This one might run a little short, because I’m just starting out with Superman: The Animated Series. It came on the air at a moment when I was sort of done with cartoons, so while I’ve seen a handful, it’s mostly new to me. I’ll have more to say about it moving forward, but I had a couple thoughts on the first episodes.
To start with the obvious: it’s very good. I’m watching it on the Evil Empire’s streaming service, and it’d be nice to see cleaner copies, but the animation holds up. The stylized approach, going back to the Max Fleischer serials, was startlingly fresh when it aired, on the heels of a lot of crap animation like GI Joe and Transformers, and still looks distinctive and crisp.
There’s an obvious feeling of “trying to do for Superman what Batman: The Animated Series did for Batman,” and really there’s nothing that’s going to benefit from comparison with B:TAS. Applying similar aesthetics and techniques to Superman is a solid choice, but it doesn’t have the revelatory power B:TAS had. B:TAS unearthed a core of the character. S:TAS is not going to fundamentally change anyone’s thinking on Superman. Still, it’s very good.
The opening story draws heavily on Byrne’s Man of Steel origin, with some pretty significant shifts. There’s the airplane save, which is becoming one of those scenes we’ve seen too many times to actually see it. The Luthor plot runs similar to Byrne’s, with Luthor staging a terrorist attack on his own resources. S:TAS adds in some mech suits for visual bombast. The scene where Superman visits Luthor at his office, another greatest hit, is played taut, with minimal dialogue, and the effect is to show Luthor projecting his anxieties onto Superman, a model that works.
The voice acting is very good, by the way, particularly the leads, Tim Daly, Dana Delany, and Clancy Brown. Brown does manage to do for Luthor what Kevin Conroy does for Batman. And is this the sexiest Lex? I am going to say that S:TAS’s Lex is the sexiest Lex.
One thing I love about the animation is the sense of effortlessness in Superman’s power. His ease of movement is so strongly portrayed he seems almost lazy. The mech suit fight concludes with him strolling over to the mech suit at the edge of a building and puffing it over the side. It’s casual and brilliant and establishes the complete otherness of Superman’s strength, the idea that we are no where near seeing the limit of it.
The Krypton material is heartbreaking. My feeling is that the way to make the Krypton part of Superman’s origin resonate is to draw out Kal-El’s age as far as is narratively plausible. In Byrne’s version, Jor-El and Lara have basically never held their son, so the sense of loss is practically non-existent. Here, Kal is a toddler when he’s sent to Earth. He has a personality (and, one assumes, nascent memories) and the idea of giving him up is truly wrenching to his parents.
This brings us, in a roundabout way, to something S:TAS is doing out of the gates that’s different from B:TAS. One of the immediate strengths of B:TAS was the short story quality of it. The producers abandoned the idea of serial narrative, at least at the beginning, in favor of self-contained stories. Set against the backdrop of 90s Bat-comics, where stories ran for years and wove through several titles, this was powerful stuff.
S:TAS makes it clear it’s setting up some level of serial narrative. The first episodes seed Braniac and Metallo, although the latter is more of an easter egg. Connecting Braniac to the destruction of Krypton is an elegant narrative move that should pay dividends later. Geoff Johns will later retcon this same connection in with a textbook Geoff Johns “the X you’ve seen is not the real X” plot, but S:TAS builds the connection in from the start.
Let me take this opportunity to talk a little about narrative elegance. What I mean here is the feeling that everything within the narrative means something. It is, quite frankly, much easier to do in non-serialized narratives. If you’re, say, writing a novel, you can get to the end, then go back and make sure that everything lines up. Sorry if this destroys some of the magic for you guys, but 90% of narrative elegance in any piece of writing comes from editing. Last year, I ended up sending my editor a half-finished book, which I’ve never done before and probably won’t again. She basically said, you need to finish this book before you know what it is. And she was right, because she is someone who is frustratingly always right.
A lot of serial narrative doesn’t have this option. To define narrative elegance by its complete absence, let’s look at, say, X-Men comics, or Lost. Let’s look at Lost, in fact. Better folks than I have done the X-Men thing. Lost starts out with only vague ideas of where it wants to end up. It allows itself to be guided by the rule of cool. For example, polar bears. It works very hard to make everything feel like it matters, and it benefited (as do comics) from having fans that were willing to invest a lot of effort into figuring out a story that did not yet exist. But this kind of PAY ATTENTION TO EVERYTHING, IT MIGHT BE A CLUE! storytelling is high-risk, as the attrition of fans, and the grumbling over the ending attested. As the series continued, the writers scrambled to take all these disparate elements and make them make sense. They worked to impose elegance on an inelegant narrative.
Sidenote: when they brought on Brian K. Vaughn as a write, it was clear to me there was no plan in place. I love Vaughn’s stuff, but he is all about rule of cool, and gives only about half a fuck when it comes to mystery boxes. If you doubt this, ask yourself which you remember: the moment in Y: The Last Man when they reveal the cause of the plague, or the actual last issue? I am trying to manage this without spoilers, but Brian K. Vaughn is a writer who will brush through the explanatory bits to get to the chewy emotional nougat inside his story. That, by the way, is the worst metaphor for writing you are likely to ever encounter.
Also, I will defend the ending of Lost with my dying breath, but The Leftovers ends up being the purer vision of particularly Damon Lindelhof’s interest in the ideas Lost wants to explore. If you have not watched The Leftovers, go forth and do so. It is nigh-perfect.
Byrne’s Man of Steel is inelegant because Byrne, as a writer, is actually not that interested in elegance. Read any long run with Byrne writing, it’s clear he’s not intending it to add up to anything more than a pile of cool comics. To be fair, this is true of almost all comic books for most of the medium’s existence. I am sure there are copious essays that map the birth of “continuity” onto the rise of the direct market model in comic book distribution, but that’s not really my point here. Byrne’s approach is that narrative depth with come with aggregation; the object issue to issue is to put out stuff that is cool. Later, writers like Johns and Waid retcon the old stuff to produce a sense of narrative elegance. Or they re-write the old stuff entirely and build it in to start.
S:TAS starts out with some knowledge of what’s coming down the pike, so they can tie Braniac into Krypton’s demise because they know that Brainiac will be a thing. That random terrorist, voiced by Malcolm MacDowell? Let’s make him John Corbett, because later John Corbett will be a thing. But what it all means is that S:TAS is announcing itself as serial narrative, rather than self-contained episodes. When people talk about the DC Animated Universe as something with “coherence” or continuity, the launch of S:TAS feels like where that shift happens.
One last thing: this is the only version of the Superman origin story I can think of where he’s initially mistaken, by several people including one of Lois Lane’s rival journalists, for an angel. Am I wrong? Does this happen elsewhere? I’m not talking about a writer portraying him using angelic imagery, which Morrison does heavily in JLA and Action Comics, and I am certainly not talking about linking Superman with Christ, which Bryan Singer does with all the subtlety of a brick in Superman Returns. I’m talking about the citizens of Metropolis assuming that he’s an angel.
It’s an interesting thread I’m curious to see if the series picks up again. In Hebrew, the El suffix, as in Kal-El, is an abbreviation of Elohim, one of the names of God, which is why all your big time angel names end in -el. I’m not sure this is ever explicitly addressed in the comics, because really how do you do that without pulling back the curtain and saying that this is a character created by two Jewish kids? But it’s a thing, that is there, and this cartoon for kids makes a pretty direct nod toward it. Which I like.