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Absolute Superman: For Tomorrow (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

As a Superman story, For Tomorrow leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a disjointed narrative that rapidly shifts through a variety of scenarios, while characters drift in and out (and back in again) in a way that feels convenient at best. There’s hardly the most logical of progressions here, as we move from one story into another. For Tomorrow feels like it has the ingredients for at least three Superman stories that would be quite interesting on their own, instead of being forced to fit together as one plot.

On the other hand, as a meditation on some of the themes and implications and characteristics of Superman as a character, For Tomorrow becomes something far more fascinating. Writer Brian Azzarello would hardly be my first choice to write a Superman story (indeed, he’s almost too cynical to write Batman), but he very clearly has some fascinating ideas about the character and his world. Truth be told, For Tomorrow is often more intriguing than satisfying, which makes it hard to recommend, but is still worth a look for those willing to excuse a somewhat hazy plot to get to some meaty ideas about Superman.

The doves are a nice touch...

The doves are a nice touch…

Azzarello is a great comic book writer. His 100 Bullets is a comic book noir masterpiece. When it comes to superheroes, his Wonder Woman remains the highlight of the DC comics relaunch. His Knight of Vengeance is a truly wonderful Batman story. However, both of these stories have the advantage of a blank slate. His Wonder Woman followed the continuity wide reboot in Flashpoint, and many fans remain upset at what Azzarello has done to the character. Knight of Vengeance offered an alternate version of the Batman mythos where Batman really was a creature of darkness rather than hope.

Azzarello generally succeeds by doing his own thing, as his aesthetic tends to be quite distinct from that of most mainstream comic book writers. He’s smart and shrewd, but he’s also undeniably cynical. He doesn’t seem have the same unquestioning nostalgia as so many major comic book writers, and that tends to give his work a very distinctive flavour that is occasionally quite difficult to reconcile with these iconic characters. In particular, it feels rather strange for a writer working at DC comics.

I can't stand to fly...

I can’t stand to fly…

So pairing Azzarello with Jim Lee seems like a weird fix. If Azzarello is a writer who seems an ill fit for DC comics’ superhero line, it seems strange to partner him with an artist who has defined that world so well. Lee is an Executive Creative Director of the DC universe. He helped launch the “new 52” by illustrating Justice League as written by Geoff Johns, which would seem to be the most definitively“DC” creative team imaginable. Putting these two competing aesthetics together feels weird.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate that is to make a comparison. Superman: For Tomorrow feels like something of a companion piece to Batman: Hush. Both are stories illustrated by Jim Lee, both are stories centring around iconic DC characters, both are year-long stories and both were early entries in DC’s “Absolute” line, delicious oversized books designed to celebrate the very best of the publisher’s output.

Nice catch...

Nice catch…

However, the differences are striking. I love Hush with a strange passion. It’s not a story that gets much love among comic fans, many of whom criticise its simplicity or its repetitiveness or the easy-to-solve mystery. I like it quite a lot despite these things, because it’s a great way to introduce a comic book reader to Batman. It’s a whistlestop tour of the Caped Crusader’s iconic baddies in a simple and accessible story illustrated by one of the best artists in comics.

Jeph Loeb isn’t the most subtle or nuanced writer in comics, but he can turn out a decent blockbuster, and I think that Hush is an interesting exploration of Bruce’s relationship with his father. Hush was, for better or worse, archetypal Batman. It’s a fairly efficient distillation of what a typical Batman story looks like, almost a celebratory travelogue into the character’s world. The tropes and conventions get a lot of focus, but that’s sort of the point.

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

It’s interesting to note that Hush was directly followed by Broken City, a story written by Azzarello. It was another expansive trip through Batman’s iconic villains, but one which was a lot less accessible and a lot less reflective of Batman as a character. It was a great story, rich with great Azzarello dialogue and layered with all manner of unpleasant characters, but it felt like a journey down a rabbit hole rather than a trip into a big blockbuster Batman adventure.

For Tomorrow sees those two styles at war. Unlike Hush, it doesn’t devote too much time to Superman’s iconic bad guys. That might be a good idea. While Hush could support an issue dedicated to Killer Croc, it’s hard to imagine twelve consecutive months each featuring a memorable and iconic Superman baddie. There’s Lex Luthor, Zod, the Parasite, Metallo, Byzarro… maybe Darkseid…? em… Kryptonite Man…? I suppose the Atomic Skull looks cool? So it makes sense that the story doesn’t try too hard to emulate Hush.

Well... this is awkward...

Well… this is awkward…

However, Azzarello doesn’t seem interested in drawing a grand and archetypal Superman narrative for Jim Lee to illustrate in his iconic style. From the outset, Azzarello seems to realise he’s not writing a bombastic blockbuster, but something decidedly more esoteric and intimate. This is fine, but one can sense the demands of Jim Lee on the edge of the story. Lee is the definitive superhero artist of his generation. He does not do “esoteric and intimate.”

So you can sense the weird nods to Lee’s iconic style in Azzarello’s iconoclastic writing. There are big fights, often for no real reason or between two heroes. There’s sexy!Lois Lane wearing nothing but Superman’s cape. There’s a visit to the Justice League. Aquaman shows up and gets angry for some reason, because the dude rides a seahorse and is bad ass. There are a lot of the basic ingredients of what might seem to be a fairly typical Superman story.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

At the same time, there’s a lot of stuff which isn’t. There are mercenaries and warlords and mass graves and guilt and priests. These are all elements which seem very weird to see rendered in a Jim Lee Superman story which features an early interstellar rescue of Green Lantern by Superman just because. There is a sense that For Tomorrow‘s twin aesthetics are often at war with one another, which makes it a very strange read.

The plot itself feels a little all over the place. On their own, the elements are quite compelling. Superman visits a priest to confess his sense of guilt and shame. He also interferes in the political affairs of a country in the Middle East, with consequences. He also visits a magical world with a dark secret. Oh, and the priest is now a robot (an O.M.A.C.), because… well, why not? These are interesting plot points, and Azzarello uses each to say something important about Superman as a character, but he has difficulty getting them to gel into one over-arching plot.

Fist of fury...

Fist of fury…

The seams show as he tries to connect the dots. It’s nice to have a story about Superman imposing his will on a war-torn region, but connecting it so directly to the missing people seems a bit convenient – the fact that Superman only interferes in this war-torn region is never discussed. Surely he could also assist in Chechnya or the Congo? Of course, this region ties into “the vanishing” that he is investigation and he moves on to the next step, with his attempts to impose a peace quickly forgotten.

It doesn’t feel organic. To be fair, the pieces do fit together in the end, but it feels like Azzarello tries too hard jam everything into a bigger picture. It’s almost as if he moves from plot point to plot point as his interest wains. This doesn’t feel like one story, as much as Azzarello works hard to ensure the connections. It makes for disjointed and uneven read, and one sure to frustrate those looking for a well-drawn accessible Superman story. (I recommend All-Star Superman. Then again, I always recommend All-Star Superman.)

Sweeping her off her feet...

Sweeping her off her feet…

Despite that, there’s a wealth of good ideas here. Of course, Azzarello has a very particular interpretation and vision of Superman, one which obviously colours his take on the character. While many writers tend to emphasis Clark Kent’s humanity, Azzarello is fixated on the hero’s inhumanity, his alien origin and his capacity to transcend mankind. It’s a very striking and potentially divisive take on the character, one which consciously plays down the importance of Clark Kent as a facet of Superman’s identity. The only time Clark appears here is as a robot, with Superman himself never donning the persona.

“My name is Kal-El,” he tells Batman at one point, after Bruce refers to him as “Clark.” When he invites a priest to tour the Fortress of Solitude, he observes, “This is me.” He says this while walking among other-worldly technology and devices. When he eventually manages to find Lois again, he asks her, “Lois… can you call me Kal-El?” Describing his actions in the Middle East, he tells the priest, “I took all your guns away from you.” His choice of personal pronoun is telling.

A soaring accomplishment?

A soaring accomplishment?

When Clark visits his version of a “world beyond all imagination” (or “heaven”), he meets his parents. Not Jonathan and Martha Kent, but features Lara and Jor-El. There’s a sense that Superman consciously thinks of himself as alien, and the priest even insinuates that his repeated attempts to help mankind stem from his outsider perspective. “So if you dedicate your life to humanity, eventually you will regard yourself as the one most purely human?” Superman wonders.

Indeed, For Tomorrow emphasises Superman as an outsider not just because he is an alien. When he brings peace to the Middle East, a magical force seeking to take revenge points out that he is using an alien value system to impose his will on the region. That alien value system is Kryptonian, but American. The rampaging Elementals repeatedly call him “foreigner.” The comic’s climax involves Superman effectively colonising a realm inhabited by an individual far older than he is.

The Lord your Zod?

The Lord your Zod?

It’s an interesting take on Superman, one very far outside the norm for the character. I can understand that it’s divisive, and it’s really this central premise which is the biggest barrier to enjoyment. If the reader can make the leap and see Superman in the same way as Azzarello, there’s quite a reward to be found here. However, it’s asking the reader to start from a point which largely feel incompatible with the majority of interpretations of the character in recent years, where he has been presented as “all American” or patriotic.

Indeed, this patriotic Superman has become so prevalent (“truth, justice and the American way!”), that DC famously had the character renounce his citizenship in order to help distance him politically from American foreign policy. Which is interesting, because he was introduced as the ultimate outsider, an alien immigrant from a dying world. Of course, the typical Superman story takes for granted that he has assimilated completely, but Azzarello suggests that Superman’s alienness will always be a part of his personality, part of who he is.

You wouldn't like him when he's angry...

You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…

That said, Azzarello touches on some more common Superman themes. In particular, he hits upon the character’s isolation, which tends to be a bit of a problematic issue for a great many writers. After all, if you try to make Superman seem too tragic, you end up with an indulgent mess like Superman Returns. Azzarello seems to tease this possibility, with a suitably angst opening monologue. “It’s not easy being me,” blue caption boxes tell us. “I know that’s a very selfish thing to say, but then I’ve been feeling selfish lately. And selfish is something I’m not allowed to be. People expect — need — me to be selfless. Or they did need me… once.”

It turns out to be a priest talking, but it could just as easily be a quote from Five For Fighting’s Superman. Here, Superman is portrayed as flawed and insecure. He picks a priest to confess to who is dying of a brain tumour. Although the script never confirms that this is the reason Superman picked this priest, it implies that perhaps he feels more comfortable sharing with somebody who is dying. Superman is portrayed as quick to anger and easily provoked – his decision to spontaneously disarm a Middle Eastern country driven as much by rage over the loss of his wife (and a need to feel useful) as by any altruistic concern.

You gotta have faith...

You gotta have faith…

It’s telling that Superman’s version of heaven is a world where he is rendered unnecessary. “What does it feel like not to be needed, Kal-El?” his parents ask. “To stand on a world that can take care of itself?” It’s actually a nice idea – that Superman dreams of a world where he is redundant. While Azzarello’s script requires the reader to accept a flawed version of Superman, it still feels better constructed than Bryan Singer’s stalker date rapist deadbeat dad Superman from Superman Returns.

After all, despite these flaws, Azzarello presents a Superman who does care. His short scene with Bruce Wayne is strangely touching, as he checks in on a friend before embarking on a long journey. I like the idea that Superman considers himself something of a caretaker for Bruce, and that he’s obviously concerned about how Batman will respond to his departure. Azzarello wisely steers clear of the tired and cliché “Superman vs. Batman” nonsense that is far too common since The Dark Knight Returns, and instead suggests that the pair are more mature than that. (Batman lashes out, but Superman is the bigger man.)

For our sins...

For our sins…

Indeed, when the story involves the mandatory “hero vs. hero” fight, Azzarello even has Superman pause to point out how completely pointless this fighting is. “Interesting… you’d kill me to prevent me from what you believe to be suicide?” he muses at the somewhat contrived set-up for their fight. It’s very weird to see Superman and Wonder Woman fight, and Azzarello seems to play with audience expectations. This sort of conflict would be expected between Batman and Superman, but does it seem strange to see it between Superman and Wonder Woman?

Azzarello also hones in on the “Superman as god” metaphor. It’s one that dates from the earliest days of the character’s creation, stemming from the fact that is origin story evokes that of Moses. Richard Donner played up the religious symbolism in Superman, and it has informed a great deal of the character’s publication history. Azzarello just takes that aspect of the character and plays it out on a grand scale.

Superman gets the point...

Superman gets the point…

After all, the first time we see him is in a church. He startles a priest so much that the man drops to his knees. He begins, “Oh my–“ Superman cuts him off. “I don’t think you want to do that.” Superman creates a new world, a paradise. People from Earth begin to mysteriously disappear as a result of his action, whisked away to paradise in a way that evokes the rapture. He wages war against a demon his father cast out.

Azzarello hits on some nice themes here, including the intermingling of fear and faith. Again, Azzarello deviates somewhat from Superman orthodoxy. The priest notes that fear and faith and faith are closely listed in the dictionary. He asks if Superman sees much fear. Most would expect Superman to deny it, but he responds, “Not enough… at least not in the faces I’d like to see it in. And too much… in faces that have nothing to be afraid of.” Azzarello writes a Superman who can and will exploit fear to assist his cause. It’s a pretty bold take on the character.

Electric red Superman...

Electric red Superman…

At the same time, despite the fact that Azzarello is pushing the character well outside his comfort zone (too far for some), there are also some interesting points of intersection with Superman’s history. In particular, the whole plot is propelled by an idea that could easily have served as the basis of some forgotten Silver Age classic where Superman builds a world, just because he can. If this were a Grant Morrison comic, you’d assume there were an issue where Superman builds a cool phantom zone hideout to protect mankind in such a way that he has to act grossly out of character so that the issue could have a compelling cover.

Here, Azzarello takes that deliciously cheesy story idea and plays it all seriously. He even gleefully borrows a delightfully Silver Age concept from the Donner films – only this time Superman wipes his own memory… because why not? It’s a wonderful twist on those infamous “super-dickery” stories that could have been a slice of fifties hokum. It just happened that – this one time – it had unforeseen consequences.

Super-dad!

Super-dad!

That’s probably the part of For Tomorrow I like most, the sly self-awareness that creeps in towards the end, as Azzarello seems to be winking at the reader. At one point in the story, he even seems to have Superman meditate on his status as a comic book character in a serialised medium. “All that I am, was and yet still may be — was because of an ending,” he observes, of the ironic fact that the hero’s origin story is generally one of the few superhero stories where closure can be afforded. “Why is it then that I’ve spent my life doing everything my power — which is staggering even to me — preventing endings?”

For Tomorrow also introduces a new version of Zod. Zod is a character who has never really worked in comics, and is constantly reintroduced. Geoff Johns would introduce another version of the character in his Action Comics run only a few years later. Azarello and Lee’s Zod doesn’t quite work. Part of that is the awkwardly nineties design that Lee gives him. There are lots of pointy things on Zod’s outfit in a way that really just screams “bad-ass.” There’s also the fact that Azzarello doesn’t really define him too much, while still giving us a “kneel” joke.

Smashing!

Smashing!

To be fair, I think Azzarello does sort of hone in on why Zod works so well as a villain, despite the difficulty the company has with getting him to work in comic books. There are a number of ways you can play up Zod as a threat. Most obviously, he represents a counterpoint to Kal-El as an immigrant. Zod is the alien as an invader, as a conqueror. However, that role in Superman’s rogues’ gallery is generally filled by Brainaic. So what makes Zod unique? What angle does he play that Brainiac can’t?

There is a reason that both Richard Donner and Zack Snyder tie Zod to Superman’s origin, introducing the character opposite Jor-El in their first Superman films. Zod isn’t just a mirror to Superman. He’s a mirror to Jor-El. As Zod notes here, “I hated him. He feared me. We respected each other. Pacifist. Warrior. You claim the mantle of both…” Jor-El is the pacifist science hero. There’s obviously a lot of him in Kal-El. However, there’s something more.

What's up with Superman, pray tell?

What’s up with Superman, pray tell?

Kal-El is more proactive, more forceful, more powerful – and not just because he can leap tall buildings. Superman would not let a few deaf ears allow his home planet to die as Jor-El did. Kal-El is a man of action. Those Kryptonian virtues are embodied in Zod. In a way – in a very twisted way – Zod is a dark father figure to Superman. He’s a bold and decisive and powerful leader who has the strength of will to act in a way that Jor-El never could. It’s a great twist, and Azzarello nails it.

For Tomorrow is a devisive Superman story. Truth be told, I’m not sure what I think of it. I don’t rank it among Azzarello’s very best work, but it’s still intriguing. It doesn’t match my own personal interpretation of Superman, but it does offer a convincing argument for Azzarello’s. It might not work as a story, but it’s an interesting collection of themes and concepts. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but it is a fascinating read for those open-minded about what they think Superman to be.

One Response

  1. Im so ready for this release!

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