Take, for example, Action Comics #1,000. DC published what I believe is somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand different variant covers for the special issue, and they were freely order-able. Meaning that a few months ago you just could just look at all the pictures of all the covers, realize Mike Allred's cover was by far the best, and then you could tell your local comics shopkeep to order you one copy of the Mike Allred cover, please. Which I did!
So, what's in this $7.99, 80-page, spine-bearing, ad-free special issue? So much! Let's take the short stories, one at a time.
"From The City That Has Everything" by Dan Jurgens, Norm Rapmund and Hi-Fi
This is the sort of obvious, slightly sappy sort of celebratory story one might expect from writer/artist Dan Jurgens, who has been involved with the character at least as long as I have been reading comics, maybe even further back. The city of Metropolis is hosting a Superman Day celebration to honor their hero, and the Man of Steel wants nothing to do with it. In fact, he's reluctant to even show up as Clark Kent and hang out with his wife and son.
While various citizens offer testimonials about how Superman saved and/or changed their lives, Superman keeps an eye peeled for signs of danger--and an excuse to take off to address it--while Lois keeps getting calls from "Perry." Near the end, there's a nice moment that echoes the scene from Superman and Lois' wedding, when Batman organized pretty much all of the heroes to protect Metropolis and the world from danger in order to give Superman a night off to focus on his nuptials. Given the recent-ish reboot, it's interesting to see who Jurgens considers all the heroes of the DC universe at the moment, and how he goes about drawing them.
"Never-Ending Battle" by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Alejando Sanchez
The recent Superman creative team of Tomasi and Gleason reunite for a piece offering a sort of prism through which to look at the various takes on Superman that have existed over the last 80 years. It's told in a series of splash pages, with lines of narration appearing on boxes overlaid against each big piece of Gleason art, the last page revealing that it was Superman explaining to Lois and Jon why he was running late to what looks to be a birthday party for him (There's a pretty massive cake there for just the three of them...and Krypto, I guess).
The first splash features a nice image in the foreground of Vandal Savage posing as if in the middle of a particular dramatic, even Shakespearean monologue, although we can't hear what he's saying; we just see Superman's words in the narration boxes. Anyway, apparently Savage captured him and had devised a plan to "weaponize Hypertime," sending Superman through a maze of alternate pasts that will effectively remove him from Savage's timeline forever, so Savage can do his thing, free of all interference from Superman.
It's basically an excuse of Gleason to draw stuff, like Superman in the earliest version of his costume, with the badge-like S-shied and boots reminiscent of gladiator gear, punching up gagsters in the 1930. Or lifting a tank over his head while wearing a Flescher-like costume. The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, "Reign of the Superman"...it's a gallery as story, culminating in Superman escaping Savage's trap. It is perhaps over-written, as Tomasi seems to write much more than necessary in order to justify his lack of presence, I guess, but it has the weird effect of making Superman's story to his wife and kid sound way too flowery for even a long-winded explanation (and were the candles on the cake burning the whole time?).
"An Enemy Within" by Marv Wolfman, Curt Swan and Butch Guice
This doesn't really work for me, and it feels really off and awkward upon reading, but it's a nice idea. Apparently Wolfman hound found four pages of never-published pencil art by Curt Swan, and in order to include a new contribution from one of the definitive Superman artists in this special issue, Wolfman wrote a story to go with the pencils...and, since Superman himself doesn't appear within the story at all, they repurpose an image of Superman from Superman: The Secret Years #2 to use as the fifth and final page.
I wonder if it might have worked better to just publish the unfinished, previously unpublished Swan pages, with a prose contribution from Wolfman about Swan and Superman...?
The Swan pages include a three-page scene in which a woman with a bullhorn--identified as Maggie Sawyer--with the Metropolis Police trying to diffuse a hostage situation at a high school, where a man has a rifle pointed at the head of a student. Then there is a page of the woman sitting in the park, watching as a fellow officer rouses a sleeping hobo from a bench, and he then goes to plug grass from the ground near a bird bath or drinking fountain. And that's it.
In narration and dialogue, Wolfman tells a story narrated by Superman himself. He's in Japan fighting Brainiac robots, but keeping abreast of the drama in Metropolis via the super-senses that make him nigh-omniscient (how he picks and chooses which threats to address given that is one of the themes of the story). Apparently the guy with the gun is being told to kill by voices in his head...voices put there by Brainiac, who is attempting large-scale mind-control on Earth's population, only to find that they are too strong-willed, and fight back against him.
It's an okay Superman story, but it doesn't really match up with the imagery, which isn't too terribly surprising, given that Wolfman was apparently trying to fit a story to the art, which was itself Superman-free.
"The Car" by Geoff Johns, Richard Donner and Olivier Coipel
The title refers to the green sedan that Superman lifts over his head and smashes against a boulder on the cover of Action Comics #1, the image that announced Superman, and the coming of the superhero, to the world way back in 1939. Sometimes writing partners Geoff Johns and Richard Donner re-team for a five-page story about what happened next, as he guy who owned the car has it towed to the shop ("Hey, buddy... ...What'd you hit? An elephant?" "A man. Wearing red underwear.") As the crook walks away from the shop, he finds Superman waiting for him, and the Man of Steel tells him off, asks about his rough childhood, and the compares the man's life to that of the wrecked car ("It's your life, Butch. YOu can fix it... ...or you can junk it").
It's a clever idea for a story, particularly a story for Action Comics #1,000, and it's rather elegantly told.
"The Fifth Season" by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig
Superman catches up with Lex Luthor at the Smallville Planetarium, where the villain tells his archenemy a little, ironic story about his childhood. But, of course, Superman already knows it, as he too was there, and he even saved Lex's life at that point, using his vision powers from the shadows. It's a nice meditation on their relationship with one another, what they have in common, and how they have different ways of looking at the knowledge that they are more-or-less eternally locked in opposition to one another.
"Of Tomorrow" by Tom King, Clay Mann and Jordie Bellaire
It's billions of years in the future, and lifeless Earth is about to be swallowed up by our sun, which is now a red giant. Superman has returned one last time to visit the grave of his parent, Jonathan and Martha Kent, and...talk to them about stuff. He mentions how Lois is still alive thanks to an "eternity formula," and so too is his son Jonathan. For his part, Superman hasn't even gone gray at the temples like his one-time Earth-2 counterpart yet.
It's an okay story, but, on second reading, I was struck by the fact that Superman probably shouldn't have the full complement of super-powers he demonstrates here, if the sun has gone red, should he...?
"Five Minutes" by Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway and Dave McCaig
Unless you want to count Cindy Goff, who wrote the original script for the pages that Curt Swan drew and were then repurposed, than Louise Simonson is the only woman involved with the production of this comic book, which seems kind of shocking for a comic book produced in 2018. I suppose one could argue that if the idea was to get as many people who have worked on Superman comics in the past as involved as possible, then that would inevitably mean getting a whole bunch of dudes plus Louise Simonson together, but then, it's not like Olivier Coipel, Rafael ALbuquerque, Tom King, Clay Mann or Brad Meltzer have done much work on Superman comics over the years. DC really couldn't have asked Tom King collaborator and Supergirl: Being Super artist Joelle Jones to draw King's five-page story instead of Mann...?
Anyway, this was a pretty great little story, and it was a pleasure both to see Simonson working on Superman again and seeing Ordway's version of Superman, Clark and company once more. There's not a whole lot to the story, but it's a nice day in the life--well, few minutes in the life--type of story showing the challenges of a high-stress, deadline-focused job like journalism when it's coupled with the even higher-stress, every-second counts job like being Superman. Perry White might be breathing down Clark's neck to finish a story, but when his super-senses detect a train full of people about to crash, what's he doing to do? Ignore it to type the last few paragraphs of a story...?
"Actionland!" by Paul Dini, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Kevin Nowlan
This one is predictable--particularly given the writer--but still a lot of fun. A gorgeous, shapely red-haired and apparently super-powered woman acts as a tour-guide, ushering tourists into a replica of the rocket Superman arrived to Earth in so she can give them a tour of Superman's life. It all falls apart at the end though, when the villain pulling the strings has trouble thinking of a death grand enough for Superman's final battle against him.
It's at this point that Mr. Mxyzptlk appears, and we learn that the tour guide is Gsptlsnz, as seen in the Dini-written introduction of Mxy into Superman: The Animated Series. Dini pretty clearly uses the Fifth Dimensional imp, with the god-like ability to do whatever he wanted to and with Superman, as a parallel to that of the comic book writer, and while that idea could get tiresome if used too long, it's kind of endearing in such a short story. It certainly helps that Garcia-Lopez is drawing; this is maybe the best-looking story in a book filled-to-bursting with great artwork.
"Faster Than a Speeding Bullet" by Brad Meltzer, John Cassaday and Laura Martin
Oh. Brad Meltzer. First it was femtosecond, now it's attosecond. Can't you just say "split-second"...? Or "less than a second"...? Or "in less time than it takes me to think these words"...? I'm...no physicist, but given how fast Superman is, and how relatively close he is, "attosecond" can't possibly be the right word anyway.
In the Metropolis subway, a guy has a gun to a woman's head, and Superman is on his way to save her when the gun is fired. Will he be able to reach her in time? No, he tells us, as he watches the bullet start to move through the gun and toward her temple, but he flies there at top-speed anyway. He actually does make it, because she does something with her head that adds a variable to the equation--I actually didn't understand this part of the story at all.
It's interesting to note that if you completely removed all of the words from the story, it still reads pretty clearly--maybe even more clearly--and is even more intense and suspenseful. In therms of plotting and lay-out, the drama and conflict are all readily apparent; the words just get in the way.
On the other hand, as superfluous as Superman's narration is--Cassaday makes it abundantly clear that he's racing to reach the woman before the bullet can--if you did remove all the words, you would miss out on a nice busting-of-Superman's-chops exchange, when Superman tells her what she did was brave and she replies, "I just did what Batman would do."
Speaking of superfluous, the last panel has a stack of dialogue exchanges between Superman and Lois Lane, each in their color-coded and initialed narration box style, in which the two talk about his day. Nice sentiments are expressed, but it reads awkwardly, given that Lois isn't even in the story until this point, and that's a lot of dialogue to tack on to the last panel.
"The Truth" by Brian Michael Bendis, Jim Lee and Scott Williams
And, finally, the main event: The first ten pages of longtime Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis' Superman run, drawn by DC co-publisher Jim Lee. It's an action-packed 12-page fight scene which, again, seems appropriate given the title of this particular comic book. Superman is skipping like a stone through the city, having been struck by a monstrous foe who is huge in stature, has an apparently deformed face, wields a weapon that is both awesome and stupid at the same time (it's a battle ax with a sword for a handle) and rants about having destroyed Krypton and having come here to finish the job. He throws Superman around, and is briefly interrupted by Supergirl, who he flings away just as easily.
There's not much to go on here. As a conflict, big, strong-looking cosmic bad guy with a connection to Krypton isn't exactly new and exciting, and since this is all action scene, there's not really enough here to judge, in terms of whether or not Bendis' run on the Super-books is going to be worth pursuing or not (I mean, I'm going to pursue it out of curiosity, but I can't speak for you).
I did like the part where Superman "stopped" himself from hitting a store he was being thrown at. I'm not sure exactly how Superman's flight works, but that seems to fit with what he can do, even though I've never seen him essentially put on the brakes like that before.
There are a few pages where two women who work at a restaurant that Superman gets thrown into banter quite Bendisly that gave me something of a sinking feeling.
So those two elements cancel each other out. I'm still excited.
Rounding out the book are a handful of pin-ups, most of which seem like they might have been in a drawer, rather than created specifically for this occasion. These are by John Romita Jr., Walter Simonson and Jorge Jimenez, and are of Superman being struck by lightning, Superman flying in space and Superman man-spreading while sitting atop a cloud like on the cover of All-Star Superman #1, respectively.
This issue, like the last, is the rare reminder that I should probably be reading Archie in trade rather than in single issues. The current story arc revolves around an event, a big dance, where a bunch of little sub-plots are going to come to some sort of fruition. That this is an event both in-story and out in evidenced by all the characters involved: Pretty much everyone, with even Josie and The Pussycats making a surprise, last-minute appearance (Hey Archie Comics, what's up with their comic? That was really good. Almost as good as Jughead, which, like Afterlife With Archie, has gone MIA). But this issue ends with pretty much the same cliffhanger as the last issue, and one very similar to the one before that. Writer Mark Waid seems to have chosen one of those poorly, or this would read better in a big chunk--as this sort of story in general would, given as how it's centered on a school dance (Like, I can't imagine the spring formal episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 spanning two or more episodes, you know?)
Anyway, Archie not only remains really good, but, thanks to Mok's addition to the creative team, it's pretty much better than ever. Oh, and in this issue Moose and Midge have their meet-cute, which raises a question in my mind: Have Moose and Midge not been an item for the past 30 issues?! Did Reggie miss his chance?
Booster and Skeets--when Blue Beetle Ted Kord isn't available, Skeets makes the best straight man for Booster--are in Gotham City, looking for Batman. But the Gotham City they are in isn't the same one that was in the last 44-issues of Batman. Rather, they are in a nightmarish, alternate Gotham City, where Batman is a gun-toting maniac. What exactly is going on? Well, Booster Gold wanted to get Batman a special gift for his wedding--er, apparently Booster Gold and Batman know each other again--and he decided to alter Batman's timeline in such a way to dramatically improve it...and also turn his life into the sort of nightmare that would make him appreciate his everyday life more. It is, of course, a terrible idea an even worse plan, but that sort of works with this particular character. Or, at least, it would to a point. Which brings us to one of those problems.
The idea of Booster trying to do Batman a dramatic, life-altering favor for a wedding gift only to find out the butterfly effect of it doesn't work out the way he wanted is, in and of itself, a fine idea for a story. But King takes it so far, altering Bruce Wayne's life in such radical ways and re-writing all of reality for the much, much worse--the opening panels feature Hal Jordan blowing his own brains out after holding his ring up to his own temple--and adding the second-step to Booster's boneheaded plan that implies that he wanted to make Bruce Wayne's life horrible on purpose. It's basically a matter of degree; rather than not thinking things through enough, King makes Booster not only a little careless, but truly callous. And by making this Gotham so bad and making clear that Booster pretty much wanted it to go this bad, makes him seem like a psychopath.
The other problem is Booster's inspiration: "That story you and Supes tell. About the orchid thing. Where Supes was trapped in his own mind." He is, of course, referring to "For The Man Who Has Everything," the classic story from 1985's Superman Annual #11, drawn by Dave Gibbons and written by--who else?--Alan Moore (He even says, "You got a wedding, you need a present...but what do I get for the man who has everything?"). So yes, here's Example #357,983 of DC not just ignoring Alan Moore, but constantly recycling his work (granted, this is much, much, much more innocent than Before Watchmen, Doomsday Clock or importing America's Best Comics characters into the pages of The Terrifics and the since-canceled Justice League of America). This isn't offensive so much as another tired riff on a too-often-riffed-upon story (Oddly, King hardly needed Booster to bring up "For The Man Who Has Everything"...although maybe after his recent, apparently-accidental re-telling of "Immortal Beloved," he wanted to make sure he name-checked his sources). I remember finding it kind of cheap when Geoff Johns took Mongul and The Black Mercy from that story to retell it in the pages of Green Lantern in 2006. And I had trouble reading the 2008 arc in Green Lantern Corps by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason that was set on a planet full of Black Mercy flowers, seeing as my eyes kept rolling. I may have screamed at the TV when I was watching the Supergirl episode, "For The Girl Who Has Everything."
Granted, this goes into the Caleb's Personal Pet Peeve file, but with DC more-or-less making trolling Alan Moore a publishing strategy, each and every reference to his relatively limited, decades-old work at the publisher seems like one more paper cut on the dead horse, you know?
As I said, King handles everything as well as he could given a few questionable decisions, but this really struck me as a really good, almost great issue, where one could see exactly where King was falling short.
The bigger surprise, for me at least, was how good the visuals are. I am not a fan of Daniel's work, but it's actually pretty great here. Sure, the cover is a little messier than it should be--between the bat symbol-shaped skyline and the Bat-signal itself, it looks like Batman has two bat symbols on his chest, and his Jokerized Hal Jordan doesn't look too terrible Jokerized--his grin doesn't approach Jokerized levels until the fourth image--but otherwise this is some of the best Daniel art I've seen (John Livesay gets a credit for "inking assists" and Tomeu Morey colors the issue).
I think it helped quite a bit that the script was apparently pretty rigid when it came to the lay-out. There are a lot of close-up panels of Booster in conversation, rather evocative of the old JLI issues, where we'll see the same basic head-and-shoulders image, with subtle changes in the expression and gestures. For example, the explanation of his gift to Bruce Wayne takes place over a nine-panel grid, the "camera" focused on Booster from the shoulders up as he explains. Right after Hal commits suicide, there's a half-page image of his corpse falling from the sky, and then a tier of four panels of Booster cleaning Hal's blood of his goggles.
So this issue is par for the course, really; another very good, almost great issue that could (and should) have been even better.
Similarly, the heroine called in to save the day--see the cover--is an odd choice for the conclusion of this arc, if only because she hasn't really appeared in it at any point prior (and hasn't been in the book all that much in a while). Some effort is made to link her story to that of the villain, but both of them seem weirdly out of place, almost as if this particular issue is from an entirely different draft of the story than all of the previous chapters of the arc.
Can I make a confession? I stopped reading the lyrics to all of the many songs that appear in this book a long time ago. Like, after the first annual. I treat the songs in DC Comics Bombshells/Bombshells United like I do the songs in J.R.R. Tolkein's Middle Earth stuff: Something it's clear that the writer is super-into, but which I just skip over because it doesn't seem to do anything to affect the plot one way or the other.
In the area of epilogues, we also get resolutions to the Green Lanterns' relatively long-running individual emotional freak-outs involving the World's Finest--Superman asked Simon to lunch to get to know him better, Jessica spontaneously kissed Batman--that are both quite satisfying and funny (Although Simon is missing from the covers of both Justice League and the two other League-branded books, which, depending on how or if his absence is addressed, may make it look like Superman really did fire him or that he quite the League because he was so convinced that Superman was about to fire him).
As for the resolution of the fight-y stuff, the explanation of what the heck happened to Wonder Woman specifically is explained a bit here, and she fights for her life but--shocking, I know--does not, in fact, die. I remain completely unconvinced that shrapnel could pierce her skin and threaten her life, but whatever. And, in Africa, the League make a bargain with Deathstroke that results in dispersing the mob safely (The cover is quite evocative of the Meltzer-launched volume of Justice League of America, with the Leaguers all laying around, isn't ? Don't worry, though; they're faking).
I remain a bit disappointed that there are going to be three Justice League books by summer and Priest isn't writing any of them but, on the other hand, I expect the non-Snyder ones to get canceled pretty quickly, so maybe Priest will get to write a second League book within the next couple years. He's certainly good at it.
It might not be too difficult to launch a new book starring the once high-concept team of teenagers had everyone at Marvel left their gloves off the characters after the last of the three volumes of their ongoing series ended in 2009. Were that the case, a new creative team could essentially pick the characters up where they were left by writer Kathryn Immonen and company. But Nico was plucked away from her team to appear in Avengers Arena, Avengers Undercover and then in A-Force. Victor similarly appeared in the extremely short-lived Avengers AI book and, apparently, The Vision (I only found out about the latter thanks to a footnote in this collection, which stated that's where he died). Molly appeared in a few X-Men comics, but only as an adult from a possible future, so that doesn't count. At any rate, the team had been split up, a few of the seemingly have moved on, which means for a new book to start, they would have to be reunited (In that respect, relaunching Runaways in response to a new TV show was a lot different than relaunching Alias as Jessica Jones in response to that TV show.
The new creative team is a good one, consisting of YA fiction writer Rainbow Rowell and artist Kris Anka. Runaways has always been lucky to have good and/or popular writers attached, and Rowell is actually only the fifth (After Vaughan came Joss Whedon, whose influence on Vaughan's dialogue was always readily apparent, then Terry Moore and finally Immonen). I was actually quite happily surprised that Rowell not only correctly diagnosed the problems with relaunching Runaways at this particular point in time--nine years after the kids were last seen, and 15 years after they first ran away from their super-villain parents--and came up with a rather elegant solution.
The surviving members of the original cast--Nico, Chase, Karolina and Molly--have all moved on and grown up, their original reason for banding together and their reasons for staying together now long past. It's just not possible to pretend like all those other series (and those other stories) didn't happen. To drive that point home, Rowell begins the story by introducing a point-of-view character who, like Marvel and most of the readers, desperately wants to just pick up where things were left off, preferably somewhere around the time when Vaughan was still writing the book. Well, I suppose I should say reintroducing, as that character is of course Gert Yorke (Dead no longer means dead, of course, as it did when Vaughan killed her off; that was one of former EIC Joe Quesada's rules that didn't even last as long as Quesada did). Via time-travel, Chase kinda sorta brings the dying Gert back to the present, and Nico uses her magic to heal her. So there's your premise: Gert closes her eyes to die, then wakes up years of Marvel time later to find that her friends are all older and, though it's only been a few years, are almost completely different than they were when she had last seen them. This felt extremely true to me; I remember how disconcerting to find how much me and my friends and our worlds had changed between the summer before my first year of college and the summer after. It really doesn't take long for a group of friends to find what connected them dissipating.
The remainder of the first volume, which collects the first six issues of the series, finds Chase and Nico rather reluctantly joining Gert on a journey to round-up the rest of the team, starting with Karolina and then moving on to Molly, with Victor being picked up along the way (Klara and Xavin's absences are explained, but in passing; given Xavin and Karolina's relationship, her absence is a big deal, which I imagine will be dealt with in a future story). Both visits only reinforce the whole you can't-go-home-again feeling, as Karolina is a seemingly happy,normal college student now and Molly is a seemingly happy, normal high school student living with her grandmother now (The former still has some issues stemming from her traumatic past, the and the latter knows her grandma isn't exactly lawful good, but puts up with her unethical science eccentricities because she's her grandmother).
But because of the narrative demands of the book, the pieces have to go back together, whether they like it or not, and so Molly's grandmother turns out to be pretty villainous--which is maybe convenient, but not unrealistically so. After all, she did raise Molly's parents, who turned out to be evil villains themselves. The rest of the team therefore find that circumstances contrive to get Gert her wish: They have to reunite and save Molly after all.
It feels convenient and a little forced, but, to Rowell's credit, the character's themselves see this, and while they all have mixed feelings of getting the team back together, they are together at the end of the volume. It works here--I do wonder if it might have worked slightly better if Karolina at least decided to stay off the team, though--but I think it won't be until the next volume that we see if a Runaways reunion is actually sustainable or not. Unlike most other superhero groups, these kids didn't form a team to save the world or fight crime or anything. They were very much thrown together, and were united to survive, and mostly just reacted to things thrown at them. They don't have the same sort of tangible reason to stay together, particularly once more than a few of them are 18, that, say, any X-Men team or Avengers or Justice Leaguers might have. Giving them a reason, and making it convincing, will ultimately be the challenger here.
Anka's artwork has always been incredible, and I think it's safe to say this is his best work to date. Depicting the passage of time and how the kids have grown-up--or, in Gert's case, haven't--is an interesting challenge for a Marvel artist, since the way time generally works in the Marvel Universe is that no one is allowed to age, ever, except kids (think Franklin and Valeria), and even then it tends to be at a variable rate. But Anka makes Nico, Chase, Karolina and even Molly look like the years have passed for them all, while still looking like themselves. It's subtle, but strong work, and, I'd argue, something too few mainstream, Big Two artists could even pull off.
Anka manages that while meeting all the other challenges the book offers. Action, drama, emotional "acting" on the part of the characters--Anka does an amazing job on the book. So much so that it's kind of hard to imagine it without him.
Anyway, Supergirl calls Mystery, Inc to her home in Midvale, where she has been haunted by the ghosts of Argo City (specifically those of her dead birth parents). The gang pretty quickly solves that particular mystery, as well as the mystery of how ordinary Earth cat Streaky managed to receive powers so similar to those of Kryptonians-on-Earth. I was actually disappointed with this particular issue, as I was really looking forward to Scooby-Doo's interactions with a super-powered cat. The pair bicker a bit, but they are otherwise rather congenial with one another. Given that the cat/dog dynamic seemed to be the only real hook that this Silver Age-ish Supergirl had in which to interact with the Scooby-Doo cast, it turns into a team-up that feels much more forced than many of the other team-ups with DC super-heroes.