Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: Dark Horse Comics/DC Comics: Superman

This 400-page collection is the latest big, fat, book of crossovers between DC characters and those owned or licensed to Dark Horse Comics. I can't quite figure out how they are organized. For example, this collection includes two Superman/Aliens crossovers, which seem like they could have just as easily appeared in the previously published DC Comics/Dark Horse Comics: Aliens (which did include the Superman/Batman/Aliens/Predator crossover), and the upcoming DC Comics/Dark Horse Comics: Justice League will include two Superman stories. I imagine it has something to do with which publisher technically publishes which collection–note the way the order of which publisher is named varies from book to book–but regardless of the behind-the-scenes organizing principal, these books include a bunch of harder-to-find-then-I'd like crossovers of the past couple decades, many of them quite good comics.

This particular volume features comics from 1995-2002, three of which are in Superman continuity (or in continuity as it existed at the time), with the fourth and final one being an Elseworlds story. Let's take them one at a time, shall we...?

Superman/Aliens by Dan Jurgens, Kevin Nowlan, Gregory Wright and Android Images

This three-issue, 1995 miniseries is among the best of the DC/Dark Horse crossovers, and one of the better inter-publisher crossovers I've ever read. Much of that is due to the skill that went into crafting it, but more still is due to the amount of care that writer/artist Dan Jurgens put into the book.

The Aliens, like the Predators, have become such frequent participants in crossovers due to their extreme flexibility–they're basically just cool monsters to fight–that such comics can often read as extremely lazy. Jurgens, however, brings a real sense of occasion to this story.

He manages to make the story almost as much of an Aliens story as it is a Superman story, and while the superhero is the protagonist of the story, Jurgens carefully sets it up in such a way that the Aliens and their horrifying life-cycle aren't just backdrops to a Superman beat 'em up. Rather, he evokes the sort of lonely setting and the horror/suspense mood that are so prominent in the film franchise, and even uses the single, female protagonist that powered the earlier films...although here she is, of course, teamed-up with Superman.

More remarkably still, not only does Jurgens handicap Superman in such a way that the Aliens pose a real threat to him–most of the story is spent far from Earth, so his solar-based powers are waning like a dying battery throughout, and he must struggle with his refusal to take a life, even the lives of the Aliens–but he instills about as real a sense of danger that can exist in a Superman comic.

At no point did I think Superman was going to die in this comic, but when the near-powerless Superman has an Alien implanted in his no-longer invulnerable chest cavity, I did find myself wondering how exactly he was going to survive (My guess, that he would plunge himself into the sun, burning out the embryo while restoring his own powers, as soon as he returned to the solar system, turned out to be wrong; the reality was much grosser).

Oh, and Jurgens sets this story firmly within Superman's post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint continuity–inter-company crossover or no, this is canon guys–reflecting not only the status quo of the Super-books circa 1995, but also referencing a handful of previous stories from this continuity. Most of these aren't terribly important, although they are referred to in dialogue and asterisked editorial box, but one does play a big role: Superman's early career execution of the pocket universe Kryptonians, as that was when he swore never to kill again, an oath frequently tested by the Aliens (His first fight with a single Alien is actually kind of funny, as he keeps trying to communicate with it while it tries eating his face.)

Reporters Lois Lane and Clark Kent are covering LexCorp's space-division as they recover an alien probe and take it to their orbiting space-station. It's a distress pod of some kind, asking for help, and Superman recognizes the language it's using as Kryptonian. He insists that he and he alone find and help the people who sent it, with the help of LexCorp, who provides him with the space ship to do it in.

The destination? Argo City, a domed city in deep space (far from a yellow sun) and peopled with too-few Kryptonian-speaking humanoids. Superman loads some injured, unconscious residents into his ship and sends it back to the station, asking them to send it back for him (as otherwise he would be stranded here). Sure, his powers are slowly starting to wane, but how dangerous can the place be...?

Pretty dangerous, it turns out, as its swarming with Aliens, and, worse still, the unconscious people he sent back to the space station, where Lois is, are of course harboring gestating Aliens in their chests. At the end of the first issue, Jurgens provides a pretty big shock for his readers at the time: The blonde teenage girl who speaks Kryptonian and is fighting for her survival on Argo City tells Superman that her name is...wait for it...Kara.

That would have been a pretty big deal in 1995, as that would make her the only other survivor of Krypton in the post-Crisis continuity, it would also make her a new version of the original (read: real) Supergirl. The one in DC Comics at the time was the weird sentient protoplasm from a pocket universe one whose back-story just got more and more confusing until DC just let Jeph Loeb restart Supergirl's origin in Superman/Batman a decade or so after this saw publication).

As the series progresses, we learn whether or not this Kara is the Kara, but, more importantly from the stand-point of making a good Superman/Aliens crossover, Jurgens has effectively split the action into two settings, both evocative of the first two Aliens movies. On the space station, the hatched and escaped Aliens stalk Lois, LexCorp's Dr. Kimble and the rest of the much more expendable cast, while on Argo City, Superman gradually loses all of his powers and must face a series of blows to his confidence and optimism: That he can't just punch out the millions of Aliens, that he sent a ship-full of them towards a space station containing Lois and orbiting Earth, that no ship is coming to retrieve him and, ultimately, that he and Kara both have Aliens gestating in their chests.

As unlikely a pairing as the two multi-media franchises may be–seriously, pause and compare the films Superman and Superman II to Alien and Aliens in your mind for a moment–Jurgens makes them fit naturally, and manages to deliver a story that honors the attributes of Aliens while cutting to the core of what makes Superman such a great, aspirational, noble and heroic character.

You know what else is an unlikely pairing? Jurgens and Kevin Nowlan. Jurgens pencils the book, while Nolan inks it, but based on the results, it looks like Jurgens provided fairly full lay-outs and Nowlan finished them. It's a great collaboration, as it looks at once like the art of Jurgens and the art of Nowlan, two very distinctive, very prolific artists whose work is easily recognizable at a glance.

There are therefore a lot of the familiar lay-outs and heroic poses of Jurgens' Superman comics–having drawn Superman as long as he has, Jurgens' work often suggests the "real" Superman in the way that, say, long-time Batman artist the late Jim Aparo's Batman poses and expressions often seem genuine in a way that those of other artists don't–but here the art is all more detailed and smoother, with thicker, bolder black lines.

I enjoy the work of current Superman artists Doug Mahnke and Patrick Gleason, but honestly, I can't remember the last time I read a Superman comic where I enjoyed the artwork this much.

(I suppose it's also worth mentioning how odd it is to read this story after reading Geoff Johns and Jim Lee's first story arc of Justice League in 2011 and early 2012, the story in which Superman and his League allies so cavalierly kill Parademons without a second thought. This story is a good illustration of why that was so strange to see. Here Superman tries to communicate with an Alien before even striking it, and resolutely refuses to pick up a gun and destroy one even at his most hopeless, because a life is still a life. In Justice League, he was tearing apart Parademons that were, until recently, normal human beings, without even stopping to consider what they were.)

Superman/Aliens II: God War by Chuck Dixon, Jon Bogdanove, Kevin Nowlan and Dave Stewart

As is so often–too often–the case, the sequel is not nearly as good as the original. This 2002 miniseries, which retains only inker Kevin Nowlan from the first Superman/Aliens crossover, is as much a New Gods comic as it is a Superman or Aliens fact, Superman and the Aliens both seem like guest-stars in a New Gods comic.

Writer Chuck Dixon has Superman visiting New Genesis, just sort of hanging out with other humanoid super-aliens who can fly and are invulnerable and dress as colorfully as he does, when Darkseid launches a horrible attack. Having discovered the Aliens, Jack Kirby's god of evil impregnates a battalion of his warriors and sends them to attack New Genesis, essentially using them as trojan horses carrying the real weapon, the Aliens themselves.

During the course of the battle, which includes Lightray, Barda and Forager but no Mister Miracle, Orion gets an Alien implanted in his chest. Knowing his time is limited, he decided to go straight for Apokolips, with Superman tagging along. Meanwhile, Barda and her forces try to stave off the invasion of the Aliens that Darkseid rained down on them.

It is, in other words, everything the original Superman/Aliens was not. Here the Aliens are just cool-looking, dramatic monsters appearing in a Superman beat 'em up, but Superman is only one of several heroes doing the beating. If one wonders how Orion survived, I'll spoil it for you, although it should be noted that he should be invulnerable enough to survive in a manner more similar to that of Superman in the original. Basically, Darkseid shows mercy on his son, and uses the Omega beams to destroy the growing Alien. His long-term plan, he explains to lackeys like Desaad, is to instill a sense of indebtedness to his biological son, so that Orion may someday side with him over Highfather.

And, in the stinger ending, if not, well, Darkseid still has a hidden vault full of warriors with face-huggers on them, apparently in stasis to pull out when needed.

The only real pleasure I took in this particular story was the art. I like both Jon Bogdanove, a one-time constant presence on the Superman family of books, and Kevin Nowlan alot, although their styles seem even further apart from that of Jurgens and Nowlan.

Weirdly but understandably, Bogdanove seems to have attempted to town down the Bogdanovicity of his pencil work in an attempt to draw more Kirby-esque, and Nowlan followed his lead. The results are...weird. The New Gods characters all look extremely Kirby-esque, with some panels looking like Kirby himself drw them. Superman is a strange mixture of the thick-torsoed Silver Age Superman with flashes of a primal, angry Kirby face and Bogdanove's normal Man of Steel, and the Aliens look like, well, Aliens.

Dixon's Superman was so changed by his first meeting with these creatures, that he doesn't have any of the moral compunctions about seeing them exterminated that he originally had, and, even if he did, he spends much of the time fighting either alongside Barda or Orion, so it's not like it matters; he's not about to fight Orion to the death to stop the dying New God from turning massive Alien hives into pools of acidic blood.

Other than picking apart the various influences and letting one's eyes surf along the curious braiding of various art styles, there is still some pleasure to be had in the artwork. Dixon and company provide a few interesting images, particularly the scene that follows the mass-birthing of the Aliens from Darkseid's invasion troops, where we see a panel in which the just-born, snake-form of the baby Aliens cover the ground like a carpet.

It's a disappointing read, but then, it hardly matters in this particular collection, as it is but one of four stories, and it is sandwiched between two such great ones.

The Superman/Madman Hullabaloo by Mike Allred and Laura Allred

The second Aliens crossover is followed by Madman creator Mike Allred's three-issue, 1997 miniseries in which his signature creation meets the original and greatest superhero.

Allred was one of the greatest superhero comics artists of the time, and he remains as such–if anything, he's gotten better. His style is the sort that no longer seems as sought after by the Big Two as perhaps it should, but he he has a great line, and produces work that is clean, simple, just-flat-enough and classic-looking...more timeless than nostalgic. When I close my eyes and imagine "comic book art," its Allred's style that immediately springs to mind.

While the artist has long since done a great deal of work for both DC and Marvel, this was a rare and early example of Allred drawing non-Madman, non-Allred creations, and it is pretty glorious.

The plot finds Superman and Madman both aiding their respective bearded scientist friends in researching some weird energy at the same time, the result being a sort of cosmic collision in which they pass through one another and then materialize in one another's dimension.

Superman is in Madman's body, with an amalgamated costume (Allred is one of the great costume designers, and would have been up their with Alex Ross and Darwyn Cooke if I were Dan DiDio and I was trying to decide which artist to let redesign the whole DC Universe for The New 52; DiDio, obviously, went with Jim Lee instead), lands in Snap City. Madman, in Superman's considerably handsomer and more powerful body, lands in Metropolis, also with an amalgamated costume (here somewhat resembling a leather jacket-less '90s Superboy, but with more prominent yellow, and a strip of Madman-mask, so we'd recognize him).

While messing around on one another's Earth and meeting one another's supporting cast (Lois Lane and Professor Hamilton both get pretty big roles, while pretty much everyone from the Madman comics of the time show up), they figure out what's going on and how to fix it. Meanwhile, the collision dispersed bits of Superman's powers throughout both universes, so once restored the pair and their pals must track down individuals exhibiting super-strength and suck those powers out of them with a mad science device.

The root of all this madness? Mr. Mxyzptlk (Here pronounced "Mix-Yez-Pittle-Ick" rather than "Mix-Yez-Spit-Lick," as it was pronounced by Gilbert Gottfried on Superman: The Animated Series, which is how I've been pronouncing it since.)

While technically "in continuity," Allred's Superman and Lois are perfectly classic in their look and characterization, so that with only minor alterations to their clothing they could be Bronze Age, Silver Age or maybe even Golden Age Superman and Lois, or from various media. It's amazing what a good handle Allred had on the characters' essence, and the way he's able to boil them down so perfectly.

There's a neat scene where Madman asks Superman about God, and even a bit of a moral as Mxyzptlk challenges Madman to a magic-free challenge that can only be won physically. It's...well, it's pretty great.

The comic ends with a "The End?!" a gag referring to Dr. Flem's use of Madman as a sort of living crash-test dummy, but it's actually kind of disappointing that it did indeed turn out to be the end. At least we've since gotten to see Allred draw much of the DC Universe in his issue of Solo, and Metamorpho in the pages of Wednesday Comics and so many characters from the original Batman TV show on the covers of Batman '66 and...

Superman/Tarzan: Sons of The Jungle by Chuck Dixon, Carlos Meglia and Dave Stewart

The 2001 three-part miniseries Superman/Tarzan: Sons of The Jungle adhered to the popular (to the point of default) formula for Superman Elseworlds stories of the time: What if the rocket that carried baby Superman from the exploding Krypton to the planet Earth landed in some other place or some other time? Here the rocket crashes not only in late 19th Century Africa, but into the pages of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan origin story.

So just as the mutineers were about to strand Lord Greystoke and his pregnant wife Alice on the coast, they see a fireball from the sky and take it as a sign not to do so, instead taking them to the next port. The fireball was, of course, Superman's baby rocket. And so it is Kal-El rather than Tarzan who is discovered, adopted and raised by the apes, while the-man-who-would-have-been-Tarzan is born in English society, although he becomes a mopey, Byronic figure, aware that something's wrong, that he's not where he's supposed to be, and so he travels the world in a funk, looking for his place.

The characters' stories are too powerful to be altered for long, however, and the original Superman and Tarzan narratives gradually but inexorably reassert themselves. When Greystoke joins a aerial zeppelin expedition of the ruins of a lost city in Africa, an expedition covered by Lois Lane of the Daily Planet and her assistant Jane Porter,
they are shot down by Princess La and her people.

Superman, decked out in a leopard-skin loincloth with a red "S" drawn on his bare chest, comes to the aid of the white-skinned people who fell from the sky. Along the way, Lois falls for this powerful man of action, while Lord Greystoke and Porter ultimately decide to stay behind in Africa, Greystoke finally having found what he was missing there.

So, at the end, Superman becomes Superman (albeit a bit earlier than usual, and thus the costue he wears for a single panel at the end in Metropolis looks much more Flash Gordon than superehro, and Tarzan becomes Tarzan.

Of particular interest is a prose piece entitled "Sons of the Jungle?" written by Robert R. Barrett, identified as "Edgar Rice Burroughs archivist." He recounts the relationships between the two heroes who would eventually both become stars of prose stories, comic strips, comic books, film and television animation, highlighting Superman co-creator and writer Jerry Siegel's overture to Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1934, which included a treatment for a John Carter of Mars adaptation in "cartoon-form," to run alongside the Tarzan Sunday strips. Burroughs, as per policy, never even read the letter. Barrett also address Burroughs' reaction about bringing Tarzan from his jungle setting to the modern, civilized , urban world, which would of course have made him into more of a Superman-like figure, to which Burroughs objected, saying that if Tarzan could not "out-superman Superman...he might suffer by comparison."

As interesting as all this is, I particularly like the paragraph devoted to this comic book series, in which he says that Dixon's "quite...entertaining" story is "interestingly illustrated by the team of Carlos Meglia and Dave Stewart."

"Interesting" is certainly one way to refer to Meglia's art, which is unlike any generally applied to either Superman or Tarzan. Highly cartoony and animated, to the point that the static characters sometimes appear to lurch or launch across the panels, Meglia's arwork is exaggerated as it can be while still being readable. I like it–although I'm not so sure about his obsession with drawing individual strands of hair on a man's arm or chin–but it's certainly not what I would have thought to apply to a crossover of these two characters. I can't help but imagine what a Superman/Tarzan comic drawn by the likes of Joe Kubert circa 2001 might have looked like, for example.

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