That’s What You’re Wearing? – A Superman and the Men of Steel Review
TITLE: Superman: Action Comics, Vol. 1 – Superman and the Men of Steel
AUTHORS: Grant Morrison, Sholly Fisch
PENCILLERS: Rags Morales, Gene Ha, Andy Kubert, CrissCross, Brad Walker.
COLLECTS: Action Comics #1-8
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
RELEASED: August 1, 2012
By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder
Primary Ignition has been around for about two and a half years now. This review marks the third rehash of Superman’s origin story that I’ve reviewed in that stretch of time (the others being Superman: Secret Origin and Superman: Earth One). Everybody wants to put their own spin on world’s first, and perhaps best, superhero origin story. Quite frankly, I’m tired of it. But I’ll say this much: This is one of the better ones we’ve seen in recent years. Maybe even the best.
With their run, Grant Morrison and Rags Morales have taken Superman back to his roots as a a champion of social justice. When we first meet him, he’s terrorizing a dirty business tycoon, much to the shock and bewilderment of the Metropolis police. He leaves them with the words: “Treat people right, or expect a visit from me.” Meanwhile Clark Kent, a reporter for The Daily Star, is bringing the fight to that same tycoon in print. But Superman’s biggest challenge will come not from local corruption, or even the US miltary, who are determined to hunt him down for interrogation. As Kal-El of Krypton begins to emerge as Metropolis’ true hero, he’ll have to bring down an out of this world threat determined to exterminate most of humanity: the collector of worlds, a.k.a. Brainiac.
If a creative team’s take on Superman’s origin story is to be judged by what it does differently, then there’s a lot to look at in this book. The most obvious change is to Superman’s costume. Aside from the iconic “S” logo and cape, Superman’s traditional uniform is completely done away with in favor of a t-shirt, jeans and shoes. Later in the story the shirt isn’t even blue. At first glance this looks rather silly, but when you consider how young the character is here (early ’20s), and take in the fact that he has very little knowledge of his Kryptonian heritage other than what he sees in dreams, it makes a bit more sense. I think it speaks to a certain youthful cockiness. Who does he need to impress with a flashy costume, after all? He’s the most powerful guy on the planet! Naturally, by the end of the book he does don an armored version of the classic suit. I’ve talked about my distaste for the entire Justice League wearing the same kind of armor before, and frankly I think putting Superman in armor is a bit redundant considering bullets bounce off his friggin’ chest. But armor aside, I like the new suit. It’s a nice, sleek update that takes some risks, but doesn’t get too far away from the classic.
In some ways, Morrison and Morales have taken Superman back to his roots here. The character we meet in this book is more about standing up against oppression and defending the defenseless than he is about punching aliens. That’s very much a reflection of what Superman was originally about. During Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s original run on the character, he was called things like “champion of the helpless and oppressed.” He was taking on dirty businessmen businessmen (as he is in this issue), crooked cops, corrupt politicians, and even wife beaters and child abusers. Most of the more sci fi stuff didn’t come along until later. This book eventually does take a turn toward sci fi, but not before establishing Superman’s moral base. He fights for truth and justice, even when they don’t run parallel with the law. That’s an important element of the Superman mythology people often forget about as they’re calling him things like “wuss” or “boy scout.”
The character is also powered down quite a bit here. Hundreds of volts of electricity don’t just tickle him, and he’s not shrugging off a wrecking ball to the chest anymore. It’s implied that Superman’s powers haven’t completely manifested themselves yet, as he can’t fly. He can only leap great distances (which was the ability Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster originally gave him). But the not-quite-as-super trend has continued as the months have gone on, and that’s ultimately for the better. It’s bound to add more drama to fight scenes, and to an extent do away with the so-powerful-he-can’t-lose element that has plagued Superman stories and troubled Superman readers (and writers) for years. He’s not vulnerable, he’s just a little less invulnerable.
Clark Kent isn’t quite the man we knew, either. His marriage to Lois Lane having been retconned out of existence, this baggy clothes wearing, unassuming young man lives alone in a rather unimpressive apartment building. Still, he manages to instill some fear into the hearts of the corrupt himself with his work at The Daily Star. In previous takes on Superman, Clark Kent was used as camouflage for Superman to walk amongst everyday people unnoticed, at least at first. The only reason he even took the reporter job was so he could stay up to date on things happening in Metropolis. This Clark Kent clearly isn’t afraid to pick a fight, despite the fact that at one point in the story it literally draws the police into his apartment. In the annotations at the end of the book, the creators talk about what a good actor Clark is, and that’s how he can pull off the Clark Kent/Superman duality to such great effect. That’s all well and good, and I can appreciate Clark wanting to be proactive with both identities. Still, it doesn’t seem ideal in terms of keeping yourself hidden from potential enemies. Then again, it’s not like Superman is extremely vulnerable or anything. Maybe we can attribute this to some of the same youthful cockiness that prompts Superman to barge into a corrupt businessman’s home and dangle him from a rooftop.
In terms of supporting characters and villains, Lois Lane, Metallo and General Sam Lane are more or less the characters we’ve always known. Jimmy Olsen is very familiar too, though in this continuity he’s Clark Kent’s pal first, as opposed to Superman’s. Much of the Brainiac imagery is familiar. In the world of the New 52, Jonathan and Martha Kent are dead by the time Clark makes his debut as Superman. But we see them through flashback scenes, which were originally backup stories in the single issues written by Sholly Fisch. We see them as young newlyweds, and feel their pain and despair at being unable to have a child, so we understand what a gift fate has brought them in this alien baby.
Fisch also reintroduces us to Steel. In this book the character has no helmet, but his new costume is definitely an improvement. The limbs appear to be made of flexible cables, which make more sense then the old Tin Man look. He’s still a brilliant scientist, he still has a niece named Natasha, and he still wields a big friggin’ hammer. We’re told of his admiration for heroes, and he gradually earns our admiration as readers. We also see his resourcefulness as he battles Metallo.
But the most intriguing reintroduction we see in this book (other than Superman himself) is that of Lex Luthor. In Men of Steel he’s a little bit more of a cowardly weasel than in other Superman origins. Lexcorp exists, but Luthor isn’t the city’s golden boy. He’s also put on a bit of weight. In the annotations we see Morrison wanted him a bit more reminiscent of how he looked in the ’40s and ’50s, when he was more of a portly mad scientist. It’s a nice touch to make him that much more the opposite of Superman. When we first see him, he’s also conspicuously sipping an energy drink as he nonchalantly chats with General Lane about the mission to apprehend Superman. I love this because, combined with Morales’ great renderings of his smug facial expressions, it adds a layer of douchebaggery to his personality that wasn’t there before. In the end, the core of Lex Luthor is the same, but the package has been tweaked in a rather intriguing fashion.
The book catches you off guard halfway through with a two-issue interlude where Andy Kuburt takes over the pencils, presumably to take some of the monthly schedule pressure off Morales. We learn about some of the secrets held in the rocket that brought Kal El to Earth in a time travel story featuring Superman from five years in the future, alongside the…*sigh*…Legion of Superheroes. I’m still not a fan, but whatever. Assuming this was in fact done to give Morales a break, they pulled it off as best they could. I’d rather have stayed with the story Morrison was telling with Morales. But if we had to, then we had to. Halfway through issue #8, Brad Walker takes the reigns from Morales and finishes out the story. Again, not ideal. But Walker’s a fine talent in his own right. My only complaint is that his closing splash page (shown right) is corny as hell.
What I really admire about this book is that took risks. Morrison, Morales and the others didn’t play it quite as safe as other teams have in the past. They dared to be a little different in setting up this new take on Superman, but not so different as to turn people off. I don’t agree with everything that’s been done with Superman since the reboot, but I respect the attempt. Considering most of what was done here worked, I’d call this attempt a success.
Front page image from conventionscene.com. Image 1 from dork-40.blogspot.com. Image 2 from squidoo.com. Image 3 from kandouerik.blogspot.com. Image 4 from dangermart.blogspot.com.