Here’s a thing I wrote about this run a while back:
Mark Millar is sitting pretty, these days. His new comic properties Jupiter’s Children (with superstar Frank Quitely) and Starlight (with veteran Goran Parlov) are highly reviewed and much praised, and with 3 movies from his creator owned projects at his back (Kickass 1&2, Wanted) he’s got another coming forthwith in “Kingsman: Secret Service”. The future looks bright indeed for Mark Millar, so it feels appropriate to reflect a bit on his past.
Back before Mark Millar was a bonafide in the comics industry, he was a struggling writer just trying to make ends meet. He had a few credits to his name from 2000AD and a number of smallish press endeavors, but he was still trying to hit that big break (a break that would come first in his continuation of Ellis’s Authority, and then fully with Marvel’s Ultimates).
Mark Millar’s Red Son is well known and oft cited as one of the better Superman stories in history, but I’m not talking about that (I wouldn’t, as I disagree with that opinion). I am, instead, talking about Mark Millar’s Superman Adventures.
Readers of this blog are very likely familiar with a 90s cartoon series “Superman: The Animated Series”. Masterminded by Bruce Tim and Paul Dini, it was a thematic successor to their smash hit “Batman: The Animated Series”, a precursor to the fan-favorite “Justice League/Justice League Unlimited”. What readers might be less familiar with is the all-ages comic book spin off series put out by DC, “Superman Adventures”, with various writers and artists playing with the look, style and continuity established by the animated series.
The majority of these stories were fun and light, often cheesy and almost always inconsequential bits of fun. Just what one might expect from a cartoon tie in comic book (not much). But something interesting happened with Mike Mckvennie – editor of the book – hired Mark Millar as the semi-regular writer. It got really good.
Millar had never actually seen the series upon accepting the gig, it having never aired in his native Scotland. And while he surely did eventually become familiar with the series with the help of his editor, it becomes clear that Superman Adventuers was Mark Millar telling the Superman stories that he always wanted to.
Lasting some twenty plus issues, Mark Millar’s run went about exploring as many elements and themes of the Superman mythology as he could. Over its course, the run looked at Superman’s relationship with the metropolis, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luthor, the Daily Planet, both his biological and adoptive parents, and a whole plethora of villains. More importantly, it did so in novel, often surprising ways, and without ever losing focus on Superman’s easy love for humanity and the people around him. This Superman is not only a consummate hero, he’s got a wonderful sense of humor about himself; his life truly appears to be joyous, and filled with love and affection.
Part of what make the run such a successful one is the way that Millar turned a potential limitation of the format into a strength. Superman Adventures was very much for kids and non-comics fans, and thus had a throwback mandate of each issue standing on its own. This is a very rare thing in modern mainstream comics, with our obsession on multi-issue storyarcs that grow into multi-comic crossovers and 19 issue mega stories. For many writers I suspect such a format would be considered too restricting, but Mark Millar made it work issue after issue (with only one or two two-part stories, which truly deserved the treatment). These hyper-compressed narratives somehow never sacrificed their emotional core, and always contained some essential truth about Superman, or characters in his world, in their pages. Not content with done-in-ones, with issue 41 Millar went even further and told a full story with every page, 22 one-page stories in all focusing on Superman or some member of his supporting cast. In an age of decompression, this feat seems all the more impressive.
Some of Millar’s very best work was done with Superman’s villains, chief amongst them Lex Luthor. Issue 27, heavily featuring Superman’s greatest human foe, can make a legitimate claim to being the best of the run. Millar constructs the issue around a fairly well-worn plot, as a replacement hero comes onto the scene to make Superman look irrelevant. This replacement hero is revealed to have sinister intent, masterminded by Luthor, and is efficiently defeated. What makes the issue work are the small touches, the characters that drive the story. Here Luthor is impossibly brilliant, forever imperious, and monomanically obsessed. The story is riddled with nods to class-conflict, the white-collar Luthor despising ‘the cogs in his machine’ as he forces a restaurateur to clear out a restaurant for his meal, making jokes about the weight of his wallet, brain washing and using a working-class Superman villain to effect his scheme, or featuring a flashback to Lex Luthor’s modest childhood origins as a source of his hatred for Superman. Towards the issue’s conclusion, in the midst of self-reflection comes what seems to be a rare moment of awareness, as Luthor questions what he’s genuinely accomplished with all his wasted effort and resources. This, however, spirals into yet another insane diatribe about Superman. Lex Luthor is, after all, always right and is forever limited by his own perceived infallibility.
It’s a theme that Mark Millar will later play with in Red Son, but is echoed in another of Millar’s best Superman Adventure stories, the two part “Family Reunion”. This story concerns as Superman caught in an anti-matter blast that throws him one year into the future and, as it turns out, into another dimension entirely. There he comes face to face with a living Kryptonian city, saved and governed by Jor-El and Lara. The joyous homecoming is short lived as Kryptonopolis is not what Superman hoped it would be (heaven, once reached, rarely is) and Superman is forced to confront the insanity of his people and his own mother, as he fights side by side with his father to save earth. While the twist of Lara into a racist madwoman is uncomfortable (made moreso by Millar dedicating the story to his mother and father), it allows Superman to confront his cultural heritage, his direct parentage, and (allegorically, at least) the concept of racism. The story ends as it tries to underscore the importance of Ma & Pa Kent to Superman over his biological family (a conclusion, I have to admit, not quite earned by the preceding story). In the aftermath of “One Year without Superman” in this side dimension, we also have a look at the old question “Must There Be a Superman?” and, curiously, Millar’s answer seems to be “not necessarily”. With Superman gone, Lex Luthor has stepped up and transformed the world for the better (albeit in uncomfortable ways, such as forcibly reprogramming criminals’ minds). Luthor and a cadre of reprogrammed criminals become Earth’s first line of defense against the Kryptonian invasion and even Superman later admits “It seemed to be doing okay in the year Superman was missing, Pa. In fact, guys like Luthor actually bloomed.” For a two part story it’s dense with relevance and subtext and is extremely specific to Superman and his world. It’s an accomplishment by any standard.
The art for the majority of the run is provided by Aluir Amancio, with inks by the incomparable Terry Austin. The effect is sublime, with Amancio’s clear, expressive characters far exceeding the vitality of their moving-picture inspirations, and Austin’s ink giving the whole thing a gritty, illustrative texture that makes it feel fuller. The characters truly act here, like something out of Toth; there’s no cheating, no shortcuts, no flourishes-without-purpose. This is pure, old school storytelling, with every line a deliberate choice, action and page layout that flows as naturally and inexorably as if it really were animated. There were a number of great artists on the book, including Mike Manly, but Millar was especially blessed to get Amancio as his regular collaborator.
Millar’s Superman Adventures regularly explores the complex relationship between Superman and the world around him; his fear at what he’s capable of, the expectations of others and of himself, the way his villains simultaneously hate him and need him (Millar’s favorite, Mr. Mxyzptlk, especially) , his place in the greater DC superhero milieu. It does so with energy, density and novelty, each and every issue communicating just what puts the “Super” in “Superman”. It is, truly, quite the adventure. You should see for yourself.