I wasn't blogging back in the late 1930s when the first "Action Comics #1" made its appearance, so reacting to DC Comics' publication this week of its 'New 52' first issue of what was once its flagship title is all terra incognita to me. That original 1938 issue introduced to an unsuspecting world the character of Superman, a thickset white guy who wore a bright red cape and had superhuman strength and durability. Those original pages, written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster, contained no real hint of the phenomenon that the character would become - in the beginning, the god of comic books was just a really strong guy with a smart mouth: he fought mobsters, intervened in domestic disputes, dismantled minor mob violence ... exactly the kinds of things later held up as examples of stuff Superman doesn't bother with. As difficult as it might be for later generations of fans to believe, the original Superman was a brusque vigilante who took the law into his own hands and wasn't particularly liked for it by the local police. He was Batman, only bullet-proof.
As some of you have been reading here, DC Comics has decided to re-invent all of their core characters for the 21st century, most certainly including venerable old "Action Comics," which begins this week with, would you look at that, #1. "Action Comics #1."
It's written by fan-favorite Grant Morrison and drawn by fan-favorite Rags Morales, and the first thing long-time Superman fans will notice is the homage these creators pay to that original Seigel/Shuster production. When we meet this new Superman for the first time, he's violently breaking up a meeting of corrupt financiers, and he's being hunted by the Metropolis police (and we're told he threw an abusive husband out a window). And the resemblance to that original 1930s conception don't end there: this Superman doesn't work for the Daily Planet yet, hasn't met Lois Lane yet, and most importantly, doesn't have Superman-style powers yet - he can't fly, he's hurt by artillery fire, and he's only a tiny bit more powerful than a locomotive. We're given to believe he's only been in the public eye for six months (and, tellingly, that he's been getting more and more powerful that whole time), and he's already hated by the Army and a snivelling, conniving Lex Luthor (who's given an anti-alien riff that could become a promising nexus of motivation for the character, if Morrison bothers to do anything with it - of all comic book super-villains, Luthor has always had the worst reasons for actually being a super-villain, so virtually anything would be an improvement).
Despite Morales' always-enjoyable artwork, it's a pretty boring first issue, and it neatly serves to underscore a point fans don't often make these days: that original 1938 first issue of "Action Comics" was also pretty boring. This is re-invention as groundwork: this issue doesn't have the "Five Years Ago" opening tag that last week's "Justice League" did, but it badly needs one. This is obviously Morrison's vision of this new Superman's rough introduction to the world, who knows how many years before he becomes the suited and respected hero already starting to crop up elsewhere in the "new 52" universe.
In fact, that inconsistent sloppiness is my main complaint about all of the "new 52" I've seen so far. DC released a dozen first issues this week (after releasing just one last week), and despite the fact that DC moguls have been assuring fans for months that this whole re-boot was carefully and exhaustively planned, the entire thing feels hastily cobbled together. In four of those dozen issues this week, both Superman and the Justice League are referred to as established, respected things (Batman and Guy Gardner chat like old colleagues, and the Martian Manhunter is described as a Justice League member and describes himself that way), in a separate four, no mention is made of any existing superheroes at all, and in the remainder all our iconic DC heroes are just beginning to appear and learn about each other.
So is "Action Comics" going to spend its first story-arc depicting the years-ago public debut of Superman and then abruptly shift years forward to start giving us 'contemporary' adventures? In four issues when Morrison leaves this title, will subsequent writers be allowed to delve back into this early period for more stories (or even re-do Morrison's incredible dramatic blunder and actually show us something of those initial six months)? No idea.
In this issue, Superman wears boots, jeans, and a home-made red cape - all very obviously ideas that struck Morrison on his way to the bathroom one day and stayed in the final version because there only ever was one version. I myself think a re-launch of the greatest superhero of all time deserves a bit more deliberation than that, but I'm willing to wait a few more issues in the hopes that something worthy of the character starts happening. I'll keep you posted.