Thursday, July 24, 2008

Getting Hooked Part 6: It's a bird, it's a plane, it's... wait, what is that, anyway?


The books:Superman 335-337
Bought at: I wanna say King's department store (as a Whitman 3-pack)

I already knew how to read by the time I got these comics, but I hadn't yet learned how to read Superman.

I should explain.

Obviously, reading a comic book is a much different experience than reading straight-out prose. Besides the words on the page, there's an entire visual language you need to interpret, too, like different symbols, the transition of time between the gutters... well, you know, all that stuff Scott McCloud talks about in Understanding Comics. Neither of us has the time for me to recount all that here. But there's a definite learning curve you need to master when you're picking up a comic book for the first time. But there's this whole other learning curve you need to work your way around if you're going to read Superman for the first time, too. And what makes it hard for the new reader is the same thing that makes Superman difficult for the new writer... all those damn powers.

So its safe to assume we all know what Superman can do, right? He flies, he's strong, he moves fast, he shoots heat beams out of his eyes, can freeze stuff with his breath, hears exceptionally well, see through solid objects, etc. This is all pretty easy to depict on TV or film (conceptually, anyway, ignoring all problems of technology or budget), because most of these abilities are focused around movement. Depicting Superman in a static medium, however, requires a little more creativity on the part of the creators, and a lot more open-mindedness from the imaginations of the readers.

Now, like most little kids, I had imagination in spades. But it took a little while for me to understand that multiple images of Superman in the same panel that were all linked together by whirlwindy-looking speedlines meant that Superman was moving so quickly that he appeared to be in many places at once, and I don't know for sure, but it wouldn't surprise me if at some point I asked, "Mommy, why are there lots of Supermans standing in the tornado?"

Another uniquely Superman visual cue is something Alan Moore actually mentioned in "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tommorow?," the thing where Superman flies so fast that the reds and blues of his costume all sort of rush together and he looks like, to use Moore's phrase, "a violet comet." And sure enough, you'd see that in spades in Superman comics of this era... Superman's torso (sometimes not even the complete torso, maybe the top half or even just his head and shoulders), arms extended forward, followed by a big purple blur where everything below should be. It's really a brilliant technique for depicting high velocity movement in a stationary image, but again, a little confusing to a three or four year old.

But obviously, since I'm still reading these things - probably to the chagrin of my parents, my wife, and eventually my child, I'm sure - I did learn to crack the code over time, most likely thanks to a combination of asking my parents and older siblings, and my usual habit of reading and re-reading and re-re-reading these things until they fell apart. As with the more complex texts of adulthood, constant study is eventually rewarded.

Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the second thing I had to learn in order to effectively read Superman... you have to accept pretty early on that the Man of Steel's life, especially in this time period, is absolutely insane. I mean, when an evil cowboy from space on a flying horse is one of the easier concepts to to wrap your brain around, you know you're dealing with a real madhouse.
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