Friday, February 17, 2012

52 Catch-Up: Action Comics #1-6

If Action Comics can be said to have a constant in the New 52, it is that one never knows quite what to expect. This should, paradoxically, be expected given that Grant Morrison's writing - particularly his writing of Superman - usually encourages us to expect the unexpected yet leaves us gaping slack-jawed at the wonders on every page. Exceptionalism has become the norm. Thankfully though we expect much we're rarely disappointed. How could we be with the likes of Rags Morales and Andy Kubert lending their pencils to Morrison's prose?

The first issue serves as a prime example of the paradoxes Morrison frequently puts into his writing. In taking Superman back to his Great Depression era roots as a rabble-rousing champion of the common man, Morrison has given us the perfect hero for the era of the Occupy Movement and the 99%ers. No more The Big Blue Boy Scout, this Superman will gleefully dangle a corrupt businessman over a ledge to put the fear of God into a worshiper of Mammon. Despite this, he is still recognizable as our Superman - faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap reasonably tall buildings in a single bound.

It is said that a great storyteller can tell you the same story more than once but make it just as enthralling as the first time you heard it. Morrison accomplishes this feat with apparent ease. All the elements of the Superman origin we've heard time and time again are contained with these opening issues. But with a tweak here and a stitch there, Morrison manages to make this classic tale seem new again. And yet, Morrison still finds the time to throw in his own little additions to the Superman mythos.

Case in point - in Issue 2, Superman is captured by Lex Luthor - a scientific genius and freelancer who is currently in the employ of the US Government. For reasons that are explained hilariously later, they believe that Superman is a shape-shifting alien and that the body of a deformed calf is a deceased member of Superman's species in its' true form.

This is a moment of high comedy but it also reveals something of the characters involved. Namely...

1) Lex Luthor does not like being laughed at or being made to look the fool.
2) Superman has brains to match his strength, proving to be no mean tactician and to be knowledgeable enough about science to figure out how his various vision powers work.

I also have to give Morrison props for his logical expansion of Superman's powers here. Morrison did a lot to improve Aquaman's stock during his run on JLA, postulating that anyone capable of controlling fish brains would also be capable of wrecking havoc on the parts of the human brain responsible for controlling balance. Here, if we can assume Superman's heat vision is based on focused microwave emissions, he should also be able to scramble electronics the same way a radio jammer does.

This trend continues into Issue 3, where Morrison looks a bit more closely into the life of Clark Kent. Here we find that Clark is just as much the altruistic hero as Superman, using his limited power as a journalist and blogger to try and expose corruption in the local government and big business to the point where he's harassed by the police on a regular basis.

Issue 3 also gives us a closer look at Clark's friendship with Jimmy Olsen, who works for a rival paper along with Lois Lane. Oddly, out of all of the supporting cast, it is Lois and Jimmy who get the least development time. Then again, as the most well developed members of the supporting cast (and, arguably, the best known supporting comic book characters of all time) one could argue they need the least amount of page time. Suffice it to say, Lois is as ornery, independent and all-around awesome as ever. And Jimmy? Still everyone's pal.

Issue 4 gives us the greatest number of cast expansions, providing us our first glimpse of John Henry Irons as Steel, John Corben's transformation into a heartless robot man (he has yet to take the name Metallo) and an oddly familiar alien robot stealing away part of Metropolis for his collection of bottled cities. The issue also brings us our first back-up story, written by Sholly Fisch who gives us an in-depth look at John Henry Irons even as he depicts, in detail, the battle in which "Steel" saves Superman from John Corben.

If this seems somewhat familiar, you may be thinking of the episode of Superman: The Animated Series, in which Steel premiere episode pitted him against Metallo to save Superman's life. There are some differences here, though, as John Henry Irons didn't originally work for Lex Luthor, though his strong ethics do cause him to resign his job and to use the technology he designed to help undo the damage he caused.

Issue 5 shifts gears completely, giving us another retelling of just how a young Kal-El was sent from Krypton to Earth. Little seems to have changed from the recent retelling of this story in Geoff Johns' Superman: Secret Origin, save that The Kents were just barely able to get away from the spaceship crash-site with the baby, never mind carry the rocket off unnoticed.

This sets up a call back to issue 3 and a tangential storyline, where we learn the history of the rocket after it was discovered by Clark Kent, who had no idea as to his alien origins until then. This issue also gives us another Sholly Fisch back-up story, in which we see the early life of Jonathan and Martha Kent and learn of their struggles to have a baby up until their one-in-a-million-encounter with a child from the stars. This is another story that has been told before, but Fisch manages to make it fresh, making Martha and Jonathan into realistic and sympathetic people. Of particulate note is a scene in which they visit their pastor, who tells them that he is certain that God would not deny two loving people like them a child and that He must have big plans for them.

Issue 6 continues right on from where Issue 5 left off, as we jump forward a little bit in time. And yet, we don't. The action here focuses upon a future Superman, who has traveled back to his first year as Superman with some of his friends from the Legion of Superheroes in tow, in order to stop the Anti-Superman Army of his time from traveling back in time to steal the Kryptonite-powered core of the spaceship that brought him to Earth.

Yeah. You can tell Grant Morrison used to be a Doctor Who writer, can't you?

Fisch's back-up story this time is another fine character piece, this time centering on Clark Kent examining the house he grew up in one last time before leaving Smallville for college. There's a few details here that will be of note to Superman scholars who like to know how every incarnation of Superman is different, like the fact that Pete Ross is aware of Clark's "special gifts" in this reality.

Action Comics is a must-read title for all fans of comics in general and Superman in particular. Though there's nothing really new here, Morrison and Fisch have found a way to make these stories seem new in the telling. And the artwork is amazing, with top-notch teams working on both parts of the book every month. Rags Morales, Andy Kubert, Brad Walker & ChrissCross are all masters of the genre. If you aren't reading this one already, you are missing out.

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