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.

Superman: Man of Steel 4

Superman: Man of Steel 4 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-128-6

I thought I’d give this compilation series a belated and much-deserved recommendation when the latest volume thumped onto my desk. If I have such a thing as a regular reader out there, he/she/it probably knows I’ve been a fan of the character since 1962 or thereabouts. All of which meant that when DC announced a fundamental reworking of the Man of Tomorrow in the wake of their 1986 Crisis on Infinite Earths project, I was more than a little alarmed.

Sure the big guy was in a bit of a slump, but he’d weathered those before. 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-latelys who would jump ship as soon as the next fad surfaced? That new Superman was going to suck.

He didn’t. After the six part miniseries by John Byrne and Dick Giordano, the saga returned to monthly titles Superman, Adventures of Superman and Action Comics – which latter acted as a fan-pleasing team-up book guest-starring other stars of the DC Universe. Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway joined Byrne to create thrilling and visually exciting, contemporary and even socially aware slices of sheer exuberant, four-colour fantasy that were impossible to hate. Superman had always been great, but he was once again exciting. Rivetingly so.

This volume features not only the usual quota of Superman tales (Superman 7-8, Action 590-591 and Adventures of Superman 430-431) but also includes two issues of the Legion of Super-Heroes (#37-38) to reprint a classic back-writing exercise that solved an impossible post–Crisis paradox whilst giving us old geeks a chance to see a favourite character die in a way all heroes should. Paul Levitz, Greg LaRoque and Erik Larsen augment the regular creative teams in a classy, unrepentant super-feast.

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/girl-friend/mother’s next present sorted then, no?

© 1987, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: True Brit

Superman: True Brit 

Kim “Howard” Johnson & John Cleese, John Byrne & Mark Farmer
ISBN 1-4012-0022-2

I must be very hard to please. I’m always barking on about value and innovation, asking the producers of my favourite waste of time to be bold and try different things. So a Superman story using the talents of comic legend John Byrne and comedy superstar John Cleese should surely fill that bill?

Sadly, it would appear not. The premise of the alien foundling landing elsewhere than heartland America is a fundamental part of the Superman mythology now, and comedy is always a welcome break in such a messianic concept, but for Rao’s sake can’t the jokes be funny and the settings fresh? Let’s see what you get if that pesky rocket landed in a Welsh mining community or Birmingham or County Mayo rather than just cobble together a porridge of middle class suburbia, Wallace and Grommit backgrounds, Mary Poppins hand-me-downs and public school cast-offs.

This must have sounded so great around a restaurant table in a pitch meeting but the end result is just so terribly, terribly clichéd and pedestrian, merely slavishly pandering to American held myths of what the British are, do and think. I can hear editors saying “yeah, but our readers won’t get that so why don’t we…” all through this. And every time they said it the answer should have been “Nothing new there, then”.

Am I offended? Not particularly. Self deprecating humour is part and parcel of the British psyche. I just don’t like paying for old jokes and rejected shtick that was done better in the 1970’s (most notably in 2000AD’s Kaptain Klep strip – some of Kev O’Neill’s best early work – and which you should track down).

I can understand importing major talent from outside the industry for a fresh approach. I can see the need for big names to expand the brand. What I can’t see is permitting sub-standard work. Surely they can do better than this?

And don’t call me Shirley.

© 2004 DC Comics

Superman Chronicles vol 1

Superman Chronicles vol 1 

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-259-2

A welcome soft-cover collection of the earliest stories of the Man of Steel and quite literally the birth of a genre if not an actual art form. Here is the crude, rough, uncontrollable wish-fulfilling exuberance of a righteous and superior man dealing out summary justice to wife-beaters, reckless drivers and exploitative capitalists, as well as thugs and ne’er-do-wells which captured the imagination of a generation. Here they are presented in totality and chronological order from Action Comics #1 (June 1938) through #13 (June 1939), his appearance from New York’s World Fair No. 1 (also from June 1939) and culminating with the landmark first issue of his own solo title from July of that year.

As well as cheap price and no-nonsense design and presentation, and not withstanding the historical significance of the material presented within, there is a magnificent bonus for any one who hasn’t read some or all of these tales before. They are astonishingly well-told and engrossing mini-epics that can still grip the reader.

In a world where Angels With Dirty Faces, Bringing Up Baby and The Front Page are as familiar to our shared cultural consciousness as the latest episode of Dr Who or the next Bond movie, the dress, manner and idiom in these near-seventy year old stories can’t jar or confuse. They are simply timeless, enthralling, and great.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: That Healing Touch

Superman: That Healing Touch 

By Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Matthew Clark & Rags Morales (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-196-0

A character that has been continuously published for nearly seventy years can have some fairly extreme highs and lows. More often than not the lows are the real killer, as that’s when fans jump ship. Sometimes that’s nothing more than a portion of the audience being out of step with editorial thinking. Sometime the product is just not good enough. I’m not going to say which I think is the blame for my belief here, that after a woefully poor period recently, an element of reasonable quality is creeping back into Superman’s adventures.

That Healing Touch (reprinting Adventures of Superman #633-638 and Superman Secret Files 2004) moves once again towards an element of closer continuity between tales as it tells of an ongoing duel between our hero and the despicable villain Ruin who seems hell-bent on testing Superman by attacking all his friends.

Also welcome after so many months of testosterone drenched agony and angst are a few lighter – if somewhat portentous – moments signalled by the carefully handled appearances of the interdimensional sprite and long-time gadfly Mr Mxyzptlk (it’s a measure of my inherent Comic Guy Sadness that I typed that last word without having to look it up, and despite the sirens, steam and funny little croaking, pleading noises emanating from my spell-checker, I’m just not going to ‘Add To Dictionary’).

If the impetus continues to be “back” toward story and characterisation over torn S-shirts and snarling we could be in for a veritable reading renaissance.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel 

By Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-211-8

A dark and brooding look into the heart and soul of Superman’s ultimate and eternal foe tries to add gravitas to villainy by explaining Lex Luthor’s actions in terms of his belief that the heroic Kryptonian is a real and permanent danger to the spirit of humanity.

Using the business and social – not to say criminal – machinations undertaken by the billionaire (believed by the world at large to be nothing more than a sharp and philanthropic industrial mogul) to get a monolithic skyscraper built in Metropolis and the necessary depths sunk to in order to achieve this ambition is a strong metaphor, but the semi-philosophical mutterings, so very reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, although flavoursome, don’t really add anything to Luthor’s character and even serve to dilute much of the pure evil force of his character.

Flawed characters truly make more believable reading, especially in today’s cynical and sophisticated world, but such renovations shouldn’t be undertaken at the expense of the character’s heart. At the end Luthor is again defeated, this book’s protagonist is diminished without travail and nothing has been risked, won or lost. The order restored is of an unsatisfactory and unstable kind, and our look into the villain’s soul has made him smaller, not more understandable.

Lee Bermejo’s art, however, goes from strength to strength and fans of drawing should consider buying this simply to stare in wonder at the pages of beauty and power that he’s produced here.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.