Action Comics #844 arrived yesterday [unlike Seven Soldiers #1 -- I'm in the Memphis service area, apparently], but does it signal the start of the “Donner Superman?”
I don’t remember Superman getting a qualifier before John Byrne came along. It’s not like there was a “Curt Swan Superman,” although Swan was the dominant Superman artist of my ’70s childhood. Likewise, he didn’t belong to Cary Bates, Elliott S! Maggin, or Marv Wolfman. He was just Superman — greatest hero of Earth-1, former Legionnaire, current Justice Leaguer, mild-mannered anchorman for a great fourth-network newscast, etc. He wasn’t quite the same guy created by Jerry & Joe some forty years before, but there had never really been a break from that character either. Byrne and Crisis On Infinite Earths provided that break, and because Byrne did most of the heavy lifting for the big Superman relaunch, his name got attached to the character.
Accordingly, the “Byrne Superman” was shorthand for the stripped-down post-Crisis mythology. However, the Byrne Superman seemed defined by what he couldn’t do. He couldn’t travel through time unaided, needed air to survive in space, and lacked total recall. Similarly, the Byrne Superman hadn’t been Superboy, didn’t have a Kryptonian cousin or a Kryptonian pet, and was never in the Justice League or the Legion of Super-Heroes.
Of course, all of this deprivation was in service of a new focus on Superman himself, in an effort to emulate Christopher Reeve’s tremendously endearing portrayal. Reeve’s Superman didn’t have to share the screen with Krypto, Supergirl, or the bottle city of Kandor. He just seemed like an incredibly decent person, raised by practical people who hadn’t quite lost their idealism.
When John Byrne left the Superman titles in 1988, he was replaced by what developed into a platoon of creative personnel. There were phases where, arguably, Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, or Jeph Loeb seemed to be the most prominent creative force, but by and large, no one talked about an individual putting his or her stamp on the character the way Byrne had.
So now, after years of enough creative folk to fill a George Perez two-page spread*, plus a little therapy session called Infinite Crisis, DC has given us several months’ worth of the very fine Kurt Busiek Superman, along with (mostly) bi-monthly installments of the very fun Grant Morrison Superman. But wait, DC says: those were just warmups. Here’s the guy who can claim at least partial credit for the Byrne Superman in the first place — Richard Donner, director of the first 1 3/4 Superman movies!
SPOILERS FOLLOW, natcherly:
As it turns out, on first reading Action Comics #844, the “Donner Superman” might well be a weird melding of Busiek and Morrison. It certainly aspires to Morrisonian legitimacy in its attempts to weave father/son themes throughout the issue. If those themes were supposed to be subtle, I’ve got some bad news — once you start looking for them, they end up practically leaping off the page. There’s Kal-El and Jor-El, Perry and Clark, Clark and Jimmy, the government and the kid, and Superman and the kid. Indeed, when Superman first lays eyes on the Kryptonian boy, his own reflection is overlaid in the “glass” of the boy’s spacecraft. By the time the “S” block is featured in the boy’s playtime, the point has been made, even belabored.
Superman’s concerns about the Defense Department’s reaction to the boy also recall Busiek’s recent “Subjekt 17″ story, in which the titular villain was a strange alien visitor shaped by an uncaring government into an uncaring warrior. Here, Superman takes the boy to the best place he knows for the proper raising of super-powered children — the Kent farm, introduced by a mailbox familar to anyone who’s seen the first Superman Returns trailer. That put me so much into “movie mode” I was actually surprised to see Jonathan Kent alive. (Is this the first appearance of the Kents, post-Infinite Crisis? Nice to know they both survived.)
Other parts of the issue recall the first movie, including a raid on a government convoy, the naked alien boy, and Perry White’s demeanor. Adam Kubert draws Clark to look like Brandon Routh, puts Routh’s “S” buckle on Superman’s costume, and makes the Daily Planet‘s newsroom look like Bryan Singer’s. I guess that’s to be expected. (Moreover, he makes Superman look like Glenn Ford, at least to me, but I don’t think that was intentional.) Some little touches also seem more like Donner than typical Geoff Johns, chief among them a one-panel “I’ll have to call you back…” gag during the boy’s crash landing.
There are some clunky bits of dialogue too, mostly exposition reminding characters of things they already know. Jor-El tells Superman that Krypton lives on through him. Sarge Steel introduces himself to Superman and then says “it’s good to see you again.” (And wouldn’t Superman, all-around nice guy, remember Steel from the umpteen other times they surely have met?) Superman’s boy-scout-isms also feel a little forced.
Back to the art: it’s funny, but although Superman is in most of the issue, it takes a while for him to be seen full-on, facing the “camera.” On the opening two-page spread he’s looking away, and in other panels (including the cover) his head is partially obscured. It’s almost like the camera has to get used to seeing him, or he must get used to it, by my reckoning until the last panel on page 10. Even the “widescreen” moments are presented in this impressionistic, quick-cut way.
I’d really love to see a breakdown of who brought what to this issue, because otherwise I have to presume that Johns is translating Donner’s ideas into script form, for Kubert to then render. If that’s the case, then a lot of Donner appears to be making it onto the page. That may not give Kubert enough credit, because certainly his work (along with colorist Dave Stewart) is rich with detail and texture.
As mentioned above, though, the issue doesn’t have the same expansive scope that characterized the first two Reeve movies. They opened with, respectively, the destruction of Krypton and Superman saving Paris from an H-bomb. This issue’s big sequence is Superman stopping the boy’s spacecraft from … blowing up something when it crashes, I guess; it’s never quite clear what the stakes are, either for the craft or for Metropolis. Indeed, the whole issue explores the aforementioned parental dynamics, mixing them with Superman’s unease over the government’s treatment of the boy. It’s not a bad way to start the arc, and overall it’s not a bad first issue by any means, but before too long the story will have to embrace its inner blockbuster. That’s what the Entertainment Weekly readers are expecting, right? I heard John Williams in my head a few times during “Up, Up And Away!,” but reading this issue my inner soundtrack was silent.
Regardless of whether Donner, Johns, and Kubert blow the doors off Action Comics, though, I don’t think the “Donner Superman” will achieve the name-check status of the “Byrne Superman.” The restrictions Byrne placed on Superman are falling away, if not gone already, lifted by the events of Infinite Crisis and Busiek and Johns’ “Up, Up And Away!” They had already been under attack by Grant Morrison in All-Star Superman. The mandate now is to make the mythology inclusive of the best parts of all its iterations, and from that melting pot it doesn’t seem likely that any individual will overshadow the others. Instead, Superman, All-Star, and Action have each carved out their own niches, with Busiek focusing on the superhero, Morrison the legend, and Donner the alien.
However, if you go by numbers, Busiek’s output is pretty far ahead of his colleagues’. Busiek wins again!
* (including Perez himself)