Posts from September 2009

September 18th, 2009

Comics! Gods and guys on the subway!


A weirdly off-key week in comics, full of issues that were more concerned with setting up other issues than with telling their own stories. The latest issue of “Captain America Reborn” was a place-holding affair, and the summer’s standout series, “Blackest Night,” featured a big crowd of snarling zombie-esque villains being held at bay by a group of desperate heroes – for page after page, panel after panel, without much else happening (except that we learned what the PURPLE Lanterns specialty is: droning exposition!).

There were some standout moments, however, even though one of them – in the latest “Amazing Spider-Man,” still retains the power to irritate. The issue was all about the love-life vicissitudes of our hapless hero Peter Parker, and that’s fine, time-honored territory. No, the irritation comes from remembering that none of these great stories fall into normal Spider-Man continuity … all of this is a weird, retro placidity bought through a deal with the devil. It’s tough to enjoy it all – as enjoyable as it undeniably is – when you know, you just know, that some writer is going to come along sometime in the next two years and undo it all.

And then there’s the issue’s cover! Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun picture (done by Mike Mayhew, whom we’ve met here before), with a chubby Spider-cupid smack dab in the middle. But off to one side, we see a face-shot of someone I can only assume is supposed to be Peter Parker, only there’s one problem: the young man in question is a super-hottie. As a lifelong reader (although not always a fond one) of “Spider-Man,” I can’t help but think this is crucially wrong, despite how often different artists have made the same mistake. Peter Parker was a nerd in high school, a skinny kid who had to be smarter – and incidentally funnier (although Stan Lee had the original genius insight of having him only vent that side of his character when he was in costume fighting bad guys) – than the actual super-hotties (like that dreamy Flash Gordon). In adult life, Peter Parker should be an older version of the same skinny kid – lanky, vaguely schlubby, a slightly sad-sackish young guy who’s still the smartest, funniest guy in the room. He shouldn’t have the fresh, shiny face Mayhew gives him; instead, he should look like just another face on the train to Brooklyn.

Questions of artwork naturally crop up with the fourth issue of “Batman and Robin,” where the wretched, one-note fan favorite artwork of Frank Quitely has been replaced by the vigorous, moody pencils of Philip Tan, so we can all stop geeking out and concentrate on the story itself, which is formulaic but still mighty enjoyable: a charismatic, refreshingly three-dimensional Red Hood (and his sad, pathetic sidekick) taking Gotham’s criminal underworld by storm, telling his partner “I guess this is all about one crazy man in a mask taking revenge on another crazy man in a mask.” The main problem I had with this issue is the same one I’ve had with this whole series (and with the high-spirited antics over in “Red Robin”): if these titles keep being written so well, will any of us want the original Caped Crusader back?


To put it mildly, a variation of that same question obtains over in Marvel’s “Dark Avengers” series, the central title in its current “Dark Reign” story arc. As you may recall, in that arc the bad guys have won and are running the show: Norman Osborn, formerly the villainous Green Goblin, is now in charge of Nick Fury’s old government-funded paramilitary operation S.H.I.E.L.D., now known as H.A.M.M.E.R., and every hero who hasn’t agreed to knuckle under to Osborn’s dictatorial rule has been outlawed and hunted by Osborn’s hand-picked team of villainous Avengers, including Ares, the brutish Greek god of war. Fury himself has returned and is in hiding, training a cadre of new heroes to strike back against Osborn when the time comes, and one of those young heroes is Alex, the young son of Ares, and in the latest issue of “Dark Avengers” (with more knockout artwork by Mike Deodato, whose stuff has never been better), Ares gets wise to this fact, follows Alex as he’s taken to Fury’s hideout, and breaks down the door, intent on gods know what.

That’s the setup of that fantastic cover the issue sports, and in tried-and-true Marvel fashion, the cover is what the kids call a total lie. As awesome as it would be to see a well-orchestrated battle between Ares and Nick Fury (who’s a pretty damn good god of war in his own right), it doesn’t happen, because Brian Michael Bendis’ script is far too smart to let things get that far. For this entire series, Bendis’ Ares has been very nicely complex – he’s not afraid of Osborn, and he’s not beguiled by him in the way some of his other Dark Avengers might be … instead, his vast godlike powers are governed by a weirdly predictable, otherworldly sense of right and wrong, which Osborn cannily uses but can’t alter. It’s a great funhouse-mirror version of Thor’s participation in the Avengers, and it’s one of the best parts of Dark Reign’s Dark Avengers.

This version of Ares isn’t just a villain, and when he confronts Nick Fury at the climax of this issue, he confesses that he’s at his wit’s end dealing with his little boy. Fury isn’t angry, and he isn’t fawning – he just tells Ares that he’s been training the boy and is impressed by his potential, and that gets to Ares, who utters that rarest of comic book lines: “I don’t know what to do.”

In the end he decides to leave the boy in Fury’s care and simply walks out. It’s wonderfully done, entirely believable on all counts, but I can’t help but wonder how it’ll play out when the whole “Dark Reign” story comes to an end – and as with “Batman and Robin,” I’m no longer oh so impatient for that to happen. This is good storytelling, weird unheroic premise or no weird unheroic premise.

January 14th, 2009

Mary Jane!


Our book today is Judith O’Brien’s 2004 ‘young adult’ novel Mary Jane, a book which takes as its setting the Marvel Comics world of the Ultimate Spider-Man comic books. The vague borders of that setting will be familiar even to non-comics fans because of the three enormously popular and lucrative Spider-Man movies: teen nerd Peter Parker, classmate to studly Flash Thompson, wealthy Harry Osborn, and artistic free-spirited Mary Jane Watson, is bitten by a radioactive spider and acquires super-strength, super-agility, and the ability to cling to walls (in the movies, and so in the ‘Ultimate’ storyline, and so in this book, he also acquires a newly-sculpted physique, perfect eyesight, and the ability to shoot organic webbing out of his wrists).

In Stan Lee’s original conception of the character, Peter Parker’s gaining super-powers doesn’t change his social life at all: he’s still a gangly nerd, a social outcast. He hides his newfound abilities from his schoolmates, but he still wants to show off – so he dons a homemade costume and enters a stunt-wrestling match for cash and fame, then dedicates himself to a life of crime-fighting when his negligence inadvertently leads to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben.

In the Ultimate retelling – and in Mary Jane – Peter’s fate isn’t quite so hopeless. His sudden physicality briefly makes him the star of the basketball team and turns him from a pariah into a superstar in the school’s hallways, much to the chagrin of Flash Thompson, and much to the annoyance of Mary Jane, who starts to think bitter thoughts about what the change in Peter’s social status means:

The difference between popularity and dorkdom was a couple of well-developed muscles and even facial features. Looks are everything. Appearances define all else. Brains are fine, as long as they are packaged so they don’t show.

The plot of Mary Jane revolves around a fairly typical YA contrivance – something’s turning all her high school classmates weird, and perhaps that something might be the new soft drink everybody’s swigging – a soft drink developed by Harry Osborn’s malevolent industrialist father, Norman Osborn, known to all comics fans as the villainous Green Goblin, Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis. In the novel, the main reason Mary Jane is facing this crisis alone is because Peter Parker is at home grief-stricken over the death of Uncle Ben, although when Mary Jane’s phone calls fill him in on the situation, the mysterious masked figure, Spider-Man, starts making appearances and even saving Mary Jane’s life.

Judith O’Brien displays many kinds of storytelling genius in the course of this novel (and considering the lineup of Marvel, Inc. corporate suits listed in the front of the book, perhaps the most singular act of her genius was to get the book written at all), and one of her best tricks is how she consistently keeps the super-hero stuff outside her story. She dedicates the book “for anyone who has ever gone to high school,” and she stays very true to that. This is the story of sweet, smart Mary Jane and the bright, refreshingly real boy she’s always kind of loved, and the deftness with which O’Brien brings them closer and closer is what will stay with you long after you’ve forgotten about mind-altering soft drinks.

O’Brien brings a sensitivity to her pre-ordained subject matter that’s rarely done so well in the genre. When Spider-Man saves Mary Jane from being hit by a car and deposits her on the sidewalk, the moment is every bit as awkward in the book as it would be in reality:

Spider-Man cleared his throat. “Do you need help getting home?”

“No,” she looked at the mask, trying to make out his features. But it was impossible to tell who he was, what he looked like. “Really, I’m okay.”

That voice. She knew that voice.

“Is that you, Peter?”

He made a sound. Laughter, maybe? A strange, gruff sound. Then he shook his head. “Just call me Spider-Man.”

“Yeah, sure. Then you can call me Wonder Woman.”

The final scene of Mary Jane has nothing to do with superpowers or villainous plots. There are no costumes in it, no sudden revelations – except all the little revelations involved in falling in love. O’Brien has written a minor-key, surprisingly affecting book, and she ends exactly where she should – on the threshold:

Without thinking, she stepped toward him and took his hand. It was surprisingly large, his hand, and warm. Slowly he raised his head.

A riot of emotions coursed through her at that moment. Empathy. Friendship. A deep sense of belonging. A sense of wishing to share everything with the person right next to her. And there was something else, something new and confusing and wonderful.

Passion?

“Mary Jane.” His breath ruffled her hair.

She swallowed. “Peter.”

Languidly he leaned to her, and pressed his lips to hers.

She slipped a hand up his arm, and then on the back of his neck. And the kiss deepened, sweet and inevitable as a sigh.

Then he pulled back, his face widening into a grin. “Something smells good.”

Returning his smile, she stroked the collar of his shirt. “It’s tuna casserole. The only thing missing was the potato chips for the top. And you brought them.”

Mary Jane has a dozen or so black-and-white illustrations by Mike Mayhew, all of which are vividly down-to-earth (given the nature of the novel, it’s not surprising that the actual shot of Spider-Man in action seems like a distraction from the more important views of our teenage characters going about their lives) and expertly detailed. But the real attraction here is the story, as any high school girl will spot right away. Target audiences are sharp like that.

November 20th, 2008

A Comics Shocker!

We interrupt our regularly scheduled entry today to do something I never thought I’d have occasion to do again: praise the daylights out of an issue of Spider-Man.

The issue in question was recently bought by Elmo: it’s Part 1 of “Unscheduled Stop,” written by Mark Waid and drawn by Marcos Martin, and it’s as good an issue of Spider-Man (which is, mind-bogglingly, up to #578, even though it feels like five minutes ago it was hitting #100) as we’ve seen in probably a good ten years, maybe longer.

The story starts simply enough, even charmingly: a rain-soaked Spider-Man is perched on a rooftop, not very well sheltered by the impromptu webbing-umbrella he’s made, eating some Chinese take-out and wishing he had carfare to get out of the weather and take the subway to meet his Aunt May in Brooklyn. When a subway card with fare still on it comes his way, he considers it his lucky day and (after switching to his Peter Parker clothes, naturally) sprints down to catch the next train.

As bad luck would have it, that train is attacked while it’s traveling under the East River – by a super-powered hitman who’s intent on killing the entire jury of an ongoing mob-trial. The jury is taking the train to view a crime scene, and when the subway car they’re in is separated from the rest of the train by the attack, the jurors find themselves in the subterranean company – and of course under the well-meaning protection of – Spider-Man. Which is a good thing, since the villain who stopped the train is still in the tunnel, intent on finishing the job.

The whole thing is handled perfectly. Waid writes a quirky, believable, entirely urban Spider-Man, and his dialog for everybody else is just the combination of urgent and breezy that used to make the book such a joy way back when Stan Lee was writing it. His Spider-Man is level-headed and opinionated, very much a person and not a paragon, and all the other characters trapped in that subway tunnel are equally distinct, including one whose identity is only revealed on the issue’s last page, and it’s a revelation absolutely nobody – and I mean nobody – will see coming. Not in forty years of reading Spider-Man did I ever even think to question the significance of two little letters…

And what to say about Marcos Martin? If I’ve ever seen his artwork before, I ignored it (if that happened, it’s almost certainly because it was poorly inked – you can tell at a glance that his penciling style is slangy and loose enough so that a lazy inker would make it look like crap despite its great structural strength), but boy, he’s great in this issue. His street-scenes are detailed like Norman Rockwell, as is the wonderfully personalized panel where Peter Parker is hurrying to catch the train. And his action-sequences (including the moment where Spider-Man confronts the issue’s villain, a tableau lifted with obvious affection from the great Steve Ditko, and a joy to all us long-time readers) are fantastic, which not every comic artist working on a flagship title today can say.

So what’s the problem, you ask? I loved the issue, and yet you’re sensing my reluctance, the grudging nature of all this praise?

I know it’ll sound funny considering that this is a comic book we’re talking about, but the problem with this issue is that it isn’t real.

As comics fans will know, last year Peter Parker’s dear old Aunt May was brutally gunned down in the aftermath of the whole ‘Civil War’ storyline (during which, to comply with the fascist Superhero Registration Act, Peter Parker unmasked on live TV). As she hovered on death’s doorstep, Peter literally made a deal with the devil to save her life: in exchange for malevolent supernatural being Mephisto reviving Aunt May, Peter had to agree to give up Mary Jane, his wife – not her life, but their life, the whole reality of their love. Peter agreed, and Mephisto reworked reality – no shooting, no Mary Jane, no public unmasking, plus lots of other tweakings here and there. Suddenly, the ‘reality’ of all the Spider-Man books was re-set, like a clock at Daylight Spending Time.

It was very weak dealing, a silly, lazy hail-mary move on the part of Marvel Comics – they had a successful movie franchise boiling along, and they needed a comics version of their character who was more reader-friendly, less encumbered by ‘Civil War’ baggage – more like he was in the ’60s. The ridiculous fiat of it made me so frustrated I was certain the issues that resulted would be garbage from wall to wall. And I was resigned to that, since I didn’t like the premise underlying those issues at all.

I still hate that premise (it’s so going to be overturned, vitiated, invalidated, the next time Spider-sales need a little goosing – and then where will all these issues be? Stuck in Spider-clone-land, I’m guessing), but regardless, it’s long since time I admitted it’s starting to produce some really good issues. I’ll definitely be bugging Elmo for the second installment of “Unscheduled Stop,” and that feeling – actually looking forward to an issue of Spider-Man – is so strange and comfortable to have back again that I can almost overlook the price that was paid to get us all here. Almost.

January 10th, 2007

More comics! To heal the rift!



It was a rainy day here in Palo Alto, and we wandered into the Android’s Dungeon looking to be amused. As a result, we walked out with a small batch of comics bought with our own ducats, not borrowed from Elmo or filched from my arch-nemesis Pepito.

A winning batch of comics! On the strength of its Civil War tie-in cred alone, I stooped to buying an … ick … Punisher title: ‘Punisher War Journal.’ And boy! Am I glad I did! The luminous scripting by Matt Fraction and the incredible artwork by Ariel Olivetti, the combination, is just stunning (stunning enough to insure that I go back and buy the first issue of ‘Punisher War Journal’ and every subsequent one that features this pair) but also perfectly distinct: at no point did I feel like I was reading any other comic on the market.

The plot of course revolves around where the Punisher fits in with the overall Civil War storyline – specifically, whether or not Captain America can trust the most notorious and ruthless vigilante in the Marvel Universe.

The best thing about Fraction’s writing is that he can write dialogue for these two men – the polar opposites of the Marvel Universe – in which both are completely in character.

My favorite part of the issue was the way Fraction consistently portrays a Frank Castle who knows that Captain America is every bit as tough and brave as he is, but who’s somehow managed to hold on to all the higher intangibles he himself believes he can’t afford.

I have only one question about the issue, one point I liked but didn’t derive. At one point, a gigantic retired S.H.I.E.L.D. agent says something to himself as a kind of private mantra: “Whatever he commands along the way … we must without recalcitrance obey.” I confess, I can’t place the quotation – I wonder even if Fraction invented it. It has the ring of dependency-prose, but I kind of like it nonetheless: any of you out there recognize it?

The second issue we bought on that rainy afternoon was the latest issue of Spider-Man, with wonderful scripting by J. Michael Straczynski and fantastic artwork by Ron Garney (he gets better and better with every issue, but he’s not at all right for Spider-Man … but I can’t quite figure out where he WOULD be perfect – any thoughts? Not a team book, certainly, but still … the perfect match eludes me…).

The centerpiece of this issue is the rooftop heart-to-heart between Captain America and Spider-Man. Naturally, having defected from the government’s fold, Spider-Man is looking for some consolation from the man running the opposition. Cue a standard-issue Captain America set-piece, but despite Spider-Man’s wonderfully delineated awestruck reaction (“Can I, like, carry your book to school? For the rest of my life?”), this is like no Captain America set-piece ever written.

He recalls a passage from Mark Twain, about what constitutes ‘the country’ – it’s a long passage, and I couldn’t help but be grateful for its quotation, since, for very different reasons, I’ve always treasured it too (it was the favorite of a friend of mine, a long time ago). It’s a call for individual responsibility, and it ends with this:

“If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country. Hold up your head, you have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Cap finishes and then adds this on his own: “Doesn’t matter what the press says, doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mob say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world … no, you move.”

This is something new, a Captain America who basically equates politicians with the mob, a Captain America who disavows duty to elected officials, presumably including the President, a Captain America, in other words, who no longer espouses patriotism in any of the ways it’s been previously understood.

I submit that this is a Captain America set-piece specifically tailored for the age of W.

This isn’t just a speech Captain America gives when Reed Richards and Iron Man are spearheading a Registration Act with which he disagrees – this is a speech Captain America makes when his writers feel their own participation in the democracy of their birth has been violated – violated not by the other guys being in power, darn them, not by lawful legislation with which they whole-heartedly disagree, but … well, by EVIL being done in their name.

I’m not completely sure that isn’t what the entire Civil War storyline is and has always been about: the particular tension felt by all thinking Americans living under the unelected rule of a crude, stupid man who maintains without irony that he receives governmental instructions from God. The country awoke one morning and found that the Supreme Court had awarded the presidency to this man (by a majority composed entirely of justices who owed their appointments to Republicans), and ever since there’s been a schism, a rent in the psyche of the country.

Certainly the ur-text of this little theory of mine would have to be the Civil War mini-series itself, and the latest issue is a textbook case.

My twitchy, hyper-intelligent young friend Elmo scalded this issue, saying he’s eager for the NEXT issue so the whole thing can be over and we can wait ten years for ‘some smart writer to undo it all,’ and I can see his point of view.

Because this is more and more looking like a mistake, this entire plotline. And it’s a mistake because it can’t GO anywhere good. That wouldn’t be a problem in a novel – novels thrive on such plotlines – but comics are all about GOING somewhere … the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, these aren’t limited mini-series featuring new characters.

You can see the incredible appeal of the initial idea. Super-heroes fight super-villains in downtown Manhattan, doing massive amounts of property damage before the heroes win – what if the government decided to crack down on the whole business? Demand that super-heroes register, etc? (that step right there is where W. comes in – that the government would force you to register, and that it would incarcerate you if you refused AND say it was because you weren’t being patriotic … ). Easily understandable that a bunch of writers would think the idea had enormous potential and want to leap at it.

But this is starting to look like a story that shouldn’t have been told. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby knew that such stories existed, of course: they flirted with the mother of ‘em all – what if our heroes are faced with a foe who’s simply too powerful for them to beat? Stan and Jack did it with Galactus and treated us to three issues of the Fantastic Four getting protractedly, indisputably beat.

But then they hauled out the Ultimate Nullifier (if ever a plot device were more aptly named…), a thingamagig even Galactus feared, and he packed his bags and left town.

Back then, we all concentrated on how NEATO the concept of an ‘ultimate nullifier’ was – but today’s comic audience rightfully demands more. Any variation of a deus ex machina for this Civil War storyline will, I think, be met with pitchforks and torches.

For the longest time, I assumed the ultimate nullifier in this case would be Doctor Strange. But there he is in this latest issue, vowing (to his close personal friend the Watcher – when did THAT happen?) to stay above it all. The only other possibility for a solution (because the storyline obviously NEEDS a solution, not a conclusion – the Marvel universe can’t go on if half its heroes, including Captain America, are hunted fugitives) that’s arisen so far is in the latest issue of ‘Frontline,’ where ace reporter Ben Urich says he’s figured out the ‘real reason’ for the Civil War. We’ll see what that turns out to be.

In the meantime, those of us who DO expect more complexity from our comic-stories will have to cross our fingers that in a month’s time we don’t encounter a dream, a hoax, or an imaginary story …

August 7th, 2006

Comics! Superman and Spider-Man!

15 July 2006

COMICS

Only two comics this week, amazingly enough: Superman and ‘The Sensational’ Spider-Man. Each company’s long-standing icon, and each icon at a turning point.

Sensational Spider-Man #28 – “My Science Teacher is Spider-Man!!” – follows a little of the fallout in Peter Parker’s life in the wake of his nationally televised coming-out as Spider-Man (it features a GREAT cover by the wonderul new-to-me artist Clayton Crain, whose names sounds like a Stan Lee secret identity name). In this case, what would happen to a really bright kid in one of Peter’s classes, once it was revealed that his science teacher is a super-hero. The issue was really good though predictable, and my favorite moment wasn’t the one very good writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa planned it to be, the rousing final page where we learn that the kid is going to be fine … no, my favorite moment was when the writer remembered that this isn’t the first time Doctor Octopus has seen Peter Parker dressed as Spider-Man (although the previous time he wasn’t dressed in the new stupid gay-ass bright red hotsuit like he should be called Afterburn and be working four nights a week at the Bun Factory… geez) – when I saw that Aguirre-Sacasa had even gone to the trouble of mimicking Stan Lee’s original hyperventilating multiple-exclamation points …. well, I smiled.

Not much to smile about with Superman #654, “On Our Special Day,” and that shouldn’t have been true – the thing is written by Kurt Busiek, one of the best Superman-writers of all time, and it’s drawn by Carlos Pacheco, one of the most gifted comic book artists in comics history. I was extremely gratified to learn that DC was bringing its A-team to its flagship character, but hoo-boy, this first issue left me waiting for that to happen.

Let’s start with the cover – great iconic Superman pose, but what about the REST of it? The bad guys seem not only beaten but … well, BEATEN, like they’re begging us to pull the big guy OFFA them before he KILLS them – hardly the tone you want in a Superman comic (and what’s with that bizarre WWII-era insulting Oriental crouching beneath the Western Imperialist dog? Me so solly, but that sort of stuff just doesn’t fly anymore).

Then there’s everything on the inside.

Page 1: Who the Hell gets up at 7 if they’ve got a staff meeting at 8:10? What were Lois and Clark going to DO with that honey-nut toast and fresh-squeezed juice and eggs florentine? Power-eat them? And where do they live? Actually IN the Daily Planet building?

Page 2 -3: OK, I like the fist-marks all over Neutron’s containment armor … but mommy, why does Superman have a mouth full of ragged fangs? Is he the devil?

Page 4: First reminder of the issue: Superman is not Cyclops. You can tell by the flying, and the big red cape. His heat vision makes things HOTTER – it doesnt shatter them.

Page 5: OK, I LOVE the ‘science police’ bit, but, looking at panel 1, I’m moved to ask: who the Hell is that in the Superman costume? Why doesn’t he look anything like the ten or twelve other faces Pacheco tries in the rest of the issue?

Page 6: Um, people who ‘establish’ themselves as “erratic, prone to irregular absences” get their asses fired.

Page 7: Yeesh. That line “Lana? I’d been wondering what she’d do with her life, but this is a surprise” couldn’t be a bigger writer-copout if it read “Lana? I’d been wondering what the writers would do with her life, but this is sure a totally out-of-character mindfuck.” Lana Lang as CEO of Lexcorp! Or, as it’s known in the DC bullpen: Busiek drunk off his ass!

Page 8: Hard-nosed is one thing, but Perry White is coming off here as a J. Jonah Jameson-style a-hole with no redeeming qualities at all.

Page 9: I miss Clark Kent’s blue suits. And I could do without Lois Lane’s frickin belly button flashing in the newsroom.

Page 10: Um, just wondering here, but why would you NEED your crack camouflage squad with their specially-designed light-refracting invisibility suits if you’re planting frigging glowing spheres in frigging broad daylight?

Page 11: OK, panel one is a great, compacted action-scene, but … reminder number two: Superman is not Cyclops. You can tell by the flying, and the big red cape. His heat vision MELTS things, it doesn’t knock people unconscious (or anything else that isn’t melting). And also: so you’ve got this glowing energy-sphere and you have NO IDEA what it does, but what do you do? You hand it over to a Metropolis cop – but hey, you make sure to give him a helpful warning: “be careful … it’s almost pure, compacted energy”… love that ‘almost’ … (also love the fact that Superman is clearly still holding the energy sphere in his hand as he flies off … what, don’t Busiek and Pacheco even get drunk TOGETHER?)

Page 12: So let me get this straight: the villain on the water-sled is yelling to his unarmed scuba-buddies “Kill him! Kill him!”? And that’s what kind of writing, again? Where is there ANYBODY, and I mean frigging ANYBODY, who yells “Kill him! Kill him!” to his buddies when they’re fighting Superman? It’s so nonsensical it’s annoying.

Page 13: So Jimmy’s spent the whole friggin morning obsessing on what anniversary Lois and Clark are celebrating? But Clark’s the one fighting for his job? And shouldn’t somebody tell Lois she’s got an oilslick on her head?

Page 14: OK, aside from that ‘focus my hearing forward’ bit of nonsense, this page kicks ass, especially the last two panels. But even in the midst of enjoying them, I’m bombarded with the concentrated bullshit of “The building’s shielded with an energy field that gives off the spectrographic signature of lead paint.” Just think about that for a minute. Just wait … it’ll come to you. Trust me, you haven’t read a sentence that dumb all day.

Page 15: Awesome page – a real good twist.

Page 16: Um, I counted 12 scientists monitoring Mannheim on page 15 – wouldn’t Superman be, um, interested in, you know, saving them or something? I mean when the friggin building collapses on top of them? Just a thought.

Page 17: Oh great …. so in addition to not saving the aforementioned scientists trapped under the building’s rubble, Superman is now ENTOMBING them by slagging the rubble to hamper Mannheim’s feet. What’s next? Repeatedly X-raying little orphans’ scrotums until they get testicular cancer? Welcome back, big guy!

Page 18: Curses! Superman could have used his telescopic vision to SEE who was behind Mannheim’s transformation if he’d only … LOOKED UP! Oh well, Mannheim foiled him this time, but next time, he might just MOVE HIS FRIGGIN HEAD.

Page 19: So let me get this straight – when it comes to energy-spheres made of almost pure compacted energy of unknown design or function, Superman can’t stick around, but when it comes to booby-traps (which he could, um, LOOK for) or ‘damaged weaponry’ (whatever the hell THAT means), he’s got to hang around and miss his deadlines and his anniversary?

Page 20: Just a little note on journalistic ethics for all you little turnips out there who might be thinking of becoming news-people: Superman saving millions of lives is not the same thing as Lois using a forged edit-code to lie to her publisher. They’re not even in the same ballpark.

Page 21: So let me get this straight: Lois is a little worried that if Clark holds the apartment door open too long, ‘old Mrs. Schwartz’ will peep in, but she’s not concerned about FLYING over friggin Metropolis in the arms of Clark Kent, the famous newspaper reporter? And Clark’s not worried either? Isn’t there a chance that, oh, I don’t know – somebody might be LOOKING OUT THEIR FRIGGIN WINDOW right at that moment? Or that the weirdly-obsessive Jimmy Olson might have their place staked out?

See, the fact that I only unabashedly LIKED one single page from this issue points out the problem with this bi-annual Superman relaunches: they always stink. And they always stink because they’re so obviously not thought-through for any length of time ahead of time, by any of the people involved. If I had to guess, I’d say the inspiration for this issue – filtered through lots and lost of beer – was the first issue of Busiek’s Astro City, in which a decent but harried Samaritan is seen as the busiest guy in the world, only instead of his peaceful dream of flying, our Superman gets the real, secret-identity-endangering thing.

But that’s half the problem right there: this is Superman, the guy of whom Samaritan is a pale copy, not vice versa. AND this is Superman just coming back from a massive, life-altering event: a PERFECT time to re-invigorate the character. This issue shouldn’t feel like a tired re-tread of Busiek’s earlier work … and if it did when it was presented to the DC powers that be, it should bloody well have been rejected, regardless of whose names are attached. My super-genius young friend Elmo could have come up with four different, totally involving ways to relaunch this title, AND still had time for some bird-watching in the afternoon.

So here’s hoping the next issue will be better. Sap that I am, you know I’ll be there.