Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest – Action Comics #858

Posted: Sunday, November 4, 2007
By: Keith Dallas

“Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes—Chapter One: Alien World”

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Frank (p), Jon Sibal (i), Dave McCaig (colors)

Publisher: DC Comics

Average Rating:

Shawn Hill:
Nicholas Slayton:
Dave Wallace:
Thom Young:

Shawn Hill

Plot: Kal-El gets a very unusual visit from Braniac 5, unlocking a memory of a future world in dire trouble.

Comments: Let’s start with the art in this one. Frank lives up to the hype leading up to this new arc, equaling his career best work on Supreme and Squadron Supreme. There’s an added bonus here, as with the supporting cast of the Legion of Super-Heroes (all two dozen plus of them), he’s got an even greater array of varied powerhouses to depict than the Squadron, and (hopefully) a more sane and less cynical version of soap opera and superheroics.

Well, it would be more straightforward, but it turns out Frank may have worked so well on that team of damaged souls because his excessively detailed and varied expressions do naturally work out to rather bug-eyed and grimacing figures in some panels. For the cheery era of the Legion evoked in a giant splash-page here, that tendency is a little strange. Shadow Lass looks demented, and Timber Wolf looks like he’s got something caught in his teeth; the old costumes look great, though.

Frank may want to watch that sort of exaggeration, but it’s not severe enough to undercut his anatomical mastery or his interesting and dynamic figural compositions. Superman especially has seldom looked so good, and the new costumes for the Legion (who I’m assuming will have little to do with the Supergirl and the Legion version Jim Shooter will soon be writing) are intriguing variations on the classic designs.

We spend a little too much time on the past in this inaugural time traveling tale, I suppose to be expected when a new direction is launched. Picking up from the recent JLoA/JSoA crossover, this Legion comes from a darker future than any we recognize, and so we witness a riff on Superman’s own origin that goes horribly awry in the 31st century, and then Clark recalls his own childhood encounter with the Legion. Johns here manages classic pastiches on both old tales, updating them without specificity for a generalized feeling of nostalgia. The sense of urgency is very nice, as are some major surprises by issue’s end, when Clark encounters Dawnstar, Wildfire and Colossal Boy looking very worried and at odds with the Science Police.

It would have been nice to have less of a recap and more clues as to what’s going on in this dark future, but that nice surprise and the room Johns gives Frank to do what he does best still make this an exceptional issue.

Nicholas Slayton:

When I heard that this arc would deal heavily with the Silver Age Legion of Superheroes, I was wary. The little I know of the Legion comes from the post-Zero Hour reboot, and the recent Justice Society/Justice League crossover “The Lightning Saga” is really my only bastion of knowledge for the Silver Age team. Still, I’ve been a big fan of Geoff Johns’ Superman, so I figured, why not? I might get into the concept.

Oh, I got into it.

The idea is simple: Superman gets a message from the Legionnaire Brainiac 5 one day in Metropolis, asking for his help in the future. Superman, being a true friend, pushes aside his anger with the Legion for the events of “The Lightning Saga” and immediately heads to the future. Yet, as shown in the issue, simple does not mean boring. Johns manages to weave in the backstory of the Legion, multiple characters from Metropolis, Clark Kent’s childhood, and a disturbing future all in just twenty-two pages.

Now, the idea of a dark, dangerous future has been done to death. The list of “dystopian tomorrows” goes on and on. Yet the year 3008 AD presented here, despite being in only a few pages, is truly chilling. Xenophobia runs rampant, and Superman has been raised to an almost godlike mythology. The opening pages play on the classic story of Superman escaping a dying planet for Earth, with an alien couple hoping for their son to survive like Superman as their planet nears destruction. Landing in Smallville, the alien baby is found by a childless couple who, being good law abiding citizens, kill the kid. Immediately the tone is set; this is going to get dark. The Legionnaires’ entrance into the story is near perfect, with the mysteries of what happened to them and Earth hinted at, not overstated or forced down the readers’ throats.

The only real problem with the issue are the Metropolis scenes. In some ways, it feels like a giant step backwards. Clark is a clumsy milquetoast, Jimmy calls him “Mr. Kent,” and Perry White berates Clark for not trying to make new friends. Yet, as Clark himself points out, he’s been at the Daily Planet for ten years. The sudden reversals in characterization just ring hollow, especially after “Up, Up, and Away” showed Clark as a sociable person, and on first name terms with Jimmy. It is easy to see why Johns made the choice though, as it helps to show why the Legion’s friendship is so important to Clark, but it still rings a little false.

This issue also marks the debut of Action Comics’ new ongoing penciller, Gary Frank, and he delivers big time. Completely realistic anatomy, vivid expressions, fluid action, and rich details all come to play in his art. His handling of the characters is great. The redesigns he made on the Legion do not come across as an attempt to make them “hip” or “in the now,” but rather feel like a needed update that creates a pretty timeless look. The only odd part of his art is that Superman looks like a dead ringer for Christopher Reeve. Now, I love the Reeve movies, but it is unusual to see Superman so accurately drawn as Reeve. I felt the same way when Adam Kubert drew Superman like Brandon Routh (who also was brilliant in the sadly underrated Superman Returns). Still, Frank’s debut is solid, and from the looks of things, he could become the definitive Superman artist.

Now that the Action Comics scheduling woes are resolved, the title is once again cranking out brilliant stories. For fans of Superman, Gary Frank’s art, or the Legion, this is a must have read. Even with the Metropolis scenes, Johns and Frank have laid the groundwork for what looks to be one of the best Superman stories in a while.

Dave Wallace:

As a regular reader of Marvel Comics, I’ve recently decided to try and expand my horizons by actively trying to get into more books from their Distinguished Competition. One title which caught my eye was Action Comics, and so I decided to take a chance on an issue that had been heavily hyped due to its star creative team and new storyline. That was last December, and almost a year later I’m still waiting for the final issue of Geoff Johns and Richard Donner’s “Last Son” story. After the disappointment of that story, I was wary to take another chance on the book, but the presence of Gary Frank as artist combined with the enjoyable-sounding story concept convinced me that I should give it one last try. After reading the issue, I’m pleased that I did, because this is looking like it could be one of the better Superman stories I’ve read in recent years.

One of my main bugbears with Superman is that he’s difficult to relate to or to really care about, but this issue goes quite a long way to make him a sympathetic and likeable character. There’s a fun scene at the Daily Planet early on in the issue in which Clark Kent interacts with Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, with a bumbling characterisation to Kent which is similar to Christopher Reeve’s performance in the Superman movies. The scene allows for some snappy, enjoyable banter (despite an ill-judged reference to the “Last Son” story, which is probably not a connection that DC wants to reinforce in their readers’ minds), and Johns even uses Kent’s dialogue with Perry White to address the problem that Clark needs to “learn how to reach out to people.” It’s a comment with a meaning which reaches beyond the story, suggesting that Johns is aware of Superman’s weaknesses as a character, and it makes me hopeful that the writer will be looking to make him more human and relatable in this story.

To this end, we get an extended glimpse of Clark’s days as a youngster in Smallville, and it’s this sequence that evokes the most sympathy for Superman as an alien who can sometimes struggle to fit in among humans. It’s also the sequence which sets up the central conceit of the Legion of Super-Heroes, the futuristic super-team from the 31st Century, and his recognition of the Legion as kindred spirits gives us a very clear reason for Superman’s emotional attachment to them as a group.

The issue’s powerful and succinct opening sequence sets up the idea that the Earth of 3008 is a very different place to the Earth inhabited by Superman, and it gives Gary Frank the chance to draw his own take on the classic Superman origin story – albeit with a twist. Thankfully, Johns saves his big reveal for the issue’s end, and it makes for a potentially strong story device which could put Superman in a lot more jeopardy than usual. I’m already looking forward to seeing how the future-based plot plays out. We’re only given a glimpse of it here, but it’s an appetizing taster for the story which sets up a couple of mysteries in an uncluttered and efficient way.

I first came across the artwork of Gary Frank in J. Michael Straczynski’s Supreme Power, and I’ve been a fan of the artist ever since. There are several moments which show off his skill here, whether it’s the slick page in which Superman changes into his costume as he jumps out of a window, the exciting yet brief action sequence with Braniac 5’s robot, or the double-splash page of the Legion in all their glory. Frank’s artwork has a quiet confidence to it, and he combines his well-defined and consistent character designs with a strong sense of storytelling which makes this issue’s story very clear and easy to follow.

Yes, there’s an occasionally goofy quality to Frank’s art: I was happy to see the original cover image slightly redrawn for the final printed issue, and there are some quirks with the artist’s faces which sometimes make it look as though his characters have a huge overbite, a distraction which is evident in several panels this issue. However, it’s not a major flaw, and there are so many successes elsewhere in the book (the spot-on design of the young Superman, the neat redesign of the Legion’s outfits, and the well-conveyed
moment of shock for Superman when he realises that he can be injured on the Earth of 3008) that Frank’s minor weaknesses can be easily overlooked.

When I first read the issue I didn’t look at the art credits in any detail, but before I’d reached the end of the book I had already identified Dave McCaig’s presence as colourist. Between this and his work on Marvel’s New Avengers, he’s quickly become one of the industry’s most distinctive colour artists, and if it wasn’t for the listing of Jon Sibal as inker, I’d be convinced that he was using the same technique of colouring directly from his artist’s pencils, as Sibal and McCaig create the same sense that every detail and every line of Frank’s original pencils are reaching the final page.

McCaig’s approach works well, particularly for the darker and moodier segments, with colour playing a big part in creating a chilling and foreboding atmosphere for the pages in which Superman arrives in the future. This contrasts with the confident use of bold, primary colours in the lighter earlier segments of the book, and the change in colouring styles between the bright costumes of the old Legion and the more restrained uniforms of the new, re-envisioned Legion plays a big part in marking the difference between the two groups. The issue shows the same quirks as we’ve seen in his colouring of Leinil Yu’s work in New Avengers (such as the slightly jaundiced, yellowing flesh tones), but it’s a solid package overall.

My only concern before reading this story was that it might be too confusing to be accessible for a relative newcomer to the DC universe like me. However, aside from the occasional reference that might be unclear for the uninitiated (Superman makes passing mention of “The Crisis,” but I’m not sure which one he’s referring to, or how it plays into the Legion’s history), there’s nothing which is unclear or needs explaining here. In all honesty, it might be easier to read this story for someone who isn’t hung up on past DC continuity because I understand that there are several different versions of the Legion in existence which are difficult to reconcile with one another. My advice would be to ignore those possible discrepancies and treat this as a separate story to be read on its own terms, because Johns doesn’t look like he’s interested in exploring DC continuity too deeply, and he avoids the possible baggage of the Legion’s history very deftly.

If DC drop the ball again (as they did with “Last Son”) and the arc suffers severe delays later down the line, it’s going to be difficult to get me back on board. For the time being, however, this is shaping up to be a fun, fast-moving story which makes the character of Superman more attractive and sympathetic than usual. I’m looking forward to seeing how Johns explains the change in the Earth’s sun and how it fits into the dour, dystopian version of the future that we see here (is it me, or are there a couple of sly Civil War references in this issue?), and I’ll definitely be checking out the next issue on the strength of this first chapter. A pleasant surprise.

Thom Young:

The first chapter of this new arc in Action Comics was hinted at in “The Lightning Saga” crossover in Justice League and Justice Society. I’m happy to say that I found it to be a well-written and well-illustrated issue that presents several mysteries that can keep readers intrigued enough to come back next issue.

One of those mysteries is a carryover from the end of “The Lightning Saga” as an adult Brainiac Five tells Superman, “my experiment tapping into the Speed Force is going to take more time.” Brainiac Five’s statement indicates that the experiment has something to do with two things that happened at the end of “The Lightning Saga”: (1) the reappearance of Wally West as The Flash and (2) the Legion may have recovered (or revived) a speedster of their own in the 31st century.

By the way, the speedster the Legion recovered should not be Bart Allen’s cousin, Jenni Ognats, or have anything to do with her at all since she should not be from the same timeline (or parallel Earth future) as the Legion that contacted Superman. Instead, the Legion in “The Lightning Saga” should be associated with either the Tornado Twins, Don and Dawn Allen, or their father.

Did the previous paragraph confuse you? If so, then you don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the confusing multiple continuities of the Legion of Super-Heroes (and/or of the Flash Family History).

I don’t know how much of a problem ignorance of Legion and/or Flash history is going to be for some readers. I have no doubt that they will say it’s a huge problem. They’ll add they are tired of DC stories that require such encyclopedic knowledge of not only current DC continuity but also of the multiple continuities of DC’s publishing history.

However, at this point in the story (chapter one), this current Action Comics arc is supposed to be confusing. Additionally, even a story that uses DC’s history of multiple Earths (and multiple continuities) should not require knowledge of them to be entertaining and meaningful.

Hopefully, by the end of the arc, Johns will have been successful in creating a story that can be enjoyed by long-time (Silver Age) DC readers as well as by newer readers. So far (after one issue), I don’t see any problems in eventually achieving that goal.

In addition to the mystery of Brainiac Five’s experiment with the Speed Force, two other mysteries are brought up in this first installment:
  • Who was the infant who was rocketed to Earth by his parents in the 31st century just as his unnamed planet was exploding, and why did the 31st century analogs of Jonathan and Martha Kent take aim to kill the tyke with a double-barreled energy disruptor rifle?

  • Which Legion timeline/parallel Earth future did Superman actually end up in, and why are the Legionnaires fugitives in it? Additionally, why is Earth’s sun red in that version of the 31st century—and, if it prematurely entered into its red giant phase (by several billion years), why hasn’t it incinerated the Earth?

As far as I know, the first mystery has nothing to do with DC continuity. I’m as perplexed and intrigued as Johns undoubtedly wants readers to be about this plot point.

In “The Lightning Saga,” Superman referred to this Action Comics Legion adventure as “The Legion of Three Worlds,” and it looks like we were introduced to two of those “worlds” in this first issue—the Silver Age “Adult Legion” from Superman’s past, and a separate adult Legion from a dystopian future in which the Legionnaires are fugitives from the law.

To round out “the Legion of Three Worlds,” it seems likely that the third Legion that will appear in this arc will be the version of the team that is currently appearing in Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes.

The question about which Legion timelines (or “worlds” or ret cons) are involved in the story is something that longtime Legion readers going back to the Silver Age will undoubtedly enjoy trying to answer. However, I don’t believe it’s essential that newer readers understand these things.

For newer readers, the question of which future Superman appeared in should be no more of a problem than when Chris Claremont and John Byrne first introduced the “Days of Future Past” arc in Uncanny X-Men #141-42 in 1981. Newer readers should feel like they are encountering these futures for the first time and not focus on the fact that they won’t pick up things that longtime readers will notice.

Writers should be able to create stories that use continuity without requiring encyclopedic knowledge of that continuity. Similarly, newer readers shouldn’t feel that writers shouldn’t use material from a time before those readers started reading comics.

I’m intrigued and eagerly looking forward to the next issue—and it’s rare that I say that about any comic book nowadays. The last time I eagerly awaited comics on a regular basis was in the early to mid 1980s, before the original Legion was wiped out of continuity. Fortunately, it looks like that continuity (or a semblance of it) is being restored. For the moment, so is the eager anticipation of my youth.

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