Review: Superman: Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

It's reasonable to say the Man of Steel has been the Man of Angst of late. Even if Geoff Johns's Superman: Brainiac was superior (and the rumored animated adaptation would be most welcome), it kicked off a particularly dour time for Superman, culminating in war between Earth and New Krypton and Superman's controversial walk across America. It's been a long time since Superman, simply, represented the joy of a man who could fly.

Grant Morrison's DC New 52 Superman: Action Comics - Superman and the Men of Steel is most remarkable for what it is not. It is not hard to understand. It is not a drastic re-imagining of the Superman mythos. It is instead a cogent Superman "pilot," not terribly different from J. Michael Straczynski's Superman: Earth One, except bouncier. The characters take themselves less seriously, there is more adventure than angst. Morrison's Superman says "I got it," and it sounds a little young and flip -- but it's a lot better than a Superman who says "I don't know if I can handle it."

[Review contains spoilers]

Morrison starts Action Comics in the middle of things -- Superman is already established in Metropolis and rattling both criminals and the police -- leaving open such events as Superman's first meeting with Lois Lane (and not negating, necessarily, John Byrne's famous "saving the shuttle" scene). The story takes itself with a certain amount of stride -- the first issue finds the people of Metropolis relatively accepting of Superman; Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen are friends, and Lois isn't terribly dismissive of either one; and Lex Luthor is a genius working for the military. Artist Rags Morales doesn't have dramatic reveals for any of the principle characters -- Lex is "just there," as is Lois -- nor is his Lois necessarily a "stunner," a la Shane Davis's modeling Lois on Jennifer Carpenter in Earth One.

Rather Morrison and Morales present these characters for what they are -- the most recognizable supporting cast anywhere -- and let them do what they do best with a modicum of fuss. As in Morrison's All-Star Superman, he does not reinvent these characters so much as distill them to their iconic elements -- and the formula still works.

Byrne has revealed that in re-creating Superman in the mid-1980s in the superlative Man of Steel, he had considered withholding Superman's Kryptonian origins from both the reader and Clark Kent until later in the series, such to truly make Clark human first and alien second. Morrison gets closer -- the word "Krypton" doesn't come up until the second chapter, and it's unclear if Clark ever understands himself to be the "last son," even if the reader does (in Krypton scenes wonderfully depicted, side by side with Morales, by Gene Ha).

By the end of the story, Superman has been given the key to Metropolis by a grateful public, and his message to Metropolis is that his alien presence proves "that we’re not alone in this universe." Much of Superman since Byrne (especially Johns's, and also Bryan Singer's Superman Returns) has turned on the idea that Superman is considerably alone in the universe. Morrison's Superman, in contrast, seems too much a part of a busy world -- fighting alongside Steel while Lois, Jimmy, and Lex roam the streets of Metropolis -- to be concerned about being lonely.

For a writer as creative as Morrison, getting to write a new origin for Superman, of all characters, Superman and the Men of Steel emerges markedly similar to both Superman: Earth One and Johns's Superman: Secret Origin. The story's main threat is an alien invasion targeted at Superman, like Earth One (though using Brainiac, which is better); co-opted into the fight is John Corben, aka Metallo, a subordinate of General Sam Lane with a crush on Lois, just like in Secret Origin. Lana Lang even knows about Clark's abilities (in writer Sholly Fisch's back-up stories) as in Byrne's Man of Steel. That Morrison hews so close to canon may be disappointing to some, but it should calm the fears of others that the New 52 Superman might be unrecognizable from the Superman of the "old" DC Universe.

DC obviously has a lot invested in this collection -- not only is it the first Action Comics collection in the New 52 and not only is it written by Grant Morrison, but they've also collected eight issues here -- one of the few for a book not being cancelled -- and included the backups, variant covers, and a commentary section with Morrison and Morales; this is how a collection is done. DC also apparently interrupted the main Brainiac story in single issues with a two-part Legion of Super-Heroes time-travel issue; narratively this story comes after the Brainiac story, causing much confusion at the time, but DC has restored the reading order for the collection. The collection presents the issues as #1-4, #7-8, then #5-6, with the backups at the end, and the reader is the better for it.

The book therefore ends with a two-part story that works to accomplish many things. It offers the official "destruction of Krypton" and "arrival in Kansas" scenes; it profiles a new character, Superman's sentient spaceship; it introduces Kryptonite; and it re-establishes Superman's friendship with the Legion of Super-Heroes. The story is illustrated by Andy Kubert, who teamed with Morrison early in the Batman: The Black Glove saga, and there's interesting parallels -- a demonic force, backed by a cadre of criminals, stalks Superman just as Dr. Hurt and the Black Glove stalked Batman. This "devil" appears throughout Action, and it's here the audience gets hints of the Morrison-ian complexity they've come to expect; Morrison seems to be playing a long game that, if not of the caliber of Batman RIP, ought pay off in interesting ways in the next Action Comics volume.

A few DC New 52 volumes have been so good as to cry out for the next volume to come faster -- Batman is one of these, and Wonder Woman, and thankfully, so is Grant Morrison's Superman: Action Comics - Superman and the Men of Steel. Morrison's Superman is confident and likeable, with all the classic elements in place; hopefully when Morrison departs after the next volume, the writers who follow will pick up right where Morrison leaves off.

[Includes original and variant covers, backup stories, interview section with sketches]

Next week, we'll celebrate Halloween a little early with a spooky Resurrection Man-themed week.  Boo!
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5 comments:

  1. DC's decision to shift issues #5-6 to the end of the collection worked really well for me, but I think the Steel backups by Sholly Fisch would be better placed in the middle of the first arc.

    I've been loving this run so far, but wish it had more consistent artwork. Rags Morales kicked the first issue out of the park, but by issue #2 he already needed a co-penciller, and I believe the Legion two-parter was originally inserted in the middle of the first arc so that he had the time to pencil the last two chapters. And yet, they had to call the otherwise talented Brad Walker to draw the last pages of issue #8, which feature one of the worst renditions of Superman I've ever seen.

    I'm hoping DC will collect Morrison's last 10 issues in a single volume, but I'm not entirely convinced it will happen. Considering each issue is at least 28 pages long, I think DC might be more inclined to split it in two volumes, one collecting issues #0 and #8-12 and the other featuring issues #13-17. I also wonder if the upcoming Action Comics Annual #1 by Sholly Fisch and Cully Hamner will be collected along with the regular issues.

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  2. I agree with everything you wrote, but the art was, besides the first issue was horrid.

    I don't know what happen to Andy Kubert (or is it Adam? I forgot). And Rags Morales, DC Comics should have know he is not a monthly artist. And if they put him on a monthly issue, he's either going to be very very late, or the art is going to be awful.

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  3. I had to cut my comments about the art for space, so I'm glad you two brought it up.

    I thought Morales, Kubert, and Ha did well. Morales's work early in the book was better than toward the end, but it also suffered from a rotating cadre of inkers. It was the shifts between Morales and Brent Anderson that I found most jarring, and Anderson's work seemed often over-inked; Lois looked like she had a mustache at times.

    I'm not sure who drew Superman getting the key to the city -- it wasn't bad per se, just largely out of sync with the rest of the book (Clark looks *years* older and the colors are strangely "painted"). There was a certain Gary Frank vibe to those last pages of chapter six (technically issue #8), with Clark obviously modeled on Christopher Reeve.

    This was nice but also ironic, similar to other aspects of the book that I mentioned in my review, in how DC's "new" Superman is even drawn so much like their "old" one.

    I'd also like the next volume to include the full compliment of Morrison Action Comics stories, if only because I don't want to wait two more years to read them all. If the collections get shorter, maybe DC will release both the Vol. 2s and the Vol. 3s next year -- I would imagine we'll have a "Death of the Family" collection before the end of next year, for instance.

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  4. I really enjoyed this one. Maybe Superman's not unrecognizeable, but I felt they made a lot of wise changes, especially to his supporting cast. I thought the backups were particularly good, and the "rebooted" Kryptonite makes a lot more sense to me than it ever did in the old DCU (both here and where it appears in the Supergirl story). Also, am I the only one actually surprised by how good Morales' art was? It's improved a long, long way from some of his older stuff. I went into this book dreading the art, and then came out of it really liking Morales despite myself.

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  5. It was Brad Walker who drew Superman getting the key to the city. Those first few pages by him look OK to me, but when Superman visits his parents' graves and takes that last leap (or flight, depending on how you see it), his face and body language look unbelievably goofy, almost like a bad cosplay.

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