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Saturday, 4 September 2010

Forever Young Superman

This week, a show I really can't make my mind up about;

I read comics. I read less comics now than I once did but there was a time when a goodly portion of my monthly wage was spent in Traveling Man, Forbidden Planet or Waterstones (or more usually all three), hoovering up TPBs by Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Brian K. Vaughan and their fellow scribes. As well, of course, as whatever was new from Rebellions fantastic range of classic 2000ad goodness. Those days are gone now, thanks mainly to the fact that I no longer have a monthly wage to squander in this fashion, but they will come again, oh yes they will, and when they do I shall be back there, filling my boots in an effort to catch up with whatever I've missed in my wilderness years.

The stuff I read though, which you'll know if you are at all familiar with the names I've mentioned above, tends not to feature a great deal of superhero stories. The majority of the American comics I read are from DC's Vertigo offshoot and while some (but not all) are set in the same fictional universe as the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al. crossovers with these characters are really rather rare. Vertigo titles, those set in the DCU, are usually based around the mystical/magical corners of that universe. So we have Sandman (Neil Gaiman), Lucifer (Mike Carey), Swamp Thing (various) and John Constantine (various) amongst others.

All of which means, when I sit down to watch a TV show based on a comic book character I am rarely in a position to judge its level of faithfulness to the source material, or recognise which episodes/scenes are derived from specific comic stories, given that it is usually superhero comics which make the transition. The only way I can judge these shows is in isolation. Taken separately from the comics, how do they rate as television shows? Do they stand up on their own? I'll be honest though, I do sometimes feel like maybe I'm missing out, just a little bit, knowing that that little fanboy thrill that comes from getting a reference could be achieved so much more often were I better versed in the books. The show that I am most aware of this with, the show that taunts me on a weekly basis with it's flaunting of the mythology, is Smallville.

The show purports to be about Clark Kent before he adopted the Superman moniker but has now left that premise so far behind that even Channel 4 have given up the pretense and stopped billing it as Superman : The Early Years. (And didn't that just wind me up. It was as bad as Batman Beyond becoming Batman of the Future.)

Tom Welling as Clark Kent. Not really taking the secret identity thing seriously
Anyone who has stuck with it for it's incredible 9yrs and counting run (S10 was announced as definitely being the last but rumours are now circulating as to the possibility that it could get a nominal spin off, effectively S11) knows that it is now essentially the entire DCU on a television budget. Lois and Clark are effectively an item; Green Arrow has been a regular for a couple of seasons; Jimmy Olsen has been and gone; Zatanna has cropped up more than once (including one of the most recently aired episodes here in the UK); Aquaman, The Flash, Martian Manhunter and other members of a proto Justice League are recurring characters; nd so on.Watching this unfold has been a torturous experience because while I recognise who they are and I know the basic facets of their characters, I just know that they are bringing with them years of backstory that will be referenced and homaged to the hilt; most of which will go straight over my head.

Justin Hartley as Oliver Queen. Lad's well put together.

And then we get 'Absolute Justice'. Which is the point where, quite frankly, they start to extract the urine. The 2part story, which I think went out as a 'movie' type event when it first aired in the States, although don't quote me on that, is written by Geoff Johns, a big cheese in terms of writing at DC Comics. As I say, I'm not massively into Superhero comics but I get the impression that he is the 'main man' when it comes to crafting the big, multi character, Universe shaping storylines at DC. And apparently he's pretty good at it. So it should probably come as no surprise that he's up to the same tricks in Smallville.

Erica Durance as lois Lane. I defy you not to fall in love.

Having been responsible last year for the episode that melded all the recurring heroes into the team that will one day be the Justice League (in an episode appropriately called 'Justice'), he's back this year to bring the leaders of this group - Clark, Oliver Queen/Green Arrow and John Jones/Martian Manhunter, into contact with their in-universe predecessors the Justice Society of America. And so, rather than the gradual introduction over a number of years that the League received, we have an influx of as many characters again within a scant 2 hour running time. Of course we then proceed to see a lot of them killed off almost instantly, which I'm sure probably rubbed a lot of fanboy viewers up the wrong way but I'll be honest, it's really the only way they could have gone with the whole thing.

You see, as saddened as I was to see the incredibly short shrift payed to Wesley Dodds, aka The Sandman (a character I was familiar with from his fleeting appearances in Neil Gaimans Sandman stories and the first couple of arcs of Sandman Mystery Theater) I quickly came to the realisation that it was really pretty inevitable. The introduction of the JSA was such a massive deal for the show that their was no credible way to then ignore it completely; it simply must be referenced again in future stories. To do that with the JSA back at full strength would seriously overbalance the show in favour of these newer, less established (in terms of the show) characters and work to the detriment of the established regular and recurring heroes. So the decision had to be made to streamline and choose maybe a couple of characters to go forward into future JSA themed episodes. Dodds,as awesome a character as he is, is simply not recognisable enough to have a hope of being chosen. Artistic merit aside, television is a business and the producers were always gonna go with characters they felt would bring in the punters. Hence 'cute girl in skin tight lycra' and 'brooding hunk played by established genre veteran' get the nod as most likely characters to be revisited. Such is life.

Zatanna. Oh yes.
E4 has screened a few more episodes since Absolute Justice, including the aforementioned Zatanna one, none of which have come close to matching it in terms of quality. Indeed, the Zatanna one especially, dealing with a wimpy child who gets to be a hero for a day, or the Valentines Day episode that has Lois tranced into being the perfect '50's wife for Clark, are contenders for some of the most cringeworthy episodes of anything on telly this year. The thing is though, these less successful episodes, which if I'm brutally honest are actually in the majority with Smallville, never seem to sap my enthusiasm for the show. Where other shows are chores, which I watch purely because they exist and which I actively wish to see canceled, Smallville has enough charm and wit in it's characters to make every opportunity to spend time with them a pleasure.

And when it does work there is nothing on television like it.

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