Superman: Emperor Joker

Superman: Emperor Joker 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-433-1

The night is broken with hideous screams. Every night. A black-clad superhuman smashes out of Arkham only to be subdued by the warped Superman clone called Bizarro before daybreak. Every night. A diminutive pixie of a man dashes to an appointment only to be hit by a train, or a giant weight or… In a sky that rains custard pies hangs a moon that has the Joker’s face. What is going on and when will it all end?

Although not a new plot, and despite being the product of more than two dozen creators, this tale of a time when the Joker steals the power of the Fifth dimensional Mr. Mxyzptlk and literally remakes creation in his own image just so he can torture the heroes who have so often thwarted him, actually works. Keeping up a breakneck pace and peppering the action with in-jokes and sly asides, the narrative of Superman under terminal pressure to save the universe is gripping and the eventual denouement actually works in context. This is a marvellous piece of comic eye-candy.

Although taken from a particularly grim and humourless period in recent Superman history, this thinly disguised tribute to the zany genius of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and those wacky Warner Brothers cartoons reads like a breath of fresh air when gathered together in one collection.

Originally published in Superman #160-161, Adventures of Superman #582-583, Superman: The Man of Steel #104-105, Action Comics #769-770 and Emperor Joker #1. Written by Jeph Loeb, J.M. DeMatteis, Mark Schultz and Joe Kelly, with art by Ed McGuinness, Can Smith, Mike Miller, José Marzan Jr., Doug Mahnke, Tom Nguyen, John McCrea, Kano, Marlo Alquiza, Duncan Rouleau, Todd Nauck, Carlo Barberi, Scott McDaniel, Jaime Mendoza, Richard Bonk, and Armando Durruthy

© 2000, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol Two

Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol Two 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-391-2

Here’s another collection of tales tracing the Man of Steel’s history and development, this time seemingly concentrating on character rather than physical achievement. First off is the much-reprinted, but always glorious, The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk (which was later Anglicised to Mxyzptlk, presumably to make it easier to spell) from Superman #30 (1944). Jerry Siegel and artist Ira Yarbrough created a cornerstone of the Superman myth with this screwball other-dimensional pixie, against whom all Superman’s strength and power are useless. From then on brains were going to be as important as brawn as they introduced frustration as the Big Guy’s first real weakness.

By the mid-1950s Superman had settled into an ordered existence. Nothing could really hurt him, nothing would ever change, and thrills seemed in short supply. With the TV show cementing the action, writers increasingly concentrated on supplying wonder instead. Superman’s Other Life by Otto Binder, Wayne Boring and Stan Kaye (Superman #132, 1959) shows what might have happened if Superman had grown up on an unexploded Krypton, courtesy of Batman and the projections of a super-computer.

Superman’s Return to Krypton (Superman #141, 1960) by Siegel, Boring and Kaye shoots successfully for Grand Tragedy as Kal-El is trapped in the past on his doomed home-world. Reconciled to dying there, he finds love with his ideal soul-mate, only to be torn from her side and returned to Earth against his will. This tale was a fan favourite for decades thereafter, and it’s truly deserving of a place in this volume, as is The Team of Luthor and Brainiac (Superman #167, 1964), a kid’s dream of an adventure by Edmond Hamilton (from a Cary Bates plot), Curt Swan and George Klein – possibly the most effective art team ever to work on the Man of Steel.

When Julie Schwartz took over the editorial duties, he decided to shake things up — with spectacular results. Superman Breaks Loose (Superman #233, 1971) by Denny O’Neil, Swan and Murphy Anderson, revitalised the Man of Tomorrow and began a period of superb stories that made him a ‘must-buy’ character all over again.

The Legend from Earth-Prime (Superman #400, 1984) is a clever little pastiche by Elliot S. Maggin and Frank Miller, and The Secret Revealed by John Byrne and Terry Austin comes from the second issue of the remodelled, Post-Crisis, Superman (1987), and reveals just how differently the new Luthor thinks and works. Following that is Life after Death (Adventures of Superman #500, 1993), by Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett and Doug Hazlewood, the concluding episode of the infamous Death of Superman story-arc.

After a pin-up by Scott McDaniel and Andy Owens the volume concludes, symmetrically, with a recent, and absolutely hilarious, Mxyzptlk tale from Greg Rucka, Matthew Clark and Andy Lanning (Adventures of Superman #638, 2005).

Every generation has its own favourite Superman. This selection has the potential to make a fan reconsider just which one that might be. It’s probably wiser to just love them all.

© 1944, 1959, 1960, 1964, 1971, 1984, 1987, 1993, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Kid Eternity

Kid Eternity

By Grant Morrison & Duncan Fegredo

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-239-8

British writer Grant Morrison’s jump to the US big time was facilitated by way of this retro-fitting of the venerable Golden-Age character first published by Quality Comics in 1942 (Hit Comics #25). In his original outing the Kid was a young boy machine-gunned by Nazis and taken to the heavenly realm of Eternity by a hapless soul collector years before his actual due date. Unable to simply return, he was given the ability to temporarily walk the Earth, along with permission to summon any person, myth or legend that has ever existed. Thus armed, and aided by the bumbling and beneficent spirit Mr. Keeper, the Kid fought crime and injustice until all the really good Golden-Age comic-books were cancelled.

Working on the tried and trusty “everything you know is wrong” principle of modern comic scripting, this revival reveals that was all a lie and sinister forces have been secretly at work all this time. Escaping from Hell, where he has been imprisoned for decades, Kid Eternity teams up with third-rate stand-up comedian Jerry Sullivan. As magical chaos and bloodletting begin to devastate the world they return to the Inferno to rescue Mr Keeper, only to discover the truth behind the Kid’s death and subsequent career, and their part in a cosmic plot to alter the nature of reality.

Full of flash and dazzle, Morrison’s own signature pantheon of multi-dimensional higher beings and visceral-magic entities and metaphysical un-realpolitik, bombast their way through this rather weak tale of revenge and deception, although the complex, full colour art of Duncan Fegredo is compelling throughout and occasionally spell-binding. This miniseries spawned a short lived revival of the character: one of the Vertigo imprint’s first forays into periodical publishing after hiving off from the regular DC Universe.

© 1991, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.


Green Lantern: Fear Itself 

By Ron Marz & Brad Parker

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-56389-310-X

Comics has a rich history of successful character redesigns, and probably none more so than Green Lantern, whose backstory has now become the very fabric of the DC Universe. Therefore an epic tale featuring three generations of Emerald Crusader would seem like a fan’s dream come true.

At the beginning of World War II a team of Nazi occultists break in to a Washington DC museum and release a C’thulu-like monster. After a rampage where it defeats the mighty Justice Society by afflicting them with their deepest fears, only Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, can throw off its attack and ‘destroy’ it.

During the height of the Cold War, test pilot and Green Lantern Hal Jordan thwarts a KGB attempt to retrieve the monster’s remains and inadvertently reactivates it himself. Although aided by the Justice League of America, it ultimately falls to Jordan himself to defeat the beast.

Kyle Rayner is (at this time at least) the last Green Lantern. A freelance artist and a more introspective type of hero, it’s up to him to find a final solution when the fear-monster returns for a last assault upon humanity.

This is not a particularly unique story, but the decision to use a computer-illustrator for the artwork did make it note-worthy at the time. To what degree that was a good decision is largely a matter of personal taste, but I suspect that this is a book that will only appeal to die-hard fans.

© 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Secrets

Batman: Secrets

By Sam Kieth

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-425-0

Fan favourite Sam Kieth returns to the caped crusader for an exploration of media tactics and exploitation in this dark, daft and slightly overblown psycho-drama. Somehow the Joker has convinced a parole–board to release him (and no, there’s no explanation as to how such a body can rule on someone under psychiatric detention, so just let it go) and is doing the chat show rounds, plugging his new book.

He hasn’t actually reformed though: Having seduced and enthralled the truly disturbed assistant D.A. handling his case, Joker plans more mischief — beginning with the murder of her boss. When Batman intervenes, two bystanders photograph the fight and a picture that seems to show our hero torturing the villain gets picked up by all the news services.

This is the spark for a media-storm as the jackals of the fourth estate smell a scoop. One of the news-barons, a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne (they share a bloody youthful secret), is blackmailed by the Joker to lead a witch-hunt to harass Batman whilst the mad clown fuels the media frenzy with fraud and slaughter in semi-successful attempts to frame the Dark Knight.

Batman must conquer his own secret past, save lives, and turn the tables on his manic foe’s most insidious scheme under the corrupt glare of a biased media that no longer has the will to assess or the time to judge the facts and actions it purports to report…

This is an oddly dissatisfying concoction. Kieth is a talented creator, and has some good points to make regarding the “if it bleeds, it leads, one picture is worth a thousand thoughts” mentality behind modern news-gathering. He should also be admired for attempting a slightly different style of story, but hasn’t quite pulled it off here. There are plot holes you could drive the Batmobile through, far too many manic head shots and too few backgrounds, establishing shots or even mid-, medium- and full-body long-shots. Visually, it’s as if he’s fallen for the very philosophical and aesthetic trap he decries in newsmen. Is a dramatic picture more worthy than context or narrative? You decide, obviously, but I’ll stick to style AND substance, if you don’t mind.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

JLA: Crisis of Conscience

JLA: Crisis of Conscience

By Geoff Johns, Allan Heinberg, Chris Batista & Mark Farmer

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-279-7

Following on from the events of Identity Crisis, which revealed that some members of the JLA used inhumane, if not illegal, mind altering methods on their defeated foes, the once heroic team was divided and in turmoil. Not only had the erring heroes monkeyed with the villains’ minds, they had also tinkered with the brains of fellow heroes who objected to the measure.

Now those guilt-racked heroes are reaping the consequences as the villains return, with restored faculties and murderous intent, seeking their own kind of justice. So do Batman and Catwoman, who now also know what was done to them. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason has all but destroyed the League, and now they face destruction for their mistake. And who hates them enough, and is powerful enough, to have restored those doctored memories in the first place?

Although convoluted and a little histrionic in places, there’s still plenty of action and intrigue for super-hero lovers to enjoy here, but casual readers might be well advised to re-read Identity Crisis first.

This story first appeared in the monthly JLA comic, issues #115-119.

© 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Catwoman: The Replacements

Catwoman: The Replacements

By Will Pfeifer, David Lopez & Alvaro Lopez

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-426-9

After the never-ending calamity of the DC Infinite Crisis event of 2005-2006, the company re-set the time line of all their publications to begin one year later. This enabled them to refit their characters as they saw fit, provide a jumping on point for new converts, and also give themselves some narrative wiggle-room. Now read on…

Gotham City is a much changed place one year later. Batman and crew have been absent, crime seems down and Catwoman has also changed. Depending on your point of view, she’s either a completely different person or a single mum just trying to get by as best she can.

It transpires that for the last twelve months Selina Kyle has been living under an assumed identity while she brings to term, and gives birth to, a bonny baby girl. The father remains, for us, unknown, but plenty of likely prospects are presented in the course of events, from Batman and Slam Bradley on down. Wisely, the creators are keeping this one a secret for a while longer.

Of more relevance is the fact that Selina has asked her old sidekick Holly to take over as masked protector of her beloved East End of Gotham City. Despite help and training from a number of veteran crime-fighters such as Wildcat, she’s not quite up the job yet. Selina’s old enemy Angle Man wants revenge, and teams with the truly demented late night TV pundit Film Freak to exact it. Initially, he’s as unaware as the police (who still want ‘Catwoman’ for the murder of crime boss Black Mask) that somebody else is wearing the leather and wielding the whip these days.

It might sound confusing, but this is actually a sharp little revenge-mystery with plenty of spills and chills, full of tense moments and well observed comedy breaks. Obviously there’s a point at which the ‘real’ Catwoman takes over, but the inevitable is well leavened by the ingenious, and even old know-it-alls will acknowledge that this is a plot that’s been tweaked by masters. The Replacements (which collects Catwoman issues #53-58) is good storytelling, and I certainly look forward to the next volume.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Chronicles Volume 2

Superman Chronicles Volume 2 

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-435-8

Here’s another welcome cheap-and-cheerful soft-cover collection of the earliest stories of the Man of Steel who quite literally spawned a genre, if not an actual art form. The rough, uncontrollable, wish-fulfilling exuberance is still present throughout, although Siegel and Shuster are swiftly polishing their craft with each story. These tales of the righteous, empowered man dealing out summary justice to wife-beaters, reckless drivers and exploitative capitalists as well as thugs and ne’er-do-wells captured the imagination of a generation, and are presented in totality and chronological order from Action Comics #14 (July 1939) through #20 (January 1940), and issues #2 and 3 of his own solo title.

To be strictly accurate, only the first and last strips from issue 3 appear in this volume, but they’re still great and I’m sure the remainder of the issue will appear in the next volume.

In this volume you’ll meet the first ever returning foe (us lags call ‘em “arch-enemies”), The Ultra Humanite – twice!, plus a rip-roaring mix of hoods, masterminds, plagues, disasters, lost kids and distressed damsels – all dealt with in a direct and captivating manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion. No continued stories here!

Read these yarns and you’ll understand why today’s creators keep returning to this material every time they need to revamp the big guy. They are simply timeless, enthralling, and great.

© 1939, 1940, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Returns: The Prequels

Superman Returns: The Prequels

By various

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-379-3

DC capitalised on the movie release by producing four comics, each of which focused on one of the supporting cast long associated with the Man of Steel, and each set immediately before the beginning of the film itself.

Krypton to Earth scripted by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Grey, with art by Ariel Olivetti, powerfully explores the character of Jor-El as he prepares to launch his son into the void with Krypton crashing down around him. Ma Kent by Marc Andreyko and Karl Kerschl, follows a ruminative Martha Kent as she reminisces about rearing that very special foundling from space.

Palmiotti and Grey return for Lex Luthor. With art from Rick Leonardi and Nelson, this story examines the mind and motivations of the most dangerous man alive as he prepares to leave the prison he’s been incarcerated in since the last film. Finally, Wellington Dias and Doug Hazlewood illustrate Andreyko’s Lois Lane, the only character who has seemingly moved on since Superman disappeared, but even she isn’t so sure how much…

The worlds of comic and film continuity seldom mesh with fans but these character vignettes are sure and sharp, enhancing the movie without overwhelming it, yet remain wonderfully consistent to the spirit of the comics that inspired them. This slim tome is well worth the effort and time.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

JLA Classified: New Maps of Hell

JLA Classified: New Maps of Hell 

By Warren Ellis & Jackson Guice

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-250-9

Gritty world super-scribe Ellis turns his keyboard to the World’s Greatest Superheroes with less-than-spectacular results in this standard meta-human mish-mash. An unstoppable ancient entity has spent millennia traversing the universe testing the worth of intelligent species, and thereby destroying those which aren’t. That of course means all of them, and it’s up to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter to sort it all out.

Originally released as JLA Classified issues #10-15, with illustrations by Jackson Guice, this mediocre rehashing of tired old ideas is poor use of such major talents. For dedicated fans only.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.