Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Action Comics Annual #1. Written by Sholly Fisch (Batman: The Brave And The Bold, Action Comics’ backups) and drawn by Cully Hamner (Red, Blue Beetle), the issue taps into the heart of the Man Of Steel while the rest of the Superman titles continue to move into uncertain territory, Also, Chronicle screenwriter Max Landis teams with Ryan Sook (Wednesday Comics, X-Factor) to re-imagine the Atomic Skull’s origin.
Grant Morrison’s Action Comics was one of the standout titles at the start of the New 52, and while its quality has fluctuated over the past year, the addition of one creator has kept the title consistently personal and emotional. Hand-picked by Morrison to write the book’s backup stories, Sholly Fisch has been fleshing out Superman’s supporting cast and shedding light on the central hero in self-contained eight-page segments. Telling a complete story at that length is difficult enough, but making these tales reveal something new about characters who have been around for more than 70 years is nearly impossible. Rather than telling traditional superhero narratives, Fisch focuses on the smaller moments in their lives to ground the title in reality: the Kents’ repeated attempts to have a child, Clark Kent leaving his childhood home for college, baby Kal-El playing with his dog. Morrison’s main stories are full of big science-fiction superhero ideas, but Fisch’s backups focus on character relationships to make readers relate to the story on a more intimate level.
Fisch takes the lead on Action Comics Annual #1, revealing the origin of the Kryptonite Man who appeared in Superman’s future earlier in Morrison’s run, and his story combines the best elements of Morrison and Fisch’s sensibilities. What made Morrison’s take on Superman such a breath of fresh air is the return to his original social-activist roots; in Action Comics #1, Clark goes after a corrupt businessman, and there’s a passing reference to Superman knocking a wife-beater into the river, breaking both the man’s hips and six ribs. That one-off line from Clark’s landlady is the first mention of Clay Ramsay, whose hatred of the Man Of Steel makes him the perfect candidate for a new procedure that will help the military defend itself from its alien enemy.
As Ramsay is subjected to intense Kryptonite radiation, some loose ends from earlier in Morrison’s run get tied up. Lex Luthor gets his military contract cancelled because of his deal with the Collector, while Superman has a heart-to-heart with John Henry Irons, who was there when the government tortured Superman, but who also chose to save the hero when Metallo attacked him. Fisch’s Luthor is appropriately cocky and deceptive, but he’s largely in the background, taking a backseat role to the impulsive Ramsay. The scenes of Luthor’s subtle scheming provide a nice contrast to the superpowered aggression of the Kryptonite Man, showing how these villains react differently to Superman’s attacks. The hero has done direct physical and emotional damage to Ramsay, so he responds with force, but Luthor’s hatred comes from indirect psychological damage, so he responds by finding ways to break Superman without having to get his hands dirty.
DC currently seems to be struggling with balancing the “man” and the “super” in Superman stories. Beyond Action Comics, most of the hero’s modern appearances emphasize just how alien he is to humanity. This week’s Superman: Earth One Volume Two takes away Clark’s powers and he’s still a brooding misanthrope, and the past year of Superman has been almost entirely focused on his lackluster superhero adventures. New Superman writer Scott Lobdell tried to bring some focus to Clark’s character by having him quit the Daily Planet last week, but rather than feeling like an inspirational ethical journalist moment, it comes off as a rushed way to get rid of that part of Clark’s life so he can go off and fight whatever ’90s-inspired villain shows up next. Clark Kent never even appears in Action Comics Annual, but Fisch makes his Superman relatable through his friendship with John Henry Irons, proving that personal relationships are as important as fisticuffs when it comes to creating a satisfying superhero story.
Superman visits Irons at the start of the issue to find out if there’s anything he should worry about from the former military engineer; Irons laughs and invites the Man of Steel for some coffee. It’s a small gesture that begins what looks to be a long, prosperous relationship. When the Kryptonite Man weakens Superman, Irons appears in his metal armor to buy some time while Superman puts on a containment suit that will protect him from the Kryptonite radiation. They take out Ramsay together, but what happens after the fight is more notable. Sitting on the street curb, Superman tells Irons he’ll need to figure out a superhero name for himself, but Irons replies that he’s going to try something different and be his own kind of hero. He hands Superman a business cards for SteelWorks, his new socially responsible tech company, and says he plans on travelling around the world, bringing technology to the neediest places on Earth in hopes that he can help people learn how to help themselves.
Six months later, Irons is writing a letter from the Australian desert to his niece Natasha, telling her about the traditional environmental sustainability techniques he’s learned from the aboriginal people, and how they’ve pledged to offer Irons’ technical advances to neighboring villages. As he looks at the ripple effect his actions have had, he notices how they trace back to Superman, and he realizes what being a superhero really means. “Maybe that’s the mark of a superhero: not just incredible powers or saving the day, but the effect you have on other people,” Irons writes. “Inspiring them to keep trying… and inspiring them to never give up.” Granted, the flip side to that ripple effect is shown through Ramsay, who is inspired to do evil when Superman stops him from beating his wife. And when the hero goes a step further and brings Ramsay’s wife to a shelter, his good deed pushes Ramsay even further over the edge; he’s still inspired, he’s still never going to give up, but it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Artist Cully Hamner joins Fisch for this issue, and his smooth, animated style is a perfect fit for the light yet powerful story. As one of the character designers for the New 52, Hamner knows how to incorporate the piping details of Superman’s new costume without making the added lines too distracting, and his design for the Kryptonite Man combines Kirby-esque graphic details with modern body armor for a look that’s simultaneously retro and modern. Hamner’s cartoon influence makes the book feel like a lost episode from the DC animated universe, and that’s a good thing. Action sequences and quiet character moments are rendered with the same attention to detail, and Hamner draws some beautifully iconic shots of Superman flying and punching. Fisch and Hamner would be an ideal team to take over Action Comics when Morrison leaves, which makes it all the more puzzling that DC will be handing the book over to Andy Diggle and Tony Daniel.
Action Comics Annual also features a backup story by Chronicle screenwriter Max Landis, making his comic-book debut as he tells the origin of the new Atomic Skull with artist Ryan Sook. Told without dialogue, the tale follows a S.T.A.R. Labs scientist after his nuclear submarine explodes, washing up on an island with a skull that can now shoot beams of radiation that vaporize anything in sight. With his cinematic, meticulously rendered style, Sook is a strong choice of artist for the silent tale, creating a lush tropical environment that its newest visitor destroys. Exposition is presented through two webs of images representing the flood of memories during moments of extreme trauma. The first comes after the submarine explodes, showing the scientist’s courtship of his wife and her bloody death. Later, when he’s burning down the entire island, a second web shows how the scientist’s marriage deteriorated and how he killed his wife with the same radiation that transformed his skull into a weapon of mass destruction. The lack of written information forces readers to draw conclusions from the first web that are shattered by the second, transforming a tale of one man’s survival into the beginning of a new menace. Named after the Titan goddess of fire, “Anchiale” is a chilling introduction to the Atomic Skull, setting the stage for the villain’s return in 2013. If this is what Landis can do in eight pages without words, hopefully he’ll get some future comics work to show what he can do when working with a full set of tools.