How to Make DC Comics the Marvel Way: Superman #39 and Superman #40
Superman #39 and Superman #40 are the same comics. Not literally, of course, but in basic essence, there is little separating them. There are a few flourishes like dealing with Clark revealing he’s Superman to Jimmy Olsen at the end of Superman #38 that issue 39 follows up on, but, really, these are both issues where Superman deals with what his new ‘solar discharge explosion’ power means. Issue 39 is written by Geoff Johns, pencilled by John Romita, Jr., inked by Klaus Janson, coloured by Hi-Fi, and lettered by Sal Cipriano; issue 40 is written by John Romita, Jr., pencilled by John Romita, Jr., inked by Klaus Janson, coloured by Dean White, and lettered by Travis Lanham. We could go over the differences in colouring and lettering between these two comics (and they are there, of course), but, as you can imagine, I’m going to focus on the differences in the writing. Namely that Geoff Johns wrote a DC version of this comic, and John Romita, Jr. wrote a Marvel version.
The stylistic difference between DC and Marvel when it comes to storytelling isn’t as cut-and-dry as it once was, although the jumping back and forth between the two companies seems to have slowed to a degree (each clearly has a crop of writers that occupy both the upper ranks and the up-and-comer ranks with only minimal crossover, usually for one or two projects at one company before settling in as a regular at the other), but it is still there. The biggest difference, in the broad sense seems to be that DC focuses on icons and myths, while Marvel focuses on reality and the mundane. Neither approach is inherently good nor bad, and both suit the characters that each company has. Some characters from each tend to lend themselves to the other’s approach (Captain America is one of the most ‘DC’ characters Marvel has… possibly because he pre-dates the creation of what we call the Marvel Universe, while second- and third-generation type characters from DC lend themselves often to a more ‘Marvel’ approach, usually as a way of differentiating them from the original character that still occupies the iconic/mythic role), and, often, Superman isn’t one of those characters. But, Superman isn’t usually written by John Romita, Jr., an artist who hasn’t been given a lot of writing credits, but has been Marvel born and bred pretty much up until taking over the art chores of Superman last year. While Marvel would be inclined to get someone like Alex Ross or George Perez to draw a big poster of all of their characters, it would be much more fitting for Romita to do that sort of project, because he’s pretty much drawn an issue of every single regular ongoing that Marvel has published for the past three decades or so. If I were to pick one artist that sums up visually what Marvel is, I’d pick Romita. So, while he hasn’t had a lot of writing credits, his entire conception of comic storytelling is based within the Marvel approach. He couldn’t escape it if he tried. And, judging from Superman #40, he isn’t looking to.
If I were to sum up the different approaches taken by Johns and Romita, it would be something like Johns tells a “god is human and walks amongst us for a day” story, while Romita tells a “superhero figures out new power with teammates” story. The key scenes, for me, in comparing the two is how Superman/Clark talks to Jimmy Olsen versus how Superman/Clark talks to the Justice League; and how Superman/Clark deals with whatever crisis he has to handle without powers/with limited powers. Both sets of scenes adhere to the specific approaches.
In the interactions scenes, the big difference between the two is that, in issue 39, Superman/Clark is talking with a regular human and relating his experiences on that level, while, in issue 40, Superman/Clark is talking with fellow superheroes and relating his experiences on that level. It’s an ‘inferior vs. peer’ situation (in broad sense as, clearly, Superman does not consider Jimmy his inferior); a ‘talking down vs. talking to’ situation conversely. Aside from Batman, every member of the Justice League shown in issue 40 has powers and powers that have had some variance over time, whether in types or levels or anything. They all relate to the idea that something has happened and their peer wants to figure out what. They also seem to take pleasure in Superman being lowered a little as he struggles with limited powers in the wake of using his new one, and in the fact that Superman isn’t sure about what’s going on. The scenes with the League don’t just show Superman’s vulnerability and concerns in this situation, they also place him within a very specific social context where he’s normally the confident leader and, for a change, he’s a bit of a goofball that’s a little naive and very unable to hold his liquor. More than that, the general tone of conversation between members of the League is very casual, very reminiscent of the type of dialogue you would read in an issue of Avengers or X-Men where it’s just people hanging out. It’s not a foreign approach to the League, but it’s also not always a common one, particularly the scene where they all go out drinking and to dinner (minus Cyborg). The League practically encourages an overwhelming human experience to happen instead of it simply happening while Superman explains how this is different for him from usual like in issue 39.
When talking with Jimmy Olsen, Superman gives more of a guided tour to how things are different for him without powers. It touches on a lot of the same types of insights as the ones offered in the following issue, but the difference in delivery is key. He’s very much the Other thrown into a situation with a mortal guide, almost providing a running narration for the new experiences happening. It is more tell than show. Everything that happens is filtered through Superman explicitly comparing it to what normally happens to him. And that makes complete sense as most people, when placed in dramatically different circumstances (particularly ones where it’s their body acting differently) would spend a lot of time talking about how things are different. That’s an area where Romita has more freedom since his issue is a follow-up, in a way, to Johns’s. Johns writes the first issue where Superman deals with the consequences of his new power, so, by the time Romita’s story takes place, we assume that Superman has gotten over that stage of everything being new and different. He’s moved onto the stage of questioning and exploring what has happened to better understand/control it.
Jimmy’s relationship with Superman isn’t a completely comfortable/casual one, though. He’s used to Clark Kent being his friend, but, now, his friend stands revealed as his hero, this other being completely that he knows is not on the same level as him. Over the course of the issue, Jimmy’s relationship with Superman becomes more like his relationship with Clark; at first, there’s a healthy mix of skepticism and awe as he processes that his friend is Superman, while, by the end, he seems comfortable sitting on top of a building, eating a hot dog with a fully costumed Superman. The goal of issue 39 is to further humanise Superman; issue 40 depicts a humanised Superman that has that casual comfort in his relationships already.
The crisis scenes are notable points of comparison partly for how they begin. In issue 39, Clark is at a Daily Planet meeting when news of a hostage situations breaks, causing him to storm off, and get into costume. It’s very much a typical Superman beginning to this sort of situation and that’s the point: powers or no, Superman is Superman. There is a problem that needs his assistance, he will charge in. In essence, for an issue devoted to pointing out the ways that this day is different for Superman, when it counts, it reveals that nothing has changed. In issue 40, Clark awakens from a night of hard drinking (aka barely anything) and must scramble to stop a robbery in a scene that looks like it could have been taken from a random Spider-Man comic. Disheveled, he throws on his costume while brushing his teeth and jumps out of the window… before remembering that he can’t fly. It’s frantic and quasi-comedic. It still reinforces the idea that he will charge into danger no matter what, but makes that decision less… glamorous, I guess. It’s a messier opening that continues as he stops the robbers, but not without getting injured in the process. The idea of Superman as an invincible god is completely absent as, for one of the first times, he is shown to be capable of injury. When Superman stops the hostage situation in issue 39, it is without using his powers, but is also done in a manner that doesn’t give any suggestion that Superman isn’t the same Superman that the world has always known. There’s no sacrifice or sense that he loses even when he wins. There’s a noble gesture of putting himself in true harm’s way, but, in Romita’s version, there’s also the inevitable downside that comes with being a Marvel hero. Spider-Man saves the day, but loses in some way, whether it’s missing a date or a chance to earn money or it’s just a J. Jonah Jameson headline making him out to be a villain. Here, Superman is just as noble and brave as he is in the Johns story, but he also looks less than super to the world – and, that injury provides Lois Lane with the clue she needs to connect Clark Kent and Superman.
There are also small touches in issue 40 that make it seem less ‘DC’ like the way Romita draws Batman never wearing a cape and drinking from a large mug. Or the moment where Wonder Woman sneaks a look at a naked Superman after Aquaman half-heartedly tries to block her view. It’s a very lighthearted and less formal depiction of these DC characters. When Romita coming to DC was promoted in house ads, it was with the tagline “Romita is coming!” purposefully echoing the “Kirby is coming!” ads that pre-dated his work for DC after leaving Marvel in the ‘70s. Except Romita is drawing other people’s scripts (aside from Superman #40) and that’s struck me as a key difference between his arrival at DC in 2014 and Kirby’s in 1970. It’s apparent in issue 40 that Romita brings more than his distinctive visual style and skill to the table, he brings a very different storytelling philosophy that I’m a little surprised that DC hasn’t encouraged, especially in light of their attempts to try new things. I liked Superman #39, but I loved Superman #40. That’s probably my bias for the Marvel approach, but it’s also the natural response to a contrast as blatant as this one was. I’ve read many Superman comics like issue 39; I haven’t read many (if any) like issue 40. If anything, it convinces me that DC is not using John Romita, Jr. to his full potential. It was also the first time that it really felt like the coup of DC getting Romita hit home, for me.
May 5, 2015 at 10:45 pm
Fascinating. #40 felt weird to me, and I just attributed it to an artist who had not perfected the art of writing. However, this article is brilliant, and I can see now that it was weird because DC characters were acting like Bendis would write them, or something. That said, my preference was for issue 39, because I prefer the DC.
May 6, 2015 at 9:59 am
This review has done its job: I am going to run out and buy my first Superman comic in years.
May 6, 2015 at 12:50 pm
I don’t know if DC ever really had a consistent “house style’.
Marvel, yeap. Having just one guy doing all the plotting and editing in the 1960s, and just two guys as the main artists surely cemented a distinctive style.
But DC was more like a lot of different patches of clothing stitched together. The only time when there was a distinctive DC style was, arguably, the 1950s. Afterwards, commentators came up with a “style” that was mostly an opposition to Marvel’s style, but DC had much more anomalies than Marvel, including but not limited to several “noir” superhero series, like Batman and Green Arrow, the “sophisticated suspense” that became Vertigo, attempts to replicate Marvel’s style with the New Titans and post-Crisis Superman, sitcom comics like JLI, and lots of oddball projects like Camelot 3000 and Amethyst. It’s too disparate for the easy “DC deals with icons” thing.