Imaginary Story: Superman Adventures #1-5

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Given the success of Batman: The Animated Series‘ spinoff comics The Batman Adventures and The Batman and Robin Adventures, it was essentially inevitable that the launch of Superman: The Animated Series would be followed by a spinoff comic called The Superman Adventures.
And so it was, debuting in November 1996 with a direct sequel to the pilot episode. Issue #1, “Men of Steel,” continues the general season 1 theme of Superman as a new hero, but instead of focusing on Superman learning the ropes, it is instead about the other characters learning more about Superman. It opens with a near-panel-for-shot remake of the climactic battle between Superman and the Corben-piloted mech from “Last Son of Krypton,” and continues into a meeting at the Daily Planet, where Lois is depicted as being suspicious of Superman. Little details–Clark Kent telling his parents he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to refer to himself as “Superman” with a straight face, Perry White telling Jimmy Olson not to call him “Chief”–emphasize that we are in the first days of Superman’s presence in the world, which is important to his interactions with Luthor. It also reveals–nearly a decade before Superman’s fantastic speech in the Justice League Unlimited finale–that Superman holds back, as he explains to Luthor that the robot designed based on measurements of the power he displayed in combat with Corben’s mech didn’t require him to fight at the limits of his own power, but at the limits of Luthor’s.
Issue #2, “Be Careful What You Wish For,”  takes this idea of Superman’s early days in a rather sillier direction, as a young woman named Kelly (the second Adventures character in just a few months to bear a distinct resemblance to Carrie Kelley), having a bad day–she’s having trouble finding work and considering leaving Metropolis to go back home to Kansas–gets a little positive attention for herself by claiming to be Superman’s girlfriend. Unfortunately the rumor reaches Corben, who kidnaps Kelly as a way of getting to Superman. Of course Superman saves the day and Kelly disavows being his girlfriend, not wanting to be targeted again–but, not wanting to be caught in a lie, she claims she dumped him because she saw him with Lois. The joke, of course, is the same as the details in the previous episode, a bit of dramatic irony in that both Lois and Superman’s expressions indicate they find this ridiculous–but this story came out only a few months after Superman: The Wedding Album, in which he and Lois finally married in the main DC continuity.
Issue #3 follows with a transition of sorts, a sense in which we are passing from Superman’s first days to a period in which he is still young, but firmly established as part of the landscape of Metropolis. The episode is framed by the idea that the light from Krypton’s destruction will shortly reach Earth, allowing Superman to watch it. At the beginning of the story, Superman is at STAR Labs, examining the Orb of Krypton–the record of all Kryptonian data collected by Brainiac, taken from him by Superman in the episode “Stolen Memories.” Tantalizingly, it is colored the same shade of green as Corben’s kryptonite heart in “Be Careful What You Wish For.” Like kryptonite, the orb is a memory of Krypton, but Superman is able to watch its record of the events of “Last Son of Krypton, Part 1” without difficulty. The reason is simple: he’s in control of the experience, watching it at second hand, instead of confronted with his trigger by surprise. Patient-directed, controlled self-exposure in a safe environment has been shown not only to not trigger a trauma response, but to reduce the impact of future encounters with the trigger; through the Orb of Krypton, Superman is exploring and building resistance to his trauma.
He and Dr. Hamilton then go outside to look at the stars, where they located Krypton and discuss the aforementioned approach of the light of its destruction. From the start, we are thus presented with the idea that this is a story about Superman’s relationship to Krypton, and its position as a memory–and, perhaps more importantly, that that memory is a part of the present. Modern physics–specifically, relativity–defines events as simultaneous if one occurs just as the light from another reaches it. In other words, this story isn’t just about the memory of Krypton, it is occurring simultaneously with the destruction of Krypton. (Yes, this feels paradoxical, but that’s because combining relativity with faster-than-light travel makes causality fall to pieces.)
Of course, then, the villain is Brainiac, as he is the villain of Krypton’s destruction. Having escaped the Lexcorp computers, Brainiac attacks Metropolis with an army of small robots, which for some reason all look like black cats. His goal is to acquire the Orb of Krypton and then destroy the Earth. He takes Lois hostage, but Superman eventually convinces him to accept becoming data within the Orb of Krypton, though Brainiac warns he will someday free himself. Superman then angrily destroys the (now inactive) Brainiac robot, declaring, “Never again.” Finally, he once again stargazes with Hamilton, watching the end of Krypton “live,” and Hamilton reminds Superman that the memory of Krypton lives on in both the Orb and Superman himself.
There is one curious scene in the middle of the story, however, where Superman rants, while demolishing the largest of Brainiac’s “henchrobots,” that Brainiac and his creations are parodies of living things, created to serve people, not to be their masters. It’s a strange moment, since neither show nor comic gives any sense that Brainiac is anything less than fully sapient or other than an independently willed, moral agent, which is to say that Brainiac is depicted as being, in all the ways that matter, a person. Superman, however, insists that he is “just” information. It seems out of character, a sort of fantasy bigotry (though far from the only time Superman will be inconsistently willing to kill people based on how much they differ from humans physically). Which is not to say that it is necessarily wrong for Superman to be willing to kill Brainiac, just that it would seem the same moral arguments have to apply as to killing Lex Luthor or the Parasite. Certainly the idea of people created to be servants is something which we would normally expect to appall Superman.
But again, this is a story about memory. A big deal is made of the fact that Brainiac’s essence is not his body, but information: he is a construct of data, which is to say memory. He is, more specifically, a part of Superman’s memory, and it is that which Superman is attacking in a rage. He is not willing to kill Brainiac because he is machine life, but because he is a memory of that which destroyed Krypton, as much a reification of Superman’s trauma as kryptonite. Yet in the end Superman does not destroy him; he puts him where he belongs, as part of the memory. Just as he deliberately exposes himself to the destruction of Krypton–in the orb at the issue’s beginning, and watching the stars at issue’s end–as part of his healing process, so does he accept Brainiac as a part of those memories. Memories which truly exist only as data, constructed in the present from fragments of the past, little stories outfolded from a handful of impressions–which of course is all we are, too. The light of Krypton’s destruction is here in the present. All memories are born in the moment of remembering.
And so we move on to the final two issues corresponding with the first season of STAS, as Superman settles into his adopted world by finally, deliberately watching the destruction of the old. The next issue, “Eye to Eye,” isn’t particularly eventful, being a story about Jimmy Olson finding the courage to put himself in danger to get a good photograph. It’s notable mostly for a scene where Jimmy wishes to Clark that he were as brave as Superman, and Clark responds that he doesn’t consider Superman brave, because when you’re that strong you don’t need bravery. For an example of real courage, he suggests Jimmy consider Lois, who has no super-strength or invulnerability, and yet puts herself into one dangerous situation after another in pursuit of the truth.
Clark is, in essence, acknowledging his superhuman privilege: doing what Lois does is harder and takes more courage than doing what Superman does, because Superman has unearned advantages Lois does not. This feeds well into the fifth issue, “Balance of Power,” in which Livewire is enraged by a radio host and his callers spewing misogynistic garbage about the evils of feminism and women in the workplace. She decides to take frankly jaw-dropping action which hammers home just how powerful she can be when she’s motivated: deciding that to balance thousands of years of male dominance, a similar period of female dominance is needed, she blocks all media containing or about men: broadcasts are replaced by static, news stories by male reporters are erased from the Planet‘s computers, and only women are able to have their voices heard. It is not clear whether this is occurring on a Metropolis- or world-wide scale, but either way it’s an outstandingly creative application of her powers: she has in essence no-platformed the entire male gender.
Most impressively, while critical of her methods, the issue remains absolutely and consistently sympathetic with her anger.  Much of the issue focuses on Lois and Angela, as the former becomes the only Planet reporter able to work and the latter the only newscaster on her network. Angela in particular gets more focus than in any episode of the show or prior issue of the comic, as she confesses to Lois that while she knows Livewire can’t be allowed to get away with her actions, she nonetheless loves no longer being forced to work in the shadow of regular anchor Reggie Banks. The issue doesn’t spell it out, but it really doesn’t need to–the way Angela talks about Banks, and his brief appearance, both make clear that he is the classic case of the white man celebrated for mediocrity and elevated over a woman of color who works her ass off for half the recognition.
And while it’s true that Livewire probably goes too far, no-platforming itself is not a bad approach to bigotry. While there is no justification for no-platforming people on demographic lines, there is a fairly strong case to be made, rooted in the Paradox of Tolerance, that ideological positions which involve dehumanizing and marginalizing people–bigotry, in other words–have a silencing effect on the people thus marginalized, and that therefore a greater number of people experience greater freedom of expression if endorsements of those ideologies are censored. Silencing all men, in other words, is probably not a way forward (though it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t be poetic justice); silencing statements like those made by the radio host and his callers at the beginning of the issue may well be.
Regardless of whether no-platforming is a viable approach, the issue does not shy away from presenting misogyny as a very real problem. At the end of the issue, when Superman and Lex Luthor have taken Livewire down–the two most powerful men in Metropolis, normally opposed to one another, teaming up to destroy the woman who dared stand against misogyny–the paramedics who take her away comment on her attractiveness and declare that her actions are proof women shouldn’t be allowed power, that it’s a “man’s world” (a phrase which immediately conjures the major DC superheroine notably absent from this story, because she doesn’t yet exist in the DCAU: Wonder Woman) and woman should stay at home and raise children. The comic ends with Livewire’s eyes sparking the same way they did right before she started her rampage, belying everything the men said. Feminism didn’t make Livewire angry; misogyny did, and then her anger made her feminist.
But this is a superhero comic, and so the villain must always go too far, so that the hero restores the status quo. For once, in Superman Adventures #5, we see that cycle depicted as the tragedy it is.

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