Superman issue 666, “The Beast from Krypton” by Kurt Busiek (writer), Walter Simonson (artist), John Workman (letters), Sinclair and Loughridge (colours) and Matt Idelson (editor), 38 pages of strip, US$3.99, DC Comics, October 2007
It’s a dream! It’s a hoax! It’s not an imaginary story! (Except that, you know, aren’t they all?)
The last demon from Krypton’s Hell – destroyed along with the planet and its inhabitants – arrives on Earth and tries to corrupt Superman as he dreams, gaining strength from Superman’s descent.
I’m tempted to quibble with the universality of American Christian concepts in DC’s cosmology: a hell with demons tormenting sinners is not even a part of all of Earth’s religions, let alone a necessary component of those of other planets; and the idea that Superman has only to sin in his heart for it to be real is oddly reminiscent of Jimmy Carter. But that would be unfair. After all, this story owes its very existence to the fact that its issue number matches a cryptic crossword clue in the Book of Revelations.
And the story is, mostly, a lot of fun, with an increasingly surly and sulky Superman (amusingly cartooned by Simonson) dealing unrestrainedly with the frustrations of his life: all those people demanding protection, Jimmy Olsen and his screeching signal-watch, the parade of pointlessly aggressive super-villains. In doing so, he produces an array of ever-sillier silver-age super-powers.
(Hmm. I’ve never been able to dictate the rules in my dreams. But then again I’m not Superman, so we’ll let it ride.)
Eventually, of course, the real, pure-hearted Superman reasserts himself in a manner that recalls the best bit of the movie Superman III.
Busiek paces the story nicely, with an ominous build-up and a nicely graduated slide into corruption, and keeps a decent handle on exposition by the device of having Zatanna trying to work out what is happening. The story can be taken as a counterpoint to his ongoing “Camelot Falls” arc, in which Superman is confronted with the possibility that his selfless heroism is holding back humanity’s development. Here, in contrast, we see the consequences if he gives in to selfishness. There are oddities – I’m not sure why Hawkman, Animal Man and Aquaman should make portentous announcements to thin air as the demon passes, and I was strangely distracted by the fact that Clark Kent is still using a manual typewriter in 2007 – but the only part of the story that really failed for me is that it goes out of its way to raise the question of whether, in the current version of the continuity, Superman has killed (as he did in John Byrne’s 1980s run on the title). Really, is there anyone who regards this sort of guessing game as entertaining? It’s not as if we can engage with it: we can merely await an arbitrary decision by DC editorial.
Wholly on the positive side of this issue is Simonson’s artwork. It’s not strikingly developed from the mature style he was already using by the time of his work on Thor or New Gods (except, perhaps, by adopting a touch of Ted McKeever for the demonically-possessed versions of Batman, Wonder Woman and Supergirl), but it’s good to see it again. Simonson seems to have been devoting more time to his writing lately: it would be nice if he got his pencils out more often, as in many ways, he is an ideal superhero artist.
Simonson’s artwork reconciles a number of apparently opposing traits. It is monumental, but massively energetic. It is loose, but makes extensive use of rigidly geometric shapes, circles and straight lines. It is sculptural, but flat – an impression reinforced by John Workman’s lettering, which never leaves the two-dimensional picture plane. The result is like some mad Assyrian bas-relief, only livelier, more colourful, and a good deal less vile.
Overall, an entertaining one-off issue. On this evidence, stepping aside from long arcs and crossovers can clearly make for good storytelling.