Posts Tagged ‘Superman’

With the 100th birthday of the undisputed King Of Comics fast approaching, we’re taking an extended diversion from our “regularly scheduled” programming around these parts to talk all Jack Kirby, all month long (my usual Twin Peaks reviews notwithstanding). I’m open to changing things up “on the fly,” so to speak, but the rough plan goes as follows : I’m more or less “contractually obligated” to review all of DC’s forthcoming one-shot specials based on Kirby characters and concepts (a couple of which I actually have something approaching optimism for), and I’ll be taking a close look at Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ Mister Miracle #1, but the main “backbone” of our month-long celebration will be my appraisals of several of my all-time favorite Kirby comics — and where better to start than with the October, 1970 cover-dated Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #133?

Oh, sure, there are more important entries in The King’s lengthy C.V. than this one, but I think a person would be hard-pressed to find a single issue that attempts to do more than this story does — after all, this was the very first comic that Kirby produced under his then-new contract with DC, and given the shock-waves that his departure from Marvel sent through the nascent fan circles just bubbling to the surface at the time, it’s fair to say that readers were expecting something more unbelievable, more exciting, more imaginative, more awesome than they’d ever seen before.

There was no need to worry, though, as Kirby always delivered the goods — in fact, giving his all was the only way he knew how to work. There’s been a long-circulating rumor/urban legend that Jack insisted-by-default on being given the Jimmy Olsen gig since he firmly believed that he could turn DC’s lowest-selling title into one of its biggest, and while I have no idea whether that’s true or not, he certainly arrived on the title with a bang, eager to revamp everything in sight in order to lay the groundwork for his Fourth World saga. Certainly if Kirby had been paying attention to what had been going on in this book’s pages before assuming its reigns it doesn’t show — he wiped the slate clean, immediately making his inherited “cub reporter” protagonist actually competent for the first time ever, and even  putting him at odds, albeit briefly, with his super-powered best bud, as the cover plainly (if exaggeratedly) shows. Things were gonna be different from here on out, and this issue is a thunderous overture hinting at the scope of the grand cosmic symphony to come.

I still wonder how Kirby managed to pack so much into this slim comic — hot on the trail of a whispered-about “miracle car” that’s been seen around Metropolis, Jimmy meets the “new,” Guardian-free iteration of the famed Newsboy Legion, who may not have their costumed leader with them anymore (at least for now), but do have a new member in their ranks named Flippa Dippa, as well as the amazing “Whiz Wagon,” the staggeringly advanced land-air-sea vehicle that our ostensible hero has been searching for. Just one question — why are all the Newsboy kids the same age as they were back in their 1940s heyday? They claim to be direct blood descendants of the originals, but is that the whole story? In any case, when Jimmy tells them that he’d like the help of them and their “super car” to make the trek into a foreboding district just outside Metropolis known as the “Wild Area” the kids are all-in, hence this issue’s title, “Jimmy Olsen Superman’s Pal Brings Back The Newsboy Legion!”

Forget all that for a moment, though, as next we meet the scheming Morgan Edge, president of Galaxy Broadcasting and new owner of the Daily Planet, who oozes sleazy menace as he confers with Clark Kent for the first time. Edge is essentially Rupert Murdoch a good couple of decades before anyone outside of Australia knew that execrated name, and therefore stands as yet another example of Kirby’s amazing precognitive ability. It’s Edge who has assigned Jimmy with task of entering the Wild Area to make contact with its hippie-ish residents known only as the “Hairies,” and while Clark would like to go along to ensure his young friend’s safety, Edge will hear nothing of it since he has it on good authority that the “Hairies” don’t trust anyone over 25 years old. It’s when Clark leaves the office of his newly-ensconced “superior,” though, that things really start to get interesting —

Okay, fair enough, we all know that a “no” from Morgan Edge isn’t going to stop Superman from going where he wants to go and doing what he needs to do, but Kirby’s portrayal of Clark/Supes (re-drawn faces aside) is entirely different to anything we’ve seen before — this is a moody, introspective, and thoughtful Man of Steel, fundamentally lonely and with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a super-being well aware of his ability to do almost anything and openly and actively questioning the perhaps-outdated moral code that holds him back from making the world a better place on anything other than a “micro” scale. Kirby’s Superman saw a world in distress, fraying at the seams, further slipping into the insidious grasp of big business — and, like his author, he saw the surest signs of hope for the future in the emerging “peace and love” youth culture of the time. No one had written Superman like this before, and all of these various themes — and more — would be expounded upon by The King not only in the pages of this series, but in The Forever People, as well.

For his part, Edge’s interior monologue also reveals more about him than the “poker face” he kept while meeting Kent did — he has his own surreptitious reasons for wanting Jimmy to penetrate the “Wild Area,” and it all has something to do with the dictates of a shadowy underworld organization that he’s a part of known as Intergang, but it’s abundantly clear that even this group of malefactors is only a means to an end, and that they are pawns for another, larger power that’s positioning them on a grand, three-dimensional chessboard.

A series of confrontations with a biker gang on the outskirts of the “Wild Area” known as the “Outsiders” ensues — first Jimmy and the Newsboys take them on, and then when they win that skirmish and Jimmy is made their de facto “leader,” they take on Superman, who’s been tailing his protege — and while falling back on a chunk of Green Kryptonite to bring the second fight to a conclusion stands out for its utter predictability in comparison to the rest of the events taking place in this otherwise-breathtaking story, it’s a situation that Kirby reverses quickly enough, and when Superman wakes up, he, Jimmy, and the Newsboys quickly arrive at a surprisingly tentative truce, and we get out first look at the sprawling forest kingdom known as “Habitat,” a kind of “super-commune” at the very heart of the “Wild Area.” The visuals, in true Kirby fashion, are absolutely spectacular — so spectacular that not even Vince Colletta’s lazy, sloppy inks can fuck them up —and if you need any further evidence that the so-called “Boy From Kansas” ain’t in Kansas anymore, well, look no further than page page 20 :

I would argue that this splash image represents the first significant distillation of the artistic through-line that would inform the entire Fourth World opus : Kirby grand-scale epic visual storytelling wedded to the ideals and ethos of the so-called “flower power” generation. The cliffhanger to this issue — which sees Jimmy enlist his once-and-future best friend in his sure-to-be-perilous journey to something called the “Mountain Of Judgment,” which can only be accessed by means of a hidden drag-strip known as the “Zoomway” — hints that further wonders are to come, of course, but the tone of the epic-to-be has already been set : Jack Kirby, WWII veteran, keen and learned observer of humanity who still hadn’t lost his fundamental sense of optimism, was putting his faith in a better future future, and in the youth — the same shaggy, hairy, “drop-out,” “hippie” youth that so much of popular culture, including the comics, was openly demonizing every chance it could get — who were going to make that better future happen.

It didn’t all work out the way that Kirby hoped, of course — nor did the Fourth World itself, for reasons entirely beyond his control — but Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #133 reflected the exuberance, idealism, and promise of its times. There have been better stories told in the funnybooks than this one (although not that many), but very few have been this significant, this heartfelt, this revolutionary. And Jack Kirby was only just getting started.

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Ever since the first solicits for the new seven-part mini-series Superman : American Alien started showing up several months ago, I’ve been unsure what to make of the whole enterprise — sure, the line-up of talent involved is impressive, particularly on the artistic side, but do we really need another re-telling of The Man Of Steel’s origin? And, furthermore,  is that what this book even is?

Apparently DC “suits” got in touch with screenwriter Max Landis (of Chronicle and American Ultra fame, among others) a couple of years back after being reasonably impressed by his short film The Death And Life Of Superman (which is more than a tad ironic given that one of the things Landis seems to relish doing in that movie is pointing out the various gaping plotholes contained within that legendary story arc of the same name) and offered him carte blanche to write the Superman story of his dreams — the result of which is this much-publicized project that sees the we-sure-hope-he’s-the-next-superstar author paired with a different artist each issue as they fill in some gaps in young Clark Kent’s life. Landis himself says that there’s no traditional story “arc” here per se, but that each “vignette” will go some way towards giving us a greater understanding of comics’ most iconic character.

Okay, I’ll buy that, but again, I have to ask, is it really necessary? Especially in light of current goings-on in the Superman “family” of titles?

For those who may not be aware, The Man Of Tomorrow has his feet planted firmly in the here and now in the pages of both Superman and Action Comics these days : he’s had his powers dramatically reduced, his secret identity’s been revealed to the public (by none other than Lois Lane), he’s ditched the costume and cape for a t-shirt and jeans, and he’s been sacked (again) from The Daily Planet — which means that, on top of all of his other problems, he’s also broke.

Fan reaction to these no-doubt-temporary changes has been mixed at best, and while it’s tempting to brush the more vocal criticism off as the over-wrought bleating of a reactionary minority of the books’  readership, in fairness the complaints of some of the naysayers aren’t entirely without substance, simply because the creators working on the comics themselves seem a bit befuddled about what this “new direction” means, with Gene Luen Yang and John Romita, Jr. in the midst of a flat-out mess of an ongoing storyline in the pages of Superman, while Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder are knocking the ball out of the park over in Action by stripping Superman of his nationalistic, and even cosmic, trappings and returning him to his working-class roots as a guy who’s fighting not for the survival of the country, planet, or universe, but of his neighborhood. In fact, in a welcome development that’s decidedly more in touch with Siegel and Shuster’s original vision of the character than right-wing revisionist comics historians like Chuck Dixon would have you believe,  Pak and Kuder even have Superman taking on topical menaces like abusive cops and overly-zealous social media privacy-killers in much the same way as his creators showed him combating  genuine threats to the  average working people of their time including slum landlords, corrupt local politicos, Pinkertons, and strike-breaking scabs (you can take that “replacement worker” term and shove it up your ass, thanks very much). Heck, how many people even remember that Superman fought to save a wrongly-convicted man from the electric chair in one of his very first adventures?

Taking all these recent upheavals into account then, perhaps my original question (which, fair enough, I’ve already asked twice) has even greater import if we rephrase it as “if the point of Superman : American Alien is to offer yet another revisionist take on the hero’s beginnings, is now really the best time to do it?”

Having read the first issue a couple of times now, the only honest answer I can give is that the jury’s still out.

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Certainly I can’t fault the art in this comic at all — Nick Dragotta of East Of West illustrates the sweeping plains of Smallville with grace and elegance and has a real handle on the expressions and mannerisms of pre-teen Clark Kent and his parents, Jonathan and Martha. The book looks flat-out beautiful and colorist Alex Guimares is  an absolute goddamn star on the hues. Ryan Sook’s main cover (shown at the top of this review) is suitably familiar-yet-mysterious, and Dragott’s variant (shown directly above) is enough to make you go “awwwww.” So the issue looks great — but what about the story?

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Truth be told, it’s a harmless enough, if ultimately disposable, “puff piece” about how Clark learned to stop floating around in the air and actually fly. It’s fine as far as these things do, but probably would have worked better as an eight-pager in the digital-first Adventures Of Superman series (which Landis has also written for). It feels pretty stretched-out here, though,  and while it hits some nice “character beats,” they’re too few and far between to carry a full-length, single-issue story. It’s at least respectful of its “source material,” though — until we get to the double-splash image of a cluttered desktop that appends the story and learn, via discarded correspondence, postcards, prescription bottles, certificates, and the like that “Pa” Kent was a successful hippie-turned- lawyer who inherited the farm in Smallville but never really wanted to even live there, much less work the place, while “Ma” was a veterinarian who pushed them to move there when she learned that she was pregnant, only to lose the baby in a car accident that left her a prozac-and zoloft-popping emotional wreck until that fateful day when they found a spaceship crashed out in their back 40 and decided to raise the infant inside it as their own.

Logically, I suppose, these developments make sense, and while I don’t think any of what we learn here diminishes the characters in any way, does it really add any depth or resonance to them, either? I guess we have six more issues to find that out.

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And, I have to confess, despite my lukewarm reaction to this opening installment, that I’m mostly looking forward to what those issues have in store — but, again, that’s chiefly because of the art. And who wouldn’t be stoked for that with luminaries like Francis Manapul, Jae Lee, and Jock waiting in the wings? That’s a “murderer’s row” right there if ever there was one.

Landis, for his part,  says that each story will have a specific theme — one will be heartwarming, one will be what passes for “sexy” in a DC comic, one will be scary, and one I’m really not at all stoked for will be “ultraviolent,” but all in all, my gut feeling is that this series could very well end up coming across as a pretty scattershot affair if they do a fair amount of that aforementioned gap-filling but aren’t able to successfully convey why those gaps even need to be filled.

So, Max Landis, there’s your challenge in a nutshell, I guess.

Still, against my better judgment, I’m somewhat tempted to err on the side of cautious optimism here, at least for the time being. “American Alien” is a terrific unifying concept for a series like this, provided our scribe well and truly tackles the dichotomy in his own title, which underscores the fact (even if it’s a fictional one) that Superman is both the ultimate symbol of American square-jawed values and very much a stranger to not only our nation (come to think of it, if you wanna be absolutely technical about matters, he hails from that most unjustly-reviled group of all — so-called “illegal” immigrants) , but our world. If Landis can translate that idea into his scripts and find a way to explore it effectively, even if disjointedly, there may be more hope for this book than the evidence presented so far would seem to indicate.

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Yup, the powers that be at Warner Brothers and DC are definitely breathing easier after Man Of Steel‘s runaway box office success, and one reason — among many — is because they’d sunk a lot of pre-release promotional muscle into it, from commercial tie-ins with everything from Norton anti-virus software (“be a hero by protecting your computer from the latest threats we probably invented right here in our office to give you a reason to need our product!”) to the National Guard (“be a hero by risking your ass in a war even its one-time supporters want over with!”), to “cross-pollinated” product like the new  Superman Unchained  monthly comic and the drearily-similarly-titled Superman : Unbound DC Universe direct-to-video animated feature, most copies of which were probably destined to end up in remainder bins both physical and electronic if Zack Snyder and Chris Nolan didn’t hit paydirt with their new celluloid take on Krypton’s last son.

And honestly, that’s probably where this thing belongs, because of all the “DCU” animated product — and this flick is, well and truly, product — that’s come out in the last X-number of years, this is probably the most lifeless, by-the-numbers affair of the bunch. The basics : Superman and yet another new-ish version of Supergirl fight a re-tooled iteration of Brainiac and in the end, they win.

Really. there’s not much more you need to know here. From what i’ve been able to glean from the slim perusals I’ve made in regards to this flick online, fans of the original comic (which I’ve never read) on which it’s based, by popular artist and writer Gary Frank, are pretty disappointed by this one because it essentially bears no resemblance to what transpires on the printed page, but I’ll tell ya what — it sure bears a mighty strong resemblance to any of the literally hundreds of unmemorable, third-tier Superman/Brainiac showdowns that weighed down the various Superman monthlies in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and probably well into the aughts. Once in a great while something slightly different or interesting might come along and throw a wrinkle in things, but by and large these were all pre-determined battles with pre-determined story “beats,” pre-determined characterization, and pre-determined outcomes. I’m not saying your average Superman writer or artist didn’t try to deliver solid work in these issues, just that the whole set-up was so formulaic that it literally didn’t matter how much effort went into many of these rags. Nothing was gonna make any difference.

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Granted, this story features a  much visually cooler version of the “Big B” than we’ve seen in the past, but by and large that’s pretty emblematic of Superman : Unbound (don’t ask me where the colon in the title comes from since it’s nowhere to be found on the packaging, but pretty much every reference to this  movie you’ll find online,  and even its official IMDB entry itself, includes it, so we’ll play along) as a whole — all style ( and angular style at that) and no substance. Shit just kinda happens until the end credits roll.

As tends to be the standard M.O. with these things, director James Tucker at least has a flair for competently-staged animated battle sequences, and those are kinda neat, but you really do have to give a shit about the story in general to derive much excitement or suspense from those, and that’s a pretty tall order when your script is this rote and lifeless. The members of the  voice cast acquit themselves okay — Matt Bomer is perfectly sufficient, if unspectacular, as both Superman and Clark Kent, Castle stars Molly C. Quinn and Stana Katic do what they can with poorly-written takes on Supergirl and Lois Lane, respectively (Clark and Lois are bicker-buddies in this one and that’s about it), and John Noble by and large nails it as Brainiac, but still — there’s just not much here for even the most talented performers to test out their vocal chops on.

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I guess all parties involved can lay claim to some small measure of “success” here given that I stayed awake until the end when that had been looking like an iffy proposition at best for awhile, but I ‘d be lying through my teeth if I said I was ever actually interested in the events playing out on my screen. I just kinda put up with it and kept hoping for a turn for the better that never came.

But hey, if you want to ignore me, it’s easy enough to grab Superman : Unchained on either DVD or Blu-Ray from Warner Premier. I got the DVD from Netflix, so I can’t speak to any particular technical specs or extras as far as the Blu-Ray is concerned, but as you’d expect for a brand new release on DVD, the widescreen picture and 5.1 sound were both absolutely pristine, and,  as is the case with this line in general, there were no legit “bonus” features of any sort included apart from the usual promo stuff for already-released and forthcoming DCU titles. “Nothing special” seems to be a running theme with Superman : Unbound.

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I guess the best I can say for this at the end of the day is that, hey,  it is what it is — but what it is ain’t all that great. Honestly, you’ve got better things to do with your time. At least I hope you do.

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As far as these DC Universe animated flicks go, 2012’s Superman Vs. The Elite was a bit of an aberration for me since, unlike most of the others, I had no familiarity whatsoever with the comic story on which it was based. I was seeing it with “fresh eyes,” is you will,  and therefore  actually found myself to  be in the very same position most other viewers find themselves in with this stuff.

Unfortunately, the on-screen product probably wasn’t arresting enough to get me to go out and hunt down its printed-page counterpart (sorry, I know it’s bad form to give away the “final verdict” this early in a review but oh well, too late to turn back now), so for all I know maybe the issues of the pre-“New 52” Superman monthly comic this is taken from are the greatest thing since sliced bread (not that bread — sliced or otherwise — is all that exciting, but for some reason the cliches are flowing pretty easily today, please bear with me), but ya know — I kinda doubt it.

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Which isn’t to say, I guess, that Superman Vs. The Elite is all that bad — it’s just kind of a bog-standard 21st-century superhero mash-up with cardboard characterization and very little depth. The basic run-down here is that Supes (here voiced by George Newbern, who’s okay in the role but no James Denton by any stretch) is confronted by the arrival on the scene of a new team of uber-beings calling themselves “The Elite” (hence the name), who hail from various corners of the world and not only show themselves to be more than willing to cross lines “Big Blue” won’t in terms of killing their adversaries, but are flat-out eager to openly show their outright disdain for his, in their view, antiquated set of ethics and morals. In other words, it’s fairly typical “meet the ruthless new blood out to take your place” sorta stuff. Youth — they’ve always been bad, don’tcha know?

Director Michael Chang does a decent enough job with the battle sequences, which are numerous briskly-arriving, but if you’re looking for anything much beyond that, there really isn’t a tremendous amount on offer to sink your teeth into. Lois Lane as voiced by Pauley Perrette (talk about a too-clever-by-half name that puts even Parker Posey or Imogen Poots to shame) is little more than career-woman window dressing, and Robin Atkin Downes as head bad guy Manchester Black (speaking of too clever by half) is all sneer and no substance, so don’t go look for anything too dramatically gripping on the vocal front, either.

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Still, I guess I didn’t find this to be just over an hour of my life completely wasted — that’d be too harsh, and frankly I didn’t get the sense that anyone here was actually trying hard enough to come up with an actively lousy product. After all, that still requires effort.  This whole thing just sorta starts up, chugs along, and finishes its job on schedule. Don’t waste your time peeking around corners for surprise plot twists — there aren’t any — or hoping for complex moral arguments about the relative merits of doing things the Superman way or the Manchester Black way, since all that’s presented as a given, as well. But I guess if you’re in the mood for quick-n’-easy, shut-your-brain-off stuff, this’ll do in a pinch.

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Superman Vs. The Elite is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Premier. I got the DVD from Netflix (yes, some of us still have a disc rental plan with them), and as usual it’s a bare-bones affair with the only “bonus” material being promo stuff for other “DCU” releases. Widescreen picture and 5.1 sound mix were both pristine and unworthy of any criticism. I’m sure the Blu-Ray offers a few more goodies for the fans, but I’m not in any hurry to scrounge up a copy. All in all, this is strictly uninspired, by-the-numbers stuff, good for a single viewing if you’ve had a long day and just want to kick your feet up, but really that’s about it.