, sometimes he draws it from thin air, but it's always palpable. Curt Swan art makes the impossible seem possible, not by bringing it down to street level or dirtying it up with grit, but by reminding us -- with the twitch of a muscle in Superman's face, a flick of Saturn Girl's hair, those tiny little lines he draws that always make a difference -- that in his world even the gods are human. And despite the high focus, the confidence and the precision of every perfectly-composed panel, the lack of explicit stylisms instills it with a palpable calm, a reverent hush where most hero comics of the same era had a screaming core. It's comics with a slowly beating heart, a sense of serenity and peace. Superman never fights anyone when Swan's drawing it, and the thought balloons come as often as the dialogue. Swan's Superman can most often be seen head down, shoulder to axle, working on the next world-saving idea -- as good and personal a metaphor for the uncredited artist-as-producer role Swan filled as can be found in his era's genre comics.
- BECAUSE a major plot point of this comic hinges on a telepathic mermaid princess's ability to read a dog's mind.
- BECAUSE the other best Superman story saw this one in all its grandeur and decided to imitate it rather than attempt to top it. Yes, All Star Superman (still the best Superman book of the current millennium, don't worry) takes this issue more than any other as its jumping-off point. There's the overarching plot, of course, with Superman up against a fixed amount of time before he perishes, but it goes a lot deeper yet. We've got super-labors to be completed before the great man's passing, pushing the narrative forward with the exact same device Grant Morrison took up to power his own almost half a century later, not to mention little things like prominent use of Superman-inspired heroes from the future, an appearance from the Superman Emergency Squad, and even the genesis of the writing-on-the-moon trick that Jimmy Olsen employs in All Star #4. Maybe this is the only Superman story worth telling, or one of a few anyway: the man who can't be beat up against all life's final enemy. Both times, decades apart, the answer's the same. Superman can never die. We knew that already, but of all the messages for one of his comics to leave you with, I think that's a good one.
- BECAUSE Brendan McCarthy used that panel in the best part of his Solo issue.
- BECAUSE this comic is a shining example of the iconic, timeless approach DC used to make their comics in the Silver Age. Chain the very best artists to the big characters for a few years until they develop an entire visual world for the property, and then get writers who recognize the importance of idea over story in superhero comics. This is one of those Silver Age books, one of the ones people who find the genre juvenile are bound to mock for its lightspeed conceptualizing, its glorying in the purity of what it is, but if you aren't too grown up to want some heroes in your life, this is the real thing. Writer Edmond Hamilton packs everything that makes the Superman mythos great into these 23 pages -- the Legion of Superheroes, Braniac, Kandor, Supergirl, Krypto the Superdog, Atlantis, the Daily Planet, Smallville, Batman and Robin, the Phantom Zone -- each element of the greatest story ever told gets time to shine in more or less definitive portrayals. If there was only one Superman comic, it would be this one, which takes up every aspect of the grand tapestry that is Superman, strips it down to the essentials, and feeds it through the hands of the best artist ever to draw the character. It's an entire universe in one go, an artifact that distills the power of all the thousand other Superman stories into a surging core.
More than that, though, this comic absolutely boils forward, tossing off world-beater ideas at an unparalleled pace. One page: the Legion travels back in time to attend their mentor on his deathbed, while the Superman robots dig massive irrigation canals in the Earth's deserts, transforming them "to look, form space, like Mars!" Next page: Supergirl flies out into the cosmos to smash together two uninhabited planets that will someday collide with Earth. Page after that: the Legion and Krypto construct a massive electrically-charged pyramid to dispel a space-borne cloud of fungus that, yes, will in the future be a menace to our planet. It's all so big, so epic, and yet Hamilton keeps in coming rapid fire for every page of the comic, turning even the most gargantuan cosmic threats into everyday occurrences for our heroes. This comic isn't awed at its own splendor, it's just a workmanlike journey through a truly fantastic environment, one where things happen big and fast and furious.
There's a pure joy to reading material like this for the craziness and the benzedrine pace alone, but when the writer's on his game enough to swing the clusters of ideas and one-liners into a richly dramatic narrative that unfolds, flows, thunders instead of just happening, it can be so special. It's pretty easy to read 99 Silver Age superhero stories and come to the conclusion that the barometer of quality just isn't too wide on this stuff, that there isn't much space between the aggressively good and the dreadfully bad. But there's always the one in a hundred, the one like this that shows some real love and inspiration, the one that stands outside its silly subset, a proud entry not just in the annals of "cool hero books" or "Superman episodes", but of comic book stories in general.
In the time that's passed since this comic first came out, a multi-million dollar industry has built itself around doling out in tiny chunks what Hamilton just shotgunned onto every page. This is breathless, no-holds-barred superhero world-building and world-exploiting on a scale that I don't think we'll ever see again. It's giddy, dizzying, so much content passing through a single pamphlet-length story, but man, if they still made them like this we wouldn't need so many graphic novels. This is not just a full story in one comic, it's an Olympian, futuristic epic that for once lives up to the superhero-ballyhoo catchphrase of "modern mythology". Everything that could possibly come to pass in this issue does, and at the end there's no way to feel but overwhelmed. The quality of the pulpy subject matter is open to debate (it's aces in my opinion), but there's no denying that taken for what it is, this comic is a masterwork.
- BECAUSE this is the issue where what we've always suspected gets confirmed: yes, Lois and Lana know Clark is really Superman; they just want him to trust them enough to admit it. As a corny, "seeya next time" ending, this one's head and shoulders above all the others. Just like this whole comic is.