Friday, June 27, 2008

The Superman 2000 Pitch: More Anti-Supermen

[Another in my and Tim Callahan's look at the Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Mark Millar and Tom Peyer "Superman 2000" pitch. New posts by Tim on Thursdays and by me on Fridays.]

Since Tim discussed the Quartet's plans for Lois Lane and the "big storyline" of their run, I figured I'd follow-up on last week's post by looking at the plans for the three remaining villains. First, they had a few words on the villains in general:

In short, we have a new blanket take on Superman’s foes. We’ve recast many of them as cracked-mirror reflections of the Man of Steel himself, aspects of his character taken to a villainous extreme. Brainiac represents Superman’s alien nature without his human compassion. Luthor is the only man on Earth capable of being Superman’s equal but has squandered his unlimited potential on evil. Prankster fights for Truth and Justice in a demented way, and Bizarro...well, read on...

As I noted last week, the plan was for each to reflect Superman and his weaknesses in their own way, something which has popped up since as well, particularly in Morrison's All-Star Superman run where Superman continually encounters various versions of himself (although not just villains). The first of the three villains for this week will sound somewhat familiar because of Morrison's All-Star Superman as well... Bizarro:

Taking the already existing Bizarro character and spinning off from Peyer's 80-Page Giant story, we can restore the creepy, demented, unnerving quality of the old Bizarro World stories. A little funny still...but somehow, a lot more scary.

Imagine a living planet which hunts through space. The entire world is a sentient system and it preys on other planets like a cancer. This self-aware--but not particularly intelligent by our standards--macro-entity has learned to imitate its prey and does this in order to "sneak up" on a victim in a pleasing, non-threatening shape. Its method is to transform itself into a crude copy of its target, sail in close and then strike by launching self-replicating parts of itself.

Now it's coming our way and it's scanning for life as it prepares to imitate and destroy the juiciest planet in its path.

And the first thing it scans, the first living creature whose mental activity is as sluggish as the killer planet's Bizarro. Bizarro, whose diary, transmitted into the galaxy, attracted the killer world across the void.

And from its rough scans of Earth, combined with the flawed synthetic substance of Bizarro (who has crash-landed on its surface and found himself immune to its assaults), the planet recreates its entire form. It becomes a grotesque, rough-hewn cube with vast distorted continents and oceans in the form of our major continental landmasses.

Dull-witted synthetic creatures, using Bizarro as their model, form in the millions, billions. Odd, unfinished, cities rise. Things break easily and run down and go wrong...everything is topsy-turvy.

Bizarro has at last found his dream world and can't wait to show Superman.

The Bizarro Planet, the Cube Earth, attacks by firing parts of itself at its target world. These parts then infect any life form on the host world and reduce it to the same state of imbecilic hunger as the killer world itself. Plagues of Bizarros shuffle through city streets, making everything like themselves, reducing scientists to drooling halfwits, tearing down streetsigns and replacing them with dangerous gibberish. Suddenly the Bizarros are nightmarish, unstoppable plague carriers...who also happen to be a form of life which is only trying to exist on its own terms and which Superman knows he cannot simply destroy.

The Cube Earth shouldn't attack often, but we know it's out there and we can visit again with or without Superman. Bizarro #1 himself is the only one of the Bizarro creatures who is not himself a contaminant to humans. He is the Cube Earth's crazy ambassador.

The Bizarros should have a Cronenberg/Lynch quality of blackest humor and gut-wrenching dread, mingled with the sad, sinister charm that Tom's story worked to evoke.

I'm not familar with Peyer's story, but it's typical of the Quartet to build upon previous stories, to use what has already happened rather than simply start from square one. As well, at this time, these four writers were very friendly and often bounced ideas off of one another or did projects that led to one of the others taking over. Millar wrote the Zauriel mini-series, Peyer wrote Hourman after Morrison introduced him in JLA, Morrison and Waid came up with Hypertime, Waid was the go-to fill-in writer on JLA, Morrison and Millar wrote a year of Flash while Waid took a break, plus the various stories contributed to the 80-page giant books that were fashionable at the time. In a way, these four working together on the Superman titles would have been the culmination of years where they worked closely but separately.

This version of Bizarro is familar to anyone reading Morrison's All-Star Superman where he gave the concept two issues. The idea of the Bizarro World imitating as a means to pacify wasn't accomplished quite as planned, but the rest is there, pretty much.

For our next villain, most of his role is discussed in the portion of the pitch related to Lois, but the Quartet included a few more words on Brainiac:

Lex Luthor builds a green-flesh computer brain and body to house the dying Brainiac. The space-villain becomes Luthor's Frankenstein Monster, a heartless machine whose intellect and cosmic reach dwarfs even his creator's genius. Unlike Luthor, Brainiac hasn’t a shred of compassion and is the only enemy whom Superman genuinely fears.

Not explicitly stated, but the Quartet implies that Brainiac is what Jonathan Kent feared Clark would turn into in Elliot S. Maggin's novel Miracle Monday: a cold, detached superbeing without any compassion or morals, viewing all living things as specimen to be studied and used for his own purposes. Since Superman is defined by his compassion and devotion to life, Brainiac is very much his opposite number.

And that leaves us with Lex Luthor, Superman's arch-enemy:

We see Luthor playing chess with twenty grandmasters simultaneously while reading untranslated Il Principe and teaching himself Urdu via a Walkman he made for himself in five minutes back in 1962. Luthor is so smart we don't even have a WORD for what he is yet; calling him a genius is as insulting as calling him an imbecile.

Here’s a secret about Luthor no one yet knows. Despite his born ruthlessness, he was once salvageable, once redeemable--until Superman arrived. Though even he doesn’t consciously realize it, every iota of Luthor’s self-esteem was pinned to achieving that most lofty goal: to be considered the greatest man who ever lived. And he was on his way--until Superman appeared and outclassed him, triggering the scattershot sociopathic tantrum that is his criminal career.

Here’s another secret. Luthor's Lexcorp empire? All the corporate-baron stuff we see him doing routinely? Six minutes of his day, maybe less. He’s not the Kingpin. He only pretends to be. Luthor the businessman is the tip of the iceberg, a smokescreen generated to give the public and his enemies a false, easily digested persona which masks his true depths. In other words, Luthor conquered the financial world largely in order to project a "secret identity" designed to make people underestimate him. Lexcorp is but one of a thousand projects Luthor attends to every day.

In time, once Superman learns of Luthor’s depth, he will come to understand Lex as a tragedy of wasted potential. Though he realizes he could not have handled his earlier, formative encounters with Luthor any differently, Superman carries a new weight around in his heart. He knows now that Luthor, but for the path he chose, could have been his equal, his only true peer on this earth. And though Superman’s greatest priority will always be to stop Luthor’s schemes, his greatest frustration will be his continuing inability to rehabilitate Lex for the good of all mankind.

Not just Superman's arch-enemy, Luthor is also his foil: a superior being who never reaches his full potential because of emotional weakness. In Superman's case, his desire to be humble and fit in; in Luthor's, his desire to be the best. Both are limited by opposing desires related to pride, but Superman channels his to better the world, while Luthor focuses only on destroying Superman, the only obstacle to achieving his goal. There's an irony here, that he will team up with Brainiac who is not only more powerful physically, but mentally as well, to defeat someone who is only more powerful physically. There's no question that Luthor is Superman's better intellectually, but all he focuses on is Superman's physical abilities.

I'm actually not a fan of the idea that Luthor only spends "six minutes of his day, maybe less" on Lexcorp, but I've always found that aspect of the character to be far more interesting than Luthor as supervillain. One thing I thought the creative team of Jeph Loeb, Joe Kelly, Joe Casey and Mark Schultz did right was making Luthor president since that demonstrates the level Luthor plays on, which is one entirely different from other villains. He can attack Superman in ways no one else can, but I seem to be in the minority with my preference since the character has since reverted to wearing his green and purple armour and acting rather mundane. Even in Morrison's All-Star Superman, he isn't much more than a regular supervillain--which is where the character began, so there's just cause for that. Even in Morrison's JLA, he was a supervillain, but he employed means (particularly in "Rock of Ages") unlike those of other villains. Part of what makes him so frustrating is that Superman and the other heroes are the only ones who know the true Luthor, that he always walks away with a smile and clean hands.

The idea that Superman is trying to rehabilitate Luthor is fantastic and adds another level to their confrontations: the goal isn't simply to thwart Luthor's schemes but to make him see the error of his ways. This is almost similar to what Casey eventually did by turning Superman into a pacifist: since the character is one built on providing inspiration and hope, wouldn't Superman try and rehabilitate every criminal he encounters? Would that be a logical point of evolution in the character?

Until next week.