by The Masked Bookwyrm

Superman - page 2

Superman: Bizarro's World  1996 (SC TPB) 128 pages

cover by Stuart ImmonenWritten by Dan Jurgens, Karl Kesel, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson. Pencils by Stuart Immonen, Barry Kitson, Jackson Guice, Jon Bogdanove. Inks by various.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Superman (second series) #87, 88, Adventures of Superman #510, Action Comics #697, Superman: The Man of Steel (regular series) #32 (1994)

additional notes: introduction

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Superman confronts the tragic menace...Bizarro!

First off, I'll resist the common tendency when commenting on anything involving bizzaros -- those imperfect, Frankenstein-monster clones of Superman -- to use bizarro-speak. Y'know, the "me am" and such.

It won't be hard because this isn't intended to invoke the same infectious silliness that a collection like Superman: Tales of the Bizzaro World does. Bizarro's World collects the second appearance of the bizarro concept in DC Comics' modern Superman continuity (the first was in a story collected in the TPB The Man of Steel).

A bizarro clone is re-created by Lex Luthor who, at this point, was masquerading as his own son in a cloned body. Luthor's body is dying of a degenerative disease and Luthor's scientists figure a Bizarro clone might be the key to a cure. But the Bizarro escapes and, unlike the more primitive version in The Man of Steel, this Bizarro is like his Silver Age variations: capable of clumsy speech and mixed up thoughts. He actually thinks he is Superman, complete with a desire to do good (usually with disastrous results) and infatuated with Lois Lane. When Superman intercedes, Bizarro doesn't take too kindly to it at all.

This is what more Superman stories should be (and maybe superhero stories in general): not a simple-minded tale of good guy vs. one dimensional bad guy, but something a little more complex, with Supes battling a dangerous menace who doesn't mean to be a menace at all. Eschewing much of the humour associated with Bizarro, this is a kind of poignant tale. The art is fairly striking throughout. Though often more stylized than I, a product of the Curt Swan era, associate with Superman, it's generally effective, making use of shadows to generate a moody, slightly sombre ambience.

Admittedly, the story isn't very complex. I enjoyed it as a modest "graphic novel" rather than reflecting on the fact that it was originally a cross-title epic!

Does it justify the five issues? Not really. The story makes use of lots of big panels and super-brawls, and could easily have been shortened (and made more effective if tighter). Not much has been brought to the proceedings that you couldn't get reading the original Bizarro tale from Superboy (reprinted in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told). Every generation of writers claim they've improved on the last, but often are just repeating the old work. In the introduction to this collection, for instance, it's acknowledged that John Byrne's Bizarro story in The Man of Steel borrows from the original Superboy story, except Byrne added a bittersweet twist ending. But, in fact, that twist ending was in the original story! Likewise, Bizarro's World seems content in sticking to the tried and true. Perhaps that's the down-side to a cross-title story where no one writer really feels any personal commitment to a story-by-committee.

There are some original ideas. A creepy-yet-poignant sequence where Bizarro has created his own version of Metropolis in a warehouse; the way Lois and Superman are quicker to sympathize with Bizarro than in previous stories (though that doesn't stop Supes from slugging it out with Bizarro every chance he gets). But overall, fresh ideas are touched on but never developed. Bizarro's mayhem is initially attributed to Superman...but such accusations never stick to the Man of Steel; Bizarro has Supes' memories, including knowledge of Supes' secret identity...but that never becomes relevant. Indeed, Bizarro's fixation on Lois could've threatened to expose his secret since, to the public at large, Superman and Lois are just friends. Again, though, it's never commented on.

There are also some technical problems. Ironically, TPB collections are all the rage these days, even as comics are often less-and-less self contained. The whole sub-plot involving a disease attacking clones (Luthor's not the only clone in Metropolis) is never resolved, nor is a secondary sub-plot involving Superman's escalating powers (not that I expected that one to be). Though the Bizarro plot ends, the story continues for another page and actually ends on something of a cliffhanger! As well, there are simple continuity things like the fact that I'm not sure it's ever clearly articulated for the reader that Lex Luthor II is, in fact, Lex Luthor!

This was also at a (now curious) time when DC was trying to hip-ifie Supes by giving him long hair!

Ultimately, it's nothing more than a generic reprise of the Bizarro idea, but reasonably entertaining for all that...if you don't mind a few dangling plot threads.

Cover price: $13.95 CDN./ $9.95 USA.

Superman: The Coming of Atlas 2009 (HC TPB) 128 pages

Written by James Robinson. Pencils by Renato Guedes. Inks by Wilson Magalhaes.
Colours: Hi-fi. Letters: John J. Hill. Editor: Matt Idelson, Nachie Castro.

Reprinting: Superman #677-680, First Issue Special #1 (2008, 1975)

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

This collection includes a reprint of First Issue Special #1 which I haven't read.

Super hero comics, despite the recent successes at the movie houses, and the proliferation of TPB collections at the bookstores, still remain as a rather looked-down-upon medium/genre by the mainstream (I suspect those buying TPBs at the bookstore...are simply just regular old comics fans venturing out from the comic shops). And from time to time, comics come along that have fans eagerly running to their non-comic reading friends, convinced this is the story that will legitimize their hobby, that will make comics be taken seriously by detractors.

And then there are the stories that just live up to all the worst stereotypes -- and can make even a long time fan sigh and wonder if he's wasting his life.

And such is The Coming of Atlas.

Okay, maybe it's not that bad. But after an initial reading, I'm momentarily at a loss as to why it isn't.

The problem with a lot of Superman stories in the last twenty-some years is that they take this wonderful idea about a guy who can do anything and figure the only way they can provide him with a just to have him slug it out with another super strong guy. Ad infinitum.

The premise of this four part arc is that a super being, calling himself Atlas, appears on the streets of Metropolis, spends a few pages easily wading through Metropolis' elite Science Police (cops who fly around with jet packs and Iron Man-style armour -- um, what's the point of a super hero if even the "normal" characters have super abilities?); then spends the next few issues slugging it out with Superman (with a few explicit references to Supes' long ago, issues consuming battle with Doomsday) as well as a couple of members of the Superman Family; getting Supes on the ropes, before Supes finally trounces him. Initially serialized over four months, the whole story is presumably only supposed to occur over maybe half-an-hour. Even the "cliffhangers" breaking up the chapters are pretty minor (Supes flying down at Atlas for, yet another, round).

And that's about it.

We also learn that Atlas had been brought to modern times by a mysterious military type with a mysterious laser-firing satellite -- but by the end we don't know anymore about who, why, what, etc. There are a few cutaway scenes and flashbacks (including one to Atlas' past that is presented as though an old comic, with Jack Kirby-esque art and old fashioned colouring). There's a scene where we cut to Lana Lang, now apparently in charge of Lexcorp and I'm thinking, uh, Lana in charge of Lexcorp? How? When? Then, after a rather protracted sequence, it ends with Lana being fired. So then I'm thinking, uh, guess it doesn't really matter how or when.

This is the kind of plot that, thirty years ago, would barely justify two issues, and would still have had a bit more in terms of story twists (such as Supes using his brain, not just his brawn, in the fighting). This is the problem with modern comics and the TPB collection that is scheduled down the line. It kind of forces (or encourages) writers to stretch out minor plots over multiple issues to justify a collected edition.

The only real saving grace is the presence of...Krypto, the super dog. Yup, after years of writers trying to turn their backs on the more eccentric and whimsical aspects of the Superman mythos, Krypto has been returned to the fold. But even his presence is just overused, protracted, and heavy handed, writer James Robinson hammering at his points as though taking a sledge hammer to a finishing nail. And the goofy charm of Krypto's presence is rather diminished by a story that amounts to nothing more than an extended, brutal fight scene...hardly "charming".

The art by Renato Guedes is mostly good, utilizing a clean, realist style, though there were a few spots where how limbs join together seemed a bit iffy, as if Guedes wasn't fully sure of his anatomy. And the thin line work, and cold colour hues means the visuals lack a certain human warmth. But still, the art is good and tells the story -- such as it is -- well enough.

This collection also includes a reprint of First Issue Special #1 from back in 1975, written and drawn by Jack Kirby, which first introduced this version of Atlas. I don't have it in my collection, so I can't review it. But I'm guessing it would be as good or better than the four part main story.

I mean, how could it not be?

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the comics.

Cover price: __

Superman: Critical Condition 2003 (SC TP) 192 pages

Written by J.M. DeMatteis, Joe Kelly, Mark Schultz, with Jeph Loeb. Illustrated by various.
Colours/letters: various. Editors:

Reprinting: The Adventures of Superman #579-580, Superman: The Man of Steel #101-102, Action Comics #766-767, Superman #158, Superman: Metropolis Secret Files #1

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Critical Condition is volume 4 in a series of 6 or 7TPBs collecting Superman's adventures consecutively (DC does this every now and then, then stops, then starts a new batch beginning with a new volume "1"). Previously, Superman had defeated the Parasite -- but the Parasite had kidnapped Lois Lane.

This volume begins with Superman frantically -- and futilely -- searching for her (the Parasite having taken the secret of her location to his grave). As well, Superman had previously contracted a mysterious illness. Superman neglects his health in his search for Lois -- while also briefly battling the Prankster and a mysterious new (light-hearted) villain who goes unexplained in these pages. Eventually, with the help of Batman, Lois is found -- just as Superman succumbs to his kryptonite-based illness, leading to the eponymous, four-part Critical Condition story which borrows shamelessly from the movie Fantastic Voyage as various members of the "Superman Family" (Steel, Superboy and Supergirl) are miniaturized by the Atom and injected into Superman's body.

And though that story resolves...we still don't know who was the villain behind infecting Superman!

I'll be up front and say that these stories left me with a certain ennui. The art styles generally employ a kind of angular, cartoony, somewhat manga influenced look that isn't my favourite. And the panels were often cluttered with lines and details, where people and machines and backgrounds all kind of blended together. The result was I found the art often a bit busy and hard to get drawn into (my favourites were Mark McKone and Cary Nord).

And Superman spends a lot of time sidelined. While the characters who do take centre stage -- despite heroes with their own titles -- just didn't really engage me that much here.

There were aspects of the plotting that seemed half-baked. The Prankster, acting as basically a low-rent Joker, does a lot of crazy things for the sake of doing crazy things, not because he has a goal. We spend three issues with characters sort of looking for Lois, but since they have no clues, and they know the Parasite was involved, it's obvious these are red herring/page fillers (I mean, Superman attacks Lex Luthor's office searching for clues!) And there are a lot of references and lines that seem to require a bit more familiarity with the surrounding events and characters than I had.

A lot of modern comics like to claim a sophistication over comics from twenty years ago, and there's certainly a lot of character stuff. The problem is, a lot of modern writers only seem to be able to write deep character first reducing the characters to simplistic icons (not to mention going for self-reflective jokes that undermine any realism).

The one-issue team up with Batman is meant to contrast Batman's pragmatic ruthlessness, with Superman's guiless heroism. Fine, if you like that contemporary view of Batman (which I don't particularly), and Batman explains that he has to be impersonal...or else the horrors he deals with would overwhelm him. Fine again. But to make it all work, Batman is reduced to a caricature of a logical detective (referring to Lois clinically as "the victim") -- in other words it's character exploration of a guy who doesn't really seem like a three dimensional human being.

This is the problem, both here and in so many modern comics. The characters become ciphers, the ideas reduced to primary elements. If I read one more passage of a character thinking how great Superman is, how they all look up to him...I was gonna hurl. I wasn't sure if they were describing a super hero...or a religious cult guru. When the Atom effuses about how incredible Superman is and how, y'know, Supes never tries to make other people feel inferior (the implication being: they are inferior) it just seems uncomfortable. Demeaning Superman and the Atom both, turning their relationship from one of grown men and colleagues, to messiah and sycophant.

The thing is: if you spend too much time trying to analyze and articulate can forget to let the characters just be characters. There's a scene where Jimmy Olsen is about to glibly take a picture of the comatose Superman...then stops, realizing how crass it would be to do so. That's supposed to be characterization.

But isn't Jimmy Superman's "pal"? Surely he would've realized how crass it was even before he took off his lens cap. The result is a character scene that sacrifices the character.

And if the characters spend so much time drooling over Superman, and saying how they'd do anything for him...does that mean, if it was someone else in a coma, they'd all stay home watching reruns of "Friends"? Doesn't say much about their heroic spirit, does it?

Okay, I'm spending a lot of time analyzing themes and subtext. And that's not even getting into the occasional violence of the thing -- like a "joke" (and largely extraneous) sequence where Lex Luthor murders an unwanted employee by zapping him with an untested teleporter -- that, we are told, scatters his body parts all over the world and leaves his bloody artificial leg at Luthor's feet. Call me old fashioned, but that kind of gratuitous meanness isn't what I look for in a Superman comic. (It's ironic that modern Superman writers will write reams of prose explaining how noble Superman is...even as those same writers gleefully revel in the idea of Lex Luthor as a largely untouchable sociopath who murders and tortures with impunity).

To fans of that period of Superman comics, I'm sure it'll read fine (assuming you don't mind a Superman collection where Superman is a supporting player). But ennui best describes my reaction. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood, but I just found the characterization shallow and clumsy, and the plotting kind of indifferent.

Cover price: $24.95 CDN./ $14.95 USA.

Superman: The Death of Clark Kent 1997 (SC TP) 320 pages

Written by Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Karl Kesel, David Michelinie, Roger Stern. Pencils by Stuart Immonen, Jon Bogdanove, Jackson Guice, Gil Kane, Dan Jurgens, Tom Grummett. Inks: various.
Colours: Glenn Whitmore. Letters: various. Editor: Mike Carlin.

Reprinting: Superman: The Man of Steel #44-46, Superman (2nd series) #100- 102, The Adventures of Superman #523-525, Action Comics #710-711, Superman: The Man of Tomorrow #1 + one or two pages from Superman: The Man of Steel #43, Superman #99, Action Comics #709 (1995 - with covers)

Rating: * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

This reprints an epic storyline wherein the super-villain Conduit has learned that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same. Conduit used to be childhood buddies with Clark, but also resented Clark's successes, now more than ever since he attributes those successes to Clark's super powers. He attacks Superman by striking at those he loves, forcing Superman to drop out of sight and hit the road with his Ma and Pa as they try to figure out how to fight back.

Why mince words? The Death of Clark Kent is fairly pedestrian, even dull. That may seem like an odd description for a saga full of knockdown drag out fight scenes, but that's all it really seems to be. Fight scenes.

There's dramatic potential inherent in a villain learning a hero's identity, perhaps with Conduit subtley undermining Clark's daily life, or seeking to expose his secret to the world. I went into this expecting something more along the lines of a suspense-drama (a hint of which we get in the first chapter). Instead Conduit sends a lot of robots and super-equiped goons to try and kill those close to Superman, and Superman tries to stop them. It's mainly a lot of drawn out fights and BIG panel fisticuffs. Which might have been moderately entertaining...but not for 12 issues! I was anticipating a convoluted epic, full of disparate plot threads and unexpected twists. Instead, it's a pretty linear, straight-forward story.

And since many of Clark's friends are also Superman's friends, many of the targets would've been targets even if Conduit didn't know Superman was Clark Kent!

There are confusing plot bits. How did Conduit learn Superman's secret ID, and how did Superman know he learned it? If the answer is that Conduit already knew it from a previous story, then why did it take a chapter for Superman to realize it was him this time? For that matter -- and I realize this may be tramping on a convention of super-villains -- how did Conduit amass the necessary fortune to acquire all these goons and equipment?

I'm always intrigued by the way modern comics compare to older comics. Conduit seems an attempt to use the Bronze Age version of Lex Luthor (prior to the "modern" stories, Luthor was a childhood friend of Superman's, turned bitter enemy). While one of the biggest complaints I've seen levelled at older Superman stories by modern, "sophisticated" fans is that Superman was just too powerful. Yet what we have here is scene after scene where Conduit's heavily armed goons attack Superman, thinking to themselves "Hah! There's no way he can survive this!" But of course he can, effortlesly, and the fights are numbing in their tedium.

Perhaps a problem with these crossover stories is that with all the writers involved, no one has anything invested in it. They're all just going through the motions, collecting their pay checks. The plotting is loose, just an excuse for fights with various henchmen (or guest villain Metallo). There's some attempt to deal with Superman's emotional turmoil, particularly when he mistakenly believes Lois is dead, but that's not handled especially well. The best issue along those lines is delivered by Karl Kesel, in the saga's penultimate chapter. It's a low-key piece as Supes tries to decide if he should go back to being Clark Kent, given the dangers an alter ego poses to any friends he has if his secret is ever again learned.

Toward the end, we are given some potentially poignant insight into Conduit. Mostly, though, he has got to be one of the most weakly defined villains I've come across, where even Jimmy Olsen mocks his motivation. Having Conduit be both menacing and pitiable, holed up in his headquarters plotting his grand scheme, put me in mind of an earlier villain: Scorpio, in a 1970s Defenders storyline. But the Death of Clark Kent doesn't even pretend to aim for the same level of introspection and characterization.

However all the artists deliver good, solid work.

The saga had the groundwork laid for it in some earlier issues, which is why the TPB includes some pages lifted from other issues to serve as a kind of prologue. The final chapter, reprinted from Superman: The Man of Tomorrow #1, seems largely extraneous. In fact, it's curious that as comics are more and more geared toward TPB collections and series-within- series, editors seem to have a hard time knowing when stories begin and end. Looking at the cover gallery included in this TPB representing the original comic book covers, the logo indicating the Death of Clark Kent storyline (broken glasses over the Superman "S") stop a few issues before the saga actually ends. As well, even in this collection there are dangling sub-plots, such as the disappearance of Jimmy Olsen, and the return of Lex Luthor. There's an issue that guest stars Captain Marvel, but like so much else in this collection, it's uninspired -- with Marvel and Supes having one of those misunderstandings that leads to a fight -- and seems more intended to serve as an ad for Captain Marvel's then on-going comic, The Power of Shazam, than anything else.

Super heroes having their identities discovered have led to some dramatic stories over the years, such as Daredevil: Born Again. But those were better, more intriguing stories. In a way, the cynic in me wonders if the success of the Death of Superman story led an editor to come up with a title -- "The Death of Clark Kent" -- and then the writers hastily came up with a story to suit it, hoping it would generate the same kind of media frenzy. It didn't.

Cover price: $27.95 CDN./$19.95 USA.

The Death of Superman  1993 (SC TPB) 148 pages

Written by Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern. Pencils by Dan Jurgens, Jon Bogdanove, Tom Grummett, Jackson Guice. Inks by various.
Colours/letters/editors: various.

Reprinting: Superman: The Man of Steel #18, 19, Justice League America #69, Superman (2nd series) #74, 75, The Adventures of Superman #497, Action Comics #684 - (1992) with covers reproduced on back.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Collecting the infamous story wherein Superman battles Doomsday...literally to the death. The Death of Superman should be mandatory reading for any sociology or media studies students. This was the "event" DC Comics came up with back in 1992 in which their flagship character, Superman, bites the big one. It was supposedly intended to be no more than just that year's epic "must read" story. But then the mainstream media got wind of it. Suddenly it was headline stuff, editorialists devoting whole columns to the impending demise of the Man of Steel -- many seeming rather gleeful about the death of the big blue schoolboy, his old fashioned virtue an affront to their modern "sophisticated" tastes that ran to Paul Verhoven and Arnold Schwarzenegger films. Would-be collectors grabbed up the comics that were sure to be rare collectibles in a few years. After all, this was the end of Superman...the media said so.

It didn't matter that all an intrepid reporter had to do was ask his eight year old niece or mosey into a local comic shop to discover that no one who actually read comics was under any illusion that death would be anything but temporary. Heck, I had stopped reading comics at the time and even I knew he wasn't gonna stay dead.

So if the news media could be so easily fooled when DC Comics wasn't even trying to fool them (reportedly DC editors, though grateful for the temporary boost in circulation, were nonetheless embarrassed by the misleading coverage) it makes you wonder how easily they can be bamboozled by people who are trying to con them. And that's why this should be mandatory reading for anyone studying the way the media works.

Whether a comics fan might want to check it out is another matter.

This chronicles how an unstoppable, motiveless, monster dubbed Doomsday wreaks a trail of death and destruction, battling both Superman and the Justice League America (comprised of Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Bloodwynd, Ice, Fire, Guy Gardner and Maxima -- not quite the A-list membership one associates with the team). And battling them, and battling, and battling. He trounces the JLA, then he and Superman hit each other for a few more issues until they both drop dead.

I shouldn't be so facetious, but that sums it up pretty well. The first chapter wraps up a storyline involving some mutants who live beneath Metropolis -- Underworlders -- and there's a sequence involving a kid with a chip on his shoulder and his single mom (that never really goes anywhere) and some snippets of characterization involving the JLAers, but mainly it's just hitting and smashing and smashing and hitting. There isn't even much cleverness to the action scenes. At one point Supes trys imprisoning Doomsday in silt at the bottom of a lake, figuring without traction, he'd be temporarily trapped, but that's about it as far as anything approaching a plan goes. The rest of the time it's just hitting and zapping.

For a couple of issues it's mildly diverting, even entertaining, but after a while the repetition gets a little tedious. Considering this was intended to be such a milestone, couldn't they have come up with something more closely resembling a plot? Something with twists and turns?

It doesn't even generate the visceral tension it should. Superman, other than looking a bit bruised, never quite seems like a man on his last legs. At one point he thinks he has to stop Doomsday "Even if it kills me...", but that seems more like bravado than Supes actually contemplating his own mortality. But surely that would've been dramatic -- a man realizing he will die if he continnues pursuing a certain course of action, perhaps even feeling an element of fear, of indecision, before commiting himself to that action, regardless of the personal consequences? In an early scene Superman comments that there are times when he has known fear...but that concept is forgotten by the end.

The art is good, as pictures, as drawings of people. But like the narrative itself, doesn't quite realize the visceral elements of the stories. Dramatic moments aren't always highlighted, and fight scenes are laid out with a workmanlike professionalism. Normally that'd be fine, but not when 90 percent of the story is fight scenes. Doomsday is supposed to be so fast, even Superman can be taken by surprise, but though there are myriad techniques the artists could employ to capture the sense of superfast movement, they choose not to. We understand that Doomsday is fast...we just don't feel it.

There are technical problems, like how come Doomsday can tear down whole overpasses, but only seems to bust a few ribs of the less powerful JLAers? And a collection like this could use some editorializing to explain for modern readers who Lex Luthor Jr. is or why Supegirl is fawning over him or who that grey head is that materializes in a later chapter.

I expected to like this more than I did. I hadn't read it previously, but I had read the novelization, The Death of Superman by Roger Stern, that adapted this and the subsequent two volumes (World Without Superman and The Return of Superman, which saw Superman returned to life), and enjoyed that book much more than these original issues.

If you want, collect it 'cause its notorious. Collect it 'cause the next two books in the trilogy (World Without a Superman and The Return of Superman) are reportedly better. Just don't expect much from this on its own.

Original cover price: $6.50 CDN./ $4.95 USA.

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