All Star Superman Vol 1

All Star Superman Vol 1 

By Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely with Jamie Grant (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-326-2

Older readers of the Man of Steel remember an age of weirdness, wonder, charm, hope and above all, unparalled imagination. Grant Morrison obviously remembers them too, and must miss them as much as we do.

When dwindling sales forced comics down certain editorial paths, the US mainstream went for darker, grittier tales and heroes, and a policy of following trends became mandatory. Ninjas, cyborgs, younger incarnations – all the old heroes put on new clothes as fashion dictated, abandoning their own mythologies whenever it seemed most expedient. The saddest thing is that sales kept falling anyway, and by recanting all the appurtenances of a long-lived character, they removed points of reference for any older readers who might contemplate a return.

So ‘well done’ to those companies that have repackaged their classics (such as DC’s ‘Greatest Stories’ line) for the nostalgia market, and especially for those editors that have eschewed slavish continuity as the only option and opened up key characters to broader interpretation.

When I was a nipper, Superman had outlandish adventures and was still a decent bloke. His head could be replaced by a lion’s or an ant’s and he loved playing jokes on his friends. His exploits were routinely mind-boggling and he kept a quiet dignity about him. He only shouted to shatter concrete, and not to bully villains. He was cool.

And in All Star Superman he is again. Morrison and Quitely have produced a delightful evocation of those simpler, gentler times with a guided tour of the past redolent with classic mile-markers. Superman is the world’s boy scout, Lois has spent years trying to prove Clark is the Man of Steel, Jimmy Olsen is a competent young reporter dating Lucy Lane and all of time and space know they can count on the Man of Tomorrow.

But don’t believe this is just a pastiche of past glories. Kids of all ages are better informed than we were, and there’s a strong narrative thread and sharp, witty dialogue, backed up by the best 21st century technobabble to keep our attention. A plot to kill Superman carries this tale along and there is drama and tension aplenty to season the wonderment. I can’t wait for the next volume, and that’s how it should be. It’s how I felt at the end of each issue all those years ago.

© 2006, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Trinity

Trinity 

By Matt Wagner (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-892-5

Matt Wagner’s epic featuring what purports to be the initial adventure of arguably the three most recognizable comic characters in the world, is a classic and stylish romp relating the attempt by immortal eco-terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul, and the tragic, monstrous Bizarro to use stolen Atomic missiles to bring about a new world order.

There is always the dilemma when producing this kind of tale to trade on current continuity or to deconstruct and attain a more iconic, epic feel. Part-time and casual readers need not worry. Wagner has hewn to the ever-fresh basics to create a gratifyingly “Big” story that still manages to speak more of the individual characters involved than a years worth of most periodical publishing.

Trinity is a grand adventure, accessible, exciting and rewarding, with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as they should always be but so seldom are. Graphic Novels should all be this good.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Birthright

Superman: Birthright 

By Waid, Yu & Alanguilan (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-013-1

This wonderfully user-friendly re-tooling of the most rewritten origin in the history of comics pays loads of lip service to the most common modern conception of the first super-hero – that of the Smallville TV show – whilst still managing to hew closely to many of the fan-favourite idiosyncrasies that keep old duffers like me coming back for more.

Beginning with Clark Kent’s protracted “gap-year” when he wandered the planet, secretly doing good, through his early moments with Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, et. al., and ending with the saving of Metropolis, the calamitous – albeit temporary – downfall of Lex Luthor and the public acceptance of this “strange visitor from another world”, Mark Waid and Lenil Yu have produced a feisty reworking that shouldn’t offend the faithful whilst providing an efficient jump-on guide for any late-comers and potential converts. And it’s much more fun to read than this review, too.

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Batman: Public Enemies

Superman Batman: Public Enemies 

Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vines (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-915-8

For many years Superman and Batman worked together as the “World’s Finest” team. They were friends and the pairing made financial sense as DC’s top heroes should cross sell and cross pollinate their combined readerships.

When the characters were redefined for the post-Crisis 1980s they were remade as respectful co-workers who did the same job but deplored each other’s methods and preferred to avoid contact whenever possible (except when they were in the Justice League – but for the sake of your sanity don’t fret that right now!). Here they have reformed as friends for the style-over-content twenty-first century, and this is the story of their first outing together. Outlawed by Presidential decree and hunted by their fellow heroes, they find themselves accused of directing a country-sized chunk of Kryptonite to crash into Earth! To save Superman, the world and their own reputations they are forced to attempt the overthrow of the President himself.

In so many ways this compilation is everything I hate about the modern comics industry. Plot is reduced to an absolute minimum in favour of showy set-pieces. Previously established characterisation is hostage to whatever seems the easiest way to short-cut to action (mortal foes Captain Atom and Major Force work together to capture our heroes because US President Lex Luthor tells them to?). The story length is artificially extended to accommodate lots of guest stars, and yet large amounts of narrative occur off-camera or between issues, presumably to facilitate a faster, smoother read. Also, there was an unholy rush to a collected edition, presumably because of demand, but that didn’t prevent the publishers releasing the reprint as an expensive hardback before getting round to releasing a trade paperback collection a good few months after that. This is no way to service or expand an already diminishing customer base.

On the plus side however is the fact that I’m an old fart. There is obviously a market for snazzy looking, stripped down, practically deconstructed comic fare. There must be, or Image Comics wouldn’t have lasted three months, let alone the length of time many of the perpetrators managed. Public Enemies does look good, and if much of the scenario is obvious and predictable it is big and immediate and glossy like a summer action film. Perhaps there’s room for those alongside the Will Eisners, Dave Sims, Alan Moores, Robert Crumbs and Frank Millers of the world.

© 2004 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Superman Batman: Supergirl

Superman Batman: Supergirl 

By Jeph Loeb, Michael Turner & Peter Steigerwald (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-114-6

DC really can’t seem to make up their minds over Supergirl. I’ve actually lost count of the number of different versions that have been foisted on us over the years, and I can’t escape the queasy feeling that above all else she’s a concept created to ease young male readers over that bumpy patch between voices breaking and hiding things under your mattress where your mum never, never ever looks.

This latest version resets to the most popular concept and has a naked blonde chick arrive on a Kryptonite meteor claiming to be Superman’s cousin. The most intriguing aspect of this incarnation is Batman’s total distrust of the girl as she is hidden from the world while she assimilates. This leads to her training/babysitting by Wonder Woman’s amazons and her eventual kidnapping by evil space-god Darkseid.

All in all though, it’s woefully predictable stuff with oodles of lovingly rendered girl-flesh and fetish outfits jostling for attention amidst the lavish fight-scenes and interminable guest-cameos. Yet as much as I bitch about all this, I won’t disparage the popularity of the material, because any increase in sales of comics is a wonderful thing in this current climate, but I just know that the writer of The Long Halloween and A Superman for All Seasons is capable of producing better stuff for artists of this quality to draw.

© 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Superman: Wrath of Gog

Superman: Wrath of Gog

By Chuck Austen, Ivan Reis & Marc Campos
ISBN 1-84576-066-2

Over the course of too many years I’ve followed the Man of Steel’s adventures, and realised that as well as being the absolute progenitor of the superhero industry, he’s probably the most re-worked character in it. I’ve seen a champion of the poor become a social redeemer, a boy scout, an interstellar policeman and even a grim ‘n’ gritty caped Rambo. Surely to keep following him through all those changes I must be some kind of fan, right?

Then why does the current incarnation leave me so cold?

Even when produced by – as was ever the case – some of the best contemporary creators around, the recent stories just seem to be lacking a certain something. This particular excursion, Wrath of Gog (reprinting Action Comics issues #812-819), rattles along and it’s competently illustrated, but it’s a superficial, slick kind of modern pick and mix of fight scenes.

After a brief, violent interlude with Darkseid and Co, Gog, yet another time-travelling villain (springing this time from the pages of Kingdom Come), attacks Smallville and not even the Teen Titans can stop him. When Superman appears, he is seriously wounded, leading to a mass attack by glory-hungry super-villains, and only Wonder Woman can protect him, until he recovers and wipes the floor with everybody.

To his credit, Austen does try to inject some depth with the return of extended sub-plots and these stories weren’t originally designed as a cohesive epic, but simply periodical publishing. The last tale, a Memento-esque parable, contrasts the relationship of husband and wife criminals trying to kill the Man of Tomorrow with the looming romantic triangle of Clark Kent, his wife Lois and the newly divorced Lana Lang. Although forced, it does have something more than a big, arrogant charmless ruffian hitting everything all the time, and the competing flashback technique does keep the attention.

Wait, perhaps that’s it? Maybe today’s superheroes don’t get to have charm anymore. The glorious sense of wonder, once present even in the darkest Superman tales, just isn’t there anymore. Is it all about tights, boots and hitting now?

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Unconventional Warfare

Superman: Unconventional Warfare 

By Greg Rucka & Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-026-3

I have some difficulty with the superficiality of many modern takes on classic comic characters. It’s probably because I’m old but it often feels that rather than write something new, creators simply get told to put a modern spin on the old stuff and keep it circling in a holding pattern until the current audience have grown up and moved away. I’d love to see some sales figures on retention of new readers as compared to people my age who keep buying out of love and inertia. I don’t care how much red paint you slap on a Fiesta, it won’t never be no Porsche.

But I digress. The latest Superman collection tells of yet another conspiracy to destroy the Man of Steel produced against the real world backdrop of America preparing to invade a Middle Eastern nation – in this case the oddly reminiscent “terrorist state of Umec”. Clark Kent is in the doghouse with his bosses and is trying to rebuild his career, so Lois Lane – or is it Kent, or Lane-Kent – is covering the story on her own. So what with job worries and a new super villain showing up every twenty pages, Superman is not there when his wife is shot by a sniper.

Normally I try to avoid spoiling the story, but no-one in their right mind believes a major character is going to stay dead at a company that has enough resurrected people in its stable to form their own football league. The point here is that writer Rucka has been able to rise above these woeful predictabilities and engage the reader by sheer quality of writing. Here is an instance of how it happens actually superseding what’s happening. Here is a classic character being treated with a little thought and a lot of respect.

It’s very well drawn too. You should read it yourself.

© 2005 DC Comics

Superman: For Tomorrow Vols 1 & 2

 Superman: For Tomorrow Vol 1

By Brian Azzarello, Jim Lee & Scott Williams (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-4012-0351-5 hardcover 1-84576-145-6 softcover Volume 1
ISBN 1-4012-0715-4 hardcover 1-4012-0448-1 softcover Volume 2

A major part of modern comic publishing is publicity-seeking and — hopefully — sales enhancing “events”. These are either braided mega-crossovers that involve a large number of individual titles in one big story (Gotta get ‘em all!) or extended storylines by celebrity creators. Occasionally you get both at once. Occasionally you strike gold.

Hot from his success with Batman in Hush, Jim Lee teamed with writer Brian Azzarello for just such an event with For Tomorrow which ran in Superman issues #204-215 in 2004 and 2005. For one year these star creators got to play with DC’s biggest gun.

Set notionally apart from the rest of the company’s continuity, although still packed with enough guest stars to sink a battleship, this story sees a Superman at odds with himself and looking for all kinds of answers as he consults a priest following the world wide catastrophe dubbed ‘The Vanishing’. Whilst the Man of Steel is away on a space mission a wave of energy washes over the Earth causing the evaporation of one million souls. As if that’s not tragedy enough, one of them was his beloved wife Lois.

Increasingly isolated, guilty and fixated, he becomes involved in a civil war, and by disarming the combatants causes an escalation to genocide. His quest becoming ever more desperate, he alienates his Justice League colleagues and discovers that governmental super-spooks are behind some if not all of his problems. Everywhere he turns there’s someone – or thing – itching for a fight. By the end of volume 1 he is aloof, stressed, almost monomaniacal in his determination to solve the riddle. But he does now possess the mysterious device that caused the Vanishing…

Superman: For Tomorrow Vol 2

Ramping up the action, the second book sees Superman find the missing humans by ‘vanishing’ himself. This only deepens the mystery, and his struggle to regain perspective and return the victims to Earth leads to a catastrophic battle with a dreaded foe and the destruction of a virtual paradise. Meanwhile in Metropolis, the unlucky priest has fallen to technological temptation courtesy of those super-spooks and he must pay a heavy price before he can find his own peace.

This is not a terrible Superman story and it is always good to see creators try something ambitious, but as is often the case with these event spectaculars, the result just can’t live up to the intent or the hype. And there are so many unanswered questions.

Why didn’t the entire planet go bonkers when a million citizens vanished in an eye-blink? Surely Superman isn’t the only one to notice or care? Wouldn’t even American media still be talking about it one year later? Wouldn’t some Governments mobilise, or at least form a committee?

Our hero is by turns smug and hapless, and his aggression towards his friends can’t be rationalised by his loss. Why would he turn to a priest when he has access to so many different sorts of spiritual and indeed supernatural guides? Where are his parents in all this? And why even bother with the clichéd war of liberation/government interventionists if you’re not going to deal with them coherently? Plot foibles aside, there’s also too much dependence on the well drawn and ubiquitous fight scenes to carry the narrative, but if you can swallow all that and simply want a gratuitous –if perhaps flawed – rollercoaster ride, these two books are a solid bronze read.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Son of Superman

Son of Superman 

By Howard Chaykin, David Tischman, J.H. Williams III & Mick Gray (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-56389-595-1

2017AD. In an overwhelmingly conservative and corporate America, Superman has been missing since 2000, the Justice League has become an arm of Federal Government, and the biggest threat to security is the terrorist organisation “The Supermen” led by the vanished hero’s oldest friends Pete Ross and Lana Lang. Ruthless and unscrupulous Lex Luthor owns most of the planet.

Jon Kent is a smart mouthed high school kid and his mother, Lois, is a Hollywood screen writer. Their lives are pretty normal (for rich Americans) until the worst solar storm in history triggers young Jon’s superpowers and mom has to reveal that his long dead dad was in fact the world’s greatest hero. From having to deal with girls, grades and puberty John Kent suddenly finds himself the focus of all manner of bad attention, heroes and villains, the Feds, and his own budding conscience.

How this new hero saves the world, busts the bad guys, and solves the mystery of his missing father makes for a good old-fashioned “never trust anyone over the age of 30” romp, full of thrills and spills thanks to the scripting skills of arch-nonconformist Howard Chaykin and writing partner David Tischman, with spectacular artwork from J.H. Williams III (of Starman and Promethea fame) and Mick Gray.

This surprisingly enjoyable if unchallenging alternative tale of the Man of Steel comes courtesy of the much missed ‘Elseworlds’ imprint, which was designed by DC as a classy vehicle for what used to be called ‘Imaginary stories’ – for which read using branded characters in stories that refute, contradict or ignore established monthly continuities. Although often a guaranteed recipe for disaster, every so often the magic of unbridled creativity brought forth gems. This is one of the latter. Ooh, Shiny!

© 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman/Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told

Superman/Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-433-1

This most inevitable of hero pairings first occurred on the Superman radio show in the 1940s, but for picture purposes that event happened in the pages of Superman’s own bi-monthly comic (issue #76, May/June 1952). Pulp science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton had the task of revealing how the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader first met and accidentally discovered each other’s identities whilst sharing a cabin on an over-booked cruise liner. Although an average crime-stopper yarn in itself, it was the start of a phenomenon. The art for The Mightiest Team in the World was by the superb Curt Swan, with inking by John Fischetti.

As comic book page counts dwindled, World’s Finest Comics, which had featured solo adventures of the heroes, simply combined the two in one story per issue. Many were illustrated by the legendary and unique Dick Sprang. One particularly fine example is Superman and Batman’s Greatest Foes from World’s Finest Comics #88 (1957), with Hamilton again scripting and Stan Kaye inking a team-up of Lex Luthor and the Joker. The Composite Superman (WFC #142, 1964) and the The Cape and Cowl Crooks (WFC #159, 1966) both came courtesy of Hamilton, Swan and George Klein, and dealt with foes with far mightier powers than our heroes – a major concern for young readers of the times. To this day whenever fans gather the cry eventually echoes out, “Who’s stronger/faster/better dressed…?”

1968 brought radical changes to DC, and edgier stories of the Boy Scout heroes began to appear. From World’s Finest Comics #176, comes The Superman-Batman Split by Cary Bates and the iconoclastic Neal Adams. Ostensibly just another alien mystery story, this twisty little gem has a surprise ending for all and a guest stars Supergirl and Batgirl.

A Matter of Light and Death (WFC #207, 1971) is a fine action-mystery romp by Len Wein, Dick Dillin and Joe Giella, and the last of this volume’s tales to feature the long-standing partnership in its traditional form. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths series rewrote the DC universe in 1985, everything was shaken up and the retooling of Superman by John Byrne the following year in the Man of Steel miniseries re-examined all the Caped Kryptonian’s close relationships in a darker, more cynical light. From the third issue comes a new first meeting with Batman in One Night in Gotham City, written and drawn by Byrne, inked by Dick Giordano.

The venerated title “World’s Finest” has resurfaced a number of times since its cancellation during the 1980s. In 2000 a twelve issue maxi-series re-interpreted the growing friendship of the two characters. A Better World (Superman & Batman: World’s Finest #7) by Karl Kesel, Peter Doherty and Robert Campanella is an introspective and very human discourse of motivation and achievement from the pair. This is followed by a magnificent two-pager from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale first seen in Superman/Batman Secret Files 2003. When Clark Met Bruce posits a road not taken with telling force and subtle wonder.

We come full circle with a retelling of The Mightiest Team in the World from Joe Kelly and a veritable army of artists (Ed McGuinness, Ryan Ottley, Sean Murphy, Carlo Barberi, Dexter Vines, Cliff Rathburn, Don Hillsman II, Bob Petracca, Andy Owens and Rodney Ramos – if you’re keeping score). Originally published in Superman/Batman Annual #1 (2006), Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One… is a retelling of that landmark tale in a thoroughly modern context, with super-villains replacing gangsters, and heavily slanted towards an audience accustomed to action/comedy movie blockbusters, which ends this volume on a very frenetic high note.

These ‘Greatest Stories’ volumes are a smart outreach idea for an industry desperately in need of new and returning consumers. If you accept the premise that everybody has read comics at some time in their life, and that new kids are being born quite a lot, then re-packaging good stories featuring characters that have ‘broken’ on the world stage can only bring new business. For us fanboy vets however, what defines ‘good’ is still a cause for debate. Good thing we’re not the target market then isn’t it?

© 1952, 1957, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1986, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007 DC Comics.
All Rights Reserved.