Thursday, 8 December 2011

Action Comics #4 review

Brainiac's invasion of Metropolis continues, with his computer virus motivating the creation of thousands of 'Terminauts' across the globe. But they're not out to terminate humans, only Superman. The other part of their mission is to preserve - read, 'steal - Mankind's treasures.

Clark Kent, visiting an industrial plant with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, splits off from his colleagues to go into action as Superman. He's soon facing not just the rampaging robots, but John Corben, 'Steel Soldier' turned host of the Brainiac colony. Help from an unexpected quarter gives Superman a chance to draw breath and see that an entire neighbourhood has been ripped out of Metropolis ...

And that's the main story in Action Comics #4, a rip-roaring tale of men, mechanics, monsters and miniaturisation from the ever-inventive, often-homaging Grant Morrison. As well as the bravery of Superman and his new ally, Lois shows her gutsy nature as she throws herself into the path of the unpredictable Corben, reminding him of his humanity in a bid to help Superman (click to enlarge).
Jimmy's pluck takes another form, as he films the chaos for the public record. Showing no courage at all is the fleeing Lex Luthor, who can't believe a  fellow mad scientist - even an alien one - would betray him. The story ends on a note of hope, with Superman informing an unusually conciliatory General Sam Lane that he has a plan, and annoyance, as readers are advised that the story continues in Action Comics #7.

Still, as next month promises a team-up of this Superman and his future self from the Superman title, alongside the Legion of Super-Heroes, I'll probably survive. I believe the two-part fill-in, drawn by Andy Kubert and Jesse Delperdang, is to help series penciller Rags Morales with his deadlines - DC are obviously keen that the collection of this storyline will be all Morales, but really, I'd rather see a monthly serial with rotating pencillers and a strong, stylish inker - a Karl Kesel, or Klaus Janson, say - brought in to iron out any niggly style differences.

I'm not anti-Morales - his art this issue is my favourite of his Superman work to date - but if I'm engaged by a story, I don't want diversions, even when they're adjuncts to the main storyline, as the upcoming fill-in looks to be. Let's have the classy fillers in between the big stories, not interrupting them.

Morales really does do a good job here, partnered by inkers Rick Bryant and Sean Parsons. His Superman is a dynamo of activity in defence of a Metropolis that isn't sold on having him around. His Lex is a weasel, Lois a fox and the Terminauts have a terrifying vibe. Then there's the unfortunate Corben and a half-glimpsed, fully scary new Brainiac. And all the players and movement are set against one of the best-realised cities you'll see in comics, with backgrounds just packed with buildings and activity.

Colourist Brad Anderson deserves a nod for smartly helping differentiate foreground and background action, and changing New 52 Jimmy's hair back from Bieber brown to classic ginger (a move that cheers me as much as the replacement of 'Sgt Steel' Perry White with the traditional version in last month's Superman). I also like that Superman's S-shield tee shirt this issue is white - he's obviously planning a merchandising line.

I've been coy about who helps Superman, purely to keep something back for when I got to the 8pp back-up strip. Which I have now. In it we see John Henry Irons, designer of the Steel Soldier outfit, don his own version and take on Corben. All the while, his internal narration tells us how he's inspired by the American folk legend of John Henry.

It's a tight little script from writer Sholly Fisch, and while the obscure legend doesn't resonate particularly with this Brit, neither does it overshadow the main event - John using smarts rather than fists to beat Corben. And there's a fabulous final line. Thanks to illustrator Brad Walker and colourist Jay David Ramos, the sequence comes to life on the page with real verve.
The Steel armour as introduced this issue, mind, is horrendous compared to the magisterial looks John Henry has sported in the past ... I'm praying it's a prototype. John Henry himself is younger and slimmer than in his pre-New 52 incarnation, which is a shame ... he had a good, strong look and now he's gone Hollywood. Still, I'm sure the Suicide Squad's Amanda Waller will be up for a date.

So, a more than decent little tale.

But no more please. If Action Comics isn't going to present 28pp Superman stories for our $3.99, I'm very happy to get 20pp stories for a dollar less. By all means spotlight the Superman Family in its own book, but seeing the same story from two perspectives in one issue? No thanks.

9 comments:

  1. Hey Mart,

    If you want to hear a little more about John Henry, here's Harry Belafonte singing the song in 1959.

    http://youtu.be/g6vcvYJCkic

    And here's Leadbelly talking about the song's origins a bit before he sings it in 1948. (I think the Belafonte version is a little more accessible to modern ears, so I listed it first.)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGEkWJa68xU

    They're two slightly different versions, but that's the way it goes with folk songs. But in both, John Henry outworks a steam drill, before his own heart bursts as he works. Then he's hailed as a hero, and his body is brought to the White House to be honored.

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  2. Writers gave up on Superman long ago. It's too bad that Peter David or someone else with an imagination can't do something with the last son of Krypton. You'd think that after JMS messed about for a year doing nothing with it that someone else would come along and put Superman to rights.
    Oh, yeah! Action HAD a good writer named Paul Cornell. Sorry to say, Grant Morrison is NO Paul Cornell.

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  3. I'm not a fan of the new Lex. He seems too weak.

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  4. Thanks for the links, Rob, I really like this sort of thing. I remember reading a Johnny Quick reprint as a kid, in which he was 'the modern Paul Bunyan'. I'd never heard of a man with a giant cow.

    And I still don't know who the Johnny Appleseed cited in a Seventies JLA story was. In fact, I must go check ...

    Hmm, now you have me wondering, Claude - has PAD ever written a Superman story? A run by him could be fascinating.

    This is, what, seven years ago from current day DC, Illumi-Nerdi? I dare say Lex has 'villained up' by now.

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  5. Why the Big Two won't go 'back to the future' with intentional eight-times or ten-times yearly comics remains one of those mysteries, given that comics' most popular decades (up until 1970) featured no monthly superhero books that I can think of.

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  6. Blooming' good point, Jonathan - this 'monthly or bust' notion dates back to, I think, the DC Implosion. But really, why not publish eight times a year, and use the other slots for specials?

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  7. When the most recent runs of JLA and JSA finished up in August, JLA was at issue 60 and JSA at 54 -- and they restarted within a month of each other five summers ago.

    I do wonder if the resistance to 10- or 8-issue years for some books is based on the fear that perennial lateness would just expand with some writers and artists, so that an 8-issue year would immediately mutate into a bimonthly book.

    The most egregious scheduling screw-up I can think of in the past few years was the increasing lateness of the Firstwave miniseries, which was supposed to launch the Firstwave line but, by the time issue 6 finally came out about 16 months later, almost acted as a de facto farewell to the line as well. I think lingering concerns of mine over what's ultimately going to happen with the New DC spring in part from the complete bollocksing of the FirstWave and the Red Circle lines by DC. I'm not sure everyone's attention spans are up to this in corporate or editorial or wherever the problems spring from. The rapid axing of four writers already (I think) could bode ill.

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  8. Oddly, PAD hasn't done much in the way of Superman stories. He did a bit in Superman:Our Worlds at War but there were three other writers involved in that one. He did, however, have an extensive run on Supergirl. I have a feeling that he would be a difficult 'get' for DC on a Superman book.
    Still licking my wounds over losing Cornell on Action Comics. Boo hoo.

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  9. Great point about the relative runs of JLA and JSA, Jonathan. As for the 8-times-a-year frequency, I suspect it's a matter of companies having forgotten it's an option - it's a generation since we saw such a frequency.

    PAD's been settled at Marvel for so long now, Claude, that he might surprise us and hop over to DC. Maybe a nice Lois Lane book ...

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