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Grant Morrison’s Run on Action Comics (Review/Retrospective)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

On paper, Grant Morrison and Rag Morales’ Action Comics should have been a slam dunk.

The title was announced as part of DC’s “new 52” relaunch, a resetting of the comic book giant’s continuity beginning in September 2011. Designed to revitalise the line, shoring up sales numbers and providing a clear point of entry, the “new 52” was clearly intended as a “jumping on” point for new and lapsed comic fans. It was bold and radical, an even greater departure for the company than their reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths back in 1986. The comic book publisher gave themselves a blank slate.

Wow, he IS more powerful than a locomotive...!

Wow, he IS more powerful than a locomotive…!

In theory, this was a great idea; anything was possible and everything was on the table. In practice, the execution was more muddled; the massive experiment curtailed by a very conservative aesthetic. In many respects, the “new 52” felt like more of the same; familiar mid-tier talent working on familiar mid-tier ideas. The most interesting books were those that dared to do things differently; Scott Snyder inverting Alan Moore’s brilliant twist on Swamp Thing made for iconoclastic reading, as did Brian Azzarello’s ground-up reimagining of Wonder Woman.

In contrast, a lot of the line felt like hedging. Hellblazer was cancelled so that John Constantine could be dragged under the corporate umbrella in Justice League Dark, all in the name of coporate synergy. The Wildstorm characters were ported over into mainstream continuity, in spite of the fact that they were largely redundant or incompatible. Instead of courting either exciting new talent or industry veterans, the company had difficulty drawing top-tier talent. Scott Lobdell and Rob Liefeld were among the relaunch’s heavy hitters.

... And what was that about speeding bullets?

… And what was that about speeding bullets?

To be fair, there were bright spots. But the ideas and concepts that were interesting were frequently hobbled by the demands of the publisher. All-Star Western was diminished by having to tie to Gotham City continuity, while attempts at genre diversity in books like Demon Knights or I, Vampire were under-promoted. Emphasis was placed squarely on monthly print sales numbers, with little patience for books to grow their audiences whether online or through collected editions.

In spite of all the confusion and chaos of the relaunch, Grant Morrison writing Action Comics was the cause of considerable excitement. Morrison was one of few comic book writers who could legitimately be described as a superstar, arguably with a higher profile outside mainstream comics than executives Jim Lee and Geoff Johns. Having Morrison on a monthly book was a big deal, particularly a monthly book as important to the company’s legacy as Action Comics. (Then again, the relaunch also chose to put Tony Daniel on Detective Comics, so there’s that.)

Happily never after...

Happily never after…

More than that, the book represented something of a homecoming for Morrison. Although the character of Superman had struggled with issues of relevance in the twenty-first century, Morrison had been the architect of one of the character’s most beloved stories. All-Star Superman is widely regarded as one of the best Superman stories ever published. Having its author writing a monthly book as part of the relaunch was a big deal. Following high-profile misfires like New Krypton or Grounded, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to put Superman back on the right course.

In many respects, Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics typifies the sort of push-and-pull at the publisher as part of the relaunch. The great ideas smothered by corporate mandates, the tension between familiarity and novelty, the burden of expectation even while trying to chart a new course. For better or worse, Action Comics could be seen as the flagship of DC’s “new 52” initiative. This seems entirely appropriate, given the title’s historical significance to DC comics.

Running jump...

Running jump…

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Superman: The Man of Tomorrow Archives, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Silver Age comic books are, by their nature, different from modern comics. It’s more than just evolving social norms, or even shifting artistic sensibilities. There’s a massive world of difference between a fairly average comic written in the mid-sixties and a similarly average comic produced today. While I’d be reluctant to describe the comics contained in Superman: The Man of Tomorrow Archives, Vol. 1 as “great” or “brilliant”, they have a certain charm or novelty to them. They feel alien and unique, as if offering a raw and unrefined sample of a mood that Superman has been chasing for the past two or three decades.

While I don’t think Batman was as well-served by the sixties as he was by later decades, there’s a surreal innocence to these comics which speak to Superman as a character. These are the comics that probably inspired Richard Donner’s Superman film, and though artists like Al Plastino, Curt Swan or Dick Sprang might not have drawn a Superman who resembled Christopher Reeve, it’s very easy to imagine him fitting in among these stories quite easily.

The Silver standard?

The Silver standard?

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Flashpoint: Project Superman (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

I actually quite liked Flashpoint. I can accept that the event had its flaws. It was a less than ideal set up for a radical shift in the status quo and a significant proportion of its tie-ins were absolutely terrible, but these are problems that seem inherent to any big “universe-altering comic book event.” However, despite that, I liked the idea of viewing the DC universe “through a glass, darkly.” Seeing familiar, but distorted reflections of DC icons cast as terrifyingly cynical nineties anti-heroes.

By positing that any world inhabiting these grim anti-heroic substitutes was severely broken, Geoff Johns was able to reaffirm the idealism of the Silver Age. Contrasting DC’s stable of iconic heroes to their darkened reflections allows us to take stock of what is really essential to them as characters. Project Superman provides a glimpse at an alternate version of Superman, one raised under very different circumstances. It dares to ask what is the essential ingredient in making Superman the character we know and love.

It’s a deeply flawed three-issue story, and can’t measure up to Brian Azzarello’s superb Batman: Knight of Vengeance, but it’s still a fascinating look at what makes Superman into Superman.

A broken world...

A broken world…

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Non-Review Review: Superman vs. The Elite

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Superman has struggled with his pop culture credibility for quite some time now. The character is seen as too old-fashioned or outdated to really resonate in the modern world, standing for an overly simplistic and unquestioning moral philosophy which doesn’t take into account the nuances of current realities. Superman vs. The Elite, adapted from Joe Kelly’s What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?, represents an attempt to counter this opinion of Superman as a character. Unfortunately, it never really does so be convincing us that the character is still relevant. Instead, it creates a bunch of convenient straw men to oppose our hero, and never allows him to win on his own terms.

Beware the Superman...

Beware the Superman…

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Superman: The Animated Series – Blasts From the Past, Parts 1 & 2 (Review)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Blasts from the Past feels like it should be a better episode. After all, Superman’s relationship with his Kryptonian heritage should be fodder for good drama. If you read Superman as a parable for the American Dream – the story of an orphan from far away who comes to America and makes something of himself – it’s always fascinating to look at that story from the other direction. What are Superman’s ties to Krypton, a planet destroyed before he could speak? Does he define himself as Kryptonian?

Some versions of the character’s mythology suggest that his outfit is Kryptonian armour. Most recent takes on the character suggest that the famous “S-shield” is the emblem of the House of El. There are a lot of interesting questions about how an alien from a dead world who has become the protector of Earth must see himself. Is he one or other, both, or neither? Most interpretations seem to opt for “both”, although the suggestion is that Kal-El leans more heavily towards Earth.

Blasts from the Past should be a vehicle to explore this, bringing back two Kryptonian characters and allowing Superman to interact with them. At the very least, perhaps it could be an exploration of how much a childhood on Earth changed Superman. Instead, it feels like a rather bland rehash of Superman II, just with some names changed.

Red sky in the... well, eternity, I guess...

Red sky in the… well, eternity, I guess…

 

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Superman: The Action Comics Archives, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

It’s interesting to look back that the early Superman stories in Action Comics. Given that Superman has picked up a reputation for being boring or predictable or safe or conservative, it’s amazing just how radical and inflammatory some of these very early Siegel and Shuster adventures are. These early Action Comics strips were undeniably and overtly political, presenting a strong-willed and proactive version of Superman completely unafraid to impose his will on the citizens of the world.

It’s a dramatically different take on the character than the version we’ve come to accept in popular culture, the benign and well-meaning boy scout who plays by the rules. Even Grant Morrison’s affectionate throwback to these early adventures can’t quite capture the same sense of subversive radicalism which presents us with a version of the iconic superhero who does just flaunt the authority of law enforcement or legislature, but often directly challenges it.

Smashing!

Smashing!

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Infinite Crisis: Superman – Sacrifice (Review)

This month I’m taking a look at DC’s massive “Infinite Crisis” Event. Although it was all published in one massive omnibus, I’ll be breaking down the lead-in to the series to tackle each thread individually, culminating in a review of the event itself. Check back for more.

I can see how Infinite Crisis earned its reputation as an overly-convoluted event. Even its tie-ins had tie-ins. In this case, the Superman: Sacrifice story, an arc spread across Superman, Action Comics and Wonder Woman, serves as a tie-in to Greg Rucka’s The O.M.A.C. Project, which was itself part of the lead-in to the big event. As you can imagine, it’s a rather strange trail of continuity to follow, as events here play out as a subset of a story that is itself a subset of something larger. While that is a problem of itself, the biggest problem with Superman: Sacrifice is that it takes an interesting enough central concept and reduces it to an over-extended four-issue arc about characters hitting each other really hard.

There’s blood on his hands…

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