DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Drew Baumgartner and I are two such nerds, and we’ve decided to jump in with a handful of monthly titles. We really wanted to pull out all the nerd stops, so we’re also going to be writing about them here and on Drew’s blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Action Comics while Drew is hosting the discussion of Animal Man.
Patrick: Who cares about Superman?
I imagine, actually, that we could ask this question about both titles we’re reading this month. In the case of Animal Man, it’s a sincere question, but in the case of Action Comics and Superman, the question is rhetorical. The character is an icon, an institution and yet I feel like it takes an event for anyone to give half a shit about him. I include myself in that “anyone” by the by. I liked it when Doomsday killed Superman. I liked Superman’s tenure fighting for the Soviets in Superman: Red Son. I liked Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow as it recounted the “last” Superman story. Those last two examples are the product of exciting new ideas from visionary comic book writers Mark Millar and Alan Moore. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime idea that makes Superman palatable for me – so why bother picking up Action Comics #1 in the first place?
Well, there’s the little issue of its creative team. As a writer, Grant Morrison is never afraid to be bogged down by the fact that he’s writing pop-fiction. If he wants to depict an event that may not literally be happening, but he thinks it’ll be emotionally resonant, then he will – expectations be damned. Sometimes this means his books get a little to up-their-own-ass, even for my liking, but I appreciate the willingness to take the medium in those stranger, more cerebral directions. You’d never see Geoff Johns taking the narrative chances Morrison does. And the penciling is done by Rags Morales, who’s work I’m only familiar with in the context of the 2004 DC crossover event Identity Crisis. Unlike the other Crises, IC doesn’t use ridiculous conceits like parallel worlds or time travel or anything like that. The “crisis” in question is the loss of a loved one and the effect that has on the crime-fighting community. As even the most dramatic moments in the book are rather quiet, Rags had his work cut out for him. He rose to the challenge and delivered really rock solid acting throughout.
Starting this series my expectations were simultaneously very high and very low. Pros: Morrison’s crazy stories, Rag’s expressive art. Con: Superman is boring. Now that I’m four issues in, I think both of expectations have been met – occasionally at the same time.
Issue #1 opens with a young Superman cruising around Metropolis, exposing (and occasionally threatening) white collar criminals. One in particular, Mr. Glenmorgan, is a villain born from current economic climate: a rich bastard who makes life tough for all us working stiffs while making himself richer and richer. Glenmorgan’s got some kickass security (and an in with Metropolis PD), so we’re treated to all of Superman’s usual tricks from the get-go. Leaping tall buildings, catching bullets, super-hearing and neigh immeasurable strength – all of it toned down from the semi-invincible god we’re used to seeing. Clark makes his way home from a night of Wallstreet-busting and is harassed by his land-lady. See, this incarnation of Clark Kent is even geekier than… come to think of it, this may be the nerdiest secret identity I’ve ever seen a super hero take on (and yes, I am including Kick-Ass in that). The character is such a mess it looks like he’s perpetually cosplaying Harry Potter. It’s sorta neat that he wears bulky sweaters to hide his enormous Kryptonian muscles, but goddamn, he looks a mess. Clark is a struggling reporter, working for the Daily Planet’s rival newspaper (Metropolis can support two major newspapers? That seems like wish-fulfillment from these titans of print media) and he has only a passing, somewhat adversarial, relationship with Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane – both of whom do work for the Planet.
The last 8 pages or so pack a lot of “huh?” into them, so I’ll try to write plainly here. Clark calls Jimmy. Jimmy and Lois are about to board a train. The train is wired to take off, causing a runaway-train disaster. The men behind this train sabotage are Mr. Glenmorgan (from whom Clark had discovered the plot), Lois’ father (and army man) and Lex Luthor. Superman, though he is more powerful than a locomotive, is only incrementally so and bringing the train to a full and complete stop takes a lot out of him.
Issue #2 is called “Superman in Chains” and that’s basically all it is. Having apprehended and enfeebled Superman, Luthor performs a series of tests on the strange visitor from another world. In a character defining run, Lex insists on referring to his captive as “it.” Turns out the army has long been working on a “Steel Soldier” program, and while Superman’s appearance has rendered the project sorta irrelevant, they still want to run some experiments on him. Or, whatever. Look, you have to experiment on the alien, right? That’s what happens in these things. What else happens? Superman escapes. Oh and we discover that Luthor is sorta (and I mean sorta) working with Brainiac.
Issue #3 is where this series starts to become something. The action is split pretty evenly between Kal El’s flashbacks to the final moments of Krypton and the adventures of Clark Kent, investigative reporter. In flashback, we’re treated to an abundance of crazy alien vocabulary and and colorful character designs (the image of Krypto above is the only cool picture of that character I’ve ever seen). Back in the present, Clark is hassled by the man for writing articles that expose Glenmorgan’s corruption. And it’s here that I want to take a break from plot summary for some analysis. One of the issues I’ve always had with Superman is that I can’t reconcile his heroing life and his civilian life. Why would a guy with so much power pretend to be so powerless, and yet still try to accomplish something – like a career in journalism? Playing up both the alien aspect of Superman AND the hard-hitting investigative reporter aspect feels like a glitch in the matrix. I guess I’m happy that all parts of Clark’s life are interesting to read, but it does raise a series of questions, most of which start with the phrase “Well then why doesn’t Clark just…” Oh and the issue ends with Brainiac’s machine’s possessing all the robots on Earth, just as they did on Krypton moments before it was destroyed.
Among those robots is a US Army Steel Soldier fused with Sargent John Corben. Some exposition I skipped, but don’t care about, is that Sgt. Corben and Lois have some kind of relationship… look, if Morrison doesn’t care about it, why should I? Anyway, Superman fights off the robots as best he can on his own until he’s joined by Steel – indeed, the cover of this issue brags of the “DEBUT OF STEEL” within. They are successful, naturally, but not before Brainiac does what he does and shrinks and bottles a portion of Metropolis for his personal collection. Not that we need the stakes to be higher, but Lois and Jimmy were in that part of the city. Superman thinks he can take on Brainiac, but he “might need a little help.” And the issue proper ends with promise to conclude this story in Action Comics #7 – so like March.
There’s a weird little coda on the book that retells the big robots-fight from Steel’s perspective and it fills in some holes in his backstory. I don’t know if all editions of the issue came with these extra pages, but my digital copy did. Drew, if yours didn’t, be sure to hop on my comixology account to check it out. I have a feeling that Action will be sticking with Steel for issues #5 and #6 before returning to wrap up the City in a Bottle story.
I’ve never read Action, Detective or Adventure Comics before, so I’m not really used to the idea that the series is going to move off of it’s main hero for a while. As long as something falls under the Metropolis umbrella, I suppose it’s fair game for Action Comics. It’s interesting – this is the only title I’m reading that’s not named after a hero or a group of heroes. The title promises nothing more than “Action,” so who am I to complain when the narrative shifts its focus a little?
I think most of my issues with this series are evident from my plot summary. To some extent, I get really excited by all the bat-shit crazy stuff that’s going on, but I also find it wearying – especially when I read all four issues back-to-back. I think going back to tell the story of young Superman is smart, and there is a lot to be mined of the world reacting him to. We mentioned that that is a peripheral concern in Justice League, but it’s being handled with aplomb here.
But I do have to knock Rags a little. I am having a hard time getting over the lines in these issues. When you see the un-inked, unpainted images that he renders, the detail is staggering and the perspective is jaw-dropping. Sometimes that cleans up really well, but usually, the character’s faces are so full of extraneous lines that they look ugly, busy and messy. As a result, I haven’t seen much of that great acting I know he’s capable of.
I hope I left you with something to talk about, Drew. This is one of the higher rated Superman titles (of which there are 4), does this make you want to check out any of the others or avoid them?
Drew: I’m sorry to say that I’m disappointed with this title, but I may be even more disappointed that I’m disappointed. Grant Morrison is kind of a nerd’s nerd, synthesizing a seemingly random pop-culture tidbits into a pastiche that at times can seem almost Tarantino-esque. He generates pages of backstory other preliminary materials, much of which are collected at the back of his trades, a “special feature” that I geekily look forward to whenever I see his name on a byline. This can serve his stories well, creating universes that are immersive and consistent, but it also runs the risk of causing his stories to disappear-up-their-own-ass, as you so eloquently put it. Unfortunately, his run on Action Comics is clearly falling into the latter category.
Morrison and Morales clearly have a lot of the subject matter, drawing on a ton of Superman history, from an homage of the cover of the original Action Comics #1 in Sergeant Coben’s dossier on Superman, to systematically depicting him being faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Unfortunately, their devotion to Superman’s history makes the story both predictable and overstuffed, and won’t impress readers that aren’t already duly immersed in Superman’s mythology. Like you, my familiarity with Superman is largely limited to the special story-lines that tend to summarize his entire life. Unfortunately, that means they generally tend to cover the same territory: Lois, Jimmy, Luthor, Braniac, etc. We haven’t encountered Kryptonite or Lana Lang yet, and Perry White has only been mentioned, but already the plot feels overstuffed with SIGNIFICANT MOMENTS. I would probably enjoy this a lot more if I had more invested in Superman’s history, but without that connection, the story feels strangely like it’s just going through the motions.
I think you’re right to point out that the name Action Comics requires it to deliver the action, but unfortunately, that seems to be at the cost of the kind of character development we’re so enjoying in other titles. Your Harry Potter cosplay joke is well founded, but I found the obvious cribbing from Spider-Man 2 even more distracting. I suppose the similarities between Peter Parker and a young Clark Kent are inherent — a young, idealistic kid gets a job at the local newspaper, barely earning enough money to cover the rent, masking his secret identity with a air of klutzy nerdiness — but they’re connections that I had made it to this point never having considered, thank you very much, and I’m not sure what the point is in highlighting them here. No matter, though, as there’s no real time to dwell on any of this, as there are action sequences to get to.
I wouldn’t mind all of the action if it was exciting or interesting, but it just isn’t. Morrison is right to acknowledge that the neigh-invincible Superman of recent stories doesn’t make for very dynamic fight scenes, but his solution of making him only slightly less powerful doesn’t really solve anything. Where we might have had a sequence of Superman being shelled by a tank, walking away unscathed, and then upending the tank, we now have an identical sequence, just augmented by a single panel where Superman can say “ow.” This doesn’t make Superman interesting as much as it just makes him look like less of a badass, and doesn’t change the tension of the scene at all. I appreciate the difficult position Morrison is in — changing Superman’s level of power is kind of a catch-22 — but that doesn’t make the action sequences any more exciting.
I’m also with you on not being impressed with the art here. Morales seems to be playing pretty loose with the character models, giving faces a rubberiness that can make them hard to distinguish from one another. My biggest issue, though, is the clarity of the staging. There’s a tendency to show only single characters in frame, such that it’s impossible to tell where they are in relation to each other, which often completely dissipates the tension of the scene. Add to that the fact that the story tends to jerk suddenly from one place and time to another without warning, and it’s not even always clear whether or not two characters are in the same scene (your explanation of just what is going on at the end of the first issue is absolutely necessary). There’s a single panel in issue #3 where we see Clark sitting in his apartment clutching a picture of Ma and Pa Kent, his costume crumpled in the trash. “Im so sorry.” He says, “I tried.” That has all the potential to be a telling and touching character moment, but we’re in and out of it so fast that there’s no time to even fully understand where or when this happened, let alone processing what it might mean for Clark. When he dons the cape again in the next issue, it doesn’t feel like anything has changed, drawing only more attention to the half-hearted aping of Spider-Man 2.
It’s tough. I know good things can be done with Superman, but I think they’re mostly character-based, exploring the weird head-space of being a god among men and wanting so desperately to live and love like a normal person. Unfortunately, Action doesn’t seem to be the title for philosophical ruminations, which is strange to say for a series written by Grant Morrison. In theory, I might be more interested in the Superman title, simply because it may focus more on him than on the action, but the reviews I’ve read aren’t promising. Maybe I should just stick to the special event books I know I’ll like.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Action Comics, Aquaman, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, Swamp Thing