Roundtable Review | Action Comics #1

Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Rags Morales

When DC announced it was resetting all of its titles to issue number one, none had as long of a trip back as Action Comics. The book that, in 1938, spawned a little Kryptonian named Kal-El—better known to mortals as Superman, may be the most-watched title. Here's our roundtable discussion of the first first issue of Action Comics in more than 70 years. Remember, we're reviewing every single title of the New 52 (though will only roundtable one per week), and you can follow all of the action at  [node:14917877 link=TOC's Comics Shop;]. As always, spoilers abound. Here we go:

Web Behrens: Aaaaannd, we're off! With today's release of 13 new number-one issues, DC's New 52 relaunch kicks in for reals. The most anticipated issue this week is (arguably) Action Comics. Set in the recent past, it's a sort of Superman: Year One from one of DC's bestselling writers, Grant Morrison, and artist Rags Morales. I'm a fan of both these talents, so I was certainly looking forward to this—with curiosity if nothing else. I can't say I was disappointed.

It gave me my first honest moment of "Holy shit, they really did reboot the DC Universe!" Now we don't really know what to expect. You can tell that from (spoiler alerts on) a variety of factors, from Superman's half-classic-costume/half-Smallville-farmboy outfit, to his willingness to dish out his own brand of populist justice, to an entirely new incarnation of Lex Luthor. The Luthor we meet here, collaborating with General Lane (yep, Lois's dad) to take down a brash young Superman, feels fresh. He's not the mad scientist in the white lab coat, nor the untouchable corrupt mogul, nor the maniac in the purple-and-green supersuit (easily the worst version). This version is clearly the smartest guy in the room (not to mention the only tea drinker). He appears to be a master strategist with dollops of fey arrogance: Lex Luthor as played by Stanley Tucci.

As befitting the comic's title, we do indeed get plenty of action along with these intriguing new status quos, plus a great splash-page cliffhanger. It's not the best comic I read this week, but it's near the top. What did you guys think?

Brent DiCrescenzo: "*Snff* Rats. Rats with money." So goes a new, angsty Superman in the third and fourth panels of the first Action Comics #1 since the FDR administration. I share Supes' olfactory abilities for sensing dead presidents. Like Justice League, this reboot carries the taint of Hollywood. There's the modernizing of the main character and his costume. (Though I'm not sure if work boots and pegged baggy jeans with mesh knee pads are terribly au currant.) Superman is now "dark." He drops a baddie off a penthouse balcony. He sasses the police. Basically, he's Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, down to the dumpy apartment. A climactic elevated train scene brings to mind Batman Begins. Lex didn't feel quite as fresh to me, Web. I thought Smallville. Beyond those naggingly familiar set-pieces, the pacing goes at a movie-script's clip. We get just about every major player in the Superman universe right off the bat. And everyone seems to know one another or be related to one another in a city of millions.

I know from talking to folks in the comic shop that I'm in the minority here, but I find Rags Morales to be mediocre at best. Here, he's terrible. His perspective, scale and continuity is off throughout this book. Yes, terrible is a strong word, so allow me to elaborate. Take the rifle on the last panel of page 1. It's the size of a paper towel tube in the henchman's hands.

Superman goes from looking 45 years old (page 3) to looking 15 years old (page 9) to looking like Harry Potter (his scene with his landlady, who also looks 70, then 40, then like a dude in Foghat). I never get a good sense of what Lois looks like. Like all the other faces, it changes in age and shape.  Is Lex Luther fat? Thin? An alopecic man-child? Who knows. Considering the entire DCU rebooted, things like character age should not be left ambiguous. This stuff drives me nuts. But at least Superman isn't walking across small-town America for 18 months. Things go boom.

Jonathan Messinger: This is actually what I was hoping for from Justice League: A solid superhero comic with good action and some decent character work. It didn't actually smell Hollywood to me at all. The meta-jokes about the locomotive and the speeding bullet are more about history than Tinsel Town, I think. After all, the "faster than a speeding bullet" line comes from the old '40s radio show, not Smallville or the 40th reboot movie.

I thought this was really fun. The "edginess" at the beginning—my quotes, because I don't think calling robber barons "rats" is terribly edgy—seems to be a hint of Superman's immaturity, at some level. I actually like how Superman is an evolving character here, and we're dropped in the middle. As General Lane says, he's getting faster and stronger, so there's hints that this is all still relatively new to him, too.

Also, I like the idea of Superman fighting for the lower class, specifically. In other words, I like the idea of a major superhero comic acknowledging economic inequality and the crimes of the trading class (though, it'd be nice if this particular title didn't cost an inflated $3.99). It could get hokey, but it felt real and visceral to me in a way that comics rarely can get.

Kris Vire: On my first read this morning I was a bit underwhelmed, but the longer I sit with it, the more Action #1 grows on me. I like this sense of Supes as not the traditional Boy Scout, but headstrong, overconfident, unsure of his own limitations and enjoying the chase maybe a little too much. If he's Spidey, he's Spidey without the neurosis or the Spider Sense. (Yes, I know about current developments in the Marvel U, but that's a whole other blog post.) Given that this is a flashback story, it's tough to drum up too much suspense about issue two's "Superman in chains!" when we know Clark ends up in the Justice League in the present day. But I'm less interested at this point in how he gets to the JL than in how he got here. Morrison drops in some tantalizing hints about the status quo, but so many puzzle pieces are left to be placed. We know Ma and Pa Kent are no longer with us, but for how long has that been the case? When did Clark's powers start manifesting? How and when did he arrive in Metropolis? And really, why is he leaping around town in Timberlands and Dickies?

Powers aside, there's a real-world scale to the proceedings—Clark and Jimmy communicating via text message, not signal watch, for instance. I like the populist angle, too. The tenement residents standing up to defend Superman from the tanks is total button-pushing, but it worked on me. I'll agree with Brent on Rags Morales's art, though. I've liked his stuff in the past, particularly on Identity Crisis, but here it really is woefully inconsistent. For such a high-profile relaunch, the art feels awfully rushed.

WB: Regarding the art, I think Morales is a smart choice for this very human-level Superman. He excels at facial expressions and body language. Check out his drawing of Kal-El's transformation from Superman to Clarkwith mussed hair, humbled posture and oversized clothes to conceal his muscular physique. I do agree that the art looked sketchier (so, yes, possibly rushed?) compared to what we're used to seeing from Morales (on the cult-classic Hourman and the hit Identity Crisis, a dubious story but very well-drawn). I wonder if the problem here isn't Action inker Rick Bryant.

Meanwhile, I disagree with Brent that Morrison is trying to make Superman "dark." I also wouldn't call it a modernization (or a Hollywood-ization either), because back in 1938, in the original Action #1, Superman dealt severely with a wife beater; he also pursued a corrupt senator. (The reference to domestic abuse in this 2011 Action is clearly a deliberate call-out by Morrison, who knows his early Superman lore well.) The Man of Steel used to be much more concerned about standing up for average citizens than battling alien conquerors. I'm enjoying the shift.

BD: Nope, sorry. Superman is pretty hokey, but certainly at his best when he's fighting aliens. He's SUPERMAN. He is an alien! I don't want him punching a wife beater. That's for Moon Knight. There's no effects budget for a pencil. Dazzle me. This is why Superman II beats the hell out of Superman Returns. Superman should be closer to Godzilla in scope than El Diablo (yes, I know my DC universe).

And I just don't get off on all the referential bits. That's like when George Lucas has characters say shit in Episode I that Han Solo said in Episode IV. It's not creative.

JM: For me, though, none of that stuff got in the way of the story. I think Morrison did a heck of a job filling the book with intrigue, action and backstory, setting up a whole new universe amidst a literal train wreck, without it turning into a metaphorical one.

BD: Has anyone spotted that witch character in their books yet? She's supposed to be Where's Waldo'd into all 52, right?

WB: She is painfully easy to spot in the books I've read so far. Gives me a bad feeling, to be honest.

Also, I'm not suggesting Superman shouldn't fight the Darkseids and Monguls of the multiverse. Just saying that it's cool that he's fighting the little battles too. Like he tells the detective in this issue: "How about you and your boys deal with the real criminal scum in this city, and then you won't need me to do it for you?" We need Superman to help out in some small-scale fights too. People love Superman, as Christopher Reeve demonstrated so well, just as much for saving the cat from the tree as for using his body as a substitute train track and protecting the Earth from Zod, Ursa and Non.

KV: I agree. I want to see some character development and relationships established before Superman flies off to take on Darkseid. Besides, we're talking about a Superman who can't yet fly, anyway. It makes sense for him to start his heroic career at ground level. There's plenty of time (and a whole other Superman title) for the space-opera stuff.

(Spotted the mystery woman in Batgirl and the awful, awful JLI, but can't find her in Detective.) 
JM: She's comically out of place in Stormwatch, but that review is still to come.

Visit [node:14917877 link=TOC's Comics Shop;] for more of our New 52 reviews.

Follow us

Time Out Chicago on Facebook   Time Out Chicago on Twitter   Time Out Chicago on Instagram   Time Out Chicago on Pinterest   Time Out Chicago on Google Plus   Time Out Chicago on Foursquare   Time Out Chicago on Spotify

Send tips to:

Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)