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.

REVIEW: Justice League #1

Justice League #1 is a comic with a lot to carry on its shoulders.  Most obviously, and what we’ve heard a lot about, is that this is the book that marks the dawn of a new era for DC Comics.  This week, only two DC comics shipped: Flashpoint #5, the end of old DC, and Justice League #1, the beginning of new DC.  With all of DC’s outreach to new and lapsed readers over the past few months of marketing, this is the comic DC are hoping to use to sell their universe.  This is the first shot, the opening salvo, and this prestiguous position has resulted in making the comic one of the biggest successes of 2011 even before its release, with retailers ordering north of 200,000 copies of the book.

With this aspect of the anticipation of the new Justice League so grand in scope, it’s easy to forget the other, longer-brewing goal this must strive to meet.  It has been many years since Justice League of America has been a comic that has enjoyed particularly noteworthy critical or commercial success, or been anywhere near the centre of the DCU.  I remember Dwayne McDuffie being vocal in his complaints about the comic freewheeling from event tie-in to event tie-in with no chance to build any momentum or identity of its own, and how long has it been since his run on the title?  It’s only got worse since then, with a hodgepodge roster of B-and-C-listers and legacy characters filling out the cast of a comic that has been shunted to the fringes of the DCU.  Meanwhile, over at Marvel, The Avengers has long been a central lynchpin brand that has proven capable of generating impressive sales and sustaining multiple titles each month, and is going to be the basis of what is set to be one of the biggest films of 2012 and one of the biggest superhero movies ever.  Their DC counterparts have sorely needed to play catch-up.

It seems like for years, the rumor has floated around that Geoff Johns and Jim Lee would be teaming up to put together a proper A-list roster with DC’s most iconic heavy hitters, and make the JLA a crown jewel in the DC lineup once more.  And it made sense: DC’s biggest team should be written by its biggest writer and drawn by its biggest artist.  Now, we’re finally getting that long-desired Johns/Lee JLA project, but it’s called Justice League, and it is the bedrock of a relaunched DCU.  Can Justice League #1 possibly live up to all that crushing expectation?

Before I get to tackling that big question, I’ll start by saying this comic looks great.  It’s been a long time since we saw a new comic from Jim Lee, but amidst all the complaints of his tardiness its easy to forget how nice his pages are when we do get them.  Visually, DC’s co-publisher is the perfect choice to brand the new DCU in its first foot forward: presenting a world that’s clean, slick and stylish.  But deserving just as much credit as Jim Lee is colorist Alex Sinclair.  It’s the bright, crisp colors that really make each page pop.  This is a world that is fearful and suspicious of its new protectors, and that is reflected in the color scheme, as the darker palette is almost invaded by bright, dazzling bursts of light whenever the superhumans are around: be it the glowing green of Green Lantern’s constructs, the blinding red of the Parademons’ feiry projections, or the red and blue blur that marks Superman’s entrance.  Batman, meanwhile, seems to always find some shadow to sink into, a moody contrast to the dazzling palette of the rest of the book: a triumph for inker Scott Williams.

In terms of the writing, I had some problems.  I cast my mind back to Grant Morrison’s first issue on Justice League of America.  This too was a new #1, and this was also an attempt to bring DC’s biggest heroes back together after a period of lesser known heroes filling the roster.  But with Morrison’s debut, we were instantly launched into a story epic and ambitious in scope, and concisely (re)introduced to every member of the roster (save for Aquaman, who would show up later) in a manner that efficiently established their respective powers and personalities.  Coming into this new Justice League #1, this was one of the benchmarks I was set to compare the issue to.  The other was some of Geoff Johns’ own famous “chapter ones”.  The Sinestro Corps War Special.  Infinite Crisis #1Blackest Night #1.  If there’s one thing Johns can do really well, it is start an event in a way that really lays out the stakes and scope of the story ahead, while also providing a tether of human drama with fine ensemble work.  And, in my opinion, this is what Justice League needed to be presented as: an event.

We don’t really get that here.  I don’t see this as a major spoiler, as I won’t go into specifics, but all that happens in the issue is that Batman and Green Lantern fight a Parademon, talk for a bit, then meet Superman.  This amount of story would probably fill about 2 pages of an average issue of The Sixth Gun.  I may be misremembering some of the marketing, but didn’t Dan Didio and co. make a big deal out of putting an end to decompression and writing for the trade, and instead providing comics that were full, satisfying experiences on an issue-by-issue basis?  This is a classic case of decompressed storytelling, and new readers might be disappointed to pick up Justice League #1 only to discover that half the characters on that snazzy cover don’t even appear in this issue.  As a typical comic, or even a regular launch of a new volume, the story is fine.  But as the dawn of a new era, it fell short of my expectations.

Setting aside my expectations, however, I can appreciate that the thinking behind Johns’ plotting of this issue is actually pretty sound in its own right.  Johns has said in recent interviews that a major priority for him in writing Justice League was to showcase the distinct personalities of each member, making their group dynamic and interactions a crucial part of the title rather than it simply being plot-driven.  Bearing this in mind, perhaps it makes sense to play it slow and steady with how the characters are introduced over the course of this opening arc.  And it’s also clever when you consider the order of chaacters introduced, as far as appealing to new readers: Batman and Green Lantern are the two characters who have currently ongoing film franchises (one admittedly enjoying more critical acclaim than the other), while Superman has a new movie due in a couple of years.  So, start with the characters fans who have never picked up a DC comic might be most familiar with, and build from there.

With most of the issue devoted to just Batman and Green Lantern, we get plenty of time to get reacquainted with each of them.  Johns gives us a wonderfully badass Batman, brooding and intimidating, but also with a droll, deadpan sense of humor.  So many writers depict Batman as deadly serious, so it’s all the better in the depictions when you get flashes of sarcastic wit behind the straight face.  Green Lantern, meanwhile, has his cocky demeanour heightened and brought to the fore, with his occasional habit of referring to himself in the third person garnering some chuckles.  He’s going to be the hothead of the group, and while some people are complaining about Green Lantern being depicted as too arrogant and stupid, these are largely the same people who were complaining about Green Lantern being dull, stoic and faultless a couple of months ago, and I don’t see a problem with it.  Also, it was a nice touch how some of the mythology of the Green Lantern Corps  was worked into the dialogue, rather than taking it for granted people would know who Green Lantern is.

Superman has less panel time, but there’s some skillful work done at establishing him through how other characters perceive him before he first appears.  It adds a layer of mystery and unpredictability to that most safe and familiar of characters.  And though he’s not Cyborg yet, we do get an intriguing subplot involving Vic Stone.  There’s been some complaints about Cyborg’s place in the Justice League being mainly just to tick the diversity box, that he isn’t a compelling enough character to justify the placement.  Well, it would seem that this opening arc is going to play against the backdrop of something Johns has long been very skilled at: getting to the core of characters and really making us care about them.

So, under the weight of all that expectation, Justice League #1 might not quite match up.  But if you cast aside that expectation, and take it just as a Justice League comic, Geoff Johns and Jim Lee give us a first issue that offers much to like.  I think that a lot of people who picked this up will be back for issue #2.

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!