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Location: Lancashire
Member Since: Sat May 17, 2008
Subj: The Ghost of Superman Future... Reflecting on Superman #416.
Posted: Sun Feb 12, 2017 at 01:24:55 pm EST (Viewed 158 times)

    'When Caesar began to amass dangerous power Brutus found the moral strength to stop him. When armies of procreating humanoids of various states of development moved to overrun the habitable areas of the Eastern hemisphere and compete with each other for food, there arose homo-sapiens with their wheels, their tools and their weapons to subjugate the land and take the future for their own.
    When a Super-powered alien brought his hyperactive sense of propriety across the heavens in order to cram it down the gullets of perfectly capable, sentient Terrans, there came Luthor, a creative marvel who alone among the human community was capable of keeping that self-important cape-waving, pork-face in his place. Luthor saw himself, as he saw Lincoln,, Brutus and the inventor of the wheel before him, to be an integral part of the inexorable eddies and currents of the universe. He was a product of natural law.
    For every social force, Luthor thought, there is an equal and opposite social force to balance it. Maybe that was the universal law he had in mind. Maybe it was that simple.
    In every one of the hundreds of biographies of the man that Luthor read before he was old enough to balance an Oxydisation-reduction reaction, he found that Einstein would approach each new problem of physics in the same way. Evidently the old man would sit back in his chair, close his eyes and ask himself how he would arrange the universe if he were God. When Lex Luthor now asked himself the same question he came to the inevitable conclusion that his rule in the balancing out of social forces was true. Everything is in or approaching a state of equilibrium. There is no good or Bad, no right and wrong, no Heaven and Hell. There is not even any middle ground. There is just a dead centre.

    Therefore, Luthor had to do all he could to make life difficult for Superman. Not to do so was equivalent to trying to repeal Ohm's law or Pauli's Exclusion Principle. It was Luthor's duty to the balance of nature.

    Elliot S Maggin, The Last Son of Krypton 1978.

'...As He Always Does.'

'And The Day Came When The Man of Steel Grew Old, When His Ebon Hair Grew Flaked With Snow And His Face Showed Seamed With Gullies That Are The Wages Of Wisdom... But His Strength Did Not Falter... His Speed Did Not Ebb... His Great Flashing Blue Eyes Did Not Grow Dim; And He Realised That Such Decay Is For Other Men Only. Never To Be Known By A... Superman.'

Being crafted as both legend and tribute the above dedication to an era passing is so deeply affecting and memorable in its meaning and its structuring that even if an oldtime Superman reader were unfamiliar with its source they would likely still be able to identify it as coming from but one Superman writer - the great Elliot S Maggin.
With the exception of perhaps Alan Moore no other writer to contribute to the original run of Superman could be claimed to have such an affinity and fundamental understanding of the power of both the myth and the placing which the character carries with him thanks to his enormous popularity over the generations and the considerable depth of the many hands who guided his course during them. Maggin's grasp of the dynamics that powered the Superman character and format became evident only gradually, chiefly it would be his sporadic work on developing the backstory and deceptively complex frustrations and neurosis' that galvanised Lex Luthor's obsessive fixation with the Kryptonian do-gooder and ultimate authority figure in Luthor's world. But also Maggin contributed significant work to refining what the identity of Clark kent meant to the all-powerful Superman and how that dual life formed the very anchor of his profoundly moral code of conduct as he engaged with the daily problems in a Superman's life and how his unique personal situation defined his often cautious relationship with Lois Lane. But this was all work done during the era of the 1970s, the so-called Bronze Age of comics, by the time Superman #416 was published that age, or rather that ethos, was all too visibly withering away and something altogether different, fresh, was just now beginning to appear on the horizon to take its place...

The year is 1986, and from today's perspective we know 1986 is the year of Frank Miller's Dark Knight debut, in fact Miller's landmark series debuts the very month as Superman #416, and to pause a moment to consider that fact is to recognise just what significance Maggin's tale of Superman and old Foe Luthor holds given its timing. For this is also the month Wonder Woman ceased publishing, the Crisis on Infinite Earths was coming to its close, and in more immediate terms we had just seen Superman having to deal with the very real death of his cousin, Supergirl, in the previous two issues. In the coming few months DC Comics Presents would deal with The Phantom Zone's fate. While but seven issues away Alan Moore and Curt Swan would deliver a final tribute and remembrance to an era now having succumbed to the ravages of entropy... and then the end. And the beginning:John Byrne's Man of Steel restart and a new era, altogether different in nearly every single way to what we had known up to this point. So, caught up in all of these more noteworthy events, and coming as it does at a time when the Superman books had succumbed to being largely marking time with filler material and insubstantial fluff the reasons why Superman #416 failed to make any impression at the time is elementary, as I myself remember passing on it, with its Ed Barretto cover of an old and bearded Superman promising another filler story and evoking memories of a similar subject already done in the forgettable Superman #400 I can well remember my apathy to the piece, and it wasn't alone as neither did Superman:Warlord of Mars do anything to convince me to spend my money either. So evaluation Superman #416, and indeed the Superman books of this moribund era, does take the form today of having to recognise the original context of the piece, as it was then, and how it is the passing of time alters ones opinion of the piece as it stands now.
For I am well aware that even if I did read Elliot Maggin's The Einstein Connection/The Ghost of Superman Future back in 1986 I would not have had anything close to the appreciation and enjoyment of it that I have these thirty years later, with my considerably more knowledge of Maggin's own work and the mythos of that era's Superman. In its most basic terms it might seem I am speaking from a Nostalgists point of view, which clearly has some truth to it yes, but the more significant aspect to this form of reappraisal lies in how storytelling, and the world of Superman himself, has changes so radically over the three decades since the great revision and reboot of mid-1986, that when rediscovered today a once routine and perfuntory one-off story such as issue #417 or #406 (which I also hope to talk about) is no longer utterly forgettable landfiller, but something that due to its place in time, and its modesty of story content, becomes a charming or even remarkable piece of work when found today.

Superman #416 - Courtesy of Elliot S Maggin, Curt Swan and Al Williamson. Edited by Julius Schwartz.

'The Einstein Connection' and 'The Ghost of Superman Future' take the form of two seperate stories, both contained in Superman #416. The use of the two short-stories format was routine in Superman at this time, what differs with Elliot Maggin's contribution here though that these two stories are in fact both one and the same, with Maggin utilising the fact that he has been assigned the full issue to write to exploit Julius Schwartz' two-stories rule to structure a story that would return to his own previous work on the character of Lex Luthor and how it was that the mere existence of an alien do-gooder called Superboy/Superman caused such a violent and extreme reaction to his narcissic psyche. in actuality though it is fairer to say that Luthor's problem isn't actually the focal point of Maggin's tale, rather the antagonist here is actually Superman. For from that very first page with a streaking blur intercepting an inobtrusive Luthor making his way by boat to New Jersey Maggin's emphasis is cleverly such that it is not Superman we are being conditioned to focus on but the position of Lex Luthor as he goes about his inoffensive business and is continually harassed and pursued by the relentless pursuit and intimidation of this almighty figure of inflexible authority. Elliot Maggin's story then opens with two themes, one is a quiet acknowledgement of the endless cycle of Superman and Luthor's feuding and that meta-textually time has caught up with this formula. For In writing this issue of Superman Maggin surely had to be well aware that the end of an era was imminent, and that with the story of no less than Supergirl being brought to a close endings were fast approaching. This assignment then would be Maggin's last chance to contribute to the series, his last opportunity to say something, to contribute something. And so in the end that is exactly what he does. But endings of an era are not the only theme under Maggin's concern here, the real exploration taking place is a question of human morality and how abstractions can come to be dangerously hewn into stone by the prejudices of people too unforgiving and inflexible to consider taking other points of view and attempting re-evaluations of both themselves and the figures of their ire. The point is in fact the very first narrative text to be found in Elliot Maggin's opening script for the issues:

'It Is A Difficult Enough Question In A Complicated World To Decide Who Is A Hero And Who is a Villain. But When The Question Becomes "Who Is A Hero To A villain?" Then We Enter The Bizarre Realm of Lex Luthor's Mad Dream, And - The Einstein Connection.'

"Who Is A Hero To A villain?" - right here, in the opening first lines of Superman #416, is the mission statement of Maggin's story for the issue, his final contribution to the mythos he invested so much thoughtful nuance into.
Taken from the position as a reader of the time, and indeed today, as this story is read the sight unfolding of a Lex Luthor who is so eccentric and sentimental in nature as to take upon himself annual pilgrimages that trace the movements of his personal hero Albert Einstein seem quite quite out of character with what we have become accustomed to from the world's most dangerous villain. Who is this Lex Luthor that such irrational sentiment can manifest itself, is it merely crude recasting to fit the story on Maggin's part? On the face of it it might seem so. The litany of Luthor's insane deeds over the decades are often extreme enough to be directly threatening to entire cities, and indeed the planet, typically though it is his obsessive hatred of Superman that is the very crux and instigator of these acts, and so dramatic is their intensity and scope these deeds blot out other, surprisingly human, acts of perfectly selfless heroism. This was the man who was adopted and accepted by the planet Lexor for example, a world who's kindness he responded to by helping resolve numerous environmental and social problems. Then of course the landmark duel the two had in Superman #164 which ended with an unanticipated reaction from the vengeful Luthor that balked even the heroic and righteous Superman. This particular story is rightly regarded as one of the finest Superman stories ever told, but like Superman #416 functions, and succeeds, largely due to its conscious tapping of established history and using that canon to generate a new story that is of such fine study and emphasis of the two's character and its complex dynamic that its power to astonish only gains full potency many years after the fact of its publication.
It is almost certain that Edmond Hamilton's tale in Superman #164, and its reverberations in subsequent years, are what formed the basis of Elliot Maggin's own views on Luthor and Superman. Everything about that story and what it means for Lex Luthor can be found distilled into Superman #416, as events progress to a truly remarkable moment where, caught up in the aftermath of one of Luthor's own attempts at distracting the pursuing Superman a young lad is in imminent danger of drowning. If taken at the time then such selflessness would have been all but impossible to accept as being at all possible within the moral compass of the man readers had followed since Action Comics #544 overhauled him into truly psychotic levels of emnity against Superman and anyone else who raised a questioning objection to Luthor's actions. But as we have noted with a more expansive awareness of the characters history the actions seen on display here are in fact not without convincing precedent. It is a shame that at the time though few readers, myself included, would have been equipped with the necessary awareness to truly appreciate what it was that Maggin was showing unfolding here. Even in the short-term awareness of 1986 we readers had barely an inkling what was lying on the horizon with regards to 'Superman' and where the DC Universe cast of characters would end up by years end - for we read our books largely in isolation, as they appeared on the shop shelves, and so our knowledge was limited entirely to what we ourselves read in these books and what little forward, or retrospective, information they granted us. Superman #416 was just one more filler issue therefore, hopefully better times would be ahead and Cary Bates and Curt Swan would return to restore normality and move us forwards once again...

"Blast, Why Am I Doing This?" - Lex Luthor.

All of the above is preface to the denoument of Superman #416. 'The Ghost of Superman Future'. And we step forward in time one hundred years from Superman's latest encounter with Lex Luthor to an orbiting Space Station and a visit by an older Superman to his old adopted home, and a granted meeting with the young new generation of Journalists of whatever form the media of 2086 takes. Read in the context of 2017 the first two pages of this tale are rather astonishing, for this is (probobly) the very first time we see the name of Lexcorp used in print, an element that would manage to filter through to the Marv Wolfman/John Byrne reworking of Lex Luthor later in 1986, Byrne apparently being made aware of it from Mark Gruenwald as he recalls it. We learn of the significant of Luthor's rescue of the boy he himself endangered and what that coincidental meeting would mean for him in the years to come. But this is a short story that once again ingeniously operates on a number of differing levels, as on the one hand it forms the capstone on the story of Lex Luthor while delivering on Maggin's opening lines asking us to consider what abstractions Good and Evil actually are, and on another level adding to the story which led into this one as we see the older wiser Superman surreptitiously intervene into those events to give pause for thought to his younger self. In many ways the story in Superman #416 takes the form of being a circle then. Maggin begins it by emphasising the endless go-round nature of Superman versus Luthor, steps forward in time a Hundred years to allow a more informed and impartial overview of the emnity and conflict the two played out, and uses the older wiser Man of Steel to use the laws of time to quietly intervene at a key juncture in that cycle to challenge the now ingrained and unhelpfully inflexible rigid attitudes his younger self has developed towards his once boyhood friend. Thus allowing for the possibility of Superman being able to be influenced by his current pursuit of Luthor at a key point to be a little less inflexible. To show some small consideration of his old foe's needs and by relation some more compassion. Breaking a seemingly hopeless cycle. Proving that change is always possible even in what appear to be the most intransigent of circumstances.

It is a fact that One Hundred years into the future there is still a Superman. We can accept this as fact. As unlike Alan Moore's seminal tale some seven issues to come Superman #416 is undeniably rooted solidly in the established ongoing canon of the title. And we are shown Superman will not only eventually, some day, make peace with Lex Luthor but that the two will depart earth to explore greater mysteries out there in the universe and allow the Earth to progress without their continual influence.
In every way the story Maggin delivers to us then is a good deal more inspiring and brimming with optimism than the darker endings seen in 'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?'. As like DC Comics Presents #97 Alan Moore's capstone of a Superman tale offers what is effectively endings of brutality, of desecration, an honour compromised, which is not to diminish the strength and quality of his and Curt Swan's endsong for the Superman mythos, but when one looks at the darker stylistic tone that has seeped into the narrative of Superman by 1985/86, with its threatening stories of Nuclear War and a feel of ever strenghening dread that culminates with unseemly tales of the Devil and Werewolf infection, Elliot Maggin's more benign and tasteful contribution for this title seems to have been utterly overlooked and forgotten by all. Which is frankly a great shame. As while it is a story that only gains its relevance from the passing of time, and a fuller appreciation of an era and its traditions now lost, it also taps the truer ethos of that era of Superman in a purer and more faithful way than anything else printed in 1985/86 manages. A tale of eventual reconciliation, forgiveness, and the promise that the story never ends... for a Hundred years into the future, and more, Superman still lives. And on occasion we are told will return from out there in the deepness of outer space to visit us...
It may be me, I can overly-analyse, and yet that final panel, with its carefully constructed lead in sequence, is built around those final words from Elliot Maggin - "But He Passed Form legend To Myth Before The Nations of Earth Saw Their Man of Tomorrow Again...". Coming after the rehabilitation of the seemingly irrevocably evil Lex Luthor and the promise that all will be well for the future of earth, the passing of Superman from flesh and Blood fact into the realms of fantasy legend and myth is about as perfect an end to this character and Icon as there can be. Maggin sets the benchmark with this story, and whether Grant Morrison was at all familiar or not with this forgotten gem of a story he would still use not only elements of its plot but directly evoke its very essence for his acclaimed Superman odyssey with partner Frank Quitely in 2005.
No greater a tribute to Maggin's legacy as Superman writer can be found than in that legacy - vibrant optimism, Hope, and the belief that we all help each other. A set of very human truths of which Lex Luthor found out himself in the end... all too many wasted years later is the pity. But redemption and peace we are assured did indeed come to him. In its own powerful way then this uplifting moral lesson alone acts as a fine epitaph to the story of Superman.

'The News Ship's Tracking System Followed His Course For Light-Years. But He Passed From Legend To Myth Before The Nations of Earth Saw Their Man Of Tomorrow Again....'

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