Superman: All Star Superman, Superman, Action Comics, Superman Confidential, and Superman/Supergirl: Maelstrom (DC Comics, 2006-present).
By Alex Boney
During the course of the last year, I’ve probably been closer to the world of comics than I ever have before. As a result, it’s easy to get swamped by the sheer number of books being published every month—not just by the big two (Marvel and DC), but also by increasingly reputable independent and smaller publishers like Dark Horse, Image, and Avatar. Like many other readers of periodical comic books (the Wednesday crowd), I have several stacks of unread books gathering and growing in my house. In an attempt to reduce the piles, I decided to start getting caught up over the holidays. When faced with a task that enormous, it’s usually best to start at the beginning. For a variety of reasons both historical and personal, that beginning for me is Superman. 2008 marked the 70th anniversary of the first appearance of the first superhero. To celebrate, DC hailed ’08 as a reset year for the Man of Steel. All-Star Superman wrapped up its dozen-issue run last year, Superman and Action Comics were both headed by high-profile creative teams, and Superman shared the billing with other heroes in several other series and miniseries. It was a good year to catch the pulse of the heart of superhero comics.
All Star Superman
A little over two years ago, I reviewed All Star Superman for our November 2006 issue of GutterGeek. At the time, the book was probably my favorite ongoing comic series I’d read in several years. So when I began catching up on last year’s Superman books, it seemed like the logical place to start. Since I hadn’t read a single issue of the book since August 2007’s issue #8, I started back at the beginning and read the series straight through. I’ve been reading superhero comics off and on for most of my life, but few superhero comic books have ever affected me the way All Star Superman did. Comics readers (especially those who have long been disillusioned with superhero books) often scoff at the comparisons between superhero mythology and religion. The differences are obvious, and fervent insistence on a direct correlation between the two comes across as radically shrill (not to mention nerdy as hell). But many people who read superhero comics as kids used those stories to build their moral foundation. In All Star Superman, from the beginning of the series to the end, Grant Morrison manages to pinpoint and flesh out the essential cornerstones of that foundation: sacrifice, social responsibility, moral clarity, and strength of character. This book is a religious meditation on a secular world.
Many accolades have been lavished on All Star Superman during the last couple years (including the Eisner Award for best continuing series of 2007), so I won’t dwell too long on this. Morrison’s writing is fun, smart, and profound. Quitely’s art manages to be subtle even in widescreen-panoramic vision. All Star Superman #10, in which Clark makes preparations for his death, is the best single issue of any comic book I read last year. It’s the issue that most clearly distills the absurdity of the Silver Age, the advancement of modern science, the sobriety of mortality, and the beauty of sequential narrative that made this series a pleasure to read from beginning to end
Although Action Comics is the longest-running title in DC Comics’ stable—as well as the principal book of the company’s flagship character—the title hasn’t always been as strong as it should have been. Several very good writers (including Joe Kelly and Gail Simone) have spent time writing Action Comics in recent years, but few of these writers have achieved memorable runs on the book. That changed when DC’s editorial staff decided to hand the book to Geoff Johns. During the last eight years, Johns has consistently rebuilt several of DC’s top-tier characters and teams. The Justice Society, the Flash, and Green Lantern are all much better and more pertinent than they have been in decades, due largely to Johns’ character-driven approach. Action and adventure will always be important features of superhero comics, but much of this action is irrelevant—even mundane—if the reader doesn’t care much about the characters at the heart of it.
When Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek reset Superman in their eight-part 2006 story “Up, Up, and Away!” (Action Comics 837-840 and Superman #650-653), they told readers everything they needed to know about Superman’s past and opened up new avenues for exploring the significance of the character in the future. Since that story, Action Comics has been the one ongoing, in-continuity book that has lived up to that promise. Beginning with a story called “Last Son,” Johns and co-writer Richard Donner (who directed the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies) established a new, serious tone for the series. Johns uses humor and levity effectively at times, but all of his best work is underpinned with a darkness that gives his stories consequence and (even in the case of Superman) gravity. In “Last Son,” Adam Kubert’s dark, angular art underscored and visualized this tone to great effect. When it appears that a new Kryptonian—a young boy—has arrived on Earth, Clark Kent and Lois Lane assume the role of adoptive parents. And when the government tries to manipulate the boy, Clark reveals a fiercely protective instinct that makes him more human than he has been in years.
The humanity of Superman is, in fact, the primary subject of John’s run on Action Comics. Many comic book readers I’ve talked to over the years complain that Superman is boring because he’s too powerful and too cardboard. We can’t hope to become or relate to this character, so how could we possibly see him as a source of inspiration? Johns challenges this critique by making Clark Kent—not Superman—the focal point of these stories. The connection between Clark and his father in “Escape from Bizarro World” (Action Comics #855-857) reveals a compassion and vulnerability that trumps the backward insanity of the Bizarro world. Clark’s loss of powers in “Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes” (#858-863) shifts the focus to his inner strength, even while his entire legacy is being twisted and deconstructed by fanatics. And Clark’s struggle to save a part of a home-world he never really knew makes the loss he experiences at the end of “Brainiac” (#866-870) even more painful and acute. These are all meaningful stories that reinvest Superman with moral and modern relevance.
The biggest critique I have of Action Comics over the last couple years is the same problem that has plagued many of DC’s highest-profile titles: an irregular publication schedule. Johns has been both blessed and cursed by collaborative artists (Adam Kubert, Gary Frank, and Eric Powell) who provide incredible visual rendering at very different paces. “Last Son,” the five-part story that was intended to launch Johns’ run, unfolded in Action Comics #844-846, 851, and Action Comics Annual #11. It began in December 2006 and didn’t conclude until 2008. Even if the delay was Kubert’s fault, the power of the story was diminished because it was so broken up. Similarly, extended delays between John’s stories led to single issues (written by guest authors) that often felt like filler material that could easily be skipped or ignored. If DC is trying to force readers into following stories via trade collections, rather than buying individual comic books month-to-month, then Action Comics’ publication schedule since 2006 has been quite persuasive.
While Action Comics delivered on the promise than was introduced in “Up, Up, and Away!,” Superman unfortunately fell far short of expectations. This book should have been as solid as Action. One of the three best Superman stories I’ve ever read is Secret Identity, a four-issue prestige-format miniseries penned by Kurt Busiek in 2004. Because Secret Identity wasn’t an in-continuity or ongoing story, Busiek had the freedom to tell a focused, imaginative story that distilled the essence of the Superman myth and re-imagined it for an alternate reality (in much the same way Grant Morrison did in All Star Superman). Add to Busiek’s writing gifts the artistic talents of Carlos Pacheco—one of the best renderers of anatomy in superhero comics—and DC should have put together an instant-classic run on one of its longest-running books. But ultimately, Busiek’s stint on Superman seems like it was written by a writer with ADHD for readers with ADHD. The book suffered from the same publication schedule problems that hampered Action Comics, but the payoff was not worth the wait.
The biggest extended story in Busiek’s stint is “Camelot Falls,” in which an ancient sorcerer named Arion reveals an apocalyptic future to Superman and claims that this is what will come to pass if Superman continues to meddle in human affairs. The story leads Superman to pine for over a year about his purpose on Earth. While the existential question is interesting at first, it quickly becomes whiney and drags on for far too long. Even when “Camelot Falls” finally concludes (with more of a whimper than a bang) in Superman Annual #11, Superman’s guilt complex doesn’t end. The two follow-up stories that rounded out Busiek’s tenure on Superman, “The Third Kryptonian” and “The Insect Queen,” are even more baffling than “Camelot Falls.” “The Third Kryptonian” explores themes similar to Geoff Johns’ “Last Son” from Action Comics, but the flashbacks and dialogue in Busiek’s story are far too forced and cartoonish to carry the dramatic weight it’s trying to achieve. The less said about “The Insect Queen,” the better. The story is as absurd, boring, and painful as Secret Identity is stirring and poignant. If Busiek’s name hasn’t been listed in the credits, I would have sworn this story had been written by someone who hadn’t read—much less written—a superhero comic book since 1995.
As frustrating as it was to make my way through the entirety of Busiek’s Superman run, his tenure was not without bright spots. Several of his one-issue stories were actually quite effective. Superman #659, in which an elderly woman (an urban community activist) begins to see Superman as a literal guardian angel after he rescues her several times, is probably one of the best single-issue Superman stories I’ve read in a decade. Busiek’s strongest extended work has come from his creator-owned series Astro City, and Superman #659 read as though it was an Astro City story that happened to feature Superman. That’s not a bad thing at all.
Busiek’s replacement on Superman has raised my hopes again, though I’m still waiting for the book to warm up. James Robinson, who made his name on such DC classics as The Golden Age and Starman (in my opinion, the best superhero comic book of the 1990s), began his stint as ongoing writer of Superman with issue #677. His first story, “The Coming of Atlas,” ran for four issues and set a very different tone from that of Busiek. Robinson’s take on Superman is far more focused, and the character moments are more developed and rewarding than they have been for years. As a bonus, Robinson has made Jimmy Olsen one of the coolest and most interesting characters in the Superman universe—a feat that even the weekly series Countdown couldn’t do last year. But Robinson has been away from mainstream comics for about a decade, and his scripting seems a bit rusty thus far. His action scenes are overly drawn-out and not particularly convincing or consequential, and many moments of dialogue have made me wince. When the crowd cheered the loyalty and battle prowess of Krypto at the end of issue #680, I rolled my eyes and closed the book in disgust. Even as a kid, I would have known how out-of-touch that was.
Everything that has occurred in the two principal Superman books since “Up, Up, and Away!” led to a ten-part epic called “New Krypton” that concluded just last week. After the events of “Brainiac” in Action Comics, Kandor—the infamous lost Kryptonian city that existed inside a bottle for years—is restored to full size and planted in the northern Arctic regions of Earth. The transplanting of 100,000 superpowered beings on Earth is bound to create a bit of tension all around, and “New Krypton” deals with how both humans and Kryptonians react to having to share the same planet.
Because “New Krypton” is split up among three different ongoing books and two single-issue specials with three different creative teams (New Krypton Special #1, Superman #681-683, Action Comics #871-873, Supergirl #35-36, and Adventure Comics Special #1), the overall narrative comes across as disjointed and a bit clunky. Each of the creative teams is doing interesting work individually, but the pacing of the story is off when the ten parts are read straight through. Although the fallout of “New Krypton” will be interesting to read (I’m particularly interested in seeing what Sterling Gates does with Supergirl), the story itself does not hold together well as a coherent whole. As solid as Johns’ run on Action has been for the last couple years, this story is a disappointing climax.
Because 2007 saw such a dramatic shift in the main titles of Superman, one of the best stories of 2007-08 might have been lost in the mix. In January 2007, DC launched Superman Confidential as a new ongoing book that would feature different out-of-continuity stories from different creative teams (similar to the structure of the long-running Legends of the Dark Knight). The first six-issue story arc, entitled “Kryptonite,” featured writer Darwyn Cooke and artist Tim Sale—a dream-team that rivaled that of Morrison and Quitely on All Star Superman. Cooke has been doing impressive work for DC Comics for several years. He first made a name for himself as the artist on Ed Brubaker’s Catwoman run, but he has since earned wider recognition as the writer/artist on such high-profile projects as New Frontier and The Spirit. Tim Sale’s art has been gaining attention for years, primarily because of his projects with writer Jeph Loeb (Batman: The Long Halloween, Daredevil: Yellow, Hulk: Gray, Spider-Man: Blue, and Superman for All Seasons). More recently, Sale has served as the principal artist for the NBC television show Heroes. The story turned in by Cooke and Sale (when it was finally concluded) did not disappoint.
Cooke has a clear affinity for mid-20th century crime noir, and Sale’s art is well-suited to this aesthetic. At times, their collaboration is so tight that I forget Cooke is not also supplying the art. While “Kryptonite” is set in a more contemporary time, Cooke’s plot and Sale’s art convey a sense of 40s-era style. The characters’ clothes and vehicles—even sections of dialogue—are vintage, even though much of the technology and architecture is modern. The story itself is an engaging mystery that reveals a possible origin of Superman’s greatest weakness. Each issue begins with a couple pages of flashbacks that fill in gaps in the larger narrative, and each issue ends with a jarring revelation or cliffhanger. Cooke has carefully plotted out the pacing of the series, and the result is a book that actually reads as though it was written as a periodical, serialized story and not for the eventual trade paperback collection. This approach offers a distinctive, refreshing, and much-appreciated departure from most serialized stories in comics today.
Unfortunately, “Kryptonite” suffered from the same scheduling difficulties that have hampered pretty much every Superman book since 2006. While the first five issues of the story came out on schedule as Superman Confidential #1-5, the sixth and final issue wasn’t released until nine months later (as Superman Confidential #11). In the interim, another complete story was published in Superman Confidential. If a reader is buying the trade collection of the story, this is not a big deal. But the publication issues of “Kryptonite” probably doomed the ongoing series to failure before it found a wide readership. I can’t imagine I was the only reader who, after the fifth issue, lost faith in the title and refused to buy another issue until “Kryptonite” was complete. And there was probably no way the title could recover from the drop-off in sales.
I picked up the five-issue miniseries Superman/Supergirl: Maelstrom on a whim, partially because I have a fondness for Jack Kirby’s Fouth World characters but largely because of the book’s writing team. Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have been writing some of my favorite under-the-radar books (Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters and Jonah Hex) for a couple years now, and I wanted to see how they would use top-tier characters like Superman and Supergirl. What I found was a pleasant surprise. Superman/Supergirl: Maelstrom is not a deeply reflective or terribly experimental. This certainly isn’t the best Superman (or Supergirl) story I’ve ever read. But it was extraordinarily fun, and that’s something that I experience far too infrequently in superhero comics lately.
Maelstrom begins with Supergirl botching a fight against a warrior from the Fourth World planet of Apocalypse named Maelstrom. After Supergirl screws up the fight and Superman sends Maelstrom packing back to Apocalypse, Superman decides to take Supergirl to a planet in a solar system with a red sun so that she can learn to fight without relying entirely on her super powers. These things never go well, of course, and the Super cousins end up having to fight their way off the planet. Meanwhile, Maelstrom, who has developed a crush on Apocalypse’s despotic dictator Darkseid, tries to win his affection by fighting to get back to Earth and retrieve the head of his greatest enemy (Superman).
This book could end up playing as a string of well-worn clichés. Nothing here sounds terribly new, and the plot description sounds pretty ridiculous now that I’ve written it. But the series ended up being unexpectedly entertaining. The verbal sparring between Kara and Clark on the alien planet is loose, funny, and believable. This is a book that requires a wide range of emotion, and the facial expressions of artist Phil Noto convey the frustration, admiration, and amusement of the characters well. Palmiotti and Gray are very much in touch with contemporary verbal slang and rhythms, and the character interplay opens up new understandings (the characters’ understanding of themselves and my understanding of the characters) that I hadn’t considered before. The stories of Supergirl and Maelstrom run parallel and offer interesting counterpoints to themes such as love, guidance, and compassion. Honestly, I had a hard time justifying the time and the money I spent on this series, but I’m glad I broke down and read it. The series is not profound, but it’s insightful. And I laughed a lot along the way.
If you’ve been away from mainstream superhero comics for a while and don’t know where to begin with Superman, below are some suggestions that might give you a good contemporary understanding of the character:
• All Star Superman, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.
• Superman for All Seasons, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale.
• It’s a Bird, by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen
• Secret Identity, by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen.
• Up, Up, and Away!, by Geoff Johns, Kurt Busiek, et al.
• Superman: Red Son, by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett
• Superman: Last Son, by Geoff Johns, Richard Donner, and Adam Kubert
• Superman: Brainiac, by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank