Last night, I reread Kingdom Come, a graphic novel by Alex Ross and Mark Waid. It's generally regarded as one of the best comics ever published, but I hadn't read it in years, and my memory of it was dim. Rereading, I remembered why I'd forgotten it. The storyline is a cluttered mess, with a lot of the characters hitting false notes. Superman has retired because, as best as I can tell, he got his feelings hurt when his poll numbers dropped and another superhero became more popular than him. (Seriously. There's a whole panel showing the pie chart of the poll results.) Batman is a bitter jerk. Wonder Woman is just looking for an excuse to kill someone, and finally does so. The art is cluttered, with too many characters jammed into every page, and the story never stops to explain who these background characters are. If you haven't read every comic book published by DC or the companies they've absorbed like Charleton, you don't have a chance of making heads or tails of what's really going on.
The funny thing is, I'm actually a reader who had a pretty good shot of recognizing all the obscure background characters. I've been reading comics since I was ten, with a heavy emphasis on DC. If I couldn't connect with the story, I'm not sure who the target reader was.
It left me nostalgic for the Silver Age comics I first read as a kid. My dad used to like going to flea markets. I'd go with him. Back then, comics weren't so much collector's items as accumulated items. You'd find them in cardboard boxes, often mixed with other magazines. Typically, a used comic book cost 10 cents. They wouldn't be in mint condition. They often didn't even have covers.
One reason I drifted toward reading DC comics over Marvel was that, by the mid sixties, Marvel changed their storytelling so that almost all plotlines stretched over three or four issues. There might be a villain of the month to get clobbered, but usually the last page of any issue was a cliffhanger that required you to get the next book. This was a great strategy for hooking readers buying new comic books. For someone picking up random back issues at flea markets, the odds of putting together a complete story was slim.
The real find if you were digging through a flea market box was to stumble across a 100 Page Super Spectacular. This was a format DC played with in the late 60s and early 70s, where they would slap together a bunch of already published material from their archives and sell the whole bundle for premium prices. (50 cents! Who had that kind of money?)
Usually, these collections were publishing stories at least 10 years old, and often they'd reach back to the Golden Age for material. They were a good way for a budding geek to get caught up on DC history. Today, you'd have to shell out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for an original comic featuring the Jay Garrick Flash, or the first appearance of Captain Cold, or the first appearance of Kid Flash's classic yellow and red costume. I definitely got my comic book education on the cheap.
Rereading the Silver Age Flash stories, I find they hold up okay. His superspeed stunts are usually built around some actual science. There's pretty much zilch in the way of character development, which was par for the course at DC during this era. Marvel characters had recognizable personalities--the Human Torch was cocky, Spiderman was publicly jokey and privately brooding, the Hulk, you know, got angry. DC's second string characters like Flash, Atom, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow were pretty interchangeable, perky, wholesome, with an affinity for puns being the entirety of their sense of humor. Was this better than Kingdom Come, with its more "realistic" personalities? Not really. Whenever I reread Silver Age DC comics, my nostalgia usually crashes hard on this one aspect of the story telling. The characters didn't even reach the level of being one dimensional. They were a name and a costume and that's about it.
Superman, interestingly, did sometimes escape from this utterly flat character development. Unfortunately, when you reread Silver Age Superman, the character who emerges isn't the smiling champion of truth and justice. Instead, Superman is kind of a sociopath who enjoys mentally tormenting his inferiors. His primary motive in pretty much every adventure is to single out one of his closest "friends" for the utter destruction of their psyche. If Lois plainly catches Clark changing into Superman in the broom closet, rather than just fessing up, or even just using his super-hypnosis to make her forget, he has to make her question every aspect of her reality by convincing her that she's surrounded by robot doubles and shape-changing aliens. Maybe deadly fumes from crash landing rockets that have made her hallucinate seeing him in a cape. Lois or Lana or Jimmy always end the story frowning, wondering how their senses can be so fallible, while Superman smiles behind their back, pleased with how he's brought them down a notch.
Of course, Lois and Jimmy get off easy compared to some of Superman's targets. In the headline story of the issue above, a lone Superboy robot has gained sentience and is now living in Smallville where he saves people invisibly at superspeed. Basically, nothing bad happens in Smallville under his watch, until Superman discovers the robot. His robots used to be obedient to him, but, as mentioned, this one has developed it's own personality and refuses to obey Superman anymore. So, Superman disguises himself as Smallville's sheriff. Then, when the sheriff tries to arrest the robot Superboy, the robot Superboy protests that he's done nothing wrong and slaps away the handcuffs. This causes the sheriff to have a heart attack, and fall dead at the robot's feet. (Since Superman can cause his heart to stop at will without harming himself.) Mortified that his actions have caused the death of a human, the Superboy robot flies into the sun and destroys himself. This issue ends with Superman grinning smugly, pleased that he has tricked a perfectly benign being into committing suicide.
So... maybe the petty, emotionally fragile Superman depicted in Kingdom Come wasn't so far from the mark after all.