REVIEW: Action Comics #1

When news of DC’s relaunch first hit the web, and it was announced to much excitement that Grant Morrison would be writing Action Comics, the famous writer talked about how he and artist Rags Morales would create a new language for comics in their Superman saga.  Some wondered what this meant: was it anything more substantial than vague marketing hyperbole?  Then I read Supergods – Grant Morrison’s history of the superhero genre/partial biography, released shortly after the relaunch was announced – and all of a sudden the answer was clear.

As one can probably imagine from any history of the superhero genre, the first chapter sees Morrison talk at length about Superman.  The whole passage (and indeed, the whole book) is fascinating reading, but of particular interest to me was his in-depth case study of the original Action Comics #1 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  He imagines approaching the book as a reader in 1938 – the initial ambiguity over whether this mysterious Superman was a hero or a villain, the awe at him engaging in amazing feats far beyond the reach of his pulp predecessors – and praises this landmark comic (which now sells for millions of dollars) for inventing a new kind of storytelling, creating the superhero comic.  And from there, it clicked: this new Action Comics #1 is the first Action Comics #1 since that first one that launched the superhero genre, and Grant Morrison and Rags Morales are approaching this comic with the goal of recreating the experience readers felt back then for today’s jaded audience.  Just reading Morrison’s description of that first Superman comic having non-stop action from panel to panel – bam, bam, bam – something new and exciting constantly happening with every image, I imagined what a modern version of that might be like… and it really had me anticipating this comic.

Action Comics #1 lives up to much of that promise.  As was the case with the Siegel and Shuster original, we begin the action in media res, and the pace doesn’t let up until all 29 pages of story have flown by.  In a lot of ways, I think Action Comics could have been more deserving of being the one DC comic to lead the charge and launch the New 52 last week than Justice League.  Not only is it a better comic, but it more powerfully conveys a sense of newness to this world.  We’ve all gotten so used to Superman, and he’s become such a safe, iconic character, that it takes quite a lot of skill to take us back to a place where he was new, even threatening, but Morrison and Morales pull it off.  Morrison’s plotting seems to put us forever one step behind him, in the perspective of those observing him as they struggle to keep up.  Morales’ art, meanwhile, gives us a Superman often cast into shadow, glowing red eyes glaring out at us, enhancing the alien qualities of the character.  As for the much-maligned T-shirt and jeans outfit, in the context of the story, it works.  It gives us a Superman that’s almost believable, casting aside the familiar iconography of the superhero genre and making us think what it might actually be like if someone in a world not unlike our own started to manifest these incredible powers.

Based on the preview that was released last week, which featured Superman throwing around corrupt businessmen and taunting negligent cops, some folk on the internet were unhappy with Superman’s characterisation, saying he came across as a “jock” or a “douche”.  I didn’t think that someone who shows zero tolerance for injustice and bullies qualifies as a douche, and in the context of the issue as a whole I think my stance has been further vindicated.  Though the government, the law and the corrupt fear him, regular people, particularly the downtrodden, love him, and in one touching sequence, protectively encircle him when he’s confronted by the military.  This is Superman as man of the people, again taking him right back to his roots.  He’s also a Superman who bruises, who bleeds, who can’t yet fly, someone who has not yet reached the peak of his powers.  He’s relatable.  That carries over to his alter ego as well.  Clark Kent is still a journalist, but rather than dressing him up in a suit and giving him a 1930s nerd chic combover, he dresses younger, more casually, looking more like a farmboy in the big city.   He lives in a small apartment and struggles to pay his rent, perhaps feeling more in touch with young professionals who might now be the most likely target audience for a comic.  We also get a sense that Clark Kent the reporter is more than just the convenient disguise for Superman: the pursuit of truth at the core of journalism is something Clark passionately believes in, and it would appear his superhuman persona is in fact an extension of that, as the nasty individuals he’s investigating are the same people he goes after as Superman.

And of course, even in the early days, you can’t have Superman without Lex Luthor.  Superman’s ever-evolving nemesis now finds himself in the role of independent contractor doing freelance work for the military, offering scientific insight into how best to stop and capture this mysterious alien being.  Luthor is largely in the shadows in this issue, but we do get glimpses into his personality and motivations.  Him constantly referring to Superman as “it” rather than “he” was a nice touch, and one speech talking about how the introduction of foreign creatures in the animal kingdom can result in the eradication of indigenous species was particularly effective.  We have seen from All Star Superman that Morrison writes a great Lex Luthor, so I can’t wait to see how his role expands as this story develops.

The artwork of Rags Morales has its odd ropey moment (in particular, Lex Luthor’s age, facial structure and body shape seems to change almost on a panel-to-panel basis), but for the most part, he excels in bringing to dramatic life every amazing feat Morrison’s script calls upon him to portray.  As touched upon above, his Superman is great, always the most interesting part of every page he appears on.  With the way his body language is laid out, you can feel the effort that goes behind every move for this young and inexperienced Superman, bringing new life and excitement to all the famous gestures we can often take for granted.

As for Morrison, this is the master of the dizzying high-concept at his most open and accessible, telling a story that I think can appeal to everyone, from loyal Super-fans to dubious cynics.  I had high expectations for Action Comics #1 from the moment it was announced, expectations that rose even further after reading Supergods, so it’s a testament to the quality of this comic that those expectations were mostly fulfilled.  This is the Superman comic we’ve been waiting for.

The #New52Review Project

We are now less than a week away from DC Comics’ much hyped linewide relaunch.  This radical – and controversial in some circles – plan involves bringing the current ongoing publishing line of the DCU to a close, and launching with 52 new #1s, and in many cases altered or even rebooted continuity, in an effort to make the comics more accessible to newcomers and jaded fans alike.  Whether you’re in favor of this move or not, you can’t deny that it’s got people talking.  In spite of Marvel’s best efforts, DC has dominated the news sites since June, and the retailer order numbers are reportedly very high, with Justice League #1 apparently topping 200,000 buys.  But the big test will be next week and onwards.  You might be able to get people’s attention, but can you keep it?

I have had some reservations, but overall I’m very excited about the DC relaunch.  I’ve been trying to think what I can do to participate, beyond buying the books that take my fancy and recommending books to others.  One thing I can contribute is reviews of the comics I read, which gave me an idea.  Everyone who has a blog, or who writes reviews for a comic site, why not let DC know what you think?

I’m gonna set up a #New52Review hashtag on Twitter, which I’m going to use to link to my reviews of the new titles here.  But I don’t want to be the only one.  Anyone out there who has a blog, or who writes reviews for comic sites, write about the titles you buy.  DC have reached out to us, so we should try reaching out to them in return.  Let them know what books we like and why, or even what books we don’t like so much and how they can improve.  It could be a good way of showing  the creators our appreciation, as well as promoting the comics that are worth reading.

I don’t expect to be picking up this many titles come October, but for this first month  at least, I’ll be trying 18 #1s from the New 52:

  • Justice League #1
  • Action Comics #1
  • Batman #1
  • Batgirl #1
  • Batwoman #1
  • Catwoman #1
  • Wonder Woman #1
  • Green Lantern #1
  • The Flash #1
  • Aquaman #1
  • The Fury of Firestorm #1
  • Stormwatch #1
  • Justice League Dark #1
  • Swamp Thing #1
  • Animal Man #1
  • Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1
  • Demon Knights #1
  • I, Vampire #1

I’ll be posting up reviews of as many of these books as I can each week.  The reviews might not be quite as in-depth as my reviews usually are, since I’ll be trying to write so many reviews, but I’ll be offering up something.  And I’ll be linking to the reviews using #New52Review.  I hope you guys will do the same.  Here’s to exciting times ahead in the comics world!

My Top Ten Comics of 2010

Hey all!

Been a while since I blogged, so I figured I’d post this up.  I’ve also posted this as part of my Comic Book Club column over on Project Fanboy, but I figured I’d post it here too.  Hope you all had a Merry Christmas, and have a Happy New Year!

2010 was an interesting year in the world of comics. As the new decade began, both Marvel and DC seemed set to be making a move towards more optimistic storytelling and more heroic heroes, with Dark Reign giving way to The Heroic Age and Blackest Night giving way to Brightest Day. There was also a stated intention to move away from company-spanning crossover events, focusing more on smaller events within individual franchises. Neither promise seems to have held on long, with Brightest Day being as gore-addled and grim as any DCU story of the past few years and Daredevil turning evil for a while in Shadowland, and with Marvel recently announcing their latest big crossover event: Fear Itself.

It was a year where the comic book movie craze seemed to falter, with Iron Man 2 proving a disappointment, and both Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim VS the World (undeservedly) underperforming at the box office. But on the other side, it was a year where a new frontier for comic book adaptation – television – began to be exploited more fully. The Walking Dead was one of the year’s biggest TV success stories, breaking viewing records for AMC by a substantial margin and already finding itself nominated for a Golden Globe. This has in turn paved the way for a glut of comic book TV projects, ranging from remakes of classic TV superhero shows of the past (Wonder Woman, The Hulk) to adaptations of thus-far untouched comic book properties (Locke & Key, Powers, Alias).

As ever, it’s difficult to provide a concise summary for the year in comics as a whole. There were a few great comics, some awful comics, and a whole bunch that fell somewhere in between. This list of mine is by no means all-encompassing. Instead, it is a deeply subjective reflection of my own limited, largely mainstream-leaning reading throughout the year. Graphic novels, mini-series’ and ongoing monthly comics were all eligible for inclusion as I put my list together. Here’s what I came up with:

HONORABLE MENTION: THOR

It’s been a turbulent year for Marvel’s god of thunder. After J. Michael Straczynski’s great run came to an abrupt, disappointing close, we entered 2010 with a sense of “Right, let’s hurry up and get on with Matt Fraction’s run, get Kieron Gillen in to tidy up Straczynski’s mess.” But then Mr. Gillen surprised people by coming onboard with a run that was very good in its own right, far exceeding the expectations of the transitional writer between two A-listers and in fact surpassing much of the latter part of the JMS run. Of course, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to those familiar with Phonogram or SWORD that Gillen would not disappoint. His first arc, “Latverian Prometheus” – in which hostilities between Asgard and Dr. Doom came to a head and Straczynski’s incomplete saga was wrapped up – was great fun, and delivered on both the action and characterization fronts. Arguably the high point of Gillen’s run came with the event tie-in Siege: Loki, which simultaneously explained some of Loki’s actions before and during the events of Siege and set up the next storyline for Thor once the event wrapped up, all while giving us a masterful insight into Loki’s motivations and treating us to some lovely art from Jamie McKelvie. It’s a shame then that the Siege tie-in issues of Thor itself were so poor they almost cost the title its place in the top ten. I don’t blame Gillen: the job of writing an arc set in Asgard where he couldn’t actually progress anything because the main activity was happening in the main Siege book, unable to even use any of the title’s main characters as they were also being used in Siege, was a particularly thankless one, which is probably why Straczynksi left the book in the first place. Thankfully then, Gillen got to end his run on a high note with an additional closing arc after finishing the grunt work that saw Thor and friends take a romp through hell. And now that Fraction is onboard (aided by some high-quality art by Pasqual Ferry), we’re getting the beginnings of what seems set to be an intriguing new era for Thor.

10. CHEW

After a stellar beginning that saw me rank the series at #8 in my top ten of the decade at this time last year, Chew seemed to falter slightly this year. Particularly at points during this most recent arc, “Just Desserts”, the series appeared to be lacking direction. But even in its weaker moments, Chew never fails to entertain, typically guaranteeing at least one out-loud belly laugh per issue. Rob Guillory’s art remains fantastic, giving the book its own unique identity, and with the last couple of issues it’s become apparent that John Layman has been carefully crafting a larger mythology, even when it appeared like the book was lacking direction. The stage has been set for Chew to reach new heights in 2011.

9. INVINCIBLE IRON MAN

Here we have another case of a title that reached heady heights in 2009 but couldn’t quite keep it up going into 2010. After the epic “World’s Most Wanted”, it appeared that Matt Fraction’s Iron Man saga had lost steam with both “Stark: Disassembled” and the current “Resilient” arc. With its almost-funereal pacing, Invincible Iron Man at times feels like one of the most decompressed comics on the market. But even when it’s at its most plodding, Fraction keeps things interesting, his mastery of Tony Stark, Pepper Potts and co so refined that he can make an issue of them sitting in a café drinking coffee compelling reading: and there were a couple of issues that weren’t too far off that. But when the action does come, its kinetic, in-your-face, thrilling; Salvatore Larroca’s art (long a weak point in the series) greatly improving over the course of the year. Compliments also go to the fantastic Invincible Iron Man Annual, which gave us a Mandarin who was delightfully vile and free of any redeeming qualities whatsoever. And even when the narrative is moving along slowly, you get the sense that Fraction knows what he’s doing, that he’s carefully setting the pieces in place for something explosive down the line. So Invincible Iron Man still has my attention, and my praise, going into 2011.

8. MORNING GLORIES

I almost didn’t include this in my list. This is in fact a belated edit, after finally getting caught up on the series. I blame the oversight on the frustrating lack of availability the series suffered in its early issues, what with all the quick sell-outs. I managed to get issue #1 on its third printing, but had given up all hope on getting issue #2, and as such had given up on the series altogether. But I finally managed to get a hold of that missing second issue, and now I’m fully onboard. Of course, the plus-side of all those sell-outs is that Morning Glories is positioned as the breakout indy comics smash of 2010, much like Chew was in 2010. But while it was the original high concept that initially sold Chew, with this tale of a group of 16 year olds trapped in a prestigious prep school with dark secrets, it seems like Nick Spencer is crafting the comic book equivalent of a water-cooler mystery more typically associated with television. I’ve seen many comparisons to Lost, but with its off-kilter weirdness, comically monstrous characters and constant sense of lurking dread, I’d say it bears closer parallels to Twin Peaks. In the first issue, Spencer introduces us to six new characters and within mere pages makes them all feel rounded and nuanced. Artist Joe Eisna, meanwhile, provides visuals that deftly shift back and forth from cartoonish to horrifying. Each issue deepens the mystery, offering more questions in place of answers. It remains to be seen whether – much like Lost – this approach stops being tantalizing and starts being infuriating, but for now this series is off to a highly promising start.

7. ACTION COMICS

Caught up in the tepid “New Krypton” saga for much of the year, it would have taken something incredible to hit Action Comics over the latter half of 2010 for the series to rank in this list at all. Thankfully, then, Paul Cornell jumped on as writer of the book, and made Lex Luthor the star. Each month, we see Superman’s arch-nemesis pit against another popular DC supervillain in his ongoing quest to unlock the secrets of the black rings last seen in Blackest Night. Witty, charismatic, even likeable, but also unquestionably evil, Cornell has made Lex Luthor into my new favorite superhero. And the Gorilla Grodd issue was surely one of the best single comics of the year. If the comic hadn’t been subpar for the rest of the year, Cornell’s run could have earned Action Comics a higher placing on this list. We’ll see what next year brings!

6. SWEET TOOTH

Once again, I find myself saying that a comic that was amazing in 2009 wasn’t quite as good in 2010: is that the theme of this year? Sweet Tooth had a brilliant opening arc, but the second storyline, “In Captivity”, didn’t pack quite the same emotional punch. There was one grim period where I briefly thought I had accidentally bought the same issue twice, as I read my new purchase and thought it was so incredibly similar to what I had read a month earlier, offering as little as it did in the way of plot advancement. “In Captivity” did, however, expand the mythology of the series, and introduce new characters to the mix. And despite not being quite to the level of “Out of the Deep Woods”, there was still plenty of emotional, heartbreaking story beats to be found. The current arc, “Animal Armies” has been a big improvement, and over the last couple of months Sweet Tooth has once again become essential reading. It’s just a shame the boost didn’t come earlier in the year, or Sweet Tooth could have cracked the top five.

5. KNIGHT & SQUIRE

I love this series so much. Three issues in, and I already feel totally immersed in this quirky, idiosyncratic and very, very British world that Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton have created. A spin-off using characters originally revived by Grant Morrison, Cornell has nevertheless made Knight & Squire feel totally his own. Each issue so far has been so dense with in-jokes and subtle humor that they benefit greatly from multiple readings, and I’ve reread these comics perhaps more than anything else on this top ten list. If I were to use any word to describe Knight & Squire, it would be nice. This is a nice comic. Whenever I’m done reading an issue, I’m cheered up, I feel that little bit happier for reading it. And with the dark, emotionally-draining stuff that’s coming up as our countdown continues, something bright and joyful that captures all the weird, silly stuff that makes comics so much fun is certainly refreshing.

4. AMERICAN VAMPIRE

This actually started out a bit lower on my top ten. But as I wrote this summary of its merits, I kept on nudging it up and up until it finally settled here at #4, making it the highest-ranked new series of the year on my list. American Vampire debuted with much fanfare, billed as the first original comic written by Stephen King – that’s what first attracted my attention. And yes, King’s back-up story over the first five issues proved that the man’s creativity and knack for characterization and the building of dread is not limited to the prose medium. But the true revelation came with the core creative team. Immediately noticeable is the work of artist Rafael Albuquerque, producing some of the most gorgeous interiors of any comic on the stands right now. But more and more I’m coming to appreciate the input of writer Scott Snyder. It seems like every month, he moves the narrative forward in some way, be it through shedding new light on a character or expanding the mythology. He really shows an affinity for serial storytelling, with each installment both serving as a satisfying read in its own right, while having a cumulative effect as it builds on what came before and sets the stage for what is to come. And in the vicious Skinner Sweet, Snyder has created arguably the year’s best new character: one of the comic’s great pleasures is the way we are continually lured into thinking the eponymous American vampire could grow into an anti-hero, only for Skinner Sweet to turn around and do something utterly horrible and monstrous and remind us of what a villain he unquestionably is. 10 issues in, American Vampire keeps on getting better and better.

3. BATMAN AND ROBIN

A list of 2010’s best comics could very easily have been dominated by Grant Morrison’s Batman output. But in the interest of fairness, I limited myself to only including a single Bat-title on the list, and the winner by a narrow margin was Batman and Robin. The book was consistently strong throughout the year, but what really put it above Batman Inc and even the ingenious Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne for me was the concluding arc of Morrison’s run on the title: “Batman and Robin Must Die!” Serving as a kind of sequel to Batman R.I.P., we got to see Dr. Hurt and Professor Pyg make their welcome returns, and Frazer Irving floored us all with some spectacular art. But best of all was the long-awaited return of The Joker, and in particular Grant Morrison’s Joker, given that the Scottish scribe writes the character better than just about anyone. Grant Morrison’s extended Batman saga has made for one of the definitive superhero sagas of the decade and one of the finest runs in the character’s history, and I’m excited to see its next phase with Batman Inc.

2. THE WALKING DEAD

Aw, you gotta feel bad for The Walking Dead. Two years in a row now, it has ranked at #2 in my top ten. Looking at the series as a whole, I’d probably rate it as my personal #1 favorite comic. But based on the 2010 output alone, there is one comic I’d rate even higher. However, having said that, 2010 has still been a stellar year for everyone’s favorite zombie comic. We saw a shift in the dynamic this year as our survivors settled into Alexandria, the long sought-after safe haven they desired, populated by a community of largely good people striving to rebuild a sense of normal life. But the tragedy explored through the plights of various characters this year was that many of our survivors are so damaged by what they’ve had to go through to survive that they no longer have a place in a “normal” world. The result of this conflicted dynamic has been the steady escalation of tensions between the established cast and the new characters resident to Alexandria, all the while distracting us from the inexorable arrival of the zombie horde that now surrounds this “safe haven” as we head into 2011. “No Way Out” seems set to be a major storyline for the months ahead. When also taking into consideration the huge success of the TV adaptation, then I’d say it’s a great time to be a fan of The Walking Dead.

1. SCALPED

I heard alarming news lately, that – in the wake of the recent wave of house-clearing cancellations – Scalped is now currently one of Vertigo’s lowest-selling titles each month. That’s a real shame. Because it means people are missing out on one of the best books Vertigo has ever produced, and what was in my opinion the best comic of the year. 2010 gave us lots of quality developments within the pages of Scalped. The first few months of the year brought the heart-rending conclusion of “The Gnawing”, the storyline that has marked arguably the high-point of the comic’s history thus far. From there, the book adopted a change of pace (brave considering the amount of momentum build up off the back of “The Gnawing”) and gave us a collection of stand-alone stories that helped create a more rounded picture of The Rez and some of its inhabitants.

First came “Listening to the Earth Turn”, a single-issue tale of an elderly couple struggling to make an honest living on the outskirts of the reservation. This was a wonderful little story that challenged some of the negative assumptions that have been tossed in the direction of the series: that it suggests reservations are nothing but cesspits of crime and violence (the protagonists here are decent, law-abiding citizens) and that it is relentlessly bleak and miserable (this story had a happy ending). After that was a two-parter with the tongue-twisting title, “A Fine Action of an Honorable and Catholic Spaniard”, in which we got a little into the mind of Red Crow’s right-hand man Shunka, long one of the most mysterious members of the comic’s ensemble. The full page reveal of his man-on-man kiss was one of the more genuinely surprising page-turn twists of the year. Finally, and perhaps best of all, was “Family Tradition”, a single-issue tale notable on two counts. First, because it marked Jason Aaron’s return to the Vietnam War, the setting of The Other Side – the astounding comic that first made his name. And second, because we saw R.M. Guera (whose work started strong and has been steadily improving over the course of Scalped) reach a whole new level of excellence, with him delivering career-best work.

And after that interlude, it was back at last to the ongoing saga of Bad Horse and co. with “Unwanted”. Here, Carol Ellroy and the significant females of the saga, past and present, took centre stage, with Carol – having discovered she was pregnant at the conclusion of “The Gnawing” – agonizing over whether to have an abortion or to tell Bad Horse he could be a father, and in the process embarking on one of the few genuinely redemptive arcs we’ve seen in Scalped thus far. These issues of parenthood were further explored with the return of Wade Bad Horse, Dashiell’s deadbeat father, and a look at his difficult relationships with both his son and Red Crow. After that, we wrapped up the year with “A Come-To-Jesus”, another one-and-done, this time putting a spotlight on bit-part player Sheriff Wooster Karnow.

The unifying element throughout the year of Scalped was the raw, powerful, exhilarating writing skill of Jason Aaron, possibly the best writer working in the industry today. He’s done quality work over in Marvel in 2010 too, but his crowning achievement remains Scalped. I just hope that 2011 doesn’t mark the title’s cancellation, and that we get to see this epic narrative carry on until its intended conclusion.

So there we have it. My top ten comics of 2010. But I’m sure there are plenty of great comics I’ve overlooked. So let me know – what were your top ten comics of 2010?