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.

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.