GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Superman - page 4

Superman for All Seasons  1999 (HC and SC TPB) 208 pages

cover by Time SaleWritten by Jeph Loeb. Illustrated by Tim Sale. Painted colours by Bjarne Hansen.
Letters: Richard Starkings. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

Reprinting: The four issue prestige format mini-series (1998) - with covers

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

When DC Comics reimagined its line a decade and a half ago, it retold many of its heroes' stories from the beginning with "Year One" stories (Batman: Year One, The Power of Shazam, Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn) -- yet Superman never got that treatment. Not quite. Sure, The Man of Steel mini-series was supposed to be that, but though touching on Supes' beginnings, it hopscotched through his life. Superman For All Seasons, this much praised story, may've been a belated attempt to present a Superman: Year One. Not that it takes place entirely in one year, but it comes close, and this is about a novice Superman finding his place in the scheme of things.

Each chapter is told by a different character: Supes' adopted dad; Lois Lane; Lex Luthor; Lana Lang. It starts out showing us his final days in Smallville, prior to becoming Superman, then jumps to his life in Metropolis as a superhero. Eventually a run in with the arch machinations of Lex Luthor sends him running back to Smallville, before finally reaffirming himself, and his destiny, as a hero.

There's a lot to appreciate in this. The stylish art by Tim Sale and the sumptuous vistas, particularly when depicting life in Smallville (though I loved his Daily Planet bullpen, too), the gorgeous, folksy colours by Bjarne Hansen. The gentle, laidback approach to things -- though there's action and superheroics,, the emphasis is on introspection and appealing atmosphere.

Yup. It's easy to appreciate, but not as easy to always like.

Superman For All Seasons is often more interested in examining characters than it is in simply portraying them. Put another way, it's in love with the idea of characterization, more than it's in love with the characters themselves. The end result is something that, though moody and ambitious, is also somewhat aloof and at arms' length. There are good scenes, memorable scenes, even touching scenes. Both character bits and action-wise. But there's also a feeling you spend a lot of the book peering in through a window when you'd much rather by invited inside.

As well, Jeph Loeb "borrows" a lot from other sources: the above mentioned Man of Steel, the 1978 Superman movie (in fact the whole story could be seen as an attempt to expand upon the scene in the movie where, standing beside his father's grave, Supes says, "All my powers and I couldn't save him.") and some Silver and Bronze Age stories -- scenes that were done as well, or even better, before, and with greater brevity. As well, this is one of those stories that seems as though the reader is meant to fit it in with other Superman tales, meaning there are scenes and references that don't entirely make sense on their own (like a scene where Lex Luthor is being released from jail...but why and for what was he arrested is never made clear).

Loeb is so convinced of his story's "significance" that he forgets the nuts and bolts. A main part of the story has Superman being demoralized by Lex Luthor (in a sequence involving an epidemic that's over and done with wa-ay too quick, and seems unconvincing) but when he finally bounces back...it's not clear what reaffirmed his faith in himself. It's a character exploration that forgets to be about people, and a story that needs a stronger plot, often being comprised of airily written moments that don't always coalesce into earthy scenes.

Sale's depiction of Superman, drawn more cartoony than the other characters, evoking a big, huggable, not-to-bright sheep dog, is also problematic. Sometimes it works, emphasizing the character as a guileless bumpkin, other times it's just...cartoony. And Sale's frequent use of big panels and double page spreads, though visually striking, when combined with a story where the emphasis isn't always on plot, can make for a briefer read than the page count would imply.

There is an appeal to Superman for All Seasons, particularly in the way it avoids being just some lame-brained slugfest. It has attractive art, some lyrical writing and it's moderately interesting, but it's also a little vapid. It's like a big, shiny airplane that taxis majestically down the runaway, full of pomp and glory...but never quite lifts off.

Hard cover price: $__ CDN./$24.95 USA


The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told 1987 (TPB) 336 pgs

Reprinting: Look Magazine (filler), Action Comics #241, Superboy #68, Forever People #1, Superman #4, 13, 30, 53, 123, 125, 129, 132, 145, 149, 162, 247, Annual #11, Superman (vol. 2) #2

The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told - cover by Dean MotterFeaturing: "Superman vs. Luthor" (untitled), "Superman vs. the Archer" (untitled), "What if Superman Ended the War?" (untitled), "The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk", "The Origin of Superman", "The Three Wishes (a.k.a. the Girl of Steel)", "Clark Kent's College Days", "The Super Key to Fort Superman", "The Battle With Bizarro", "The Girl from Superman's Past", "Superman's Other Life", "The Night of March 31st", "Lex Luthor, Hero (a.k.a. the Death of Superman)", "The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue", "In Search of a Dream", "Must There be a Superman?", "The Man Who Has Everything", "The Secret Revealed"

By (variously): Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, John Sikela, Wayne Boring, Otto Binder, Dick Sprang & Stan Kaye, Al Plastino, George Papp, Bill Finger, Curt Swan (inks Sheldon Moldoff, George Klein), Leo Dorfman; and Jack Kirby; Elliott Maggin/Curt Swan/Murphy Anderson; Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons; John Byrne.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some stories more)

DC started a new batch of "Greatest" collections in mid-2000, so there is also a later TPB titled Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told with some different content.

With the exception of "Superman's Other Life" (1959), about Superman seeing what his life would have been like if he had grown up on Krypton -- a story I read as a kid, and so may be biased about (I'm not that old...it belonged to an older sibling) -- none of the stories here quite struck me as "The Greatest" of Superman's long career. Conversely, only the first appearance of that little imp, "The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk" (1948), struck me as actually bad.

Perhaps the most noteworthy of the collection are "Must There Be a Superman?" an oft cited tale from '72 that marked scripter Elliot S! Maggin's first Superman story, and "For the Man Who Has Everything", an almost hallowed 1985 story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Neither lived up to the hype, but you couldn't have done this collection without them. And, as a kind of experiment, I've given each its own review.

"Superman vs. The Archer" by Supes creators Siegel & Shuster is a surprisingly atmospheric story, with character bits (I didn't know they had that back then) and some moodily effective (albeit simplistic) art. "The Night of March 31st" is an odd novelty piece, of contemporary interest as it may have inspired an episode of the TV series, "The Drew Carey Show". Interestingly, one of the better entries is Jack Kirby's Forever People...in which Supes is a guest star!

There's a Superman-as-Superboy story but minus the Smallville supporting cast, and Supergirl crops up a couple of times, there are visits to the Fortress of Solitude, a few encounters with Lex Luthor, and some "imaginary tales" that were popular from the '60s. But the collection still feels like it's missing huge aspects of the character's mythos. For example, all 3 stories from the (early) '60s are "imaginary" -- meaning there's no sense of what a "normal" Superman story was like at that time (nor are they as good as some of the late-'60s imaginary stories).

I (and others, I think) would argue that comics can be divided into two eras, with those prior to the mid-'60s being (generally) juvenile, enjoyable for an adult mainly on a "cute"-level, while those from the mid-'60s on are a little more adult-friendly. Which is a problem, because only four stories here, and less than a third of the pages, are from the mid-'60s onward.

I can't emphasize enough the problem with the gap from the mid-'60s to the mid- '80s; only two stories are used to epitomize that period -- and no Steve Lombard or WGBS or anything -- in fact, the whole Clark Kent-private life aspect of the mythos is largely absent from the final stories (Lois Lane doesn't appear at all!). And the omission of anything written by Cary Bates, perhaps one of the longest serving Superman writers, is, frankly, suspicious. I would also put in a plug for Gerry Conway as one of the all-time great Superman scribes and, likewise, nothing by Conway is included.

Premier Superman artist, the incomparable Curt Swan, pencils four stories...and even then it could be argued he's under-represented (again, that '70s gap, when Swan really came into his own).

The last two stories are selected from just prior to this collection's release, smacking a little of the Oscars joke (how the American film academy has such a short attention span that it always nominates films released at the end of the year). The final story, "The Secret Revealed", isn't even much of a Superman story; it's essentially a Lex Luthor story, and though the ending is cute, overall it's pretty blah.

This collection shows the comic's evolution: in the early stories Superman is a bit cocky, and not all that reverential of life, he evolves into a more pious, almost Christ-like figure by the '70s, then Moore and Byrne up the violence and turn Supes into a snarling, epithet-hurling, bruiser. I can't say I like the change. Both "The Man Who Has Everything" and "The Secret Revealed" are more violent than I'm used to with a Superman story, and the female characters seem to suffer the brunt of it. While Lex Luthor, who used to have at least some scruples, is here a far nastier, far less fun, villain, sexually molesting his employees, torturing people, murdering them...and getting away with it. This new Luthor seems to be proving that, though crime may not pay, it can at least break even.

And both Superman and Luthor, one-time scientific geniuses, have been dumbed-down for the '80s and '90s. Superman was often required to think his way out of a problem...not so in the hands of Alan Moore and John Byrne.

In compiling this, the editors acknowledge nostalgia played a part, selecting stories they read as kids (explaining the clumping of comics from narrow periods) which might make my criticisms merely reflecting my own, "they ain't the comics I read when I was a boy"-attitude. Except...recently I happened to pick up a ratty copy of Superman #348 by Conway/Swan/Chiramonte -- a comic I'd never read before and, therrefore, could have no sentimental bias towards. It wasn't "epochal", nor a "classic" by any means, but as a simple story, I thought it was actually better than many of the stories contained herein!

Some "they might've included..." nominees? "Make Way for Captain Thunder" (Superman #276, by Maggin/Swan/Oksner), with Superman battling a Captain Marvel-like character. The story, with Supes battling a brainwashed Captain Thunder, would serve as the blueprint for later Superman-Captain Marvel battles (and hey, I guess soomeone agreed, 'cause that story was later included in the Superman best of the 1970s. collection. Or how about the two-part "Dying Day of Lois and Lana" (Superman #362-363, by Bates/Swan/Chiramonte), which proves that the best Superman stories don't even need a bad guy. Or "When Lightning Strikes, Thunder Kills" (Superman #303, by Conway/Swan/Oksner), a story that, for some reason, strikes me as almost perfectly epitomizing a Superman story -- I don't know why. There are others, of course.

The book also features some editorials, including a lengthy look at Supe's history by the (re)inventor of the modern-age Superman, John Byrne. The editorial is informative, allowing some insight into Byrne's take on the character, as he reveals that the alterations he made in the mythos (some I consider highly ill-conceived) weren't just happenstance, but conscious decisions to "correct" things Byrne clearly had problems with. In a way, the editorial becomes a self-justification for the things Byrne (and DC) has done.

Overall, this is a decent collection...just misnamed.

Cover price: $19.95 CDN./$15.95 USA.


Superman in the Seventies 2000 (SC TPB) 224 pages

cover by Neal AdamsWritten by Elliot S! Maggin, Cary Bates, plus Len Wein, Robert Kanigher, Denny O'Neil, Jack Kirby, Paul Levitz. Pencils by Curt Swan, plus Irv Novick, Werner Roth, Jack Kirby, Murphy Anderson. Inks by Murphy Anderson, Bob Oksner, Vince Colletta, Dick Giordano, Joe Giella.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Superman (1st series) #233, 247, 248, 249, 270, 271, 276, 286, 287, Action Comics #484, DC Comics Presents #14, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #133, Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #106

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some stories more)

For reasons known only to its editorial staff, for a long time DC Comics seemed reluctant to release TPBs that reprinted material from the 1970s. Or from the Bronze Age of comics in general (defined, at least here, as being from the late 1960s and ending in 1985 when DC released Crisis on Infinte Earths). They hadn't completely ignored the period. But the pickings were pretty thin -- though seem to be getting better more recently.

Anyway, as an early exception comes Superman in the Seventies -- a nice but not quite ideal collection of 13 Superman stories from the Bronze Age. Here we have a slightly different Superman from the modern version -- a Superman whose earth foster parents aare long dead; a Superman who is a nebbish in his alter ego who works not just for the Dailey Planet, but the TV news station, WGBS; a Superman who is surrounded, not just by Lois, Jimmy and Perry, but by Steve Lombard and Morgan Edge; a Superman who's arch foe, Lex Luthor, is not an oily big business man, but a scrapy scientific genius who's history with Supes dates back to their childhoods.

And this is a Superman drawn, more often than not, by Curt Swan, an artist with a low-key realism that I find only becomes more appealing the older I get.

The stories here are usually self-contained one issue adventures, with Superman confronting threats to the entire city or even the world.

The book is cleverly broken up into sections devoted to big battles, super-villains, the supporting cast, and character developing tales.

The highlights? "Make Way for Captain Thunder" (Sup. #276), a tale of Superman battling a Captain Marvel-like character. When I reviewed The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told I mentioned that it was a glaring omission not to have included it. You suppose someone at DC was listening? I read the story first as a kid, so it's hard to be objective, but it's an enjoyable, atmospheric read. A notorious story that I'm glad they included (but was sure they wouldn't) is "I am Curious (Black)" (Lois Lane #106), Robert Kanigher's attempt at social relevancy as Lois transforms into a black woman to see what life is like from the other side of the colour bar. The story has been mocked by some as heavy handed, but it actually holds up surprisingly well all these years later with Kanigher, a middle-aged white guy, seeming sincere and showing sensitivity to his topic. The piece is nicely served by Werner Roth's unsplashy pencils.

Another plus is "The Challenge of Terra Man" (Sup. #249). Not for its introduction of a long serving villain, but for its plotting and pacing (including an effective "High Noon"-style build up, appropriate for a villain with a cowboy motif). And its old fashioned idea that in order to make the action exciting, complications must need be introduced. Superman must fight while suffering from a Kryptonian illness that makes his powers go haywire. It's a fun adventure, even if the story ends with the Terra Man an unexplained figure (a story for another day, I guess). Closing the book is the highly appealing "The Day Superman Got Married" (Action #484), which focuses on the Earth 2 Superman at a time when DC had alternate versions of its heroes. Think of it as an "Elseworlds" story as Superman and Lois get married (though things aren't that simple). I've never been a fan of Joe Giella's unsubtle inking, but here it works beautifully, lending a Golden Age simplicity to Curt Swan's otherwise modern, realist pencils.

"I Can't Go Home Again" is a short piece that was part of a back up series called The Private Life of Clark Kent. I'd read it as a kid, and though I couldn't have articulated it as such back then, it strikes me as summarizing the essence of the Bronze Age Superman.

There are other, reasonably pleasing tales in this collection, such as Superman teaming up with his dog, Krypto ("Who Was That Dog I Saw You With Last Night" Sup. #287). I've never thought much about Krypto, but there's something oddly affecting about Superman soaring through the air with his super-dog at his side. It's at once silly, juvenile...but also iconic and dramatic. And there are entertaining stories featuring appearances from villains Lex Luthor, The Parasite and Brainiac.

There are also a few missteps.

"Jimmy Olsen Brings Back the Newsboy Legion" (Jimmy Olsen #133) is intended to be both a Jimmy Olsen tale (from a time when he had his own comic) and to showcase Jack Kirby's first work for DC Comics. But the story doesn't resolve, and concepts that we are told (via Mark Waid's introduction) Kirby introduced in his run on Jimmy Olsen -- cloning, and more -- aren't articulatedd here. As a moment in comics history, the piece is interesting, as a story, not so much. The same is true of "Superman Breaks Loose" (Sup. #233). Intended to herald a much ballyhooed change in Superman, it features Superman becoming immune to Kryptonite and, supposedly, becoming less powerful (though that's not clear here), as well as coming to work for WGBS. The WGBS job would last for the next decade and some, but the rest of the changes were decidedly short term -- and as a story, it's kind of flat. While "Judge, Jury...and No Justice" (DC Comics Presents #14) features a clever premise of having Superman, through a twist of time, battling Superboy (who, back then, was Superman as a youth), but the story seems to be continued from a previous adventure and is vaguely unsatisfying. It's also not clear how the mythos in the various stories relate to each other, something that Mark Waid's editorials might have cleared up. In one story Clark Kent's childhood pal, Pete Ross, is still his buddy, in the other he's become a millionaire and a villain, Morgan Edge is sometimes a good guy and sometimes a bad guy, etc.

Another problematic entry is "Must There be a Superman?" (Sup. #247) Although uncontestably considered a classic, I've never regarded it as highly as others. But given its "classic" status, that shouldn't preclude its inclusion, and even I admit it's trying to be a thoughtful story (moreso than the simple hero vs. villain stories that predominate in this TPB). No, the objection I have is that it was already included in the TPB The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told. Sure, that book was published more than a decade before, but TPBs are sufficiently pricey that there should be some attempt to avoid duplication.

Superman in the '70s reflects a greater care in selecting stories than I've (cynically) come to expect from such collections. "I am Curious (Black)", "Superman Breaks Loose" and "Must There be a Superman", as well as a Kirby Jimmy Olsen, are all classics to one degree or another (even if only "I am Curious (Black)" did I feel held up, and to a lesser extent, "Must There be a Superman"). And the attempt to portray different aspects of Superman from the time is appreciated. With that being said, the TPB still reflects the short sightedness of these books. For example, it could be titled: Superman in the Early Seventies, since all but two stories were published between 1970 and 1975, ignoring later, arguably more ambitious stories. The emphasis here is largely on action/fight stories, eschewing more thoughtful stories that come to mind. And it might've been nice to see Supergirl, or Kandor, or even a Superboy story that utilized Superboy's milieu (or even the Legion of Super- Heroes).

Ultimately, this is a good collection, featuring some fun stories. But it falls just shy of being a great collection. Still, it's a nice reminder of an earlier Superman, a Superman who inhabited a slightly kinder, gentler world, where even Lex Luthor had a conscience. This Superman seems to be slightly older than his modern version: older, smarter -- more able to think his way through situations -- and just a little more alone. For those who remember him, Superman in the Seventies is a nice return, and for those too young, it gives an insight into a different take on the Man of Steel.

There's a curious sidebar that comes up when reading both Superman in the Seventies and The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told. In both books, the editors mention they would've included a tale that ran in Superman #296-299 if not for its length. Consider: two editorial regimes, more than a decade apart, cite the same story as something they wanted to collect, but couldn't. It begs the question: why doesn't DC just collect the story on its own? Why must it always be "considered" and then rejected for inclusion in another TPB? The answer, sadly, is probably in the opening paragraph to this review. I have no idea if the story is really as good as the editors think, but that's not the point. The point is, since DC releases TPBs all the time collecting second rate story lines just months after they were first published, why is it so unwilling to collect a decades old story that at least two groups of editors thought was pretty good? Why?

Additional note: an e-mailer informed me that Superman #296-299 was included in a hardcover collection published a couple of decades ago called The Great Superman Comic Book Collection-- something to keep an eye out for in the used book stores.

Cover price: $31.00 CDN./ $19.95 USA.


Superman: Infinite City

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
see my review here


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