The inclusion of an unusually timely and topical story means that there are spoilers ahead for…
Action Comics Special #1
Writer: Mark Russell, Max Landis, Dan Jurgens
Artist: Francis Manapul, Will Conrad, Jill Thompson
Cover: Will Conrad
“Instead of embracing the super, he embraces the man. Therein lies his weakness.”
If you’re on Twitter and follow any comics professionals you’ll inevitably see responses from fans arguing that said pros should stick to tweeting about their work and “leave their politics out of it,” or complaining about super-hero comics being taken over by “Social Justice Warriors.”
Imagine. People who complain about super-heroes being interested in justice.
Of course, there are entire generations of comics-readers who somehow never managed to catch on to the idea that Nazis = bad guys, and there were, rather infamously, complaints from readers last year about a scene in which Superman saves a group of refugees from being shot by an economically anxious American citizen, so I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised by the number of people who have missed the point so completely.
Super-hero comics are often described – sometimes dismissively, sometimes simply matter-of-factly – as “juvenile power fantasies.” There is an obvious truth to that, of course, but that label is not quite so apt or descriptive in its usage as it could be, focusing on the physics-defying abilities of the brightly-clad characters who engage in their monthly adventures rather than the real power fantasy at the core of the stories: the fantasy of power being used wisely, and for the purposes of doing what’s right.
Obviously, what is “right” is hardly a settled question, and even in the stories themselves there is seldom an easy and obvious answer to the question, because if there were, the stories would be just as boring as so many of their detractors assume they must be. In any case, no matter how “right” is defined, it’s a safe bet that it is not turning a blind eye to the slaughter of innocent refugees, and, in general, it will align with principles that, for some, will seem tied to a partisan worldview.
In his debut, Superman was a crusading man of the people, fighting against a corrupt system, and as Clark Kent, he, along with Lois Lane, has long been a member of the “liberal media,” working as a crusading reporter, working to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
That said, while politics of one type or another – whether readers noticed them or not – have always been infused into comics, they tend not to be particularly overt or explicit, favoring allegory, metaphor, and satire to the use of real-world figures and issues. There are exceptions, or course, and sometimes the allegories, metaphors, and satirical portrayals provide very little in the way of cover.
Such is the case for the second story in this issue – which was the one that made me choose this issue for the Spotlight – but we’ll get to that one shortly.
The first story, by Dan Jurgens, which wraps up his most recent run, tells the tale of an aged Lex Luthor, twisted by decades of bitterness and hatred, traveling from the future to the present in pursuit of revenge against the Man of Steel.
Using advanced technology, he breaches the defenses of the Fortress of Solitude, and discovers a truth that had eluded him for so long: Superman is Clark Kent, prize-winning journalist, and family man.
Future Lex launches an attack targeting Lois, but it’s really a feint intended to hit Superman with a Kryptonian nerve agent that weakens Superman slightly, intending to slow him down enough to prevent him from stopping a second attempt on Lois’s life before finally doing him in.
However, after observing that the missile used in the first attempt utilized Kryptonian technology, Superman confronted the one person in the world who would be smart enough to figure out that Lois is “Mrs. Superman” and to mix terrestrial and Kryptonian technology, and who holds any sort of grudge against him, and isn’t Batman (because you know he had to have been on Superman’s list, even if we don’t see Superman considering it): Lex Luthor.
Well, present-day Lex, who isn’t exactly a super-villain – indeed, he’s even a part-time hero – but there is some bad blood between them, albeit not quite so bad as it must be in the future, or as it has been in other continuities.
Superman’s angry confrontation with Present-day Lex (PLex) doesn’t go very well, particularly as it becomes clear that PLex had nothing to do with it, but it does pay off, as it gets PLex’s attention, and leads him to insert himself into the confrontation with Future Lex (FLex), arriving just in the nick of time to save Lois.
PLex wants to get involved with the fight with FLex, but Lois shames him into helping the people on the street who have been placed in danger by the conflict, so he isn’t there to learn the identity of the mysterious attacker once Superman, despite being weakened, overcomes FLex.
Superman, having not yet lived through the experiences that drove FLex to such extreme behavior, is baffled by the revelation, but receives no answers, as the strain of his efforts take their toll on FLex’s heart and he dies. His armor self-destructs before PLex can learn the truth about who this mysterious antagonist had been (or will be), and Superman opts not to tell him.
The next story, by writer Mark Russell, is considerably less action-packed, but it also focuses on Lex Luthor. I mentioned the use of the satirical in presenting politics in comics, and the post-Crisis, Byrne-era version of Lex Luthor is a solid example of that approach, based as he was on the type of ultra-wealthy, Wall Street businessman who was so prominent, generally – and sensibly – as a villain in the greed-soaked 1980s. The type of enormously successful, shark-like mogul that a certain current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue spent so long presenting himself as being that eventually people decided to believe that he actually was what he claimed to be.
Over the years, many people have made the obvious comparisons between Lex Luthor and Donald Trump, particularly given that there was a period in the comics in which Lex ascended to the presidency, though this story makes the comparison much more explicit.
In the rapid-fire news cycle in which we live, it may seem like it was years ago, but in reality it’s only been a week since the cutting remarks by comedian Michelle Wolf at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner (WHCD) sparked a firestorm of controversy, casting into stark relief the ugliness of the whole ritual which, while ostensibly about being a celebration of the First Amendment and the recognition of the value of reporting and a free press, seems like nothing more than a monument to the insidious coziness of access journalism. Wolf spoke truth to power, and many of the people whose job it is to do the same shirked that responsibility, attacking the incivility of it all, and doing their best to comfort the comfortable.
The WHCD, to me, seems an odd setting in which to find Lois Lane and Clark Kent, and yet, in this story that seems to take place in no established continuity (though it does roughly align with pre-Flashpoint continuity), that’s where we find them.
The idea of the “crusading reporter” is likely more myth than reality, but that is the reality of who Lois and Clark are, the kind of reporters who try to change the world, and as such they don’t really fit in a setting dedicated to maintaining the status quo.
Still, it is a prestigious event intended to honor the best in reporting, so in that sense, I suppose it’s a place they do belong.
Given the production time involved, the timing of this story is merely coincidental, and it could not, of course, provide any commentary on the most recent gala, but it does manage to get in some biting commentary at the current state of things, particularly in this exchange between Lois and Clark.
They story is largely told through the POV of Lex, as he reflects on his past, and his place in the world, how he got to that place, and what he thinks his place in the world ought to be.
The parallels to Trump are particularly strong in the references to the role the media plays in propping him up, and the mythology he’s built around himself of being a self-made man, despite having been born into wealth.
The crux of the tale is in Clark’s speech – which follows after a speech from Lois that was considerably more blistering than Wolf’s, as is only appropriate – which is the lead-in to presenting a humanitarian award to Superman (who, mysteriously, but understandably, given how busy he is, is not present to accept it), in which he lightly roasts some of the members of the Justice League who are there in support of their team member, and delivers some sick burns on Lex.
This hearkens back to another infamous real-world WHCD in which then-president Barack Obama mercilessly roasted reality-TV host Donald Trump, an event that was said to have prompted him to run for president as an act of spite.
The third story, by Max Landis, was not written specifically for this special, and as such has no connection to Lex Luthor, instead telling a small, holiday-themed personal story focusing on Lois and Clark.
Lois gets in an accident and wrecks her beloved car, which is very upsetting to her, as she and the car had been through a lot together, and she imagined sitting in the driver’s seat one last time for a journey through the forest with Clark to visit her aunt for Christmas.
On Christmas morning, Lois awakes to find a note from Clark telling her that there’s a surprise waiting for her on the roof. She goes there to find Clark (as Superman), with the seat and steering wheel from the car, and it ends with Superman flying her (in the seat, with steering wheel in hand) through the forest. Aww.
Landis wrote an out-of-continuity Superman mini-series a while back called American Alien. It had its moments, but one of the main problems I had with it was the dialogue. There is a way to write Superman dialogue that remains true to the heart of the character but that is more naturalistic and that doesn’t come across as cornball and overly earnest, but Landis hasn’t found it.
Politics don’t enter too directly into the Landis story itself, but its inclusion here was, I think, somewhat driven by the recent discourse in the real world; the story was originally slated to run in a holiday special but was likely pulled due to Landis being called out for his behavior as part of the #MeToo movement. Now that the heat is off – I’ve seen no real fallout or repercussions for Landis – DC likely decided it was “safe” to run the story.
It drives home a certain point. It’s said that “the personal is political,” and I believe that’s borne out by the way this last story made its way into a collection of stories in which it’s an ill fit. Beyond that, though, is the ridiculous notion that comics should be apolitical. As if such a thing were possible.
This was an uneven collection of stories, with the first by Jurgens being the one I liked most, which seems somewhat ironic, I suppose, given that I’ve focused here on the place of politics within comics, and yet it was perhaps the least political of the three, at least on the surface. (Though, again, the politics of the Landis story were external to the story itself.)
However, politics, or at least the driving force behind them, were at the core of it, with the underlying conflict the story contains being the result of a lack of empathy or a concern for anything beyond the self.
The art by Will Conrad is top-notch; I’ve long been a fan of his style, which has a sort of old-school, Jerry Ordway/Brian Bolland flair, with strong blacks and excellent hatching. That said, it needs to be paired with good colors, as modern coloring techniques and strong pencil/ink rendering often do not mix well. It’s a problem I’ve seen elsewhere with Conrad’s work, but fortunately here the colors by Will Quintana work with the art rather than against it. It’s a great-looking story.
I did like certain elements of the WHCD story – particularly the commentary from Lois, both in her pep talk for Clark, and in her remarks at the dinner itself, in which she straight-up called the president a murderer, referring to reports of a deadly drone strike in Somalia mentioned earlier in the story – but some of the satirical content was a little too strained and ridiculous.
I’m generally fond of Jill Thompson’s work – she illustrated my favorite Sandman story arc – but the doofiness of the faces she draws undercut some of the story’s power.
As for the final story, I’m a fan of Manapul as well; his light and loose style somehow conveys a sense of optimism that is ideal for super-hero comics in general, and for Superman in particular. (The story itself is pretty insubstantial, but…fine.)
Overall, this issue was basically filler as we wait to see what the post-1000 future holds for Action and Superman, but it was an interesting choice to engage with rather weighty and substantial subject matter in a one-off special.
I don’t think that politics are a thing that comics should – or can – avoid, though I will say that it works best when they do so at something of a remove, without explicitly endorsing a particular party, in a general sense. Obviously, specific characters can have a specific party allegiance, but, as the driving impulse behind this site and the platform it’s intended to be, comics are for everyone.
Naturally, that idea of inclusiveness will resonate more strongly with people of one political persuasion than another, but I would suggest that if the idea of justice is something that offends you, the problem isn’t with comics.
If you legitimately believe that the inclusion of political ideologies with which you may not agree is some new, SJW agenda, I would humbly suggest that you consider that Kirby ended a storyline in Captain America with Nixon killing himself after being revealed to be the leader of a group of super-villains, or that you read any of his Fourth World books, or read the O’Neal/Adams run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, or…well, just learn to read.
If nothing else, please take away this key point: in comics, as in real life, NAZIS ARE THE BAD GUYS.
SUPERMAN: RED SON – SUPERMAN: RED SON is a vivid tale of Cold War paranoia, that reveals how the ship carrying the infant who would later be known as Superman lands in the midst of the 1950s Soviet Union. Raised on a collective, the infant grows up and becomes a symbol to the Soviet people, and the world changes drastically from what we know – bringing Superman into conflict with Batman, Lex Luthor and many others.
SUPERMAN: PRESIDENT LUTHOR – Follow the campaign, election night and inauguration in SUPERMAN: PRESIDENT LUTHOR, as Lex Luthor becomes the world’s most powerful political figure!
THE SANDMAN VOL. 7: BRIEF LIVES – Older and more powerful than the gods themselves, the Endless are a dysfunctional family of cosmic beings that have ruled over the realms of dream, desire, despair, destiny, destruction, death, and delirium since the beginning of time. But three hundred years ago, one of the mythical beings gave up his duties and left his realm, never to be seen again. Now on a mission to find their missing sibling, Delirium and older brother Dream encounter immortal humans and various deities as they try to locate the prodigal Destruction. But as their adventure draws Dream into a final, tragic confrontation with his son Orpheus, the eternal being learns the true meaning of fate and consequences.
PREZ: THE FIRST TEEN PRESIDENT – Created by Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti in 1973, Prez captured the spirit of his era, spreading a message of “Peace in our Time” and fighting government corruption in the form of the villainous Boss Smiley. Though his term in office was short-lived, the idea of the nineteen-year-old political whiz kid nevertheless went on to inspire such comics greats as Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Ed Brubaker and Grant Morrison.
That does it for this week’s Spotlight Sunday. Be sure to come back for Showcase Saturday.
And remember that you can support OpenDoor Comics on Patreon. (And also remember that Nazis are the bad guys.)