Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest: Action Comics #900

Posted: Sunday, May 1, 2011
By: Thom Young

DC Comics
Warning: The following reviews of Action Comics #900 contain spoilers of a story element that has already been widely reported in the national media and discussed on comic book Web sites.

Jamil Scalese:
Chris Kiser:
Thom Young:

Jamil Scalese:

In the 900th edition of Action Comics the most iconic of icons does the unimaginable . . . he hangs out with a giant, purple ghost hippo.

Superman does other stuff, too--like defeating Lex Luthor, who is surging with infinite power; having drinks with the Legion of Super-Heros; declaring his neutral nationality; and getting jealous about some guy flirting with Lois. Action Comics #900 a celebrates one of the world’s most beloved characters by examining him through a variety of scopes.

I’ve heard great murmurings about Action Comics recently, but I have had a hard time justifying another book on my budget, but I picked this issue up because it’s a milestone issue. This 900th issue starts with the conclusion of the Luthor-centric “Black Ring” story and a continuation of the “Reign of Doomsday” crossover. Despite not having followed these two storylines, this installment was actually easy to jump into, as Paul Cornell skillfully mixes exposition into his dialogue.

The main art duties for this chapter are split into two parts by Pete Woods and Jesus Merino with a litany of assists. Generally, the pages are superb, but I was disoriented in some of the Pete Wood space scenes regarding what exactly was happening, but part of this problem was a coloring issue.

The core action of the main story revolves a clever dilemma for Luthor: blanket the universe in harmonious bliss or destroy Superman--pick one. Cornell’s take on Supes’s greatest foe is interesting in that it’s a nice bend on the typical Lex versus Clark story, but it holds onto the natural themes that we expect from the dynamic.

Superman has reprimanded Luthor in the past for misusing his intellect and ability for the sole purpose of vengeance, and that concept is injected with steroids here. I enjoyed it; by the end, though, I wouldn’t say this story broke much new ground in the terms of the rivalry between the two. Particularly because it seems like Lex loses his short-term memory by the conclusion.

The true noteworthy development that this issue will be remembered for is Superman’s unexpected relinquishment of his American citizenship in “The Incident” by David S. Goyer. Already, the real world . . . yes, that one outside of comics . . . has taken notice to this surprise change in who some would consider the ultimate symbol of America. A few are peeved about it, others are curious about the character’s future. I . . . didn’t even realize this development was considered to be in continuity. Once I re-read the story, I understood the meaning of it a little better--but it still reads like a publicity grab to me.

Superman has recently walked the entire continental United States in order to rekindle his relationship with his adopted homeland in the “Grounded” storyline. This markedly different direction seems as if it’s a ploy to get attention for the milestone issue by garnering attention from outside the comic based news markets, particularly the 24-hour news stations.

However, in terms of making sense, I think Goyer nailed the move. This development represents Superman evolving with the world; it represents the globalization of the American culture and it’s a commentary on how so much has changed since the debut of Action Comics #1 more than 70 years ago.

In the near future a three-hour plane ride will be able to get you anywhere on the planet--a feat that was unthinkable in 1938. The world is becoming one place instead of a collection of places, and it is definitely within Kal-El’s range to serve everyone else along with the fifty states. Overall, I don’t think the renunciation of the character’s US citizenship will make much of a difference in the grand scheme of the future adventures of Superman.

My favorite backup story was “Life Support” written by Damon Lindelof and drawn by Ryan Sook. As a formerLost fanatic, I was hit with a bit of nostalgia after reading this story about Jor-El’s preparation to launch his son from the dying planet of Krypton. Being thrust into an unknown locale in this story, with no context of the character or subject, and having to search the panels for clues on what the hell was going on, was all a trip back to that television series for me.

Lost was excellent in making the narrative a labyrinth for the audience, and in the tiny stage of this Superman backup story I was engaged in a tale that added gravity to the origin of the world’s greatest hero. Lindelof is a talented story-weaver, with a distinct preference on how to go about unwinding a narrative. It also doesn’t hurt that Sook provides some of the best art of the entire issue.

The rest of the stories in the issue were decent, but I was generally underwhelmed. The dinner party team-up of Clark, Lois, and the Legion of Super-Heroes could have been trimmed in half. The odd “Autobiography” featuring the aforementioned purple ghost hippo and the Richard Donner and Derek Hoffman-penned Superman script/comic hybrid were not poorly done, but they aren’t significant enough to spoil in a review.

There have been more issues of Action Comics than any other superhero series ever, and this issue is its commemoration. Thus, it’s an obvious must-own for any-and-all Superman aficionados, but the series is still a coin-flip for casual fans like me. Still though, I can foresee #901 making it onto my pile in a month. I think my budget can handle it.

Chris Kiser:

From confounding editorial machinations to bizarre experiments with format, Action Comics #900 makes nearly every mistake an oversized anniversary issue could. Nevertheless, it also may very well be the most satisfying mainstream superhero reading experience so far this year. It’s almost impossible to comprehend how a single book with so many flaws could end up being this spectacular.

To be fair, some level of internal inconsistency is customary when there are this many cooks in the comic-creating kitchen. As is the trend nowadays whenever a series reaches a numbering plateau divisible by 100, this issue consists of a slightly longer than normal feature story followed by a various assortment of shorts.

Of those shorts, only the one by Damon Lindelof (which really does read like an episode of Lost set on Krypton) is of notable quality. Neither Paul Dini, Geoff Johns, nor Richard Donner comes close to matching the level of their contributions to Superman in the past, while David Goyer does his best to bolster fan skepticism of his upcoming big budget take. Say what you will about the media hoopla surrounding his change to the Man of Steel’s citizenship, it’s nonetheless worrisome to see the man responsible for the next Superman screenplay so closely mimicking the work of J. Michael Straczynski.

It is the main story, however, where things get really frustratingly crazy. As the finale to Paul Cornell’s superb string of stories starring Lex Luthor, this segment is destined for posterity in a soon-to-be essential hardcover collection. It’s strange, then, that the powers at DC would choose this moment to cram the elements of a superfluous company crossover down our throats.

While Cornell was crafting a classic Lex Luthor story, the other Superman family titles have been embroiled in a rather dull series of slugfests called “Reign of Doomsday.” For reasons unknown (but possibly related to numerology), someone thought it was a good idea to meld this half-baked Doomsday story with the Luthor story--forever ruining the latter’s chance at any sense of literary integrity. The results are pretty much as bad as you might imagine, forcing the reader to be constantly vigilant in mentally separating the “real” story from its forced add-on.

Thankfully, Cornell refuses to let such buffoonery get him down. The conclusion he devises for Luthor’s epic quest is so powerful, so well executed, so character defining that it shines through every inch of muck that “Reign of Doomsday” piles on top of it. If you’ve been following Action Comics for the past year, there is not a chance that you’ll walk away from this issue disappointed.

In fact, it’s quite possible that Paul Cornell has written the best Lex Luthor story ever told. He sets the villain up as a tragic character without once compromising his unrelenting malevolence--perfectly confirming that no one else is quite so suited to be the Man of Steel’s opposite number. Without a doubt, this is an ending worth reading over and over again.

It’s just a shame that those re-readings will also include so many scenes involving Superman’s friends fighting Doomsday. Without that nasty piece of subtraction by addition, this could have been unquestioningly one of the greatest of Action’s 900 issues. As it is, it’s still probably better than at least 800 of them.

Thom Young:

I don’t normally read the Superman Family titles, but I always check out the first issue of an “All-New Direction” for any of these series--and sometimes I stick around until the new direction plays out and the series returns to the status quo. Thus, I bought the first issue of J. Michael Straczynski’s first issue of Superman that revised the old Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow concept of having the title heroes reconnect with themselves and the public by traveling the highways and byways of America (though Straczynski chose to have Superman do it by foot rather than by automobile).

I didn’t much care for the writing on that first issue of “Superman Travels America on Foot,” so I decided to wait until the character set off in his next “All-New Direction.”

Meanwhile, back at Action Comics, Paul Cornell was given the task of writing a Superman series in which Superman could not appear for at least one year, so I read the first issue of that All-New Direction, too, and I liked it enough to keep reading Action Comics for the entire year. Thus, I was looking forward to this milestone issue of DC’s second-oldest continuously published comic book series* in which Superman returns to action by dealing with Luthor’s latest scheme.

Unfortunately, the conclusion of Cornell’s Lex Luthor story is an underwhelming mess.

As my colleague Chris Kiser mentioned in his review, the merging of Cornell’s story with the “Reign of Doomsday” crossover that has been running through other Superman Family titles weakens the effectiveness of the concluding chapter of “The Black Ring.” I’ve not been following “Reign of Doomsday,” and the title character of that crossover arc is my least favorite Superman villain of all time.

I normally bristle at contemporary crossover stories that are meant to get readers to buy series we otherwise might not buy each month. When I was a kid, though, the sporadic crossover story (such as the Superman-Flash race in Superman #199 and Flash #175) was a rare-enough event that I didn’t mind reading an issue of a series I otherwise might not read. Now, however, these types of marketing stunts are so common that I am often driven to NOT buy any of the issues rather than follow the story across multiple titles.

Cornell’s conclusion to “The Black Ring” is further weakened by the rather anti-climatic introduction of Superman to his story.

The now god-like Luthor floats in interstellar space “about six and a half thousand lightyears from Earth” and uses his near-omnipotent power to pull Superman through an Einstein-Rosen bridge so that he can destroy the Man of Tomorrow in that interstellar void.

I suppose it’s fortunate that Superman had finished his walk across America before Luthor became a god-like being who is powered by the black spheres that I still believe are at least the distant relatives of the black spheres in Justice League of America (first series) #55. Imagine how much the plans for the Superman title would have been altered had Luthor acquired his god-like powers earlier than he did and pulled Supes through that Einstein-Rosen bridge before he reached the Pacific Ocean!

I’m not sure why Luthor brought Superman “about six and a half thousand lightyears from Earth.” I would think he would find it more fulfilling to destroy Superman on Earth in front of an audience. Whatever the reason, the interstellar setting was unfortunate as panel after panel merely showed a giant, glowing Luthor talking to (and sometimes screaming at) a mostly motionless Superman.

I wouldn’t have minded this relatively static setting had I actually been interested in what Luthor and Superman were discussing--but it was mostly the unimaginative and stereotypical subject that Luthor has been discussing with Superman for several years now: Superman shouldn’t be humanity’s savior because he’s not human; Luthor should be humanity’s savior instead, and he will destroy Superman to rid humanity of this false Messiah, et cetera. The only new wrinkle was that Luthor is now even more alien than Superman, as he has merged with the black spheres and the alien caterpillar known as Mr. Mind in order to become god-like.

Nevertheless, while the story was largely ridden with clichés, there were some “mental landscapes” and flashback memories that were interesting--but even those just continued to cover the same old Luthor-Superman relationship clichés. The only real point of interest is the concept that Luthor could have brought absolute peace and serenity to the entire universe (as well as possess complete omnipotence) if he would choose to release his negative thoughts of destroying Superman. Of course, he can’t choose to be the savior of the universe in that manner because he hates Superman too much.

(Also, of course, Lex can’t accept the role of Universal Messiah because it would have made all of DC’s superheroes superfluous and the DC universe would not have any more villains in it as everyone basked in the bliss of Luthor’s beneficence.)

Thus, Luthor tries to destroy Superman with his nearly omnipotent abilities. As usual, he fails--so he tries several more times, and each subsequent failed attempt weakens him until, after numerous attempts, he simply becomes the same old Lex we’ve always had (more or less). In other words, Cornell’s new direction for Action Comics plays out and we have a return to the status quo--until, of course, the next All-New Direction pops up.

Well, that didn’t take too long. The next All-New Direction for Superman popped up in this very issue in a story titled “The Incident” in which the Man of Tomorrow renounces his US citizenship in order to represent himself as a world citizen.

Much has been made of this new development to the Superman mythos as the national media have mentioned this plot element and roundly criticized it as being both anti-American and anti-Superman. However, not only does Superman’s decision to prompote himself as a citizen of the world make sense, it’s really not all that new of a development within the Superman mythos.

In the 1970s, Dennis O’Neil and Elliot S. Maggin wrote similar stories of Superman being a world citizen, and Paul Dini and Alex Ross’s Superman: Peace on Earth from 1999 has a similar take on Superman. The only real difference in David S. Goyer’s story in this latest issue is that the Global Guardian officially renounces his US citizenship in order to better present himself as a world citizen.

Of course, his renunciation of US citizenship is entirely symbolic, as Superman did not actually pay federal or state taxes nor need the protection of the US government in any manner. Obviously, Clark Kent will still have to pay his federal and state taxes, and he will continue to be required to obey the laws of the United States, the states of New York and/or Connecticut, and the city of Metropolis (along with the laws of whatever county Metropolis is in).

For everyone in America who is upset with this latest turn of events in the mythos of the Man of Steel, there are two things to keep in mind. First, Superman is a fictional character whose “life” is entirely fictional. Second, regardless of how this development might temporarily alter the mythos, there is always a return to the status quo after these types of publicity stunts have played themselves out.

The more significant issue isn’t the plot development of Superman renouncing his US citizenship, but how well executed the story was. In that regard, it falters in terms of narrative technique--which I will address in a moment, but first there are some minor quibbles I want to mention.

The first minor error occurs in the opening panel, which sets the scene as “Camp David--Frederick, Maryland.”

I live in Frederick, Maryland, and I can assure you that Camp David is not part of the town in which I live. Instead, Camp David is about 20 miles north of Frederick’s northern boundary (thus, it’s about 20 miles north of my house, which sits near the city’s northern boundary).

Camp David is actually part of Thurmont, Maryland--which is in Frederick County, but is not even considered a suburb of Frederick.

Another quibble I had with the story is with Superman’s decision to fly to Tehran, Iran to stand as a silent sentinel during civilian protests directed towards the Iranian government. After 24 hours of standing silently in Azadi Square as a symbol of nonviolent resistance, Superman flies off. A US government official later asks him whether his symbolic act did any good--“Did the regime promise to start instituting democratic reforms?”

With body language that conveys deep regret, Superman answers, “No,” and he later acknowledges that his action was “foolish of me” as he responds to the US official’s claim that the Iranian government is viewing Superman’s action as an act of war that was ordered by the US government. It is for this reason that Superman renounces his US citizenship--so that his international actions won’t be considered the implementation of US foreign policy.

However, separate from US foreign policy, the philosophy behind his act reveals that Superman really isn’t a “citizen of the world” at all. The worldview that informed his action shows that at most he is simply a citizen of the are in which the Northern and Western hemispheres of the globe overlap.

He is someone who fully accepts the notion that the preferred form of government for all human societies is a democratic republic (such as is common in most of Europe and North America) rather than a form of government that meets the unique cultural and symbolic needs of a non-Western society.

I would have thought Superman would have had a worldview that was more culturally and philosophically aware--especially if he’s going to set himself up as a world citizen. I guess you can take the boy out of the American heartland but you can’t take the American heartland out of the boy--even when that “boy” is of extraterrestrial origin.

Finally, the bigger problem in Goyer’s story has to do with actual storytelling techniques--in other words, with the actual execution of the story.

Early in the story, the US government official (specifically, the President’s National Security Advisor) asks Superman, “What in God’s name were you thinking?” At this point, the reader has no idea what the question refers to. In reply, Superman provides exposition for the reader by telling the government official details about the situation in Iran and his trip to Iran that the President’s National Security Advisor would have already known.

Exposition in which one character tells another character something that the second character already knows is clunky storytelling. Obviously, such exposition is done for the reader’s sake. However, within the logic of the story itself this type of exposition makes absolutely no sense.

One obvious way to fix the problem would be for Superman to have still engaged in the exact same exposition but have him tell it to someone who did not already know the details of his trip to Tehran. For instance, it’s entirely plausible that the Iranian government would not have allowed any information of Superman’s appearance to be released through regular media channels, so Superman might have chosen to tell his story directly to the American people in a nationally televised interview conducted live by Lois Lane.

Much as Lebron James’s “Decision” last summer, Superman might have revealed his “decision” at the end of the interview--possibly shocking his own wife in the process.

This same type of clunky exposition was also a problem in Paul Cornell’s story--particularly with the “Reign of Doomsday” crossover that was forced into Cornell’s narrative. Obviously, Cornell needed to explain to his readers what was going on in this inserted storyline that they may not have been following. However, he chose to convey that exposition by having Supergirl, Superboy, Steel, and The Krypton Man (aka The Eradicator) discuss things that all of them already knew.

In one severely clunky scene, they tell each other what they had all just done together off panel:
Krypton Man to the others: “We’ve left Doomsday and the Cyborg behind.”

Supergirl to the others: “Doomsday was somehow countering my heat vision back there, but he didn’t seem tuned into the rest of your powers anymore.”
Be honest, how many of you walk from one room into another with someone and then start telling each other what the two of you did in the room you just left?
You to your friend or family member: “We ate dinner just now, and I had a beer with my meal.”

Your friend to you: “Yes, and I had water. Instead of having a conversation during dinner, we watched the network news while we ate.”
Fortunately, clunky exposition was not a problem with any of the other stories in this issue.

In “Autobiography,” which is nicely illustrated by RB Silva, writer Paul Dini (and possibly Silva, depending on how much control the illustrator had in designing the character) would have us believe that a god-like extraterrestrial is a giant purple hippopotamus. Of course, Superman is a god-like extraterrestrial who looks like an Earth human, so why couldn’t another god-like extraterrestrial look like a giant purple hippopotamus who appears more Hindu in design than extraterrestrial.

However, that’s not where the strangeness ends. Apparently, with nowhere else to go, this giant purple hippopotamus from space is going to be a resident of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude for the next several centuries as he lives out his life as Superman’s house guest.

In “Friday Night in the 21st Century,” Geoff Johns and Gary Franks tell us the story of Lois Lane looking for (and finding) her Legion of Super-Heroes flight ring so that she can invite Clark’s 31st-century friends over for a night of pizza, Chinese takeout, and bottled soda.

It’s only a four-page story (with two of those pages being a double-page scene of the party), so it’s not something that has much depth to it. However, I did enjoy Lightning Lass’s facial expression as she seems to realize that her one-time boyfriend, Timber Wolf, has disappeared with an entire pepperoni pizza--I’m just not sure why Timber Wolf is being depicted as a glutton who hides from view so that he can wolf down an entire pepperoni pizza by himself (pun intended.)

In “Only Human,” the director of the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films, Richard Donner, gives us the script of a scene that could appear in his next Superman film were he to write one (with co-writer Derek Hoffman and storyboards by Matt Camp). It’s an engaging scene from what could be a third Donner Superman movie.

It’s somewhat unfortunate that in some places the storyboards by Matt Camp look every bit as stiff as actual movie storyboards. In one, for instance, Jimmy Olsen looks like a poorly drawn cardboard cutout rather than an actual person. Obviously, though, that stiff, cardboard cutout look was intentional, so it’s really just a minor quibble with the fact that this story was done as a movie storyboard.

Finally, in the best story of the issue, Damon Lindelof gives us “Life Support”--which is exceptionally illustrated by Ryan Sook. It’s a story that takes place in the office of Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El, as he discusses a technological problem with a young Kryptonian who is an expert in molecular chemistry, biometrics, and nanoengineering.

I must confess that I was surprised by the depiction of Krypton in this story. I was under the impression that the crystal-based society that John Byrne introduced in his revamp of Superman 25 years ago was still the in-continuity version of Superman’s home planet (based on the depiction of Krypton in the Richard Donner film, obviously).

I never liked Byrne’s revision of Krypton, so this latest depiction (though still not my favorite) is a welcome change.

Initially, I approved of Lindelof’s decision to add to the Superman mythos by having Jor-El outsource some work that he needed to have completed. After all, on Krypton Jor-El had no superpowers and could not have done everything by himself.

Ultimately, though, this story slightly disappointed me in that Jor-El didn’t just outsource work that was based on his own concepts and designs; he required the young Kryptonian scientist to fully develop a miniaturized life support system himself. Jor-El didn’t conceive or design anything; he simply said, I need you to create a life support system that can provide air, water, and food for several years and that can fit into an object that is roughly the size of a baseball (of course, they wouldn’t have baseballs on Krypton, but that was about the size of the object).

Since this is the House of El (the Hebrew word that signifies the supreme deity), I prefer to think that Jor-El conceived of everything himself--and that he might only require ingenious workers to build the systems he designed, so the notion of Jor-El being a Kryptonian businessman who hired brilliant scientists to create his technology for him didn’t match my notion of Superman’s father.

The end of the story also bothers me as the young Kryptonian scientist is made aware of the fact that he will be building a life support system that will save Jor-El’s infant son while his own daughter is doomed to perish in Krypton’s destruction. It’s obviously meant to be a rather poignant revelation, but it didn’t ring true for me that Jor-El would be that psychologically cruel (albeit passively)--nor that the young Kryptonian scientist would devote his time to Jor-El’s request rather than using his brilliant mind to come up with a plan to try to save his own child.

Still, despite my misgivings with the story, Lindelof and Sook’s “Life Support” is easily the best story of the issue. If they were given the chance to develop the next “All-New Direction” for Superman, I would probably stick around until they finished their story and the mythos returned to the status quo. As it is, #900 is my last issue of Action Comics for a while--possibly until issue #1,000 is published in about eight years.

* Detective Comics #1 came out about 14 months before Action Comics #1, but the company’s namesake series did not go weekly for 42 issues in the 1980s the way Action Comics did. Thus, it still has about two more years before it reaches issue #900.

Additionally, now that DC has returned to the original series numbering for their resurrected Adventure Comics, I suppose that series can be considered (technically) DC’s oldest series that is currently being published, as its first issue came out about 16 months before Detective Comics #1. Of course, there was a 26-year gap in the publication of Adventure Comics, so it fails to meet the criteria of being “continuously published.”

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