Action Comics Annual #1 came out last week and much like the main title, had a feature story and a back-up. I'll be reviewing the main story here.
The solicit for this story touted it as filling in some of the missing 5 years between Grant Morrison's early Action stories and the current ones in Superman. I think that was something of a mistake as this story seems to take place squarely after Action Comics #8 in the aftermath of the Collector/Brainiac story.
Sholly Fisch, who has been turning in great back-up stories in Action, gets to write the main story here and really gets to shine. One thing that I have loved about Fisch's back-up stories has been that they build up the characterization of the supporting cast, filling in some gaps and making them more well rounded. Fisch does the same thing here. This is a Superman story, but it is equally a John Henry Irons story, a Luthor story, a Clay Ramsey story, and even a tiny bit of a Lois story. And I love that sort of layering in characters, making them three dimensional.
Cully Hamner provides the art here. I have always been a big fan of Hamner and I think his stuff just shines here.
In the end, I think it is that characterization that lifts this Annual up. The story ... Superman teaming up to beat up a bad guy ... is pretty standard. But all the nuances, the motivations, and the dialogue add significant meat to that skeleton.
In prison, Clay Ramsey, the spousal abuser from Action Comics #1, is approached to be part of a scientific experiment to create a 'defense' against Superman. It is initially unclear who is behind this project but Ramsey couldn't care less. He signs up.
What is interesting is that the only prisoners approached seem to be those who have a hatred for Superman. In fact, the scientist probes why the hatred is there, almost as if he wants to make sure it is real. And Ramsey lost everything because of Superman.
What I like here was that everyone fell in line behind Superman in locking this guy up. No one would contradict Superman or fight Superman ... not the cops, not lawyers, not anyone. The police and the justice system working with Superman. I think this is the first time I have heard about that since the DCnU started.
This was the first feeling of distrust and isolation I have really felt in Action Comics. I'd like to think Superman would judge a man by his deeds. That Irons coming in to help would mean more than his sitting in the crowd. But anyways, Superman wants to know if he has an enemy in Irons. And John seems shocked that Superman would think that. He tries to reassure Superman he isn't.
As I said, this issue takes place right after Action Comics #8. Luthor is stripped of his military credentials. After all he made a deal with the Collector. But Luthor is smug. He knows the military will come back to him for deterrents against Superman.
I should have guessed about who was behind Ramsey's experiment given that we transition from Luthor's scene to Ramsey getting bombarded with K-radiation. What is supposed to be an early test run gets out of control as Ramsey soaks up much more Kryptonite energy than expected, begins to radiate green, and stomps off looking for revenge.
As I said, there is a little bit of Lois in this story. But the little bit of Lois here is greater than the Lois we have been seeing in Superman recently.
Look at this Lois, with Jimmy, as she reports on a huge crane about to topple off a skyscraper. She doesn't just want to report the news, she wants to be part of it. She wants to help. This is the Lois who looked at Superman save the boy from the train in Action Comics #0 and realized she saw something super. This is the Lois I want to read.
"Maybe even find a way to help." That one line spoke volumes.
The crane rescue is interrupted by Ramsey who is now just dripping with K-energy and basically having his way with Superman. This is the first time Kryptonite has been used as a weapon in the DCnU, right?
Okay, so there's a brawl. But I love how Superman justifies what he did to Ramsey. He had a responsibility to help Ramsey's wife. A responsibility to help out on that scale, on a personal level. That's Superman.
His reward, a sort of Kryptonite kamehameha wave (sorry that I always resort to Dragon Ball Z references.)
Just when it looks like Ramsey is going to finish off Superman, Irons shows up, once again in his Steel outfit.
And he has brought something with him ... a radiation suit.
And he has brought something else too. Time. Irons skirmishes with Ramsey. Irons is hopelessly outmatched and he knows it. But he also knows that he needs to give Superman some time to juice up and suit up. I love it ... intelligence and guts.
And unlike prior incarnations of the Kryptonite Man, Ramsey isn't living Kryptonite, isn't a source of K-radiation. Instead he seems more like a Kryptonite battery. And the battle with Superman and Steel has depleted him.
So always wondered why the old Kryptonite Man wasn't perennially sprung from jail by other villains. If he was walking Kryptonite, he would always be the perfect partner in crime. So I like this more limited version.
Irons doesn't want to be a super-hero. He just wants to help people. He doesn't think he'll be Steel that much. Instead, he'll head Steelworks, a mobile tech company to help people help themselves.
That is how Superman inspires.
I love the 'aw shucks' look on Superman's face. He isn't comfortable with accolades. I like that humility.
And then we get another great Lois moment. Irons wonders where Ramsey got access to Kryptonite. Superman knows who he can ask to investigate.
You know what that makes Lois? A hero too. Look at her standing proud, right there with the heroes. I love it.
The book ends with a sort of coda for the main characters.
Ramsey is back in jail ... and approached by the military to see if he wants training.
Irons is out in the world helping, never forgetting who inspired him. For me, this panel resonated. I always say that being inspired by Superman can be daunting. You can't look too long at the sun. So that panel, with Irons shielding his eyes, trying to look at Superman and inspire to be like him, it felt like it was written for me.
And he is quite happy. He now has a weapon against Superman. And I like that we learn how harmonics will make different colored K-waves. So no more 'mysterious cosmic clouds' making Red K? No more duplication rays for Blue K? I'm actually okay with it.
So overall a very good character driven issue. It is one where we see how Superman can inspire people to do good (Steel, Lois) or evil (Ramsey, Luthor). It puts a new spin on the Kryptonite Man and colored Kryptonite. And it also shows us a Superman who feels responsible for everyone. It was this characterization that carried this book.
I'll be sad when Fisch stops doing the Action back-ups. And I always love Cully Hamner art. So I was pretty happy with this issue.
Overall grade: B+