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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Action Comics #1 - DC: The New 52


Grant Morrison and Rags Morales' Action Comics #1 is a propulsive throwback to the pulpy 1938 comic book origins of Superman, but suitably modernized for the 21st century. This is Superman as he was once originally conceived; powerful but not god-like, a "social crusader", a populist hero, the People's Champion. Younger, headstrong, and raw, this Superman is calculatedly unlike the "big blue boy scout" he has been derisively accused of being in past decades. This Superman is decidedly un-safe and dangerous to the corrupt status quo of Metropolis. In short, Superman has rarely ever been this interesting.

Morrison embraces the title of the book wholeheartedly: This is Action Comics, indeed. From start to finish, Morrison and Morales depict Superman as constantly in motion: hurtling buildings, blurring around the streets, tossing tanks, smashing through walls, saving lives. Not even as Clark Kent does he stand still for a moment. Action Comics is a blazingly exciting read: this is perhaps the most energetic, kinetic depiction of Superman ever. A comic book page turner in the best sense.

Set "five years ago", Superman has been active on the streets of Metropolis for six months. He is a colorful whirlwind vigilante battling against corruption in Metropolis, a "City of Tomorrow" decaying from within, decidedly not the gleaming golden shangri-la we've grown accustomed to as Superman's home city. Superman (and his GLOWING RED EYES, which stop glowing, thankfully, halfway through the issue) wages a one man war on the black heart of Metropolis - embodied by a criminal named Glenmorgan Superman strongarms to his ideal of justice. Meanwhile, Superman is monitored from afar by General Sam Lane, father of intrepid reporter Lois Lane, and his mysterious consultant Lex Luthor. Luthor is in the midst of masterminding an operation to capture Superman in exchange for "information".

The clarity of the characterizations and points of views of each of the characters Morrison delivers is stellar. We are always with Superman, seeing things from his point of view, perhaps not always agreeing with his methods but asked to believe he's in the right. Luthor regards Superman differently. In a clever bit by Morrison, drawing comparisons to animals injected into eco-systems not designed to support it, Luthor regards Superman thusly: "Our planet is playing host to a powerful and parasitic alien organism masquerading - somewhat ineptly, I have to say - as a human being."

Morrison weaves in some welcome shout outs to past interpretations of Superman. In a neat reversal, it is Glenmorgan, held hostage and fearing for his life at the hands of Superman, who cries out, "SOMEBODY! SAVE ME!" in a nod to the famous theme song from Smallville. Later, Superman assures the people he saves, "I'll be around", echoing Superman's last words to Lois in Superman Returns - "I'm always around."

Curiously, what Morrison references hardcore in Action Comics #1 is Spider-Man 2. Superman's limits get tested severely by Luthor's gambit of sending waves of soldiers, tanks, and weapons against the Man of Steel.  When Superman is temporarily overwhelmed, it's the people Superman saved from a wrecking ball to their building who rise up to defend him, just like the people Spider-Man saved in the train do for him in Spider-Man 2. That very action packed train sequence in Spider-Man 2 is lifted wholesale here, with Superman racing to stop a bullet train by its nose, ultimately succeeding while being pinned against it unconscious, as was Luthor's intent. This young Superman is not invulnerable. He can be hurt. His wears his battle scars on his face. Clark Kent also lives in a shambles of an apartment in the run down Hob's Bay section of Metropolis, chased for rent money by his landlord. Seriously, is this Clark Kent or Peter Parker?

As for Superman's supporting cast, we learn Jimmy Olsen remains his best friend and Lois Lane is only aware of Clark Kent as a journalistic competitor (Kent works for The Daily Star, as he did in 1938, not The Daily Planet). Lois coined the name "Superman" upon his debut, as she must. Luthor dryly notes: "It was your daughter who Christened the creature, General Lane. Notice how it didn't refuse the name." Action Comics #1 ends with a cliffhanger of Superman's capture by Luthor, and teases a mystery of Luthor noticing something out there in space heading for Earth. 

Action Comics #1 should have been the flagship launch book for DC Comics' New 52 initiative. This is bold, dynamic Superman; a much more involving, visceral, and pleasing launch than last week's Justice League #1. If this is representative of the paradigm of the new DC Comics, exciting times are ahead. As an "everything old - 1938 old - is new again" take on Superman, Action Comics #1 is a runaway success. Like a speeding bullet.