Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: Action Comics #1

The DC Relaunch came out in full force this week and the comic I was looking forward to the most Action Comics #1 by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales.

Of all the new comics, Morrison's Action was the one I had the most faith in, the one I felt was most likely going to be excellent. A lot of that has to do with Morrison, a writer I have followed since his earliest work, someone whose work rarely lets me down. It helped immensely that in his All Star Superman and JLA, Morrison seemed to have such an easy understanding of who Superman is and what Superman represents. There was nothing wrong with the characterization there.

Now some things slipping out of the DC camp about Superman has made me pause and ponder pessimism. When I hear how his parents and Lois aren't around for him, that he has no tether to humanity and will feel more alienated, I worry that the powers-that-be at DC don't have the same understanding of who Superman is. Certainly missteps like the earliest issues of 'Grounded' bolster that worry.

But Morrison always said that his Superman in Action, these earliest career stories, would evoke the Golden Age Superman, the Siegel and Shuster stories. And I have read enough books about Superman to know that those guys had Superman defend the downtrodden, to do what was right for people much more than simply battling super-villains. So I always thought that Morrison would right the ship regardless of what editorial had to say.

I was right.

Action Comics #1 really hit on all cylinders, harkening back to those earliest stories in many ways, but showing us a young Superman still learning, still becoming. Even his powers are still growing. The cover shows that he isn't faster than a speeding bullet right now. And the issue flowed so easily, nothing seeming forced or rushed. On top of that, Morales art has a sort of 'classic' feel to it, a whiff of retro that fit perfectly with this flashback story.

Now when I like things, I tend to gush so this might be a longer review than usual, with lots of scans for referral, so bear with me if you can.

The story opens with Superman confronting an unscrupulous businessman named Glenmorgan, holding him on the ledge of a penthouse while the police bear down. What he is really looking for here is justice. As he says, Superman realizes that the law doesn't work the same for the rich versus the poor. Someone has to defend the little guy.

Of course, this is assault and Superman is an unknown at this point in time. So the Police arrive, aim their guns, and tell him to stand down.

But almost immediately you can tell that this is a Superman who cares. If he felt alienated and isolated, why would he crusade like this. In the end, after a frightening jump off the building, Glenmorgan does confess to bribery, no safety standards, and illegal labor. These all resonate to the earliest Siegel/Shuster stories where Superman fought for safer mining practices, better labor laws, and against corrupt government officials.

This isn't TerraMan that Superman is fighting.

That look back, that feel of early Superman stories, is felt even in the little title blurb which includes this small picture of Superman breaking chains. Now that image has been done many times in many poses. But this one reminded me of one in particular.

It reminded me of this classic picture by Shuster that was used all over the place. I know it most as the picture used on the letters sent to kids in the 30s and 40s when they joined the 'Supermen of America' fan club.

And here is Superman's credo. Treat people right or expect a visit.

That doesn't sound like someone who doesn't care.

As a vigilante, working out in the open, Superman's actions, for now, probably are frowned upon by the police and other people in authority. This 'attack' on Glenmorgan has not only got the attention of Metropolis' finest, but also the military. The city is put on alert.

Part of that counter force is the military. And in an 'everything old is new again' moment, that includes General Sam Lane and Lex Luthor.

Morrison captures Luthor's smug superiority perfectly. Here he is a consultant for the military, asked to help the US stop Superman. He calls Superman a 'creature'. And he seems confidant that he will be able to capture the Man of Steel.

But there is a chilling inhumanity in Luthor already. He doesn't care that the fight between Superman and the army will be in the 'not entirely uninhabited' Galileo Square. Luthor doesn't care if the indigents die. So who is the creature?

The attack rocks buildings, causing some collapse, and forcing Superman to rescue the inhabitants. But a point blank tank shot batters Superman, dazing him.

Now the people have to save him, standing in front of the tanks, shielding Superman. It immediately shows just how Superman can connect to people and bring out their best. But more importantly, look at Superman smiling, hugging the people who are protecting him. That is Superman.

Superman is able to slip away, jumping (not flying) back to his apartment.

But a tank shot levelling him?

Can it be that at this time 'nothing less than a bursting shell' can hurt him?

I have said elsewhere that it is the man that is the most important part of Superman. It is the upbringing by the Kents that made Superman who he is. It is his life as Clark that formed his ethics.

So this peek into Clark's life is telling. He lives in one of the poorest sections of town. He writes for one of the newspapers but as a crusader there as well. His landlady describes him as an inspiration. Clark even talks of the hard knocks he got in Smallville as ingraining his resilient nature.

Morales does a good job here showing just how Superman could hide as Clark. The uncombed hair, the oversized shirt ... it is effective.

Even the Spartan decor in Clark's apartment shows us how he is a simple person. He doesn't have a TV. His door doesn't have a lock. Only the astronomical chart hints at something more.

But something else I liked was the landlady talking about Superman as a hero of the people, defending people who live in places like this. That includes him helping a victim of spousal abuse.

Again, Morrison is looking back to the earliest days. Here in the first Action Comics #1, Superman does just that, stopping a man from beating his wife. That Superman got his hands dirty if he needed to.

Clark's first call is to his friend Jimmy Olsen, who just happens to be with Lois Lane, trailing Glenmorgan's ex-enforcer.

It turns out Clark right now writes for the Planet's biggest rival. Does that mean Clark writes for the Star (as he did in the first issue of the 1938 Action)? Clark does call in his story to his editor Mr. Taylor (again the editor of the Star way back when).

In this scene we learn a lot about Lois. She is fearless, and dogged, and willing to put herself in danger to get a story.

Clark tells Jimmy to get Lois and get off the train. Somehow Clark warns them to not get on any trains because of the earlier Glenmorgan incident. I don't know how he makes that leap, the one small blemish on the flow of the book.

But Clark was right. The train Lois and Jimmy are on is sabotaged. It speeds out of control and then derails. Superman is barely able to contain the tragedy, slowing the train down as it careens down the street.

This massive disaster reminded more of Byrne's space plane rescue than anything earlier.

And it turns out that Luthor is behind it all. He arranged for this train disaster, a way to aim 'the world's biggest bullet' at Superman. Luthor looks at Superman as part of an alien infestation, a parasite to undermine his ecology. And now he has stopped him!

So I enjoyed this book immensely. It really did feel like Siegle and Shuster's Superman, 'the Champion of the oppressed' devoted to 'helping those in need!'

It also did just what it was supposed to do as a first issue. We have a strong sense of who Superman is here, who Clark is. We have some action to fuel the fire. We have the introduction of the villain. We meet Lois and get just a taste of who she is. And we have a great cliffhanger. There are also nice small flourishes (Jimmy's phone's ring tone is zee zee zee) and some smaller mysteries (who was the good looking blonde looking for Clark at his apartment) to grab me too.

Much like Justice League #1, I don't know if this necessarily feels 'new'. This also could have been released last year as yet another 'Superman Secret Origins' and I wouldn't have batted an eyelash. But unlike Justice League, this felt like a good opening, this did what it needed to do.

And, as I said before, Morales seems well suited for the book. This was the big win of week one.

Overall grade: A


Martin Gray said...

Very worthwhile gush, Anj! This was a great introduction to the new Superman, let's hope the 'five years later' Superman #1 is just as good.

Diabolu Frank said...

I'll be picking it up!

Anonymous said...

Agreed. A+ Issue. This is the Superman I want to read about.

Dave Mullen said...

I'm pretty sure the 'friends' visiting Clark were the Legions founder members, I recall Morrison allegedly saying there was going to be a LSH reference in the first issue and this fits the bill.

As an issue it was certainly memorable, I'm still absorbing it, there's stuff in there I don't feel comfortable with but I do applaud DC for taking the leap to give us a very radical take on Superman and make him someone people will talk about again.

But I can do without the Clark-as-peter Parker treatment!

taichara said...

Pass. I'm not interested in a Superman who is a bully who threatens, and I don't care who it is he's bullying and threatening.

Chad N. said...

Fantastic and insightful summary, Anj. As always, you pick up on more than a few things I missed. I would add that after reading Morrison's book, "Supergods," where he devotes an entire chapter to Golden Age Superman and Batman, that his initial approach to Action Comics #1 was not surprising.

mathematicscore said...

Love this.

A few comments;

@taichara: There is a fine line between bullying and standing up against wrongdoers. Especially in our youth, like Superman here, it can be difficult to make the distinction. And as Anj astutely points out, this is a purer Superman than we've seen is quite sometime. Christopher Reeves and All Star Superman grow out of this Superman.

@Dave Mullen, and Anj too; I've never been a Peter Parker fan, but here we're getting the relatability with out the whining. To me, the negative connotation of Peter Parker is feeling sorry for himself. This Superman doesn't feel sorry for himself. Look to the cover of issue two; He's beaten and captured, but defiant.

Easily the best of the "new 52" so far.

Anonymous said...

Great review, and a great book. I loved this from beginning to end, and Superman had the hero mojo here he had lost in the last few years. I hope that Supergirl gets to be this good!

Based on this it doesn't sound like it though.

Anj said...

Thanks for all the comments.

I can't believe I missed the Legion thing! Thanks so much for pointing that out.

I agree that he isn't Parker here. There doesn't seem to be any of the 'woe is me' with this Superman.

This was a big win.

Kandou Erik said...

Quite frankly, this anti-establishment sentiment for the new Superman is very welcome right now. I look at the likes of the GOP, crushing unions and giving the rich tax breaks, while deciding they want to dismantle medicare and social security -- so it's deeply satisfying to see a character like Superman, standing up for the little guy again. (Well, he always did that. But now he's doing it while terrorizing corrupt cops! ^_^)