Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Superman #1

Well, the December doldrums appear to have hit rather hard this year Despite my best efforts to keep to a schedule, I am almost a month behind schedule with these posts. I can only apologise and ask you to bear with me whilst the Christmas trading season runs its course and I can get back to normality in the new year.

Just a few notes on Superman-related projects that are in progress right now. From Crisis to Crisis is just about to enter the true Neverending Battle era with the launch of Superman: The Man Of Steel #1. Charlie Niemeyer has launched a podcast covering the Bronze Age of Superman, appropriately titled Superman in the Bronze Age. It's up to its third episode, and is doing a great job of presenting the final days of the Silver Age Superman, from the first issue that Julius Schwarz edited onwards. Also, the Superman Forever podcast has altered its format to include coverage of the post-Infinite Crisis Superman, starting with Up, Up and Away. They've just started this, and it makes a great jumping on point for a great podcast.

With all of this Superman attention, I can hear you asking, 'Shouldn't there be a podcast covering the Golden Age of Superman?' Well, I've heard about some plans for this that should be arriving in 2011. I know the people behind this podcast, and I've heard an excerpt from the first episode, and I'm really excited about this project.

But that's enough teasing and promoting. We have a comic to look at.

Heart of Stone

Story and Pencils: John Byrne
Guest Inker: Terry Austin
Letterer: John Costanza
Colorist: Tom Ziuko
Editor: Andrew Helfer
Cover Date: January 1987
Release Date: 09/10/1986

Superman bursts in on an abandoned, lead-lined laboratory. He has spent three months searching for the missing birthing matrix. Working his way through the lab he discovers a sealed room, and on entering he finds that it is full of images and data concerning himself. Realising that his suspicions of being photographed (in Man of Steel #4) were accurate, he is then surprised to discover the six-week-old body of a scientist laid on a table, along with an acid bath containing fragments of human bone. To protect the data and to preserve the crime scene, Superman burrows around the laboratory, using his heat vision to fuse the silicates in the soil into steel, before lifting the entire complex into orbit.

Superman returns to Earth and changes to Clark Kent, to allow him to keep a jogging date with Lois Lane. As the two run, they hear an alarm from a nearby bank. Moving to investigate, they discover that the metal doors have been bent out of shape. Suddenly, Lois is grabbed by the bank robber. Clark attacks him, and rolls with a punch to get out of sight so that he can change back to Superman. The robber ignores him, bragging to Lois Lane that he is Metallo, and that he is as powerful as Superman. Superman arrives to contest this, but is surprised when he is hurled clean through a wall and across the street. He shakes off a moment of dizziness and returns to Metallo.

As the two fight, Lois climbs behind the teller's desk to find a tunnel in the floor. She rationalises that Superman tunelled Clark out of the bank to get him to safety. Turning around, she sees that Superman is losing the fight. Superman feels like his powers are draining away. He asks Metallo why he is doing this, but Metallo doesn't feel like answering his questions. He is interrupted by shotgun blasts from the MCU that knock Metallo back. Superman's strength starts to return, and he deduces that Metallo is dead, as he cannot hear a heartbeat. However, Metallo is not dead, and he gets the jump on Superman, telling him that he is going to kill him. The fight continues, with Metallo the stronger fighter.

In flashback, we see the origin of Metallo. He awakes in the laboratory from the start of the issue, and sees his metallic hands. A scientist explains that he has the power to kill Superman. The scientist had witnessed Superman's arrival on Earth in the birthing matrix, and had retrieved the matrix. There he witnessed a part of Jor-El's message, and became convinced that Superman was the vanguard of an alien invasion. He reveals a chunk of kryptonite, a material deadly to Superman, and implants it in Metallo's chest cavity. Realising that the kryptonite will power him forever, Metallo decides that he doesn't need the scientist and strangles him.

Lex Luthor is alerted to the fight between Metallo and Superman. He is angered when he discovers that Metallo could kill Superman, as he had promised to kill Superman himself.

The fight continues, causing the bank to collapse. Metallo emerges from the rubble, his synthetic skin destroyed revealing his robotic body, and grasping Superman's tattered cape. Superman surfaces as well, barely able to stand, but still determined to stop Metallo. Metallo responds by opening his chest cavity, fully exposing Superman to the kryptonite within. Superman collapses in agony, and is only saved when Metallo is inexplicably taken from the scene. Quickly recovering, he asks Lois what happened, but all she can say is that a black shadow fell over Metallo and he disappeared. Superman is concerned that his weakness to kryptonite has quickly become public knowledge, and he knows that someone kidnapped Metallo to get access to kryptonite.

There's a lot to like about this issue. Metallo becomes the first member of Superman's super-powered villains to be updated for the post-Crisis era (discounting the Bizarro from Man of Steel #5, which wasn't even called Bizarro). He bursts onto the scene, posing a credible and lethal threat, bringing Superman to his knees. He is unstoppable, and the city of Metropolis reacts to his attack on Superman in a way that reminds me of when Superman fought Doomsday for the first time. The moment where the bank has collapsed on top of Metallo and Superman, with neither surfacing, is a real heart-stopper. Before the relaunch, every reader would have known that Superman would be victorious, but this early in the post-Crisis era. there is a real feeling that anything could happen. When Superman does reappear, victorious is the last thing that he is. Wracked with pain, barely able to stand, the strength of his character is that he still does not submit, even when exposed to a large chunk of kryptonite for the first time. Even at the end of the issue, all is not well with Superman, and the final panel clearly shows a beaten and bruised Superman who has not fully weathered the fight.

There is a deus ex machina element to the climax of the issue, where an unknown force abducts Metallo, inadvertently saving Superman's life. The next issue reveals this force to have been Luthor (sorry for the spoilers guys, but this comic is twenty-three years old!), and the fact that he has succeeded where Superman failed only serves to strengthen his position and power in this new continuity.

The art here is fantastic. Byrne is no longer providing his own inks, with Terry Austin coming aboard as 'Guest Inker', but in reality staying around for the next three issues until Karl Kesel arrives. The art seems a little crisper than that of The Man of Steel. There's a lovely touch where Metallo's flashbacks to his creation are tinged with green, as if filtered through his kryptonite-powered body (although, considering that the kryptonite gets implanted in his chest just before the flashbacks end, there technically isn't any reason to do so.). Metallo is an imposing presence, especially when his full robot form is revealed (deliciously, with scraps of his fake skin still in place), and the decision to show him in silhouette when he opens up his chest to unleash the kryptonite really heightens his inhumanity.

If there is a disappointment with the issue it's that the minor plot threat that has run throughout The Man of Steel is underwhelmingly resolved here. The shadowy figure, Dr Emmet Vale, dies before he gets the chance to meet Superman, and the menace his unknown presence provided throughout the miniseries is revealed to be psychotic paranoia. His work to uncover as much about Superman as possible is lost when Metallo kills him, and Metallo never shows any sign of having absorbed that information in the future. My memory is being a little faulty, but I cannot remember the laboratory, so carefully placed into orbit, ever becoming a concern again. (As an aside, considering that Vale is willing to handle kryptonite and uranium with no more protection than rubber gloves, his body is probably so wracked with radiation that he is effectively a dead man walking.).

We also have an example in this issue of a Byrne-specific element of the rebooted Superman, that would fade away once Byrne left the book. When Superman is raising the lab into orbit, he notices that the mass has lost its weight once he starts flying, as opposed to being heavy when he was lifting it out of the ground. He then notes that it is as if he is moving the mass with the force of his mind. One of the trademarks of Byrne's reinvention of Superman was to look at how Superman's powers worked, and this is an example of one of those reworkings. Basically, the idea is that if Superman is standing on the ground lifting something, then it is really heavy and he is using his strength to lift it. However, Superman can fly, and when he does so, he uses his mind to make himself fly, at the same time, reducing his weight. Thus, if he is flying something heavy, such as a stolen laboratory containing illicitly-gained research about himself, then like his body it loses its weight. This re-evaluation of Superman's powers also includes the idea that Superman emits a bio-electrical field which prevents fabric sitting close to his skin from coming to harm, although this idea would outlast the pseudo-telepathic-flight one.

The Geeky Bits: As part of the relaunch, the decision was taken to cancel the first volume of Superman, transfer its numbering to the new title Adventures of Superman, and relaunch Superman as volume 2, issue 1. The decision was a fairly simple one - a hard reboot of the Superman numbering would be a strong message to readers, and allow the new ongoings to launch with a bang, as opposed to issue 424 of a 45 year-old comic. As Dick Giordano is quoted in John Byrne's column at the end of the issue, it was "History on the drawing board."

Dr Emmet Vale is pretty much a non-figure in the Superman universe. Other than a brief flashback in 1992s Adventures of Superman #491, his only other appearance is in an alternate universe in the Zero Hour tie-in issue of Action Comics (#703) where, in the other universe, he is the owner of the farm next door to the Kents. In the 2009 Secret Origin miniseries he briefly appears as the chief scientist on the METALLO armour project that leads into the first public appearance of Superman.

Clark here acts on his statement from The Man of Steel #6, where he vows to go after Lois Lane. Here, the two share a jogging date and the animosity from the Superman article of six years previously appears to be a thing of the past.

Metallo and the kryptonite next appear in Superman #2.

Want to know more? This issue of Superman was covered on the third episode of From Crisis to Crisis. It is collected in the second volume of the Man of Steel reprint series.

Next on World of Superman: The great Marv Wolfman and the great Jerry Ordway arrive to kick off their year together on Adventures of Superman with issues #424.

1 comment:

  1. 23 years? Scary. I remember the circumstances of buying this issue with amazing clarity and like Man of Steel have an enourmous fondness for it. Comics in this era were so memorable, you had Peter David and Todd Macfarlane starting on the Hulk for example, the remarkable Wonder Woman relaunch, the experimental and novel Giffen/Demattis Justice League treatment, Simonson on Thor... I wonder if this is a true observation of the sheer Quality of the time or just my rose tinted personal Golden-age?

    Superman #1 is always going to be defined by that stunning cover, comicbook covers at this really knew how to use color to the maximum effect to hook a potential reader. I've not much to add to the content as you already said everything I had to say and I agree completely!
    The art is extraordinary in its crispness and detail, John Byrnes work has always been a pleasure for me but here he was at the height of his powers and the plot is very well executed. Metallo previous to this was somewhat unknown to me, I'd seen him in maybe one or two issues but he never left much of an impression, I don't think he'd been used in years really so here in #1 we got a nice solid reintroduction to his concept. Like a lot of Supermans rogues gallery there isn't a lot of depth or meat to him i'm afraid but he does his job and makes for a very credible threat. The way the story is structured with Superman finding the lab where both his stolen Rocket was taken to and unnowingly comes across Metallo's 'birthplace' works well, in hindsight the scene where Superman finds the acid tank with what we subsequantly deduce are john Corbens remains is quite chilling. But the connection between the anonymous and paranoid scientist, Superman and latterly Metallo is a rather annoying loose end to set up and never address fully. I do have the feeling by the way that the orbiting lab was indeed returned to but can't recall where. (Adventures #468 with Hank Henshaw maybe?).

    The landscape and character of metroplis in this new era was successfully well defined as being built around Luthor and the anchor that is the Daily Planet and Superman. Man of Steel was a series covering sevral years but Here we start to get the first real sense that Metropolis is a real place and this here issue is a landmark one as this is where the post-crisis Superman story really starts.

    I'll be very intrested in what you made of the initial Adventures of Superman launch though, I myself was not all that enthusiastic about it at the time as it had a very very different tone and feel and was, to be blunt, a bit too dull. The contrast between the self-confident man of action John Byrne depicted and the pervasive personal angst of the Marv Wolfman book was just too much...

    Always a fun blog to read, so thanks!