I’ve said time and time again here on the blog when talking about comics, especially DC Comics, that I was a hardcore continuity guy, especially when it came to Superman. Those are the books that got me into comics and taught me the most about the Man of Steel and the greater DC Universe. So, when Infinite Crisis went down and did some vague continuity edits that didn’t seem that well conveyed and I started reading Geoff Johns’ run on Action Comics, I was confused and angrier than I should have been. I was being over-reactionary and not really fair partly because of my bias, but also because I was so dedicated to the version of that character that I was so familiar with.
Since then, I’ve done more thinking about all this than I probably should have, but I go back to what I call the Puzzle Theory Of Corporate Comic Characters. The way I see it, every single existing Superman story is a puzzle piece that a new writer can come in and use. Take Batman for example. That character can work as the ultra-dark version seen in the Christopher Nolan movies or as the fun, upbeat version seen in the Brave and the Bold cartoon. It’s the same character with different past aspects highlighted by the creators. That’s the lens through which I checked out Johns run on Action Comics when I went back and re-read it recently. He’s more a fan of the Silver Age stuff than the books I read, so that’s what he highlighted. I’m doing the first three books here and will do the final two next week, then maybe get into the New Krypton stuff which he set up and then handed off to James Robinson, Greg Rucka and Sterling Gates.
So, Infinite Crisis changed the DCU a bit by making Clark Kent Superboy when he was a kid. That was the major difference for Supes, but they also took away his powers for a year leading into One Year Later and 52. Up, Up & Away is a crossover between Action Comics and Superman with Johns and Kurt Busiek trading off issues in an effort to set up the new world without a Superman and, of course, gradually bring him back. In the year since he lost his powers helping bring down Superboy Prime, Clark has been able to enjoy the finer aspects of being a regular person: getting really good at his job, being more present with his wife and savoring his more limited senses. But of course, it’s not meant to last. While Clark had most of his bases covered with Supergirl and other heroes watching over Metropolis, he didn’t account for Lex Luthor getting out of jail and going back to his mad scientist roots, gathering villains and wielding them as weapons against Metropolis and Superman once he does return.
I can’t say for sure, but I think I really liked these books when they came out and I liked it a lot on this read through. It seemed like both writers really got a good grasp of the character and did a few things that I really enjoyed, most of which had to do with Lex Luthor. When I started reading Superman books, he was the quintessential industrial bad guy, but I’m also a big fan of mad scientist Lex. Better than that, though, the book asked a question that I had never thought of until these issues: Why didn’t Lex put his genius to use curing cancer instead of going after Superman? I tended to think of Luthor in the sense that he was portrayed in the Lex Luthor: Man of Steel series as a good man trying to defend his people from what he saw as a threat, but that ignores the irresponsible and crazy aspects of the character that are also there. Why DIDN’T he cure cancer?! Cause he’s nuts. There are also stellar moments between Lois and Clark where she explains that, while she enjoyed her time with powerless Clark Kent, she knows he needs to be Superman for the world’s sake. This is my favorite relationship in comics.
The book ends and Superman’s back in the suit with the bad guys are vanquished. He’s even helping rebuild parts of the city and handing over the signal watch to Jimmy Olsen. It’s a cool ending that doesn’t really establish the new status quo of Superman or Clark Kent, but did give a cool feel for both before moving into the separate books.
I hope there’s a point in my comic reading career when I can completely separate my reading of a trade from the knowledge I have about how that series came out in a monthly format. It’s not much of a problem anymore because I don’t read many single issues anymore so lateness has very little meaning to me. If you don’t remember or weren’t around, the books in this collection were widely spread out, had fill-ins by completely different creative teams and didn’t actually get finalized until much later when the annual came out, allowing DC’s flagship title to continue on without as much interference. It was frustrating.
There was actually a lot that frustrated me about this book the first time around. It was assumed that the lateness came from then-new DC acquisition Adam Kubert. I don’t have much tolerance artist lateness, especially if it’s an artist I’m not into. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about and therefore wasn’t very forgiving when month after month passed and the story still hadn’t wrapped up. There were also a pair of story elements that bothered me. First, the book features Superman meeting the Phantom Zone villains for presumably the first time which I thought had already happened in the previous continuity. Second, I didn’t want Superman to have a kid.
However, this time, I was able to just take it all in at once. And you know what? I liked most of the story. I did my best to ignore the lateness and my continuity bias, instead just letting myself focus on this new story and it’s pretty good, though I’m still not a great big fan of Adam Kubert’s. Aside from some poorly constructed figures when zoomed out, my main problem with the art was that it looked like the figures were being photoshopped onto painted backgrounds. When artists do that kind of thing, it looks inorganic and distracts from the implication that you’re looking at a whole broken up into many panels.
As usual, I’m getting ahead of myself. This story kicks off with a young Kryptonian landing on Earth. He’s soon followed by Zod, Ursa and Non (better known as the bad guys from Superman II) who are actually using their son as a tether allowing them to escape the Negative Zone. Now Superman has to fight for the very survival of his adoptive planet and his new foster son in the face of overwhelming odds.
I dug the ins and outs of this story from the explanation of how Lor-Zod was conceived to Mon-El’s appearance and the Bizarro fight to the people Superman turns to for help in defeating his enemies. My only real problems this time around were still related to other comics, but not the ones I read as a kid, but instead Up, Up & Away. Somehow Clark Kent went from a confident guy wearing a Smallville jacket to a suit and tie-wearing doofus who felt the need to act as such to hide his secret identity. Doesn’t that seem weird? Wouldn’t that kind of big character change cause a lot of people to wonder what’s going on? However, as its own thing and the beginning of Johns’ solo run (he recently said on Kevin Smith’s Fat Man On Batman podcast that he basically hammered out the beats with his one-time boss Richard Donner and then scripted it himself), it works a lot better than it did as a monthly comic. One of the major negatives at the time was that Lor-Zod wound up spending months and months with Clark and Lois, basically spinning his wheels until everyone got their stuff together and gave him the proper send off which wound up being really emotional and well done.
While I might want to forget some elements of the previous books, I have only good memories and experiences with Escape From Bizarro World, which is a three issue story drawn by The Goon‘s Eric Powell. While working at Wizard, I was given the assignment of interviewing Powell for a sketchbook feature. You can actually see the sketches in the intro written by Brian K. Vaughan, but the amazing Darkseid one he did wasn’t included because he has nothing to do with the story. That image of Darkseid has become second only to Jack Kirby’s in my mind for iconic interpretations of the character. Powell was also a super nice guy to interview. He had a death in the family at the time and still took the time to help me with the article, something I don’t know if I could have focused on in his shoes. Good guy that Powell.
This story completely plays to Powell’s strengths as it takes place mostly on a planet that Bizarro smashed together and happens to be under a blue sun which has given him “Bizarro Vision,” the ability to create Bizarro clones. The downside? They hate him. Bizarro needs advice so he kidnaps Jonathan Kent which eventually brings Supes to the planet. Superman actually wants to just get out of there and leave Biz to his problems, but his dad is there to play moral compass and help the two figure out a way to change the status quo. It’s a great series of moments, but doesn’t hold a candle to the few scenes of Superman’s dad getting his son’s powers and understanding for a little while what that’s like. Better yet? The gift Bizarro gave him at the end. Man, that gave me a little lump in my throat!
It’s a quick story with all kinds of goodness on both ends of the comic spectrum. Johns and Donner weaved a wonderful story that ranks up there with some of my favorites. At the same time, Powell not only gets to draw backwards zombie-ish versions of the Justice League and Superman’s supporting cast, but also does a Superman so iconic I almost can’t stand that there’s only three issues.
To beef up the trade, DC did something pretty fun by including three different Bizarro issues from years’ past. Better than just including some basic stuff, though, they actually got Johns to pick issues that inspired him when writing the character. The writer even writes mini essays about why he included each issue which is pretty great. So, instead of reprinting Bizarro’s first appearance, he went with the one where Bizarro and Bizarro Lois Lane have a kid who’s normal and therefore a weirdo on their planet. This plays up on the themes of alienation that Johns used throughout all of his Superman stories.
Alright, I want to say one more thing while on the subject of how these books are collected. I understand it makes sense to collect the books by artist, but there are a few issues here and there from Johns’ run that weren’t collected in these books. I don’t have the exact issue numbers on hand, but I know there was a Toyman issue that got passed over for collection. I’m sure I’m not the only one to suggest this, but it would be nice to have a Geoff Johns Action Comics Omnibus. They’ve done that with his Teen Titans and Flash runs, so maybe we’re not far off from that with Superman.