To recap, last issue, after his epic battle with the Green Goblin, Peter returned home to recuperate under the tender ministrations of Aunt May and Mary Jane. Things appeared to be returning to some semblance of normalcy (or what passes for it in the life of Peter Parker), but that illusion was quickly dashed when Peter received an ominous phone call from an unknown person, a person that knew his secret identity. Fearing for the safety of May after some of the caller’s remarks, Parker swung across town only to find his surrogate mother’s home ransacked and its owner missing.
The bulk of this issue is devoted to Peter’s panicked search for answers regarding his beloved aunt’s disappearance. Unsure of where to turn first, Peter calls the Black Cat for help. With none forthcoming quick enough to satisfy him, Parker breaks into the prison where Norman Osborn is now being held (more on that issue in a bit) and has a conversation with his archenemy that leaves him more terrified for May’s safety than he already was. Thinking of the Avengers as a sort of superhero 911 call, he attempts to solicit the help of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, with less than stellar results (again, we’ll talk about that in a bit). Finally, in desperation, he appeals to the Owl, the super-powered crime lord that has taken the place of the Kingpin. And the underworld boss comes through for the Wall-Crawler. Or so it would seem, I should say, as the issue ends as Peter confronts May’s alleged kidnappers.
So what’s the problem? Well, first, there’s an irritating continuity issue. Imagine for me that you’re a new reader. You’re all excited about Spider-Man 2 coming out in a month and a half and you decide to buy some Spidey comics to tide yourself over (improbable, I know, but bear with me). You go into the comics shop and on the shelf this week you’ve got three choices: Spectacular Spider-Man, Spider-Man and The Pulse. All of them have Spidey on the cover, so from all outward appearances, you’d be equally served to pick up any of them. Let’s say you decide to splurge a bit and buy Spider-Man and The Pulse both. Guess what? You’re now officially confused. If the Green Goblin is currently incarcerated, as Spider-Man shows him to be, how is it that he’s running Oscorp and killing reporters, as he’s doing in The Pulse? You don’t know that Marvel editors apparently don’t do a damned thing for their paychecks except make convention appearances. You don’t know that being Brian Bendis or Mark Millar means you can just write whatever you want and Marvel will green-light it, regardless of whether or not it makes sense in the grand scheme of things. You just know that the two comic books you paid three dollars apiece for contradict the hell out of each other. Would you come back and pay six more bones next month, hoping that the issue will be explained?
Then there’s the issue of Spider-Man’s appearance at the Avengers Mansion, where not only does Jarvis not recognize him, but neither does the Mansion’s vaunted security system. And then none of the Avengers, it seems, have anything more than a passing familiarity with him. All of this is in reference to a character that is, and has been for many years, himself an Avenger (albeit a reserve one, but an Avenger nonetheless). Now granted, our hypothetical new reader doesn’t know that, but you get the point.
Frankly, I feel bad nitpicking continuity, I really do. But it’s not like I’m playing Continuity Cop here and complaining that Millar is ignoring a mole that Spidey had on his left ass cheek in an issue of Web of Spider-Man from fifteen years ago. Both of these complaints, I think, are just textbook examples of sloppy writing from Millar and even sloppier editing from Axel Alonso.
This is to say nothing of the fact that Millar, once again, gets lazy and just flat-out steals a scene from the X-Men films. Previously, he did it at the end of his Ultimate X-Men run, where he basically just lifted the last scene of the first movie (y’know, the plastic prison chess game between the Professor and Magneto) and made it into a full-length issue. This time around, the opening scene of X2 is tweaked: instead of Nightcrawler bamf-ing his way into the White House, Spider-Man and his superagility beats the Avengers Mansion’s security system. The end result is pretty much the same. Again: sloppy, lazy writing.
And finally, while reviewing the previous issue of this book, I remarked that I was impressed that Millar, who has made his career on shock value, hadn’t resorted to the tactic yet. I can’t say that same for this issue, where Electro offhandedly reveals that his time in prison has left him with a taste for man-on-man loving. I’m not being bigoted, but honestly, I can’t think of any constructive purpose that bit served, other than attempting to spark outrage amongst Spider-Man fanboys across the Internet. Also, in Ultimates, Millar (or, at least, the book’s cover) implied that the relationship between Quicksilver and his sister, the Scarlet Witch, was not quite healthy, something that had some fans riled up for a while. That implication is now being carried over to the Marvel Universe proper, as Quicksilver’s response to an insult from Hawkeye is, “How dare you speak to me like that in front of my sister?” Maybe I’m reading too much in, but that’s just not the sort of reaction a normal brother usually has; it seems more like the kind of thing someone would say in reference to their wife or girlfriend, not their sister.
All in all, there’s just not a lot here to recommend. At the end of the day, not a damned thing really happens in this issue. Peter finds out (maybe) who kidnapped Aunt May, but it takes him twenty-two pages to do so, so the resolution of that plot thread will have to wait until at least the next issue. The issue feels like nothing so much as it does padding to fill the forthcoming trade paperback out. The lone gem of the issue is the opening scene, where Peter has to argue with Mary Jane to get her to leave town, as he feels that she is vulnerable to kidnapping as well (since anyone who knows his Aunt May would know his wife as well). Maybe that’s just because I have a stubborn, stubborn fiancée who rarely listens to me, but their conversation seemed very natural. The book isn’t a complete waste, as the Dodsons’ art is still really eye-catching stuff, but it’s certainly not something that I’d go out of my way to recommend like I did with the series’ first issue.
Ah, Chuck Austen. What can you say about the man that a thousand other people haven’t already said? He is, if the message boards are to be taken as any kind of gauge of public opinion, the most reviled man in comics today (or, at least, he was until Micah Wright finally ‘fessed up about his “past”). I’m of the opinion that those who trash Austen based on his work for Marvel (most notably his stomach-churning run on Uncanny X-Men) have more than sufficient evidence to do so. The vast majority of his work has centered on either gross mischaracterizations of well-established characters or hackneyed attempts to revive the Chris Claremont soap opera antics of the early ’80s. Or both. And it’s been almost universally bad.
Now, I’m primarily a DC kind of guy, always have been. As such, I was always pretty happy to see him generally confining his sequential butchery to the House of Ideas. I have very little sentimental attachment to most of the Marvel stable of characters, so while I can see what the Zombies are all riled up about, at the end of the day, I simply do not care. However, there is one positive comment that I can make about Austen and that is this:
In my opinion, his work on Superman books has always been, at the very least, decent.
I’m not ashamed to say that. His Superman: Metropolis mini-series, while suffering from some God-awful artistic inconsistencies (started out OK, ended pretty terribly), was more than passable. And I thought the fill-in issues he did on Superman last year were actually pretty damned fun.
Now here’s the part where I say something that I know I’ll regret later:
I think Action Comics, so far, has been the best book of the creative relaunch that the Superman books have recently undergone.
I don’t want to take anything away from the other two books, both of which are penned by writers whose work I think very, very highly of. Adventures of Superman is a nice look at how Superman interacts with the men and women who are, ostensibly, tasked with keeping the law in Metropolis and there’s no one better to write that book that Greg Rucka. And Azzarello and Lee’s Superman is a rare look at the Man of Steel’s dark side. But when you boil it all down, at the end of the day, Austen’s Action Comics is the most accessible, familiar take on the world’s most recognizable superhero.
Recently demoted from his staff position in the metro division of the Daily Planet and shipped off to The Shack (where the street beat is apparently housed), Superman balances the new challenge that his civilian façade is now faced with and the familiar, but nonetheless very real, threat posed by Darkseid and the recently escaped Doomsday. With the latter in mind, he dispatches Kid Flash and Wonder Girl to aid their fellow Teen Titan, Superboy, in keeping an eye on Smallville, as the Man of Steel fears that Doomsday could strike there first. Having done so, Clark Kent argues with his wife over her knowledge of his pending demotion and her failure to make him aware of it, an argument that is compounded by what he perceives as a lack of consideration by her for his feelings. The day goes from bad to worse, however, as shortly thereafter, Kent meets and is mocked by his newly hired replacement. Just when it seems that nothing can go right, however, Superman’s sending the teenaged heroes to guard his hometown proves fortuitous, though not for the reason he had planned, as the hulking villain Gog appears in the center of town, calling our hero out.
What makes the issue fun is that not only is there more than fair bit of superhero action, with Gog and Superman knocking each other around town, but Austen demonstrates an uncharacteristically strong grasp on what makes the character work. Imagine how frustrating it would be to be able to literally move mountains and change the face of the world, but unable to change your wife’s mind. Imagine a life where you can defeat invaders from another world with nothing but your fists and then finding yourself, by virtue of that remarkable strength no less, unable to physically respond to an insult from a normal man. Wouldn’t you look for any excuse at all to shed your timid public persona and cut loose as your true self? After all, as has been said a million times before, Clark Kent is the mask that Superman toils under every day to conceal his true identity.
This is not to say that the issue is without problems. First of all, we’re given no explanation for what exactly Gog is doing in Smallville in the first place. Apparently he’s there to try to kick Superman’s ass and that’s just supposed to be enough for now. As well, it’s a little hard to swallow that a guy like Superman would send three teenagers to guard a city of over a hundred thousand that may or may not be the target of an attack by Doomsday. Now, granted, both of those things are easily explained away: 1) Gog’s motivations will be explained in the next issue, I’m sure and 2) Superman was always only a cry for help and two seconds worth of supersonic flight away from Smallville, so the Titans were never in that much danger anyway. All the same, these points weaken what could have been a damned fine issue; they’re just not enough to drag the entire affair down with them.
In the end, I think the strongest thing about Austen’s Action Comics run so far is that it manages to read and look like what people expect a Superman comic to (light, fun stories with eye-catching colors and clear storytelling) without seeming clichéd and outdated, which is always the complaint about them. His Superman has a much better sense of humor than longtime readers are probably used to (I’ve always found the Man of Steel to be a bit too much of a father figure most of the time), but that’s not exactly a strike against him, y’know? This book’s not going to change the face of comics as we know it, by any means, but so far, it’s been a fun, pure superhero romp that more than lives up to its billing and that’s worth something these days.