GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Superman - page 9
 

Superman: War of the Worlds 1999 (SC GN) 64 pages

Written by Roy Thomas. Illustrated by Michael Lark.
Colours: Noelle Giddings. Letters: Willie Schubert.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: June 2015

Superman: War of the Worlds is one of DC's "Elseworlds" stories -- that is, not adhering to regular continuity. In this case it goes back to the roots of the Superman saga, the story taking place in the late 1930s. And then it marries it with H.G. Wells' seminal science fiction novel, War of the Worlds (or, given the time period, the Orson Welles/Howard Koch radio dramatization!). Just as farm-boy-turned-big-city-reporter (and super hero) Clark Kent arrives in Metropolis, his first assignment -- along with fellow reporter Lois Lane -- is to cover a mysterious meteor landing outside the city. A landing which, of course, presages a Martian invasion.

It's written by veteran comics scribe Roy Thomas and illustrated by Michael Lark. Lark has an attractively atmospheric yet pleasing blocky, highly realistic-but-deceptively simple style that is ideally suited to period tales like this. He's worked on other period and retro comics and seems perfectly at home evoking a kind of mid-20th Century vibe of big shouldered men in suits and fedoras. While Thomas has written for just about every character, but is especially associated with both period comics and with adaptations. Again, making this a project well matched to him. (Heck, Thomas was the co-creator of Marvel Comics' earlier War of the Worlds spin-off -- Killraven).

Which is both a strength and a weakness. Because in many ways this really is just a retelling of War of the Worlds...with Superman thrown in (and moved to 1930s America). The plot progression, even captions and some phrasings, are lifted from the book. As such though it moves along at a decent clip and holds your attention -- it never really goes anywhere unexpected.

While another problem is that in attempting to evoke the feel of an archetypal Superman -- the innocent farm-boy-turned-champion -- Supes himself never really becomes a character through whom the story is being told. The scenes are enjoyable and hold your attention, but never quite break through on an emotional level. We're observing the story, the actions of Supes, Lois, Lex Luthor, etc. -- more than we're necessarily invested in them as people. Part of that, admittedly, may also be a problem with Lark's art. As much as I'm a fan of his work, there does tend to be a slight aloofness to it, too.

Thomas tries to add in an extra layer to the story, touching on the theme of xenophobia in that Superman, being an alien, finds himself regarded with some scepticism by the humans he's trying to save -- but it never becomes a significant aspect of the plot.

For a 64 page saga, it never really fills out to become a graphic "novel." It's well paced and eminently readable, but fairly straightforward (particularly given the oft-used source inspiration).

Bottom line: a perfectly enjoyable, atmospherically drawn, nicely written confection -- that never really becomes more than its gimmick: Superman meets War of the Worlds. But, hey, maybe that's all it needs to be.

Cover price: $__. 


Superman: The Wedding Album 1996 (SC GN) 96 pages

Written by Dan Jurgens, Karl Kesel, David Michelinie, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern. Illustrated by various.
Colours: Glenn Whitmore. Letters: Bill Oakley. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

This was published as both a regular comic (with a different cover), and in a prestige "graphic novel" format -- so it's debatable whether it truly qualifies as a graphic novel (it even has a few ads). Still, I found it in the GN section, so why not? The Wedding Album chronicles the wedding of Clark (Superman) Kent and Lois Lane, and the days leading up to it comprised of the trials and tribs of bridal showers and rehearsal dinners involving their various friends. It's an oddly...agreeable read; perhaps insipid, not especially inspired, but agreeable. It transpires during an on-going sub-plot where Superman had lost his powers, so there isn't even a lot of larger-than-life adventure. There's a brief flashback to when Supes had his power, and rescued people from a burning building, and another sequence where Clark dons his tights and goes into action without his powers, and Batman shows up, too. But the super-heroics are definitely on the back burner in a story that is squarely aimed at trying to prove DC Comics' staff can concoct an entertaining tale that isn't about a lot of hitting and world saving, but basically veers between light comedy and kitchen sink realism.

They both succeed and fail in their effort.

They succeed in that, as noted, the book is an agreeable read. Supes and his cast have been around for so many years, you can't help but feel a certain familiar comfort just hanging with the likes of Jimmy Olsen, Lois, Perry, etc. (even as there were contemporary additions to the cast I didn't know). Though, in the nature of modern comics, some things aren't really explained for the uninitiated, like that Lori Lemaris is a telepathic mermaid (if you didn't know that, you wouldn't understand the joke about her being allergic to seafood, or why people muse about how perceptive she is). Actually, I thought Lori was killed off in the Crisis on Infinite Earths. I guess she got better.

There's an overall breezy readability to the thing, with scenes moving along reasonably well. Though some nine pages devoted to the bridal shower is considerably more than its interest level warrants (even broken up with cutaways to another scene).

Just as the writing chores are handled by the then-creative team of Superman scribes, so to are the art chores divvied up among some 16 artists, both past and present, from Silver Age artists like Al Plastino and Nick Cardy, to then contemporaries like Stuart Immonen and Dan Jurgens, with Curt Swan and John Byrne and others in the middle. Swan is the only one who really gets to draw Superman as Superman, handling the flashback sequence to when Supes had his powers -- appropriate for the guy who is the Superman artist for many people (even if he's not entirely well-served by the inker). In fact, this may have been one of Swan's last art gigs before passing away. The art varies; mainly it's the relative realism of Swan, Jurgens, and others, but there's also the more cartoony styles of Jon Bogdanove. Overall, the art is clear and uncluttered, and brightly coloured, adding to the overall readability of the thing.

With all that being said, the Wedding Album remains doggedly uninspired for the most part. Considering Lois and Clark (and Superman) first began their romantic two-step in 1938, one could argue this is the culmination of almost seventy years of Superman mythos. And all they could come up with is bridal showers and tuxedo fittings? Where the most dramatic sub-plot is Jimmy Olsen mistakenly thinking Clark is mad at him -- until, of course, the obvious solution arrives? I can sort of understand the desire to go the "high brow" route of not turning this into an adventure story with some super menace, with the wedding reduced to a sub-plot that only occupies the last few pages. I can understand (though not necessarily agree), but, hey, fellas, it's not like it hasn't been done before. As just two examples, Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane (Spider-Man Annual #21, I believe) and Donna Troy's marriage to Terry Long (The New Teen Titans (1st series) #50) took a similar low-key approach to their topics. However, they were not delivering tales that were the culmination of seventy years of continuous publishing, either.

Part of the problem is its taking place while Clark is without his powers. Save for the one flashback, they can't even indulge in any larger-than-life, fantasy aspects (such as Superman forming Lois' ring with his own hand from, say, moon rocks, or flying her to Paris for a dress fitting, or something). Nor do they even play up the alter ego duality, such as by having some of Superman's friends show up at Clark's wedding and have people wonder who these people are that seem to be close friends of Clark's, but none of his Metropolis friends have ever met before. Batman appears, but not at the wedding, and some other heroes do a flyby but, likewise, not in a situation where anyone would connect them to Clark. I could've done with less fisticuffs, little as there is of it, (the story begins with Lois breaking up a drug ring -- albeit, cleverly opening with her in a wedding dress in a scene that turns out to be not what we think -- and a later mugging) and more just Supperman doing super deeds, however non-violent and good-natured.

As well, because of the lost powers sub-plot, it means that the story is rooted in its era of Superman stories. Years later, it doesn't entirely serve as the Superman wedding story (in much the same way that Spider-Man's wedding occurred while he wore his black costume, also making that story less of a quintessential Spidey event).

Putting aside my cynical critic's cap, I'll admit, yeah, I found the Wedding Album an O.K., good-natured read. But it's hardly going to be remembered as a milestone in graphic literature. I'm guessing it was probably reprinted in the TPB Superman: The Wedding and Beyond.

Cover price: $6.95 CDN./ $4.95 USA. 


cover by Curt Swan / Murphy AndersonSuperman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? 1997 (SC TPB) 64 pages

Written by Alan Moore. Pencils by Curt Swan. Inks by George Perez and Kurt Schaffenberger.
Colours: Gene D'Angelo, Tom McCraw. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Julius Schwartz.

Reprinting: Superman (1st series) #423 & Action Comics #583 (1986)

Additional notes: introduction by Paul Kupperberg (new to this collection); essays by E. Nelson Bridwell looking back at Superman and Action comics (reprited from the original issues); covers.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

In the mid-1980s, DC Comics re-invented its line of characters, presaged by the maxi-series, Crisis on Infinite Earths. So what to do with the "original" characters? In the case of DC's flagship hero, long time editor Julius Schwartz commissioned a two part "last" Superman story -- almost as if Superman really was ending (rather than just being given an overhaul). And the guy he got to write it (who practically demanded the right to write it, if the introduction is to be believed) was Alan Moore, already becoming a critical darling of comics fandom.

The story begins ten years in the then-future (a date that is already the past now, but given a delightfully sci-fi sheen by artist Curt Swan, perhaps as a tip of the hat to his days as an artist on the far future Legion of Super-Heroes). Lois Lane, happily married and living in the suburbs, is interviewed about the events ten years earlier, when Superman vanished. The tale she tells is of how many of Superman's familiar foes appeared, murderously bent on destroying Superman (even those not normally prone to homicide) as though being manipulated by an outside agency. Eventually, Superman is forced into a final confrontation which some of his foes -- and some of his closest friends -- won't survive.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? has become one of the most celebrated Superman stories ever written, and Alan Moore is one of the most critically acclaimed writers ever to work in the comics field. Strangely, though, I've never been the ardent fan of Moore most others are. It's not that I hate his work -- some of his stuff I've enjoyed. But his work rarely strikes me as being as smart or as sophisticated as everyone claims. So, in that context, how good is Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

It's an entertaining enough read. Nothing more. Nothing less.

As a cap to decades of Superman lore, it seems a bit, well, shallow. Call me crazy, but given the nature and scope of the character, to me, the definitive Superman epic isn't just a "super villains team up to kill him" sort of story. But Moore fails to give the work any kind of greater sub-text. When the true orchestrator of the mayhem is revealed, his motive is, well, that he's a bad guy. As well, Moore brings an added level of throw-away violence to the story, even ghoulishness in spots -- a reflection both of his work in general, and the arrestedly adolescent dark n' gritty phase comics were beginning to enter. In a sense, the story is less a cap to the Superman- that-was, than it is a bridge between the Superman-that-was and the Superman- that-was-coming (although Superman stories by the early-mid eighties had already begun to embrace a more laissez-faire attitude to violence). It's as if Moore is intentionally blending a Silver Age simplicity with the Modern Age's casual attitude toward violence.

The story clips along briskly, making for a fun, tight read. But, as such, it rarely delves into things much. In fact, the whole trick of having Lois narrate the story means that, at times, we're getting an overview of scenes, and a summary of emotions, that should've been portrayed in greater detail. That's not necessarily Moore's fault...he was only given two, regular-sized issues to work with (totalling only 48 pages). As such, you have scenes like Superman discovering childhood friend Pete Ross' dead body, followed by a brief funeral scene...but little real delving into Supes' emotional reaction. That's true of most of the death scenes. Conversely, maybe that's an advantage: Moore attacks his material with sufficient superficiality that you can go, "aw, how sad" without being in any danger of getting too misty eyed. The story remains a romp, rather than a heart-rending drama that really makes you believe you're witnessing the deaths of beloved characters, or the end of the pre-Crisis Superman.

With that being said, Moore occasionally delivers some nice character bits, like a scene where Lana Lang overhears a conversation between Superman and Perry White, and how it motivates her in the following scene. Or a scene near the beginning where Superman confronts Bizarro, not by flying in, fists swinging, but by striding into an ominously dark building, wanting to talk things out. And having Krypto return for Superman's personal Gotterdammerung, after who knows how long an absence, was also a nice touch. Moore is unfortunately a little hamstrung by the fact that this story took place in the narrow window between the Crisis, after DC had changed certain things, but before the official re-launch; as such, characters like Supergirl and Lori Lemaris are dead (though the former manages a cameo, thanks to time travel). In a sense, the story is simultaneously a pre-Crisis and post-Crisis story...but it might have been nicer to have allowed it to be a pre-Crisis story, from top to bottom. But that's quibbling.

The art by Curt Swan is, of course, a delight. Swan was the definitive Superman artist for decades...and some might argue, remains so for many long time fans, close to two decades after he ceased being the chief artist on the character. His quiet realism, and open, un-cluttered visuals, his matter-of-fact presentation of characters he helped define, all makes the story attractive-looking. Besides, you couldn't very well bring a close to the Silver Age/Bronze Age Superman and not have Swan draw it -- it just wouldn't be the Silver Age/Bronze Age Superman, would it? Swan is inked, with mostly positive results, by Perez (better known as a penciller) and Schaffenberger (ditto) -- the latter has inked Swan once or twice before, though the introduction says not.

Moore doesn't really provide a definitive summation of the character or his adventures, the way this collection's introduction implies. Sure, he throws in some old stuff (Krypto, the Fortress of Solitude, a cameo by the Legion of Super-Heroes) and offers a decent enough explanation for Superman's conflict-of-the-heart between Lana and Lois. But I had just finished reading the novel Superman: Miracle Monday by Elliot S. Maggin which, for all its shortcomings, did a better job of seeming like a true examination of who Supes is than Moore pulls off here. One wonders what Maggin would've delivered if he had been asked to write this story instead of Moore.

As an affectionate homage to the by-gone days of "Imaginary Stories" DC used to do (there were probably dozens of "last" Superman stories published in the 1960s), this is an enjoyable adventure, well-illustrated, with decent dialogue and pacing. It's marred a bit by the violence, which clashes with the old fashioned feel, but only a bit -- truth be told, Moore is positively restrained compared to some of his other work. But is it truly a classic, one of the greatest Superman stories ever written?

Well, no.

Cover price: $11.50 CDN./$6.95 USA.


Superman: The Wrath of Gog

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

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