"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
We’re heading into the home stretch!Â Can you keep up?Â Come on, I know you can!
Would it be okay if I mentioned that there are SPOILERS in this post?Â Well, there are!Â SPOILERS, that is.Â Did I say SPOILERS?Â Why, yes, I did say SPOILERS!
Man, check out that cover.Â Only in superhero world can people bend like that!Â I mean, that’s pretty impressive.Â I wonder if the issue has anything to do with exploitation????
Alix Harrower (note the last name) stands in front of a mirror and says, “Now what?”Â She is shiny.Â She has red hair.Â She has a large bust, if you don’t mind me saying so.Â She is, in other words, a perfect superhero.Â What she says might be another metatextual moment from Mr. Morrison – we’re done with the first round of mini-series in this epic, and now Grant is wondering what to do next.Â I mean, it’s not like he plots these things out before hand, right?Â Oh, okay.Â Maybe Alix is the audience, wondering where Morrison can possibly go now.Â Hmmm …Â You’ll notice that the mirror into which Alix looks is cracked, reflecting the way her life has gone.Â The mirror in Zatanna #2 is cracked as well, and we haven’t really gotten a good look at Gloriana Tenebrae’s mirror, so who knows.Â The fact that it is cracked means it distorts the reality we see (the one in Cassandra’s shop was even called “the Mirror of Reality”) and Alix is seeing that her life has completely changed, and she doesn’t know where to go.Â Boy, a cracked mirror – nice subtle metaphor, Grant!
We flashback to a hospital scene, as Alix and her husband, Lance (Lancelot?) are brought in, covered in the shiny metallic substance.Â Lance is not in good shape – he’s suffocating.Â Why isn’t Alix?Â We learn that the metal didn’t cover the spot where her wedding ring is, so therefore her skin was allowed to breathe, whereas Lance does not have a ring on (oh dear) and is subsequently dying.Â This reminds me of the scene in Goldfinger where the actress is painted gold and they had to leave a spot unpainted or she would have, you know, died.Â So Lance dies, and the more we know about him, the less we’re sad that he did.
Suddenly Alix wakes up in bed, but we know it’s a flashback again, because she is not covered with metallic gunk.Â She’s wearing naught but panties, but I’m not going to get into the sexualization of the title character right now.Â It’s quarter to five, and Lance isn’t in bed.Â She finds him in the basement looking at porn, although she doesn’t quite catch him at it, and he tells her he’s having issues with the “SmartSkin growth pattern.”Â He has been working on this metallic stuff, and he’s been able to cover a mouse (Mickey Metal, as Alix calls him), but he hasn’t been able to “keep it coherent” over more than a few square inches.Â It makes the mouse superstrong, but Lance still needs a human test subject.Â Whenever scientists say that in fiction, bad things occur.Â In the morning, Lance tells Alix that she looks like a superhero, then tells her that with SmartSkin, they could both actually be superheroes.Â Alix can’t think of anything more horrible, but Lance won’t let it go.Â The next page gives us some crucial insight into Lance’s character.Â He’s worried about growing old and his body becoming decrepit (we see from the hospital scenes that he’s in as good shape as she is), but he’s also worried that they won’t be famous before that happens.Â So it’s not just being young – he wants to be young and famous.Â She says that she’s 27 and her body is fine, and then Lance, who would win Asshole of the Year if he were not fictional, tells her that she “never used to have those little lines” on her face.Â Alix, showing remarkable restraint, does not break his hand when he reaches for her, but does tell him to knock it off.Â He says that youth doesn’t last forever unless you’re a superhero – a nice reference to the nature of the comic book business – and Alix retorts by saying, “Life’s not supposed to last forever.”Â Will Lance heed the warning?
Of course not!Â After another page on which Alix stands in front of the mirror, thinking about what the doctor told her after her husband died, telling her that some people will do “just about anything to hang with the skintight crowd,” which is a nice shorthand for superpeople, we flashback again.Â Alix comes home and hears Lance screaming in the basement.Â He tells her he thinks he did something stupid (note his wedding ring on the desk next to the computer, which shows women in bikinis), and as she calls 911, he touches her, “infecting” her with the SmartSkin.Â I’ll get back to the “money shot” of Alix’s face later.
After the funeral, Alix visits what I presume is a psychiatrist.Â She tells him that she can’t pay the rent, and she can’t go back to work.Â She works with autistic kids, and they think she’s been replaced by a robot.Â She tells him that when she went to make sure Lance’s research wasn’t lost, she found the various porn sites, which are all about superhero porn.Â Lance has even corresponded with Sally Sonic, one of the “eternal superteens,” about teaming up with her.Â Sally, you’ll recall, was at the self-esteem workshop in Zatanna #1, although we don’t know it’s her yet.Â What’s also interesting about the e-mail is that Lance says something about looking at Alix and seeing her come apart in ten years like a “piece of bad tailoring.”Â We see the image of Tailors again, and we recognize that Lance is still looking for a childhood fantasy – Alix has already put on her “adult clothing,” and he can’t handle it.Â Alix is telling the doctor that she was ready to commit suicide, but she ran through the city until she came across a train wreck, and a young boy asked for her help.Â She rescued a bunch of people and decided it felt pretty good.Â She decides to take Lance up on his fantasy – she puts on a sexy outfit and is ready to go!
From the little I read about this title, opinion was rather heated about the “sexploitation” aspects of the book.Â This is rather silly, as it’s pretty clear that Morrison and Paquette are deliberately emphasizing both Alix and Lance’s superficial aspects to make a point.Â There’s nothing terribly titillating about Alix, after all – she has big breasts, but so what?Â Lots of women have big breasts.Â She wanders around her house in underwear, but when she’s out in public, she’s wearing perfectly reasonable clothing – yes, it’s sexy, but she has a nice body, and the dresses she wears aren’t slutty.Â We can look at this as a fairly brutal critique of superheroes and the fetishization of their culture – superhero porn is a logical extension of superheroes themselves, and I’m fairly certain we’ve seen it shown explicitly like this before (not in Flex Mentallo, because that’s Morrison again, but somewhere else), only I can’t remember where.Â The implication that only superheroes stay “perfect” is certainly a criticism of an industry that steadfastly refuses to change, and this goes back to the idea of growing up that we have seen throughout the series – superheroes are a form of literature that refuses to grow up, which is why Lance is so fascinated by them.Â Alix, we see, is also a bit vain, but she is not as wrapped up in the superficiality as Lance is, and this is what, probably, keeps her faithful – Lance is a jerk, sure, but she doesn’t see him as an object.Â Her vanity does not interfere with her life, as it does Lance’s.Â It’s a benign sin.
The use of sexual images is also rather interesting.Â Morrison is openly mocking the motifs of porn, from the poses Paquette draws Alix in (on page 6, she pauses before the open door to grab a shirt, and we see her preening for us, the audience; on page 7, she bends over, rump in the air, and hugs Lance around the shoulders, in juxtaposition with the girl on the screen in panel 1; on page 8, she bends over again to look at Mickey Metal; on page 12, as she sits in front of the mirror, she coyly covers her breasts as she touches her face; on page 15, she arches her back as she pulls on a glove; on page 21, she leans forward and pushes her arms against her breasts as she sits in the doctor’s office; and on page 22, she admires her new self in the mirror) to the “money shot” on page 14, when the SmartSkin covers her face, looking uncomfortably like, well, you know.Â The linkage of porn with superheroing is always there, of course, and the fact that Morrison and Paquette link it so explicitly means that they are deliberately drawing us to make the comparisons.Â Porn, Morrison is saying, is as infantile as superheroing.Â As the series moves on, we will see this link being made even stronger as Sally Sonic shows up.
Of course, transformation is at the heart of this issue, as it has been throughout the saga.Â Alix turns from a slightly vapid but good-hearted young lady into a hardened superhero (literally), but her heroic act was somewhat by accident.Â Morrison is pointing out that just looking like a superhero and having indestructible skin does not make you a hero.Â Alix has been thrust into a situation where the only thing for her to do is be a superhero, but, like Jake Jordan, she has real-world concerns too – she can’t pay the rent and she suddenly finds herself unemployed.Â So being a superhero isn’t really her first option, but it turns out to be her only one.Â But how can she make money being a superhero?
It’s natural to look at the other two series starring women, and this slots in nicely with Shining Knight and Zatanna.Â We get the virgin-whore-mother scenario, which is somewhat interesting.Â Justine turns out to be practically sexless, despite what Ragnell has said.Â Yes, we can read the series as a journey through puberty, and that’s certainly an excellent way of looking at it, but Justine is not a sexually active woman in any sense of the word.Â She is the virgin, to the extent that no one even knows she is a woman.Â Alix, of course, is the fully sexualized woman.Â Zatanna, despite yearning for the man of her dreams and wearing skimpy outfits, turns to the mother role in her dealing with Misty.Â She is fulfilling that role much more than she is playing the role of lover.Â By slotting these women into these traditional roles, Morrison is able to play with stereotypes, just as he is with the men, despite men usually not having “traditional” roles in fiction.Â Justine, of course, is much more than just a young girl.Â Zatanna is certainly more than a mother.Â Alix is more than an attractive woman.Â Part of their journeys through the series in which they star is their breaking of stereotypes.Â How successful Morrison is at showing this is up to the reader, of course.
Paquette is a fairly good choice for this title, as he draws “cheesecake” well, but also does it with more irony than someone like Adam Hughes might bring to the project (I love Hughes, but I feel he takes his cheesecake far more seriously than it needs to be).Â Even when Paquette was drawing Wonder Woman, he seemed to bring a needed sense of humor to the fact that female superheroes are always drawn the same way.Â Alix, interestingly enough, is drawn differently than most female superheroes – yes, she has big breasts, but she is built, if you’ll pardon the expression, like a brick shithouse – she seems more proportional than what we get from the Michael Turners and Ed Beneses of the world, and she seems taller than most women.Â The female character she most reminds me of is Big Barda, and there’s nothing wrong with that.Â We can contrast her with the girl on the Superteens web site (Sally Sonic, I guess), who is more like the stereotypical femaleÂ superhero.Â It’s an interesting difference, andÂ one that will become more pronounced as the series goes on.
As a first issue goes, this is more like a typical superhero mini-series in that we get no mention of anything even remotely connected to the Seven Soldiers epic.Â We assume it will come up soon enough, but there’s not even a villain in the book, for crying out loud!Â This makes itÂ both better and worse than the otherÂ first issues.Â On the one hand, it’s enjoyable to read and appreciating on its own terms.Â On the other hand, we’re so used to looking for connections between theÂ SevenÂ Soldiers now thatÂ it’s a bit disappointing to not see them.Â But theÂ superhero porn critique makes up for it, I think.
There’s not a lot to the annotations, but they aren’t bad.Â Over at Jog’s blog, he has a lot of the same insights I do, but he writes far more eloquently than I do.Â Our Dread Lord and Master made some interesting points about it when it came out, as did the always-interesting Mark Fossen.Â I’ll link to Ragnell’s thoughts later, because sheÂ posts after theÂ seriesÂ are complete.
Next: A big monster with a big gun!Â No subtext there!
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