Review: Superman: Action Comics Vol. 4: Hybrid hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Action Comics Vol. 4: Hybrid is the first great Superman collection of the New 52 (set in "modern times"; Grant Morrison's "five years earlier" Action Comics goes into a category of its own). Even despite the comings and goings behind the scenes, leading to the book's three or four different writers, Andy Diggle, Scott Lobdell, and the rest succeed in presenting a Superman youthful but classic, powerful yet human, and most of all, impressive. The book is helped handily by Tony Daniel and Tyler Kirkham, along with a team of inkers and colorists, who bring an almost painterly, super-dynamic tone to the pages that sets all the stories here apart.

[Review contains spoilers]

Diggle makes the wise choice of setting the titular three-part story, "Hybrid," one year in the past, such to neither impinge on or be hampered by Morrison's "early days" Superman stories nor the "Clark Kent, blogger/dating Wonder Woman" stories of Scott Lobdell's present. The result is a "back to basics" Superman story that would appeal to the most casual of fans -- one that involves Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olsen, reporters for the Daily Planet, and with Lex Luthor as the main antagonist. Diggle is even able, without stepping too much on modern-day toes, to make this a "missed connections" story about Clark and Lois's romance, and it dovetails nicely, ultimately, with the opening pages of George Perez's Superman Vol. 1: What Price Tomorrow?

Lex Luthor has been a bit of a sticky widget now three years into the New 52. We've seen Lex Luthor, businessman, in the pages of Morrison's Action and Lex Luthor, imprisoned criminal, in the pages of Lobdell's Superman, but how Lex got there and what the general relationship is between Superman and Lex has been conspicuously absent in the modern-day Superman stories. Diggle's story, at least until someone else contradicts it, would seem to fill in that gap, enjoyably as a story but maybe a little too neatly -- Lex, having harbored a grudge against Superman for the past five years (since the "Morrison days") finally attacks Superman one year ago, Superman defeats him, and Lex goes to jail and remains there until we see him in Lobdell's Superman Vol. 3. That answers all the questions, though one battle seems not a lot for the amount of security Lex has in Superman Vol. 3, and for the enmity between Superman and Lex.

But again, Diggle's story is enjoyable, and the Lex plot within favorably reminds of the same in John Byrne's Superman work. Diggle's role as writer lessens and artist Tony Daniel's grows as the story continues; arguably one could note there's more large panels toward the end of the story where the art is filling in for lack of story, but also again, Daniel's Superman work here is so dynamic -- and demonstrably different, I think, from his Batman work -- to make even this excess palatable.

Scott Lobdell pens a two-issue "modern day" story, filling in presumably for the sudden departure of Diggle from the title. "Fill in" is a good word for the story, which sees Superman called off-planet to join alien freedom fighters against a cosmic menace -- what seems, at least as far as this volume, "just" a Superman story and not anything with imperative connection to Superman's ongoing adventures. But, Lobdell seems far more comfortable here than in his first outing in Superman Vol. 3, which was at times over-narrated and over-dialogued, and his Superman is funny, sarcastic, irreverent, and still devoutly, devoutly heroic. If the pre-Flashpoint Superman was one you'd want to have a glass of milk with, Lobdell's Superman is one you'd want to have a beer with (or at least a Soder Cola), and from whom you'd walk away thinking he was no less Superman.

What "relevance" the story lacks is also helped again by the artist, this time Tyler Kirkham. Kirkham delivers some impressively detailed aliens, and especially the hulking space monster (if unfortunately named) Lexus, all given greater dynamism by the inkers and colorists. Kirkham offers here a more angular, less animated style than his Green Lantern: New Guardians work, again giving the sense that everyone involved with this volume is working at a higher level.

The book finishes with the five-part "World of Krypton" backups from Action and other Super-titles, mainly written by Frank Hannah, who also recently wrote a good issue of Supergirl. It's the story of Jor-El and Lara foiling a military coup, set when the two have just met and don't like each other, and that dynamic is delightful (begging for a sequel). Hannah is aware of his story and knows who the audience expects the Kryptonian "Colonel" to turn out to be, and I was pleased that his ending twists this slightly such to meet reader expectations, and also not to erode some good character work that Geoff Johns and others did as regards these Kryptonians in the pre-Flashpoint "New Krypton" books.

Diggle's Superman/Wonder Woman Young Romance story, also collected here, squirms in the general ill-definition of the extent and seriousness of this relationship (no fault of Diggle's, but rather that the relationship emerged in-organically from Justice League), though I appreciate the string of continuity notes that ties the story to both characters' titles. It's fine enough for a "young romance" story. Also included here is Action Comics #24, part of the "Psi-War" story going on in Superman, which I skipped in order to read later in conjunction with Superman Vol. 4: Psi-War (the final page, I noticed, directs the reader from this trade to that, though in reading it seems some of Superman Vol. 4 takes place before Action Comics Vol. 4, and then some after).

There's no basis here to really be optimistic about Superman's future, since none of the creators in Action Comics Vol. 4: Hybrid continue to the next volume. At the same time, the book's new writer is Greg Pak, who did well enough on the first volume of Batman/Superman, so maybe Action Vol. 4 will be the start of something after all. Irrespective, if the New 52 Superman hasn't appealed to you so far, this is the book I'd suggest picking up, one that I think will please new and old Superman fans alike.

[Includes original and promotional covers, "WTF" gatefold cover image]

Next up indeed is Superman Vol. 4: Psi-War. Don't miss it!
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7 comments:

  1. I would have loved to see Andy Diggle have a long run on Superman and I'm disappointed that it didn't happen.

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  2. The Diggle/Daniel arc was good, solid fun, but I was a bit disappointed that even though it apparently tells the story of how Lex Luthor got into prison, it still doesn't explain where the burn scars he had on his face from Superman #15 to the beginning of Action Comics #23.3 (which apparently was only collected in the New 52 Villains Omnibus) came from.

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    1. So the Villains Month issue explains it, or nothing explains it?

      Given that, near as I can tell, Lex doesn't seem to have the scar in new issues of Justice League, etc., I had kind of resigned myself that this was something that just wouldn't be resolved -- that Lobdell would have tackled it in his run, but with his run ending, it'd just be swept under the rug.

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    2. At first, Luthor's scars seemed to disappear between Trinity War and Forever Evil with no explanation, but the Villains Month issue actually filled that gap. However, Lobdell never explained how he got them in first place, although Luthor's dialogue in issue #15 suggests Superman was somehow responsible.

      I guess this was another case of Lobdell teasing a mystery without really knowing how to resolve it, which is a bad habit he's had since his X-Men days. Maybe he intended to address it eventually, but Johns got in the way of that, first by having his own plans for Luthor and later by replacing him on Superman.

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  3. Your review reads like "skip this, it doesn't matter". Which is sad development from Morrisons run, which at least had some impact on new 52 Superman.
    I feel like Superman in new 52 is even worse than JMS run before Flashpoint.

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    1. Daniel, how you interpret the review is up to you, but frankly I think it's pretty clear I'm saying don't skip this book, because it's pretty good, and also I don't think I said it "didn't matter," but rather that it usefully fills in some gaps in Superman and Lex's combined histories. And I can't really tell how you've interpreted my take on Morrison's run, but I really, really, liked it, and even paid it a compliment in the first paragraph. Hope that clears things up.

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