Superman: Redemption

Superman: Redemption

By Kurt Busiek & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84576-744-0

This slim volume collects three Superman adventures linked by a spiritual theme. ‘Angel’ (from Superman #659) is by Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza, Peter Vale, Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Merino. Set in the early days of the Man of Tomorrow’s career it tells the tragic tale of devout Christian Barbara Johnson who confuses Superman with an actual heavenly messenger, and begins a crusade to remove sin from her neighbourhood, armed with the knowledge that God’s red caped Angel will keep her from harm.

‘Redemption’ (Action Comics #848-849) tells a much darker story about faith. Fabian Nicieza, Allan Goldman and Ron Randall introduce an awesomely powerful young hero who acts as protector for missionaries of the proselytising First Church of Redemption, but whose uncontrolled might causes a disaster. Superman must determine if faith indeed has removed mountains, or if a darker force is behind the slaughter.

Finally from Superman #666 Busiek and Walter Simonson reveal ‘The Beast from Krypton’, a macabre chiller guest-starring The Phantom Stranger, wherein the Man of Steel is possessed by the last surviving demon from his home planet.

Superman has often been likened to Judaeo-Christian figures such as Christ and Moses, and many writers have dabbled with interpretations of his “God-like abilities”. It is most welcome to find writers prepared to broach, however timidly, some of the more contentious issues surrounding modern religion as well as the Champion/Deity archetypes. It also doesn’t hurt when the stories are thoughtful, well-paced, exciting and very good to look at.

© 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman/Batman: Saga of the Super Sons

Superman/Batman: Saga of the Super Sons
Superman/Batman: Saga of the Super Sons

By Bob Haney & Dick Dillin (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84576-672-6

Are you old enough to yearn for simpler times?

The brilliant expediency of the 52 concept lends the daftest tale from DC’s back catalogue credibility and contemporary resonance since there’s now a chance that even the hippest and most happening of the modern pantheon can visit/interact with the most outrageous world or concept in DC’s long history. So this collection of well told tales from the 1970s, supplemented by tales from more self-conscious times, can be reprinted with a clear continuity-conscience without even the most strident fan complaining.

Written by Bob Haney and drawn mostly by Dick Dillin, the Super-Sons appeared with no fanfare in World’s Finest Comics #215, 1972; a bad time for superhero comics, but a great era for teen rebels. The free-wheeling, easy-rider, end of the flower-power days saw a huge focus on “teen consciousness” and the “Generation Gap” was a phrase on many lips. The editors clearly saw a way to make arch-establishment characters instantly pertinent and relevant, and being mercifully oblivious to the constraints of continuity (some would say logic) simply produced tales of the rebellious teen sons of the World’s Greatest Heroes out of whole cloth.

And well constructed, well told tales they are. In “Saga of the Super Sons” (inked by Henry Scarpelli) the young heroes run away from home – on the inevitable motorcycle, natch! – and encounter a scurrilous gang-lord. But worry not, the paternalistic parents are keeping a wary eye on the lads! Speaking as someone who was the target market for this experiment, I can admit that the parental overview grated then and still does, but as there were so many sequels somebody must have liked it.

“Little Town With a Big Secret” appeared in the very next issue, another human-scale human interest tale, but with a science-fiction twist and the superb inking of Murphy Anderson. WF # 221 featured “Cry Not For My Forsaken Son!” by the same team, which showed a troubled son the difference between value and worth, and the value of a father as opposed to a biological parent. Issue #222 “Evil in Paradise” (inked by Vince Colletta) took the young heroes to an undiscovered Eden to resolve the ancient question of whether Man was intrinsically Good or Evil.

“The Shocking Switch of the Super-Sons” (WF #224, and also inked by Colletta) took teen rebellion to its most logical conclusion as a psychologist convinces the boys to trade fathers! “Crown For a New Batman!” is a definite change of pace as Bruce Jr. inherits the Mantle and the Mission when his father is murdered! But never fear, all was not as it seemed, fans! This thriller first appeared in WF #228, and was inked by Tex Blaisdell, who also inked Curt Swan, artist for the more traditional Lost Civilisation yarn “The Girl That Time Forgot”, from WF #230.

The Relevancy Era was well over by the time Haney, Dillin and Blaisdell crafted “Hero is a Dirty Name” (WF #231), wherein the Sons question the motivation for heroism, and in #233’s “World Without Men” (inked by John Calnan) they tackle sexual equality and unravelled a plot to supplant human males. “The Angel With a Dirty Name”, by the same team (WF #238) is a villains ‘n’ monsters slug-fest indistinguishable from any other super tale, and the original series ends with WF #242’s “Town of the Timeless Killers”, illustrated by Ernie Chua and John Calnan, wherein the kids are trapped in a haunted ghost-town and stalked by immortal gunslingers; an ignominious close to a bold experiment.

The kids made a one-stop return in “Final Secret of the Super-Sons” by Denny O’Neil, Rich Buckler and Dick Giordano (WF #263) when it was revealed that they were a simulation running on Superman’s giant Computer. In a grim indication of how much of a chokehold shared continuity had grown into, they then escaped into “reality” anyway…

The collection concludes with a short tale by Haney and Kieron Dwyer that appeared in Elseworlds 80-Page Giant. “Superman Jr. is No More!” is a charming and fitting conclusion to this odd, charming and idiosyncratic mini-saga.

If you’re not chained to continuity why not take a look at a few gems (and one or two duds) from a era where everybody read comics and nobody took them too seriously?

© 1972-1976, 1980, 1999, 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Superman: Ruin Revealed

Superman: Ruin Revealed

By Greg Rucka, Karl Kerschl & others (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-244-4

Collecting Adventures of Superman issues #640-641 and #644-647, this slim volume reprints the final stages in the meandering, angst and testosterone cocktail of the revenge obsessed villain Ruin who had waged a campaign of hate and destruction against the Man of Steel and his closest friends.

With inelegant haste – presumably to clear the decks for the looming Infinite Crisis storylines – Superman, with guest-stars Zatanna and Steel, plough their way through a veritable rogue’s gallery comprising the Toyman, OMACs, the new Parasites, Lex Luthor and even Mr. Mxyzptlk, before the final confrontation with the vengeance-crazed Ruin, who is promptly defeated and revealed to be just who you expected him to be.

Although rushed and disappointingly written by Greg Rucka, Nunzio Defilippis and Christina Weir – through, I’m sure, no fault of their own – the art by Karl Kerschl, Renato Guedes, Darryl Banks, Adam Dekraker, Wayne Faucher, Cam Smith and Robin Riggs, and vibrant colouring of Guedes and Tanya & Richard Horie is varied and wonderfully effective. Illustration fans will at least have something to applaud in this otherwise shiny pretty, vapid pot-boiler that can only satisfy the completist fan.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Camelot Falls

Superman: Camelot Falls

By Kurt Busiek, Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-434-X

After the never-ending calamity of DC Comics’ Infinite Crisis event, 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.

The first major story-line for the Man of Steel (collecting Superman #654-658) in the post-Infinite Crisis world has him confronted by the morally ambivalent magician Arion, survivor of Ancient Atlantis (when it was above the waves and not filled with mermaids). The mighty mage informs him that his never-ending battle for Truth and Justice will incontrovertibly lead to the destruction of the Earth, and that he should cease his hero-ing immediately. And all this whilst the Man of Tomorrow has to sort out high-tech mobsters Intergang, a Soviet Superman-analogue called Subjekt 17 and brewing domestic strife with wife Lois and childhood sweetheart Lana Lang.

The “Superman is bad for Humanity” plot is one that older fans have lived through before, although the mechanics of it this time does offer a few little twists; but it still devolves into another yet “last-stand” in a dystopian alternate future, with lots of heroic noble deaths that haven’t really happened and never will.

I loathe this narrative trick. Whether it’s on Star Trek, or X-Men or where-ever, if you haven’t got the guts or the clout to actually kill off important characters, stop playing stupid, lazy mind-games with your audience. You insult our intelligence with glorious demises that are purely for show and can be unmade with a handy application of “And then we woke up”.

Beautifully illustrated, this is nevertheless a disappointing adventure, all style but displaying very little content. It also ends mid-story, which does nothing to sweeten the distaste. Surely the editors could have waited for the complete package before rushing out these slim 128 pages?

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Journey

Superman: The Journey 

By Mark Verheiden, Ed Benes & Thomas Derenick (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-245-2

In the build-up to Infinite Crisis, the heroic pressure was piled on to all DC’s major characters, seemingly without let-up. Poorest served by this editorial policy was undoubtedly The Man of Steel, who endured change after change, surprise after surprise, and testosterone-soaked battle after battle. This slim volume collects Superman #217 and #221-#225 and is a disappointing hodge-podge of short chats interspersed with lots and lots of fights and chases.

‘The Journey’ finds Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen in Peru to investigate Superman’s new Fortress of Solitude (moved from the barren, desolate Arctic to the middle of a rain-forest right next to an Amerindian village) only to run afoul of an Omac Cyborg (see Prelude To Infinite Crisis ISBN 1-84576-209-6 and The Omac Project ISBN 1-84576-229-0 among many others for further details) and Revolutionary-cum-drug-thug Lucia (of whom, more later). Luckily Superman is there to save the day and provoke a daft sub-plot about his constant rescuing of her being “intrusive”. Surely Mr and Mrs Kent sorted this pot-boiler out decades ago?

‘Jimmy’s Day’ has its share of Omac action, but the big draw this time is another battle of wits with defective Superman clone Bizarro (it also has a excerpt from Action Comics #831 featuring a race between the big Stupe and “Zoom”, the new Reverse Flash.

‘Safe Harbour’ pits Lois against an Omac – lots of daft action here – before Lucia returns as the new Blackrock (truly one of the Saddest villains of Julie Schwartz’s editorial tenure) in ‘Stones’, which guest-stars Supergirl for some value-added girl-on-girl action.

The real Lex Luthor (at this stage of the pre-Infinite Crisis continuity there’s more than one knocking about) gets a character-revealing leading role during the chick-fight in ‘Focus,’ and the book closes with some more bangs as ‘To Be a Hero’ pits the Man of Steel against a team of fiery villains, with Firestorm, Bizarro and Supergirl all along for the ride.

I hate saying bad things about any comic, especially when they’re produced by such talents as Mark Verheiden, Ed Benes or Thomas Derenick. But these incomprehensible, facile punch-ups and cat-fights are woefully poor examples of our artform and substandard efforts of our craft. Does the world’s first and greatest superhero really need to rely on big explosions and busty girls in torn costumes to catch our attention these days?

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Chronicles, Vol 3

Superman Chronicles, Vol 3

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster and the Superman Studio (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-569-9

The third collection of the Man of Steel’s earliest adventures, reprinted in the order they first appeared, reaches the still innocent year of 1940 in a spiffy little package that covers his appearances in Action Comics #21-25, Superman #4-5, and his last starring role in New York World’s Fair #2 (and that only because the title would convert to initially World’s Best and eventually settle as the much more reserved World’s Finest Comics).

Although Siegel and Shuster had very much settled into the character by now the buzz of success still fired them and innovation still sparkled amidst the exuberance. ‘The Atomic Disintegrator’ in Action #21 was followed by ‘Europe at War,’ which was not only a tense and thinly disguised call to arms for the still neutral USA, but a continued story — almost unheard of in those early days of funny-book publishing.

Superman #4, cover-dated Spring, featured four big adventures, ‘The Challenge of Luthor’, ‘Luthor’s Undersea City’, ‘The Economic Enemy,’ a spy story about commercial sabotage by an unspecified foreign power, and a tale of gangsters and Teamsters called ‘Terror in the Trucker’s Union’. Action #24 featured ‘Carnahan’s Heir’, a wastrel Superman promises to turn into a useful citizen, whilst the next told the tale of the ‘The Amnesiac Robbers’ compelled to crime by an evil hypnotist.

Superman #5 is a superb combination of human drama, crime and wicked science with ‘The Slot Machine Racket’, ‘Campaign Against the Planet’, the insidious threat of ‘Luthor’s Incense Machine’ and finally the Big Business chicanery of ‘The Wonder Drug’. All topped off with a gangster thriller from and set in the New York World’s Fair.

(And as a personal aside, difficult though it might be to successfully attribute credit so many years later, I’m pretty sure that this last adventure is not Shuster and the many fine artists that formed the Superman studio, but the wonderful Jack Burnley. Anyone got any comments or information they care to share here?)

My admiration for the stripped-down purity and power of these Golden Age tales is boundless. Nothing has ever come near them for joyous child-like perfection. You really should make them part of your life.

© 1940, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Man of Steel, vol 2

Superman: The Man of Steel, vol 2 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-390-4

After the six issue miniseries (see Man of Steel ISBN: 1-84576-128-6), volume 2 begins the more or less (narrative permitting) chronological reprinting of the regular monthly titles, (Superman 1-3, Action 584-586 and Adventures of Superman 424-426) – plus relevant pages from the DC Who’s Who Update 1987.

Beginning with ‘Heart of Stone’, a new origin for Metallo, the Terminator-style Cyborg with a human brain and a Kryptonite heart (Superman vol. 2 #1), and rapidly progressing to a team-up with the Teen Titans (Action #584), the accent is completely on breakneck pace and action.

Superman #2 brings ‘The Secret Revealed’ as Luthor makes the biggest mistake of his life, and this is followed by Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway’s ‘Man O’ War’ and ‘Going the Gauntlet,’ which introduce the tragic Dr. Emil Hamilton to the mythology, from Adventures of Superman #424 and #425. These high-tech and socially aware dramas would become a truer and more lasting template for the modern Man of Steel after Byrne’s eventual retirement from the character.

The Phantom Stranger guests in ‘And the Graves Give Up Their Dead’ (from Action #585) before the last three chapters are given over to the Superman segment of the multi-part crossover event Legends. Superman #3 produced ‘Legends of the Darkside’, Adventures… #426 gave us an amnesiac Superman on Apokolips in ‘From the Dregs’ and the narrative concludes with ‘The Champion’, as Action Comics #586 guest stars Jack Kirby’s legendary New Gods.

As I’ve previously mentioned, a major problem that most non-fans have with super-hero comics (apart from them actually having super-heroes in them) is the insane convolutions of in-house continuity. This All-Readers-Start-Here opportunity to show doubters how good this genre can be is one all comics missionaries should exploit to the fullest.

So that’s your wife/partner/girl-friend/mother/dad/kid’s next present sorted then, no?

© 1987, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Man of Steel

Superman: The Man of Steel 

By John Byrne & Dick Giordano (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-84576-128-6

When DC Comics decided to rationalise and reconstruct their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985 (ISBN: 1-84023-267-6) they used the event to regenerate their key properties at the same time. The biggest gun they had was Superman and it’s hard to argued that the change was not before time.

The big guy was in a bit of a slump, but he’d weathered those before. So how could a root and branch retooling be anything but a pathetic marketing ploy that would alienate the real fans for a few fly-by-night Johnny-come-latelies who would jump ship as soon as the next fad surfaced? This new Superman was going to suck.

He didn’t. All the Superman titles were cancelled or suspended for three months, and yes, that did make the real world media sit-up and take notice of the character for the first time in decades. But there was method in this corporate madness.

Beginning with the six part miniseries Man of Steel, written and drawn by mainstream superstar John Byrne, and inked by venerated veteran Dick Giordano, the experiment was a huge and instant success. So much so that when it was first collected as a stand-alone graphic novel in the 1980s (now redesigned and re-released as volume 1 of an ongoing series) it became one of the industry’s premiere ‘break-out’ hits. From this overwhelming start the character returned to his suspended comic-book homes with the addition of a third monthly title premiering that same month.

Superman, Adventures of Superman, and Action Comics (which acted as a fan-pleasing team-up book that guest-starred other favourites of the DC Universe) were instant best-sellers. So successful was the relaunch that by the early 1990’s Superman would be able to sustain four monthly titles as well as Specials, Annuals guest shots and his regular appearances in titles such as Justice League. Quite a turnaround from the earlier heydays of the Man of Steel when editors were frantic about not over-exposing their meal-ticket.

The collection itself tells six stories from key points in Superman’s career, newly reconstructed in the wake of the aforementioned Crisis. Starting with his escape from Krypton, his years in Smallville and his first recorded exploit, then his first meeting with Lois Lane and joining the Daily Planet, we get a rapid re-education of what is and isn’t canon.

The third chapter recounts his first meeting with Batman, and the fourth introduces the new Lex Luthor. By the fifth issues Luthor was his greatest foe and this story deals with the creation of Bizarro as well as introducing Lois’ sister Lucy. The final chapter reveals to us and the Man of Steel himself, the secrets of his Kryptonian origin and affirms his dedication and connection to humanity.

John Byrne was a controversial choice at the time, but he magnificently recreated the exciting and visually compelling, contemporary and even socially aware slices of sheer exuberant, four-colour fantasy that was the original Superman, and made it possible to be a fan again, no matter your age or prejudice. Superman had always been great, but Byrne had once again made him thrilling. Rivetingly so. These stories are well worth your time and your money. A must have for any serious collector and reader.

© 1987, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Smallville, Vol 1

Smallville, Vol 1 

By Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-826-7

I wasn’t sure where to place this one when I finished it. The whole point of Now Read This! is to review graphic novels so that people will read more comic material – either by expanding their usual habits as fans or by broadening the horizons of consumers who wouldn’t normally read stories told in pictures. I want to wholeheartedly and confidently recommend to browsers or fanboys and the wide panoply in between.

The whole point here is to assess whether a graphic novel compares to the best of written or visual arts equivalents. Bleak House (the book) or Inherit the Wind (the Spencer Tracy film) or Boys From The Black Stuff. Babylon 5, 2001, Forbidden Planet, Trancers or Neuromancer. These are signal highpoints of a form, Worthy Highbrow or Populist low cult.

Please don’t make me explain all that again.

So why is the book such a problem? It collects the one-shot Smallville: The Comic and the comic strip sections from the first four issues of the eponymous tie-in magazine published by DC, with a couple of the more interesting articles thrown in for balance and as a excuse to print some photos of the highly telegenic cast.

The stories and artwork are of the highest quality, from the likes of Mark Verheiden, Cliff Carpenter, Roy Allan Martinez, Kilian Plunkett, John Paul Leon, Renato Guedes and many others. They even bear a strong, direct relevance to the episodes of the hit TV show they’re derived from. And that, regrettably, is the problem.

Many of the tales are sidebars to actual episodes, or derive from specific events from the show, and if you’re cursed with an average memory, or didn’t watch the series, reprinting stories one or two seasons after the fact leaves a reader floundering for the full story. It’s a great looking package that could really disenchant all but the most dedicated fan of the programme. Unless, of course, you buy the DVD’s at the same time…

© 2002, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman & Batman vs Aliens & Predator

Superman & Batman vs Aliens & Predator 

By Mark Schultz & Ariel Olivetti (DC Comics/Dark Horse)
ISBN 1-84576-578-8

Commercial instincts seem to override all other considerations in this beautifully illustrated but just plain daft Battle of The Brands from DC and Dark Horse.

Apparently a colony of Predators™ have been living on Earth since the last Ice Age, complete with a stock of Aliens™, inside a volcano in the Andes. Via various routes Superman™, Batman™ and the clandestine Terrestrial Defense Initiative all become aware of them at the same time as the volcano shifts into blow-up-very-soon mode.

What follows is a race against time as the heroes try to rescue the assorted monsters from the lava before they’re all nuked by the hasty humans. If this is supposed to be a tribute to all-action summer blockbuster movies then the usually excellent Mark Schultz has nailed it, for this slim tale has holes you could steer an aircraft carrier through. As a comic book though all it has to recommend it is the spectacular art of Ariel Olivetti.

I fervently hope that this is the last of these ill-advised mismatched Brand Fests.

© 2007 DC Comics, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Dark Horse Comics. All Rights Reserved.