Saturday, September 10, 2011

Action Comics #1 - A Review

We’ve all heard the complaints. Superman is boring. Superman is too powerful. Superman is too much of a goody-goody. Superman is irrelevant today. Such is the perception, not only of the public at large, but most of the comic-buying community. Small wonder then that Grant Morrison would seemingly choose to directly tackle these complaints in his revamp of The Man Of Tomorrow.

Indeed, I heard a new batch of wholly new complaints about this issue before I had a chance to read it. Superman confronts a corrupt executive without any proof of wrong-doing! Superman is on the run from the police! Superman isn’t wearing his red underwear on the outside of his tights! Superman isn’t even wearing tights! And perhaps most shocking of all… Superman Doesn’t Fly!

I don’t know why people are so surprised. Grant Morrison is renowned for his ability to distill the complicated continuity of comics into its’ most basic elements and turning the world on its’ ear while doing so. He did it to the JLA with the simple idea of having DC Comics greatest heroes teaming up to face threats no one hero could face alone, just like in the original Silver Age comics or the Superfriends cartoons. He did it to X-Men by expanding upon the idea of what a growing mutant population would realistic entail by treating mutants like any other oppressed minority group, developing their own culture in response to the society that hated and feared them. And now he has revamped Superman for the modern world by taking him back to his roots as a hero of The Great Depression.

Does that sound a bit contradictory? Time for a quick history lesson, kids.

While the Superman of today is synonymous with the phrase over-powered, the Superman of 1938 – as originally created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel was a relative weakling by comparison. No juggling planets this hero! The Golden Age Superman could barely lift a car over his head and – while far faster than a normal man – lacked the speed to travel back in time. Perhaps the introduction to the Superman radio show at the time said it best.

Faster Than A Speeding Bullet!

More Powerful Than A Locomotive!

Able To Leap Tall Buildings In A Single Bound!

Most fans don’t know the source of the above quote but it is probably the best summary of Superman’s powers and their limits in popular culture. As such, it is only natural that Morrison used these exact standards to test the new Superman.

Faster Than A Speeding Bullet? Definitely. When he bothers to dodge them.

More Powerful Than A Locomotive? Probably. He’s called to test it by issue’s end.

Able To Leap Tall Buildings In A Single Bound? Depends on how tall it is.

Morrison has returned Superman to his Depression-Era roots in another less obvious respect. While the Superman of today is widely seen as a duty-bound, law-abiding Boy Scout, the Golden Age Superman had a much looser moral code. He still acted to preserve life above all else but was not above terrorizing the wicked in order to see justice done. The Golden Age Superman was a liberal activist, focusing his crime-fighting efforts upon greedy businessmen and corrupt politicians (i.e. those responsible for The Great Depression) rather than bank robbers and muggers. Indeed, comics scholar Roger Sabin described Superman as the embodiment of "the liberal idealism of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal", with Shuster and Siegel originally designing Superman as a champion of social reform as well as a crime-fighter.

Much of this first issue is taken up by two extended action sequences, with Superman fleeing the police after forcing a confrontation with sleazy businessman Mr. Glenmorgan. Monitoring the pursuit are General Sam Lane and independent contractor Lex Luthor – both charged by the US Government with bringing the so-called Superman to heel by any means necessary. This opens up the third act, where Luthor’s plan to draw Superman into the open unknowingly puts Clark Kent’s best friend Jimmy Olsen and rival reporter Lois Lane in harms way…

The plot is fairly standard stuff for those familiar with Superman, yet Morrison makes it all seem new again. Ironically, he does this by bringing back the classic elements of an older Superman into play. It is also ironic that while Luthor and Lane do their best to dehumanize Superman verbally (referring to Superman as “The Creature” and “It” rather than “He”), their actions only serve to humanize Superman all the more, as he risks his life and freedom to save the tenement-dwellers endangered by Luthor’s plan.

Of Rags Morales’ artwork, I can say little. I think the accompanying scans speak to the skill and craft of Morales’ work far better than I ever could. I can’t really think of any way to describe Morales’ style except to say that it is active. You’ll rarely see a posed panel in a book drawn by Rags Morales. Everything is always in motion, to the point where you swear you can see the wind rustling people’s clothes in the panel. In fact, there are some points where the panels CAN NOT contain the action!

Morales has been creating fine quality work for DC Comics for quite a while now, yet hasn’t seem to have gotten the name recognition of other artists. Perhaps this is because, apart from a run on the highly underrated Hawkman with Geoff Johns, Morales has mostly worked on mini-series and limited series. With any luck, this book will finally give him the recognition that he deserves as one of the finest illustrators in the business.

Think Superman is dull? Think Superman is boring? Think again. Morrison and Morales have crafted a masterpiece of modern comics while giving a nod and salute to what came before. This issue is a Must Read and you can bet this book will be on my pull list from now on.

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