Story Arc Review: Action Comics #1-8A comic review article by: Danny Djeljosevic
Many people express an active dislike for Superman, to the point where it's become a boring cliché. It's often the same rhetoric of "too much" -- he's too powerful, his shtick of putting on glasses to hide his identity is too unbelievable and he's too moral, too much of a "goody-goody." Which is the kind of juvenile mentality that resulted in the proliferation of the "grim and gritty" era of comics, where murder and moral ambiguity and general boredom passed off as "realism" were supposed markers of "mature" comics. Isn't it more mature not to affect attitudes just because you're insecure about your stupid kid-friendly literature?
Anyway, the problem isn't Superman as a character -- it's the comics themselves. Ever since John Byrne's 1986 miniseries The Man of Steel attempted to make Superman more "realistic" by reducing the extent of his abilities, intelligence and the fantastical nature of his adventures, the character paled in comparison to his peers who, quite frankly, did the whole "grounded superheroics" thing way better, to the point where subsequent writers could barely think of what to do with Superman in his limited capacity -- except, y'know, stunts like killing him or giving him a new costume with electric powers.
What a Superman writer needs to figure out is this: what separates Superman from every other superhero in any universe? For example, while Batman is highly trained in martial arts and criminology to an unbelievable extreme, but he's also mortal and driven by the deaths of his parents to fight crime until he dies. We can identify on that on a basic human level, and anyone can take that raw material and reinterpret it into something different. That's why there are at least four distinct cinematic interpretations of Batman. It's all in the approach.
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely showed us how awesome Superman can be in their beloved All-Star Superman, which harkened back to those 1950s stories where Superman had more superpowers than you have friends, but that wasn't the beginning and end of his appeal. What made those comics great was the challenge of giving him seemingly insurmountable dilemmas that require his super-intelligence to think through before he ever throws a punch. There's very little creativity involved in hitting a bad guy until he dies, but if you need the hero to come up with a plan to trick the bad guy into saying his name backwards so that he teleports back to his extra-dimensional home, it's pretty damn impressive if you can pull it off.
Allowing the writer of All-Star to re-re-re-re-introduce the Man of Steel to readers along with Rags Morales, the artist of the fan-favorite but odious Identity Crisis, is another one of those no-brainers of the New 52, DC Comics' attempt to reboot their entire superhero universe for lapsed fans and new readers. Rather than do an All-Star victory lap, Morrison decided to work with another interpretation of the character: one based on Superman as originally published in the early issues of Action Comics by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- the socialist Hercules, the folk hero who didn't cotton to corrupt authority or slum lords or any other person-in-power who didn't have the little guy's best interests in mind. He used his (admittedly limited) powers to fight for the powerless, and that kind of fuck-authority approach -- especially when we're talking about Superman, a guy who' become a symbol for The Man -- is exciting.
Eight months after its release, the rebooted Action Comics #1 remains as invigorating as it was on release day. I'll admit eight months is not a long time at all, but better comics have come out since then and, even in the face of the declining quality of subsequent issues (more on that later), Action Comics #1 goes hard -- especially in its opening 10 pages, where Superman throws a rich developer off a tall building to get him to admit he cut corners, then basically goes all "fuck the police" on the fuzz. Later, he saves people in a slum from a wrecking ball, which he then uses to smash a tank before stopping a runaway train.
It's a stripped-down approach to the character, right down to the jeans-and-T-shirt ensemble that passes as his costume, but Morrison makes up for it with Superman's social consciousness and disregard for the cops who only stand in his way -- basically an anti-authoritarian attitude similar to that which made characters like Wolverine so irresistible, but employed without corrupting or otherwise compromising the inherent goodness that defines Superman as a character.
Even when our hero is in the custody of the military and Lex Luthor in #2, Morrison's devil-may-care approach to Superman carries on, with our hero openly laughing at the Army's efforts to interrogate and (pretty much) torture him. The Man of Steel -- the only splash of color in a panel full of grey steel and green fatigues -- facing an entire room of armed soldiers and curtly proclaiming "I'm leaving" is an exciting moment. New Superman don't give a fuck.
By the end of that second issue we're finally introduced to the main threat of the story, Brainiac, effectively making the first two issues the first act. The second act, #3 and #4 are focused on escalating the threat with the Brainiac-controlled cyborg Metal-Zero, Brainiac's robotic Terminauts turning Earth's technology against it and the public lashing out at Superman. It feels a touch decompressed, but the veteran writer Morrison knows to put a significant story beat into each issue to keep it from feeling completely airy and slight. It also helps that Morrison and Morales don't run down the clock with extended fight sequences or panels of Superman slowly putting on his socks, but rather spend some time on the supporting characters like Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and even Superman's steadfast landlord.
But then Action Comics #4 ends with a most regrettable phrase -- "Continued in Action Comics #7" -- before interrupting the narrative with a two-issue story arc drawn by Andy Kubert. While I love tangents and digressions, it's clear that, with the extra inkers and pencilers working on the title, that Morales needed a break so he could catch up, so they dropped in a brief story arc that goes over the destruction of Krypton and an adventure where an older Superman teams up with a grown-up Legion of Superheroes to battle the Anti-Superman Army. It's a strong, pure-fun kind of superhero story with the expected high-concept Grant Morrison ideas like a villain who can evolve or devolve at will and a lead bullet in Superman's brain forcing him to have flashbacks, but it's hard not to see Action Comics #5-6 as an arc that was meant to be a cool-down story after the battle with Brainiac and the Terminauts -- not an intrusive interlude.
By the time we return to that story arc in issue 7, it's hard not to feel a complete loss of momentum, especially since we obviously already know that Superman saves the day -- not because this is comics and that's what superheroes have to do, but because we see an older, more mature Superman that doesn't seem bummed out about failing to prevent Brainiac from destroying the Earth. And, quite frankly, seeing Superman hop up into space to put on his Kryptonian armor and punch Brainiac isn't nearly as compelling once you've had a taste of the more cosmic threats the Man of Steel is going to face in his life.
Action Comics #8 continues this trend, but with the added detriment of bad art. For most of the story arc, Rags Morales has been inconsistent at best, with weird, melty, cockeyed figure work occasionally bolstered by spirited tag-ins from Brent Anderson and Gene Ha or inks from veterans like Bob McLeod. It's hard to hold anything against Morales as yet another artist who can't make Superman's kind-of-ugly new costume look good, but it's less excusable to make Lex Luthor and John Henry Irons look confusingly identical. Still, even Morales' problems pale in comparison to the final pages of the main story (apparently drawn by Brad Walker, whose art looked a whole lot better in the backup stories), where we're treated to horrendously misshapen renditions Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent and characters so distorted that they look like they were shot through a fish-angle lens -- and threaten to mar the entire story arc by leaving a bad taste in the reader's mouth.
These days, Morrison typically writes two- or three-issue arcs. In Action Comics, it seems pretty obvious that he was mandated to write a story that would comprise a complete trade paperback, and as such this opening arc feels stretched out, even without the sudden fill-in throwing off its groove. It's disappointing to see a story that began with such promise lose so much steam, but there's still a degree of hope that future issues may find the creative team getting back on track -- provided, of course, they're left the hell alone.
SPECIAL BACKUP REVIEW: As a bonus, Action Comics #4-7 feature backup stories written by Sholly Fisch and illustrated by Walker and Chriscross. Two of these focus on John Henry Irons donning a prototype of his Steel armor and helping out with the crisis in Metropolis while Superman is preoccupied with Brainiac, one documents Ma and Pa Kent's inability to have children leading up to the Kryptonian rocket crashing to earth and one depicts Clark Kent's last day in Smallville. Each one does a lovely job of painting characters that don't get a whole lot of screen time (if at all) in the main story. While not totally essential, these stories at least justify the book's $3.99 price tag way better than any other backmatter -- excerpts from fake books and documents, behind-the-scenes fluff, promotional material -- ever could.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His newest project is the webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki.