Sunday, July 29, 2018

Superman #20

Superhero vs Superhero
Superman #20
Superman vs Orion?

It’s Big Picture Time in the New 52 DC Universe

Writer – Scott Lobdell
Art – Aaron Kuder
Letters – Rob Leigh
Colors – Blond
Assistant Editor – Anthony Marques
Editor – Eddie Berganza
July 2013

Ahh, the quickly and better forgotten adventures of the New 52 Superman. Not really my cup of tea, this Superman or this version of reality. DC rebooted its universe after Flashpoint and the result was the New 52. In all there were some good stories that came from this era, but overall the mess they made of things was kind of forgettable.

And many of the characters were altered or revamped in ways that made them less interesting and missed key aspects of their personalities.

Especially Superman.

The initial arc by Grant Morrison had some interesting story elements but took the character too far in a direction I never wanted to see him go. I feel having Morrison write a different take on the character was a mistake. Morrision wrote one of the best treatments of the Man of Steel in his All Star Superman title and I feel his changes in the Action Comics version were made just to differentiate the two versions of Superman.

I read very little of Perez’s take on Superman, but the two titles didn’t appear to treat the character the same. And all of this apparently done so they could take away the iconic red underwear look that Superman has had for decades and give him an edgy modern feel. Yeah, okay. I know I’m possibly in the minority on that underwear thing, but hey! I dig the classic look.

So what I know of this version of Supes is that his togs are actually a Kryptonian super-suit, he spent his formative weeks running around wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the classic “S” logo while saving people, and that he was hounded by the military worse than the incredible Hulk. The story presented in Action Comics felt unlike any Superman story anywhere, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Eventually DC had the character reveal his secret identity, make a career change from distinguished journalist for a newspaper to writing his own blog, dump Lois for Wonder Woman (huge mistake there, IMHO), and become a more cynical, darker version of Superman.

I have to state that blog thing really got my goat. Like anyone reads the things people write in online blogs. I mean, seriously!

Feeling that they needed a “big bad” to bring people together, the initial formation of the Justice League saw them fighting Darkseid, of all people. I mean that’s just nuts. Starting off that big means you have no where to go but down. And this mistake would be lifted from the comics to the movies, where DC Entertainment is proving not to have learned anything from the Marvel flixs that came before it. Sure, the audience will get to see Darkseid (maybe? They haven’t cancelled JL2, right?) but where do they go for JL3? Starro? Amazo? Despero? Kanjar Ro? (Hmm…do all the other Justice League villain’s names end in “o”?)

To me, the entire New 52 seemed to be this loud, uncomfortable place that gave audiences a thing they only thought they wanted. A gift that once received and opened, turned to ash in their hands. The New 52 was good at blowing its wad early and then fumbling around trying to figure out how to make interesting stories out of the ruins of what was left. How do you make a Justice League story about learning to be a team, when in their first arc they defeated with baddest mamma-jamma in the entire universe with no training as a superhero group?

However, this review is less about Justice League than it is about Superman. I bring up that other title not only to vent a little but to set the stage for our conflict to come. I do that since this issue the superhero fisticuffs is Superman vs. the true son of Darkseid, Orion. And while I liked this issue quite a bit, I’ll be the first to admit that it is absolutely just two powerhouses pounding on each other for page after page. The storyline is weak, but the beatdown stuff is fun.

Would I buy a weekly title that was this every issue? Heck, no! But a one-off smackdown like this would break up the monotony of Superman and Wonder Woman’s ongoing relationship issues or Superman not playing nice with law enforcement, is what I’m saying.

Our little bout begins with Clack showing off his penthouse digs to his mom and pop…which…Naw, naw. I’m sure it’s fine. They are both alive in this New 52-verse, right? I honestly don’t know.

Oh, wait. There on the bottom of the page. Yeah, they died. So who or what is this?

Whatever it is, it looks to be a far to modern Metropolis for most of my Superman settings. Unless I miss my guess we are in a dream. And as Ma Kent goes in to help Lois…

…we learn that in this dreamland, Clark ended up getting together with Lana. They even have a little proto-Krypto! But this glass house (literally and metaphorically) will suddenly come crashing down as our special guest star makes his entrance in QUITE a big way.

It appears that Orion has encountered a Superman that is under some sort of spell or mind control. And Orion’s toolkit of superpowers leads him to think that smacking the old man of steel around a bit should bring him out of it. So to that end we are going to get some fun, mindless battle sequences between these two. 


Orion lands a solid one to Clark’s jaw, and like Superman is some oversized golf ball, he lands in a sand trap. Note this: Orion who is Darkseid’s son restrains himself in his application of force to the extent that Supes ends up in what looks to be the only deserted patch of unused ground in the picture. Sure he could have whammy’ed him there by happenstance, but I choose to believe that Orion aimed this shot so that Clark ended up in an uninhabited, undeveloped patch of raw Earth rather than that park, parking lot or bridge. 

This will be important later, kids.

We get a scene that establishes that NO, you regular readers of the series didn’t miss an issue. Clark was trying to figure out his feelings for Wonder Woman at a housewarming party for Lois and then suddenly…he’s involve in a battle. He doesn’t even remember the dreamworld we saw in the opening of this comic.

Also he call’s Orion “big red” here. A surprise is coming up. Speaking of Orion, he arrives to put a boot to Supes’s head, ordering him to “Stay put.”

Orion claims what he’s about to do will “Only take a minute.” Supes isn’t inclined to stay down though and tells him “A lot less, actually!”

And then we get this scene…

…of Orion flying backwards after being punched, his arc carrying him through the inside walls of a large ship and back out the other side. It’s clear the power of the blow startled him by the oath he swears as he’s exiting the far side of the vessel.

It’s also clear that Superman either didn’t care where his punch sent Orion or that he meant for it to knock him through the ship. I find it odd that the son of Darkseid, who has to continually keep his darker, more savage impulses in check, has more self-control than the New 52 Superman. And yet, there is the proof in full four color.

And then the book surprises me, as Supes zooms after and scoops up Orion’s skipping-stone of a body and we learn that they’ve never met. The shock took me back a bit and I realized that in that Johns’ Justice League arc that all the really cool mythological parts of the New Gods had been left in the wastebin in favor of loads and loads of destructive fight scenes. Characters like Highfather, Orion, Merton and others didn’t make an appearance. There was no light to counter the evil and gritty tone Darkseid’s invasion represented. I find that rather sad and limiting in what the Fourth World properties can bring to the table. 

New 52 was pretty screwed up on the whole though.

And speaking of messed up, listen to Superman going off on Orion like he’s Kon-EL or something. Remember when we had a rational Superman who dealt with his powers like he knew that if pushed too far he could destroy the planet? A guy that held stuff back in reserve and mete out justice with a butt-load of compassion? Someone who…yah know what? Never mind. 

This bugged me intensely about the New 52 Superman, even Morrison’s portrayal of him. This feeling that he cut loose on every villain he met. At least with classic Supes, he only went off on the big guns and even then it took PUSHING all his buttons for that to happen. Like when he comes to after being held in a dream state by the Black Mercy and screams Mongul’s name. Every other time the writers have him outwitting the bulky despot by his cunning, but in the end of For The Man Who Has Everything the we have the character being a more reasonable Man of Steel finally letting go…taking the kid gloves off…and just hammering away at Mongul creating a huge climax.

The New 52 attempted to climax like that twice to three times a month, it feels like.

And of course because the New 52 needs to pad the page count, when Orion is at a point where he could easily explain his actions and why he initially belted Supes…

…instead he punches the living snot out of him after telling him half of what’s going on.

And if you thought that was bad…

Then Orion takes what has to be a working aircraft carrier (I mean, there’s planes on it, so I don’t think it’s decommissioned) and uses it like that Jager in the first Pacific Rim movie. Or at least he tries to…

…but Supes is too fast and melts the thing like an ice cream on a late-July day in Texas.

As Orion deals with being encased in melted navy boat, Wonder Woman shows up to give Superman a little unneeded backup. As they stare down the business end of Orion breaking out of all that wreckage, no one has really addressed why all this is happening.

But a bit of sanity slips in as it appears Wondy and Son ‘o ‘seid have met before, which means we’ll finally get to the bottom of this punchfest without anymore actual punching.

A little judicious use of the lasso of truth and we find out that Superman’s subconscious has been conscripted by that monstrous Green Lantern villain Hector Hammond. Note that I didn’t follow the mess that was New 52 too closely. I’m not sure if, in the pages of one of the various Wonder Woman mags, Wondy was shown meeting Orion or Hammond, but I am just going to go with it at this point. He’s a bad guy, and the good guys know about him.

Possibly from that very bad Green Lantern movie that Ryan Reynolds starred in. Deadpool doesn’t erase all sins, Reynolds!

(actually, it wasn’t that bad.)

And quick as you please, Orion pulls out a Mother Box and removes Hammond’s ability to enter Superman’s mind for all time and our story ends…

…after a bit of discomfort between our three as if there were some odd type of love triangle being set up. I can only assume the kiss Orion refers to also happens in one of those other issues of New 52 books that I also don’t have. I’m thankful for that. 

After a brief one page outro showing a bizzaro-like Lana emerging from the rubble of an apartment building, the issue ends on a cliffhanger of just exactly who this mysterious person is and what kind of trouble she will mix the Man of Steel up in.

So that’s it. The issue feels very Zack Snyder in tone, what with all the wanton destruction and no real shows of heroism. I don’t understand Hammond controlling Superman, yet NOT controlling Superman. In this it seemed he had no real power over him during the fighting, just in his dreams. The threat didn’t warranty this level of destruction nor confrontation. It is an excuse to have these two punch each other for 20 pages.

That said, I did like some of the framing sequences and the look of the book. The New 52 weren’t ugly comics in my mind, just the victims of poor concepts and ham-fisted plotting. Also they didn’t have a bead on Superman, around which the entire DC universe hangs, for the most part. He came off as boarderline unlikable and this issue is no exception. The writers forgot the “hero” part of “superhero” and that’s never a good thing.

Thankfully, I didn’t buy my fill of these from the discount bin. There would be way more to suffer through if I had.

That’s the end of the Superhero vs. Superhero Summer and these types of battles for now. I could go on another month, but I think with school starting and my work heating up, it might be best to move on to different stomping grounds. Tune in Friday to see what it will be. (Tell the truth, I don’t know myself.)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Tales of Suspense #49

Superhero vs Superhero
Tales of Suspense #49
Iron Man vs. The Angel?

Another of the Great Ones is gone

“Meets the Angel!”
Writer – Stan Lee
Penciler – Steve Ditko
Inker – Paul Reinman
Letters – Sam Rosen
Colors – unknown
Editor – Stan Lee
January 1964

We lost Steve Ditko a couple of weeks back.

I don’t think I have to list his credits, but I feel like I should. If only to express the monumental impact he had on comics, a list of his accomplishments seems necessary.

Ditko created the visual look and style of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy number 15. His contributions to Stan Lee’s ideas about the character included covering Spider-Man’s face, the idea of webs coming out of his wrists, and the costume containing no hard boots to interrupt Peter’s clinging power. Ditko’s version of the character won Stan Lee over whereas Jack Kirby’s take on Spider-Man had failed to resonate.

While the name might have come from Lee, everything you know about how Spider-Man looks and moves probably came from Ditko or artists who built on the foundation Ditko provided.

I grew up on Ditko Spider-mans. Those pocket paperback editions recounting Spider-Man’s first few adventures were my introduction to the character and I can think of no better pieces of source material for Spider-Man and his rapidly growing group of rogues.

Ditko would go on to help create the supernatural hero Doctor Strange in Strange Tales number 110. Ditko really got to unwind his psychedelic art style in the subsequent issues of Strange Tales, which I also only know about due to those paperback reprints. Ditko’s supernatural universe was filled with dramatic visual elements and striking environments that made his Doc Strange tales overflow with mystery and wonder. While I loved his Spider-Man stuff, my soul would always resonate more with the mystical, magical acid trip that Ditko imbued his Strange Tales with. 

I had one other Ditko encounter as a child: a stray issue came to me by way of a Walgreens nickle-and-dime store, this time a Charlton/Modern reprint of Captain Atom number 85. “The Strings of Punch and Jewelee” reignited my love of Ditko’s heady visual style and it began an endearing affection for Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, and the girl called Nightshade. When DC would later bring all these people back to integrate them with their universe, it would push my nostalgia buttons like few things did.

The Crapbox has attracted many Ditko books: the ill-named Marvel character Speedball, a low numbered Tiger-Man from Atlas bears Ditko's name, some late issue ROM’s sit in there (as does an Avengers Annual) that have his mark on them. I’m sure there’s more, as even these were collected, for the most part, without my knowledge. Suddenly you open the title page and go “oh, it’s Steve Ditko” just by looking at his distinctive style of character stance and facial features. No one drew like him. A true original and a unique talent.

And so, so prolific. So much so that it took NO EFFORT to pull up my DVDs of the Marvel comics and find a story from the Iron Man set that contains a Superhero on Superhero conflict to add my testament to this icon of artistry and still remain in the keeping of my Summer theme. True, I could have gone for the more obvious Amazing Spider-Man #1 and recount that first meeting of the Fantastic Four and the bug boy. However, I went into great detail on that one in my ROM review for the Super Blog Team Up crew. It seemed like covered ground and I wanted to forge new territory.

What did take effort was finding time around my busy work schedule to sit down and finish this review. Hey, it happens.

What I wanted to do here was show you readers a Ditko story you probably haven’t seen and one I hadn’t either, truth be told. With that said, I’m going to throw us right into the splash page and start us moving through a review of this Iron Man – X-Men crossover tale that definitely features Ditko’s art and some superhero on superhero fisticuffs. Here we go…

I present our splash here to focus in on something that was part of Ditko’s style. Traditional comic artist who drew IM back in the day would accentuate the knight-in-armor stiffness to Tony’s alter-ego. From page one, Ditko shows us a bit more range of motion from our title character. Notice how that upper chest area seems to bend in such a way that Tony appears to be wearing something as flexible as a T-shirt and not an unyielding metal plate. Although Ditko didn’t repeat this look in the rest of the story, it made for an interesting juxtaposition against Don Heck, Adam Austin, or Gene Colan's take on drawing the man in armor.

This is a hallmark of Ditko characters, this “ultimate gymnast” feel to his character stances. It was something that really shone through in his Spider-Man panels. He did similar things with Captain Atom, which I felt were also much more acrobatic in their execution than a metal skinned hero could muster. And while it might have felt a bit out of place with him, his Blue Beetle work was astonishing. No one did a better job at handling "quick on their feet" heroes than Steve Ditko.

This isn’t what Iron Man is known for, however, and through most of the remainder of this issue, Ditko keeps that instinct as tamped down as he can. But this opening panels is something else.

It is also interesting to note that here in 1964, Marvel is trying to play at these heroes visiting each other’s magazines is something of an oddball occurrence. Note the language about the X-Men’s and Avenger’s appearances are made by “special arrangement.”

Yes, I’m certain writer of Iron Man Stan Lee had to have a long sit-down chat with writer of the X-Men Stan Lee, writer of the Avengers Stan Lee and Marvel Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee before he was granted permission to use said characters in this story.

And the story is kind of a doozy, with a major plot point being so cringe-worthy that it goes from bad to laughably bad to good. I’ll show you in just a moment.

But first a little scene setting. Angel of the X-Men happens to be flying over the Stark factory one day. You know, just checking out the sights, when he notices Iron Man waving at him from in front of an odd-looking device.

And Iron Man is waving at him because the poor young fool is flying right over an atomic bomb test site. Which I’m just going to assume we did a lot of back in early 1960’s. How am I to know? I’m not THAT old!

Anyway, it blows and well, let’s see how this turns out for our two heroes…

Iron Man is mostly protected by his armor, but the Angel takes the brunt of all that radioactivity. Probably he’s gonna get cancer is what all of us are thinking, right? Well, what we didn’t know was that radioactivity might also do OTHER things to a person instead of giving them cancer. 

Like turn them EVIL. And prone to exposition.

That sounds a lot better than cancer, I must admit, but still definitely an unwanted side effect. Iron Man doesn’t KNOW this has happened, but he tries to snag the teenager anyway, just to ascertain if he needs help. Angel, however, thinks this is a game and keeps flying until Iron Man’s boots give out mere inches from nabbing Angel’s foot.

And being evil now, Angel just flies off leaving Iron Man to plummet to his doom. Or at least to the doom of the roof of some random building at Stark Enterprises, as Iron Man uses his Magnetic Repeller to slow his fall to something more manageable (yet still hit with enough force to pop a hole in the building’s metal roof.)

And it appears he hit chest-first or something because he notices some damage to his protective chest plate. Which needs immediate attention, of course. Ditko throws in some oddities here. For one, IM working on his suit while wearing it makes it appear almost flat or like he is some kind of cyborg. Also that picture of Pepper showing on the viewscreen is…uniquely unattractive. I dig the stylized way he has depicted her facial features, but she is certainly no Gwyneth Paltrow. 

In the meantime, Angel tells his teammates that he’s decided to quit the X-Men and turn evil. This is met with exactly the response you’d expect.

Since we need a story and that story needs an Angel free to menace Iron Man, the winged mutant handily defeats his friends. Note the boots that Iceman was shown wearing in the early days and the depiction of Marvel Girl’s “mental beams”. Pretty sure those were only visible via plot contrivance, because the author needed Angel to be able to dodge out of the way.

And in the time all this takes, we switch back to see Stark has finished his repairs and is putting away his armor. Not certain if the colorist messed up on his hands or if they are supposed to appear ungloved. Typically the red-and-gold armor would spring down the arm from glove, but here it looks like IM has some odd giant cuffs that the gloves would fit into. I think that’s a mistake, but I won’t count off for it.

Meanwhile, the Angel has finished trashing the X-Men and takes off on his own, even going so far as to diss Professor X’s summons for him to return. Why Xavier doesn’t just force him to comply is kind of odd, but we have to assume that he’s operating under the assumption that Angel’s change of heart isn’t radioactivity-based. I know that I lose more girlfriends to evil from radioactivity than I can count, so I can't really be too hard on the mind-mutant.

Either way, our treat in all of these pages is seeing the X-Men in action with Ditko behind the pen, a rare thing. Almost as rare as seeing him pull in the Avengers in cameos in their secret identities. Which is where we end up, right after seeing the Professor worry over Angel’s change of heart and what it means for his continued teaching efforts.

What this is all leading too is that only one person is available to take on the menace of Evil Angel…

…right after Happy Hogan and Pepper do some of that odd flirting they were known for, back in the day.

As for Evil Angel? He won’t be hard to find as he steals some dynamite sticks from a demolition company and starts tossing them around the city to attract the evil mutant enemies of the X-Men.

They all must be out to lunch or something, because the only people to notice are law enforcement and the incredible Iron Man. The officers are about to declare open season on Angel, but Iron Man convinces them to give him ten minutes to turn the youth around. 

As the officers reluctantly agree, Tony jets up to talk to the Angel, who does his best to cause Iron Man’s flight to be a one way trip to crashlandia.

Tony turns out to be craftier than that and uses Angel’s grip on his jet boots to nab the youth and fling him into an empty airplane hangar.

When Angel makes for the back entrance to the hanger, Iron man tosses out three powerful u-shaped transistor magnets, which quickly surpass Angel’s speed…

…momentarily locking him in. Then Angel turns the tables on Stark by swooping out a side door and locking Tony in a vault inside one of the hangers. Of course, it takes Iron Man seconds to shred the lock and be free again, where he finds Angel still trying to figure out why all the evil mutants are not flocking to his uproar.

Tony decides to try one more time to get through to Angel, sensing that there is no way the youth could so drastically have changed his moral compass. He nabs the Angel and soars up higher and higher in the air until…

…Tony’s boot jets run out of fuel again and he plummets once more to the Earth.

…this time with plenty of onlookers, one of whom appears to be having a crisis of conscience.

No, not the blonde girl. THIS guy…the Angel!

And of course this change of heart leads to the mutant attempting to catch Iron Man before he falls to Earth, however he’s got a long way to go to beat Tony to the ground. Can He Do It?

But of course. He’s one of the heroes and we don’t let heroes fail at this point in the early Marvel Universe. At least not at the end of a story arc. Within the arc maybe, but that just makes them come back and try harder.

Later on, after the death of a certain Gwen Stacy, Marvel would allow some failures to last…at least for a while.

Notice how oddly acrobatic Ditko makes this plunge. I daresay that no other artist would have posed Iron Man in such a fashion.

We even get a scene of Iron Man explaining why Angel was acting so oddly evil to the cops who were about to shoot him ten minutes ago. Again notice the odd look to IM’s face that Ditko put in. His eyes almost appear to float over his mask they are so expressive. Ditko was truly talented, but I don’ think Iron Man was one of his better characters. I really prefer is work on Spider-Man or Blue Beetle.

And to be certain we get a shot of all these characters together, we end with an X-Men reunion and Tony being thanked by Professor X himself. 

The things that come immediately to mind in this is that opening page scrawl about how the characters were on “loan” from the X-Men book. The way we perceive the Marvel comic universe these days has so many characters naturally occupying the same setting as many other books that it just feels like it was meant to be that way from the very beginning. As this book shows, that isn’t necessarily the case. The integration of all of these books was very much a marketing tool to sell as many titles as possible.

One book becomes a “hot” seller? Then plaster its characters all over the other books that aren’t selling so well. Do whatever it takes to keep titles in circulation. Most of them were on the chopping block each month it seems like. Once Stan found a character or two he liked, the tendency was to bolster their sales however he could. We owe Stan a lot for that. Without his clever marketing schemes many of these characters would have been lost to obscurity decades ago.

And we owe a huge debt to guys like Steve Ditko, who could take concepts beyond our imagination and turn them into visions that could astound us with their surprising tangibility borne from a mind that was as keen as it was brilliant.

We will miss you, Steve.