With Man of Steel hitting theaters soon, DCN takes a look back at some of his greatest stories, beginning with the seminal tale of Action Comics #775. Read more after the jump!
Back in March of 2001, superheroes and comics were not the mainstream force that they are today. The first X-Men movie had hit screens the year before, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-man would dominate the box office the following year. The U.S. Presidency had been decided in controversial fashion. The economy was beginning to recede as many internet-based businesses went bust. The world was becoming more and more cynical, and not just the real world, but that inhabited by comic book heroes. Batman, Wolverine, and Spawn topped sales charts. Blade was a successful movie franchise. “Grim and gritty” at the height of its comic book influence.
Could Superman, the first and arguably greatest of all comic book characters, remain relevant in this world? That is the question tackled by Joe Kelly in Action Comics #775, which asks the reader in its title, What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? Inspired by both antiquated reputation and the popularity of Warren Ellis’ anti-hero team book The Authority, this issue is a complete deconstruction of Superman as both a pop culture icon and character within the DC Universe.
In one panel, Kelly is able to encapsulate the public perception of who Superman is and what the world wants from its heroes. Superman overhears an exchange between some kids pretending to be heroes. One of them, dressed in a Superman costume, says “Okay, kill me an’ I’ll be somebody cool. Bein’ Superman is so beat.” This is the sentiment that drives the story for the remainder of the issue. Is it okay for heroes to kill? What does it mean to be a hero? How is good and evil deciphered in a world that is drenched in shades of gray?
Kelly writes one of the greatest single issues I have ever read. For an issue that is now 12 years old, it reads as well as a comic that was published last Wednesday – not once did I find it dated. Kelly takes a question of morality and is able to make cases for both sides. Being a Superman title, Kelly does present our hero’s case in a more favorable light, particularly in a fantastic scene featuring Clark and his adoptive father, Jonathan. To argue for the opposing viewpoint, Kelly makes effective use of the ordinary citizens of the DC Universe. Do people want due process for criminals like the Joker or Hector Hammond? The answer shouldn’t surprise you. But the question the reader must ask themself is not “what do I want?” but rather “what should I do?”
Art duties are shared by Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo. Both artists do an excellent job in telling this story through the expressions and reactions of characters on panel. Manchester Black, leader of the Elite, oozes confidence and condescension with each appearance, making it easy for the reader to both despise and admire him. The result is almost an uncomfortable experience for the reader in the best way possible. This is a story that, until its resolution, is intended to make the reader uncomfortable in their own skin. The combination of writing and artwork immerses the reader into the story, providing them a participatory experience.
While changing art styles can cause problems, Bermejo had yet to develop his signature, hyper-realistic style, resulting in panels that closely resemble Mahnke’s. That said, I did have one issue with the artwork. I normally don’t notice the work done by inkers – I don’t have that strong of an eye. However, I will notice a change in inking styles when there are six inkers on a single book. The level of shading and fine details throughout this issue may go unnoticed on a first or even second read, but the more the story is revisited, the more noticeable the inconsistencies become.
Action Comics #775 is, without a doubt, a classic. There is more story packed into this single issue than in most multi-issue story arcs. The fact that it focuses on a philosophical dilemma rather than splashy superheroics, with a satisfying resolution at the end, is even more impressive. This is one issue that fans of either Superman or comics in general can really enjoy if they allow themselves to be fully immersed in this world. Is Superman relevant in today’s world? Even though it’s more than a decade old, after reading this issue, I’d say he is now more than ever.
Action Comics #775 is available for purchase on Comixology and possibly the back-issue bins of your local comic book store. It is also collected as part of Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Vol.1.