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September 15, 2011

Someone Old, Someone New: Action Comics #1

Posted by on Sep 15, 2011

Welcome back to Someone Old, Someone New. If you don’t know the drill by now, here’s how it works: you’ll get two perspectives on one of the bigger events in contemporary comics: DC’s universe reboot in the New 52. First, you’ll get a new-comer’s opinion (Jon), and find out just how much DC’s attempts at appealing to new readers are succeeding.  Then, you’ll get the opinion of someone who’s familiar with the DC Universe (in this case, Third), who will assess how these changes rate among comics today.  So, if there are no other questions:

Jon: When I think of all of the fictional characters that I have grown to know, love, understand, or truly loath over the years, just about every single one of them has an origin story – a backstory where their personalities are developed and the reader can really understand who they are as a character.  Is it possible to do this with a seemingly all-powerful alien being masquerading as a human?  Well, after reading Action Comics #1, my answer is – we shall see.  This is my first Superman comic – so my knowledge of who he really is as a ‘person’ is very limited (which is why as a reader I have a huge advantage with the new 52).  The issue did a very good job of getting out all of the basic facts – Superman is not from earth, he can stop bullets and is super strong (and seemingly invincible – almost), his secret identity is Clark Kent, and he evokes myriad reactions from the population.  Now this issue in and of itself is NOT an origin story – it is clear that this is not Superman’s first appearance, even though his super-suit is comprised of just a blue shirt (with the symbol), a red cape, and… blue jeans.  Not sure why he was wearing blue jeans, but I really liked that.  Made him seem more real to me.  We get to see him do some awesome things, like defy two tanks and stop a 200 mph train, but we don’t understand who he really is – yet.  And with a character as controversial as Superman, it is going to be necessary to understand this, and understand it soon.  I personally will have a hard time just watching an alien rock around Metropolis week after week stopping bad guys if there is a lack of some good old fashioned character development.  But as an introduction to this character, I was left liking him, rooting for him, and above all I was left yearning to understand who the man behind the cape really is.  Well, ‘man’ is a relative term, I guess.

Man of steel, and... man, he's kinda scary.

Third: Grant Morrison explained in his recent interview with Rolling Stone that he wanted to go for “a Bruce Springsteen Superman. The original champion of the repressed.” He was not just spouting words, there – with a Superman bedecked in t-shirt, jeans, and boots, fighting corruption with a decidedly class-oriented tenor, Morrison has definitely cast his Man of Steel as a man of the people. And this would be a bit hard to swallow if Morrison had not also made Superman more comparable to the common man (at least relatively) in regard to his powers. I’ll not give anything concrete away, but we are made to understand that Superman’s powers at this time do not make him the utterly invincible god that he eventually became in later stories. So the “man of the people” angle works well, and ties well into the role of his alter ego Clark Kent as a reporter, often writing exposés that invite comparisons to the muck-rakers of the Progressive Era, appropriately enough. Rags Morales’ art more than gets the job done, and one thing I found particularly refreshing throughout the issue was the fear he injected into the story. Superman often fought such absurdly huge villains with such extreme nobility and courage that fear was never all that present. But here, in this issue, Morales often casts a shadow over Superman’s face so that only his glowing red eyes are visible, making him terrifying to his enemies. And unlike other issues, where Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen only seem vaguely anxious about their temporary plight until inevitably Superman shows up, here the extreme terror of believing they are about to die is very much present. This whole issue is set in a time period long before the encounter between Superman and Batman in Justice League #1 – how long, I’m not certain, but clearly the story of these heroes goes back even further than that five-year flashback at JL #1’s opening. Plus, Lex Luthor shows up, and Grant Morrison manages to cast him as the villain with a fairly rational argument for taking out Superman without re-working any old material. While I enjoyed JL #1 but had some qualms about not yet being certain where that series is going, I’d rate this issue pretty highly – it’s doing new things and doing them well.

Jon: From what I knew about Superman before reading this issue, I knew going into this that he is a loaded character.  I am namely referring here to the whole Superman Problem, which stems from his apparent invincibility, while also bringing into consideration his inherent goodness, leaving him as a nearly perfect character.  At least this is the impression that I have of Superman without ever having read one of the comics featuring him.

Third:  Okay, so what you’re saying is that your impression (from what you’ve heard) is that he’s problematic as a character.  Well, would you say that this issue works to resolve that in any way? Because I would.

Jon:  Oh yes, absolutely, which is one of the reasons I liked this issue so much.  Because yes, he defies tanks, stops bullets, and flies over tall buildings. But when he stopped the train, he’s trapped against a wall, bleeding and unconscious (or so we are led to believe).  Do aliens bleed?  It would appear that they do.

Third:  Well, actually, he does not fly (yet).  He just jumps.  After the tank battle, he jumps and is left holding onto a blimp rather than simply flying around.  So clearly he’s not unstoppable the way he often is in other stories.

Jon:  Oh, good point.  So yes, I feel like this issue makes Superman much more relatable as a man rather than the problematic alien force he has been in the past.  And I like that.  I also like that he wears blue jeans – I think this contributes to readers being able to see him as more human, while simultaneously being a nice little touch of badassery.

Third: How did Lex Luthor strike you, as a villain?

Jon: He is the villain?  Well, that doesn’t completely surprise me, as by the end of the issue he is clearly a main character, and it is strongly hinted that he is not batting for Superman’s team.  I would say he seemed pretty rational, and his arguments against Superman were sound.  To me, that is a great starting point for a villain.

Third:  Oh wow, so he’d just be another character to you, rather than the clear villain? That’s awesome.  Clearly this universe is newer for some of us than it is for others.