Friday, September 9, 2011

Signal Watch Reads: Action Comics #1 (Volume 2)

Action Comics 1 (Volume 2)
Superman Versus the City of Tomorrow
writer - Grant Morrison
penciller - Rags Morales
inker - Rick Bryant
colorist - Brad Anderson
letterer - Patrick Brosseau
cover - Rags Morales & Brad Anderson, variant cover - Jim Lee & Alex Sinclair
associate editor - Wil Moss, editor - Matt Idleson
this review is of the print edition, standard cover

Like with last week's Justice League #1, its impossible to discuss this comic and pretend that I don't know anything about Superman.  And while I may speculate about what someone coming to Superman might think (either for the first time or after having had never read a Superman comic), that's most definitely a guess.  We're way past that here at The Signal Watch.

Launching alongside another dozen DC Comics titles, its a little hard to process that the point behind this issue is that - like its 1938 counterpart - this issue of Action Comics is telling the story of the first time a super human, a super man, appears in a world in which such a concept isn't weighed down with preconceptions of a man in a cape fighting crime.  Advantage to 1938 when Superman wasn't a household word and hadn't launched a bajillion costumed crime-fighting descendants in print or in TV and movies in every corner of the globe.  In fact, there's a certain bit of speculative fiction here that its 2000-something, and we have to imagine a world in which kids don't grow up jumping off their beds with towels tied around their necks and the biggest hit Hollywood can conceive of doesn't include Batmobiles.

As the cover and pre-release materials have suggested, this is a Superman who doesn't really have a concept of a superhero outfit, and is doing what a lot of 20-somethings would do, and wearing jeans and a t-shirt to go out and do his thing.

The issue will, no doubt, draw comparisons to Batman: Year One in drawing down the authorities on Superman, but its a necessary part of the story, just as the Alcalde's soldiers chasing Zorro about old Los Angeles were part of that tale, and Robin Hood was pursued by the Sheriff of Nottingham and his underlings.  Superman v. Law Enforcement (and not just some authority figure with a chip on their shoulder) is a take we haven't seen since pre-Wertham days, and it adds a bit of the punk back into Superman.

The point of a super man, as its been since 1938, has been to be the person who could shake off the bullets of cops and crooks alike and ignore the layers of protection men of means or power employ to insulate themselves from threats or legal recourse.

And so our story begins in medias res.  No doomed planet, desperate scientists nor last hopes.  No kindly couple.  Just a  man in a t-shirt holding a corrupt contractor aloft, turning the tables on a patio full of men with guns, taking away what they've considered power up til now.

The playfulness of the early Superman (and an aspect of the character that, if writers didn't understand was there, they were usually doomed to failure) is in full effect.  Yeah, this Superman wants for Glenmorgan to confess in full to a police office (ie: "someone who still believes the law works the same for rich and poor alike" - something our Superman is beyond believing with the corruption of Metropolis), but its not hard to see he's ready to bounce Glenmorgan around like a yo-yo while cracking wise to the cops while they fruitlessly lobbed bullets his direction.  Its not hard to look at the old and original Superman comics and see what Morrison sees in those early days, where Superman was a mystery man cut from the cloth of Douglas Fairbanks and not an icon of virtue.

This is such a rough, kid-like Superman.  He's unpolished and flailing at his side gig as a crusader.  He's awkward enough that he's bothering Jimmy Olsen, and while he's doing good work as a reporter, his personal life is non-existent (except for a possible spoiler that I'm not going to read too much into).  Its a different take, where Clark's life isn't such a put-on, but its an interesting one.

In a lot of ways, this is the kind of superhero I think people like - the kind of "working outside the law to do my thing" aspect of superheroes, but in this Superman its got the added weight not of a personal vendetta or whatever other "dark" quest our heroes are on, but the burden of standing up the corrupt and powerful in a way that isn't pea-shooters and petitions, but that could fundamentally change things in Clark Kent's Metropolis.  That's actually kind of interesting.

Its also a Superman that hurts people and has to stand by while people are hurt (and who seems like he, himself, can still feel some pain).  We learn he's tossed a wifebeater into the river, breaking several of the man's bones - not something you would have seen in the recent run on Superman, and that he's not counting on cops to pick up his pieces.  I think this run will be about the journey to the Superman we know, but in the meantime we're getting a more haphazard force loosed in the middle of a major city.

We talk about this a bit here, but once it becomes all about the insular nature of superheroes and supervillains clobbering each other over grudges and interpersonal problems, and less about a person using their abilities to better the world, the more superhero comics seem to become muddled and forget what makes superheroes cool (and the hook that so often engages folks in superhero origin stories but loses them by the 3rd movie).

We do get both Luthor and Gen. Samuel Lane (Lois Lane's father), who discuss the past 6 months of discovery and pursuit of Superman - something the military has a vested interest in, and Lex retains his xenophobia of Superman.  In some ways, its pulling the best from recent efforts like Mark Waid's terrific Birthright and Johns' recent re-architecture and re-imaging of the Superman line (something I'm a bit bummed got so derailed).

I have to say Morales' art was always one of my favorite parts of Identity Crisis, and I think he's firing on all cylinders here.  His Lex and Sam Lane have very specific looks, and his Superman seems to have roots in those early Shuster issues, with squinty eyes and almost tousled hair, like someone in action.  Lex seems to have a hint of the Superman: The Animated Series look to him, and that's okay by me.

The blinkered malevolence of Sam Lane puts him in bed with a Lex capable of intricate, Rube Goldberg-like plotting, who can play on the corruption of the likes of Glenmorgan to get his trap for Superman in place.  Its a nice bit of what we became familiar with in Morrison's All Star run on Superman, and its nice to see it here as well.

We get a quick look at Lois and Jimmy (who I believe are working at The Planet, while Clark slaves away elsewhere - but its not named, sure to be a plot point).  Lois seems herself, harkening back to the nose-for-news, and tough city gal we got in early Superman, parts of the Bronze Age, Margot Kidder's Lois and even early Byrne-era Superman before Lois seemed to soften.

Action Comics #1 variant by Jim Lee
The pacing of the issue reflects what I think must have been an editorial mandate, that DC Comics will no longer be known for "decompression" in their storytelling, or at least that the first issue of each comic needed to arrive already going 85 in a school zone so folks felt they got their money's worth.  The issue moves incredibly quickly, and in the duration of the issue, you can likely feel like you're missing something.  I know I flipped back and forth three or four times before I figured out the tie between the train bolts and Glenmorgan's confession was simply never stated outright.

But in the chaos, we can see what sort of world Morrison is building, a sort of rough sketch impression.  There's simply more going on here than what you're going to pick up on a first pass, and there's no reason to think that Morrison isn't putting the same deep-level work into his Action Comics as he did that drove fans to develop an "annotated" Batman.  He's building a Metropolis owned by men so corrupt the police fear them and know they're owned seemingly without being on their payroll, and men so diabolical they'd destroy buildings with people inside just to snare their strange visitor from another world.  Its a city with people in need of a man who can shrug off their bullets and ignore the handcuffs when the law is set to protect the malevolent.

Its not a perfect debut issue, and we don't get all the pieces introduced as elegantly as we did in Birthright (honestly, I wouldn't want to have to follow Waid or even Johns in having to reboot so soon, and supposedly friendly colleagues of Morrison's).  And while I don't think we can accuse Morrison of writing for the trade here, we're going to have to be a bit patient and let things unfold.  Like so much of his work, its rarely the first issue that really grabs you, but the picture as a whole as the issues arrive, month after month.

But to his credit, Morrison seamlessly worked in scenes that demonstrated that our Superman is already faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and is maybe not yet exactly more powerful than a locomotive.  And that seems like a pretty good start.


Simon MacDonald said...

That's interesting that Morrison didn't do any of the doomed planet shtick here. I guess he figured that most people would be aware of Superman's roots and didn't need to waste the pages on it. Also, this harkens back to the Golden Age Superman where we didn't learn his true origins in the first issue right?

Plus, there is no way he can top his one page origin in All Star Superman.

Mikey said...

I really enjoyed Action Comics. :)

What I've always liked about Grant Morrison is that he knows how to write Superman as this bigger-than-life institution while at the same time making him the most human person you could ever meet.

The League said...

@Simon - I think Morrison is taking his time, even as the story rockets along with action. We'll get the doomed planet arc, but I'd guess he knows he topped himself with the one page intro in All Star.

And, yeah, its something he can rotate back to as the series progresses.

@Mikey - I think that when Superman is done well, that's exactly what the writers understand they need to get on the page. I think the surge in nostalgia for the Silver Age has somewhat reminded creators and editors of that fact.

Jake Shore said...

I'm so bummed! I wasn't able to get make to a shop to get the comic, and now everyone is out. Your observations are only making it worse! Hopefully I can find something this week.

JMD said...

I finally was able to read the issue this morning. I've not yet read the second issue or any of the other Superman titles. I was taken aback, a bit, by Superman's tactics. I don't know if that is because I am used to a wiser Superman who respect the law a bit more, or if I would have had the same reaction to another superhero.

He holds a human being over the ledge of a skyscraper threatening to drop him unless he confesses to violations of the labor and building code? This is not a mass murder. This is not a guy who is imminently threatening anyone or the city. Then he essentially drops the guy and falls with him and saves him at the last minute? What if the guy had a heart attack (which is entirely, entirely plausible)? What if Supes had the wrong guy? What if the guy confessed so as not to be dropped from a building again? Surely a cub reporter like Kent who everyone seems to read would know that such a confession is almost certainly inadmissible as having been coerced. The question: did he help?

I think it's telling that Supes remarks: "Treat people right or expect a visit from me." He seems to have his own subjective version of what is "right," and someone with his powers is always going to win an argument with an ordinary human being.

I don't know enough about Superman to know if this portrayal of Supes - which you suggest is "punk" like he once may have been - is consistent with the Supes of the first Action Comics #1, where he is depicted on the cover smashing an empty car into a rock for no apparent reason. We'll see.

It will be interesting to see where they go from here.

The League said...

I can't speak for what Morrison is doing, exactly. I can't say "oh, Superman knew exactly what that guy was up to and there was no room for failure". But I think we can guess that as Clark Kent or Superman, facts must have come to light.

But at the same time, this IS about a young, brash Superman, and it is worth considering that unlike the John Byrne version, there is no Ma and Pa Kent for him to go to for advice. Its the angry young man who happens to be able to pick up a car and throw it.

I am hoping this is a story about growth, and not just the "let's knock the edges off" that was the non-story driven change of the 40's as National realized how popular their character had become and parents groups were paying attention.

I think you're right, and if its not addressed in-story, that'll be too bad.

What I do like is that its not assuming Superman emerged with a perfect sense of justice. Following the comics over the years, even with more mature versions of Superman, determining the right path has always been the real undercurrent of the Superman comics. This is just moving the starting point back a bit, and not giving Superman the advantage of ongoing parental guidance.

I'd reiterate, Superman and superheroes stem from some fairly juvenile ideas about "how things get done". And what I think separates the younger readers from the more seasoned or older reader is a consideration that justice isn't always dealt with laser-eyes, claws, hammers, etc... And Superman's stance as a more reserved hero in the DCU has come to earn him a lot of fan disrespect as the fanbase moved into the 18-25 age bracket, who may see superheroes as "relevant" visions of "justice".