Thursday, September 8, 2011

Back to the Beginning for the Man of Steel

Starting with the release of Justice League #1 on August 31st, DC Comics has begun a line-wide reboot: all previous titles cancelled, and 52 new series beginning at issue #1. This is certainly a big change up for The Man of Tomorrow, whose Action and Superman titles were numbering in the 900s and 700s, respectively. Yesterday saw the release of a new Action Comics #1, the relaunch of the series that began the superhero explosion of the late 30s with the introduction of Superman.

The Superman we originally saw in Action Comics #1 in 1938 was very different from the Superman known and loved worldwide today. If you never have, I'd encourage you to follow that link and read the first Superman story ever, only twelve pages long, but worth roughly a million dollars today. The Superman of 1938 couldn't fly, was raised in an orphanage, and showed little regard for law and order. Ignoring the introductory origin page, which heralds Superman as "Champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need," it takes a page and a half before we can even tell if Superman is the hero, with him committing the crimes of kidnapping, assault, and breaking and entering (albeit in order to save an innocent woman from execution)!

It's hard to imagine the modern Superman assaulting a sleeping Governor in his mansion, even to save a woman's life. But, for this reinterpretation of Superman for a new generation, superstar comic book writer Grant Morrison has spoken of his intention of bringing the character back to his roots as a crusading champion of the oppressed, more concerned with justice and equality than with law and order. And, with Action Comics #1, Morrison delivers.

Reminiscent of the original Action Comics #1, Morrison drops us into the middle of a story already in progress. We open on business men in suits celebrating a deal with a drink. Superman burst onto the scene, calls them rats with money and guns, and tells them he's their worst nightmare. The police are in hot pursuit of the Man of Steel, and when they arrive on the scene, he's dangling a man over a precipice, refusing to put him down until he makes a full confession to "someone who still believes the law works the same for the rich and the poor alike. Because that ain't Superman." Already, in the first five pages of this issue, Morrison has introduced us to a Superman who looks a lot more like Christopher Nolan's Batman with his guttural growls and vigilante justice than he does like Christopher Reeve's Superman who doles out advice with a gentle tone and a smile.

Superman then leaps off the building, villain in tow, and carries them both down to earth, where the concrete cracks, and the man confesses to the use of illegal labor, no safety standards, the bribing of city officials, and lying to everyone. Superman then proclaims to his witnesses, "You know the deal, Metropolis. Treat people right or expect a visit from me." Then, after taunting the police, he dashes off into the night.

Then, we're reintroduced to two characters Superman fans know well: General Sam Lane, father of Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor, arch-nemesis of Superman. We find out that Superman appeared in Metropolis six months ago, and he (although they refer to Superman as an "it," common for the xenophobia typical of both characters' portrayal through recent years) has been getting progressively faster and stronger. Luthor has been hired by the Army as a consultant to help capture Superman, showing his typical disdain for the Man of Steel and raging ego.

Luthor's foot soldiers chase Superman into a tenement slum scheduled for demolition but not yet entirely uninhabited, naming it the "ideal inescapable trap." Superman takes blow after blow protecting these poor people from the soldiers after him, and, after the tanks knock the wind out of him, they step forward to protect Superman, saying "Enough! This guy just saved our lives! My kids! What the hell is wrong with you people?!" They protect Superman as he flees, but not before he tells them if they need him, he'll be around.

Escaping from his pursuers, Superman changes back into Clark Kent on the roof of his own run-down tenement building, where we're treated to a wonderfully humanizing scene between Clark and his landlady, as well as finding out that Superman himself lacks anything resembling financial security. Clark then calls his best friend Jimmy Olsen (sporting a truly horrible bowl cut) who's out on assignment with Lois Lane. We find out more back story here, as Lois tells us that Clark Kent works for the Daily Planet's rival newspaper (not named, but presumably the Daily Star). They chase a criminal enforcer (who works for the same man Superman accosted earlier) onto what becomes a runaway train. Superman stops the train and saves the day, but at the cost of his freedom, with issue #2 promising "Superman in Chains."

There's a lot to like about this issue. While I think the artwork could have been better, and the character designs (especially clothing and Jimmy's hair cut) left something to be desired, I think this issue is a great introduction to Superman for the new millennium. Everything about this issue, from his refusal to work within the bounds of a corrupt legal system to his blue jeans and t-shirt costume, shows us that Superman is here to stand up for the rights of the people who aren't strong enough to stand up for themselves.

Superman is not here to fight for law and order; he's here to be a champion for the oppressed, even if that means winding up on the wrong side of the law. Sure, he's not the beacon of hope and humility that I know and love, but I'm genuinely excited to read more about these earlier adventures of Superman as he learns what it means to be a hero, which isn't something I've been able to say about the ongoing Superman titles in a while. While I don't necessarily think Justice League #1 was all it could (or should) have been, I think that Action Comics #1 is a book that does a phenomenal job of reintroducing you to a classic character, giving you enough to be intrigued, but still leaving you wanting more.