Monday, June 18, 2018

Action Comics #677

Superhero vs Superhero
Action Comics #677
Supergirl vs. Superman

Not the family feud you were expecting

“In Love and War!”
Writer – Roger Stern
Penciler – Jackson Guice
Inker – Denis Rodier
Letters – Bill Oakley
Colorist – Glenn Whitmore
Assistant Editor – Dan Thorsland
Editor – Mike Carlin
May 1992

I believe I covered the Supergirl character’s history before, but the poor thing has such a convoluted backstory that I feel some retreading of all that is necessary. First off, this is version of Supergirl is NOT a Kryptonian.

She is technically a “pod person,” a clone-like superbeing grown in a vat. She was developed by Alexander Luthor, an alternate dimension or divergent timeline Earth’s doppelganger for our very own Lex Luthor. How we got a separate dimension Earth after DC had just Crisis on Infinite Earth’ed every alternate universe shows the power that John Byrne had in that era to muck about with concepts verboten to other writers.

The story goes like this: Alexander Luthor lived on an Earth without a Superman or superheroes at all. As Earth's most brilliant scientist, he  was counted in his universe as one of the good-guys. Then the three Phantom Zone supervillains showed up and started wrecking his planet. With no Superman to protect it, Alexander created a being called Matrix, a protoplasmic being who had the superpowers of flight, strength, invisibility, and shapeshifting. Matrix developed an intense set of emotions for Alexander, a mixture of unwavering trust and love that superseded her feelings for anyone else.

Alexander knew Matrix alone couldn’t defeat the trio, so he costumed her like Superman and sent her across the dimensions to what passed for the ONLY Earth in DC universe at that time. She met Superman and convinced him to follow her back to her dimension. They arrived moments before the three supercriminals destroyed the last remaining humans on the planet, Alexander included. Superman ended up using green kryptonite to kill them, which haunted him for YEARS in the books and lead to him taking on a third identity due to trauma and guilt.

And it left the DC Universe with “a Supergirl.”

The fact that she had neither his powerset nor was she an actual girl notwithstanding, DC used her to good effect for awhile when Lex Luthor appeared to have died and a clone of his took his place. I’m not even sure if we knew he was a clone at this point, given that in continuity it was passing itself off as Lex Luthor, Jr.

The interesting part comes right here, as Supergirl meets Luthor and…you know what? I should let the book do its share of the load on this one.
We start with Supergirl recounting her origin for those of us who missed a few issues. She begins with her “birth” and her adoration of Alexander Luthor…

…and quickly segue into her first meeting with Superman. 

A very brief word here about Butch Guice’s pencils: My first exposure to him was the beginning of the Wally West The Flash era and I noticed right away that his style of drawing people was distinctive. Guice will take a normal pose for a human figure and do something unique to it. Hyperextend an arm or leg, arch a back a different way then you expect, or just pose characters in a way that feels natural and unnatural at the same time. As we go through the book I’ll point a few of them out.

Starting with that tush-baring, raised right leg shot in the upper right panel. It looks natural in that it is a range of motion that a woman might use to push herself up off a couch, given the position of the left arm and elbow. It isn’t the way most artist would draw a flying Supergirl, however.

Pay careful attention to Superman’s chest and emblem in the bottom right, too. Seems a little big in proportion to Supergirl’s.

Stuff like this crops up in Guice’s art and I’m always torn by it. Sometimes it will make a scene look so with the realm of reality that I will wonder why every artist doesn’t pose figures that way. Other times it will distract me like all get out and I’ll find myself wondering what he was really going for. I’m not questioning his ability, Guice can clearly draw and draw WELL. I’m just not certain I agree with all his stylistic choices.

One thing you can say is that a Butch Guice book doesn’t look like anyone else’s. There were moments of utter brilliance in those first eleven Flash books. Moments where Guice had to make up a new Non-Carmine Infantino way of drawing the Flash moving at super-speed that really worked. And moments when it looked like someone snapped a shutter on a moment of characters in motion that should be deleted because they looked awkward or out of proportion. When he’s amazing, he is amaaaaaazing. When he draws something I don’t like, I’m never sure if it is his art or my interpretation of his art.

I buy all his books, though. Because if art doesn’t challenge you in some small way, why bother to look at it.

Enough of all that. We get the ending to the three-issue Supergirl saga from the original run in Action/Superman…

…and then pull in tight to an astonishing look at Matrix’s face as she’s telling this story to mysterious figure. A figure in shadow who state that he is so happy she’s returned from a brief trip through the stars. Returned to find HIM…

…Lex Luthor, Jr. Gorgeous shot, fully conveying that Supergirl is Lex’s captive, but not in the usual way. He worked his likeness to Alexander to his full advantage and now Supergirl fawns over him like he’s the second coming.

As the book goes on, it makes my intro pointless it seems, as Supergirl ruminates over the elder Luthor’s evil…

…before snuggling into Lex Junior’s arms, showing her invisibility power and offering him a flying tour (in a panel that falls into that strange category. Without the context of “Supergirl, while invisible, is lifting Lex up unexpectedly,” the legs in weird mid-leap and arms raised above his head with back slightly arched pose looks…peculiar. In context it works, but anyone thumbing through the book would find this panel a bit odd.)

Definitely better when Supergirl shows herself while performing feats such as this. It isn’t what Lex was asking about. He wanted to know more about her shape-shifting abilities…

…which Supergirl-Matrix shows off in a series of panels that give Guice a chance to strut his stuff a bit. The Madonna one is pretty neat. 

Guice actually got in trouble for a Dr. Strange cover he would do later on that featured a likeness of Amy Grant. It would lead to an undisclosed out of court settlement.

Of course our “Girl of Steel” comes off as an innocent in all of this, falling for Lex’s good-guy routine in a way that might be endearing. Notice this coy pose that Guice throws on her. Writer Stern shows Lex’s private thoughts and you know that he’s really only interested in what he can get from Supergirl, and right now that means one part bodyguard and one part scientific discovery. *tisk, tisk*

The book then takes a turn to setup the contestant on the other side of our wild donnybrook, currently in his Clark Kent guise. He is escorting Lois into the Daily Planet newsroom when someone mentions her contact at Lexcorp.

It appears Lex Junior is somewhat of a womanizer who Cat Grant would sleep with if she had the chance. Then the issue turns to the management of the Daily Planet and an ongoing story that I have no interest in.

The Guice art makes every page interesting. Like with Cat’s hands up there in the bottom left position. What is she doing? Clapping? Catching something? Trying to look waifish? I don’t know, but I like that this feels very different than the other Superman stories that are out there.

Moving along past two pages of Perry White defending himself against charges that he is anti-diversity (Yes, we had storylines about diversity back in 1992. How little people remember their comic history). Then we are back with Superman stopping a guy robbing an ATM machine…

…No other artist would draw Supes’ feet leaving a panel the way Guice does here. Part of his stuff is about choices he makes in layout too, I realize. An artist would put in Superman’s face as much as possible. Yet here we show his legs and cape. Nothing else. It is a bold and unique viewpoint that Guice brings to comic book art. 
And I love that leaping-flying scene in the bottom right as well.

As well this bit of Supers turning into Clark and tickling his newly engaged fiancĂ©e Lois. Neat little bit there in that first panel and love the limited use of line creating that look of amusement on Lois’ face.

After a bit more heavy petting, the couple settle in to watch Cat Grant’s interview with Lex Luthor II and that’s when the cat gets let out of the bag.

And Superman realizes his dual identity could rest in the hands of Supergirl. A Supergirl who is clearly viewing one Lex the same as another.

Guice throws us a curve with how Supergirl flies into frame in that top picture and the very girlish way she entraps Lex’s hard with her arm in that middle shot. Both are designed to make us see her as young and flighty, not the kind of person you entrust grave secrets to. It’s a nice job Guice has done here. I’m really enjoying it so far.

And so it is that as soon as Cat leaves, Supergirl is lovingly holding Luthor tight in an embrace from behind when a voice behind them clears its throat.

Huge props to Stern on this story outing. It is far easier to use the same old mind-control trope to create tension and conflict but it is far more rewarding to create a method of realistic differences of opinion that bring two people to blows.

Superman begins things by being incredibly reasonable with Supergirl, stating only the facts about Luthor that people are aware of. Love the bit where Supergirl says that Lex wouldn’t spy on them and the very next panel Lex is cursing that they were already out of range of his listening devices.

Unfortunately, bringing up that Supergirl has the potential should use careful judgment in who she confides in leads to a bit of ruffled feathers…and then a counter-punch from her about Superman’s encounter with Brainac on Warworld. That panel has Supergirl in an odd Guice pose too. And then Superman, obviously feeling a bit insulted, loses his composure and we can feel all this is going to hell in a super-handbasket.

Supergirl punches him into a lightning bolt for that last crack.

Superman blazes out, falling back to Earth. Supergirl immediately regrets her actions and shoots down to see if he’s alright. The fact that she doesn’t possess X-ray vision makes it hard for her to find him and also makes me glad that this time out we have a Supergirl with a completely different powerset. It makes her more interesting than just as “Superman with boobs,” a trap that past writers haven’t always been able to skirt.

Superman pops up out of the landfill at this point looking MORE than a little miffed.

Supergirl defends herself by radiating an intense light burst, which really only serves to make Supes madder and he makes like the Hulk…

…but catches her before she can truly fall. He wants to talk, but at that inopportune moment Lex’s chopper catches up with them. (Which had Supergirl been thinking SHOULD raise some questions about why he followed them).

Luthor states that he A.) found them due to the trail they left (which is a crock of crap) and B.) that they should be ashamed of themselves for all the damage they caused (to a landfill, no less). Superman is embarrassed about his actions, which doesn’t let him see through Lex’s subtle manipulation of the situation by Luthor, Jr.

After ordering the security guard at the landfill (a wholly owned subsidiary of Lexcorp) to destroy the tape, Lex really makes the pair feel like they owe him a debt. 

As he relays the story to Lois, he comes clean with some of his concerns about how things played out.

We end with a juxtaposition between Superman and Lois, a happy and well-adjusted couple and the odd, psychologically dependent relationship Supergirl has for Lex, whom those end panels show clearly is only using her for his own gain.

Thus starts a new chapter in the relationship between Superman and Supergirl, a decidedly awkward time when both were never quite sure of the other's allegiances. We'll see one more example of this Supergirl on our next Superheroes punch each other review. 

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