I gave away a big, big bunch of Superman books this week. It took no small amount of reading back and I was actually conflicted about what to put out due to some suggestive content issues with the Superman line. I get the feeling this is going to be an ongoing concern. Read on to get my extended take. In 2005 I was established as a young idiot with a local comic store, disposable income, and THE INTERNET. So, it’s not really surprising that I found myself extremely excited at the prospect of one Kurt Busiek signing a DC exclusive contract and taking over Superman. In hindsight, we can throw all the shade one cares to at the “exclusive” and DC’s perceived lack of success with it, but at the time it really struck a tone of excitement and anticipation. I, of course, loved the nostalgia and overall vibe of Marvels. Throughout his career, before and after, I don't think you could ever make the accusation that Busiek lacked “the feel” for his characters and material. Today we lament stories where characters all read as one person speaking through different avatars. I can honestly say that I've never had that sensation with a Busiek comic. Another nice component is that his stories also “moved” and didn't take long getting there. Marvels, as a complete work, was in and out in four issues. Can you imagine what path that series would take today?
Anyway, back to the DC exclusive. Coming out of Infinite Crisis the mandate was to update and reinvigorate the core line. “One Year Later” had been, to outside eyes, a total crapshoot with results all over the board. DC needed to lock things down and get a vision going forward. While they'd tapped Geoff Johns and Richard Donner to kick start the greatest of them all it was the Busiek work – for me – that really gave the standout performance. However, he would walk down two separate paths to get there.
On the illustrative side, Kurt was truly blessed. For his initial “Up, Up and Away” arc Pete Woods completely smashed it. Fluid, confident, and willing to give Superman a “bend” that he had been lacking for some time. His Superman was rarely posed or locked but rather relaxed and comfortable – an easy grin always at the ready. When you pair that style with his mercurial eye for background depth you’ve got a versatile artist with skill for days. When Johns / Donner (and Kubert?) fell behind by three months almost immediately - Busiek stepped into the gap, brought Woods along, and delivered a pocket masterpiece in 3 issues of Action Comics.
Over in the Superman title Carlos Pacheco was delivering fine work as well but in a different vein. Lots of arched backs and physiques a poppin’ over here. Heavier line, solidly built. Pacheco works so hard here to develop a firmness in the world. Unfortunately, the first issue I have of the run is #654. That issue is book ended by a couple pages of Lois in various stages of undress. I’m no prude but it kinda puts me in a spot setting it out on the give away stand, right?
Continuing in this vein #655 starts with a depiction of the newly re-surfaced Arion post three way (or ménage a trois if you’re feeling faux classy). Nice strategic sheet placement, Carlos! All kidding aside, as I was giving this block of Superman and Action issues the flip test for potential kiddy consumption, I noticed how Busiek’s writing took on a certain character for each series. You can tell that the Superman arc was to have more consequence and be more “important” in terms of long-term development. This was going to be "his" book and his long-term plot. The narrative asks a supposedly big question of Superman, introduces new villains, re-introduces elements of his past, and fleshes out his returning abilities. There’s a great deal more blunt violence as well. However, Busiek also manages to seed in really adorable Silver Age stuff. One fine example is when Superman pretends to read some mainstream bestseller but in the periods of that text he’s hidden microdots loaded with science, mathematics, and all manner of “super knowledge.”
We sense Busiek working very hard to make us believe the threat of villains Khyber and Arion is real. Arion says some variation of "damn" at least five times in one word balloon. HE'S PLAYING FOR KEEPS! It’s gotta be over a dozen issues of this thing perking away. Is Superman a threat? Savior? Both? Questioning, questioning, from this angle and that angle. Throw in a Prankster appearance? Sure, why not? The problem here is that it’s just too obvious an answer. Put Superman in any situation and he’s going to fight and think his way out of it. We know that as sure as we know he wears an S on his chest. It felt manufactured that Superman would need so much self-analysis and be so, frankly, indecisive. It's a mistake we'd see Straczynski (half-assedly) make years later. Still, it was a nice chance to see Zatanna’s / Lana’s / Callie’s / Lois’ chest almost fall out of her corset / dress / jumpsuit / lingerie like seven times. Yes, those all correspond. Yes, it’s also safe to say Carlos likes to draw well-endowed and scantily clad women.
By contrast, Action Comics #841, #842, and #843 delivers an ultra compact and completely BOSS version of this very similar – practically identical – narrative arc. It’s a stock Superman idea: People are wondering whether they should trust Superman and he’s got to overcome all the doubters. Now, you give ACTION COMICS Superman three issues to do the aforementioned and he is going to leave no doubt you’re dealing with the real issue.
Let’s start with the Dave Gibbons newspaper covers. How casually amazing is this stuff?
On the interiors you’ve got Kurt’s usual grace and note perfect writing for the supporting cast. Young Firestorm sounds that perfect balance of bewilderment and put on nonchalance. Nightwing trusts his gut about Supes right from the word go and is played to his strengths throughout the three issues. One of the villains and fellow abducted, Livewire, has never been more interesting as a character. He delivers not one but two great cliffhangers and a satisfying conclusion! It’s economical comics and it is BEAUTIFUL to behold. I guess what I’m getting at is any and all of these issues are a note perfect introduction to a great character and one I’m proud to get into someone’s hands.
In both Superman and Action Comics Kurt Busiek (Red and Blue) went looking for answers close to the core of Superman. In one case he took a circuitous and seemingly forced route to an obvious truth. In Action Comics he let the truth speak for itself.