Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Review - Superman: Peace On Earth

Superman: Peace On Earth
Story by Alex Ross and Paul Dini; Art by Alex Ross
1999 Eisner Winner for Best Painter (Interior Art)

"Superman is too powerful to be interesting," is a common refrain among comic book fans. In fact it's become so common that it's not unheard of for those who write comic books to say it rather than doing the obvious thing and placing him in conflicts where that power isn't a solution. His abilities do raise an uncomfortable question that all superhero comics dodge: if he's so great why has he been around for seventy years and hasn't actually accomplished any change in the world? In my experience when writers attempt to address this problem head on they tend to make things worse no matter what position they take whether it's making an excuse or engaging in bland deconstructionism. Superman: Peace On Earth tries to be uplifting but it left me with a bitter taste in my mouth and thinking that the reason Superman doesn't fix the world's problems is because it would be hard.

After living on Earth for his entire life Superman suddenly finds out that there are people who go hungry and feels guilty about it. So he decides that to deal with it he will distribute food to everyone in the world for one day. This plan consists of him gathering up donated food and dropping a cargo container filled with raw grain down in front of hungry people before flying off again. In his idealism he fails to recognize that comically evil forces don't want him making a hollow gesture and he encounters resistance.

No matter how you cut it this is a ridiculous story. Yes, I recognize the irony of saying that about a book where the main character is an alien who flies around doing good deeds. Even if you assume that it only takes Superman a few seconds for each drop off the delivery time is far longer than day; that may seem like picking at nits but the story makes a big deal about feeding the world for a day with an imposed time limit. Anyone with even a fundamental understanding of the scale of the population of the Earth and amount of time in a day will have their suspension of disbelief shaken pretty hard. Then there is the fact that dropping a cargo container of grain in a village of twenty and then flying away to the next delivery is about the worst possible way to handle such a plan. Since one of the major issues with food aid is corruption and inefficiency in getting it into the hands of the hungry individuals this scheme just makes things worse. So what we have is a hollow, inefficient gesture from a Superman whose flighty attention drifted onto this one issue for a few minutes and that makes the ending even worse.

Part of the message that Dini is trying to present in these pages is that while Superman is great he can't do everything by brute force. The problem is that even in the context of the book he can. The only actual problems he faces in Peace On Earth are authorial fiat which leaves a bad impression of the character in the end.

Peace On Earth actually exists to be a poster book for Alex Ross's paintings. It is a bit of stretch to call it a comic since the story consists of flat expository text with no dialog that is illustrated by Ross's art. For the most part Ross's artwork isn't used to develop the story and there are very few sequential panels. It's much closer to a picture book in that regard with prose as dry as a saltine.

Individually Ross does a fine job with his images though for some reason Superman's expressions in the book bothered me. He just seems passive in most of the paintings irregardless of what he's doing. Also I think that the format didn't suit Ross as well as it could have; when he does a two page sequence that demonstrates action things look better than the many stand alone images throughout the book. On the whole it's decent but it's not his best work.

I would only recommend Superman: Peace On Earth if you're a huge fan of Alex Ross's art. Dini's story is unpleasant as allegory or read straight and the actual text doesn't help it at all. If you've seen Ross's art elsewhere and enjoyed it a bit then you may find it to be a bit disappointing here. On the other hand if you can't get enough of his paintings of Superman then having them in this oversized format will be a joy for you.