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Author Topic: Cary Bates explains life, the universe, and everything  (Read 1662 times)
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Council of Wisdom
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« on: February 16, 2007, 07:37:23 PM »

SUPERMAN #358 (1981) "Father Nature's Folly" by Cary Bates with Curt Swan art is a direct sequel to the Radio Shack Whiz Kids comic, which is a very weird decision to make. I love it when writers write sequels to things that you don't expect sequels to; an example would be Busiek continuing the Cosmic Egg plot from JLA/AVENGERS into JLA.

There are some comics that remind you exactly why it is you like Superman in the first place, and this one was for me: 1) Superman using his brain and defeating a space opera villain through trickery and his wits, 2) Superman using gadgetry, 3) a strong mystery that arouses curiosity, 4) an unpredictable plot that deliberately uses bad tropes like Superman vs. a Space Warrior so it can pull the rug right out from under you and show it to be something else that totally recontextualizes the story.

The story features what appears to be just another battle with an alien space-warrior with mind-reading powers. That's what Superman figures too:

"If you really HAVE read my brain, you ought to know that I have no PATIENCE for destructive ALIEN MARAUDERS who come to RAVAGE my adopted world!"

Of course, the truth is much more interesting: later on, Superman gets a flash in his head of a strange alien device whose function is unknown. One of the most distinctive things about the storytelling style of Superman (and Cary Bates in particular) is that often there's a very strong mystery element, there's something unknown that Superman has to solve.

Incredibly, the object he finds was made by a female, maternal that shaped life on earth as we know it, and the male space warrior, or "Father Nature," wasn't some space warrior at all, but was in fact PRETENDING to be one in order to trick Superman to going to Mother Earth's power-prong. He has a different vision of how Earth would look, with a vastly different atmosphere (one lethal to all living beings).

Here our expectations were reversed: we expected just another space barbarian battle, and we got something weirder related to the origin of earth. Much more, we got a villain that wants to destroy life on earth for a very unique motivation: he had a totally different vision of it.

Superman beats Father Nature not with a bomb, but with his brain in a pretty clever final solution: realizing the instinct for earth was paternal, Superman borrows a planet-destroying bomb from the Fortress Weapons Room and threatens to blow the earth up rather than allow Father Nature to have it.

Since Father Nature has telepathic powers, he sees that Superman was willing to push the destruction button. Rather than have the earth destroyed, he leaves for space.

(In reality of course, Superman had removed a vital component so the Plasmo-Bomb wouldn't go off; so that when "Father Nature" read his mind, he saw that Superman was willing to push the button...but not that the bomb would explode!)

The interesting thing about this story is the plotting: every little thing in the story is significant to the ending, from Father Nature's mind-reading powers to the Father/Mother Nature metaphor. Superman solves the problem without throwing a single punch, by using his brain and by a little trickery.

One thing I do like about Superman is that he is willing to use trickery to achieve victory over enemies. I don't subscribe to the theory that Superman is similar in significant ways to mythological characters that Grant Morrison follows, but it is true that like Mythological characters, Superman knows he can "cheat" to get a victory, he wins by pulling a fast one.

In the SUPERMAN movie, Superman says "I never lie" to Lois, but on hearing that, I feel like saying, "Oh, that is such B.S.!" Superman wins by means other than fair play and a brawl, but by bamboozling a bad guy and pulling off an elaborate charade. Superman doesn't feel the need to always tell the truth or be honest; in fact, I'd say that's one of the more entertaining things about him.

Another thing I like about this comic is that it features Superman designing and building super-gadgetry. The Encephalo-Terminal that allowed Superman to feed information mentally to the computer was a great idea, as was the Plasmo-Bomb from the Fortress Base that can "blow up the earth (!)" Not to mention the way Bates combines pictures and words with descriptions like "The computer's myriad micro-circuits hummed with instantaneous activity..."

One interesting insight the story makes, incidentally, is that Superman won't help when he isn't needed or the problem is well in hand. In this story, there's a power outage, but as power will be restored by trouble-shooters in the half-hour, he thinks "This ISN'T a job for Superman!"

This is a very, very significant insight. This accounts for why, for the most part despite Superman's power level, the DC Earth isn't radically different a place: Superman only intervenes when human intervention is absolutely impossible.
« Last Edit: February 16, 2007, 07:49:13 PM by JulianPerez » Logged

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