Howdy, Folks! Hope everyone is gearing up their Halloween Season festivities! Heading out to pumpkin patches, getting lost in corn mazes, egging of houses belonging to those that borrowed by hedge trimmer and never returned it.
Yeah, old man Simmons, I see you over there. You think just because your elderly, I’d let that stuff slide?!? Smell the wrath of eggs that I let sit out in my hot house of a garage all summer!
Any case, one of my annual Halloween seasons here at gotstratosphere.com is to thematically schedule all my read piles during the month of October to have a horror or spooky theme to them. It helps me get into the Halloween spirit as easily that posting pictures of Halloween costumes from years gone by or watching a marathon of Scooby Doo episodes.
However, this week I’ve also decided to incorporate another love of mine into the read pile by reviewing an DC Elseworlds story. This is especially relevant thanks to the upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths cross over event that will be hitting the airways on the CW at the close of this year. That’s pumped the tires of a lot of fans into exploring the fantastic stories that can come from taking established heroes and villains and rearranging the deck as it were to come up with strange and captivating “What If…” stories that aren’t hedge pinned into a particular continuity.
Luckily for me, there was such a tale that incorporated both elements of horror and alternate universe versions of events, and it could be found in the below collection of Superman: Elseworlds Volume 1.
It’s a post apocalyptic yarn filled with long haired Mad Max style Clark Kents, rats of unusual size, and DC Universe once again making Shazam to be a colossal jerk. Strap into your kiddies, here comes Howard Chaykin & Gil Kane’s “Superman: Distant Fires”.
10 Cent Synopsis:
After a computer malfunction causes the nuclear holocaust that we’ve all dreaded could happen, Metropolis stands in ruins with most of its inhabitants dead. Superman however has survived albeit the resulting cataclysm has stolen his powers and reduced him to a Road Warrior style drifter fighting for survival against giant mutant rats and the troll like cannibals that the remains of humanity has been reduced to.
Still things start looking up when he rescues and tames a gigantic mutant house cat as his traveling buddy and journeys to a fertile forest untouched by the atomic fallout. Indeed, it’s a land of milk and honey and a barely clothed Wonder Woman, who just as horny…I mean happy to see Supes as he is to see her.
She escorts him back to a village community of other heroes/villains who have also lost their powers but have banded together for mutual advantage in this cruel new world. This includes a crippled Wally West, a completely sane and rational Joker, and a war mongering Billy Batson who is portrayed as having an enormous inferior complex to the Man of Steel, one that is only intensified when everyone immediately looks to Superman for leadership and Wonder Woman immediately dumps him to shack up with her new bulletproof beau.
What follows is almost a montage of time showing Supes and Wonder Woman getting married and having a son named Bruce as the former Justice League continue to tame the new frontier from their town of Champion. In a twist though, some of them start slowly regaining their powers thanks to Billy Batson secretly using magic to transform in Shazam, the vestiges of which are not only empowering the heroes but slowly tearing the remaining planet apart.
In the end, Shazam teams up with Metallo and an army of mutants to attack Champion, after killing Wonder Woman in revenge. Superman manages to defeat him, but the damage to the world that the Shazam magic that wrought is already too severe. In a last ditch effort, Superman uses a green lantern power ring he fought to create a rocket ship and shoots his son Bruce into space before the Earth explodes!
I honestly had high hopes for this book given it had a lot going for it. Howard Chaykin writing, classic Gil Kane art, a post apocalyptic setting (which I won’t lie is one of my favorites for good storytelling). And for the first 20 some pages, it seemed like I wasn’t going to be disappointed.
Given that one of my major problems with the character of Superman is that he’s way too over powered, giving me a completely de-powered version having to survive on his wits and savage brutality was definitely a step in the right direction.
In fact, once he got his giant cat mount/BFF, I swore I was actually just reading a classic He-man story, y’know one of those ones from before the animated series where he’s not uber strong, but just a beefy barbarian patrolling the wastes.
Hell, I didn’t even mind when he found the scantily clad Wonder Woman, as again that fits with the overall feel of this being like a modern day sword/sandal warrior epic.
However, everything when terribly and horribly after Wonder Woman took Supes back to the village of Champion. At that point, it’s like the narrative turned on a dime for the worse. Instead of this semi original notion of Superman, champion of wastes, it’s like Howard had read Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come that had been released 2 years before and said “Well…I can do this better.”
Except he didn’t. It’s like he swallowed all the ideas from Kingdom Come and regurgitated them back out but without the time or the care that the original series had. I mean it’s all there. Supes and Wonder Woman having a son, carving out a new world order out of the ashes of the old, and most of all Billy Batson aka Shazam aka DC’s favorite whipping boy being once again cast in the role of the villain. Only in Distant Fires, he doesn’t even get the dignity of a redemptive arc or being the victim of brainwashing.
Instead he’s portrayed as an insecure jealous psychopathic loon who falls to pieces after being dumped by Wonder Woman and ends up murdering her in a jilted stalker like rage. I mean talk about just taking a character around the back of the barn and savagely beating him to a pulp.
Speaking of which, if anyone out there is a fan of Wonder Woman as well, I’d stay as far away as possible. She couldn’t be written more shallow in this book, cruelly ditching Billy the moment Clark shows up like a high school cheerleader when the all star QB just happens to be freshly available. From there the rest of story is just her gushing over how good Superman is in the sack, before pumping out babies, and being unceremoniously killed off panel by the love sick Shazam.
Yes, Wonder Woman gets to be the “girlfriend in the fridge” serving no purpose other than being Superman’s arm candy that eventually gets killed to advance the plot. How’s that for your “Girl Power”!?! Disgusting to be honest…
Anyways, and then there’s the end, where Superman conveniently finds a power ring so he can magically create a space ship to send out his boy into the cold void of space, thus escaping death on the exploding planet. Sure that may seem like it’s hackneyed and cliche from a plot perspective and you’d be right.
However, the worst part is he has the ability to create a spaceship large enough for both him and his son, and yet he chooses to be “noble” and just shoot his son off by himself, just like his parents did.
WTF. Seriously. WTF. That’s all I can say.
Look, I’m a dad, and I have a son. If it’s a question that only one of us can live, then yes, it’s noble to sacrifice yourself so your son can live.
However, if you have every opportunity to save both yourself and your son, then as a father, you owe it your son to stay alive as long as you can to make sure your son has someone to take care of them. And that’s not just someone, but one of the most important people in a child’s life: their parent. The wellspring of love, trust, and security from which all stability and self actualization flows in a child’s developing sense of self.
I mean look how bad it messed up Batman not having his parents. Supes himself had major issues even though he luckily had the Kents to step in to manage some of it.
But yeah, at the end of this book, and I read it twice to be sure, Supes just chooses to commit suicide.
He’s like “Nope, forget this father stuff, my parents did it to me and I turned out fine. My kid will just have to learn to take care of himself…even though I could actually go with him. Nah, my chick’s dead. I’ll chill here”.
Sincerely, in that moment, I felt I had read the most non Superman thing ever. It was the antithesis of heroic. Let’s show it again, folks, just so you get my point.
Yep, that’s one of the most cowardly shitty things I had ever read. I mean look at poor Bruce’s face.
Poor Bruce Did Not Deserve This.
Given this is once again another book in which DC craps all over the original Captain Marvel aka Shazam, I thought it might be fitting to take some time and talk about the Shazam TV series from the mid 70s put out by Filmation as a way to add some positivity back to this much maligned superhero.
The live action program that ran on CBS Saturday Mornings from 1974 to 1976 which was actually the program of this kind to be produced by Filmation who previous only did animated shows. It was later somewhat repackaged with it’s sister show, The Secrets of Isis, starring Joanna Cameron as an Ancient Egyptian superheroine named Isis. In fact there are several episodes of each program where the two characters actually team up, which is super cool when you figure the only other time I remember that happening in a super hero show prior to these programs was that time Batman ’66 teamed up with the Bruce Lee version of the Green Hornet.
Anyways, the program is somewhat oddly framed around Billy Batson driving around the country in a RV with this grandpa/guardian type character named “Mentor”, solving the world’s problems one stop at a time.
Yup, from drug dealers, joyriders, and kids stupid enough to play around mine shafts, these kid friendly PSA type adventures were definitely a great use of the tremendous powers of the World’s Mightiest Mortal (maybe I’ll be counseled by Shazam on the dangers of being a smart ass next).
Regardless though, they do have a quaint charm to them like most Filmation programs of that era, and some older folks I talk to at Comic Cons have pretty fond memories of this program although they are also often quick to admit: “It’s the only thing comic book fans had back then…” . However, it’s true this show and Isis did move the needle of pop culture a bit and are important early pioneer shows into the comic genre on TV.
In fact I suggest you take a quick watch yourself if you happen to have the DC Universe Streaming Service given all 3 seasons of the show are there. But if you want to cheat, I guess you can just watch this montage of “Best Clips” that someone cobbled together on YouTube.
Originally when I was thinking about how I was going to write this review, I thought I was going to be initially kind and simply say that Howard Chaykin had a lot of interesting ideas in this story, but that tons of them weren’t fleshed out very well. This was only a 64 page story, yet some of the ideas such as the wars with Metallo and the army of mutants, or the Joker becoming an upstanding pillar of the community, they needed whole issues to be expanded upon to the point where you could do the ideas justice.
However, then I started writing this article, and it was really hard to keep the rage at bay. What started as a pretty cool little tale about Superman becoming a Fallout-style Conan the Barbarian type riding around on his giant alley cat, quickly turned into an all out character assassination of some of the brightest stars in DC Comics. No, scratch that, some of brightest stars in all of the history of comics. In fact, at times I thought to myself:
“Does Howard Chaykin actually secretly hate all these characters? Is this his way of putting the screws to all of them?”
Because whether he does or doesn’t, it sure seems like he does as he paints Shazam, Wonder Woman, and even Superman in some of the worst lights imaginable. Even in the face of a world changing calamity where billions of people died, they are all depicted as self centered, self righteous, narcissistic idiots who care more about their petty lives than those around them, which is terrible when you think these are supposed paragons of our collective ideals of virtue.
And again, boy o boy did that ending bother me to no end! Damn it. You are a father, Superman. You don’t just abandon your kid. Period.
Sincerely, this book would have been an “F” if not for the terrific Gil Kane art. That saves it from being thrown into a not so distant campfire in my backyard one of these cold autumn evenings.
Andy’s Read Pile Grade: D