Today, Shelby and Drew are discussing the Action Comics Annual, originally released October 31st, 2012.
Shelby: I was talking with a friend recently about Superman. He had listed Supes as one of his favorite superheroes; I’ve made my opinion of the Man of Steel pretty well-known ’round these parts, so we don’t have to go into great detail. I made the point that I think Superman is boring because he’s too powerful, that there’s no believable source of conflict in a Superman story. He made the very good point that boring Superman stories are the product of lazy story-telling, not a flat character. A good Superman story should not be about making up some even more powerful bad guy to threaten Superman physically. A good Superman story is about a man dealing with the strengths he has and finding a way to use them well: striking a balance between Clark Kent and Kal-El. Unfortunately, the Action Comics Annual doesn’t give us any of that, focusing instead on a cookie-cutter Superman story that starts with kryptonite and ends with a feeble attempt to explain what a hero truly is.
The annual takes place after issue 8, when Superman rescued a woman from her abusive husband, apparently. That husband is being recruited from prison by a scientist, looking for someone with a grudge against Superman and nothing to lose. Our deadbeat Ramsay signs up to receive small doses of radiation from this new, green alien crystal discovered in a crashed spaceship, but things go predictably wrong. Ramsay gets too powerful and gets away. Meanwhile, Superman visits John Henry Irons, mostly so we won’t be surprised when he shows up later. Superman gets in a fight with K-Man (as Ramsay is now called), almost loses because kryptonite, and John Henry shows up as the deus ex machina to save the day. There’s an epilogue about John Henry musing over what makes a hero, the army recruiting K-Man as a counter-Superman measure, and Lex Luthor being behind it all the whole time.
With this story, writer Sholly Fisch basically commits all the crimes that make me dislike Superman. Everything is going well for Supes? He can’t be beat? Ok, let’s invent something to drain his power to make the fight more interesting. Everyone knows the only way to make a battle worth reading is by putting the hero in a position to physically lose, certainly not by exploring any of the more compelling character moments of the story. I’m certainly not going to fault this issue of Action for the origin of kryptonite. I will fault it, however, for just applying a liberal dose of kryptonite to create the conflict of the story. What about focusing on the military trying to create a counter-Superman measure in the first place? Let’s even forget about Luthor taking advantage of the situation to take Superman down; it makes sense that the government would be nervous about an unstoppable being running around, even one who appears to be on their side. I assume General Samuel Lane is some relation of Lois Lane, because people in comic books never have the same last name as a coincidence. So, what about conflict in the story coming from Lois making this discovery, dealing with the implications of the government actively working to contain this dreamy guy she kind of likes? What if Superman found out? Would he get angry? I don’t think we want a hulked-out Superman running around. That is an infinitely more interesting situation to me. Granted, I’m not reading this title; aside from this issue, the only other I’ve read is the zero. Has some of this stuff happened already?
Basically, everything about this story is predictable. It reads like a template of how to write a Silver Age Superman Story. Even the art is predictable.
Cully Hamner hits all the beats he’s supposed to here; Superman lifts the crane, smiles and poses heroically, Jimmy takes the photo, and Lois boasts about the byline. Ho hum. This issue actually had me wishing for Grant Morrison. I don’t care much for his style, but even when I hate what he’s written, it’s never boring and trite. That’s really what it comes down to for me: boring is bad. I’d take something predictable and light on real content if it’s also fun. But there’s nothing fun happening in this issue. I don’t read Superman books, and I feel like I’ve read this Superman story over and over. What about you, Drew? Do you think I’m just projecting my dislike of Superman onto this issue, or is it really as bad as it seems?
Drew: Is it possible it’s both? Don’t get me wrong — I agree with you about pretty much everything you say here, from the predictable plotting to the even more predictable motives — but I think your attitude with Superman (and specifically the fact that everyone seems to share that attitude) is precisely why he’s always treated in ways that are boring. As Patrick loves to remind us: there are no bad characters, only bad writers.
Shelby summarized most of my problems with this issue, but the one that still bothers me now is its wonky continuity. The issue arbitrarily assigns the fight scene in the middle of the issue as “now,” requiring every other scene to take place in the past or — more perplexingly — in the future. Fisch could have easily set the entire issue in the “present,” with banners at each scene break setting up in relation to the previous scene (“the next day” etc.), except for the wrench in the gear of one utterly gratuitous panel that takes place out of chronological order.
The first page could have done all kinds of things. It could have introduced us to Ramsay, Dr. Abernathy, or an establishing shot of the prison, or giving us a sense of Ramsay’s life in prison, or any number of things that would have oriented us to the discussion that is going on. Instead, Fisch goes with a shot of Superman fighting K-Man, because the cover (depicting Superman fighting K-Man) probably wasn’t fresh enough in our minds.
I’m not normally upset by comics aiming for some flash — it is a visual medium, after all — but the use of this totally context-free flash-forward doesn’t intrigue so much as muddle the issue. Without this panel, the entire issue unfolds in chronological order (albeit with a few flashbacks pertaining to specific things characters are talking about), which means we could have done away with the relating of every scene in the issue to an arbitrary “now.” I love Pulp Fiction as much as the next guy, but one of the things that makes the chronology of that movie so fun is that we’re able to figure out all of the continuity by simply watching the movie — no time cards are needed. More importantly, we never know what’s going to happen next in Pulp Fiction. Any hope of tension in the first half of this issue is totally given away because we know it all leads up to a fight between Superman and K-Man. That makes the scene where Ramsay is turned into K-Man even more predictable than it would have been otherwise. Granted, this was still given away on the cover, but like I said, reminding us just seems gratuitous.
For all of its failings, there were a few things about this issue I actually liked quite a bit, particularly the way it integrated itself into the continuity of the title. Hamner (and colorist Val Staples) break up those stories with sepia-toned images I’m sure we’d recognize if we were following this title more religiously.
Fisch does this with several disparate threads from Morrison’s run, and I think it’s to his credit that it works as well as it does. Like a meal you make when you’re just trying to clean out the fridge, this issue may not be totally satisfying, but at least it uses all of the right ingredients.
But as I suggested up front, the biggest problem with this story (and most Superman stories, to be honest), is that it buys into the notion that a hero needs to be in actual danger of losing for the story to be compelling. But that’s the thing with superheroes: even when they’re in danger, they’re not in any real danger. Sure, Batman could have his head cut off, but because I know he never will, the threat doesn’t mean anything. Conversely, it doesn’t matter how much they depower Superman, the result will be the same as if he had his powers, only the story will reek of the strain to explain why he was in real danger this time.
I did like the back-up, though; a dialogue-free quasi-origin for the Atomic Skull. It’s a relatively simple story, but artist Ryan Sook conveys it beautifully. My favorite moment has to be the closing montage, which answers a similarly sweet and tragic montage of a loved one killed before their time with the surprise reveal that Atomic Skull was responsible.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?