The Comic Book Club: Action Comics #900 and The Mighty Thor

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up discussing what we picked up. This week, Douglas Wolk, Evan Narcisse and Graeme McMillan talk about Action Comics #900 and The Mighty Thor #1.

DOUGLAS: Action Comics #900 is a mess, and the regrettable thing is that it didn’t have to be this way.

I’d been enjoying Paul Cornell’s run on Action enormously–he took an impossible remit (writing a Superman series without Superman), and turned it into a totally convincing inside-out Superman series, a serial about Lex Luthor as someone who’s a great hero in his own mind. And with his lead feature here, he totally blows the landing. It actually reads like three stories piled on top of each other. One is the resolution to the Lex story (in which he becomes “several with the universe,” in the words of that old Martin Pasko E-Man story, then learns that he can’t do anything “negative” with his new power, and… well, fill in the rest; there are no surprises here). Then there’s the setup for “Reign of the Doomsdays,” which fills me with a slow sense of despair: it’s as if every possible Superman storyline has already been done, and therefore somebody decided that the next big Superman initiative should simply be reshuffling the elements of a couple of stories that kind of worked before (“Reign of the Supermen” and “The Death of Superman”). And finally there’s what the credits call the “memory lane” sequence, the pro forma flashback montage: Remember when Krypton blew up? Wasn’t that a time? And do you remember when Pa Kent died? Good times, good times. Also: that Death appearance a few months ago worked out nicely, so howsabout we bring her back for a few panels? And so on. This isn’t a story that can be enjoyed; it’s a story that keeps trying to remind you of how you used to enjoy this comic book in the hope that you won’t break up with it.

(More on The First Superhero Comic Book Hits #900)

The backup features read like what they are: brief filler pieces for a series’ anniversary issue that reflect on its history instead of expanding its possibilities. I will say that Ryan Sook’s artwork for his piece is really nice-looking; too bad Damon Lindelof’s script goes over such exhausted territory. Two different stories end with Superman declaring that he’s “only human.” Geoff Johns and Gary Frank give us cheesecake and another callback. David Goyer’s story (the one that extremist loons seem to be freaking out about) gives us one of those “oh man what if Superman had to deal with real world issues?!?!?!” scenarios, and ends up with an untenable conclusion. And the Richard Donner piece–or rather the piece with writing co-credits to Donner and one of his associates–is a disaster on multiple levels. I realize that it’s very difficult to say no to Donner, but seriously: this thing is printed as a storyboarded “screenplay,” which makes it look even more like limp fan-fiction than it already would have. (“Cliff catches up to Superman and does the one thing we all know you shouldn’t: he tugs on Superman’s cape!”)

EVAN: Once again, you’re all in my head, Douglas. This issue felt more like an obligation than a celebration, like going to mass/temple once a week. Most of what I enjoyed from Action #900 was the art. Pete Woods has evolved into a supremely confident artist, able to work big, bombastic action, engaging camera angles and strong facial expressions into his pages with ease. Gary Frank is great as always, even if everyone’s clothes seem uncomfortably tight, and Sook’s art just feels curvy and smooth and luscious. That Donner story is just an insult to readers, though. Shunt that off somewhere until it’s ready to be seen, and don’t pass it off as a finished work. And the Goyer short actually worried me, because if this self-important tone is an indicator of where the Nolan/Snyder movie is heading, then we might be in trouble.

(More on The Comic Book Club: “You’ll Never Know” and “Action Comics”)

GRAEME: Yes! That was my thought exactly about the Goyer story – A sense of “THIS is the guy who’s writing the Superman movie? Oh, man, that’s not a good sign.”

(Agreed on the Donner story, as well. Ouch.)

EVAN: I’ve liked Cornell on Action, but this was a terrible way to wrap up such a strong run. I actually liked the Luthor portion as an ideological face-off between Supes and Lex, but the Doomsday sequences were just awful.

Mostly, this milestone puts me in the mind to make an urgent plea to all future Superman writers: take the symbolism out of your stories. Yes, it makes for great soundbites, but a terrible, terrible plot. Every story in this anniversary issue smacks of folks who feel like they need to make a Statement about Kal-El: the indestructible man who’s just as vulnerable as the rest of us, what it’s like to be an orphan of the universe, and so on.

(More on The Comic Book Club: Dark Horse Presents and Hate Annual)

But the fact of the matter is that the deeply resonant super-symbolism that everyone goes on about accrued in stories that were about something else. I remember the first time it hit me how much the Kents’ deaths would hurt Superman. It was a pre-Crisis Curt Swan story written by either Elliott Maggin or Cary Bates, an everything-you-need-to-know-about-Superman deal that was reprinted in a cheap, black-and-white digest. The plot was about Luthor, a Kal-El clone and kryptonite, but tucked away in it was one of those old-school “*choke*” word-balloons with a tear in the corner of Superman’s eye. (Actually, after some quick Googling, it turns out the story was in Action #500, which you mentioned in your anniversary gallery, and was written by Marty Pasko.)

DOUGLAS: We’re all about Pasko this week. (Here’s where I date myself: Action #500 is where I got on the bus–it’s the third or fourth comic book I ever bought.)

EVAN: My point is that the proportions feel off now. Even if Pasko was intentionally trying to unpack the idea of Superman a little bit, the story he was telling still felt like it took precedence. Self-consciousness reigns for writers coming at Clark Kent, and it rarely pays off anymore. Running the guy through a gauntlet of emotional pain has become a cliché itself. It reminds me of the recent state of affairs with Daredevil at Marvel, where for decades most people focused on how self-sabotaging and guilt-ridden Matt Murdock was. There are other ways to interpret that character. (Thankfully, it looks like Mark Waid’s being brought in to do just that.)

I hope the new era of Superman writers is driven by guys who just want to tell some Superman stories. Before he’s a metaphor or a symbol, Superman is an adventure character. He’s still a hero that can give creators entree to great sci-fi contrivances and ripping yarns. If the work happens to stumble onto something profound, don’t worry. Somebody somewhere will pick up on it.

GRAEME: Superman is an especially hard character to get right – for the reasons you talk about, Evan – which may be why Cornell’s Lex story has been so much fun for the last few months. The resolution of that here is by far the best part of the issue, especially hinging the entire story on Lex’s amazing ability to self-sabotage, but that lead story is ruined by pushing the Doomsday storyline on top of it, and cutting back and forth between the two threads; I get that DC really, really wants us to care about the Doomsday story, but squashing it into the resolution of an eleven-month-long plot about entirely different characters altogether really wasn’t the way to do it.

(More on The Comic Book Club: Nonplayer and Fear Itself)

(That said: Lex finds out that Superman is Clark! And has the best reaction I could have wanted! Shame it gets undone by the end, but still.)

I really like the idea of this anniversary issue more than the content, if that makes sense. A 96 page issue, with a 51-page lead story, for $5.99? Back-ups with art by Ryan Sook, Gary Frank and RB Silva? That sounds about right. But Cornell’s lead story and maybe Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s four-pager – which feels like the set up for a joke and then they just give up – aside, there’s something lacking from the stories here, and I think Evan’s really put his finger on it: People are afraid to write Superman as a character, preferring the metaphor or the icon. They’re too respectful of Superman for his own good.

DOUGLAS: “Check out THOR – only in theaters!” goes the line at the end of the eight-page, four-image preview of the movie’s concept art at the end of The Mighty Thor #1. That’s as good a reason as any to relaunch the series, I suppose, although he seems to be in a lot of comics right now, too, you know? But I’m not going to complain about the existence of the relaunch, especially since I’m so fond of the retitled Journey Into Mystery.

(More on Weekly Comics Column: Journey Into Mystery Returns)

What I am going to complain about is that this isn’t really a first issue; it’s not something you could show to someone who was excited about the movie and wanted to see what Thor was all about. First we get an Oklahoman minister bloviating for a page; then we get a four-page Silver Surfer/Galactus sequence that could have been cut and pasted out of any Silver Surfer story in the past 45 years; then back to the minister… and when we finally get around to Thor, a third of the way through the story, he’s wearing a suit of armor that obscures his appearance, and doing something obscure that I suspect is carried over from the previous Thor series. We get a lot of pretty psychedelic colors, but we never, in the course of this issue, see Thor in the outfit he’s wearing on the cover, and we don’t get any inkling of how his sequences relate to the Silver Surfer/Galactus stuff. We don’t even quite see how Thor sustains the injury he’s complaining about later in the issue, although that’s probably more Olivier Coipel’s problem.

The first-rate Thor stories of the past are cosmic or folkloric or both; they may be so huge in scope they beggar literal comprehension, but they’re also as direct and plot-driven as myths. Matt Fraction can do a lot of tones awfully well, but “cosmic” and “folkloric” aren’t among them so far. The moments where The Mighty Thor comes alive are the ones where he deliberately bends its voice (like Loki’s “spear of great stabbing”). What I want from Thor is a sense of the uncanny, not of the vague.

GRAEME: Well, you’ve just answered my question about whether Mighty Thor #1 was, in fact, released yesterday – There were no copies in my store, and I was told it hadn’t shipped yet. So… hmm. I feel like I have dodged a bullet, though; what you’re describing sounds exactly like my issues with Fraction’s Thor so far, which has a lot of… self-importance, perhaps, without being able to back that up (lots of characters saying “This has never happened before! THIS IS BIG” to events that seem overly familiar or purposefully obscured), and a truly surprising amount of disconnect between the text and the art. But, seeing as you’ve seen it and I haven’t, a quick question: Does it in any way tie into Fear Itself?

DOUGLAS: It doesn’t, curiously enough: unless I’m misreading the story, which I might well be, the scenes in Broxton are set while Asgard is still there. You’d think the two titles could be better coordinated given that the same guy is writing them.

GRAEME: Maybe this is a sign that Fear Itself will end with the Asgardians back in Broxton? Or that this story takes place pre-Fear Itself, which means that it probably won’t have any massive impact seeing as the status quo is apparently exactly as it was at the end of Thor #621 at the start of Fear Itself #1? Hmm.

EVAN: So the one thing I was expecting with a new Thor launch was a boffo, energetic opening. We were promised Thor vs. Galactus, so the mind wanders to crazy cosmic action, grandious speechifying and a huge sweeping sense of scale. Copiel delivers that in spades, being faithful and re-interpreting with equal strength. It’s Fraction who lets me down.

(More on The Comic Book Club: Thor #615)

One of the criticisms Fraction got with the Thor book that became Journey into Mystery was the slow start it got off to. I thought for sure that he’d take a different tack in a new book, a book that ostensibly wants to pull in curious movie-goers. Instead, I feel like he makes the same mistake here. It’s not really a mistake so much as it is a stylistic choice: starting on the human scale, showing the impact that gods among us would have on just plain folk, surveying an Asgard trying to rebuild. But the error to me feels like doing what he’s done before. I understand why he’s doing it, to run counter to expectations of Lee/Kirby-style storytelling and present a more deconstructed approach to those creators’ characters.

But, as Graeme gets at, Fraction’s really at his best when he’s tossing off ideas rapid-fire. The heavy and portentous tone that his Thor run has taken on feels a bit insecure, like he’s still feeling his way around how he wants to present the mythos. Contrast this to his Iron Man, which feels looser and more electric. Even at the launch of a new book, Fraction feels like he’s tentative at the wheel. The ideas are good, but I just wish he’d open up the throttle and let loose already. 

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