Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and The Men of Steel

Action Comics was perhaps the most notable of the DC Comics that were rebooted and relaunched in fall of 2011 for two reasons: First, it was the oldest comic book, and giving it a new #1 issue would require dialing the numbers all the way back from #904, and, secondly, there was no other book was paired with a more perfect-seeming creator than its marriage to the popular, imaginative, ambitious forward-thinking, writer/Superman priest Grant Morrison. If any of the 52 new "New 52" books were to meet their goal of reinventing the publisher's staid stable of characters for a new generation of new readers, then certainly the pairing of Superman and Grant Morrison would be the one to do it, right? We are talking about the writer who produced all those amazing scenes featuring Superman in his JLA run, who wrote perhaps the very best Superman story in All-Star Superman and whose Final Crisis was filled with such imagery as Superman singing away the ultimate evil.

Morrison's collaborator for the project was artist Rags Morales, one of my own personal long-time favorite comics artists (his work on Forgotten Realms was among the first I saw when I started reading comics that really struck me) whose work had only grown more refined over the years.

Still, I waited for the trade. There was something of an economic component to that decision, as Action Comics was being sold at a $3.99/30-page price-point—I don't mind paying more for more content occasionally, but $4 still strikes me as a silly price to pay for a serially published comic book when a more permanent, bound format is only a few months away. Mostly my decision to wait had to do with the fact that I was so certain I would enjoy a book written by one of my favorite super-comics writers and drawn by one of my favorite super-comics artists featuring one of my favorite superheroes that I didn't feel a need to try out the first 20-some pages to see how it turned out.

I just recently read Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and The Men of Steel, a hardcover collection of the first eight issues of the rebooted Action Comics.

I wasn't too terribly disappointed.

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What was most notable about Morrison and Morales' take on Superman is the degree to which they rebooted the character, and the fact that Morrison went for a stripped-down, purified, best-of-all-eras remix approach like he did with All-Star Superman, but made different choices than the ones he had previously made, so the resultant take seems to be similar in approach to All-Star, but completely, dramatically different.

The book opens, after all, with Superman wearing a homemade costume consisting of a Superman t-shirt, a towel-like red cape (it's actually the indestructible cloth he was swaddled in as a baby), a pair of jeans and a pair of work boots—it's Superman as Superman as a child playing Superman. But since this is a "Year One" approach, a re-telling of his origin story as the first superhuman in the world (in that respect, it covers the exact same ground as J. Michael Straczynski's dreadful and dour looking Earth One: Superman original graphic novels), Superman is basically inventing the act of playing Superman.

Morrison writes it as a sort of New Age Golden Age, with Superman's powers and, as is so often the case in Morrison's writing, he metatextualizes the story, so that changes that occurred to the Superman mythos in its first few decades due simply to Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and the first few creators to work on the character continually tinkering with him are here internalized and made part of the story.

So this Superman's costume is a work in progress, his powers are a work in progress (they are, essentially, exactly what they are upon his first appearance: He can't fly, but he can leap; he's not indestructible, but nothing short of an exploding shell can hurt him), and his relationship to his allies, his enemies, even his exact mission, methods and moral code are seemingly still in the works.

Morrison's Superman is young, brash, dangerous and vulnerable, and at least two of those are qualities DC executives have been talking about restoring to their characters for years now.

In the first issue, he's threatening the life of a rich, powerful and corrupt businessman in the tried-and-true pretend-to-murder style of Batman tossing a crook off a ledge simply to catch them. He cockily references off-panel actions he also performed in the first issue of the original first issue of Action Comics. He's pursued by the police and the military. Lex Luthor is after him. He's a crusading journalist. He's disguised as Clark Kent, here affected not only by a pair of glasses, but big, baggy clothes that hide his physique and an extreme case of behead (In All-Star, artist Frank Quitely evoked the Superman-to-Clark transformation through the character's posture and body language, so Clark looked like a big, clumsy ox of an oaf). Bullets bounce off him. He outraces speeding cars on foot and, in a climactic scene, he stops a speeding train by standing in front of it and pushing in the opposite direction.

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Things start to fall apart by the second issue, and for all the false-starts, overnight creative team changes and angry disavowals by outgoing writers, I think there is no surer sign that something is deeply fucked up at DC Comics than this fact: They rebooted their flagship title starring their flagship character for the first time since 1939, and they didn't bother to get all of their ducks in a row to guarantee a single story arc got drawn by a single artist.

By the second issue, Brent Anderson is drawing portions of the story, and while he's a great artist with a style not discordantly dissimilar to Morales', it's different enough that the characters don't look like they do when Morales draws them. Given that these are the first appearances of these new versions of the characters, it would probably have been beneficial to have on artist draw the first, say, three scenes in which Lois Lane appears, for example.

By issue #3, a third artists is employed—this one is Gene Ha, and he only draws a dream sequence/buried memory set on Krypton, excusing the shift in style. The remainder of the first story arc is drawn by Morales, Anderson and Brad Walker. All are good artists, but the blend isn't so good—it basically scans like Morales doing a terrible job. The table of contents lists five inkers and three colorists; I'm not sure who did what where, but it's an all-around shoddy job, paradoxically made all the shoddier by how accomplished some of the participants are.

The worst bit comes at the climax of the story, when the Morales-lead melange gives way on the final five pages to an artist whose style looks nothing like that on the previous pages, whose Clark Kent has shifted design to resemble artist Gary Frank's Christopher Reeve's inspired design, and who draws the last image in the story—a close-up of Superman's Chicletty grin as he buzzes the reader's POV in a splash page.

In this respect, Morrison's Superman run mirrors his run on the various Bat-titles: A great story full of a lot of promise, done in completely by poor art...and/or poor planning and editing that resulted in a mess of artists coming, going and drawing a few pages here and there. It doesn't matter how strong the script is if the art part of the equation is half-assed. Essentially, they just cancel each other out.

This is a great comic if you can read past the art, if you can redraw it in your imagination while reading, but that's more work than a reader should have to do in 2011, 2012 or 2013. Especially if they're paying $4 for each chapter.

Those aren't the only artists involved, either. Andy Kubert draws two whole issues himself, and these are far enough removed from the main narrative that the style-shift doesn't derail anything (they're set in the past and future, mostly, save for a scene or two featuring characters from the future lurking in a darkened Fortress of Solitude in the present).

The original comics contained back-up stories starring various characters from the main, Morrison/Morales/All Those Other Guys stories, and these feature more artists still. Flipping through the book, the impression one gets is of a jam-book, rather than a graphic novel.

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As I said, the story is significantly different enough that it appears all-new, or at least an all-new arrangement of familiar elements: They probably could have (maybe should have) pushed this material as the YA market cracking Earth One stuff.

I was struck by how much it seemed like a paper version of the Superman movie Morrison would like to make, mostly because of how many elements of Superman comics he wrangles into a single, three-act narrative structure.

Here's the synopsis: After the death of his parents, Clark Kent has moved to Metropolis where he lives in a shitty apartment like movie Peter Parker, and works as a muckraking investigative journalist for The Daily Star (the closest thing to a friend he has being Jimmy Olsen, the Daily Planet photographer assigned to Lois Lane). Donning a homemade costume, he fights crime and is pursued as a criminal for it, until the powers that be can stand it no longer. General Sam Lane, father of Lois, and special consultant genius Lex Luthor set up a trap to capture Superman.

They do, and poke, prod and torture him a while. Meanwhile, Brainiac, the being responsible for the destruction of Krypton, comes to Earth. It shrinks Metropolis, puts it in a bottle and adds it to its collection. It's up to Superman to save the day, along the way discovering the secrets of his own origins and convincing himself and the world at large that he really is a hero. The only thing missing is a love story between Superman and Lois.

So Morrison packs in Superman, Jimmy, Lois, Lex Luthor, General Lane, Brainiac, Metallo, Dr. John Henry Irons (who becomes Steel in a back-up), life on pre-explosion Krypton and the Bottled City of Kandor. Not bad for a six-issue story arc. I think a version of Mr. Mxyzptlk might be introduced here too—there are actually a couple of candidates for visitors from the 5th dimension—but neither are revealed as such in this first story arc.

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Of those, I think Morrison does a pretty good job with most of them. Jimmy, Lois and General Lane seem to be the same as they have been in the comics since the John Byrne reboot. Metallo is given a past romantic history with Lois, which makes his story a little more relevant to that of the other characters (he's basically a soldier who volunteers to get roboticized in order to fight Superman and impress Lois).

Brainiac is sufficiently alien and spooky; in fact, I don't think we see "him" at all, just various robot puppets and programs.

I don't think I've seen enough of this Luthor to really get judge him. Morrison's previously written great Luthors in JLA, where he was the ingenius corporate mastermind with a hobby in supervillainy, and All-Star, where he was the traditional renegade scientist.

Here he looks younger and slightly paunchy, and swills power drinks constantly, which seems to a visual signifier that he's a much younger and much douchier Lex than we usually see. As is so often the case with modern Luthors, his motivation for being anti-Superman is a sort of zealous humanism bordering on or spilling over into xenophobia, although Morrison gives him a pretty cool speech to justify his wanting to eliminate the strange visitor from another world as quickly as possible:
The Brown tree snake. Introduced to the U.S. territory of Guam right after World War Two. Caused Dozens of indigenous birds and reptile species to become extinct.

The cane toad, sent to Australia as a pest control agent, decimated local biodiversity.

Non-native strains will destroy entire ecologies given the opportunity.
I'll buy that.

I'm not entirely sure what I think about this new Steel, either. I'm glad he still exists, but I don't think this version is quite as impressive as the one that originally emerged during the "Death of Superman" cycle of stories.

That Steel had his life saved by Superman, who told him to do something with that life if he really wanted to thank him. After witnessing Superman give his own life to save Metropolis from Doomsday, Dr. John Henry Irons decided to stand-up and do the impossible: To become Superman. Like Batman, he was just a normal, every day guy who, through his own smarts and force of will, turned himself into a superhuman and ultimately joined the fraternity of demigods that patrolled and protected the DC Universe.

He also had a cool costume, resembling a literal man of steel with a big sledgehammer-tipped staff and a striking red cape.

This Irons is working on the same project under Lane that hired Luthor and ultimately made Metallo; he had his Steel suit already made and waiting in a hidden closet in case he ever needed it (which doesn't quite ring true, given this is a world without a concept of a superhero yet).
He's still inspired by Superman to do good, but in a piteous way: Watching Luthor and the military torture Superman, he resigns, not wanting to be party to it any longer. When Metallo and Brainiac being to wreak havoc in Metropolis, he suits up.

That suit is rather unremarkable. There's no cape, obviously, but there also isn't any kind of mask either. He's just a dude in a metal suit with jet-boots and hammer. The mess of metal coiling that forms his muscles are kind of cool (they're left-over from an earlier Steel design), but he looks kinda...wrong without a helmet or face mask of any kind, especially given the stuff he gets up to. I'm not sure I understand how a genius would create a suit of super-armor that covers everything except the part of the body that needs the most protection.

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Artwork aside, this read quite well in trade. Something Morrison talks about in both his prose book Supergods and the back-matter of this collection is how action-packed the first Superman story of Siegel and Shuster's in Action Comics #1 was, how their Superman ran and leapt from set-piece to set-piece in a breathless, relentless story.

Morrison sort of mimics that, but he can't do it in a single issue, so there are starts and stops between these set-pieces, he does it in the first storyline though, so read in a trade like this, he accomplishes an effect similar to that one he describes as something he admired; he also does a good job of escalating those threats, as the story opens with him jumping to the top of a building to fight bodyguards and the police and ends with him having to jump into outer space to fight a planet-destroying robot menace.

It must have been horribly frustrating to read as it was originally, serially published however.

Something I didn't realize until just now, when I sat down to write this and looked it up in order to untangle the art credits, was that the first story arc was originally published out of order.

The book opens with a six-issue story arc containing the characters and events I've mentioned above, but DC published the first four parts in Action Comics #1-4, then, in Action Comics #5-#6 they published a two-part story illustrated by Andy Kubert set after the events of the incomplete first story arc (it's a Legion of Super-Heroes team-up, and the "present" is set after the events of Action Comics #8, although the distant past is also covered). Then the first story arc finishes up in Action #7 and #8. This collection publishes the story in the correct order: #1, #2, #3, #4, #7, #8, #5, #6.

Additionally, while this is Superman's "Year One" style origin, the story of who the new Superman is and how he came to be, how he got his powers, how he got his costume, where he came from and how he found his place in the world, DC was simultaneously publishing Superman stories set after this.

So while it took eight months to tell Superman's first story, Superman was appearing fully-formed and with all of his powers and his final costume in JLA #1 (published before Action #1) and in Superman #1-#8 (all also set after Action #8)...and I'm sure he was appearing in other books, as well. I remember seeing him in Justice League Dark #1. I heard he was in Swamp Thing #1. I'm pretty sure he was in the first issue of Supergirl.

Surely that sucked a lot of the drama and excitement out of this storyline purporting to be the story of Superman. Rather than starting over from scratch, it must have read like a choppy flashback to readers who were widely sampling the rest of The New 52 ("Fun" fact: Before Morrison, Morales and company could even finish their origin of the new Superman, sister title Superman was already on its second creative team, with the writing team of Dan Jurgens and Keith Giffen taking over for the quite-frustrated George Perez, and Jurgens handling pencils).

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The Kubert-drawn two-parter is probably a more Morrisonian story than the one that precedes it in this collection; it's certainly the sort of story that reads like a comic book more so than a comic book version of a blockbuster movie.

It opens on Krypton (and here we meet the saber-toothed Krypto who totally isn't dead like DC announced, but is actually in the Phantom Zone) and shows Superbaby being rocketed to safety...in a story narrated by the rocket.

Then villains from the future travel back in time to the present to steal the Kryptonite engine from the sentient rocket, these villains being The Anti-Superman Army, composed of the likes of The Kryptonite Men, the robotic Terra-Man and The Little Man (whom this story really made me think is a Mxyzptlk), who are hiding out in a microscopic HQ inside Superman's brain. The Legion of Super-Heroes and a future Superman, from a point in their history where it's Cosmic Man, instead of Boy, travel back to the present in order to thwart the villains and save the rocket ship. Via telepathy and rocket-delivered narration, we see a bit of Superman's childhood in Smallville, including meeting his dad and discovering that he was Superboy (although it's not clear if he was publicly Superboy or not).

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Also included in this collection, grouped all togetherafter issues #5 and #6, are the back-up stories that appeared in each issue. These are written by Sholly Fisch, a really great writer who has done some truly incredible writing for DC's canceled Batman: The Brave and the Bold comics, and drawn by Brad Walker or Chriscross, the latter of whom is working in a stripped-down style that, as colored by Jose Villarrubia, looks like the work of an entirely different artist than the Chriscross you might imagine.

These are "Hearts of Steel" and "Meanwhile..." in which Steel battles Metallo and deals with fall-out form Brainiac's city-napping (and it's revealed that Nat still exists in the New 52 too), "Baby Steps" in which we see Superbaby's arrival on earth from the perspective of the Kents (who are Baptists) and, finally, "The Last Day," in which Clark's Smallville friends Lana Lang and Pete Ross see him off to Metropolis.

They area all good stories, well-told, but I don't think they quite work in relation to the main story. If they were collected as printed, between each chapter of the main storyline, they'd be annoying asides and digressions, and yet they also expand on the stories somewhat; for example, in at least one instance the main narrative references events in the back-ups that a collection reader wouldn't have even seen at that point.

I'm not really sure the best way to handle collecting these, beyond maybe saving them all up for a collection published separately at some point.

Ideally, DC wouldn't be doing them at all, but would just be publishing the main comic for $2.99, but I imagine there is some economic reason that the publisher wants to sell $4 comics, and adding 10-page back-ups by creators who come a little cheaper than those making the first 2/3 of each issue is better than simply going the Marvel route, and making a $3.99/20-page book.

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Look at this:
That's the miniaturized Glenmorgan trapped in one of Brainiac's bottles seeing the hand of the full-sized Superman reaching into bottle to grab the contents of that truck. Look at how he's looking at the hand in the next panel. Damn, that's some good comics-making right there.

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It's probably worth noting that the villain of this piece, Brainiac, is an insidious collector whose life's ambition is to preserve and file cultures on his list—in "mint condition," no less—and the nature of his conflict with Superman is that the superhero refuses to lay down and be collected in eternal stasis, but instead continues to fight against collection, to move, to change to live.

When rattling off the list of names by which he is known on other worlds, he gives a telling detail that made me snicker upon first read:
We are the colony of the Collector of Worlds. We know everything there is to know.

On Yod-Colu we began as C.O.M.P.U.T.O.

On Noma they called us Pnumenoid...On Krypton--where you were born--we were Braniac 1.0.

On Earth--We were Internet.
That's right, comic book readers who use the Internet! We're the true villains! Again.

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I've really, really hated Superman's new Jim Lee-designed costume. Just hated everything about it.

In this story, we learn exactly where it came from. It's some kind of super-sciencey Kryptonian garment that starts out white and...conforms, somehow, to the user, which changes its color. It's a pretty neat scene, even if it doesn't really explain why it has to look like armor (The artists who draw it here, it should be noticed, don't make it look like the solid metal that Jim Lee's renderings make it look like).

At one point, Superman grabs a space artifact, and his costume chameleons into the Golden Age Starman's costume.
Is that allowed, now that the Golden Age has been severed from the DC Universe...?

5 comments:

Akilles said...

Whew. I was a bit worried that it might not be so good.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I won't give away why they switched the order of issues, but it makes sense in issues 9 & 10. I bought the trade on Amazon and enjoyed it enough to go pull my other back issues from a box to read them as I buy the monthly. (If I buy a trade, I give the singles to a friend's son.)

I stopped reading Superman with #2.

SallyP said...

I have found reading the new 52 Superman to be alternately frustrating and fabulous...and you never quite know which issue it is going to be.

David said...

If I recall, the Little Man is actually Myx's archnemesis, who is determined to destroy Superman because Myx used him to bring so much joy to the 5th dimension.

David said...

Rags was so great in Forgotten Realms, which was and remains one of my low-key favorites along with other comics of the era like Nth Man. I had no idea he was still floating around til I saw he was on Action Comics, though it was not enough to tempt me to buy this hot mess.

Still ... Forgotten Realms. Good times. A shame Rags was not able to pencil a couple of the last issues, leaving them to much weaker artists.