11 January 2012

Action Comics #5

Introduction by Alan David Doane:

In my more contemplative moments (those moments I contemplate comics, anyway), I sometimes wonder whatever happened to the Grant Morrison that wrote The Invisibles, JLA: Earth 2, Flex Mentallo, The Filth, New X-Men, Marvel Boy, or even All-Star Superman.

To say Morrison's output in the days since Seven Soldiers of Victory has been largely a disappointment would be a huge understatement. It seems like, somewhere along the line, he lost some key element of his gift for writing comics. I was astonished at how poorly Final Crisis held up, after eagerly anticipating a reunion of the creative team from Marvel Boy, which was a work of sheer genius, and one of the best Marvel books of the past 25 years. So what happened to Morrison? I'd hazard a guess that spending much time literally or metaphorically with his DC Comics colleague, the witless writer of fanboy fiction Geoff Johns would be enough to damage anyone's brain cells. Short of that, perhaps Morrison is just phoning it in. I have no idea why the quality of his his work has fallen off so precipitously, but I am rock-solid in my conviction that it has.

I've kinda-sorta followed Action Comics since The New 52 event, but I haven't found anything in it to engage me. Unlike my fellow traveler Chris Allen below, I don't care much for the artwork of Rags Morales (I don't hate it, it just does nothing for me), and the first four issues seemed like so much placekeeping. This fifth issue feels more like a first issue, like the beginning of something new, but of course it's Superman, so we must relive his origin story for the 18,674th time. Seriously, DC? Hollywood? There are intelligent, highly-evolved blue-green slime molds living millennial lifespans in the southwestern rim of the galaxy of Andromeda that are bored as fuck with the retelling of Superman's origin. So you can bet your ass that we are too, right here at home. Besides, Morrison had the last word in Super-origin-retelling in the first page (see illustration, click it to see it bigger) of All-Star Superman. So why are we sitting through this again?

The gimmick that the rocketship is telling the story is new, and somewhat clever. Almost Morrisonesque, one might say. The art, by Alleged Watchmen 2 scab Andy Kubert, is attractive in that "half my dad, half Jim Lee" way that Kubert has about him. The shadowy, half-familiar villains lend a hint of intrigue. Which is a hint more than just about any New 52 title has issued forth, with a rare Wonder Woman or Swamp Thing-type exception. (And frankly, Swamp Thing is getting fucking draggy, folks.)

So here we are with Morrison feeling slightly more like Morrison than he has in some time, a clever idea or two, and much more attractive art than the title has seen at all to date in its relaunch. I'd recommend you check this issue out if you like the creators, or even the character, but I won't tell you it's a work of genius, or even worthy of being held up in the mid-range of Morrison's complete body of work. He's done worse, but he's done far better, too. As someone who generally likes Morrison's take on DC's major superheroes (his JLA remains one of the company's best-written books ever), I really wanted to love this issue. That I didn't hate it seems something of a miracle given the current quality of corporate superhero books as a whole, but I could have liked it a lot more than I did, if only it had been a little better written, and had any reason whatsoever to exist.

Christopher Allen:

Grant Morrison's short Action Comics run has thus far been plagued by a seeming lack of ambition unusual for Morrison. Usually, if a book isn't successful, it's due more to trying to do too much and not pulling it all together, so it has been dismaying to get through four issues where not a lot has happened besides a decision to write Superman as a cocky punk. In the past couple weeks, readers have discovered that DC put the New 52 together very quickly, and are now changing some creative teams, so it could be that Morrison had to come up with something quickly, making a hasty claim to another big character so as to not get lost in the Lee/Johns vision of the DCU of today. Who knows? What is known is that Action has been pretty forgettable, if nicely drawn by Rags Morales.

This issue marks a departure from the series so far, the beginning of a two issue flashback drawn by Andy Kubert that retells Superman's origin yet again. The story provides a chance for Morales to catch up, arriving suddenly in the middle of the first arc, and in some ways it could provide a bit of a breather for Morrison as well. How hard is it to write another wrinkle on Superman's origin? But Morrison digs in and does a nice job capturing the sacrifice of Jor-El and Lara and the pain of the childless Jon and Martha Kent, while tweaking past history with a rupture in the Phantom Zone leading to Kal-El being sent to Earth and Krypto disappearing, while Kal-El's craft is navigated by an early version of Brainiac, which goes into sleep mode when it's discovered by the government. Add to that a team of new enemies for Superman that seem to be embodiments of the goofy old alternate forms of Kryptonite of the '50s, and this is an issue that, while it isn't close to Morrison at the top of his game, is still clever and entertaining. Kubert isn't one of Morrison's more imaginative collaborators -- as witnessed by the ho-hum depiction of Krypton's destruction -- but Morrison has worked with him enough by now to know how to use him well, and Kubert is at least a solid storyteller who keeps things moving without drawing attention to himself rather than the tale being told.

Yan Basque:

One of my favourite things about Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman is the brilliant way they dispense with Superman's origin in a single page. It's the very first page of the comic and consists of four panels and a total of eight words: "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple." Those words - combined with the images of (1) Krypton about to blow up, (2) Kal-El's birth parents, (3) the rocket flying away from exploding Krypton, and (4) a shot from baby Kal-El's POV with Martha and Jon leaning over him, Martha holding a piece of red cloth, and the big, bright, yellow sun in the background - perfectly encapsulate Superman's origin story. It's one of the best examples of compressed storytelling I've come across in modern superhero comics.

Part of the reason All Star Superman's first page works so well is that we already know the origin story. We've seen it, heard it, read it a thousand times already. For some reason, DC is obsessed with retelling it over and over again. In the past decade, we've seen versions of it in Superman: Birthright (2003-04), All Star Superman (2006-08) Superman: Secret Origin (2009-10), Superman: Earth One (2010).

So here, in Action Comics #5, we get a completely unnecessary retelling of that origin. What Grant Morrison had reduced to a perfect single page in All Star is now drawn out into a convoluted mess to fill a whole issue of one of the most overrated titles of DC's New 52.

I've read the first couple of issues of the relaunched Action Comics and found nothing to enjoy in them. The extremely inconsistent and rushed art was already getting patched up by fill-in artists by the second issue. Meanwhile, Grant Morrison's younger, cockier and angrier Superman feels to me like a very boring take on the character. This is just not what I want out of Superman comics. (But then again, neither was "Grounded" or much of what we've gotten in the past few years.)

This particular issue is about as insular and cryptic as an already well-known origin story can get, which seems to be exactly the opposite of what the New 52 relaunch was supposed to achieve. Wasn't it going to simplify things for new readers. Well, guess what? If new readers know anything about superhero comics, it's probably Superman's origin. So why is DC taking what those potential new readers already know and complicating it with this mess of a story?

In the opening scenes, Jor-El and Lara exchange some of the worst expository dialogue Morrison has ever written. They keep telling each other things they already know: "We built it together, you and I." Meanwhile, the narration from Brainiac/Superman's rocket's point of view might be kind of a neat trick, except that it's hard to figure out what he/it's talking about some of the time. Then when time travel got involved, I was having some bad flashbacks to the more nonsensical parts of Return of Bruce Wayne and I completely lost interest.

Andy Kubert's art is serviceable but unremarkable.

There's also a backup story by Sholly Fisch and Crisscross, about the Kents trying to conceive a child before Kal-El's arrival on Earth. I have no opinion about this story, but Crisscross is one of the worst artists at DC right now and I can't stomach the way his weird faces are constantly morphing from panel to panel, making you question how they could possibly belong to the same character.

Joseph Gualtieri:

Grant Morrison’s long-form comics projects, post-Invisibles anyway, tend to get off to a fast, appealing start, descend into a slow burn, and then reach an exciting climax that ties the series up nicely. New X-Men and the pre-Final Crisis Batman run are probably the two best examples of this. In the case of the former, “E for Extinction” clearly marked the beginning of a new era, then things settled down the series received some poor reviews until the rush of “Murder at the Mansion,” “Assault on Weapon Plus,” “Planet X,” and “Here Comes Tomorrow” turned general opinion around. The reaction to “Batman and Son” wasn’t as positive as the one for “E for Extinction,” but Batman fighting ninja Man-Bats against a backdrop of Lichtenstein paintings is a fun one. Unfortunately other than the JH Williams III illustrated “Black Glove,” Morrison’s Batman did not seem to gain any critical traction during its middle period. Then “R.I.P.” hit, and while it is one of the more divisive stories in Batman’s long history, it worked quite well for some critics and readers. The next period of Morrison’s long Batman run, on Batman & Robin, would go through a similar spectrum of critical reaction, with a positive response to the first arc, disdain for the second, and then an upswing towards the end.

So why take the long look at the reaction to some of Morrison’s more recent superhero work? Because from what I’ve seen, people hate Action Comics #5, and I think it’s well worth viewing it within the past lens of Morrison’s pattern of work. Whatever Morrison’s doing in Action, it isn’t close to the end yet, and his work usually does not become clear until that point. Reviewing a single issue in the middle of one of Morrison’s long form epics is not going to give you much of a sense of the totality of the work or of where he’s going.

In the very first Flashmob Fridays, we looked at an issue of Mark Waid’s Daredevil that was the conclusion and frankly, I savaged it. The comic did not provide the information necessary for a new reader to pick it up and follow what was going on in it. Action Comics #5 may be part of a longer epic, but unlike the DD issue reviewed here, it is comprehensible on its own terms. Yes, it’ll be clearer if you’ve read the previous four issues of the series, but for the most part it is a straightforward new telling of Superman’s origin, with the added twist of some of the story being from the sentient rocket’s perspective. Other than the mysterious new villains (who are mysterious new villains) it is clear enough who all of the major players in the comic are, so it passes that crucial test while Daredevil failed it.

There is another reason why this issue is not being well received — the first page of All Star Superman #1. It covers much of the same material as Action #5 in just four panels with eight words; it’s a masterpiece of economical storytelling and one of the best single pages of Morrison’s career. Consequently, at least some of the negative reaction to Action #5 seems to come from the change in approach; instead of super-condensed, now Morrison’s told the origin in a (relatively) decompressed fashion. If there are two things superhero fans seem to be sick of these days, it’s retelling origin stories and decompression; combine the two and it’s no wonder people hate this comic. Take those prejudices away though, and there is actually nothing wrong with this comic. Did the world need another telling of Superman’s origin? Not particularly, but this was obviously coming given the remit of the new 52. To steal a point from Comics Alliance’s Chris Sims, if Morrison didn’t write this someone else would have. Better to have a writer of Morrison’s caliber do it, and again, he isn’t just doing a straight retelling. Whatever’s going on with the ship that brought baby Kal-El to Earth is intertwined with Morrison’s on-going plot and this issue provided what will likely be key new details in that direction.

That all out of the way, there is one big flaw with the issue. It comes after #4 ended on a cliffhanger for Superman’s battle with the revamped Brainiac, which promised it would be resolved in #7. Clearly, the production on the comic is screwed up and as result the next story arc was moved up. Financially, this is clearly a better alternative for DC than not publishing Action for two months. As a reader, I’m not sure this is beneficial.

Action Comics #5 is far from being Morrison’s best work, but it works on its own terms, as a new version of Superman’s origin, and seems to provide key pieces of Morrison’s on-going storyline. It does nothing to deserve the critical drubbing it’s received, which seem to have more to do with love for All Star Superman than anything genuinely wrong with the comic.

If you’re wondering why I’ve no mentioned the Sholly Fisch back-up, it’s because now that’s completely unnecessary and adds to neither the on-going storyline nor to the Superman mythos in general.

Buy Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel from Amazon.com.

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