Could you expand on what you liked about Irredeemable? It's been years since I read it, but I recall finding it somewhat off-putting, and never attempted to finish it.
Off-putting is absolutely the correct way of describing it. While it never goes far into direct explicitness or gore as I recall, it is a crushingly dark book from start to just about finish; a psychologically vile, relentlessly cruel 37 issues in service of maybe the most comprehensive savaging of Superman as a concept ever put to paper.
It’s the book that made him my favorite character. It may be the book that’s the reason I write.
Now look: the first issue came out when I was a little shy of 14. Great a comic as I will maintain it sincerely is (though it does go a little slack in the last year or so, and the spinoff Incorruptible is pretty much entirely a write-off), I am unquestionably looking at it through rose-tinted lenses. I don’t even know why I got it; I was just collecting the Batman and I guess Green Lantern books at that point, and while Mark Waid was surely on my radar, Boom! comics most certainly were not. Maybe I saw the Grant Morrison quote on the cover, or maybe I just thought “oh sweet, Waid writing an evil Superman”. But while I don’t blame anyone in the slightest for not liking it - not in a “I can see how they just wouldn’t get it, man” kind of way, the tone and content here are going to completely justifiably rub some people entirely the wrong way - I will absolutely stick up for it as a great piece of superhero comics, and a fascinating examination by contrast of how Superman works, and indeed has to work, as a character.
So here’s the premise:
Or as the back of every trade puts it, how did he come to this? What became of the hope and promise once inside him? What happens to the world when its savior betrays it? What makes a hero irredeemable? The answer to the third question at least is that the world is shit out of luck: millions are dead before the first page of the series, and the rest of the superheroes can’t do much to help, because they fire energy blasts or talk to machines or have wings, while he can shatter diamond in his bare grip, liquefy titanium with a glance and hear every whisper on Earth that might dare to defy him. Most of the book is from the perspective of those heroes, on the run and desperate to find a way to survive and triumph, as their own dirty little secrets and failings start to come out under the pressure. In base concept, it’s a pretty standard Superman deconstruction.
But it’s a Superman deconstruction by the world’s biggest Superman fan. And that makes all the difference.
Whatever your opinion on Mark Waid, it’s pretty indisputable that that guy has spent a lot of time thinking about how Superman works; what makes him tick, what makes people respond to him, how his world has to be for him to function. I may not agree with him 100% on all of it, but he’s damn well put the hours in to go with his passion, and when you understand the story engine on that level, you’re going to know as anybody how to take it apart; what vital piece is most necessary to keep it running, and what’s going to happen if you take it away. For Irredeemable, the cog in the machine is idea that, even with all the good intentions in the world, a person may not necessarily be emotionally equipped for the job of being a superman. And that’s a very valid concern: after all Waid noted in an interview, in the classic Superman stories, his biggest fear come to life often wasn’t that he’d fail in his mission, or lose his adopted home, but that no one would love him anymore.
With Plutonian, the reason it works, aside from Waid’s enduring skills as a storyteller, is that there’s no cop-out. He wasn’t a hidden invader, he never planned to conquer the world, he didn’t privately despise humanity all along, he isn’t detached from mankind in the sense of being an inscrutable alien whose motives and emotions are beyond us, he isn’t doing this because he just wants to make the world a better place. While I don’t want to give up any of the reveals, it’s probably fair to say he grew up to be about the best person he could reasonably be expected to given his circumstances; a guy who feels he should do the right thing, a guy who wants to be himself and be loved in spite of his issues and insecurities. Not a saint, but hardly a monster. But the problem is, he’s not a probably-okay-enough-given-the-circumstances slightly neurotic guy who’s just holding a 9 to 5 job and seeing a therapist, he has to be Superman. And when that normal, well-meaning guy has to live with the hard realities of never being able to touch someone too hard or they’ll shatter, of having skin like diamond, of never getting to believe a little white lie because he can hear their heartbeat spike or avoid knowing what people really think about him because he can hear their private whispers, of never being able to stop because he can hear every cry for help and the world expects him to answer? And when he can’t even bring himself to just stop, because being a hero is the closest he’s ever come to being loved for who he is? It all comes crashing down, wrapped up in a set of high-concept superhero horror adventures by one of the best writers out there. It’s not a world built on ‘realism’ in the sense of abiding by the laws of physics or the political fallout of superheroes, but it’s grounded in an emotional reality of what it would take out of someone to have that job that makes it all painfully, inevitably believable that even most well-meaning individuals wouldn’t be able to handle it. And that got me thinking about Superman.
Superman had been my favorite character as a little kid. Between the 90s animated series, the Fleischer shorts my dad had on tape, the Superman Adventures comics and Byrne’s Man of Steel (even if I’d later change my tune on the latter), picture books (props to anyone else who remembers The True Story of Superman, Superman: Slippery When Bad, or I Hate Superman!), and all the lunchboxes and birthday paper plates and posters and whatnot that tend to accumulate around little kids, he was #1. Even when I started to get way more into Batman and Spider-Man, he was always holding up third; I never thought of him as boring, but I definitely started to think of him as not all that deep, even if he could hold down great stories like All-Star and Birthright.
But this book was the first of its kind to make me think “Wow, being Superman would be the hardest job in the entire world. Even given the obvious differences, why doesn’t he turn out something like this? How could anyone not turn out like this, under that kind of pressure, with that kind of basic physical and mental distance from humanity?” And as it turns out, questions like those make Superman really, really interesting. The implications of someone living with that kind of power and becoming not just a truly good man, but an outstandingly, impossibly good man go as deep as it gets. And suddenly I’m looking back at the old stories in a new light and with a new appreciation, and suddenly I’m reading a lot more about him and thinking a lot more about him and what works and what doesn’t, and suddenly, oh, dang, he’s my favorite character now. More than that even, I start thinking more about characters in general, and what works and what doesn’t, and what works and what doesn’t with comics in general, and I start getting Opinions, and oh I write a lot now, and oh shit I have a Tumblr and I want to break into comics.
So that’s why I liked Irredeemable.