A Horny Superman and Charles Burns' Trippy Riff on Tintin Show Up for Panel Discussion This Week These might be the most important words in comics: "Hey, have you read that?" The medium's lifeblood has always been the word-of-mouth that passes from one reader to another. The only query that might surpass the above is "So, what'd you think?"

We're going to kick off a recurring feature here in Kotaku's slice of comics programming, one where comics critics, video game makers and folks from all walks of life talk about new and/or meaningful comic-book releases.

Here's where we put the discussion into Panel Discussion. Of course, we want to hear from you. Please join us in the comments below.


This week, pop culture crtitics Douglas Wolk, Graeme McMillan and myself are joined by Jason Bergman, Bethesda Softworks producer (Fallout: New Vegas). We'll be talking about Superman: Earth One, Volume 2—written by J. Michael Stracynski, drawn by and Shane Davis and published from DC Comics—and Charles Burns' The Hive, published by Random House.

Jason Bergman: I should warn you, I am a bit of a Superman fan. I may invoke the name Lori Lemaris at some point.

Douglas Wolk: I like Superman plenty; I just hated this book...

Graeme McMillan: Jason, me too! But the character, not exactly this book. I was such a Superman fan I bought the "he quits the Daily Planet" issue two weeks ago.

Evan Narcisse: Let's start with the bad news

Douglas: ...

Graeme: There's bad news?

Evan: Superman: Earth One, Vol 2.

Graeme: Hahahahahaha

Jason: Can I be the one who says he didn't hate it?

Douglas: Yes. Bring it on.

Graeme: I have to admit, I liked it more than I liked The Hive.

A Horny Superman and Charles Burns' Trippy Riff on Tintin Show Up for Panel Discussion This Week

Douglas: If J. Michael Straczynski's comics were a person, they'd be the kind of person who loves to talk but doesn't really have time for listening. How else to explain a project that claims to rewrite the basic Superman mythos for a modern audience, but mostly just read like half-remembered versions of the familiar story? A story balanced on idiotic received ideas about journalists, geopolitics, junkies, and hookers with hearts of gold? A book that gets clearance to quote "It's Alright Ma," but actually misquotes the same line two different ways? (For the record, it's not "anyone not busy being born is busy dying," as we see it near the end of the story, or "any man...," as it appears in the newspaper story in which Clark claims that "nobody knew [Eddie's] last name"—Johannson—but "he not busy being born...," as it appears on the page on which Eddie, meeting Clark for the first time, introduces himself as "Eddie Monroe.")

I got about ten pages into this one and texted Graeme to say that I was pretty sure it was the worst comic I'd read in a really long time. It's really just one moronic plot hole after another (...Clark tried to not call attention to himself by getting a C—not a C-plus, not a C-minus—in every single class he took?), completely generic Superheroes 2012 artwork, totally unthrilling fight scenes, and atrocious dialogue. The Earth One books are apparently meant as jumping-on books for curious readers who don't want to deal with 70-plus years of continuity—although the New 52 is pretty much the same deal—but I can't imagine recommending this to someone I didn't want to scare away from superhero comics forever. /rant

Graeme: When compared with Morrison's Action Comics, Earth One seems VERY generic and conservative. It's also very bland. There's not really enough of a story here to justify either the format or even the idea of this as an installment of ANYTHING. It all feels like set-up, it and that's not worth $22.99 for me.

Douglas: Yeah, if we're talking about writers who like to lecture via mouthpieces, JMS is one for sure.

Jason: These two volumes are based on a particularly irksome interpretation of the Superman story. That is, that Clark Kent is the mask, and Superman is the "real" person (you may recall this speech from Kill Bill). It's a version I've never really bought into. With Batman, Batman IS the real guy, and Bruce Wayne is the mask. That's very clear. But Superman's greatest strength isn't his wild powers, it's his personality, his heart. His upbringing.

Evan: The troubling thing about this Earth One initiative is that they're supposed to be entry points, but lack so much of what makes monthly superhero comics work. There's no accrual of mythos, even as they riff on pre-established plot points

Jason: Well, Earth One, Volume 1 does has an original character in it, even if it does look like the 80's version of Lobo with wings. And Volume 2 has a nice interpretation of Parasite.
Douglas: So why did you like this one, Jason? I'm very curious!

Jason: Okay, so here's the thing: despite all of my issues with it - and they are MANY— I like Shane Davis' art and I like the government's reaction to Superman. But man, are there cringeworthy elements in here. Can we talk about the "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" speech?

A Horny Superman and Charles Burns' Trippy Riff on Tintin Show Up for Panel Discussion This Week

Evan: I was going to say that we have to talk about the sex. Again, part of the problem is that line doesn't resonate unless you know Larry Niven's famous essay. Not something a comics newbie would necessarily know.

Jason: The core theme of this whole book is that Superman is sexually frustrated, right? WTF?

Douglas: Also that he buried his cat on the moon and that's what chicks dig.

Jason: It's like Straczynski wrote himself into a corner in Volume 1 by having Superman have all of his powers AND be a super-genius, so he had to have one major flaw... which is that he can't get laid.

Evan: What really annoyed me is that Stracynski—like a bad partner—denies Superman release. First, Clark's all worked up and then he just gets over it. Did it ever really matter, then?

Graeme: Was I the only one who thought that the sex plot was lifted from Superman II, where Clark gives up his powers?

Jason: I'm actually sitting here writing this in the shadow of a framed copy of a Superman III poster. It's hanging in my office and Richard Pryor says hello.

Evan: Look, you can get a lot of thematic mileage by exploring Superman's id. Those classic Mort Weisinger stories from the Silver Age—filled with Superman getting pissed about stuff he can't do, like get married—can be read that way. And Grant Morrison's take on Bizarro in All-Star reads like that, too. But there's no pay-off in this story.

Graeme: Also, the reveal that the woman (whose name I don't even remember) that Clark cuddles with turns out to be a prostitute was... uncomfortable. As in, JMS needed to have some way of showing that Clark was still a "better" man, but didn't want him to get involved in a relationship, so he brought out this weird slut-shaming aspect to it.

Jason: Agreed, Graeme. I'm not saying the subject is off-limits, but Straczynski doesn't approach it with much tact or subtlety. He just jumps right into it with a really creepy way. When I got to the prostitute thing, I thought, oh, of COURSE she's a prostitute... and she's getting beat up by her pimp.

Douglas: I hated the slut-shaming Lisa LaSalle plot too, in part because there is literally nothing to her except her sexuality. She barely has a single line of dialogue in the first 2/3 of the book that's not hitting on Clark.

Evan: And all of those lines are exactly what a twelve-year-old hopes dating will be like.

Graeme: Plus the belly-shirts, Evan. Douglas, there's nothing to her aside from sexuality because she exists to have sex and then say goodbye to it because Superman loves humanity, etc. Between that and the Eddie plot, it's as if JMS was straining to make Superman socially relevant, but in the weirdest, most unrealistic way possible.

Douglas: The "Lex Luthor as power couple" idea has a little bit of promise, immediately dashed by the extreme cutesiness of everything hung on it, and by the fact that nothing actually happens with them this time; it's just a teaser for next "issue." Note: serials don't work so well if you need to wait a year and a half between episodes.

Evan: Yeah, and it's clear already that one of them will be dying to make the remaining genius hate Superman.

Jason: And while I doubt anyone really cares, the teasers in Earth One, Volume 1 aren't followed up on here.

Evan: Jason, would you hand this to your wife or a lapsed comics reader?

Jason: Evan, definitely not. Like I said, I enjoyed it for what it is. But this would be more likely to turn away lapsed readers.

Evan: So, who do we think the target audience is? Is it lapsed readers? Is it pre-teens or young teens who aren't reading comics already?

Jason: Readers who don't buy floppies anymore.

Graeme: It's to make the characters more contemporary for new readers. So... younger readers than the mid-30s direct market target market. As opposed to digital releases, which are aimed at younger readers than the mid-30s direct market target market.

Jason: It's for people who like comics, but think monthly comics aren't worth the money or headaches to keep up with continuity. It's not so radically different that it appeals to any new audience.

Evan: I guess the social experiment to be performed is giving our respective copies to new readers and charting their reactions.

Graeme: I would be embarrassed to give this to a new reader.

Jason: Me too.

Graeme: I'd have to do it and say "It's not very good, but tell me what you think anyway? I promise, there are better things out there." Or, "I'm giving you this because I am a sadist."

Evan: I'd be afraid of the "This is what you're into?!" response

Jason: But hey, Shane Davis! That guy can draw.

A Horny Superman and Charles Burns' Trippy Riff on Tintin Show Up for Panel Discussion This Week

Graeme: Jason, you think? There's something uneven about his style for me. As if he's not quite settled into his own style yet.

Douglas: I'm really not crazy about Davis's art here—it's just so lesser-clone-of-Jim-Lee.

Jason: I like it. And I usually don't like splash-page heavy artists. (I have an irrational dislike of Jim Lee.)

Graeme: Jason, that's interesting: I see a lot of Lee in Davis' style, but softer.

Jason: I think that's why I like Davis. He's like Lee, but with fewer gratuitous ass shots.

Douglas: Flipping through this, there's really only one image I see that strikes me as particularly fresh—it's the one about midway through of Superman falling, as we're looking up through the Parasite's hands. And even in that one he half-asses the background.

Jason: I do think it was interesting that JMS felt the need to make Parasite a serial killer *before* becoming Parasite. The original Rudy Jones version, he's a janitor.

Evan: I didn't like that.

Douglas: It's just so we're absolutely sure this is a Bad Person! Bad!

Evan: I would've preferred it being a normal guy driven bad by the hunger for power

Graeme: Evan, have you read Geoff Johns' relatively recent Superman: Secret Origin? That has the regular schlub corrupted by hunger angle, and it works much better.

Jason: That's a JMS staple, Douglas. See Rising Stars, Babylon 5, etc.

Douglas: Speaking of JMS staples: What do you think the odds are that in Vol. 5, Superman will have turned out to have caused his own origin?

Graeme: I'd be surprised if this series made it to Vol. 5.

Jason: Again, I think JMS wrote himself into a corner in Vol. 1. This Superman is just too damn super.
Evan: I think we're done here, no?

Graeme: Yes. But can I say that Douglas' problem with Earth One is my problem with The Hive?

Douglas: Please explain!

Graeme: Namely, that it's not a complete story, but the middle chapter of a larger story?
I read both X'ed Out and The Hive back to back, and didn't feel like I had ANYTHING close to a complete reading experience. Both felt like massively overpriced, over-formatted single issues. If I'm paying $21.99 for a book, I'd rather I got at least some semblance of coherent arc in the thing, to be honest.

A Horny Superman and Charles Burns' Trippy Riff on Tintin Show Up for Panel Discussion This Week

Douglas: That's not exactly my problem with Earth One, but yeah: this is "issue #2." Still, I love The Hive. Love it. I described it to Evan and Graeme as Tintin by way of William S. Burroughs, which is probably the shortest way of explaining this and its pre-cursor X'ed Out.

But there's also a lot of Burns' ongoing preoccupations here—adolescence, body horror, the permeable barriers between "normality" and monstrosity. I love piecing together how the Nitnit plot occasionally reflects the Doug plot (adult life considered as a nightmare landscape of infinite work and breeding!), how the scrambled chronology sifts out. And I love all the individual moments, like the punk rock show and the way the young characters looking at art and making art of their own are all mixed up together. ("Before and After Science": Sarah's got good taste in music...) And visually, it's phenomenal—I just keep going back and noticing, for instance, how the "blank" panels on the page before the indicia form the shape of the hive, or Burns' homages to the look of old romance comics early on, and later shifts in and out of that mode. The final volume is "Sugar Skull," which is due... whenever Burns gets it done.

Graeme: I am metaphorically shaking my head and jealous of Douglas being able to get so much out of it.

Douglas: Also, on the Tintin front: The cover, I think, is Burns' riff on the cover of Cigars of the Pharaoh in the same way that the cover of X'ed Out was his variation on The Shooting Star!

Jason: I really enjoyed this as well, and I had written off Burns about 20 years ago. (I know, I know. I need to track down Black Hole now.) I get what you're saying about not having a complete story, but I think it DOES work on its own in a surreal non-story kind of way. It reminded me of Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron in that regard.

Douglas: Jason! Dude! Yes, you need to read Black Hole. I didn't read it until it was collected for the same reason; then it knocked me flat on my back for about a week.

Evan: See, I liked the elliptical nature of these comics, even though Burns' work has the unique distinction of making me physically ill. With both X'ed Out and The Hive, there's this sense that you're reading inside the negative space of a sequence.

Jason: Exactly! And I think if you take it on those grounds, it is a satisfying experience. And, yeah, there's something very unsettling about his use of flesh tones.

Douglas: I suspect that one reason it's in the format it's in _is_ that it's supposed to echo the experience of reading one of those not-quite-self-contained Tintin books, like Destination Moon.

A Horny Superman and Charles Burns' Trippy Riff on Tintin Show Up for Panel Discussion This Week

Graeme: Yeah, that's just it: I think the final, complete edition of this story will be far more enjoyable, interesting and worthwhile than this. But in this format, and for this price, I was left feeling really... bored and cheated, really. Even Destination Moon had an arc within that one book, even though it was connected to the other space volume. This was so obviously a middle chapter that it felt amazingly unfinished and weightless to me. I didn't even have the nausea that Evan talks about. Perhaps I went into it with too high expectations?

Jason: Having never read Black Hole, I don't know how satisfying the conclusion is going to be. I don't expect everything to be tied up neatly, though, and I really don't know that I need it to be. I'd be curious to know if someone read The Hive without X'ed Out what they would think. There aren't volume numbers on it or anything, so that's bound to happen. I think it still works without the context. But I suspect Graeme will disagree.

Douglas: This one has a thematic arc, rather than a plot arc, I think: it's Doug dealing with what "maturity" and adulthood are, and his fear of it being nothing but disappointment and labor...

Graeme: I spent the entirety of both books expecting there to be some form of... cohesion is the wrong word, but connection, perhaps; without it, it felt like scenes that were too scattered to have the impact that they deserved.

Evan: My enjoyment came almost entirely from the development of themes, rather than any kind of plot. The sequences with Sarah and his dad were enough narrative meat for me to sink my teeth into, though. I also loved the anti-scenester subtext Burns gets into his work, probably knowing full well that his fans snap them up for cache as much as anything else.

Graeme: Evan, yes. The disdain Burns has for what feels like it may be his main audience is particularly entertaining to me.

Douglas: Jason, I'm curious about what you thought of the look of Burns' art, too.

Jason: Oh, it's gorgeous. I've always loved Burns as an illustrator. But back in the RAW days, it seemed like his storytelling was much too stiff and boring. He's come a long way.
Evan: God, those romance comics panels… I want just a book of those.

Graeme: In terms of art, it's a beautiful book. His colors are just gorgeous, and his aping of the classic romance comics is exquisite. I love that you can see the connection between the romance comics and his "own" style—the linework, the balance of the blacks, etc. I also really appreciate the separate panels for the narration, in a design context.

Douglas: There are also a lot of silent panels and totally blank panels—sometimes a solid color, to represent a space or time or realm-of-experience shift.

Jason: The Hive is like flipping through someone's very strange photo album. Each picture is a story in and of itself, even with no context.

Douglas: Evan and Graeme, it doesn't really seem like disdain to me—more like distance from his own experience of that kind of subculture. As somebody who was in rock clubs every night when he was 22, 20 years ago, I totally get that perspective. Doug and Sarah are _figuring stuff out_, and they don't get it yet.

Graeme: Oh, I think it's disdain for the scene as a whole, not necessarily the individuals.

Evan: Or disdain for the idea of a scene.

Graeme: Yes, that. Disdain for the idea of the scene.

Evan: So do we hate Doug, the "main character" of X'ed Out and The Hive?

Graeme: I don't think Burns dislikes Doug or Sarah. I don't dislike Doug, but I feel sorry for him.
Jason: Yeah, that's pretty accurate. He has some growing up to do. I think that Doug is clearly a confused guy who Burns is sympathetic to.

Douglas: That scene with the Nitnit-ized Sarah walking Nitnit through the alien romance comic is CREEPY CREEPY CREEPY, by the way. "It's pretty obvious that something really, REALLY awful happened, but WHAT? It's driving me NUTS!"

Jason: There's also that great sense of WRONG when he's going through his father's stuff. I don't know about you, but if I found old pills my first instinct wouldn't be to pop them in my mouth.

Graeme: Jason, that's because you are a sensible human being.

Douglas: And not 21.

Jason: That is true (on both counts).

A Horny Superman and Charles Burns' Trippy Riff on Tintin Show Up for Panel Discussion This Week

Graeme: How much do you think the reader's participation is necessary for the enjoyment of this book?

Evan: Totally hinges on it, I think. you have to be open to being grossed out, pulled along by awkward romance and dreading middle-age apathy

Graeme: I ask because I think Douglas gets more out of it than I do BECAUSE of his greater familiarity with Doug and Sarah's experience in their scene when he was younger, if that makes sense. For me, that's as alien as the Nitnit world, and I think that may be a barrier to my enjoyment. Whereas, I think Superman Earth One is so... bland, and closed off, that it doesn't matter who reads it, they essentially get the same story.

Douglas: In some sense, if you just like the confusing-and-creepy feeling of Burns' art, you can just let it wash over you; I'm one of those people who likes to try to put stories together, but—as with Burroughs—there may be parts deliberately excluded here, and so for me it's about trying to look at it slowly instead of racing through it.

Jason: Were you completely opposed to the art scene in the book? Did it prevent you from getting into the story?

Graeme: I wasn't opposed, I was more just... a 38 year old man, looking at it and being "Oh, you KIDS with your pretension and your pretending to be apart from society instead of a sub-section of it." I found myself more empathetic to the Nitnit world. I could see parallels there with my experience, oddly enough. I, too, take comics to people in bed. And I work for lizard people, too.

Jason: To come back to Evan's point about scenesters, I think that's how Burns sees it here. The scene Doug so desperately tries to engage with isn't nuturing. He certainly goes out of his way to depict the people as negatively as possible. If this were a look at the glory days of rock clubs, I might agree. But I don't think that's at all the case.

Douglas: Yeah, everyone's a little bit monstrous in Charles Burns comics.

Jason: Sarah, unlike Doug, seems to be a decent artist. Or she may become one, anyway.

Douglas: True enough—although Doug is also realizing that he's been making bad art.

Jason: Right. Doug's self loathing is based on his artistic frustration. Sarah's...I'm not sure yet.

Graeme: I felt like Doug was more a potentially interesting artist who hadn't found the way to do it yet. Sarah came across as a more immediately "shocking" artist, but arguably more facile.

Evan: I know that it doesn't exactly beg for a literal interpretation, but what do we think the connections are between the two narratives? Between the Doug/real-world thread and the hallucinatory Nitnit thread?

Jason: I think the father is the key to everything, but it hasn't been revealed yet. The romance comics, the drugs, the photo of the woman. All come back to the father.

Graeme: Doug's world is the afterlife, a la Lost.
.
Douglas: The Doug-Nitnit connection is signaled at the beginning of X'ed Out (when Inky, the black cat—as opposed to Tintin's white dog Snowy—goes through the hole in the wall); they both have that scar/band-aid, too.

Graeme: Isn't Nitnit future Doug?

Douglas: I see it more like the Nitnit world is more like a dream inspired by Doug's reality than a direct correlation: it's not his future, it's his experience warped imaginatively.

Evan: Yeah, that's how I was taking it.

Jason: Right. The same elements are all there, but they're...weird.

Graeme: A bad trip from his dad's pills?

Jason: That seems like the most obvious answer.

Douglas: I don't know that there's supposed to be a causative link.

Evan: Agreed. In fact, I actually hope there's not despite still wanting it to make some kind of sense.

Jason: Me too. It's better when seen as this unconnected dream state.

Evan: And the two realities kind of parallel William Burroughs' cut-up approach, don't they? A recognizable thing shredded and then re-arranged. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cut-up_technique]

Graeme: I suspect the opening of X'ed Out is as much connection as we'll get, but we'll see. Is Sugar Skull the final book? It's a trilogy?

Douglas: Yeah, Sugar Skull is the last. (Black Hole took Burns 10 years to draw, I think—!)

Evan: Final thoughts if you have 'em, guys.
Jason: Superman: Earth One, Vol. 2: Worth reading if you're up for a mildly enjoyable Superman story. The Hive: A great, surreal, mystery-horror book. Just don't expect all questions to be answered (or any for that matter).

Graeme: Both books annoyed me because they were second chapters without conclusion for ridiculous amounts of money, and I hate myself for preferring Earth One, considering it's SO BAD. I suspect that the Burns books are demonstrably better—like, with charts and graphs. But they're also more personal so that, if you don't get it (and I didn't) the failure feels greater.

Douglas: Superman: Earth One, Vol. 2: horrifically flawed would-be box-office bruiser. The Hive: personal, involuted, gorgeously crafted, if you connect to it—and not everyone will—you're _really_ going to connect to it.

Evan: I would give someone The Hive and X'ed Out and be more okay with whatever WTF consequences to be had, far more than the Superman book.

Jason: Oh absolutely. I plan to, in fact.

Douglas: I could live with a "wait, so THIS is what you're into?" for The Hive

Jason: The Hive is great for anyone who enjoys David Lynch. Earth One is great for anyone who can defend Raimi's Spider-Man 3 (and I can).

Douglas: David Cronenberg might even be a better point of reference...

Graeme: Jason, I was going to say "Michael Bay's Transformers," but sure.

Jason: HEY! That's out of line.

Graeme: ROLL OUT, Jason.