There was a moment in Superman III when the briefest window of potential in an otherwise dismal film raised open. When Superman was divided into two halves - one purely good, the other purely evil - viewers glimpsed the possibility of a once pristine superhero devolving into a malevolent ultra-human. Blink during the film (or sleep, which wasn't hard to do in Supes III) and you'd miss Christopher Reeve in a dirt-encrusted Superman leotard getting drunk and generally causing mid-grade havoc.
Fortunately, the potential lost on film has been recaptured by writer Mark Waid and artist Peter Krause in Irredeemable, a new graphic novel compilation released by fledgling Boom Studios. Waid is incredibly well-known in the comics field, graduating from the ranks of DC Comics' editors to become one of its most prominent writers. His forte, or at least so says the conventional wisdom, is writing modernized, action-oriented superhero stories that somehow manage to stay true to the traditions of the classic characters he's assigned. Over the years, Waid has revitalized The Flash, Superman, the Fantastic Four and others. None of this work, however, can prepare you for what he has done with Irredeemable. Inscrutably, this writer of classic, traditional comics has taken the Superman tradition and twisted it straight to hell.
Imagine if Superman became totally corrupted - not by some rainbow variety of kryptonite or by some stock villain of the week, but by something far more common and insidious - the common man. Imagine having super hearing, only to always hear every snarky, sarcastic, hateful comment uttered by an otherwise "adoring" public. And imagine trying to live a normal life when the paparazzi can just never, ever get enough of you. Think Brad and Angelina have it bad? How much worse would it be if they had super powers?
None of the traditional Superman iconography is present in the book, but it doesn't have to be. By decontextualizing the Superman character (referred to in Irredeemable as The Plutonian) readers get a clearer "take" on the man-god than could ever be accomplished within one of the Man of Steel's actual books. In many ways, Superman's costume and image engender so many pop culture-driven connotations there is really no way to critically examine such a character. So Waid has done the next best thing by giving readers a Superman they can deconstruct.
Most comics fans will recognize that many of the themes, techniques and characterizations in Irredeemable have been seen before, most notably in Alan Moore's Miracleman (Moore's take on the Captain Marvel story) and Watchmen (where Dr. Manhattan represents the loss of humanity that comes from gaining super powers). That is not to say, though, that Irredeemable is a cheap copy or stylistic cheat of some kind. Far from it. Consider it instead a kind of amalgamation: one part gee-whiz-bang-pow locomotive of an action story, another part cultural commentary, and a third part subversion of the archetypal superhero motif. Read it...trust me...and don't even THINK about watching Superman III on cable this weekend.
Cross-posted at PastePotPete.