Action Comics Complete Collection review: Action Comics is clearly the #2 “Super” book. So many major events happened in Superman’s namesake flagship title as opposed to Action Comics. This was disappointing. Like virtually all modern day comics, the late 1980s to 2000s focused on crossovers and guest appearances; it’s very hard to read a coherent history of a character when stories are continued in other comics. I admit that it was a struggle to get through the Action Comics collection.
As the longest running comic book, there are more misses than hits in Action Comics. Early on the editors really pressed the writers and artists (no union) and many times the creators are not even credited. Everything you think you know about Earth-1 and Earth-2 are from CRISIS and Roy Thomas retcons, not from the actual Golden Age comic books. Little known fact for casual fans: Curt Swan mostly draws the covers of Action Comics, not the interiors.
Some of the best Action Comics stories are in recent times. I know that statement is shocking to some of you, but the writing, art, and concepts in modern times are superior and more “serious” than most of the stories from 1938 to the mid-1990s. Joe Kelly and Geoff Johns just blow everything before them out of the water. This is hard for some comic book geeks who like to complain about everything to swallow, but it’s true. I have the historical perspective of 900 issues to make such a judgement. Even so, with the old comics, for every hundred issues I went through, there was always a handful of hidden gems that I know comic book fans would love, so the experience was worth it.
Action Comics #1-49 (1938-1942): Writer Jerry Seigel and artist Joe Schuster spearheaded a timeless legend (their replacements tried to ape their work under orders from DC editorial). The artwork is rudimentary Golden Age, and the stories are inaccessible to the youth of today (sorry.) The backups in Action Comics generally have a pulp/Sunday comics feel to them, and are totally skippable. The most interesting thing about the early issues is that Superman’s personality type is much different than the later versions (a rugged individualist who broke laws to help victims), and Superman’s Jewish Messianic roots are obvious. For as much as modern day comic book geeks complain about continuity, they should realize that Action Comics had a very loose continuity, especially with Daily Star/Daily Planet, Cleveland/New York/Metropolis, George Taylor/Perry White, Lex Luthor, etc.
Action Comics #50-99 (1942-1946): You’d think WWII-era Superman would be battling Nazis, but he does that more on the Action Comics covers than on the inside panels. Villains like The Prankster and Mister Mxyztplk cause Superman more problems than Lex Luthor, who I guess is making his rounds in Superman’s sister comic than being the main nemesis in Action. Still feels like a Sunday comic book strip.
Action Comics #100-149 (1946-1950): Radio, TV, movies and Lois Lane are the main features in this chunk.
Action Comics #150-199 (1950-1954): Yes, kids couldn’t get enough of Lois Lane and gangsters with kryptonite. Still no standout issues that I can recall.
Action Comics #200-249 (1955-1959): Silver Age/Mort Weisinger: Here we have a change of focus: imaginary stories, future timelines, Krypton flashbacks, historic figures, aliens, and crazy premises on the covers. Brainiac makes his debut and seems like a super version of Lex Luthor. Otto Binder is a solid writer. Much more accessible to readers of today who are in their 30′s to 60′s, but still too weird and childish for Generation Y.
Action Comics #250-299 (1959-1963): These 50 issues are the peak of the Silver Age- Supergirl, Bizzaros, Mr. Establishment Clark Kent, cocky Superman, Phantom Zone, superpets, different colored Kryptonite, super power swaps, Super-baby, Perry White/Jimmy Olsen/Lois Lane being involved in weird adventures, Super-Robots, tough villains, and everything that most Americans think about regarding Superman. Yes, I love these wacky stories. Years later, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison totally used these stories when they tackled the Man of Steel, while other writers went out of his way to snub them.
Action Comics #300-349 (1963-1967): Kinda lost its steam slightly as the Silver Age was winding down. Superman pretending to be evil to trick a villain or being mind-controlled/under the influence of red kryptonite or magic got tired. Supergirl is still the show-stopper. You could tell the kids still dug her and the super-pets. The Parasite was introduced as an A-List villain. Issue 300 is a keeper (feels like Childhood’s End/Planet of the Apes).
Action Comics #350-399 (1967-1971): Thanks to Neal Adams’ revolutionary “realistic” art style and Curt Swan doing many interiors during this batch, the Bronze Age attempted to take Superman to the next level. Bronze Age Superman isn’t as blindly loved by the masses or the establishment. DC clearly took the lead from what Stan Lee had accomplished with Peter Parker/Spider-Man by giving more “angst” to Kal-El. That being said, some stories are still rooted in the 1960s, and by no means would you be confusing this run with “mature” 1980s comics or character driven 1960s+ Marvel. Action Comics #370 is a keeper (untold in-continuity origin of Superman that will BLOW YOUR MIND- think Star Trek’s Captain Picard in The Inner Light).
Action Comics #400-449 (1971-1975): Julius Schwartz took over the reigns and phased out everyone having kryptonite and didn’t make it obvious about how there are so many kryptonians running around, but these stories just don’t have the charm as the 1960s stuff. Doesn’t help that Nick Cardy was the artist.
Action Comics #450-499 (1975-1979): Although mostly misses (SUPER-LAME VILLAINS and plots- you know things are bad when Terra Man is a threat), this batch of Action has some gems, including a three-issue Phantom Zone villains storyline featuring the return of ZOD, Kru-El, Faora-Hu, and Jax-Ur. Action Comics 484 is a special Earth-2 tale featuring the marriage of Lois Lane and Kal-L. I wish DC would have kept Earth-2 as backups or something, because if they did I don’t think youngsters would have been confused in the 1980s, which led to CRISIS and erasing history.
Action Comics #500-549 (1979-1983): Action 500 could have been the last issue of Action Comics, that’s how complete it was, and unfortunately the quality dropped after it. Although are a lot of really bad comics in this set (NUKLON), there is an interesting “Lex Luthor turns good” story arc and the return of the late Pa Kent storyline. Brainiac and Lex Luthor eventually get redesigned to respark their motivations. It never ceases to amaze me that the costume change/motive change gimmick is still used today when it comes to these two villains to keep them fresh. Anyway, Action Comics is sputtering in this batch, even with yet another Phantom Zone menace run.
Action Comics #550-599 (1983-1988): The decline of Action Comics continues. By now Action is irrelevant in the DCU, and Marvel is in another dimension of excellence during the early-mid 1980s. Although the art is retro cool, DC knew that Marv Wolfman would be wiping everything out in CRISIS (July 1985-1986) so Action was in limbo. Keith Giffen pretty much uses his run to promote Ambush Bug (artwork FAIL). Alan Moore and Curt Swan blow up Action Comics with #583 (Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?) [indeed]. John Byrne is in charge of the reboot and crafts the first true modern Action Comics. Byrne’s run is both innovative and offensive, but the quality can’t be debated when compared to how bad Action Comics had been. No, Byrne’s Action was not as good as Byrne’s Fantastic Four, but it was a good ride to meet Superman “for the first time”. In case you don’t know, after the events in CRISIS, all of the comics I listed here so far were “erased”, and Byrne started over with a “updated/new” Superman, a different (sterile) history, Luthor was redone into a businessman, and the Kents never died. Byrne’s run is mostly a “Superman meets [insert hero]” for the “first time”". Characterization is stiff.
Action Comics #600-649 (1988-1990): #600 was good, but could have been better. Marvel’s Spider-Man anniversary issues are better than Action Comics’. Anyway, Action Comics goes Weekly. This was a grand experiment to sit Superman to the bench and feature the Green Lantern Corps and B and C-List DCU characters. The GLC stories were great (but short). Otherwise, this was a colossal bomb. When Supes got his title back in #643 (George Perez) it appeared that Action would be relevant again, but the loss of Byrne and the weekly format had taken the wind out of the post-Crisis reboot. Oh yeah, Brainiac gets redone- AGAIN.
Action Comics #650-699 (1990-1994): Technically an underrated Roger Stern era, but sales continued to plummet, and in all honesty as much as I love Roger Stern’s work, the post-Crisis Superman at that point just didn’t resonate with me. It wasn’t Stern’s fault- he seemed to be under marching orders. There was a reason why Lex Luthor “died” (he cloned himself and became his red-headed “son”), why Clark finally revealed his secret ID to Lois, why “Supergirl” was brought back, and why Superman ultimately had to die at the hands of Doomsday: the post-Crisis Superman was a failure. The Death of Superman, Funeral For a Friend, and Reign of the Supermen are well-done, considering the nature of crossovers, but the art is inferior to Marvel/Image at the time. In fact, if DC had “hot artists” kids would have bought Action without the Death. But the Death was good for Action, the character of Superman, and the industry as a whole (although speculators eventually killed the market, people made money and some new fans stuck around).
Action Comics #700-749 (1994-1998): This is the long-haired Superman. It’s not that this era was bad like Marvel had become in the 1990s, but re-reading this era now (I had gobbled up and read these issues when they came out on the newsstands) it’s nothing to write home about. Yes, Superman is more human, down to earth, and works on his relationship with Lois, but this sick era (Zero Hour, Electric Superman, Superman Red and Blue) just doesn’t age well to me. The villains are so 1990s lame that I’m begging for Terra-Man to ride in on a robot horse. My main gripe is that the characters take everything too seriously, too many subplots, and again…lame plots/villains.
Action Comics #750-799 (1999-2003): Ironically this era is when I stopped going to my local comic book shop and began to attempt to save money. It’s not like I quit collecting comics because of the quality; Joe Kelly is absolutely phenomenal in Action. I can imagine younger readers treating and viewing this era like how I hold John Byrne’s era as being innovative: Kelly brings a “modern” and “mature” edge to Action. By 1999, many create comic books have been produced in the industry and fans had different expectations for monthly titles. That being said, Stuart Immonen was the writer before Kelly, and he injected the same “fresh” modern feeling into it. So DC was practicing the “new writer = new theme” gimmick which is now old hat in 2011. Anyway, after Stuart Immonen left, there were some fill-ins before Joe Kelly took over in # 760. By the way, #775 (Superman vs The Elite) still holds up and is a strong candidate for best Action Comics of all time. Kelly’s Superman/Wonder Woman “romance” was far superior than Byrne’s #600. Superman’s art style is anime, which is “hot” but can alienate older readers. (I personally dug it.) One of the drawbacks of this era is all of the crossovers…Emperor Joker, Our Worlds At War, Joker: Last Laugh, not to mention Return to Krypton I and II, Road to the White House, etc. And, yes, there are duds. I always had the “did I miss an issue?” feeling. Don’t you hate that feeling? I couldn’t even tell you what happened in some issues without re-reading them. Regardless, Action Comics was relevant once again, and on fans’ monthly pull list.
Action Comics #800-849 (2003-2007): Continuing the ultra-modern storytelling, Superman and the Russian General Zod storyline was fantastic (Superman and earth seem DONE), and was like Mark Millar’s Red Son. The 2000s pretty much continued the tradition Joe Kelly had set, and although comic book geeks have problems with continuity, I liked the stories. I do concede that every time a new writer comes aboard, and Action Comics proclaims “THE BEGINNING OF A NEW ERA” it is annoying and an artificial way to generate sales. Writer Chuck Austen’s Gog storyline (#815), with art by Ivan Reis felt like he was setting up a new version Kingdom Come and was engrossing. Writer J.D. Finn takes over in #824 (so much for the new era) and did an insane Gog, Doomsday, Racist Superman (Preus) arc, which was awesome, but it feels like overkill and targeted to new fans. John Byrne’s return as artist in #827 (Gail Simone as writer) takes Action Comics a step backwards: felt like Roger Stern 1990s, and I bet sales plummeted. Joe Kelly saved the day by returning for a “Superman, This is Your Life” one shot (#836) (Kal-El and Kal-L), and hands it over to Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns. Problem: One Year Later; it was pretty confusing and unnecessary, although Lex Luthor is treated well. DC kinda dropped the ball on the Infinite Crisis/OYL gimmick. After Johns left, Busiek and Fabian Nicieza attempted to put some old school action back into Action Comics, but this much hyped run did not feel like Astro City at all. In fact, I put my re-reading on hold because this not not vintage Busiek. One of the reasons why I began on this Action Comic reading binge was because I thought Busiek brought something special to Action. I guess fans had been talking about his #850 one shot. Thankfully in #844, Geoff Johns and Adam Kubert (and THE Richard Donner) made Superman II in continuity (kinda) by bringing back (for the first time!) Zod, Non, and Ursa.
Action Comics #850-904 (2007-2011): Major highlights: Phantom Zone, son of Zod, Bizarro World, The Legion (Keith Giffen’s acclaimed dark 1980s run), the first appearance of Brainiac (seriously), and New Krypton. Johns mostly worked on these issues, and Donner teamed up with him on a few although his schedule caused fillers. Johns and artist Gary Frank treat Clark Kent/Superman like Christopher Reeve, and I enjoy that homage but can understand the confusion of comic book geeks (everything feels like a reboot). The death of Jonathan Kent is sad, although Action did not have the funeral or major repercussions. New Krypton, which got ripped by the message board mutants, is fine with me: it puts Superman into a different scenario, and General Sam Lane teamed up with a criminal Luthor to devise a way to stop hundred of thousands of Kryptonians flying around earth from the bottled city of Kandor. Greg Rucka takes over in #875 – #889 (World Without Superman and World Against Superman) with Nightwing and Flamebird. Although the issues are generally OK, DC milked New Krypton too much (way too many super-powered beings). Action Comics also felt like an anthology again with Captain Atom/Jimmy Olsen backups and by having new characters be the lead.
Lex Luthor historically takes over Action Comics with #890. Man what earth do I live in where Luthor kicked Superman out of his own comic? It’s weird rooting for Lex as he is on a quest for ultimate power inspired by the events in Blackest Night. Writer Paul Cornell somehow makes us root for this evil mastermind (followed around by a hot Lois Lane robot Lex created) against Mr. Mind, Gorilla Grodd, Vandal Savage, Larfleeze, and Brainiac. Luthor meeting Death from Sandman fame in #894 is one of the best Action Comics ever. The Joker’s appearances are jaw-dropping. No wonder he’s nuts: the Joker knows everything about the DCU. This had to be the most philosophical Joker I’ve seen; Heath Ledger would have been proud. So Luthor gets ultimate power in #900, and rewards the universe with a state of bliss- ultimate happiness and contentment. All suffering is vanquished. But Lex allows his negative thoughts about Superman get in the way, and I’m sure you realize what happens next. Superman takes his title back. In a backup story, which was linked by Drudge Report, the U.S. government gets all over Superman for standing in front of Iranian protestors against machine guns sent by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Superman realizes that “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” is no longer his way, and renounces his citizenship. How to follow up #900? Instead of an awesome storyline, we get a WWE-style rampage with a bunch of Doomsday clones, Eradicator, Cyborg Superman, Supergirl, Superboy, Steel, and a new Doomsday villain called DOOMSLAYER. Is this 1993? DC seems to be copying what Jeph Loeb did with Red Hulk: mindless over-the-top mayhem.
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