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.

Superman: Sacrifice

Superman: Sacrifice 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-243-6

Rather humdrum conclusion to one of the major plot-lines of the Infinite Crisis event as Superman, mind-controlled by Maxwell Lord, architect of the plan to remove all super-beings from humanity, is compelled to attack his fellow heroes.

Reprinting Superman issues # 218-220, Adventures of Superman #442-443, Action Comics #829 and Wonder Woman #219-220, and featuring the efforts of nearly three dozen creators, this is still little more than a glossy but extended punch-up, culminating in what has been touted as an irreconcilable break-up between the DC Universe’s Big Three. As the volume ends – and I’m not being a spoiler by revealing this – those best of friends Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are alienated and apart – seemingly forever. Or at least until the next times sales dictate a team-up…

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Strange Attractors

Superman: Strange Attractors 

By Gail Simone, John Byrne & Nelson

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-249-5

Here’s a Superman collection that’s tailored to the fight fan, as the mighty Man of Steel takes on a bevy of baddies in short, terse tales designed as an antidote to all those multi-chapter epics. First up is a battle against the incredibly mad Master of Magnetism, Dr Polaris, aided, if not abetted, by the Egyptian super-being Black Adam. The original run of these stories was interrupted for the “Sacrifice” storyline (collected as a Graphic Novel of the same name), so this volume reconvenes with the episode after.

Dr. Psycho is an old Wonder Woman villain, an evil, sadistic dwarf with the power to control minds. When he arrives in Metropolis intent on mischief, Superman finds that every citizen is a foe and hostage at the same time. Once again, Black Adam is on hand to render ambivalent assistance, before it all devolves into the obligatory fist fight. Devil-surrogate Lord Satanus and the Spectre use the city as a phantasmal Ground Zero next, and, after refereeing that little cataclysm, Superman finds himself the target of a psychic and spiritual assault from old JLA foe The Queen of Fables. The fun concludes in a duel with Livewire, that perky punkette with absolute control of all things electrical.

Originally published as Action Comics #827-828 and #830-835, these yarns from Gail Simone and returning veteran John Byrne more than live up to that promise. Not overly complicated, concentrating on exhilaration and excitement, but still managing to sustain some tense sub-plots involving Lois and the venerable supporting cast, these stories are just plain fun. Let’s hope the fashion experiment catches on.

© 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Superman: Up, Up and Away!

Superman: Up, Up and Away! 

By Kurt Busiek, Geoff Johns, Pete Woods & Renato Guedes

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-348-3

After the never-ending calamity of the DC 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 gave themselves some narrative wiggle-room.

During that missing year, Superman vanished and Supergirl became the guardian of Metropolis. Clark Kent and his wife lived a normal, happy and successful life. Clark had adapted to a human scale of operation, but now that’s all about to change.

Lex Luthor is freed from prison – corporate lawyers never lose their powers – and moves to retake ‘his city’, the ex-Man of Steel still consorts with the likes of Green Lantern and Hawkgirl, but chooses to fight evil with a typewriter and a press pass. So when a plague of villains attacks, he’s helpless to resist the assault. Luckily that’s when his powers start to return, just as Luthor takes control of an ancient Kryptonian warship and moves to conquer the world. Can a gradually recovering but markedly under par Superman defeat the limitless power of the Kryptonite warship and regain his pre-eminent status as Earth’s greatest hero?

Of course he can. There’s no suspense here, and I suspect no attempt was made to create any. Everybody knows how this will end and the creators have wisely concentrated on spectacle rather than narrative. After the establishing set-ups there is a dogged trudge to the inevitable triumph and then the board is cleared for new adventures. This is not a great start for the rebooted Man of Tomorrow but it is a necessary one, although I do wonder how this story would have evolved if the movie Superman Returns had been released in a different year…

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

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.