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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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The Adventures of Superman – The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Review)

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.

Max Landis has a relatively unique path to writing for Superman.

Landis is one of the most striking young writers to emerge from Hollywood in quite some time, making a strong impression through his collaboration with Josh Trank in the low-budget found-footage superhero film Chronicle. Landis has diversified somewhat since that original screenplay; a filmography that includes films like Mr. Right, American Ultra and Victor Frankenstein suggests that Landis’ interests lie more in unconventional pairings than in the superhero genre itself.

The Joker's gags really bombed...

The Joker’s gags really bombed…

Nevertheless, Landis is a writer who does seem fascinated with the mechanics and underlying logic of superhero storytelling. A year before the release of Chronicle, Landis put together a short film that served as an extended discussion of The Death and Return of Superman featuring a variety of top tier talent like Mandy Moore, Elijah Wood, Ron Howard and Simon Pegg. At once reveling in the absurdity of the massive nineties comic book crossover and interrogating its central character’s identity crisis, it was a potent piece of pop culture criticism.

In the years following his initial success, Landis has remained relatively connected with the Man of Steel. He drafted an eight-page origin for the Atomic Skull for the first annual of DC comics’ relaunched Action Comics run, and would get a change to craft his own origin story for Clark Kent in American Alien. However, he also wrote a short two-issue story as part of DC’s digital-first The Adventures of Superman comic, scripting Superman’s first encounter with the Clown Prince of Crime.

Last laugh...

Last laugh…

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The X-Files (Wildstorm) #3-4 (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

Frank Spotnitz could not stick around forever.

The veteran X-Files writer and producer could not stick around for even half a year. These days, it is customary for “big name” authors to commit to a very short run of comic book issues before jumping off; while comic book veterans like Marv Wolfman or Chuck Dixon or Chris Claremont would have committed to years on a particular title during the seventies and eighties, it became increasingly common for higher profile writers to enjoy shorter stints. While this is the case for high-profile industry veterans like Warren Ellis, it is particularly true of celebrity authors.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

Brad Meltzer wrote thirteen issues of Justice League of America. Kevin Smith wrote eight (and a bit) issues of Daredevil and fifteen issues of Green Arrow. Richard Donner wrote seven issues of Action Comics, and contributed a short story to the anniversary special. Sam Hamm wrote three issues of Detective Comics. While these creators might have had great stories to tell with these characters, they were also not necessarily comfortable with committing to a month schedule indefinitely. (They also had careers outside the medium, to be fair.)

Still, there is something quite jarring about Frank Spotnitz’s departure from Wildstorm’s X-Files comic book after only three issues. Spotnitz barely had time to define what the comic was supposed to be, beyond a glimpse into a weird alternate universe where Mulder and Scully are trapped in a perpetual 1998. It is debatable whether a licensed tie-in really needs anything more than that, given the tendency to treat such tie-ins as little more than a supplement to a more mainstream iteration of the same basic product.

DECEIVE INVEIGLE OBFUSCATE

DECEIVE INVEIGLE OBFUSCATE

At the same time, it feels like Spotnitz’s departure leaves an already confused monthly series with no strong identity of its own. Quite pointedly, Spotnitz’s name still appears on the full cover to the first issue written by Marv Wolfman; whether this suggests that Spotnitz was intended to write the issue or simply the result of a rush to press is unclear. As a result, Wildstorm ended up passing its X-Files monthly series from one writer to another, with industry (and DC comics) veterans Marv Wolfman and Doug Moench each handling a two-part story.

The results are intriguing, if not particularly compelling. Wildstorm’s X-Files comics are most remarkable for its sense of detachment from anything and everything. It is “unstuck” in a way that none of the franchise’s other flirtations with comic book storytelling are not. In its own way, this feels entirely appropriate; this is The X-Files as published by one of the two most largest and most iconic comic book publishers. Continue reading

Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #39-40 – The Return of Mudd (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

By its nature, Star Trek had very few recurring guest stars – outside of recurring extras and the supporting senior staff.

Star Trek was a prime-time science-fiction show in the sixties. As such, it was strongly episodic. More than that, it was a show that included its stated goal – “to explore strange new worlds” – in a narration over the opening credits. As such, the show did not tend to bring back too many recurring characters. Gene L. Coon had tried to introduce a recurring foil for Kirk in the second season, but Robert Justman had vetoed the reappearance of Kor in A Private Little War and Coon would depart before he could follow through on plans to make Koloth a recurring adversary.

Our man Mudd...

Our man Mudd…

Of course, this has not stopped Star Trek fans from seizing on various one-shot characters from the three seasons of the original Star Trek. Despite only appearing in Errand of Mercy, Kor has become a frequently recurring character in the Star Trek mythos. Gary Seven has spun off from Assignment: Earth into a string of novels and comics. Christopher Pike only appeared with Kirk in one single story, but there is a huge amount of literature dedicated to him. Still, this means that the elements which do recur are given a bit more weight.

Klingons, Romulans and Vulcans are a vital part of the Star Trek mythos. Khan Noonien Singh only appeared in Space Seed and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but his memory haunts the franchise to the point where he was revived for Star Trek Into Darkness. Harry Mudd has the distinction of being the only non-crewmember to recur within the original run of eighty episodes. So it is no surprise that Harry Mudd has become one of the most frequently recurring guest stars in the history of the franchise.

Kirk meets quirky...

Kirk meets quirky…

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Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #9-16 – New Frontiers (aka The Mirror Universe Saga) (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

Eight issues is a long time in the world of comic books, even by the standards of modern storytelling. Committing to the same story arc for two-thirds of a calendar year is a big decision, even moreso in December 1984. Nevertheless, DC comics committed to an eight-issue Star Trek story arc in the wake of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, on throwing Kirk and the crew into a truly epic adventure with the fate of the Federation hanging on the line. It is no wonder that The Mirror Universe Saga remains the gold standard for Star Trek comic books, reprinted and repackaged repeatedly over the years.

The Mirror Universe Saga is an epic in just about every sense of the word, spanning two universes and eight issues. Not only do writer Mike Barr and artist Tom Sutton find themselves handling the fallout from the last feature film, but they also dabble in an iconic piece of Star Trek history. The Mirror Universe Saga takes full advantage of its format to offer a spectacular and impressive adventure that would have been impossible to realise on film in 1984 – indeed, it is hard to imagine television or cinema doing justice to the scale of the adventure now.

Meeting of minds...

Meeting of minds…

However, The Mirror Universe Saga succeeds on more than simply epic scale and meticulous attention to detail – although Barr and Sutton provide those with gusto. Despite everything going on around it, The Mirror Universe Saga largely works because it never loses track of the characters at the heart of the story. While the Terran Empire might be plotting an invasion in the midst of an internal revolution, the more powerful moments of The Mirror Universe Saga come from throwing the characters into contact with their alternate selves.

In 1984, it seems like The Mirror Universe Saga had figured out what would be the core ingredients for the most successful follow-ups to Mirror, Mirror. It deduced that the mirror universe could not just be playground where everything is gloriously and campily evil; it had to retain some level of emotional reality or connection. What good is a mirror if it is not reflecting anything?

Set course... for eeeevil!

Set course… for eeeevil!

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The Flash (1987-2009) #9-11 – The Chunk/Chunk in the Void/Chunk Barges In (Review)

So, I’m considering reviewing this season of The Flash, because the pilot looks interesting and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Scarlet Speedster. I’m also considering taking a storyline-by-storyline trek through the 1987-2009 Flash on-going series as a companion piece. If you are interested in reading either of these, please let me know in the comments.

While writing The Flash, Mike Baron tended to avoid established villains.

While appearances from Vandal Savage bookend the run, most of the character’s iconic rogues are completely missing from the first year of the title. There is no Reverse-Flash, no Captain Cold, no Weather Wizard, no Heatwave, no Captain Boomerang, no Trickster. Instead, Baron tended to create his own antagonists for Wally West. To be fair, his creatures tended to pop up here and there over the years, but none of them really broke through into the character’s regular supporting cast.

It's the end of the world as we know it...

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

Perhaps Chunk came closest. Chester Runk is the most memorable and well-defined new character to appear during Baron’s run on the title. The character would never become a regular fixture of The Flash, but he would pop up time and again over the years. It is easy to see that might be the case. He is rather distinct from most of the other baddies to debut under Baron’s pen. He looks visually distinctive, has a nice character hook, and fits quite comfortably in the world of The Flash. He’s a nice adversary.

Sadly, his debut story is not a good story.

The big man...

The big man…

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The Flash (1987-2009) #7-8 – Red Trinity/Purple Haze (Review)

So, I’m considering reviewing this season of The Flash, because the pilot looks interesting and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Scarlet Speedster. I’m also considering taking a storyline-by-storyline trek through the 1987-2009 Flash on-going series as a companion piece. If you are interested in reading either of these, please let me know in the comments.

Red Trinity and Purple Haze are at least plotted a bit more tightly than Mike Baron’s earlier issues of The Flash.

Baron’s first two two-part stories on The Flash had seen Wally West literally running into trouble – encountering both Vandal Savage and the Kilg%re by chance while running across the country. Speed McGee was only slightly more subtle, revealing that Wally was now dating a woman whose husband just happened to be working on attempts to generate super-speed. Wally seemed to spend the first six months of The Flash randomly bumping into trouble that seemed tailor-made for him.

... And we're off!

… And we’re off!

While the plotting of Red Trinity is hardly elegant, it at least makes a bit more sense. Baron builds off the events of Speed McGee to present a story that flows relatively logically – well, according to comic book logic. Instead of conveniently crossing paths with a problem tailored to his abilities, Wally instead sets out specifically to find the problem at the heart of this issue. His encounter with the eponymous trio is as part of his attempts to help find a cure for the self-titled “Speed Demon”, Jerry McGee.

Inevitably, this brings him into conflict with more new opponents perfectly suited to do battle with The Flash.

Trio of terror?

Trio of terror?

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