Monday, 7 February 2011

Action Comics #585

Hmm, maybe if I sneak in quietly, nobody will notice that I've been gone...

Oh, hi there! You caught me firing up the old blog here.

So, where have I been? Oh, here and there, just not... y'know... here...

Before we get into the issue today, just a few notes about my recent catchup with Smallville. I stopped watching about halfway through the Supergirl episode, specifically the appallingly composited scene atop the weather tower where Kara tries to teach Clark to fly. But I put my 1970s Doctor Who hat on (the one that makes you immune to poor quality special effects and really bad CSO [except Underworld]) and dived back in. And I enjoyed myself, far more than I expected to do so.

I had a lovely surprise when one of my favourite screen actors, Michael Ironside (Darkseid from Superman: The Animated Series and Roy Schneider's replacement on Seaquest DSV) turned up as a near-perfect Sam Lane. I was pleasantly surprised at the appearance of Granny Goodness, and her orphanage and Female Furies were scary, fascinating, and a great watch. I enjoyed the heck out of Lionel Luthor's return to the series, and THAT last scene was such a doozy that for the first time in years I'm actively anticipating the series. And Erica Durance is bloody fantastic as the most enjoyable screen Lois Lane I can remember watching. Of course, this is Smallville, and all my goodwill was dissipated when the mid-season cliffhanger was a MacGuffin making everyone fall over. I can't wait to pick up the next series, and to see Darkseid's plans really ramp up.

But that's the screen, and we like comics here. Shall we look at some?

And The Graves Give Up Their Dead...
(Writer and Penciller: John) Byrne
(Inker: Dick) Giordano
(Letterer: John) Costanza
(Editor: Andy) Helfer*
Cover Art: John Byrne
Cover Date: February 1987
Release Date: 27/11/1986
*The credits page for this issue only gave these four surnames engraved onto tombstones.

High above the streets of Metropolis, an aged Superman confronts the sorceress Arathaza in her floating citadel. Arathaza has possessed the body of a librarian. Superman is unable to stand, but is able to crawl towards her and grab her staff, striking it on the ground and shattering the citadel. Arathaza’s power is dispersed, freeing the librarian and restoring Superman. As he flies the librarian to safety, a diamond fragment of the citadel falls to earth, landing in a graveyard where it sinks into the ground.

Returning to his apartment, Superman is surprised to find the Phantom Stranger waiting for him within. The Stranger wants Superman’s help, but Superman is reluctant, aware of his vulnerability to magic. Refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer, the Stranger transports Superman to the graveyard, where the citadel fragment has animated the ground into a giant elemental being. Superman launches into battle, fighting the mass, but is surprised when the creature reacts to him and speaks to him. The Stranger warns that the mass is not alive, but has the memory of being alive. He then opens a portal to another dimension, the Kingdom of the Damned, where he intends to fight the force behind the elemental.

Whilst the Stranger participates in a mock trial headed by the remnant of Arathaza, Superman tried to prevent the elemental mass, which is continually growing, from attacking Metropolis. Noticing that the creature gains its mass from soil and earth, Superman burrows down to bedrock, which cannot be absorbed, delaying the creature. Inside the ‘soul’ of the mass, the Stranger shatters the diamond. Contacting Superman, the Stranger tells him to break the creature’s contact with the earth. Superman achieves this by burrowing into the earth and raising the ground the creature is standing on into orbit. The creature collapses into itself, and Superman hurls the dormant mass into the sun. The Stranger reappears, but refuses to tell Superman what happened on the inside.

Although we have already seen an establishment of Superman’s vulnerability to magic with Superman Annual #7, this was the first time readers really got to grips with this in 1987. Prior to this issue, Superman hadn’t really got involved with any mystical or magical forces, and for this first encounter, John Byrne teams Superman up with probably the most prominent magical user in the DC Universe, the Phantom Stranger.

The first page of the issue features the Stranger in a narrator role, giving an introduction not unlike the Watcher in the Tales Of The Watcher or the opening narration from The Twilight Zone. It’s a neat stylistic touch that has a little fun with the reader, although the narration that continues through the issue suffers from being a little too stylised, with phrases like 'And even Superman feels the touch of fear.' Another moment of fun comes when Arathaza leaves her host, revealing that the mighty and powerful sorcerer was actually a meek secretary named Barbara Kowaleski.

The thing is, the Arathaza plot is pretty generic and inconsequential. Superman fights the body whilst the Stranger fights the mind. I’ve written previously how magic in Superman stories doesn’t really interest me, and this issue is no exception to that rule. Although the Stranger’s battle helps resolve Superman’s, nothing Superman does seems to influence the Stranger’s conflict. As neat as the mock trial is, it does overpower Superman’s physical battle, and it’s not clear how Superman’s efforts contribute to the defeat of the remnant.

This issue is light and frothy. The action is present but has no real consequence, although the lump of Earth thrown into orbit would be revisited several months later in Action Comics. In the same month that teased a whole new dynamic between Superman and Lex Luthor and saw widespread destruction in Metropolis, this issue’s fight between Superman and a big pile of mud just doesn’t stand up as well.

The Geeky Bits:

Towards the end of the book, Superman discovers that he can breathe in space. Except that he already knows this from his encounter with the H’tross. He also appears to have forgotten his experience with Thahn and Doctor Occult, where he first realised his vulnerability to magic.

The Phantom Stranger, created in 1952 by John Broome and Carmine Infantino, is one of the more mysterious and powerful mystical beings in the DC Universe. He has had a sporadic publishing history, with several ongoings and miniseries, as well as being one of the few characters to move between the DC and Vertigo publishing lines, where he was a key character in The Books of Magic.

Next on World of Superman:

We play catch-up on the first two parts of the Legends crossover.


  1. I liked this issue a lot actually, apart from superb art I think this is a bit of a key issue in the early Byrne era as it explores his relationship to magic and establishes he is not as excruciatingly vulnerable to it as he was before the revamp. The plot is very reminiscent of a DC Comics Presents issue a few years previously where Superman is teamed with The Demon to fight a reawakened Druid/Demon called Blackbriar Thorn, maybe that's coincidence or like his reworking of Bizarro's appearance Byrne is cherry picking plot ideas from previous continuity.
    The start of the issue, abrubtly joining Superman at a critical juncture in the middle of a battle with a powerful and dangerous sorceress, is a very clever one. It's a storytelling trick that is quite novel as Arathaza mirrors what the oncoming plot is about and in a way is potentially a lot more interesting than the haunted graveyard with its faceless condemned souls, Arathaza's story looked like an exciting one but I think apart from using the Phantom Stranger the other mission of this issue was to showcase THAT wonderful sequence where Suprman lifts the mountain aloft and into space - long long before modern comics adopted cinema 'widescreen' techniques to genrate scale & awe John Byrne was doing it here and on his superman run in general. Another reason why his work is still so memorable on the character....

  2. Hi Dave. You have a good point about starting halfway through a piece of action. It's a good device, especially suited to Action Comics, but it's also one that I am rather accustomed to through my various comics reading and TV watching - sadly once I've seen something done many times I stop recognising it as something special.

    Looking back over the issue, I feel like I didn't really focus on the art enough. Page 20, with Superman lifting the living mountain into space, is a spectacular piece of artwork, with Superman himself getting smaller in each panel to highlight the enormity of what he is achieving.