Review: Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Vol. 2 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, December 24, 2012

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

The "Greatest Stories" series doubles down (or maybe goes double or nothing) with a return to Metropolis for Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Volume 2. While the first volume contained good Superman stories, you'll recall that not all were great in my estimation; none, however, were so atrocious as to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

But while a second Superman "Greatest Stories" volume is in some ways inevitable, is it any good? As before, none of the stories are flops; the editors have done a good job assembling nine entertaining reads without padding this trade with unnecessary fluff. This collection, however, contains several very puzzling editorial choices, made no clearer by Robert Greenberger's rapid-fire introduction which attempts to sum up 60 years of publication history in two pages.

The sum of the parts being more than the whole in this series, let's take a look at what's inside this volume.

"The Mysterious Mr. Mxyzptlk" (Superman #30, September/October 1944): We begin not with our hero's origin, but with the debut of his littlest foe, that bowler-wearing fifth-dimension imp whose name has been the plague of spell checkers for nearly seventy years. This is a puzzling choice, since the focus is unmistakeably on Mr. Mxyzptlk and not Supes, but the story seems to be included to make sense of the book's final story in which Mxy returns. But while it likely wouldn't be a first choice for "greatest," the story is still entertaining, representing Jerry Siegel's gift for supernatural slapstick, and it may be worth noting that much of this character hasn't changed with each retcon; Mxyzptlk's behavior, appearance, and abilities have remained consistent, and the McGurk statue gag was even used in the character's animated debut (and Gilbert Gottfried's voice rings in my head for this story, too).

"Superman's Other Life" (Superman #132, October 1959): Representing Superman's sci-fi phase, this story by Otto Binder finds Superman, at the suggestion of Batman, using his super-computer to see what would have happened if Krypton had never exploded. It's a classic imaginary tale, but it's not very thrilling since Superman continually interjects to remind us that the story is not "in continuity." While Wayne Boring's use of video screens as panels is initially inventive, it quickly becomes a distracting gimmick that never lets the reader fully enjoy the story. Indeed, the best part of this tale is not the glimpse of Krypton but the constant interjections from Batman to point out how much happier Superman's life could have been. While these moments make Batman out to be a jerk in hilariously unintentional ways, the story overall suffers from too much telling and not enough showing (a common complaint, I suppose, of the Silver Age).

"Superman's Return to Krypton" (Superman #141, November 1960): In some ways, this is a more successful version of "Superman's Other Life," making the previous story seem less successful by comparison. Siegel and Boring team up to take Superman back to Krypton's past after he accidentally flies too quickly through the sound barrier. If the inciting action seems hokey, Siegel quickly does justice to the premise by writing a story that carries emotional weight even as it reaches its inevitable climaxes. We know that Krypton is doomed and that Superman will find a way home (although the sudden resolution is unsatisfying), but Siegel fills the middle with memorable scenes that play fast and loose with the rules of time travel but ultimately give us a better sense about what Superman's past means to him.

"The Team of Luthor and Brainiac" (Superman #167, February 1964): The first team-up of Lex Luthor and Brainiac is unquestionably an important moment in Superman continuity, and Edmond Hamilton's story is engaging since he's mastered the voices of the two villains. It's a great story, but its inclusion in this volume raises two questions. First, where's Superman? The focus is understandably on the dastardly duo, but in a "Greatest Superman Stories" trade it's a bit disappointing that the Man of Steel spends much of his time powerless, unconscious, and in a Kandorian hospital. Second, the inclusion of this story (for me, at least) raises the question, where's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" (Short answer: it's in DC Universe by Alan Moore.) Since Mr. Mxyzptlk gets a twofer in this volume, it's a bit of an oversight that one of the indisputable best Superman stories is missing, especially considering it's also the "last" Luthor/Brainiac team-up. Again, a solid tale, but one which may or may not be a "Greatest" Superman story.

"Superman Breaks Loose!" (Superman #233, January 1971): Everyone knows this is the one in which Denny O'Neil tried to update Superman, and most of us know it didn't stick for very long. Also collected in Kryptonite Nevermore, this story introduces Superman's new status quo, including his immunity to Kryptonite and his work as a TV reporter. Here is the kind of story I was expecting to fill these collections back when I assumed that "Greatest Stories" meant "primer on the history of the characters and what makes them tick." What can I say about this story? It's a classic, with spot-on characterization of Superman and wonderful art by Curt Swan. If I have a complaint, it's that the focus is more on changing Superman's surroundings than on how he reacts to those changes, but then I suppose as the first part of a longer arc I'll have to go to Kryptonite Nevermore for the rest of the story.

"The Legend from Earth Prime" (Superman #400, October 1984): A four-page headscratcher by Elliot S! Maggin and Frank Miller, "The Legend of Earth Prime" finds a future Metropolis discovering footage of the George Reeves Superman television show from our world (Earth-Prime) and learn the secret identity of Superman. While the premise and metafictional capacity of the story are intriguing on the surface, Maggin can't do much with them because of the space constraints. It's a more successful version of "Exile at the Edge of Eternity" from the same issue in the last volume, but it's unclear what Maggin is trying to say with this story other than elicit a chuckle from its cutesy premise and the seemingly significant wink in the last panel. Is Noah Mandell really Superman? (No Man-El?) Or am I reading too much into a story that is good but not great?

"The Secret Revealed" (Superman #2, February 1987): Scientist no more, Lex Luthor is now the industrial tycoon of the Byrne Age, but we see that his hubris remains fully intact. "The Secret Revealed" is the one where a computer deduces Clark Kent's identity only for Luthor to refuse to believe it on the grounds that no powerful being could be selfless enough to masquerade as a "mere human." The focus is more on Lex Luthor than on Superman (it would have fit better, perhaps, in the Superman vs. Lex Luthor collection), but the moments when Superman learns that Lana and the Kents may be in peril are stellar, gripping for their sentimental verisimilitude and for the effective communication of Superman's fury. A+ for John Byrne, who pens and scripts.

"Life After Death" (Adventures of Superman #500, June 1993): I think I read this single issue fifty times when I first bought it, and "Life After Death" -- in which Pa Kent suffers a heart attack but refuses to die without saving his adopted son from the funereal specters -- is still an exciting read, even excerpted from its longer narrative. Indeed, Superman titles from the "Triangle era" almost read like soap operas with expansive casts, extended story arcs, and long-form payoffs. But as a "greatest" Superman story? "Life After Death" doesn't quite make the cut. For one, Superman's dead for the whole story, and knowing what we know about his "resurrection," it's conceivable that the Superman we meet here might just be Pa Kent's imagination. What's more, the cliffhanger which leads into "Reign of the Supermen" feels out of place as the penultimate tale in this trade. This might fit in a "Pa Kent: The Greatest Stories Ever Told," but its sole virtue here is that it's a great story, Superman notwithstanding.

"Narrative Interruptus Tertiarius" (Adventures of Superman #638, May 2005): We close with a Greg Rucka story (something about which I'd seldom complain) in which Mr. Mxyzptlk weighs in on the "Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue" question by introducing Lois and Clark to their daughter from a "possible future." While the story isn't as strong as we might expect from Rucka, the art by Matthew Clark redeems the whole affair, especially when he riffs on the styles of Sin City (rendered as a spot-on satire of all Frank Miller's excesses), Calvin and Hobbes (here, a loving tribute to the style and tone of Bill Watterson), and the Dini/Timmverse (meant to convey the unselfconscious and high-flying mood of the animated series). While Superman isn't the focus of this story -- the spotlight is instead on his daughter Lara and on Mxyzptlk -- it does explore his relationship with Lois Lane in a way that no other story in these two volumes has. Especially in light of the absence of a Lois-and-Clark in the New 52, stories like this are made even sweeter by appreciation of the marriage we didn't know we'd miss.

As with much of the preceding trades, Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Volume 2 has left me uncertain about a final evaluation. On the one hand, the stories here are all entertaining and have factors which redeem their collection in a permanent form like the collected edition. As a grab-bag, this volume is successful and makes me wonder about the viability of trades that simply collect ten stories that haven't been collected elsewhere. [I like this suggestion -- kind of like what they did with those DC Comics Presents books. -- ed]

On the other hand, I would only label two of the nine stories in Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Volume 2 ("The Team of Luthor and Brainiac" and "Superman Breaks Loose" -- maybe "The Secret Revealed" as a third) as among the greatest Superman stories ever told. The rest are all either great stories with Superman in a negligible role or merely good stories with Superman. For a diehard fan like myself, the trickery of the book's title is permissible on the strength of the material therein, but for newcomers looking for more of a statement on the character, there are better places to look.  

All-Star Superman, especially issue #10 (which needs to be in Volume 3, if such a book comes to pass), is for my money the greatest Superman story ever told, but what this book -- and the series in general -- needs more than my personal favorite is a sense of purpose, a theme to link together a statement about the character of Superman.

After a mixed reaction on Superman's second anthology, next time we revisit Gotham City for the third (but not final) time in this series with Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Volume 2. Stay tuned!

More Greatest Stories reviews: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Justice League, Shazam, and Batgirl.
Collected Editions 2014 Comic Book Gift Guide
Get the Collected Editions scoop before anyone else -- on Facebook!

2 comments:

  1. A lot of this does look like a "Here are the stories that will help you appreciate Whatever Happened To" (and, to a lesser extent, For the Man Who Has Everything.)

    Although if they were really going for that they should have added the Lana and the power pools story, the Superman vs. Luthor and the Legion of Super Villians story, and maybe a Vatrox story instead of the post-crisis ones they used.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just wanted to say that this was a great review. I really appreciate you taking the time to review each story in the volume. I personally really enjoyed this volume and volume 1. I haven't read a lot of the old comic books since I was born in 91 and didn't really get into comics until like three years ago. However, I have read "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow" and "For the Man Who Has Everything," so this makes me love those stories even more while expending my knowledge on this other great stories.

    ReplyDelete