Friday, June 28, 2013

Action Comics (vol. 2) Issues 9-12; 0: "Bulletproof"

Welcome to the second part of my series on Grant Morrison's revamp of Action Comics! Last time we covered Superman's first showdown with his two greatest adversaries, as well as Superman and the Legion taking on the Little Man's Anti-Superman Army for the only piece of kryptonite in existence. Those issues formed a more or less cohesive story, but here is where Morrison's larger second story begins to take shape. Many of Morrison's most robust themes with regards to Superman: his status as a trans-universal archetype; the role of mass media and corporate branding on him; his impossible enemies; his essential humanity and heroism; get a more robust treatment here than they did in the first segment. Let's dive in.

Issue 9: "The Curse of Superman"

This issue seemed to be another digression at first-- a discussion of creator rights, corporate domination, and short-sighted political idealism smuggled into a backdoor pilot for his long discussed Multiversity series, but in coming back a year later, this issue is the one that feels the most like a microcosm of the entire series. What is essential to the superhero beyond his status as a corporate spokesperson? Why does he endure? Morrison has no pat answers here, frustratingly so for a writer who has had so much to say about this kind of conceptual work in New X-Men and JLA, but he is frightfully clever in this issue.

Consider the reappearance of his "Obama-Superman" from Final Crisis, a year earlier. The relentless optimism that character seemed designed to evoke is tempered by the first real indicia that the author(s) understand how scary a Superman who felt entitled to the office of President would be. This President can execute his OWN drone strikes. That said, he exists to serve a story function first and foremost: a Superman who is close enough to our own that we freely recognize him as partaking in the archetype, but different enough to remain distinct and justify his existence.

Confronting this new Superman are three distinct forces: a Lex Luthor who is much further along in his evolutionary process than our own, a Lois Lane who has sold out to the Little Man unknowingly and created a monster but who retains her essential heroism, and Superdoom a tulpa corporate Superman and who is rendered by stooges as "...a violent, troubled, faceless anti-hero concealing a tragic secret life, a global marketing icon." Which seems as much a condemnation of bloodthirsty comic book fans as it does the mass media corporations that control them.

The heroes win themselves a temporary respite, but the question has been raised: Can Superman exist as something more than a brand name and logo? The rest of Morrison's run is an attempt to find not so much closure as a possibility space for a real (in a psychological sense) Superman to survive both the original sin that created him (Siegel and Shuster sold him for a mere 200 dollars and watched their creation birth a media empire while losing all control over him) and the continuing exploitation by people who have no interest in what the icon represents and seek to use him as a distraction from, and not a call to solve, the world's problems. Morrison is recasting the entire world as a superhero comic, and it's daring if not totally realized work.

Issue 10: "Bulletproof"

A senseless murder, which Morrison has the good taste to merely allude to, triggers a crisis of conscience for the Man of Steel even as he's being hunted by the Little Man's latest pawn, Nimrod the Hunter. When a former associate of Glen Glenmorgan blows himself up to try and kill Clark Kent, Superman decides to use the incident as an opportunity to excise his human alter ego, and continue on as Superman 24/7.

This issue is the inverse of Issue 3, whereas there the Superman persona had been tarnished and attacked and Clark seemed willing to abandon it, here the real evil that humans are capable of, and the rest of the Justice League's hesitation to tackle it lead Clark to a huge blunder-- renouncing his human identity. Superman even tells a murderer he'll let "your kind" deal with him, which is a sign that he's in a bad place emotionally. Fitting that his Justice League compatriots seem all too human in their brief appearance; they're more concerned with their own secret identities (Batman) and families (The Flash) than with the systemic causes of human tragedy.

If the first portion of this run saw Clark learn that Superman must be a symbol and not a bully, this portion will teach him that he cannot become a symbol at the expense of being a man. The retooled Captain Comet who is shown coming to Metropolis will serve as a stark portrait of a "superman" who is unburdened by the concerns of the average man, and seeks to impose his will on the world writ-large. The subplot of Nimrod coldly stalking Superman through his life as Clark Kent, all the while not realized that Clark has picked up the tail and is baiting him in is satisfying emotionally, but not as interesting for the purposes of this analysis.

Superman has made his second mistake, and the next two issues will comprise the penance for it.

Issue 11: "Superman's New Secret Identity"

Rags Morales tells us the whole story in just a few pages: Superman handles alien machine xenoformers called Metalek and rebuilds the housing development destroyed in the battle, he doesn't even stop to say a few words before racing crosstown to his new secret identity as a firefighter named Johnny Clark, who keeps his coworkers at a distance. He smiles once, during a particularly tense escape from a burning building. He's Superman 24/7 now, and even though he loves saving people something doesn't feel right and Clark Kent's absence is palpable.

Superman's conference with Batman is refreshing, to say the least. After a frustrating conversation with the Justice League last month, Batman and Superman are working to help one another and try to understand the other's predicament. Morrison in a very short sequence helps us remember why these two are such a natural pairing in the first place. Best friends aren't carbon copies of one another, they're complimentary pieces and they can respond to one another with respect and sympathy. Good to see.

We're introduced (or, like Nimrod and Metalek reintroduced from Issue 5) to Lois' niece Susie Thompkins, who is no ordinary little girl. She's drawing a beautiful Moebius pattern, and talking about giving her hamsters  every name in the world at the same time and what it would sound like backwards. Not so subtle confirmation that it's the Fifth Dimension is at the heart of all this.

Meanwhile, Superman is onboard the Fortress trying to investigate why all these alien powers are coming to Earth. His Brainiac AI informs him that Earth is on a list of doomed worlds, and all the previous worlds on the list were destroyed, however Krypton which was on the list was not destroyed by The Multitude, because it was beaten back by Jor-El who "did the impossible." The issue closes with Captain Comet (who was introduced in the previous issue) attempting to abduct Susie (who identifies as a "neo sapien") who is too valuable to lose in the coming destruction of Earth. As Superman races to the scene in his new civilian identity, his fire truck is commandeered by a Metalek and it slams into Lois Lane. Superman is then subdued by Captain Comet's "4 lobed post human brain" as we close.

This is part two of a three part story so we'll save the overall analysis for...

Issue 12: "Return of the Forgotten Superman!"

A tour de force.

Superman is awakened from a perfect dream world by his own subconscious, which reminds him that Lois Lane is dying and he's being attacked by a crowd that's mind controlled by Captain Comet. Comet lets Susie read his mind, from which we learn his origin as an inhuman Superman, and meet the Oort-kind who scour the galaxy to preserve neo sapiens like Susie. Superman recovers from Comet's control, and empties his mind in order to finally beat him back. He then rushes Lois to a hospital, reads every medical textbook ever published in ten minutes, and performs life-saving surgery. Batman then arrives with a flash drive, which Superman reads without the aid of a computer and advises him to find a way to bring Clark back. Superman confers with Mrs. Nxyly who uses Fifth Dimensional magic to restore Clark Kent so that no one will remember his "death." She then informs Superman of the true threat all along: Vyndktvx, a 5th dimensional sorcerer has "closed his jaws around" Superman and there's very little time left. The issue closes with the Little Man, now named, offering Susie a deal...


Superman finally breaks through the negativity and second guessing that has plagued the last couple issues and once more recommits himself to his mission. in doing so, he defeats Captain Comet who is an obvious "dark mirror" for Superman. Facing down Comet, who was cast out by his parents and thus regards humans as animals, shows Superman once for all how strongly Clark Kent animated his values and priorities. Captain Comet is the conduit through which Superman remembers what was noble and wonderful about Clark, and the experiences that shaped. never once is all this explicitly stated, it's just the beautiful confluence of events that Morrison has put together.

The operation scene reminded me of the Silver Age Superman, in the best possible way. No fear, no "it's out of my hands", he takes the situation into his own hands quickly and confidently and does the job better than the best human could. Superman, as originally conceived, was "a Hercules in strength and a genius in intellect" one of the things that makes Grant a favorite 'round these parts is that he remembers the second part is as important as the first.

The ending not only contains a wonderful panel where Mrs. Nxyly shows Superman her "true" form, but also finally lays the situation out: for the first time, Superman is confronted by a 5th Dimensional entity who is well and truly EVIL. Not mischievous, not irritating, but a being that's coming to destroy him and everything he loves and has had time to prepare to do so. Which naturally brings us to...

Issue 0: "The Boy Who Stole Superman's Cape"


DC in its infinite wisdom decided that it would celebrate the one year anniversary of its reboot by putting out an entire month of "Zero Issue" prequel stories. So, just as Morrison is building narrative momentum, we jump all the way back to before Action 1 to see how the whole thing began, but with the benefit of everything we've learned so far.

Surprisingly, what could have been a disaster is the single best issue of the run since 5 and 6, and the credit has to go to Ben Oliver who did the art for this month's main story. His hyper real watercolors make the incredible moments, like Superman's cape breaking a butcher's knife, feel beautiful and cinematic. Morrison plays against the recent stories, and returns to the almost Golden Age redux tone of Issue 1 in a smaller story about Superman's first adventure, battling Glen Glenmorgan and domestic abuse while being hotly pursued by Lois Lane. The pure origin stuff we've seen before (though I confess I love that the issue begins with Clark ordering the first Superman T Shirts), but it's a warm and friendly familiarity that I don't mind. The classic beats can be revisited, if there's enough new for it to not be a simple rehash. Highly recommended.

Conclusion: This was a much more difficult piece to write than my review of Act 1 was, because the middle portion always begins in medias res and hints at something greater to come rather than standing on its own terms, but this is still the work of a prodigious artist. The simple moments of inspiration that Superman is capable of really shine through here, from rebuilding the destroyed housing after fighting Metalek to stopping the "powerful locomotive" from running over the boys in the zero issue, Morrison never forgets that Superman's standard of heroism is higher than any other. It's not enough to beat the bad guys and preserve the status quo-- Superman is always building towards a better world, by helping us see that it's possible to live in one.

What's also truly exciting is that Superman is facing down a 5th Dimensional threat that is far more subtle and insidious than any he has previously faced. Morrison may be the one living comic writer who could orchestrate an assault on Superman through space and time that is this vast and far reaching, and he's merely hinting at a foe whose mastery is so great that Superman is for the first time truly vulnerable.

Final Part coming soon, guys.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Big Announcement for LOSF

Starting this Monday and every Monday thereafter, LOSF will feature a regular column from me detailing and reviewing each issue of The Death of Superman storyline!

From Doomsday's first appearance in Man of Steel 17, to the final conclusion in Superman 83 I'll take a look at the best selling comic story of all time issue by issue, week by week, just as it appeared in newsstands.

If you always wanted to read this story, check it out along with me. For those who loved it when it first came out, give it another read. This is the story that, for better or for worse, defined American comic books in the 1990's, and it's getting the most in depth review we've ever done here at LOSF!

If there's a series, run, or selection of stories you'd like to see catalogued in this fashion next, please let me know in the comments thread!

Superman 400: "The Living Legends of Superman"

The single best comic ever produced by DC Comics, EVER.

Superman 400 is an exploration of the concept of the mythic hero, the historical figure, the person of interest as their story travels down through time and is received by further generations. This is Elliot S! Maggin's opportunity to fully flesh out his mythology of Superman's future, aided by the greatest team of artists to ever appear in a single issue of a comic. Seriously, check out this roster:

Joe Orlando; Howard Chaykin; Brian Bolland; Jack Kirby; Al Williamson; John Byrne; Jack Davis; Frank Miller; Leonard Starr; Walt Simonson; Marshall Rogers; Bernie Wrightson; Wendy Pini; Will Eisner; Mike Kaluta; Steve Ditko; Mike Grell; Klaus Janson; Moebius; Jim Steranko (writing his segment as well); Bill Sienkiewicz and Jerry Robinson. WITH an introduction by Ray Bradbury.

With a talent roster like that, you know it's time to just dive right in and see what we have. Please note, that because this issue is presented as an anthology we'll be doing capsule reviews, rather than a single essay which connects all these disparate parts, so that I can do justice to everything on it's own terms.

- As you can see above, Howard Chaykin's cover is a depiction of Superman forged directly from the souls of everyone who has ever loved him. Just amazing work.

- The framing story expresses the twin ideas of the piece: That time is a fixed point in time and that legends do not originate in a vacuum, but are animated by the people who transmit and receive them in powerful, simple, terms. This is just a wonderful metaphor for the continued creation of comic books through the ages, and it's expressed powerfully without being too "on the nose." Beautiful work.

- Wow.

- There aren't enough Jack Kirby Superman images out there.

- The next piece is a wonderful yarn concerning a futuristic flim-flam man's tall tale about being saved by Superman in space, and discovering his "super serum" which he's now willing to sell. It's accompanied by drop dead gorgeous art, and it's a fun yarn. A comedic piece to whet our appetites for the more serious stories to follow. It doesn't make any less lovely to read, but it's not the sort of story that benefits from in depth review. Just read it.

- Interesting to see how Byrne saw Superman, just a couple years before he became the architect of his world. He's a little younger here than he looks in Byrne's origin for him a couple years later.

- Maggin teams with Frank Miller for the next segment which uses the Pre-Crisis concept of "Earth-Prime" (which is literally OUR Earth) for its springboard. Basically, scientists in the far future develop a device to obtain relics from parallel dimensions, and today they have obtained an episode of The Adventures of Superman 50's TV show from our world, and will use it to determine the age old secret of Superman's true identity. The debate between the reporter (who is a descendant of Jimmy Olsen) and the scientists over the accuracy of the evidence and the speculation concerning who Superman really was (it seems the majority opinion was on and off Superman baddie and Darkseid lackey Morgan Edge) feels like gentle mockery of the "debate" concerning Shakespeare's authorship. Great stuff.

- How many times can I say something's incredible?

- Marshall Rogers illustrates an offbeat story where Superman's indestructible costume allows a simple vagrant to incite a revolt against an oppressive regime. Superman, even without being present, is such a powerful symbol that he can rip whole communities out of apathy. An interesting inversion of the idea that superhero comics are fundamentally a "distraction" from the real world.

- Powerful, dynamic, work from a true master.

- The next story clocks in at just three pages as we watch two college professors in a space school argue about whether Superman was actually real. Nothing masterful, but the point being made that history fails to capture the true greatness of our finest heroes. Fun.

- Mike Kaulta's trademark style animates a neat slice of life from a far future Earth where children imagine themselves as a Superman, who they have subtly conflated with Batman (though he is never mentioned). Makes the point that the methodology of Superman is not nearly as important as the concept of Superman, which will always endure.

- Of course, Ditko makes the letter on the college sweater an A. Of course.

- Striking.

- Maggin's best story involves a futuristic seder meal for his Superman holiday Miracle Monday. Superman himself makes his only appearance in these stories, and is delighted to discover that he's become a kind of post-modern Elijah. The final evolution of probably the essential Jewish-American character. Not just great Superman, but truly great science-fiction.

- Very few images of Superman are haunting, this is one of them. From French legend Moebius.

- Steranko contributes the finale, where Superman and most of his descendents have transcended their physical form, and allow Superman's final descendent to stop the heat death of the universe and restore the universe's capacity for Life. Probably Steranko's greatest work, and that covers A LOT of ground.

Conclusion: This would be a satisfying final issue for Superman, and it doesn't contain Lois; Clark; the Daily Planet; the Legion; and barely contains Superman himself. Incredible, incredible. It places the Superman myth in incredible and varied contexts and makes the mind and spirit soar like truly great science fiction does. It gives you world after world that you want to live in.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Interlude: Superman, Lunchboxes, and the Most Important Thing in the Whole World

Superman isn't real.

That's what they tell me, anyway.

All Star Superman is a story filled with so many wondrous moments that it's difficult to single them out, but one in Issue 10 has never left me. Superman is well and truly dying, and as he compiles his will and tends to his affairs he wonders whether humanity will be able to exist without him. Can we save ourselves from our own basest urges? So, he creates an infant universe which will live and die in what are merely a few days of his time. As the comic book progresses the narrative splits between Superman's actions in one day and the progression of history through the millennia in Earth Q; we see cavemen, religious thinkers, Nietzsche, until the piece comes together in this panel which manages to be haunting and thrilling.

I don't want to get into all the specific textual implications of this panel rather, I want to talk about why it works so well. There's always been something about Superman, even when he wasn't my favorite character, that was so much more primal than any of the other super heroes. it's hard to put into words, but I think it's the absence of emotional gimmicks. He's here-- and he wants to do good because he can. It feels like real myth where the hero is singled out by virtue of being so much greater than his fellows, and in this case the absence of the usual traumas associated with superhero origins actually works to Superman's benefit. Just as villains who are evil for evil's own sake take on a truly grand, operatic quality so too are heroes who are good for its own sake.

At first the character's goodness was a hard-edged thing: innocents were defended, criminals were harshly punished. He was as swaggering and physical as any adventure hero. As the character developed, the writer's conception of better became more sophisticated. Superman could not simply be better by virtue of his superhuman power and having the right ideals, his methods, his home(s), his past, his future (and the times when they overlapped), his friends, his enemies were all elevated. Superman stories of the 50's and 60's, in their juvenile ways, actually examined the question of what it meant to be the ideal of humanity at the same time you were fundamentally distanced from it. To borrow words from my youth he was "fully god and fully man."

The slightly paradoxical element of all this rambling, is that the more anti-real he became, the more outlandishly honorable he is presented, the clearer the essential message he projects becomes.

More than Green Lantern or Captain America, or even the X-Men, (all wonderful characters in their own right) Superman is a wonderful and poetic archetype whose mission is to express to us the most essential ethical truths we know. He exhibits a moral standard, which helps inform our daily lives.

There's a certain cynicism about comic book characters, about how marketable and commercial they've become, but no media blitz, or endless exploitation, or lousy movie can snuff out what is good and pure and true about Superman. that's what this site is truly about.

Long live Superman.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Superman Unchained 1: "The Leap"

I normally reserve this space for comics which are good, or at the very least interesting failures. However, this is DC's prestige Superman project led by it's biggest exclusive artist (who is part of management) and its A list writer. It was marketed specifically to capitalize on the success of Man of Steel, and is intended to be both an introduction to the contemporary Superman, and a high concept, high energy adventure for loyal Superman fans.

I'm not sure it succeeds on those terms.

The story is pretty thin, and feels like the first issue of a new run on Adventures of Superman in the early 2000's. It's dated, bland, stuff that I must have read a million times before. Point by point:

- I have no problem with the appropriation of Nagasaki for this comic's first scene, in theory. Some very fine science fiction authors have shown us that alternate history can be a springboard for great stories. However, real tragedies should be used with some real respect. You don't have the small Japanese boy who's about to be atomized by the weird blue energy man call out his own version of "It's a bird..." That makes you look emotionally tone deaf and exploitative. What did we gain from this scene that couldn't have been implied?

- The showcase sequence for Superman is problematic. Snyder borrows Jeph Loeb's trick of having Superman recall an anecdote from childhood that serves as a metaphor for what he's doing at that moment. I've seen this done a lot, but it's not a cardinal sin to borrow a successful beat from another writer. What is call for penance is the art: stiff, generic, hampered by a silly poster gimmick that borders on a real embarrassment. One side requires you to find the text box to know which way to hold it, and other is an impact shot with no force or visible effort. Not a disaster, but not what I'd expect from the DC A-team. The rest of the rescue is played big, but there's a giant missed opportunity as we are let in on Superman's thought process...only to find that he thinks exactly the same way you or I would. Doesn't this man's mind move at a million miles an hour? Haven't we any more insight than this?

- Superman recognizes the MO of bringing down satellites from one of Lex Luthor's term papers, so he goes to confront Lex as he's being transferred from his one man SuperDuperMax from Lobdell's recent issues on Superman to Gen Pop at Stryker's. Lex is shown here as the stupid person's idea of the world's smartest man. He's reading the Iliad (in translation, which doesn't seem right, and I suspect was done because Jim Lee can't be bothered to research what Ancient Greek letters look like), and when Superman attacks the copter he folds two of the pages into an origami skyline of Metropolis to show Superman what he's been working on. He exudes neither menace nor charm, and seems altogether like a wayward professor with delusions of grandeur and a taste for arts and crafts. It would have made a lot more sense if he had been absent mindedly doodling his new invention in the margins, but whatever. Other than mentioning the terrorist group Ascension for the second time in four pages this does nothing.

- The scene with Lois and Jimmy is just badly constructed. This scene exists to give two vital pieces of information: To explain Clark Kent's job status to new readers and to reveal to Clark that persons unknown saved one of the satellites he had given up on. It's crammed with so much unnecessary detail visually and textually that we're in danger of losing it. Less is more. Also, I got that Ascencion was important the first time, Scott, you don't have to keep mentioning them to me.

- Superman investigates the lost satellite, is fired on by an American sub, and we learn that the military has the Superman from Nagasaki in that location. Can anyone write an actual cliffhanger anymore? That's just a development, not something that makes me count the days till Issue 2, AND it's info we got on Page 3. Sloppy, lazy, writing.

- A two page epilogue (that Jim Lee couldn't be bothered with) reveals the crucial information that Perry White has ancestral binoculars that no longer work, and burned up man pulled from the ocean by a fishing trawler wants to see Lois Lane. Thrilling.

Conclusion: Events like this settle in the consciousness of readers and will help them determine just who and what this new Superman is to be. It's nice of Jim Lee and Scott Snyder to have made this one bland enough to escape notice, then. DC have had two tries at defining this new Superman in the almost two years since his debut in Justice League 1: Morrison's run on Action Comics and Lobdell's H'el on Earth storyline. Those two stories aren't playing on the same field with one another in terms of quality, but at least they were big bold adventures that took chances and felt fresh. This is yesterday's news for the Man of Tomorrow.

Not recommended.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Superman (vol. 2) 2: "The Secret Revealed!"

Before I get into the meat of it, I want to thank Chris Meaux for his kind words about our blog on his podcast Superman Lives! and implore you to check that podcast out because he's absolutely doing an outstanding job. Here's a link.


"May you find what you're looking for."
- Chinese curse

Lex Luthor is one of the five or so essential super-villains in American comics. Frighteningly intelligent and continually dangerous, he is, to steal from Raymond Chandler, "not so much a character as a state of mind." He is so confident, dangerous, and prepared that we suspect that he has chosen evil simply because he will not accept second place for anything. If Superman is THE friend to humanity, he will be THE enemy, because in whatever course he takes he must be the definite article. John Byrne understood this implicitly, and while lesser writers wrote he and Marv Wolfman's rebooted "tycoon" iteration of the character as a rich man's Kingpin, Byrne recognized exactly what he was to be: Satan, in a three piece. Perhaps no story demonstrates just who and what the new Luthor was to be than the second issue of the revamped Superman title, "The Secret Revealed."

The story opens with Luthor sifting through videotape of Superman sightings and noticing a distraught redhead (who we recognize as Lana Lang) in the crowd every time Superman shows up, until six months ago. Luthor orders his organization to identify the woman and track her down, and intimidates his project manager, Amanda McCoy, into joining him for dinner that evening. Then he joins scientists who are trying to extract the Kryptonite heart from the freshly retooled Metallo, ignoring their warnings about possible K radiation poisoning, and asks about their delay. The scientist informs Luthor that Metallo possesses a human brain, and removing the Kryptonite will kill him. After Metallo confronts Luthor for interfering in his fight with Superman in the previous issue, Luthor informs him that "the killing of Superman is a pleasure reserved for [Luthor]". With that, Luthor coldly rips the Kryptonite from Metallo's chest, apparently killing him.

We continue by following a pair of Luthor's thugs in Smallville. Luthor is digging for any information he can on Superman, and he's reasoned that Clark Kent, the reporter who broke the big scoop about who he is, might have some connection to him. The tough-guys tranq Ma and Pa Kent (!), ransack the place, find Ma Kent's Superman scrapbook, and kidnap Lana Lang on the way out. When Luthor, at dinner with Amanda, is horrified by the news that his goons have brought a random woman back to LexCorp, until he recognizes Lana from her photo. Luthor authorizes Lana's torture to discover her connection to Superman.

In six pages, this new Luthor is introduced in bravura fashion: he attacks Superman's closest friends and family, gains the means to Superman's physical destruction, and is well on his way to discovering Superman's secret identity. He's come precariously close to checkmating the Man of Steel, and our hero isn't even aware of the game. He's shown to be an expert at intimidation, and utterly apathetic to the lives of others. How could a mere human threaten Superman? A better question is how could this one NOT?

The second act is given over to Superman's response to this attack which is ultimately ill-considered and emotional, as he believes his parents to be dead. Lex debuts the Kryptonite ring, which would become such an important element of the character in the Roger Stern/Dan Jurgens years, and mocks Superman to his face. Lex is absolutely rolling, here and it's rare to see any comic book hero so completely outclassed by his arch-nemesis that it's a little disconcerting. Superman returns home to find his parents okay, and lick his wounds from his first real defeat.

The final pages are the punchline of this fantastic issue: Lex is convinced that there is a relationship between Clark Kent and Superman. He feeds all the known data into the giant computer that Amanda McCoy has invented, right down to the fact that Clark Kent never missed a single day of school from sickness. The computer comes back with the obvious answer...


McCoy is blown away by the machine's "flawlessly logical" conclusion, but Lex remains unimpressed. The next piece of dialogue is so expressive of Lex's character and so perfect for the situation that I have to just quote it in full for you...

"Logical? Is it? To a machine, perhaps. Yes...a soulless machine might make that deduction. But not Lex Luthor! I know better! I know that no man with the power of Superman would ever pretend to be a mere human! Such power is to be constantly exploited. Such power is to be used! [...] You have failed me, Amanda. This conclusion is utterly useless. Remove it from my computers at once! And then, remove yourself!

I have no place in my organization for people who can't see the obvious!"

And what has been a relentlessly bleak episode in the life of Superman, ends with a note of hope. If Luthor cannot conceive of what Superman truly is, he's vulnerable to the point where he cannot see the truth when it's staring him in the face. Luthor's strength is formidable, but he is weakness is equally large-- hubris. He literally cannot imagine motivations and behavior beyond his own sociopathic musings. This Luthor, unlike the Pre-Crisis version, cannot be redeemed-- but one day, he will be defeated, even if Luthor is the one who defeats himself.

This is not at that top rank of Superman stories, which speak directly to our human condition, but accepting it as a building block of the internal world of the comic which develops an essential piece of the mythos? It's a brilliant piece of superhero construction, filled with masterful art and writing by John Byrne.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Superman 141: "Return to Krypton"

This review is dedicated with love, kindness, and respect to Maria Kaplun, Svyatoslav Burik, Vitaly Taratut, and all my friends who have a second home somewhere.

What would you do to go back home again? What would you do when you got there?

Those are the questions asked by Superman 141, and while it contains many contrivances and short cuts to wrap it up, it's central concerns are so poignant and brave that it's hard for me to dissect it, for fear that in doing so I'll somehow destroy the magic which inhabits the pages. This is, for all its silliness, a sombre story by Silver Age standards, and in it Superman confronts all the most pressing problems of human beings: love death, meaning, free will within the context of this sci-fi fairy tale. It's a classic, and it's a real shame that no one makes comics like this any more.

We draw inspiration and strength from our heritage whether it be personal, familial, or cultural. Part of the American experience is the myth of the immigrant. Chances are your family is like mine and you've been told how you ended up in America. Even if you weren't, a common ritual in America is the listing of your ethnicities (Irish, German, English, and Portuguese for me) that make up your background. For many of us, these stories rest comfortably in the past, generations ago. For many others, and for Superman, they are very immediate concerns which powerfully shape the personal identity of a person. For all of us, there is the fantasy of seeing the ancestral home; a pilgrimage to discover a lost birthright. In our minds, there is a sneaking suspicion that  if we can return upstream we will find ourselves in the mists of the past. It's a common myth.

Of course we can never return to those places-- they're lost to time. Just as Krypton, that doomed and perfect world, is lost forever to Superman. Krypton is one of those rarities: a no fooling Greek tragedy in pop culture form. A utopia, but for the vanity of its inhabitants, and a place that for Superman is both irrevocably lost and omnipresent. We always harbor a suspicion that in those Superman stories of the 1960's, that our world so frustrates him at times that he longs to return to that forgotten cradle. Small wonder, when one considers how many writers and editors of the Superman line were displaced from their own homes and longed to return to a Europe that no longer existed.

This story then is the ultimate wish fulfillment: Superman returns to his native planet and, without the aid of his powers, shows himself to be every bit the hero we know him to be. He is intelligent, conscientious, brave, loving, and awed. He tries to prevent the destruction and when fate will not allow it, he resigns himself to death on Krypton with a new (and old) family he has created for himself. He has gone across space and time, only to discover his own pure, nobie, human, soul. It is a mark of the excellence of this comic that when he is taken from Krypton we grieve with him, even though we know it prevented his death.

The love story is the most tragic aspect, for Superman is finally confronted by pure love and respect from a woman who understands the "real" him. Lois may love Superman, Lana may love Superboy, but Lyla Lerrol loves Kal-El, and we soon understand that the possibility of that had never even occurred to Superman. He, a man who can do anything, is swept into a romance beyond even his imagination. Superman of course meets his parents, to whom he never reveals his true identity, but that doesn't stop them from loving him as family all the same. Jor El and Lara never consciously realize that they have brought their son into their lives, but their care and compassion astound even Superman.

This is a story for anyone who ever wanted to go home again, even if that home was gone. It is a story for human beings, flawed things that we are, who may draw sustenance from our hero's validation and imagine, in turn, our own.

Read this comic.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Hey, I've been pretty busy lately with life in the analog world, but I wanted to take this opportunity to plug a fantastic new podcast from fellow Super-Fan Chris Meaux, called SUPERMAN LIVES!. He's three episodes in, and I'm very impressed by his obvious passion, and breadth of knowledge. It's like spending a pleasant hour with a friend who truly loves Superman as much as you do. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Superman Lives!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Superman #17: When Titans Clash!

Superman #17: When Titans Clash!

Story by Jerry Siegel, art by John Sikela.

The July/August 1942 issue of Superman is a historically significant comic for several reasons. Of the 4 stories in the issue, 3 are historically vital pieces that would influence multiple Superman stories for years to come. The first story, "Man or Superman" offers a rare Joe Shuster pencil effort, a recap of Superman's history up to that point, and is the very first time that Lois suspected that Clark and Superman were one and the same. The issue's third story, "Muscles for Sale" has the first appearence of the Secret Citadel, Superman's mountain retreat that eventually evolved into the Fortress of Solitude. We'll be discussing the issue's last story here, the second part of the Powerstone Saga, "When Titans Clash!"

The story opens with Luthor, having been convicted of multiple offenses being sent to a date with 'ol sparky. Perry White chooses a quite shaken Clark to cover the execution, eliciting a typical response: "This--th-this is my first execution!" Luthor is strapped in the chair (and the looks of the guards is a lot like the Green Mile, which means that uniform must have been pretty common), and once the switch is thrown Luthor is reinvigorated with electricity, which he had harnessed in the previous story to give himself super-strength. Mayhem of course ensues, with Clark literally getting the chair himself, as Luthor hurls it across the room and Clark blocks it with his body. This scene was pretty much completely cribbed by Grant Morrison in All-Star Superman.

Clark switches to Superman and tracks Luthor down, and they clash again, fighting through the city until Superman throws him out of town, then continuing their clash in the countryside and involving Lois, who is of course rushing to get the story. The fight results in Luthor and Superman hurling cars at each other, including Lois' car (Luthor was nice enough to throw her out of it first). Luthor again escapes and decides he will trick Superman into bringing him the Powerstone so he can finally win.

Placing an ad in the Planet as a metallurgist, Luthor tricks Superman into bringing him the powerful relic, Luthor easily overpowers Superman, and grows to gigantic size as well, and he ultimately is able to strip Superman of his powers-the first time this has ever happened to the Man of Steel. Luthor throws Superman away, telling him he could kill him but he's rather he watches helplessly as he takes over Earth. Instead, Clark goes after Luthor himself, and shows that even without his powers he is still quite capable. Once he switches to his Superman costume, he finds something else out: that the costume alone cowers Luthor's men into fleeing. Finally catching up to their leader, Superman manages to outwit Luthor by challenging him to duplicate his various feats (the two often did "can you top this?" contests in those days), resulting in Luthor running around the ceiling, which caused the Powerstone that Luthor was wearing around his neck to fall off. Managing to knock it away, Superman's powers return and he makes quick work of Luthor and his men, and secures the Powerstone (for now).

This is another great tale and a fine follow up to the first part in Action #47. There are several firsts in this story, most notably the first time Superman loses his powers. A lot of the Powerstone Saga seems to be reworked from the unpublished "K-Metal From Krypton" story, Over the years, Superman losing his powers would become a common trope and a favorite way to challenge the Man of Tomorrow, but all those stories trace their origins back to this one. It also continued another new trend by Siegel-giving Superman physical foes to fight. Around this same time the Golden Age Metalo had first appeared as well, in World's Finest Comics #6. This trend didn't really last, but it was revived later on and has become the go-to way to challenge Superman, for better and unfortunately sometimes for the worse.

Another great early story, Siegel breaking new ground with many new ideas and fun action and fantastic art by Shuster studio ghost John Sikela. It's available in reprint in Superman Chronicles Volume 9.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Coming Super Attractions!

What an exciting first two weeks for our blog! I want to thank everyone for the kind words. If you're just finding us, stop and read. If you're reading us, comment. If you're commenting, don't forget to follow us.

We've got a lot of exciting content on the horizon for you:

- Guest Reviewers! Friend of the blog, Tom Pescatore will be taking an in depth look at the surreal Superman Beyond 3D. Meanwhile, friend to no man, Vitaly Taratut will lend his unique insight to Superman: Red Son.

- We eagerly anticipate the first pieces from Michael Torre (aka Lexrules), who I'm sure will bring all of his characteristic wit and love for the Big Red S to our fine blog.

- Our own John Craddock (aka Kurosawa) will be reviewing the Golden Age classic "When Titans Clash!" from Superman 17, and I suspect he'll have a word or two concerning that new Superman movie that's been causing such a fuss.

- I'm going to start off with an essay about how I came to be a Superman convert, and why the character means more than merchandise. So I don't get too serious, I'll be reviewing the Silver Age classic Superman 141, and explaining why I think it's one of the greatest comics of all time. I'll also be looking at two issues from Jack Kirby's run on Jimmy Olsen which stand as a truly great "lost" Superman story.

Until then, remember: We're all in this together, and we're all we've got.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Action Comics (vol. 2) Issues 1-8: "Superman and the Men of Steel" (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back for Part 2 of my analysis of Grant Morrison's revamp of Action Comics.

Now, while the first four issues of this run were met with positivity, there were some cries of disappointment from the fan community. Looking back, a lot of that stemmed from comparisons to Morrison's earlier work with the character. Taken on their own terms, Action 1-4 stand as exhilarating collections of set pieces, filled with heart and crafted with great attention to detail. It's also where the main arc that Morrison has been building comes into focus, and we're reminded what a gold mine of mad ideas the old Scot is at his best.

Issue 5 is probably the single most divisive issue in the entire collection: it was not just a digression from the main plot in the previous issues, just as that action seemed to be reaching a climax, but a dense and complex one. If you loved it, you were hooked for the rest of the run, if you hated it, were glad to hear Morrison was only staying another year. Without further ado...

Issue 5: Rocket Song

 This issue follows the desperate final moments before the destruction of Krypton and Kal-El's arrival on Earth before flashing forward to a second story running parallel to the one in Action Comics 1-4, concerning the Little Man's Anti-Superman Army coming back in time to steal the Kryptonite engine and the Superman of the future returning with the Legion to stop them.

So began the Age of Superhumans. With new hopes, new fears, new wonders, new challenges...and new and unimaginable evils.

This quote, delivered to us by the self-aware rocket ship, is the essence of Morrison's entire project on Action. To recast the image of Superman in the mold of the great myths of the world, to restore him to his place as the first and greatest of all superheroes, and to pit him against an adversary who will test even his superhuman capabilities. Morrison is the primal storyteller, sitting around the fire, telling you a story you (and he) already know the ending of, but using it to explain the world around us.

The use of the rocket as the narrator is not just a standard bit of Morrisonian oddity, but an inspired narrative decision. We know how all this will turn out, it's the origin, but we afforded a new perspective on it through a different set of eyes. The machine assertion that humanity's technical skills (Level 10 tools) far outstrips it's ethical progress (in the hands of tribal warring states) is the situation that necessitates Superman coming here-- we need the next step. Even if Jor-El doesn't know Earth exists in this version, his arrival feels more like fate than ever before.

The heroism and humanity of Jor-El and Lara, desperately trying to save something of a dying world never doubting that there's always a way. The faith and resourcefulness of Jonathan and Martha, who defy the military and authority structures to do the right thing. They don't know it, but we know their faith will be rewarded when this infant repays the love he has been shown a million times over by becoming both Krypton's legacy, and Earth's favorite son. His entrance compels all humans to reach a new ethical level, or in words Morrison has already used, to understand:

"We're all in this together, and we're all we've got."

This new world is naturally met by temptation and cruelty on a new scale, in the form of the shadowy Anti-Superman Army led by the mysterious Little Man. Bringing us right into...

Issue 6: When Superman Learned to Fly

Morrison follows up his recasting of the origin with the greatest episode of Doctor Who never written. The Little Man offers the Anti-Superman Army (Drekken; Susie Thompkins; Nimrod; Xa-Du; The Kryptonite Men; The Sisterhood of Abiding Hate in Their Shroudship; and Metalak) who we are not yet familiar with a piece of kryptonite if they will perform an act in his name. Meanwhile, Superman and the Legion are in Brainiac's ship, which Superman identifies as his "original Fortress", and points out the various bits of time travel that have made this moment necessary. The Kryptonite engine has been stolen from the rocket, if it isn't returned the rocket will "die" and the Brainiac AI onboard will re-infect the station...and the Earth.

After a fascinating beat where Cosmic Boy reveals he could restart the Big Bang from a AA battery (good to know), Superman engages the first of his new villains, Drekken. The obvious symbolism of battling an evolver in a story whose subtext is that it is the evolution of the superhero myth should be apparent. Also, full props to Andy Kubert for making Drekken's Encephalo tyrannus form as terrifying as possible here.

Morrison drops a gorgeous, trippy, idea into our laps here: Earlier (but depicted later in the run) Nimrod the Hunter fired a lead pellet into Superman's head. That lead pelled contained tesseract space; making it bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The ASA have retreated with the kryptonite engine into Superman's head. Superman confirms this when he experiences subtle changes in his usually perfect recall. So the Legion travel back further into time, reveal that they've been disguised as the K-Men all along, whereupon the Little Man makes a tactical retreat, incidentally revealing that he's from the 5th Dimension when he disappears with a word.

The ensuing battle poisons Superman with the Kryptonite in his head, and Drekken tries to take advantage. Superman, filled with kryptonite energy reaches his rocketship which is repowered and defeats Drekken. The Legion return with what's left of the Kryptonite, saving the rocket. The story closes with Legion ruminating on what they mean for Clark; an absolute affirmation of the future he will create through his example.

These are actually my favorite issues of the run until the last three. Morrison just accomplishes so much, in so little time: a new origin with some surprising old faces turning up, an entirely new cadre of villains who are attacking Superman on a scale we've never seen before, and a reaffirmation of what the Legion is and what their place is Superman's mythos. But now it's back to the main storyline, and a showdown with the brand-new Brainiac in...

Issue 7: Superman's Doomsday Decision


Issue 8: Superman Meets the Collector of Worlds

For this final portion I will eschew a synopsis and concentrate on the themes of these two books, which form the conclusion of the first stage of Morrison's revamp, and what they say to us as comic fans, and people.

Superman is engaged in a two-issue battle against the avatars of fear. Brainiac is afraid of the Multitude, afraid of the universe, afraid of true growth. He bottles, preserves, collects with no thought to the quality of life for what he has preserved. Metallo is afraid, both as an agent of Brainiac, and as John Corben. He's afraid of what the concept of a Superman means to the ordinary man doing his best, he's so afraid Superman has taken Lois away, he doesn't understand that he never had her to begin with. Lex Luthor is afraid, and in that moment of fear he allows himself to be used by a force he doesn't understand, and ultimately humiliated by being saved by the very man he conspired against. It's a powerful lesson, but his tragedy is he'll only learn half of it. General Lane is afraid of anything he can't control and his standard response is to shoot that thing, and he receives a gentle put-down from a Superman who feels fear at the coming adventure, but never allows himself to be overwhelmed by it.

The Little Man creates fear, but for now, seems above it himself. He bears closer inspection later.

The major threat that Brainiac represents is eternal stasis; a null state. He may never grow, never change, never develop-- he must become part of the collection or die. A secondary threat is the temptation to affirm himself as god or man-- Kryptonian or Human. Superman re-affirms his primacy by embracing both sides of his nature, and assuming both aspects of his nature. Fully god and fully man, he recognizes that the earlier dilemma was inherently false. Only life matters.

Superman also changes and develops organically; the people of Metropolis show him through their vigil that they don't need a bully-- they need a hero. For the first time, Superman is conscious of his effect on human beings as a positive, and the Superman who emerges at the end is, paradoxically, both more human (at the ceremony) and more Kryptonian (aboard the Fortress). It's also a Superman that has a new set of challenges which are foreboding precisely because they haven't been explained yet: What is the multitude that Brainiac feared? Who is the Little Man? As Superman looks out into the ocean of stars in the book's final panel, it's hard to imagine this isn't pressing on him, as it is on us.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Action Comics (vol. 2) Issues 1-8: "Superman and the Men of Steel" (Part 1 of 2)

When I was planning the next month of content for LOSF I thought I was going to stay in the Bronze Age. Now, I still want to review both the Kirby Jimmy Olsen and the O'Neil revamps at some point down the road. That said, I felt compelled by some recent discussions, both online and in person, to give Morrison's recent run on a thorough going-over. In recent years, there's been a pretty strong consensus on which Superman stories were the greats, but this run is one of the most divisive in a long time, maybe since the Byrne revamp itself. I've heard everything from "classic" to "disaster" applied to these nineteen issues, and I think it warrants a closer look. This is the first in a two part series examining Morrison's groundwork for the new Superman, from the first issue's Golden Age homage, to his finale battle with the Collector in Issue 8.

Note: There will be spoilers, so it's highly advisable that you have already checked out the issues in question before you read this article.

Prologue: Superman and The New 52

One could almost be forgiven for thinking that entire New 52 reboot in 2011 was a pretense to start Superman over again. The Last Son of Krypton was given a "soft" reboot (that is, one that does not displace previous stories) in 2006 with the excellent Up, Up, and Away by Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns. That initial salvo was followed up by runs which attempted to return various elements of the Silver Age Superman's world to him: his super-intelligence returned; Luthor became, once again, a brilliant psychopathic scientist; his connection to the Legion was restored; and Brainiac, General Zod, Bizarro, Prankster and Toyman were revamped into new, but more faithful to the original versions of themselves. This nostalgia trip culminated in the disastrous New Krypton storyline: a two year crossover involving the restoration of the bottled city of Kandor and Superman living among 100,000 of his own people. A neat idea, that shipwrecked in the execution. This was followed up by the arrival of J. Michael Straczynski, and his calamitous Grounded, in which Superman is transformed into a pretentious dullard and wanders the American continent aimlessly. Grounded was so bad that it's author became bored with it, and left the title halfway through his own storyline.

It was time for a change. Enter Grant Morrison.

In a revamp that felt rushed to the printers at the last second, with a strange armored costume and a debut in a single panel of Justice League 1, Morrison's name was the one thing stopping everyone from declaring this a disaster in advance. He's the Shaman of Superman, and has displayed an enormous respect and understanding for the intricacies of the character since JLA 1 back in 1998. He was the author of what many had called the best Superman story in decades in All Star Superman, and 13 years after his ill-fated Superman 2000 pitch, he was finally getting his shot at overseeing a brand new Superman.

The additional details were even more fascinating: his series would be set 5 years before the majority of the revamped titles and focus on the very first adventures of the character. He would begin as a kind of neo-Superboy, wearing a Superman T-shirt and jeans. The stories were going to go back to the Golden Age and recapture some of the physical and political edge of that character. It all sounded very exciting, and very different from Morrison's previous work on the character, and a fascinating set up for the adventures of the Man of Steel.

So what did we get?

Issue 1: Superman Versus the City of Tomorrow

The first time I read this issue I thought it was thin. It seemed to be an extended chase sequence, a breather with Clark, and finally a rescue that turns out to be a perfectly timed trap by Luthor to allow the military to collect Superman. Fun, light, but nothing that stuck with me. Not at all what I expected from a Morrison penned remake of the first superhero comic of all time. This one, though, rewards careful rereading because it's less the first part in a narrative, and more the first movement of a symphony where themes that start off at a whisper will become louder and more complex as the work progresses.

This plays right into what makes Morrison a special comic book writer: he's a visual thinker who understands  that there are many aspects of characterization in a single panel and is conscious of this when he sets out to write a script. Consider the humanizing detail of Luthor sipping at an energy drink while watching Superman. You have to go to a supermarket or convenience store for one of those, and they're not the drink of the super rich or super powerful. We know that Luthor craves stimulation, and he's not yet cut himself off from humanity. He may be the smartest guy in the world, but at this point in his life, he still runs into the 7-11 to grab a couple things. He's unfinished-- he hasn't dedicated himself fully to something yet. Consider also the subconscious hint about Mrs. Nxly: in a drab apartment building the area around what is implied to be her room has a large mural of flowers and butterflies which will foreshadow her role in the larger story. The little man makes his debut here, as well, looking both deathly afraid and totally non-plussed by Superman's arrival. Lex casually mentions an object entering the solar system. The Legion even get a covert mention that won't be clear until much later.

Superman himself is both emotionally intense, and physically astounding, even though he's operating at a power level much lower than we've seen him before. This is achieved by consistently pitting him against objects we know are strong: buildings, tanks, wrecking balls, and in the final scene, a speeding train. The new Clark Kent is obviously a more assertive character, and Rags Morales really does a great job of making the secret identity work visually. It's a shame that the politics of Superman never get explored in this new version, because they seem to be more robust than left-center stuff we usually see in comics. Sadly, the Golden Age social crusader angle is explored here more fully than in any of the later issues. As Morrison's true concerns began to take over, it was the first element jettisoned. He's also far more emotionally intense than he had been quite a long time: he's intimidating, irritated, ironic and defiant, and even desperate at the issue's close.

All in all, a fine first issue that establishes both the emotional and physical state of this new Superman, and the detached, dangerous, intelligence of the new Lex Luthor, who captures Superman without ever leaving a military command center leading to...

Issue 2: Superman in Chains!

This issue is the first major confrontation between Superman and Lex Luthor, and it is absolutely fantastic. Lex establishes himself immediately as a cold, detached, egotist while Superman proves himself to resilient and resourceful even in the face of great personal peril. This issue is the inverse of the first: Superman is captured and tortured by Lex Luthor under military supervision in an attempt get a DNA sample of Superman. We learn that Lex does not consider Superman a person ("It's not a he."), and that he believes this to be nothing more than a fascinating exercise in problem-solving. Also of interest is that Lex's questions reveal that both he ("This what you really look like, isn't it?") and Superman (When asked about Krypton, Superman believes Lex to be talking about the Noble Gas) are working from incomplete information concerning Superman's origins. I've said it before but it bears repeating the amount of exposition that's give just through implication is commendable; Morrison puts a lot of trust in his readers to follow him.

Luthor's blase attitude leads to a rookie mistake, as he overplays his hand and allows Superman time to recover. In a beautiful moment of foreshadowing after we see Superman take Luthor hostage, and then dump him without a second thought, we cut to a Lex whose face is entirely twisted in rage. Superman has just made his greatest enemy and he's not even conscious of it because he just has to keep moving. Great stuff here. Superman grabs his cape (which is shown to be invulnerable) and finds the rocket that brought him to Earth (which addresses him directly) Lois arrives on the scene, meets up with the revamped John Corben (more on him in the next issue's recap), and gets on base just in time to see Superman dispatching military men in an elevator. As Superman escapes we see Corben preparing to test the Metal-0 suit, and learn that Lex's questions were in fact directed to him by a strange spaceship hovering in our solar system.

In an age of decompression Morrison is certainly giving us our money's worth here: three revamped super-villains, three excellent action sequences, plenty of mystery, and, in case you forgot, a brand new Superman. I think what surprised me most about these issues upon my first reading was how physical and intuitive this new Superman was. Morrison has a tendency to emphasize meta-textual elements, and showcase Superman's spiritual and emotional power. He recasts traditional superhero scenes into new and intriguing formulations. This was certainly a new and vital take on Superman (even if some of the details felt lost in the rush), but it felt so different from what had come from Morrison in the past. Turns out he was just getting started

Issue 3: World Against Superman

This issue is all about Superman's capacity to overcome despair on multiple levels. He's been targeted, trapped, captured, tortured, and is just now coming to grips with the fact that he's a strange visitor from another world. The people of Metropolis, who were so quick to rally around him as a Robin Hood figure, now have their doubts and have been expertly manipulated by the very media mogul whose exploitation Superman is trying to end. There is a page in this comic where Superman, on the eve of the "First Age of Superhumans", has quit in disgust and tearfully apologizes to a picture of his parents. The first step in transcending our despair is understanding the source.

So naturally we begin on Krypton.

The panels jut in and out, approximating the rhythm of dreams as we enter a Kryptonian soiree. An infant Kal-El  watches the stars with his feet dangling over an unguarded ledge (a subtle hint of how advanced this Krypton is: no one worries when a baby goes waddling off to a precipice, presumably because there's no danger of injury). The party is interrupted by Jor-El, who warns them to leave Kandor while a mysterious alien presence tries to contact him. The presence begins shrinking the city, and it all culminates in a beautiful two page spread of Kandor disappearing into an eerie green void.

And then there's a knock at Clark Kent's door.

Of course, it's the police looking to intimidate Clark for his Glenmorgan pieces in the Daily Star. The dialogue makes it clear that this is not the first time his room has been searched. He gets a few laughs at the police officers' expense, but pays for them instantly when it turns out his landlady has discovered his secret. The next few panels establish the media blitz that has effectively turned Superman into persona non grata in Metropolis, while Jimmy Olsen pitches Clark on joining an arm of that same conglomerate. After a neat bit of foreshadowing concerning a certain super-dog, we see the heart of the issue. Metropolis wants Superman gone, now, and Superman seems willing to give them exactly what they want.

Fortunately for us, circumstances dictate otherwise. An expose on substandard construction of railway cars turns into a surrealistic nightmare when the machines fall under the control of the same alien presence that attacked Kandor in Superman's dream. The military is building super-soldiers that are instantly co-opted by the presence, and the only guy smart enough to see the problem coming has been pacified by appeals to his vanity ("I am the foremost scientific authority in the world! You and I made a deal, remember?"). Metropolis is swimming bad guys, foreign and domestic.

Only Superman can save us now.

Morrison expertly layers in more subtle foreshadowing even as the first round of storylines begin to pay off. Comic newbies will instantly recognize the alien presence as Brainiac, but Morrison is canny enough to simply drop hints until we discover this new Brainiac along with our hero. We learn that Lois and Clark have a begrudging respect for another, and that Lois enjoy hurling verbal barbs at him from time to time. We see this new Clark Kent is a lot more assertive. He truly believes no one is going to see through this disguise of his, and feels free to let people have it verbally from time to time. He's in his early 20's and says things to the police officers that I think everyone wishes they could from time to time. The plot thread about Clark's inside man, "Icarus" is also a neat ongoing mystery (Sadly, while the identity of the source is revealed later nothing was ever done with the plotline again. A shame, considering that, at the time, I thought it was one of the very best elements of the run and Morrison had the revelation close Issue 8).

Issue 4: Superman and the Men of Steel

Luthor panics and retreats for home while Superman must contend with the alien presence (which has now identified itself as the Colony of the Collector of Worlds) and it's ability to turn any machine (including the Army's new Metal-0 piloted by John Corben) into a "terminaut" preparing Metropolis for preservation. Superman throws himself into battle against both the robot army, and the new Metallo (getting an assist from the new Steel) before discovering that New Troy (Metropolis' Manhattan) is gone, and the military is asking for his help.

WOW. This is how the movies should do it. A blistering collection of action set pieces that still manage to get across important character beats, and progress the story logically forward. We've seen a million alien invasions of Metropolis, but what stops us from going into a coma here are the little details: terminauts clearing museums of priceless artifacts so that they can be saved; buildings rising up into giant robot monsters; Lois Lane trying to save the human pilot of a robot suit Brainiac has possessed by reminding him of his allergy to Spam. In this issue Superman must confront an alien nightmare he barely understands, and resolve himself in true heroic fashion to save a city that hates and fears him.

The weakest element of this issue (and really these first four issues) is that there is really an incredible tonal shift from the Golden Age-y strongman stuff, to the full scale alien assault in the span of three issues that cover two days of story time (give or take). I love the foreshadowing and density of the books, but I can see where that stuff could become irritating if you weren't willing to see how it all played out (I don't think a single  plot line was dropped without an explanation in this entire run, and given the sheer number of ideas thrown out that's pretty impressive). I also feel like Metallo is best served as a thug who happens to have the power to kill Superman, and that if you're going to attempt to make him a tragic figure you have to be willing to devote a lot more time to john Corben than Morrison is willing to.

But that being said: How can you not like this stuff? Big, bold, colorful, uplifting, and imaginative are the words I would use to describe this. Every action scene feels like it has major consequences, every conversation works on multiple levels. At their best these first four issues actually recall the bizarre and wonderful pacing of Golden Age comics, which seemingly could never get to the next panel fast enough. Now, these four issues were highly regarded by most of the reviewers I read, and expectations were high moving forward, when Rags Morales fell behind and Morrison wrote a two issue fill in that tipped his hand for the direction the entire run would be heading. Check back soon for my reviews for issues 5-8, and my final conclusion on this first part of Morrison's run on the world's first superhero book.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Superman Adventures 16: "Clark Kent, You're a Nobody!"

NOTE: A lot of the enjoyment of this issue is the final reveal. This review does not spoil it.

Good Superman is where you find it.

Consider the Superman Adventures comic which was created to capitalize on the success of Bruce Timm's animated series: its all ages format forced writers to return to the thematic basics of the character while limiting themselves to one or two issue stories. The art was done in the simple, clean, style of the cartoon, which forced talented pencillers to focus on the more subtle virtues of their craft. All these factors contributed to a Silver Age revival, with a modern sensibility-- the best of both worlds. Almost every issue of its 66 issue run is top quality.

Surprisingly, no writer exemplified this direction better than Scottish-born scribe Mark Millar. Millar is best known for comics where superheros are self destructive, petulant, children, and would seem to be the last choice for an upbeat, kid-friendly, Superman book. However, he saw the title as the perfect venue for the kind of clever and nostalgic Superman stories he had always wanted to do.

Millar, (along with fellow luminaries Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, and Tom Peyer) had pitched DC on taking over the core Superman books in a venture that would have been called Superman 2000. They were flatly denied in favor of the Loeb/Casey/Kelly crew that ran the books until Our Worlds at War. That pitch alone contains the seeds of a number of classics in what was a very uneven period for the character: Red Son; Birthright; Action Comics vol 2, 0-18; All Star Superman and...Millar's run on Superman Adventures.

Issue 16 is his first on the book and with the character, and he comes out swinging with a wonderful single issue story that feels like a lost tale from the Weisinger era: Clark is sitting in  at the Planet trying in vain to access his computer reminders, when an air disaster means it's time for Superman. Clark rips off his suit and jumps out the window, only to discover he has no costume on underneath, and he can't fly. Things get even weirder when Kent is rescued by Superman, who deposits him atop the Daily Planet building and averts the disaster. Kent is understandably upset, and seeks out a Kryptonite meteor, but finds that it no longer effects him. Worst of all, when he shares the news of his new human vulnerability with his parents, they seem to have no idea what he's talking about. They remember nothing of his life as Superman, and speculate that he's having a nervous breakdown. Kent is just about to start seriously doubting himself when one last look at "Superman" in action convinces him that his memories are legitimate. After a check of his diary gives him the vital clue he needs, he solves the mystery, beats the baddie, and bring everything back to normal all without powers and in less than two pages.

The greatest virtue of this issue of Superman is that the writer understands the character, and tells a story that gets right to the heart of the matter, without beating you over the head with what he's doing. Superman's identity is under direct attack by a powerful foe, made vulnerable not just physically but emotionally, and his salvation is a moment of self-recognition. He overhears himself analyzing "Superman's" tactics, and understands that there is no room for doubt. His memories are not false, because he's the only one that could have had them; the only one that could understand why Superman does what he does. From this moment forward, it doesn't matter if the entire universe tells him he is not Superman-- if he is not Superman than no man is.

Millar never pats himself on the back for his heady work, because it's not necessary. We pick these things up sub consciously, and he allows the story to be exactly what it purports to be-- an engaging puzzle, with a sharp and witty climax. A function of the post-COIE Superman that this clearly is, is his large support system, but take it all away from him and he's still a hero because he couldn't be anything else.

An excellent hidden gem with a story that cuts right to the heart of Superman and back and wraps up in 22 pages. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Review: Action Comics # 47: "POWERSTONE!"

By Jerry Siegel and John Sikela from Action Comics #47, April 1942

By the early 40's, Jerry Siegel had begun moving up the levels of Superman's foes, along with the usual gangsters and corrupt businessmen, he had brought in various supervillains, including the first ever comics supervillain, the Ultra-Humanite. Other foes were also brought in like the Archer, the Domino and the Lightening Master, but with Action Comics #23 Siegel brought in the greatest of all Superman foes: Luthor.

In those first days, Luthor (no first name given in the Golden Age) was a red-haired mad scientist and conqueror, possibly of Eastern European origin. By 1941 due to a mixup by artist Leo Novak, the famous bald Luthor came into the series with no explanation. Luthor always challenged Superman to games of wits, but of course always came out the loser. With this story, Luthor sought to even the odds.

The story opens with Luthor smashing out of his lab and demonstrating to his henchmen his newfound strength, derived from electricity. Although he has become substantially powerful, he is still not yet powerful enough to defeat the Man of Tomorrow.

Luthor hatches a scheme to force Superman to aid him in getting the Powerstone, creating havoc in Metropolis that results in a slugfest between Superman and the newly powered Luthor which is cut short when the police interfere by shooting at Superman, who at this late date (after Batman was officially deputized by Commissioner Gordon) was still considered a vigilante. Luthor skips out, but then arranges a meeting with many of the wealthiest people in the nation by forcing a young millionaire to announce he is giving away his fortune to one of them. This attracts huge media attention, which of course brings Lois into the story.

Once the meeting starts, Luthor shows up and shocks the lot unconscious  then threatens to kill  all of them (including Lois) unless Superman brings him the Powerstone from the lost mountain of Krowak in Skull Valley. Our hero of course makes quick work of this feat, and brings back the jewel to a gloating Luthor...who finds it is powerless, because in classic Superman manner, Superman thought ahead and substituted a fake. A few quick punches and Luthor's electrical treatments wear off, and off to prison he goes, with Clark of course beating Lois to the punch with the story somehow.

This is a fantastic story, some of the most energetic and imaginative writing of Siegel's Golden Age career, and it shows real ambition in bringing Superman greater challenges. The art by Shuster studio member John  Sikela is probably the best of his career, with very tight renderings and clean action. Luthor and Superman both look impressive throughout. It also set up the next chapter of the Powerstone Saga, :"When Titans Clash", which we will be reviewing here next week.

A lot of the superhero slugfest stories of later years can be traced back to this and other early stories, as the writers and artists knew they needed to up the ante to keep readers interested. Much of what was developed here was realized much later on by Marvel in the 60's as they developed strong villains for many of their major characters. It's a shame the powers Luthor developed here were not expanded upon later on, but over the years Superman comics became less and less Action-orientated and more of morality plays, which while keeping the away from being mindless fight scenes for a while also created the opinion that Superman lacks good foes. Instead there needs to be a balance of stories and challenges for the Man of Steel that can push him physically and morally. Too often the comics have pushed one over the other, but the best Superman writers know the character is flexible enough for any story.

Again, this story is a real classic and the Powerstone itself is a great MacGuffin that DC has never taken real advantage of, apart from Roy Thomas use of it in All-Star Squadron, which will also be discussed in a future post.

Story 5/5
Art 5/5

Man of Steel (2013) Film Review

This review contains minor spoilers.

Man of Steel is a well made and exciting film that could have used a bit more faith in its characters. It is a movie that takes itself very seriously but, unlike Nolan's Batman films, is never dour or desperate. It boasts the most awe inspiring action scenes I have ever seen in a comic book film-- bar none, but I found myself wishing that Lois and Clark could get a little more time to get to know one another. It, like it's spiritual predecessor, Batman Begins has an arc for its hero, and it will be damned if it lets the audience go ten minutes without restating its major themes. It contains most of the powerful and operatic elements of the Superman legend, but completely lacks the simple charms.

NOTE: Because this is a movie that comes out in a week and a half I'm going to eschew a synopsis and just focus on the themes and concepts I found interesting.

The Krypton presented here is a truly alien world. The impression I am given from the film's aesthetic and Jor-El's exposition is that Krypton's technological achievement is so enormous that there is no clear distinction between the technological and the organic, and that conservative elements at some point in the culture's history basically "locked in" at an indeterminate point in the past and ceased meaningful technological development. Like Confucians, they decided that they had to focus on internal harmony, and closed Krypton off. Mismanagement of planetary resources have brought about a planetary cataclysm that only the brilliant Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) can see coming. by a quirk of fate, both of their separate plans come to fruition in the span of an hour.

This Krypton clearly owes a lot in spirit to John Byrne's version in, oddly enough, The Man of Steel (1986). It's a dystopia with military coups, genetic engineering, and impossibly old plutocrats calling the shots while dressed like Byzantine kings. It is as far removed from the icy Olympus of the 1978 version as that one was from the daring and adventurous utopia from the Silver Age comics. Their technology seems to operate based on a liquid metal they control by thought and use for a variety of purposes. The best part of this new interpretation of Krypton is, with all the talk of gestation chambers and societal programming, it does recapture the "man against technology" aspect of the Golden Age Superman. The downside is that all this detail and political chaos really feels like a distraction from Kal-El's journey. It's like beginning a film about Christ with an account of the Roman campaign in Palestine. It's not irrelevant, but it's not why I'm here, either.

Smallville is not nearly as interesting as you would think it should be, which would be fine, if it wasn't the main setting for the film. I'm not saying it needs to be as effective as the 1978 film's Smallville, which was a direct feed from John Ford's brain, but this just looks like it was constructed six months ago on a back lot.  (An aside apropos of nothing: I hope Sears and IHOP paid a lot to get in on this thing because their stuff is EVERYWHERE to the point of distraction, and I generally never complain about product placement. I audibly groaned when the film revealed that Ma Kent worked at Sears.) The neat Malick-esque stuff from the trailers comes in flashbacks that lend it a gorgeous "memory-play" quality. Also, the scene where Clark is first shown manifesting his powers is fantastic-- he starts hearing voices and when his teacher calls on him he "discovers" his x-ray vision all at once. It gets a neat call back in the third act, with the evil Kryptonians that was one of the cleverest bits of the movie.

Everyone says that action scenes are excellent, and that's because they absolutely are. Fast, thrilling, scary, and epic; these are the superhero fights I wanted to see since they started doing comic movies again in the 00's. Every fight feels like it has serious consequences and that huge numbers of lives are on the line. every punch makes us feel like our hero is in serious danger. We see a real progression through the action of our hero getting better with his powers. Growing and developing organically, and not falling for the same tricks twice.

The bad guys mean business, even if their actual plan makes no sense at all. The climax absolutely dwarfs the one in Avengers-- scarier, more dangerous, and playing out against a broader scope. The Phantom Zone crew is absolutely merciless, Faora being the real stand out, they just like killing people. The movie establishes that even though it only takes a couple months for a Kryptonian to really adjust to Earth conditions (and become a demi-god) they'd rather terra form the planet, murder every living creature on Earth, and be normal (Or maybe not? The movie is never clear on how the combination of yellow sun and lower gravity and atmosphere creates all the powers) because they're pretty dedicated to evil.

Henry Cavill is effective as Clark Kent/Superman given what he had to work with. The scene where he learns to control his flight is glorious, and the interview scene with Lois was the beginning of a great character moment. He has an easy charisma, and when he finally develops the self-assurance Christopher Reeve's Superman started with you can see his potential. Amy Adams' Lois Lane is in a bad spot, with very little to do and no time to explore her character in the least. They don't even get a first date! She's absolutely wonderful in a scene about halfway through where she's led about the Kryptonian ship by a ghost.

Michael Shannon's Zod perfectly epitomizes the movie's Yin and Yang. He gives a passionate and intense performance, trying to elevate mediocre material. We're told he's a friend of Jor-El, but the movie also tells us he's part of the machine: grown to defend Krypton without any thought for morality or convention. Single-minded of purpose and willing to do anything to achieve his goals. How were these guys friends again? Doesn't making the most important living Kryptonian a genocidal maniac who can't be reasoned with rob Kal-El's eventual decision of any tension or poignancy? Who cares? We gotta get to the next set piece here, fella.

For all the 1978 film's problems, it is a movie with epic sweep and bright optimism. From Brando's New Testament-by-way-of-Amazing Stories gravitas to Reeve and Kidder effortlessly flirting on the balcony it is a movie with bright, bold, lively characterizations that pop from the screen in their exuberance. It never fails to make me smile with it's lightness of tone, and depth of visual metaphor-- it is a great, focused, film. This film strives for realism at the expense of tone. You will believe a man can fly-- you'll just wonder why he'd want to. This review has come off a lot more negative than I intended. I was thoroughly entertained by most of this film, and there's the makings of a great Superman franchise. I think this film was so focused on not being your daddy's Superman that it forgot what was so cool about that character. There's a lot of potential here, but they haven't quite hit the sweet spot yet.