When I first began kicking around ideas for Halloween-y books to pull off my shelves and read this season, Astro City: Confession popped into my mind almost instantly. However, when I went to said shelf, I was surprised to see that this was one of two volumes from the series’ early run that I didn’t have. To Amazon I went and now I’ve got a nice hardcover version from DC’s sadly defunct Vertigo imprint. I’m not sure it’s possible to really talk about this book without getting into spoilers, so consider yourself warned and go out and read all of the Astro City you can find!
After enjoying Man of Steel so much, I figured it made sense to read a few Superman comics. As it turned out, I had an interesting sampling in my to-read box including the first volume of Grant Morrison’s New 52 Action Comics as well as the latest collection of post-Crisis Superman comics, Man of Steel Vol. 7.
I actually tried reading the first volume of the New 52 version of Superman and could not get through the book. I actually counted the number of panels that Superman appeared in in the first issue compared to ones he didn’t and the ratio was ridiculous. It’s supposed to introduce the character to the world in a whole new universe and you barely use him? Seemed silly to me. From there things went downhill and I didn’t bother finishing. Still, I had high hopes for Grant Morrison’s Action Comics because I consider him to be a really smart writer who loves this character and, even though he’s written Supes in JLA, All-Star Superman and Final Crisis, he still seems to have a lot to say about one of the world’s most famous fictional characters.
The volume finds a T-shirt and cape wearing Superman who hasn’t been around too long doing his best to mess with the kinds of people who tend to get away with all kinds of crimes thanks to their piles of cash and influence. Meanwhile, Clark Kent works for The Daily Star doing similar work but with his words instead of his fists. Since he’s still pretty new on the scene, the government doesn’t trust Superman and has General Lane working with Lex Luthor to try and figure out a way to stop him. While all this is going on new versions of Brainiac and Metallo get involved. Superman learns about himself, his home planet and even gets the suit he wears in the modern day New 52 U. There’s also a pretty fun story featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes and current Superman traveling to the Action Comics time period to fight the Anti-Superman Army.
Like I said, I like Morrison’s work and have come to expect a kind of slow-burn when it comes to his stories. There’s another 10 issues of this run, so I’m definitely curious to see how he wrapped the story up. But, there were a few things about this volume that got under my skin. First of all, Rags Morales’ art is not so great in the earlier issues. His pencils look too loose and many of his figures look generally un-dynamic, but the weakest part is his eyes. They look googley half the time with one pupil pointing one direction and the other elsewhere. It’s incredibly distracting and really draws you out of the story. Oh, plus, there’s no possible way that Clark Kent and Superman could be the same person the way they’re drawn in this book which is unfortunate.
The other aspect of the book — actually the first story, specifically — is the fact that it feels like many of the plot points feel more akin to another character: the Hulk. You not only have the dynamic of Lois’ dad trying to get rid of our hero (no, they’re not together, but it’s Lois and Superman, we know the potential is there), but also her rebuked lover becoming a villain in his own right. I know these are fairly general plot points, but they came off as a little tired to me. Luckily the story doesn’t dwell on those elements too much, so that’s more of a minor complaint.
As a longtime Superman fan, it was interesting to see how Morrison reshaped concepts and characters like Steel, Brainiac and Metallo. I hate Jimmy Olsen’s haircut, but the portrayal of him and Lois seemed right on. I like seeing a younger, more brash Superman and the same qualities in Clark. Overall, this seemed like a solid Superman comic. I almost wrote that it’s probably not the best comic to give someone who wants to learn about Superman, but then again, this book shares a lot of themes with Zack Snyder’s movie, so maybe it would be a good idea. Someone test the theory!
DC’s Jack Kirby and Man Of Steel books are probably my favorite collection projects around. The former introduced me to The King’s wild DC projects while the latter brings together all of the post-Crisis Superman comics into one place. That’s important to me because these books are filling in all kinds of gaps I had in my Superman reading which started in 1992. My hope is they get up to the Death of Superman story and then I’ve got it from there with the books from my collection.
This particular volume of Man Of Steel is an interesting one. I flipped through it and was surprised to see several issues tied into the mega crossover Millennium. While I don’t remember the details of that story too well aside from the basics — the Manhunters have replaced key people in the lives of superheroes — but I don’t remember Superman playing a huge role which fits with these issues in which Supes deals with the fact that a small army of Smallvillians were actually Manhunters, including Lana Lang. There’s an explanation for everything that works within the story, but it’s a pretty crazy revelation when you think about it. While they were explaining how they kept an eye on the Kryptonian infant, the Manhunters also revealed that they created the huge blizzard that allowed the Kents to tell the townspeople that Martha gave birth to Clark but wasn’t able to get to the hospital. This seemed like a strange piece of information to tack on to an origin story — storms can just happen, they don’t need a reason to happen — but at the time John Byrne was steering the Superman ship and that’s that. By the way co-wrote and drew every issue in this collection!
The weirdest part of this whole thing, though, is a lie that Pa and Ma Kent decide to tell Lois: that they raised Superman alongside Clark. Not only did this lie seem completely unnecessary — sure, Lois asks Superman point blank if he’s really Superman after all the craziness that went down in Smallville, but he’s Superman, he could have come up with a better answer — but I also don’t remember hearing this repeated in any other comic down the line. He doesn’t reveal that he’s Superman to Lois until Action Comics #662, so did she believe Clark and Supes grew up like brothers that whole time? Does she forget? Do they tell her another lie? I’m very curious about this because the whole thing understandably makes Lois furious. She’s mad that they lied to her, but more so, she feels like she was fed stories and pitied by the two of them anytime she got a story. It’ll be interesting to see how that storyline plays out.
The book ends with a pair of standalone issues. The first gives a little bit more background about Maggie Sawyer and introduces us to her daughter who has fallen under the spell of Skyhook, a bat-like creature who can somehow turn others into winged beings like himself. Byrne really gets to have fun in this issue stretching into some horror elements that weren’t overly common in these books at the time. The final issues introduces us to a circus mentalist who calls himself Brainiac and seems to have L.E.G.I.O.N. creator Vril Dox banging around in his head. I think this might be the first mention of Dox in post-Crisis continuity, but he seems different than the one seen in Invasion and then L.E.G.I.O.N. This is a more villainous incarnation along the lines of his pre-Crisis counterpart. For what it’s worth, the character’s Wiki page makes no mention of this appearance, noting that Dox’s first appearance is in Invasion #1. Interesting stuff.
While this collection series if firmly aimed at Superman fans of my ilk, I’m very thankful that they exist. This is the Superman that lead into the version of the character I’m most familiar with. Yes he’s powerful and inspiring, but he’s neither all-powerful nor perfect. Sure, I get a kick out of him moving planets and whatnot, but this is the version of the character I’m most familiar with and have the most affection for. Please keep these books coming DC!
I had problems with Astro City: The Dark Age 1. As I mentioned in my review of the earlier AC volume Tarnished Angel, I didn’t like constant back and forth nature of the thought boxes. I thought it was cheesy and annoying, a lot like some of the more schmaltzy Superman/Batman issues written by Jeph Loeb. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember much more than that when reading the second volume while on vacation last week. See, even though I didn’t have fond memories of the first book, I know that Kurt Busiek is one of the more solid writers around and that I want to learn more about the world of Astro City, so I’m always interested in reading more about it.
Even without refreshing my memory, I did remember that the book focused on a pair of non-superpowered brothers, one who went down the criminal path, the other who was a cop. They’re both obsessed with finding the man who killed their parents. That’s pretty much what the whole second book focuses on, now that the brothers have enough experience, technology and firepower to actually go after him. While that’s going on, we also get to see the Silver Agent appear a pair of times, several heroes from the 80s and no shortage of superhero action all of which leads to one focal point that makes for a pretty great battle.
I really liked how subtly Busiek handled the 80s comic trope of grim and gritty. I actually didn’t even think about it at first. He introduced the story as being set in the 80s and then eventually showed that a few heroes had gotten a little more violent. It wasn’t like in the first few panels he showed a Batman-like character snapping a bad guy’s neck, which is about as subtle as some other similar references. The metaphor also worked for the brothers who had gotten more and more grim as the story progressed.
Dark Age 2 probably wouldn’t be the best Astro City book to pick up if you’d never read anything, but I bet you could probably enjoy it. There’s enough familiar territory for superhero fans to understand the basics right off the bat. There’s also the question of Anderson’s art, which really turns some people off. It’s not the crispest art in the world, but I don’t have any problems with it. While figures can be muddy at times, he kills it on the faces, so it balances out for me. Oh, by the way, there’s a reveal at the end of this book, which closes out the Dark Age storyline altogether as far as I know, that explains away the dialog boxes that bugged me in the first collection. I guess this is a SPOILER of sorts, so skip along if you want nothing revealed. We find out at the end that the narration was actually being done by the brothers in modern times to a writer, which was such an obvious explanation I was disappointed in myself for not thinking about it. It’s actually a pretty cool trick that Busiek played by making long time comic book fans think one thing about the boxes and then revealing them to be something else. It’s a trick that can only really be pulled in this format and it was fun.
Overall, I really liked this collection and it made me want to read the first book again, so that’s a pretty good post-reading experience, right? It also made me want to snatch up the rest of the AC books I don’t have yet. I think it’s time to compare what’s on my shelf and in the longboxes to see what I do and don’t have. I love what Busiek’s done with this world and can’t wait to see what he does with it moving forward.
SPIDER-MAN NOIR (Marvel)
Written by David Hine & Fabrice Sapolsky, drawn by Carmine di Giandomenico
Spider-Man is one of those characters whose regular comics I find generally indecipherable. I know it’s because I’m just not all the familiar or interested in his comic book adventures. I was a DC kid growing up and everything I heard about Spidey’s books while coming up just didn’t sound that interesting. Aside from burning through the first 100 or so issues of Ultimate Spider-Man (which I found super boring and over-written) I don’t think I’ve ever even read a full Spider-Man trade. People say the same thing about Superman and that’s cool, it’s just how things is. But, I am a sucker for alternate universe stories featuring familiar characters and I do like Spidey in every other medium (cartoons, video games, one movie), plus I like the idea of noir superheroes. And, for the most port, I liked it. It’s way less jokey than the Spidey you probably know and love, but it’s still a fairly quick moving story that kept me interested and art that moved the story. It’s not a life-changing story, but a good read. I tried reading the X-Men one and just couldn’t get into it. I do think it’s interesting that Marvel made this and the other Noir trades a little bit smaller than a regular trades. It’s not quite digest size, closer to a Mome I guess. Anyone know what the reason for this is? For what it’s worth, I’ve got a great idea for a Thor Noir, if anyone’s interested.
WONDER WOMAN: RISE OF THE OLYMPIANS (DC)
Written by Gail Simone, drawn by Aaron Lopresti & Bernard Chang
It’s kind of funny for me to think of myself as a Wonder Woman fan. I read John Byrne’s run on the book and didn’t really like it (why I didn’t drop the book is beyond me), I’ve enjoyed the first two volumes of the retro Diana Prince: Wonder Woman (check out reviews here and here) and I’ve mentioned how much I like Gail Simone’s run on the book before, so I guess I am a fan. It’s too bad such a big time character doesn’t have more epic stories to point to, but I feel like Simone’s run might be one of the best. This trade (which collected Wonder Woman #26-33 and a segment from DC Universe #0) shows Wondy throwing down with a god called Genocide created by a group of mad scientists while Zeus resurrects a group of dead men to become the new Amazons. There’s all kinds of fighting and drama, but what I like most about this particular volume is that it changes the WW status quo by adding men into the Amazon picture. Sure, there’s all kinds of conspiracies and what not going on, but it seems like an at least fairly permanent change (you know, as much as you can have one of those in a comic). Lopresti’s art is sick as always and I hope this book starts getting some more attention soon. I will say that Rise isn’t a great jumping on point for new readers. I highly recommend going back and checking out all of Simone’s run and, if you like that, it might be worth it to check out the first trade of this series which sets the stage for everything going on here (like why Diana has an alter ego and all that stuff that wasn’t around before the relaunch).
ASTRO CITY: THE TARNISHED ANGEL (WildStorm/DC)
Written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by Brent Anderson
Astro City’s one of those books like Hellboy, Sin City and Jack Staff where I really fell in love with the universe along with the characters. I first heard about it from reading Wizard back in the day and then finding them at the library while visiting my grandma in Cleveland. I read them out of order and lost track until I started at Wizard when I was able to get caught up. Kinda. I’m way behind on all the newer stuff. Anyway, one of the more revered of the Astro City books is Tarnished Angel (along with Confessions), which collects Astro City Vol. II #14-20. The story follows Steeljack, a super criminal who gets out of jail only to go back to his same old crummy neighborhood where everyone’s either a henchman or related to one. Turns out someone’s killing these black masks and the neighborhood hires Steeljack to find the killer. Not being much of a detective, Steeljack has to rely on some hints along the way and dogged determination. Busiek has become known for stories like these that take a look at the world superheroes live in from the ground up, zoomed way in on a particular character or group and this is a prime example of that. You really feel for this mook who’s just trying to make things right. The story might be a bit long (note that this collection also includes a one-off story about a guy called the Mock Turtle that ties back in, but isn’t SUPER relevant), but overall I think it’s a well told tale. The one thing that I don’t necesarily like and the element that has turned a lot of people off to the Astro City comics is Anderson’s artwork. It’s kind of muddy and maybe over-inked. Overall it’s fairly inconsistent, at times it’s spot on and works really well and at others it looks pretty bad. Not being a super-art oriented comic reader, this doesn’t bother me as much. I really urge you to push through and give it a shot anyway. Also, as I’m sure you know, Alex Ross did all the covers in this volume and they’re top notch, from when he was really on top of his game. Now I just need to get my hands on Confessions, Local Heroes and everything after the first Dark Ages trade which I read and found to be way too slow and written just like the schlocky Superman/Batman issues where Jeph Loeb kept having Superman and Batman thinking about each other in nearly identical ways.