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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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Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Run on Batman – Zero Year: Secret City & Dark City (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

It takes considerable bravery to craft an origin story for Batman in the wake of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Year One.

Superhero origins are constantly being tweaked and re-written and re-worked. Superman has had a half-dozen comic book origins (in- and out-of-continuity) since Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted the DC universe. There’s John Byrne’s Man of Steel, Kurt Busiek’s Secret Identity, Mark Waid’s Birthright, Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin, J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One and even Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run.

It's only a pale moon...

It’s only a pale moon…

In contrast, Batman has been relatively undisturbed, with only Geoff Johns’ Batman: Earth One positing an alternate origin story for the Caped Crusader. A large part of that is down to how sacred Year One is. Written by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, Year One is considered to be one of the best Batman comics ever published. It recently topped Comic Book Resources’ high-profile fan poll for the character’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

In many cases, an “if it ain’t broke…” mentality applies. Having a universally-beloved comic book story that is easily accessible as the origin story for a particular character is not a bad thing at all. You can hand Year One to anybody and they can read and enjoy it. Although undoubtedly a product of the late eighties, the comic remains relevant and compelling to this day. Indeed, we have not moved so far from the eighties that it’s hard to reconcile a Batman origin grounded in that social context.

Talk about falling so far...

Talk about falling so far…

However, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are the creative team working on the Batman book for the character’s seventy-fifth anniversary. The duo have enjoyed a tremendous run – managing that rare intersection of critical and commercial success in mainstream comics. There are legitimate criticisms to be made, but Snyder and Capullo’s Batman work does hold up as some of the best Batman comics produced in quite some time, and one of true success stories of DC’s “new 52.”

So, if there was ever a time to go back to Batman’s origin, this was it. A well-loved creative team, a significant anniversary, a clear distance between this time and Year One. The risk associated with Zero Year is phenomenal. It is an incredible gambit. Even though the story is not in competition with Year One, comparisons are inevitable. The result is a very satisfying and exciting tribute to an iconic comic book character that doesn’t quite surpass Year One, but is clever enough to be clear that it isn’t trying to.

Getting into the swing of things...

Getting into the swing of things…

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Geoff Johns’ Run on Green Lantern – War of the Green Lanterns (Review)

I think that Geoff Johns deserves to take the majority of the credit for pushing the Green Lantern series forward as one of the mostly highly regarded properties in DC’s stable of intellectual property. That the Green Lantern continuity was allowed to remain almost entirely intact represents a huge vote of confidence in Johns as a creator, and the work that he has done. Still, War of the Green Lanterns can’t help but feel like a bit of a disappointment. An attempt to do a “mini-event” contained to the franchise (similar to the successful Sinestro Corps War), War of the Green Lanterns suffers because it doesn’t have the same thematic through-line as its predecessor, one that engaged the reader throughout the carnage and crossovers. That’s not to say War of the Green Lanterns doesn’t have any good ideas, but that it’s too jumbled and mixed up to be great.

Mogo doesn't socialise...

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Absolute Crisis on Infinite Earths (Review/Retrospective)

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” This week I’ll be taking at the event that started it all, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, reprinted in DC’s oversized and slipcased Absolute line.

It’s interesting to reflect on Crisis on Infinite Earths, more than a quarter of a century after the twelve-issue maxi-series was published. In the time since, it seems like the editorial purpose driving the event – the desire to “simplify” DC’s tangled and messed continuity into one single and unified history by abolishing the myriad of alternate continuities – has been somewhat undone with the return of the multiverse in 52 and Final Crisis, but this arguably allows Wolfman and Pérez’s epic to be considered on its own merit. Although the series might not be as important as it once was in explaining the sometimes bizarre way that all of DC’s published line fit together, I think you can still see a huge influence of this crossover in the stories that the authors at DC are telling, and how they approach them.

Holding out for some heroes...

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Flashpoint (Review)

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” I’ll be starting with the most recent one, Flashpoint, following a week full of Flash stories.

Our world is in a violent transition of great change.

– President Obama tells us how it is

I really liked Flashpoint. I liked Flashpoint almost as much as I enjoyed Blackest Night, and far more than I enjoyed most big blockbuster “event” comic books. I think that Flashpoint buckles under the weight of the relaunch that followed – I find it quite sad that so many fans initially ignored the event only to jump on at the last minute because it was “suddenly important.” Does Flashpoint offer a fitting send-off to a version of the DC shared universe that dates back to Crisis on Infinite Earths? It doesn’t really, even if it offers some compelling arguments in favour of the relaunch that followed. Still, it’s a fascinating story about the icons who populate this shared universe, and what makes these enduring characters such heroic figures. Or, rather, what doesn’t make them heroic figures.

Flash sideways…

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Geoff Johns’ Run on The Flash – The Dastardly Death of the Rogues & The Road to Flashpoint (Review)

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” I’ll be starting with the most recent one, Flashpoint, following a week full of Flash stories.

It’s hard not to look at Geoff Johns’ return to The Flash and wonder what might have been. After all, his original run solidified Johns as a talent to watch in the superhero field, fed into his iconic Green Lantern run and paved the way to his ascent up the DC food chain. And it’s quite clear that DC were putting a lot of energy into pushing The Flash as the next “breakout franchise”, clearly hoping that Johns could find an angle on the character and mythos that would push the book up the sales charts to match the Batman and Green Lantern franchises. That obviously didn’t happen, but it feels like a shame because it very nearly could have happened, had things gone a little differently.

Flash! A-ha! He saves every one of us!

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Final Crisis: Rogues’ Revenge (Review/Retrospective)

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” I’ll be starting with the most recent one, Flashpoint, but – in the spirit of the character – we’re going to have a marathon run through Flash stories before we get there. Check back daily this week for more Flash-ified goodness…

Rumours on the street are that Jesse James bought it. I thought you might be dead, too. Tar pit said Zoom buried you under the Flash Museum. Computron swore you were banished to some kinda war planet. And Double Down bet me a grand the Titans had you locked up in their tower.

But you’re here. You escaped!

– The Trickster just about sums up everything that happened since Geoff Johns left

It was a touch period for the Flash after Geoff Johns finished his rather tremendous run on the character. Although Mark Waid’s first run with Wally West was a celebrated comic book run, his brief tenure on the title following Johns’ departure was not nearly as well received. Wally West was shipped off to an alternate dimension, and then brought back. The teenage Bart Allen was turned into the Flash, and then unceremoniously killed. The Rogues were sent to another planet, and the supporting cast suffered the indignity of Countdown to Final Crisis. All of this happened in a few years, and transformed DC’s Flash comic books from some of the best on the market to something of a joke.

However, Geoff Johns’ Final Crisis tie-in miniseries seems intended to assure the faithful that everything is going to be okay. Even Captain Cold dismisses everything that’s happened as “one %%@#$@-up year.”Let’s just put it behind us.

Cold warriors...

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