An Imaginary Story (The Last War in Albion Part 67: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, The Apocalypse)


Last War in Albion will now be running on Wednesdays, with TARDIS Eruditorum moved to Mondays and Fridays for the remainder of its run. 

This is the seventeenth of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. This entry covers stories from the fourth volume. It's available in the US here and UK here. Finding the other volumes are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” opens with one of the more famous passages ever written by Moore, which proclaims that “this is an IMAGINARY STORY (Which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good. It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the great miracles long since performed,” it explains, and proceeds to tease much of the plot of the subsequent two issues, before concluding that the story “begins in a quiet midwestern town, one summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future. Away in the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky… but no: it’s only a bird, only a plane. Superman died ten years ago...

"This is an IMAGINARY Story... Aren't they all?" - Alan Moore, Whatever Happened to the man of Tomorrow

Figure 499: The first issue of John Byrne's
Superman reboot carried an ad for Alan
Moore's Swamp Thing run on its cover.
It is worth highlighting the degree to which this is, within the context of 1986 DC Comics, actually controversial. Certainly John Byrne, who was inheriting the Superman books after this, did not like it, complaining years later about how he cannot hear the phrase “imaginary story” “without a snide and ennui soaked voice whispering in my ear ‘but aren’t they all?’” Indeed, he suggests that Moore’s preface to the story “goes most deeply to the root” of “the many things that can be seen to have gone wrong with American superhero comics.” His reason for this remarkable claim is that “when we ask ‘Aren’t they all?’ we are looking behind the curtain. We are seeing that the Emperor has no clothes.” While Byrne’s concern about the prospect of readers looking behind the curtain at that particular moment is wholly understandable, given that what they’d see was Byrne taking the job of an acclaimed thirty year veteran of the industry who had just been unceremoniously fired, it stands in marked and, more to the point, ideologically grounded contrast with Alan Moore, who noted that when he first got into comics at the age of seven he “was probably preoccupied with the characters themselves. I wanted to know what Batman was doing this month. Around about the time when I reached the age of say twelve, perhaps a lot earlier, I became more interested in what the artists and writers were doing that month,” a viewpoint that marks, for Moore at least, an active and conscious interest in the exact artifice of comics that Byrne wants to sweep under the rug (at least when talking about comics aimed at people who are not fairly young children, which, it is fair to say, few comics in the age of the direct market were). 

Figure 500: Jimmy Olsen is killed by the
Brainiac-animated corpse of Lex Luthor.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Curt Swan
and Kurt Schaffenberger, from Action Comics
#583, 1986)
“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is, as one might expect given Moore’s approach, very much invested in the narrative game that it is playing. It has two almost entirely contradictory jobs to do, and it does this by being actively concerned with the gap between them. On the one hand, it is self-consciously an epic tale of Superman’s last and final battle, where “his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights,” in which “all the things he had were taken from him save for one.” On the other, it’s a disposable “imaginary story” that everybody reading knows is just marking time before the big John Byrne reboot comes in next month, and that there is no actual finality to it. And so Moore makes the story about the very impossibility of it, starting the story with a journalist interviewing Lois Lane (now Elliot) about Superman’s now decade-old death. By foregrounding that fact at the start, Moore seems to fly in the face of the story’s lack of genuine finality. But because of the peculiar circumstances of the comic, serving as the last comic before a reboot that isn’t going to pick up where Moore’s story leaves off, but is rather going to declare that Moore’s story and every previous Superman story are no longer part of the Superman canon, Moore instead seems to be taking a sort of grim advantage of the situation. Since nothing he does is going to “count,” so to speak, Moore can do any terrible things he wants. And so the comic is in many ways an unrelentingly grim parade in which all of Superman’s great villains come back, deadlier than ever before, and wreck untold havoc. 

Figure 501: Lex Luthor kills Superman in the imaginary
story "The Death of Superman!" (Written by Jerry Siegel,
art by Curt Swan and George Klein, from Superman #149,
But, of course, given the existence of decades of imaginary stories, this isn’t actually a new sort of power. It’s not even the first time Superman died, with Jerry Siegel and Curt Swan having written an imaginary story doing that all the way back in 1961. As much as Moore may play at the idea that his story is different because the Byrne reboot is imminent, this is ultimately a trick on Moore’s part. The key fact is the nature of the story’s grim parade. As with much of Moore’s work in American superhero comics, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is based on playing with existing concepts. This was, after all, the point of requesting Curt Swan for art chores: to make the story look like the decades of Superman stories in which its characters were developed. Moore doesn’t just tell a grim and apocalyptic story, in other words: he tells a grim and apocalyptic story that is unmistakably a Superman story. Indeed, the story is almost gratuitously a Superman story, positively relishing in getting every single major Superman villain and supporting character into the plot somewhere. Even Superman notices this; the story’s climax comes when he realizes that there’s one villain who hasn’t appeared yet, and that this villain must therefore be responsible for everything that’s happened. 

Figure 502: Alan Moore tasked Curt Swan with drawing
a creature that his captions described as indescribable.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Curt Swan and Kurt
Schaffenberger, from Action Comics #583, 1986)
All of this exists to set up the real question Moore is examining with the story, which is what it means to try to craft an epic and apocalyptic narrative out of Superman in particular. And it is here that Moore pulls his great trick, ultimately opting to reject premise. The story’s main plot ends with Superman being forced to kill Mr. Mxyzptlk, the five-dimensional imp he realizes is behind all of this. (Mxyzptlk’s motive is one of the most charmingly pointless imaginable - after two thousand years of being a mischievous imp, he’s grown bored and decided to spend two millennia being evil instead.) Wracked with guilt, Superman proclaims that “nobody has the right to kill. Not Mxyzptlk, not you, not Superman… especially not Superman!” And so he opts to walk into the chamber of his Fortress of Solitude where he keeps the Gold Kryptonite, which will permanently strip him of his powers, and then, apparently to walk out into the frozen wastes to die. 

Figure 503: The last Superman story defers its ending.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Kurt Schaffenberger, from
Action Comics #583, 1986)
At this point the story returns to its frame narrative of the interview with Lois, who politely shows the journalist the door, leaving Lois, her husband Jordan, and their infant child Jonathan alone. They talk, with Jordan telling stories of work today. “Old Dan Hodge brought in some snapshots of his grandchildren,” he says, “and we’re working on this old ’48 Buick at the moment, trying to get her working. She’s beautiful.” Pressed by Lois on a criticism of Superman that he’d voiced earlier in the story, Jordan claims that “he was overrated, and too wrapped up in himself. He thought the world couldn’t get along without him.” But as he claims this, the image focuses on Jonathan playing with the bucket of charcoal for the fire, picking up a chunk and holding it and finally, dropping a diamond back into the bucket. Lois, meanwhile, suggests that they might sit in “bed with a bottle of wine. And after that, I figure we just live happily ever after. Sound good to you?” And so the comic closes with Jordan standing at their door, closing it towards the reader, and winking at them, answering simply, “Lois, my love… what do you think?” In other words, far from being an apocalyptic story with a downbeat ending, the story is in fact about how Superman earned a retirement to where he got to do the things he really loves, which is to say, to be an ordinary man working in an auto shop. The story does not mark the end of Superman at all - clearly their son is going to grow up to be a superhero in his own right. The story both serves as the finale for an entire era of Superman comics and as a demonstration that this finale is completely and utterly unnecessary.

First and foremost, then, this story is a love letter on Moore’s part to Superman comics and, more broadly, to DC. But the context of the love letter is both revealing and important. However good Moore’s story is, it only exists because DC was at the time actively seeking to jettison all of the past stories Moore is drawing on in favor of a single, unified, and self-consistent account of Superman and, ideally, everything else within DC. Moore is, in other words, ostentatiously winning the battle when the larger war has already been won by Byrne and people who agree with his aesthetics. Moore’s full-throated celebration of Superman only gets to exist in an elegiac context, as the flexibility and playfulness with which Moore could craft his story was precisely what the Crisis-mandated reboot was designed to excise from the character, and indeed, what Crisis existed to try to excise from the company as a whole. Indeed, not two years later, Moore himself would break ties with DC. 

Figure 504: Many Crisis on Infinite Earths tie-ins connected only via
panels like this, in which the sky is red. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from Swamp Thing #46, 1985)
Moore’s other engagement with Crisis on Infinite Earths came, as mentioned, in the pages of Swamp Thing. This came about as a consequence of a change to the nature of the American comics industry that is worth remarking upon: the crossover. Since Crisis on Infinite Earths was designed to impact every comic being published by DC, it was assumed that everyone buying any DC comics would buy it. And to this end, virtually every comic DC published ran at least one issue that, at least superficially, tied into the larger story. (It is worth emphasizing the word “superficially” here - Crisis on Infinite Earths also led to fandom coining the term “red skies crossover” to describe several of the crossovers, which consisted of perfectly ordinary issues of their respective comics in which, in one panel, someone would remark on how the sky was red and ominous, perhaps as if some crisis were coming, before getting on with whatever they were doing.) For Swamp Thing, this was issue #46, entitled “Revelations.” The timeline of this crossover is, however, vexed, and more to the point, vexed in a way that highlights the logistical problems underlying Crisis on Infinite Earths. “Revelations” features a sequence in which Swamp Thing visits the Monitor’s satellite. This is the same context in which Swamp Thing appeared in Crisis on Infinite Earths #5, released in May of 1985, the same month as the second part of Moore’s underwater vampire story. But “Revelations” did not come out until December of 1985, actually making it out two full weeks after Crisis on Infinite Earths wrapped up. 

Figure 505: Alan Moore's take on the
apocalypse of Crisis on Infinite Earths
was altogether more psychological
and horrific than Crisis itself. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette
and John Totleben, from Swamp Thing
#46, 1985)
In many ways, however, Crisis on Infinite Earths is just a backdrop for “Revelations.” Moore has Swamp Thing travel around the world to see what it’s like in the face of the apocalypse, leading to a two-page spread in which he sees “horrors and marvels” that “could not be counted,” allowing Moore to offer descriptions like “a jackboxer from the Manhattan saltbogs of Soto had managed to bring down a young ichthyosaurus with his whorpoon, but the alligators were closing in fast,” and “a woman with a pulpy orange growth upon her shoulder stumble unwittingly into a field of water hyacinths. As they parted and she sank into the water beneath, the growth opened its mouth and began to bellow,” and “there was laughter and weeping and somebody was screaming for somebody else to hold their hand, please, please, just hold their hand…” None of these images have any corollary within Crisis in Infinite Earths - they don’t refer to specific scenes in the way that Swamp Thing’s appearance on the Monitor’s satellite do. Rather, they’re flavor: attempts to depict what it’s like to witness the end of the world.

But the tie-in to Crisis on Infinite Earths consumes only the first of five issues about the end of the world, and it would be a mistake to treat the apocalypse depicted as coextensive with Crisis. Rather, Moore’s story piggybacks upon that apocalypse, casting his apocalypse as an echo of the larger one. As Constantine explains within the narrative, “this sort of physical destruction is bound to cause temporary disturbances on the psychic plane. Our problem is that there are people who anticipated the disturbance and plan to take advantage of it.” For Swamp Thing’s part, he experiences it as “the whimpering that people made deep in their souls. He heard the bedlam of a mass mind faced with extinction.” Within Moore’s later cosmology this would seem to suggest an apocalypse within Ideaspace, although it’s important to note that the conflict is presented as taking place in the DC Universe’s Ideaspace, which is at best a tiny subset of Ideaspace proper.

Much of Moore’s work on Swamp Thing has engaged with this precise point. Moore explicitly sought to use Swamp Thing to engage with “the reality of American horror.” In his view, “what frightens people these days is not the idea of a werewolf jumping out at them, it’s the idea of a nuclear war.” In truth, Moore’s engagement with the apocalypse went beyond mere nuclear war (which he never touched on directly in Swamp Thing, although it was a substantial theme elsewhere in Moore’s DC work), and to the larger idea of the human capacity to destroy their own habitation in a number of ways, an image that ties in with the larger ecological themes of Swamp Thing

Figure 506: The Brujeriá's awful ritual.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by John
Totleben, from Swamp Thing #48, 1986)
So Moore’s apocalypse is framed, ultimately, as a conceptual apocalypse - as a nightmarish consequence of the very idea of the apocalypse and of the way in which the horrors Moore has been engaging with throughout his run on Swamp Thing loom over the culture. But this conceptual apocalypse is still grounded in specific ideas. The Brujería, the South American cult that Moore has unleashing this apocalypse, is described as having “existed for centuries in the forests of Patagonia, at the southernmost tip of South America.” They are, in other words, positioned at the root of the Americas as a whole. The “darkness at the heart of this continent” that Moore spent the entire “American Gothic” arc presenting, in other words, finds its most fundamental expression here - a dark and twisted cult lying at the deepest base of the entire land. (That this fits into the same tradition of demonizing and exoticizing indigenous American populations that Moore perpetuated in “The Curse” is, of course, a deeply frustrating failure on Moore’s part.) It is in this regard worth noting that the Brujería’s scheme is in many ways an echo of Moore’s own plotting. “Using their influence,” Constantine explains, “they’ve forced the dark stuff to the surface, all over the world. I only showed you the trouble spots I thought you could learn from.” These trouble spots, of course, constitute the “American Gothic” arc, a point hammered home by Bissette and Totleben’s art, which recaps these threats. “Each incident,” Constantine continues, “has increased the general belief in the paranormal by degrees, until the whole psychic atmosphere is like a balloon ripe for bursting.” In other words, the Brujería have created a bunch of typical horror stories in order to create an atmosphere of tension. This tacitly allies the Brujería with Moore, who, as a writer, has been enacting this exact plan: a series of traditional horror stories serving as a prelude to an eventual apocalypse.

Figure 507: The bird flies, the pearl in its mouth. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by John Totleben, from Swamp Thing
#48, 1986)
The unleashing of this horror, in “A Murder of Crows,” in Swamp Thing #48, comes when one of Constantine’s allies, Judith, betrays him to the Brujería and agrees to serve as their messenger. This involves a ritual in which Judith vomits out her intestines and allows her body to shrivel until only her severed but still talking head remains. The Brujería then place a black pearl in her mouth, at which point her head steadily transforms into a bird, a process that is laboriously and disturbingly described, at which point the bird is released to summon the nameless dark power by delivering a pearl held in its mouth to a distant destination. [continued]


Daibhid C 6 years, 3 months ago

It's never occurred to me before (possibly because I first read this long after the event), but in a way the Byrne reboot highlights the truth of "Aren't they all?", even from what one might call a Byrnist perspective. Not just "This is a story that didn't really happen, just like all Superman stories", but also "This is a story that isn't really in continuity, just like all previous Superman stories".

And while by the Byrnist definition Byrne's upcoming stories aren't imaginary, this is only with the caveat "...yet", because once DC have rejected all previous continuity once, there is no reason they can't do it again. (There have been at least three new Superman origins since then; Waid's Birthright and Johns's Secret Origin, both of which contradicted Byrne without any in-universe explanation, and most recently, of course, Morrison's Action Comics, which did follow a line-wide reboot.)

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Anton B 6 years, 3 months ago

What I find most depressing about Byrne's reaction to "...aren't they all?" is that, apart from mixing his metaphors, he seems to be suggesting that exposing the Wizard of Oz as the 'man behind the curtain' or revealing that 'the Emperor has no clothes' is somehow a bad thing. Displaying a basic misunderstanding of the moral of both tales.

Moore's use of Mxyzptlk as the 'big bad' - taking a 'joke villain', a trickster figure and ramping up his effectiveness and capacity for evil echoes his use of Kid Marvelman, Johnny Bates in Marvelman.

Also I've only just noticed the similarity between Superman's secret retirement plan as an auto-shop repair man and Hollis Mason/Nite Owl's in Watchmen.

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Lo-Fi Explosion 6 years, 3 months ago

For me, the "aren't they all?" gives legitimacy to Moore’s story, and instead of it being “just” an imaginary story, by drawing attention to every story being imaginary, this is the equal of all of the previous stories, and this ceases to be an imaginary story, but actually the End of Superman.

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Neo Tuxedo 6 years, 3 months ago

a jackboxer from the Manhattan saltbogs of Soto

It's an honest mistake on your part, given the fluidity of John Costanza's lettering, but I always read that "Soto" as "5070".

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Aberrant Eyes 4 years, 9 months ago

And I do mean "always"; as I just noted elsewhere, Swamp Thing #46 was my first encounter with the War, and specifically with Alan Moore. The scene in an early issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths where the Legion of Super-Heroes works to contain a stampede of displaced woolly mammoths through 2985 Metropolis (to name one high-concept moment) shows you what the end of the world looks like; Clyde Barrow watching the ending of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde through teary eyes, on the other hand, shows you what it feels like. I was 15 going on 16 with very little grasp of my own emotions, but I could tell that difference, and I could tell that I wanted to know how the Swamp Thing had got there. Not far into the new year, I persuaded my parents to pick me up the Swamp Thing issues back to when John Constantine first came into Alec's life. The rest, as Butterfly St. Cyr would say, is nonfiction.

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Ice 6 years, 3 months ago

John Byrne is such an interesting and strange character within the super hero comics story. His personal online forums are interesting.

This is offtopic for this post, but on topic (I think, anyway) for The War's narrative in the future. I realized the other day that I can think of one artist who's worked with almost all of the subjects of The War over the last 16 years or so: JH Williams III has worked with Moore, Morrison, Ellis, and currently Gaiman.

I wonder if there are any artists who've had that much to do with the various major players in The War.

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John Seavey 6 years, 3 months ago

I realize you only mentioned it tangentially, but Superman #149 is amazing. The pure scope of it is breathtaking--Lex Luthor cures cancer as part of a plot to lure Superman into a deathtrap. It may be an imaginary story, but I think that may well be the purest expression of Luthor as a character; his intellect is beyond compare, but his ambitions are stunted by his selfish sociopathy to the point where he would only save millions of lives if it helped him gain petty revenge for a childhood slight. That is absolutely operatic in its scale, and it's part of why I actually adore the Silver Age Superman pretty unironically.

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Daibhid C 6 years, 3 months ago

Absolutely. I wonder if that's part of Byrne's problem; this guy was assigned to write a non-canon story that serves as an epilogue to a history that no longer matters, and the first thing he writes is "This story matters as much as any other one does". Including the upcoming one that tells you what the "real" Superman is for the next seventeen years.

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Adam Riggio 6 years, 3 months ago

Part of what I loved about your analysis of Moore and Byrne's difference over "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" and the larger Crisis storyline (when I read the whole thing a couple of months ago) is how you highlight a similar theme that arises in the same era of Doctor Who on the Eruditorum. The overwhelming importance of creating an entirely fixed, totally internally consistent continuity for the universe of characters.

When I was a teenager, I used to believe that consistency among all storylines and stories in a given sci-fi universe was absolutely necessary. It irked me to see inconsistency. I was treating each sci-fi universe I encountered as if it was a real world, and I treated the real world as if all of physical reality needed to be entirely consistent. It was only later, as I engaged with the most unpleasantly fanwanky of Star Trek: Enterprise episodes, that I realized what a pain it was to care about internal consistency of your imaginary world more than the quality of stories I was telling. Your analysis of Ian Levine's influence on Doctor Who only convinced me of the point. I'm now on the verge of producing my own sci-fi universes, and continuity be damned if it gets in the way of a good story.

The truth is, it shouldn't even have mattered that the character and world histories of DC were going to be rebooted anyway. I'm glad that was going on, which was why Moore's "Tomorrow" was greenlit. But we shouldn't have needed that excuse. I think it would be a cool idea for DC if, every decade, they were to commission their most prominent writer in the stable or an otherwise famous outsider to write their own take on the death of Superman.

It's only a very immature understanding of narrative and literature that would understand these fictional characters, cities, and Earths as if they were real things and places which should obey the same laws of consistency as we expect physical objects to do. Pulling back the curtain and understanding them as fictional entities with creators who craft their narratives with immense skill and knowledge doesn't ruin anything, but adds to the fascination. But I also say this as someone who creates fiction. Then again, so is John Byrne.

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Spoilers Below 6 years, 3 months ago

Byrne's annoyance and the overall nerd fixation on authoritative readings and continuity remind me a great deal of Josh Marsfelder's points in his excellent reading of Roots.

If the point is to do a complete and exhaustive story, the "Real Story", then absolutely a tale like Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow is anathema. If the point is to tell a story with the characters, and the story they are telling is the point, not whether that story jives with the other stories they have told, then Moore's is a perfect addition. The Super Mario series of video games, and the anime Tenchi Muyo are less heavy examples of this style of story telling. Why are Mario and Bowser suddenly tennis and go kart buddies? Wasn't Ryo-Oki Ryoko's pet, not Sasami's, before Tenchi in Tokyo? These are unimportant questions in this story telling style. (That both of these examples use a ton of theatrical imagery and cues is intentional, and is a topic for a much larger essay on this subject)

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Kit 6 years, 3 months ago

This made me think to do a google: looks like the only time Todd Klein has worked on an Ellis book was specifically to keep collaborating with JHW3 after Promethea. (He has, of course, been the letterer of choice for the other three on many or all of their major projects in comics over the last couple of decades.)

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John Seavey 6 years, 2 months ago

I both agree and disagree. I agree that caring about consistency to the exclusion of quality is a mistake; however, that consistency is important for two reasons. One, it helps to create a sense of verisimilitude, which can be profoundly lacking in a science-fictional universe. Assuring your readers that the world today's story takes place is the same world as yesterday's and tomorrow's stories helps to create a sense of believability to what can otherwise seem like very implausible stories. It's a storytelling technique that definitely has its uses.

The other thing it helps with is...well, I don't want to say "laziness", but I will say that having to keep things consistent prevents problems like just making up a new power for Superman every time he needs to get out of a jam, or conveniently forgetting that Cally is a telepath every time it would cause the writer difficulties. Once you decide that narrative consistency isn't important, especially in a science fiction/fantasy universe, there's very little to prevent the writer from just changing all the rules whenever they feel like it. That can be its own set of problems.

Consistency shouldn't be to the exclusion of all else, but nor is it unnecessary.

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BerserkRL 6 years, 2 months ago

after two thousand years of being a mischievous imp, he’s grown bored and decided to spend two millennia being evil instead

Have you read Shirley Jackson's story "One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts"?

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BerserkRL 6 years, 2 months ago

On the subject of red skies and a Crisis:

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Eric Gimlin 6 years, 2 months ago

Have you ever seen the prints Todd Klein has done? He's actually gotten both Moore and Gaiman to write original stories just for him to show off his lettering; and Williams to illustrate one showing a passage from Le Morte d'Arthur. Beautiful pieces.

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Web_Weaver 6 years, 2 months ago

Presumably Byrne is haunted by the text in "Whatever Happened..." because the story is about him. Superman has pre-emptively escaped his fate by killing the man behind the curtain.

The child making diamonds represents how children will always own these stories, not the new guard seeking to control them.

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