Writer: Geoff Johns & Richard Donner
Artists: Adam Kubert (p&i), Dave Stewart (colours)
Publisher: DC Comics
I've been tentatively dipping my toe into the DC pool of comics over the last few months, and it strikes me that they've spent a lot of time and effort in recent years on working out how to overcome the difficulties of public perception that they've had with their three flagship characters. Batman has long been in danger of growing repetitive, with the same cyclical rogues' gallery and done-to-death grim-and-gritty approach plaguing the character until Grant Morrison shook his book up recently; Wonder Woman has struggled to find the right hook to tap into the mainstream audience, and her book is still hampered by chronic lateness; and Superman is perhaps the most afflicted - he's become the perennial bore: the original, iconic, all-powerful superhero, but one who seems nigh-on impossible to get right. In fact, it's only with his All-Star title that I've found myself caring about the character at all, and I've been interested to see whether anyone can replicate that success in one of his core, regular-continuity books. So this month - as I'm sure will be the case for many readers - I decided to try Action Comics for the first time, and it's all down to the pedigree of the creators involved: as you may be aware, this issue sees Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner bring his vision of Superman to the medium of comics storytelling, and in tandem with Geoff Johns and artist Adam Kubert, he provides a story which is instantly attention-grabbing, surprisingly fast-moving, and inclusive of all the characters and story elements which are essential for a classic Superman story. With this issue, finally, Superman Returns.
Donner's first issue is bookended by scenes with Superman and his parents (both biological and adopted) and it serves to underline the importance of family and character in the writers' story. The plot sees a mystery spacecraft of unknown origin crash-land in Metropolis, its sole occupant a young boy. However, instead of being taken in by farmers and raised as a bastion of Truth, Justice, and the American way, this child is immediately taken into scientific care, prodded and poked, and sequestered by the military. The rapport that Superman quickly develops with the boy is one of the real successes of the issue, and it shows that the best way to challenge the omnipotent hero is to give him a problem with significant emotional and human elements, and one which can't be solved by a simple excess of strength or speed. When Superman realises that the government's plans for the (possibly Kryptonian) child don't necessarily take account of his best interests, he makes an unexpected and rebellious move to take the child into his own care, setting the stage for a father-son dynamic which hints at far more potential than that the melodrama of Bryan Singer's recent "Superboy," and which still holds enough of a sense of mystery to keep the reader guessing.
As dressing to the bare bones of the plot, Donner looks in on many of the key figures in Superman's supporting cast, giving us glimpses of Jor-El, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, and Martha and Jonathan Kent without any of their appearances feeling gratuitous or unnecessary. This is simply Superman's world, and Donner and Johns inhabit it with a familiarity which is reassuring, although there's a sense that the change in medium for the director may allow him to play with some less straightforward story ideas than might have made it into his movies. It's interesting to see Donner and Johns weave elements of the Superman films into comics continuity (I haven't followed any Superman books since Infinite Crisis, but I understand that the continuity shake-up that came at that disappointing series' end has allowed for a more flexible approach to many characters' histories), and there's a definite blurring of the edges when it comes to elements like the execution of Clark's bumbling civilian persona or the feel of the Daily Planet's offices. Sure, the comics were around first and inspired the films in the first place, but the movie universe has now exerted such an influence over the comics that it's difficult for a non-hardcore-Superman-fan like me to identify where one ends and the other begins. It's interesting to see the two media learn from each other in this way, and whilst there are undoubtedly things that comics can do better, it's nice to see Donner retain the sense of heart, moral centre and classic characterisation of Superman that made the films so beloved for the moviegoing audience.
The cinematic sensibilities extend to the artwork too, with a number of pages presented in a "widescreen" format (panel layouts extending across the double-page spread) and a high incidence of splash pages and large images which help to sell the grand scale and hyped-up reality of Superman's world. I'm not too familiar with Adam Kubert's work, but his sharp, angular and sketchy style reminds me of Stuart Immonen's in a lot of ways. Kubert's self-inked pencils could possibly do with a little refinement in places - sometimes there's a fairly smooth finish, but other times there's a looseness and scratchiness to the images, but he captures his characters well even if his style isn't particularly to my taste. Little touches like Superman's cross-legged floating (which are presumably specified by the script) are executed subtly but solidly, and the loose modelling of our hero on his movie counterparts, along with some of the supporting cast, grounds the book in a reality which is familiar even to casual readers like me. Whilst I can't say that I agree with all of Kubert's artistic choices (his Lois Lane, for example, looks more like Ultimate Spider-Man's Aunt May than a young, go-getting journalist), he carries the story well, and maintains a nice balance between a big-picture approach for action sequences and a more intimate feel for his smaller character moments without either of the two elements of the story feeling compromised or jarring with one another. His work is also incalculably enhanced by the great job on the colouring, as colourist Dave Stewart lives up to his reputation as one of the industry's finest to give the images an almost animated feel, with his strong primary-coloured figures really standing out against the more muted, delicate backgrounds. Stewart has long been a favourite of mine ever since his work with Tim Sale, and I couldn't think of any book that wouldn't benefit from his singular and effective approach.
Grant Morrison's Batman may appear to be ploughing a similar furrow with its father-and-son storyline, but Donner and Johns haven't tipped their hand on this story yet. This first issue provides enough groundwork for a whole series of stories, let alone just one arc, and with the boy's heritage still in question there are many more directions open for the story to take at this point. My minor complaints with the art excepted, this is a very strong start for what seems sure to be a well-received run from the fan-favourite director. In some ways, it seems a shame that comics are finding themselves more and more reliant on creators from other industries (be they filmmakers, television writers, or novelists) to breathe new life into them, but it seems clear that they're often better placed to find a new or interesting perspective on the stories than those comicbook creators who have got stuck in a rut and find it difficult to tell a story in more than one way. In Donner's case, this perspective isn't a million miles away from the one employed in his Superman movies, and whilst some fans might see that as a backwards step, I can't help but feel that it will ensure a warm reception for a classic take on a classic character. Like Morrison and Quitely's All-Star and Loeb and Sale's For All Seasons, Donner, Johns, Kubert and Stewart (why isn't his name on the cover?) have pulled off that difficult trick of making me care about a Superman story. Now let's see where they go from here.
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