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.

1 comment:

  1. my reading of issue one was an exactly like yours