Monday, 31 May 2010

DCU Holiday Bash #1

The Benefaction of Peace

Writer: Barry Jameson
Penciller: Graham Nolan
Inker: Josef Rubinstein
Colorist: Jason Wright
Letterer: Albert de Guzman
Editor: Darren J Vincenzo
Cover: Robert Campanella, Rodolfo Damaggio
Cover Date: January 1997

It's Christmas Eve, and a man named George is about to throw himself off the roof of the Daily Planet when he is approached by Lois. George's wife Jeannie has left him, and he is all alone and unable to cope at Christmas. As he and Lois talk, Lois tells him of a time early in Superman's career when he got lonely...

Superman saves a falling high rise worker on Christmas Day. As he patrols the city, he thinks of his lonely life having not made many friends since moving to Metropolis. As a result, he has decided to give Metropolis the gift of a Christmas without crime. He works his way around the city, focusing on larger and larger crimes, and unwittingly missing out on a series of minor incidents.

At a charity fundraiser, the proceeds are about to be handed over to a representative of a homeless shelter when a former business parter steps up with a gun, taking a hostage and attempting to steal the money. Superman arrives, and the gunman opens his jacket to reveal a dynamite waistcoat and a dead man's switch. As Superman listens to the gunman's demands, the representative steps forwards, grasping the switch, and allowing Superman to disarm the gunman. He offers to escort the representative back to his mission, and is taken up on that offer, only on the condition that he shares Christmas dinner with them. Superman agrees.

Back in the present, George decides that with a bit of hard work and luck, he can have a happy Christmas. He and Lois head off for a coffee.

I have often wondered exactly who these holiday themed issues are aimed at. As a pretty heavy comic collector, I have not only never been tempted to buy one off the rack, I've not even been tempted to visit Tor* and get one through less-than-legal means. My preconceptions of the issue are that I'm going to be fed a bunch of second-grade short stories, tenuously themed, with no real point or purpose other than the editors felt that it was appropriate to do so. And guess what? Based upon my reading of this Superman segment of the 1997 Holiday Bash, I appear to have been right.

This story can be boiled down to two elements: Superman's lonely at Christmas, so he works extra hard, and Lois saves a man from comitting suicide. The suicide-at-Christmas element could have led into a retelling of the second-most-popular Christmas story (after A Christmas Carol), It's A Wonderful Life, but it goes absolutely nowhere, instead being an opportunity for Lois to narrate the story of Superman's first Christmas in Metropolis. And let's face it, the dullness of the story would have had me jumping over the edge of the building.

There's a half-decent moment where the narration suggests that Superman's zealousness to stop all crime means that he misses out on the human moments of tragedy that he might normally have time for, which if followed up on within the story may have introduced an element of darkness into what is otherwise a very light and fluffy story. As a disclaimer, I neither own nor have read the other stories in this issue, so I am not aware if these moments play a larger role as the issue progresses... but I doubt it.

I'm gonna bring this to a close and move on. This isn't as painfully bad as some of the issues we've covered already (*cough*Action Comics #794*cough*), but it is tediously dull and adds nothing to the early years of Superman.

Next on World of Superman: We get back to the good stuff with Man of Steel #4!

*Tor is Mike and Jeffrey's friend, as mentioned on a couple of recent episodes of From Crisis to Crisis, who helps them out with certain back-issues.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

JLA Year One #12

Justice For All

Storytellers: Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn, Barry Kitson
Inker: Michael Bair
Letterer: Ken Lopez
Colorist: Pat Garrahy
Separations: Heroic Age
Editor: Peter Tomasi
Cover Art: Barry Kitson
Cover Date: December 1998

Chaos reigns in the Daily Planet newsroom as the staff try to keep up with the reports of the Apellaxian invasion. Suddenly, the wall turns to glass, and Alan Scott gathers the staff up in a green bubble. With the civilians clear, the fightback starts, as Hal Jordan and Human Bomb destroy two Apellaxians. In Washington, Black Canary and Starman help the Blackhawks to plant a symbolic American flag. In the oceans, things are not looking good for Aquaman and the Sea Devils, until Animal Man arrives to help with his animal powers. With the assistance of the Challengers of the Unknown and Cave Carson, several Apellaxians are defeated. In the skies, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Black Condor, Shining Knight and Martain Manhunter hold their ground, although Condor's recollection of how he was captured in his private life visibly disturbs J'onn.

At Stonehenge, Kalar rallies his soldiers before flying away. As his lieutenants discuss their plans, Vandal Savage appears and destroys them with the machine from last issue. Impressed with its power, Savage realises that he has the means to destroy both the Apellaxians and the Justice League.

In St. Louis, Flash, Superman and Atom destroy several diamond-based Apellaxians, although the strain of forcing diamond apart from between the molecules renders Atom uncoscious. In Paris, the Global Guardians fight on, but their leader, Dr Mist, realises that they need more powerful help - the Spectre. The Spectre has formed a truce with Wotan to fight the invaders, but Wotan takes the first opportunity to attempt to destroy the Spectre, but is imprisoned for his treachery.

The Flash returns to Central City, where Black Canary attempts to explain the kiss to him. Flash is not interested, as he hears Iris Allen searching for her husband. Changing back to Barry, the couple reunite. Returning to Canary, she explains that she won't turn out like her mother, she won't turn anyone into a cheater. As Flash races away, Canary is menaced by an Apellaxian, but is saved by Green Arrow and Speedy. As they fight on, Green Arrow attempts to get a date out of Canary. The fight conitinues at the Great Wall of China, where the Doom Patrol attempt to hold the line.

In the cave headquarters of the Justice League, Snapper Carr watches reports of the fights, realising that despite their victories, the sheer force of numbers of Apellaxians mean that the League will eventually lose. Simon enters, woozy and unsure, and informs Snapper of Vandal Savage's ownership of the machine. Snapper calls out for Martian Manhunter, asking for a meeting of the League. A short time later, Carr tells them all of what has happened, but before they can act, Savage appears, ready to attack. The League quickly subdue him, but immediately realise that they have only captured Clayface, posing as Savage. Through Clayface, Savage presents the League with a conundrum - they can use the machine to defeat the entire Apellaxian force in one move, broadcasting a lethal telepathic signal, but they would have to discard their morals in order to save the Earth.

As the barriers holding the defeated Apellaxians at bay weaken and require more and more support to maintain, Martian Manhunter activates the machine, using his own telepathic powers to weaken the broadcast so it merely incapacitates the aliens. Seeing J'onn's torment, Aquaman lends his support, followed by the rest of the League. With the Apellaxians incapacitated, Dr Fate opens a portal to another part of space, and the invading force is repelled. As Kalar attempts to resist, Snapper gets revenge for his uncle by whacking him with a sturdy piece of wood.

In the aftermath, the League forgives J'onn for the files he kept. Hawkman pledges the support of the Justice Society to the League if ever needed, and Superman leaves with a promise to aid whenever he can. Clark Kent writes up the story, introducing the Justice League to the world. Later on, the League votes on wether to admit Green Arrow to their ranks, whilst wondering who their mystery financier is. In an office block, Oliver Queen is revealed to be bankrolling the League. He reaches for his costume and bow.

Wow, what a rushed synopsis. I certainly learned the difference today between a comic about Superman and a comic which happens to have Superman in its pages. In the past two issues, Waid uses Superman as one of many heroes who are first captured by and later fight back against the invading Apellaxian forces. Superman's iconic nature is only really exploited in the first page of issue 11, where we are confronted with a battered and bruised Man of Steel. Otherwise, there is no real distinction between Superman and any of the many other heroes featured within. If you remove Superman from this book, then the story still holds up.

Looking at this from a non-Superman-obsessed point of view, we can see that this is a massive, sprawling fight. There are so many moments featuring guest-characters mixing it up with the League to fight the Apellaxians, almost too many, that the general thrust of the plot kind of gets lost underneath it all. Certainly the Martian Manhunter keeping files on everyone plot point does not end strongly here. There's a nice moment where Black Condor's recollection of his kidnap sparks a feeling of guilt, but the payoff is a bit muted, as he strains his mind a bit, gets some help, and is instantly forgiven. Waid would return to the suggestion that a distrustful Leaguer keeping files on his team-mates would eventually backfire two years later in Tower of Babel, and the idea would again be revisited in the runup to Infinite Crisis, especially in the OMAC Project miniseries.

I wish I had the time to grab and read the TPB of this maxiseries, as I'm sure I'm missing more than I'm gaining from these last two issues. But here is a promise to all the readers (both of them!) - unless it's an important issue or cornerstone to the main plotlines, if Superman is just guest-starring in a book without taking a major role, I'll be recapping and reviewing a lot more briefly to allow us to focus on the good stuff. My heart's just not been in this one, no matter how many times I've listened to 99 Red Balloons in both English and German.

And talking of the good stuff... we must be about due for a trip on a yacht courtesy of Lex Luthor, surely?

Next on World of Superman: Suicide at Christmas - we have jumping from the roof of the Daily Planet, and blowing yourself to smithereens. It must be the 1997 DCU Holiday Bash! Meh, guess we'll have to cancel those yachting tickets...

Saturday, 22 May 2010

JLA Year One #11

Stalag Earth

Storytellers: Mark Waid, Brian Augustyn, Barry Kitson
Inker: Michael Bair
Letterer: Ken Lopez
Colorist: Pat Garrahy
Separations: Heroic Age
Editor: Peter Tomasi
Cover Artist: Barry Kitson
Cover Date: November 1998

In a series of attacks, the Apellaxians start their invasion of Earth by neutralising numerous super-heroes. Superman is severely beaten, the Atom is captured whilst exiting a phone line, Blue Beetle is ambushed in a tomb. The Metal Mens' responsometers are disabled, whilst Batman is captured in the Batcave. Hawkman, Johnny Quick and Doctor Midnight are all ambushed. All the defeated heroes are brought to the disused Blackhawk Island.

In Metropolis, the newly-formed JLA attempt to hold their ground against the invaders. Aquaman quizzes Snapper Carr about his Uncle Simon's involvement in the invasion, but quickly discovers that although the JLA defeated 7 Apellaians when they first formed, they are now up against a force of 7000. Green Lantern realises that the battle has been raging for so long that his ring is about to run out of power. Martian Manhunter telepathically directs the Flash to Coast City to retrieve the power battery, and Lantern is able to recharge. Despite this minor victory, the JLA realises that Metropolis is lost, and moves on to help out the next city.

In Gotham City, the entity inhabiting Simon Carr's body moves on to a more powerful, electrical form. Carr is left alone and confused, clutching a device that can destroy the Apallaxian consciousness. He is accosted by Vandal Savage, formerly an Apallazian ally and now their target.

In Midway City, the JLA fight their ground again. The heat of the battle causes Black Canary to kiss the Flash. Realising that they need help, Flash has a brainwave - the JLA need to access Martian Manhunter's files on other superheroes to summon help. However, when they reach Jonn's hideout, they find that his files are gone. Aquaman receives a message from the fish, who inform him of the heroes trapped on Blackhawk Island. As the heroes realise that they have been outmaneuvred, a group of Apellaxians prepare to ambush them. They attack, and quickly subdue the JLA.

On Blackhawk Island, the trapped heroes are dismayed to see the JLA arrive in chains. Suddenly, the JLA break free and attack their captors - they were only pretending to be defeated to be brought to the heroes. Mounting an assault on the armory, the heroes re-arm themselves. Led by the JLA, they prepare to take back their planet.

In the first of what will be a fairly regular occurence for this blog, we jump in head-first into a limited series already in progress, with little knowledge of the events that have led us to this point. I read JLA: Year One for the first and only time in late 2002, when I found a pretty battered copy of the trade paperback in the library adjacent to my student accomodation. I remember several pages being loose, and being pretty convinced that I was missing a couple. I enjoyed the book, but knew at the time that I had too little an understanding of the DCU, and that a lot of the series was going over my head. One day, I vowed, I would return and conquer the knowledge held within.

And I never did, until now.

So, what do I know about this series? Well, I remember some stuff with the Doom Patrol, that isn't really relevant to this issue. There was some stuff involving Green Arrow and him not being on the team, which iosn't really relevant to this issue. They fought some aliens, which is relevant, but is handily recapped by Aquaman. In fact, the only major plot point for this issue that doesn't come with a handy jumping-on-board point is the duplicity of Simon Carr, and the nature of the being that has inhabited him. Is he/it an Apellaxian, or something more?

There's some really fun moments here. I love the teamwork shown in the defence of Metropolis, where Martian Manhunter and Flash team up to save Green Lantern's backside. The Black Canary snogging the Flash moment is good, but is taken to a whole new level when he completely ignores her and has a brainwave that could save the Earth from invasion. And I just love the complete Silver Age moment where the JLA pretend to be unconscious to be taken to the captive heroes before turning the tables. It's a moment that if handled poorly can look cheesy and silly, but here works as a great moment of assertion for the League in front of their peers. It's no wonder that veterans of the JSA, the Doom Patrol, and the newer, more powerful heroes like Superman are ready to follow the Flash's lead at the end of the issue.

Unfortunately, from a Superman point of view there's not much to say - he gets beaten up at the start of the issue, and is ready to fight back at the end. This version of him meeting the JLA differs from the Man of Steel Annual in that this version of the JLA is less dependant on him to save the day, most likely as Superman here is a guest star in their book, rather than the League being a star in his book.

Oh, and I just love this cover. Seeing Batman, Superman, and the heavy hitters of the JSA all so helpless is very striking. And I love the defeatist pose of the first Green Lantern.

Next on World of Superman: The JLA vs the Apellaxians for the freedom of the Earth!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

World's Finest #1

Year One: Different Worlds

Writer: Karl Kesel
Penciller: Dave Taylor
Inker: Robert Campanella
Colorist/Separator: Alex Sinclair
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Editors: Darren Vincenzo & Scott Peterson
Cover Artist: Robert Campanella and Dave Taylor
Cover Date: April 1999
Prestige Format

Night in Gotham, day in Metropolis. Batman and Superman apprehend a duo of thugs each, their actions and reactions mirrored yet different. Donnie in Gotham, attempting to rob Wayne Enterprises,  and Lonnie in Metropolis, breaking into LexCorp, both attempt to escape, thinking that Batman and Superman would both be focused on crime lord Eric Stang, who has just busted out from prison. As they independantly make plans to switch cities, the heroes force their cars into the water and finish the chase.

The next day, Perry White approaches Clark with an event to cover - noted plastic surgeon Harrison Grey is opening a clinic in New York. Clark notes that Grey is backed by LexCorp, providing a local angle. Lois want the assignment so she can expose how Grey's work on Hollywood actresses has imposed an impossible standard of beauty. Clark has a trump card - he grew up with Grey in Smallville and is close friends with him. Clark wins the assignment, and calls his parents to tell them the news, prompting Ma and Pa to reminisce about the night they found their son.

Bruce Wayne is flashing back to the murder of his parents. He is brought back to the present by Jim Gordon, who has arrived to provide a report on the break-in at Wayne Enterprises. After he leaves, Alfred reminds Bruce that as his company has invested in Grey's clinic, he should attend the opening. Bruce has been set up with a date by Grey, a leading actress named Savannah Summer, who is put out when Bruce doesn't recognise her.

At the reception, Lex Luthor is boring Bruce Wayne when he unexpectedly runs into Clark Kent, who has been given access to the VIP area by his old friend. Bruce and Clark meet for the first time, noting that the other has a strong grip in the handshake. The four discuss Superman and Batman. Savannah is getting on very well with Grey, giving up her seat next to Wayne to allow Clark to sit with his friend. Clark warns Bruce, who tells him that he has noticed everything, and that he is being used as cover to allow the two to see each other in public without causing gossip.

Harrison starts his presentation, using the different examples of Batman and Superman to illustrate the work he wants to do at the clinic. After praising the staff, he announces that their skill means that he will be retiring. Moving backstage after his speech, Grey is approached by one of his staff. Clark hears a gunshot, just before Savannah runs on stage screaming that Grey has been kidnapped and his bodyguard killed. Clark and Bruce both disappear, and seconds later, both Batman and Superman bear down on the kidnappers. They quickly realise that the Grey they have saved is a dupe, having had surgery to look like the real Grey. Batman quickly gets Alfred to start tracing Grey. Superman overheard the name of a militant group, called the Independent Citizen's Militia, who are rumoured to have broken Eric Stang out. Now that they have a lead, Superman asks how they will handle it. Batman wants to work alone, not be in charge of a team effort, and the two part company on bad terms.

Harrison Grey is brought to Eric Stang, who wants Grey to give him a new face. Suddenly, Superman bursts through the roof, shrugging off gunfire. Then, Batman bursts through the window, tackling more of Stang's goons. Whilst the two of them take out the henchmen, Stang grabs Grey and activates a dead man's switch in his hand - if he lets it go, the building will explode. The heroes attempt to negotiate with Stang, but get nowhere. Stang activates the switch, but nothing happens - Superman had smelled the fertiliser used in the bomb earlier and defused it. Stang jumps for the window. Batman leaps after him, telling Superman to look after Grey. Superman ignores the instruction, and flies out to catch Stang before he hits the ground, eager to ensure that Batman doesn't do anything to Stang. Whilst they do so, Grey runs out in a panic, and is run down and killed by a delivery van.

At the funeral, Savannah suggests to both Clark and Bruce that if Superman and Batman had worked together more then Grey would still be alive.

World's Finest was a maxi-series focusing on annual meetups between Batman and Superman, taking into account changes in each character across the corresponding years. As we slowly work our way through the series, we'll meet the replacement Supermen and Batmen, and watch these two iconic heroes forge a relationship out of the ashes of their failure at the end of the issue. But this is all to come.

The first issue really runs with the seeds sown by John Byrne in Man of Steel #3, that Batman and Superman do not really like each other, and certainly don't trust each other. It makes for a frosty relationship that ultimately ends in tragedy with the death of Harrison Grey. There are two great in-costume moments where this relationship hits the skids - when Batman tells Superman that he doesn't want lead a team-up, and Superman replies that he hadn't thought of Batman leading it, and when Superman dives out of teh window after Stang, concerned over what action Batman might take against him. There's also a lovely moment where Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Lex Luthor (who, by the way, looks very off-model for some reason) and Harrison Grey debate the differing approaches to crime-fighting employed by Batman and Superman. As it doesn't take much longer for the Daily Planet to earn Lex's complete animosity, this scene is one of the very few civil interactions between Luthor and Kent without any subtext to their remarks.

As with many team-ups between Batman and Superman, the book opens with a clear presentation of their differences and similarities. The first twelve pages are split directly between Superman and Batman, with near-identical actions and dialogues. What is fun is the subtlety of the differences. On page 5, a building behind Batman has a condemned sign hanging off it, whilst the corresponding Superman panel has a bright, catchy sign for a hair salon. Superman hands his crook into the authorities, whilst Batman trusses his up for the approaching policemen. There's a wonderful moment of confusion after both heroes survive a hail of bullets, where Batman's gunman believes that Batman is more than human, whilst Superman's is convinced that the Man of Steel is wearing kevlar. Of all the contrasts in this section, the one that doesn't come across so well is the Lonnie/Donnie one. Both men are drawn to be similar in appearance, and the reader expects there to be a follow-up with their similarities, but after the opening sequence neither are heard from again.

What doesn't come across well in this book is the artwork. For most of the time, it's fine. Taylor does a creepy Batman, and I really quite like is Clark Kent. But his Lex Luthor is so off-model that if he wasn't identified in the dialogue then I wouldn't have recognised him. And his Superman is just... well... wrong. Especially on the opening splash page, and in the panel to the left. The face is far too slim and out of proportion with the rest of his body. It gets better throughout the issue, but never reaches any noticeable heights. But blowing the two big reveals of Superman at the start of the issue sets me against the artist, and these panels should have been done better and been images worthy of Superman.

The Geeky Bits: The second post-Crisis meeting between Batman and Superman, after Man of Steel #3.

The first post-Crisis meetings between Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor and, despite Luthor recognising Clark, this is the first time they meet on-panel.

This isn't the only time Karl Kesel will get involved in a post-Crisis World's Finest series...

Next of World of Superman: There's a part of me that really wants to cover the first Superman/Batman annual, but as that's very clearly not of this continuity, I'm going to have to reluctantly put it to one side. So what's next? Oh, right, another Year One...

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Superman: The Man of Steel Annual #4


Story: Louise Simonson
Penciller: John Paul Leon
Inker: Dennis Janke
Letterer: Todd Klein
Colorist: Glenn Whitmore
Assistant Editor: Chris Duffy
Editor: Mike Carlin
Cover Artist: Walt Simonson
Cover Date: Annual 1995

The Knight

Superman races to the rescue after a Quraci terrorist organisation attempts to derail the elevated subway. He stops the train before it crashes through a section of demolished track, then heads inside to deal with the hijackers. He brings the gunmen to the police for arrest, and is swarmed with adoring and grateful fans. A comment made by one of them makes him think back to the day Pa Kent showed him the ship he arrived in. Later that day, in the Daily Planet newsroom, news of Batman's appearance in Gotham City breaks. Clark rushes out.

In Gotham, Superman grabs hold of Batman's line, and just as in Man of Steel #3, gets involved with Magpie's reign of terror. Once Magpie has been apprehended, Superman talks with Batman. Realising that the law is effectively powerless in Gotham, Superman agrees not to hand Batman over to the authorities. As he leaves, he discovers that Batman has no super-powers, but is a self-made man.

The Ring

The next day, Clark is relating his encounter with Batman to Ma, while the TV hosts an interview with the latest hero, Black Canary. Suddenly, the interview is cut short for a newsflash reporting that a LexCorp satellite has broken its orbit and is crashing towards Coast City. Superman rushes to assist, but is beaten to it by another hero wielding a green ring. The hero almost catches the satellite, but it breaks free. Superman is able to bring it under control and allow the hero to snare it. The hero introduces himself as Green Lantern, and he explains how he gained posession of the ring. When Lantern asks Superman about his origins, Superman is unable to answer. Green Lantern's ring identifies Superman as the last survivor of Krypton, but Lantern realises that Superman doesn't know this, and witholds the information. The two shake hands as friends.

The Speed

Returning to Metropolis, Clark files the Green Lantern story, to the ire of Lois Lane. He then returns home for dinner with his parents. While there, Pa tells him of a freak snowstorm in a neighbouring country. Superman heads off to investigate and finds the Weather Wizard causing havoc. Weather Wizard stuns Superman with a lightning bolt, but while he is recovering, Superman sees a red blur heading into the fight. The blur runs in a circle, causing a tornado to form that dissipates the Weather Wizard's weather, and topples him from his perch. The blur introduces himself as The Flash, and tells of his origin. Their meeting is interrupted by both Lois Lane and Iris West, who have been investigating the Weather Wizard. Superman discovers that the Wizard had intended to scare people away from the town so that he could rob the bank. He is disgusted that millions of dollars of property damage could have been caused to rob thirty thousand dollars.

The Tide

A little later, Superman investigates a suddenly-formed hurricane, expecting to find the Weather Wizard behind it. He is surprised to find an orange-shirted man trapped beneath a tree, recognising him as Aquaman. Aquaman explains that Poseidon is attacking him. Superman is sceptical of Aquaman's talk of gods, and attempts to dispell the hurricane. He is surprised when the weather takes the form of a face and attacks him directly, knocking him unconscious and sending him plummeting into the ocean. Aquaman recovers Superman, saving him from a mystical whirlpool. With Superman recovered, he and Aquaman lead the hurricane to a desert, where the lack of water forces Poseidon to withdraw. Aquaman suggests that the ocean is now angry at Superman, a claim Superman rejects, even after he has been splashed in the face.

The Alien

Returning to Metropolis, Clark wonders how he can file the Aquaman story and get ahead of Lois without drawing undue attention to his scoops. His thoughts are interrupted by a blaze in Denver, and he leaves to assist. The burning building is about to collapse. Superman helps hold it together, but is surprised to meet a green-skinned hero, who heads inside to save more civilians. Through the smoke and the flames, Superman sees the hero finish the rescue, but get caught in an explosion. In order to get away, the hero changes his shape. After the emergency, Superman tracks down the hero, who introduces himself as a Martian called J'onn J'onnz. J'onn tells of how he arrived on Earth by teleporter, not rocket. Superman tells him that reporters most likely saw his transformation, and that he won't be able to live in secret for long. After Superman has left, J'onn thinks about how the two of them were able to save the last trapped civilians, and wonders what could happen if more heroes worked together.

The League

A few days later, Clark hears that most of the public super-heroes have formed a Justice League, but that their first meeting has erupted into violence, with the heroes attacking each other. Superman arrives, to see the League fighting indiscriminately, with no tactics, just fighting. He notices a nearby robot, emitting a beam, and decides that the robot is causing teh violent behaviour. Superman attacks the robot, freeing the league, and discovers that is was being piloted by a small gnome-like being who vanishes. The gnome was Xotar, a being from the future who has managed to teleport himself into the hands of his era's police. Superman officially meets the League, and is invited to join. However, he turns down membership, instead offering to provide support when needed. Clark returns to the Planet, only to find that thanks to some contacts on the scene, Lois has managed to scoop him this time.

The Origin

Seven years later. Clark is at home for Ma's birthday when he is approached by a phantom of Jor-El. The phantom reveals Kal-El's Kryptonian origins, placing Clark in some sort of trance. Pa breaks the trance by whacking the phantom with a shovel, dissipating it. Superman then examines what he now knows of his origin, before deciding that although Krypton gave him his powers, it is his family that has made him a man.

This annual can pretty much be summed up as 'How I Met The Justice League' with a bit of origin-angst thrown in to tie all the meetings together. It's a bit like a cheap buffet - there's plenty of food, but none of it is overly satisfying. The vignettes are all good, but each one feels like it should be a bigger moment standing on its own, rather than 5-7 pages contained within one tale. This feeling stems from the fact that the annual uses Man of Steel #3 as its launching point. The Batman strand feels very much like a summary, rather than a retelling, with corners cut to make it fit into the space, and this feeling permeates the other meetings. What really gives this issue a sense of being rushed is that the needs of the story have Superman meeting the members of the JLA all within a few days of each other. Now, accepted DCU history has the modern age heroes appearing in the wake of Superman's appearance, but having them all occur within a week or so stretches credibility a little.

Out of all the meetings, I think my favourite is the Aquaman one. Not only does it echo the 'out of his depth' elements from both the Action Comics and Superman annuals, but it ends more ambiguously than with a handshake and a promise of friendship. Superman gets it wrong in dealing with Poseidon, by not following Aquaman's instructions, and is shaken by the discussion of Gods actually existing. There's a nice moment where Aquaman teases Superman by claiming that the ocean is angry with him, before splashing him with water, deflating Superman's dismissive attitude towards the Poseidon encounter. The ones I least enjoyed were the Batman retelling, and the first team-up with the JLA, both of which recap previously-told stories without bringing anything new to the table.

What does work, and resonates strongly with this period in Superman's life, is the ongoing thread of Superman's lack of knowledge of where he comes from. This element was downplayed until the last issue of Man of Steel, so to make it into more of a driving force for Superman during his early years helps to retroactively set up the resolution to the mini-series. Each of the heroes serves to pique Superman's interest, and each lets him down in their own way, wether by being a self-made hero, gaining powers by accident, or a gift from an alien, or simply by being an alien but stranded on Earth through very different means. Between this and the constant game of one-upmanship with Lois Lane (brilliantly interrupted by Iris West in the Flash story), this story is firmly placed in the early months of Superman's career. This story wouldn't work as well if it had occured post Man of Steel, or even more than a few months after Superman's first appearance, once his presence is accepted as the norm as opposed to something unusual and unique.

John Paul Leon's artwork is not a great fit here for Superman. One of the key elements of his art that I loved in Earth X was his use of shadow to complement what at times was some pretty minimalistic art. In a series that uncovered the secret history of the Marvel universe (only to be retconned as an alternate universe), the high darkness content in the art was well suited. Here, in a story that introduces the some of the key Silver Age heroes to the modern Superman, his use of shadow feels almost inappropriate. The first appearnace of Hal Jordan's ring contructs should be as alien and unusual as anything seen by Superman, but are rendered here as disappointingly pedestrian. Having said that, I do like his Lois Lane - he captures a keen intelligence and focus in her eyes.

The Geeky Bits: This is the second first meeting for Superman and the Martian Manhunter, following Martian Manhunter #20. Funny how J'onn doesn't feel compelled to mention that he has known Superman for most of his life... although in keeping with an issue not written for another five years he does keep Superman's origin to himself.

Magpie seems to have lost her henchmen who look suspiciously like Mike Carlin and Mark Gruenwald. She also uses her 'Happy Birthday' stick of dynamite in place of the corrosive gas  to cause a distraction, and has her secondary base in the same museum as her first.

As has been pointed out several times so far, the Batman segment is a retelling of Man of Steel #3. The Justice League segment is a retelling of The Brave And The Bold #29, although in keeping the with post-Crisis Justice league history, Wonder Woman has been replaced with Black Canary.

Next on World of Superman: Superman and Batman's rivalry has fatal consequences.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Man of Steel #3

One Night in Gotham City...

Written and Pencilled by John Byrne
Inked by Dick Giordano
Colored by Tom Zuiko (misspelled in the issue)
Lettered by John Costanza
Edited by Andrew Helfer
Cover by John Byrne
Cover Date: November 1986

One night in Gotham City, and a thug named Bull is on the run, chased by the Batman. Batman corners him in an alley, and questions him as to the next strike by his boss. Bull throws garbage in Batman's face and makes an escape. Batman gives chase, using his batarang to swing between the buildings, musing on the fact that Bull is more intimidated by his boss than he is by Batman. Suddenly, the batarang line start pulling Batman. He looks up to see that Superman has caught the line and is towing him through the skies of Gotham. Superman intends to deliver Batman to the police, calling him an outlaw, but Batman lets go of the line and escapes. Superman tries to find him, confused as the reports he had read suggested that Batman had no super-powers.

Batman reappears on the roof of a nearby building. As Superman moves in to grab him, Batman tells him to look at him with his inra-red vision. Superman does so, and discovers that Batman is surrounded by a force-field. Since reading of Superman's appearance, Batman had suspected that their paths would cross, and had come up with a failsafe to keep Superman at bay. Batman explains that the field will detect super-dense material, such as Superman's body, and if the field is penetrated then a radio signal will detonate a bomb in Gotham, killing an innocent person. Superman is shocked at Batman's tactics, but listens to Batman, who explains the latest series of crimes to hit Gotham. Over the past few nights, a series of jewel heists have occured, each one with a different and fatal twist that resulted in the deaths of several workers in the jewellery industry. Batman's investigations had led him to the goon named Bull, and he had just discovered the name of the lady behind the murders - Magpie.

At her base, Magpie is furious with Bull for not taking the opportunity to give misinformation to Batman. She needs Batman off her tail so that she can steal a collection of Fabergé eggs that are due to arrive in the morning. To punish Bull, she injects him with a paralytic poison, before placing a lit stick of dynamite in his mouth, a trick she calls the 'Happy Birthday'. The resulting explosion attracts Superman's attention, and he and Batman race across Gotham. Batman recognises the source of the explosion as the now-closed Museum of Antiquities. Magpie's goons pick up the approach of the heroes on CCTV, just before Superman bursts through the wall. The goons open fire, but Superman just shrugs off the bullets. As Batman moves in on Magpie, she breaks a glass vial, releasing a highly corrosive acidic gas. Superman inhales all of the gas and flies into space, releasing it. The gas freezes and Superman confirms with his microscopic vision that the crystals are no longer harmful.

Returning to Earth, Batman reveals that Magpie escaped during the confusion. He retrieves a fibre from the scene and analyses it with the computers in the Batmobile. Discovering that the fibre is over five thousand years old, Batman is able to trace her location to the Gotham Museum, home to a set of Egyptian mummies. There, they find Magpie having a tantrum and apprehend her. Batman unmasks her, revealing her identity to be Margaret Pye, an employee of the museum. Magpie has a mental breakdown, collapsing in tears. Superman feels sorry for her. Batman does too - she isn't the kind of criminal scum he normally deals with, rather a fragile woman with an obsession with collecting pretty things - but feels more sorry for her victims.

The two heroes watch the police arrest Magpie from a nearby rooftop. Superman concedes that Gotham is a very different town from Metropolis, and that different styles of crimefighting are required. As Batman makes to leave, Superman confronts him over the bomb. Batman reveals that the bomb was concealed on his person; Superman would be able to tell if he was lying about the bomb, and he was unwilling to place anyone else in danger. Superman leaves, promising to keep an eye on Batman. Batman muses that in different circumstances, they might have been friends.

The third step in the re-working of Superman for the post-Crisis world is to establish his relationship with the one other hero in the DCU with the iconic power of Superman - the Batman. It's not exactly the logical choice, certainly not when key elements such as Lex Luthor, kryptonite, and Superman's regular villains have yet to make anything other than cameo appearances. And yet, it's an important choice, and certainly the right one. For many years (1941-1986), Superman and Batman had shared a title called World's Finest Comics. Although it took them thirteen years and seventy-one issues to actually star in a team-up, once they had done so, they would continue to do so for almost every issue up to its cancellation at the start of 1986. For a large portion of that run, Superman and Batman were the best of friends, happy with each other's company, and perfectly fine with meeting up regularly to defeat dastardly villains. In fact, whenever I think of the pre-Crisis Superman and Batman relationship, it's illustrated with the cover to World's Finest Comics #3, with big smiley happy-faced heroes.

In 1986, a Frank Miller comic called The Dark Knight (now more commonly known as The Dark Knight Returns) was released. Featuring an aged Bruce Wayne returning to the role of Batman after a twenty year absence, the series was a big hit, and was one of the titles that heralded the Modern Age of comics. The final issue of this series featured a knock-down, no holds barred one-on-one battle to the (almost) death between Batman and Superman (with a little assistance from Green Arrow). Although later issues of World's Finest would introduce a less-cosy relationship between Superman and Batman, this was pretty much the first time they really went for each other, fighting not just for the sake of fighting but for their different (albeit future) ideologies.

Here, Byrne strikes a bit of a balance between the two extremes. Whilst not full of loathing for each other, Superman takes issue with Batman's methods and his position of being above (or at least outside) the law. The issue resists the temptation to wrap up their relationship nicely at the end; whilst Superman accepts that Gotham requires a different type of super-hero to Metropolis, he is concerned that Batman could 'spoil it for the rest of us' and promises to keep an eye on him. From Batman's viewpoint, he does not like being told what to do by a super-human, and is concerned that Superman could (and indeed attempts to) apprehend him without giving him a chance to defend his position. By creating the bomb scenario and actually presenting himself as more villainous than he actually is, he puts himself in a position where he can prove his skills without being handed directly over to the police. Perhaps the biggest turning point in how Superman views Batman is in the moment where Superman expresses pity towards Magpie, and Batman reveals his human side by showing his sorrow for her victims.

Magpie is a bit of a non-starter as far a a villain is concerned. On the one-hand, she's a Joker-styla madwoman, giving dynamite cigars to paralysed henchmen and setting complex, lethal traps to cover her jewel heists. On the other hand she's a fragile, mentally confused compulsive thief. The two sides are hard to reconcile, especially as it's never quite explained how a shy, retiring museum curator gained the technical expertise to synthesise an acidic cloud or create chess pieces that fire miniature razor blades. It's telling that the character is barely revisited in either the Superman or Batman titles until she is murdered at the start of One Year Later. However, by pitting Superman and Batman against a 'low-rent' villain, someone who isn't one of Batman's regular nemeses, the story is forced to focus more on the interaction between the two heroes, and makes Superman's experience in Gotham less black and white.

The Geeky Bits: The first post-Crisis appearance of Batman. Well, sorta... it's the first in the context of Superman, but Batman never experieced a definitive 'Post Crisis Begins Here' moment that Superman and Wonder Woman did.

Magpie's non-exploding-head henchmen are designed to look like Mark Gruenwald (the one with the Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses) and Mike Carlin (the one with the beard who cries 'Not "Happy Birthday!"').

Next on World of Superman: The first of many re-tellings of the first meeting between Batman and Superman.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Action Comics Annual #7

And we're back, after an absolutely nightmare-ish week-and-a-half at work that left me in a state where I could only work, eat and sleep. But all is now well, and I'm back to take a look at Superman's first venture into space.

Year One: Loss And Space

Writer: David Michelinie
Penciller: Darick Robertson
Inker: Brad Vancata
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Colorist: Pat Garrahy
Assistant Editor: Chris Duffy
Editor: Mike Carlin
Cover: Walt Simonson
Cover Date: Annual 1995

A group of radiation-suited terrorists find that their hijacking of a cargo lorry in Illinois doesn't go to plan when Superman drops in. Heating up the asphalt, Superman waits for the hijackers to sink in before chilling it solid with his freeze breath. He flies off, continuing his journey back to Smallville. Over dinner with his parents, Clark addresses his father's fears that he is pushing too far and placing himself in danger. Clark is not concerned; he is riding on a high of using his powers and as far as he is concerned, he has no limits. Suddenly, the conversation is interrupted when a mental pulse deafens Clark. He quickly discerns that it is coming from the moon. A thought strikes him - if he takes a deep enough breath and pushes hard enough, he could break free of the Earth's gravity and head into space.

Changing to his costume, Superman puts his plan into action. The plan works, and Superman finds himself in orbit. Forcing himself not to be overawed by the sight of Earth from space, Superman makes his way to the moon. Near the site of the Apollo 11 landing, Superman finds an alien craft that is emitting the signal. As he approaches, a hatch opens. inside, Superman meets the pilot, a dying alien, who warns him of the H'tros, a swarm of plundering mechanical aliens who target a world and pick it clean. The alien's planet, a pacifist world, has been targeted, but transmissions from Earth speaking of Superman gave them hope. The alien had been sent to enlist Superman's help. As the alien dies, he gives Superman a choice - press a button to be transported to their homeworld to help, or to return to Earth and let his people perish. Superman chooses to help, and pushes the button.

Transported across the galaxy, Superman finds himself setting foot on an alien planet for the first time. The aliens greet him, but bow their heads in front of him. Superman realises that as a man of action and violence, his presence is resented by the pacifist people. Briefed on the H'tros, Superman heads into space to avert the invasion. It doesn't take long for the H'tros to react to his organic nature, and Superman soon finds himself the target of the fleet. The H'tros detonate a grenade, forming a miniature black hole to trap Superman, but Superman is able to plug the black hole with one of the Htros ships. Superman is then nearly caught with a bluff to draw him away from the approaching mothership, but at the last minute he realises the plan and is able to escaape the trap and focus on the mothership. Bursting in, he battle H'tros guards that seem intent on keeping him away from a certain area. Battling his way through, he discovers the primary power core, and detonates it, destroying the ship and routing the invasion.

Recovering in space, panic overtakes Superman when he realises that he has lost his bearings and he cannot find the alien planet. He picks a direction and is about to head off in it when he realises that if he is wrong, heading off will only make him more lost. With his oxygen running out, Superman applies science to retrace his steps to the centre of the explosion that stranded him. From there he is just about able to identify the planet, and in a desperate race against his approaching unconsciousness, he hurtles towards breathable atmosphere. Back on the planet, the aliens are both grateful and mournful for the loss of the H'tros. They despatch Superman back to Earth.

A few days later, Clark Kent is working in the Daily Planet newsroom when a report comes in from NASA of approaching alien ships. The manner of their approach tips Clark off that it is the H'tros, who have somehow survived. On the roof of the Planet, Clark face down the fear of getting stranded in space again and, armed with a larger oxygen supply, heads off to face down the H'tros again.

Repeating his tactic from before, Superman is surprised at the lack of resistance on the mothership. He soon realises why - the power core has been encased in a force-field that he cannot penetrate. The H'tros attack him, and Superman realises that their tactics work to prevent him from getting to another ship. He fights his way into the new ship, and the sound of metal breaking under his assault makes him realise that there is atmosphere present, an unusual occurence for a ship populated by robots. Venturing onward, he discovers the organic creator of the H'tros, who has been commanding their attacks. Reasoning that the H'tros are programmed to follow their creator, Superman hurls the ship into the sun. The H'tros follow, and are burned up. Superman returns to the alien, who he had evacuated from the ship, only to find that he has comitted suicide.

Back in Smallville, Clark confides in his father that his adventures in space have helped him realise his limits.

There's a lot to like about this annual, and I'll get to these things in a second. But first, I have to deal with the elephant in the room, namely the lameness of the H'tros, their plans, and the aliens who get Superman involved in the whole affair. First of all, the aliens, who rate so lowly in the story that Michelinie never bothers to give them a name, are almost completely forgettable, save for the moments where their pacifist nature causes them to regard Superman with disdain. Their world is a one-gimmick world - they are pacifists - and we have no real sense of what it is that Superman is fighting for, other than the fact that he has been asked to fight. As for the H'tros... they attack anything organic on sight , and their whole reason for doing so is that once upon a time their creator wanted to end a centuries-long war. Hold on... organic creator creates an unstoppable race of robotic beings as the result of a centuries-long war that he commands in secret while they annhialate the galaxy... sound familiar?
To be honest, the H'tros aren't as bad as they sound, but Michelinie struggles to give both the H'tros and the nameless pacifist aliens (can't I just call them Neutrals?) a true sense of depth in the 48 pages of this annual. There's a lot to fit in, and a few sacrifices have to be made, including the final revelation that Superman saved the H'trosi creator before sending his ship into the sun - the reveal reads about as smoothly as I covered it in the recap.

So, that's enough of the not-so-good. What works well here? There is a real sense that Superman is out of his depth at several points in the issue. We get to see Superman adapting his use of powers on the fly in a new environment. Things that might be taken for granted in future episodes, such as divining the presence of an atmosphere because of the noise of metal melting under Superman's heat vision, are laid out logically for the reader. And, of course, the real highlight of the issue is the very tangible sense of panic Superman feels after destroying the H'tros mothership, when he realises that he has got lost and very well may die in space. The artwork really sells the idea that Superman is struggling not only for survival but to keep his head in difficult circumstances.

The bookends with the Kents are a lovely touchstone. Between Man of Steel #1 and #6, we see very little of Clark's parents, and catching up with their thoughts, feelings, and concerns for their son during his formative years as Superman is an important thing for us to do. The final scene ties in nicely with the end of Man of Steel #6, as Pa Kent references the fact that Clark's upbringing is as important to Superman as his superpowers.

Finally, on a personal note, re-reading this annual for the blog confirmed just how important writing these reviews are for me. When I first read this annual, a few years back, I wasn't interested in the space story, and because I had bookmarked this issue in my head as 'Superman in space', I had a pretty negative view of the annual as a whole. Going back through this issue several times over the past week (work allowing) has completely changed my view of the book. Although the space story still isn't a particularly strong one (in my opinion), it's the character moments and progression that really make this annual stand out for me. I'm glad I reread it and gave it a second shot, as it's now turned into one of my favourite stories from this time in Superman's life.