April 23, 2018

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Panel Pattering: Action 1000 Reaction

Action 1000 cover by the Allreds



In honor of the release of Action 1000, several of us on the Panel Patter team all read the issue and provided our opinions, independent of each other. This is something Rob's been wanting to try for awhile, and this seemed like a good chance to do it.

So here we go, diving right into the 80th Anniversary of the character who failed to make it into the newspapers and by doing so, effectively launched a whole new style of comics. And a weird fashion quirk. But that's a whole other story...



Scott Cederlund:

The central theme of Action Comics #1000 is that it’s hard work and a lot of responsibility to be Superman.  In a celebration of 80 years of comics, DC comics assembles a vast cadre of past, present, and future Action Comics artists and writers (and a few that are doing their first Action stories) to mark this milestone.  While there have been other anniversary issues over the years, nothing in western comics has approached the idea of a 1000th issue of something.  That’s why DC reintroduced the legacy numbering with the Rebirth initiative.  Looking back over 1000 issues of this series, creators like Dan Jurgens, Geoff Johns, Brian Michael Bendis, Jim Lee, Olivier Coipel and Clay Mann for some reason rarely look at the inspiration and aspirations that are part of the original Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.  Instead, from a 2018 perspective, they instead decide to tell stories about a man who can’t take a minute out of his day and who will live to experience the dying moments of a world that embraced and celebrated him.

Dan Jurgens, perhaps the most influential Superman writer and artist of the last 40 years (yes, more influential than the absent John Byrne,) kicks off this milestone issue with a story where the Man of Steel’s closest family and friends work in concert to deceive him and get him to ignore his responsibilities so that Metropolis can feel good about itself and their gratitude to Superman.  Maybe that’s a harsh reading of the story but then again, I’ve never really gotten into Jurgens’ portrayal of Superman and this short story doesn’t help at all.  There’s got to be a better way to praise a hero without making him ignore the threats and dangers that makes him the hero he is.

Panel from King/Mann/Bellaire

Flipping more to the center of the issue, Tom King, Clay Mann and Jordie Bellaire’s tale shows a far future, where the Last Son of Krypton becomes the Last Son of Earth as the sun goes supernova.  Visiting his parents’ grave, the story is about the everlasting might of Superman; he’ll outlive us all as well as the planet but he’ll always be Superman.  It’s been over four billion years since the Earth was abandoned.  4,000,000,000 years but Lois and Jon are still by his side.  It says something about the power of love but it also feels kind of creepy as a grape flavored formula has kept Lois alive longer than any human should be.  If Dan Jurgens’ story was off putting about the way that his friends manipulate Superman, this story reverses that manipulation.  To be fair, it’s never implied that Superman is tricking Lois to take the life-sustaining formula but there’s a sadness in the idea of seeing everyone and everything you know die away while you, your wife and your son continue to have adventures.

The highlights of the issue are seeing some of the all-time classic Superman artists getting another chance to draw the character; Curt Swan, Kurt Schaffenberger, Jerry Ordway and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  As more current artists like Jim Lee, John Cassaday, and Rafael Albuquerque provide their modern takes on Superman (red trunks and all,) these legacy artists, particularly Ordway, Garcia-Lopez and inker Kevin Nowlan, have always been great at capturing the physicality of Superman.  And to be fair, this is one of the things that Jurgens has always done as well.  Maybe it’s that Ordway’s and Garcia-Lopez’s Superman are my Superman but there’s something magnificent about their barrel-chested takes on the character.  The broad shoulders, the impossible six-pack abs, and the heroic poses are Superman to me and it’s exciting to know that along with this, we’ll get more Garcia-Lopez Superman in the upcoming DC Nation #0.

For the past month or two, DC comics have proclaimed “Bendis Is Coming” and with Action Comics #1000, Bendis is here, joined for this short story by Jim Lee who still demonstrates an inability to design or draw monstrous villains.  As for Bendis’ DC debut, this story is a remarkably generic superhero brawl.  Most of the time, Superman is just getting pummeled so there’s no room or desire in this story for Bendis to demonstrate his take on the character.  Tired and generic, “The Truth” wraps up this monumental issue with a teaser more than a capstone on the celebration of Superman.

In the second story, Peter Tomasi writes, “Vandal (Savage) tried to use the past against me.  But the past informs us… teaches us… and most of all, strengthens us.”  For as much as Action Comics #1000 looks to the past for inspiration, I’m not too sure if it’s doing much of what Tomasi proclaims that it should do.  This anniversary issue is not so much a celebration of what it means to be the Man of Steel but acts more as a reminder of the cost of being both super and a man.  Most of the stories are more about the sacrifice of time, of friends, and of friends that are required of being Superman. And maybe after 80 years of stories and adventures that’s what it means to be Superman.

Mike McCann:

When I read Action 1000, I couldn’t help but think of the last big Superman milestone, Superman 700. Oddly enough, Action Comics 900 wasn’t treated as a milestone, but nearly a year later, the second volume edition of Detective Comics 27 was (?). DC is strange.

There are a few parallels between Action 1000 and Superman 700 in that they served as celebrations of the history of the character while providing a jumping off point for a new arc by an acclaimed writer who made a leap from Marvel to DC. Let’s hope that Brian Michael Bendis’s run is stronger than Straczynski’s. More to the point, I read this book and thought it was both a wonderful celebration of the Man of Steel’s legacy and a transparent marketing ploy. Fortunately, I think the former wins out, mostly.

Jurgens/Martin

The short stories chronicling Superman’s history and impact each found their way to my heart in one way or another. Dan Jurgens opens the book with a clever look at Superman’s personality. When I first read it, I thought it felt a little predictable, but something made me immediately return to read it. In my second read, I realized the predictability is genius. Superman is a force. He is immovable; he stands firm. The way Jurgens built the tension between Lois and Clark speaks to the depth of his knowledge of their relationship.

Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque, neither man a seasoned Superman vet, created a subtle yet powerful character study of one of the most important elements in the Superman mythos. Snyder builds a Lex Luthor who seems equally arrogant and vulnerable. The light/dark contrasts Albuquerque provides drive the narrative home. At the end of the story, we’re left pitying Lex Luthor in a mannner in which I don’t remember feeling in quite some time.

I loved seeing Louise Simonson and Jerry Ordway team up. I was happy to see their inclusion, but it also reminded me of a number of important Superman creators who didn’t have a contribution, including Elliot S! Maggin, Mark Waid, John Byrne, Karl Kesel, or Grant Morrison.

No surprise from me, but Gleason and Tomasi’s splash page tale of a time cursed Superman was my favorite offering for three reasons: 1. Gleason’s magnificent splash page art coupled with Tomasi’s narration paid a beautiful homage to the Man of Steel throughout his history in a clever way; 2. The duo managed a complete story arc in a few pages without sacrificing much in way of plot, 3. Lois stole the scene (and the entire issue, in my opinion) on the story’s final page.

All of that leads to the closing story in the issue, Brian Bendis and Jim Lee’s pilot tale for Bendis’s run. It’s probably my least favorite story in the book, and likely earns that title because of the insanely sharp tonal turn the book takes with the final story. I understand it’s less celebratory than the rest by design, and I’m ok with that. I am also perfectly ok with Supergirl’s intervention. I don’t think this takes away from Superman nearly enough to complain about it. And great, there’s a new twist to the origin that we don’t need. All together, there wasn’t enough for me to love or hate it, but I’m thoroughly “meh,” and that is a Shane after being excited for most of the book.

James Kaplan:

So, Action Comics 1000. A huge accomplishment. It’s a really exciting thing. I didn’t love every story but there were a few I thoroughly enjoyed. There are some interesting choices for an anniversary issues included in this issue and I want to focus on a few of those.

My favorite story in this issue was the Peter Tomasi/Patrick Gleason story “Never-Ending Battle.” A fight with Vandal Savage sends Superman on a strange journey through hypertime as Superman sees himself fighting in different decades and eras. This is mainly an excuse for Gleason to show his tremendous artistic chops in drawing iconic scenes from many different eras of Superman, but even it if was, I'm totally fine with that. But Tomasi gave Superman a chance to espouse the values that he lives by and which were what enabled him to make his way home. It was sweet and engaging.

A really dark inclusion was the Scott Snyder/Rafael Albuquerque story “The Fifth Season” where, at the risk of spoiling everything, I’m pretty sure that Lex Luthor is successful in erasing Superman from existence, but in his hubris he doesn’t even consider the possibility that Superman may have saved his own life, meaning a Superman-less world turns into a loop. That’s some dark stuff. I wondered at first why include it, but I think the takeaway (for me at least) is the way that Luthor and Superman are intertwined even beyond their battles. You can’t have one without the other.

Snyder/Albuquerque/McCaig
I was also intrigued by the dark, poignant story “Of Tomorrow” from Tom King and Clay Mann. This is Superman, at the very end of the Earth’s existence, visiting his parents’ graves one last time. I thought this was a weird, darkly powerful choice to include. It’s not a vision I totally buy but it reminded me of other stories of powerful heroes or beings at the very end of time. What do they do when all the battles are done, no one is left to fight, and there's nothing left to protect? A Superman story at the end of time is something I’d be interested in from this team.

Lastly, I wanted to mention the short story from Geoff Johns, Richard Donner and Olivier Coipel, which is a more serious story set in the world of Action Comics #1, with a sterner, father figure of a Superman. I loved the 1930’s placement, and it was a fun little tale depicting this very early proto-Superman. What I can’t say enough about is the gorgeous art from Olivier Coipel. He really brings 1938 Superman to life as a golden-age character seen through a  detailed, realistic, gorgeously rendered lens. Other stories I enjoyed less, but I’d still recommend picking this up.

Rob McMonigal:

Some Panel Patter readers aren't old enough to have had superhero comics be their first exposure outside of "Garfield" and "Peanuts" to the medium. Others came from other forms, but for me, capes and strips is what comics meant to me for a very long time. Ironically, Superman wasn't one of those formative heroes for me. He was the "cool guy from the movies" who had adventures in the comics that didn't resonate for me. But what I did grow to be familiar with is the idea of "inventory stories."

What's that, you ask? A story that can fit anywhere, so that when the artist was late or got sick, the comic could still appear on time. They're enjoyable, but lack deeper meaning. For me, that's what the overwhelming number of stories in this issue were, and while I get that's going to happen when you are dealing with a quick page count, I can't help but feel like for such a monumental anniversary, one that you can see coming years away, DC didn't try hard enough to find stories that really encapsulate all that Superman means to someone who's been with him for so long, either in film, television, radio show, newspaper strip, or the comics.

Tomasi/Gleason/Sanchez

Or maybe that's the problem here--DC's lost some of what made Superman such a great character, and these stories only capture it at the edges. For example, I surprisingly enjoyed Brad Meltzer, John Cassaday, Laura Martin, and Chris Eliopoulos's story. In it, our hero, who is insanely fast, is also able to calculate that he isn't going to be able to save a person's life, and the knowledge eats at him in a way that can only apply to the Man of Steel. Cassaday's repetition of images and focus on the action that Superman can probably see but not impact, as he grows more desperate, really resonated with me. But while others might give up, Superman does not, and that makes all the difference.

On the other end, Dan Jurgens gives us a cynical version of Clark that is a biting contrast to the hero he used to portray him as. Instead of being able to do a public event and save the day, Lois has to have Batman and the Martian Manhunter trick him into thinking there's nothing going on. Which is absolutely stupid, sorry--if he couldn't hear that problem, then he'd hear and see others. Because that's who he is. I can suspend my belief for just about anything--except when you ignore powers. It's just such a bad take, and it leads off the issue, too. This man isn't Super--he's kind of a dick. Which sure, works as a parody, but not in your celebration issue. It's as if an older, jaded Jurgens can only think of Superman feeling the same, which doesn't work at all for the character. I will say that Jurgens can draw the hell out of a comic. His panels aren't perfectly traditional, but I was easily able to follow the flow, and Superman looks big and bold as life. Characters' eyes and body language give away a lot--the trouble is, for me, it's not the language I want them to speak.

Then there's the two middle stories, by creators I really like, with the American Vampire team of Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque (along with Dave McCaig, and Tom Napolitano) and Tom King, Clay Mann, Jordie Bellaire, and John Workman providing very dark takes on the Superman mythos. Snyder's story is a great study of the Lex-Clark dynamic, but its implication that they're caught in a potential loop is what? A commentary on how comics tell the same stories over and over? (There's literally a line about how things are meaningless sometimes.) That the characters can't ever stop influencing each other? It would be a good story for an imagining of Superman's relations to his villains, maybe, but I didn't think it worked to show how Superman always finds a way to overcome Lex's plots. There's something missing here.

Meanwhile, Tom King takes us to the far future, with Clay Mann depicting a Superman who hasn't changed in billions of years, keeps Lois alive via a goofy silver age concept, and is reflecting on the end of all things. It's really somber, really twists the out-there 50s stories, and has some deep implications that King does a brilliant job of implying instead of stating outright. And Mann/Bellaire kill the visuals for it. But again, what are we to take away from this? That ultimately poor Clark lives effectively forever, unable to save anyone, not even Lois from the poor taste of a magical potion? It's a hell of a downer, and while I'd love to read an entire set of stories on how we got to this point, it's really an almost nihilistic take on the concept of being a superhero. I'm not getting why you'd include that here--or why you'd waste what could be an amazing concept in a few pages like this.

As Scott says above, it's like the creators in this issue often understood the long legacy of the character, but aren't able to quite get there, and foul off the pitch instead of taking it over the fence. Johns and Donner try to do the angry early Superman, but it's against a drunk driver, so it feels too harsh--fear instead of inspiration. (Coipel does a great job with the visuals, invoking the old vision of the character.) Paul Dini seems to mock creators by having Mixy unable to finish his story, missing the pure humor of his anarchy. But I'll forgive that one for having Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Kevin Nowlan on line art.

Dini/Garcia-Lopez/Nowlan/Mulvihill

Even the Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Alejandro Sanchez and Tom Napolitano story, which is about Superman working through his incarnations, misses the mark, as he doesn't so much learn from these different versions of himself as much as just battling to get back (a trope that JMS applied to much better effect in Amazing Spider-Man 500). Gleason uses splashes to show us these moments, which in and of itself is a bit of a meta-commentary on how things have changed.

And then there's the elephant in the room: Bendis, Lee, Williams, Sinclair, and Petit's end story--the capstone, the one setting up the new era of Superman--isn't very good. Caught between Bendis patter (which could work) and a Big Bad New Foe (which might work), the art can't decide whether to show the human moments or big punches and so Lee can't capture the magic that worked well on, say, Hush, because there appears to be no rhyme or reason why Bendis switches between the two styles. Worse, the new villain that PROMISES TO CHANGE EVERYTHING has been done to death. Is this going to by Krypton Disassembled? Ugh. When you have the late Wolfman and Swan doing one solid, if unspectacular fill-in, plus Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway, Dave McCaig, and Carlos M. Mangual on another story that shows the character better than the new team, you're in big, big trouble.

Bendis/Lee/Williams/Sinclair
In short In summary--this felt like a missed opportunity to really tell us why Superman is so super. The variant covers did more to appreciate this than the inside stories, unfortunately. Not saying they were bad--with the exception of the Bendis-Lee one, they're enjoyable stories--but they don't get me excited to read more. Especially if "more" is lifeless punching and posing with a ton of word balloons strung across the panel borders, as shown in the set-up to new adventures.

Ultimately, there's no Action here. Just a group of stories that I don't see myself picking up to re-read anytime soon beyond the re-reading I did for the review. That's a shame. For some reason, Superman is a hard character to write, and this group, while well known, probably wasn't the right set of people to kickstart an 80th birthday, with a few exceptions--but even those stories weren't memorable, just enjoyable. I wanted more. To honor Siegel and Shuster's creation, I'll probably re-read my Busiek and Byrne instead.