Action Comics #1 is a simple story with a simple premise – introduce the character Superman, make the readers care about him, and put him in a dangerous test to set up for the next issue.If one were to read synopsis of the plot, all these goals might even seem to be accomplished! It’s a generally accessible tale about a new Superman – and it’s even got some interesting ideas in terms of shaking up the status quo of the character. Seems great!
But the actual issue fails to deliver. And it is entirely because of a single fault – poor organization. The panel layouts start as decent, declines to mediocre, and by the end of the issue it hits just plain awful. I will investigate this decline in three stages. Let’s have a look.
1. Selling a Single Idea
Written by Grant Morrison and penciled by Rags Morales, the issue starts off well enough, with a bad-boy Superman swooping down upon a gang of thugs on the first page, before the story cuts directly to the police reaction. They rush into the building and head up the elevator. Here is where the problems begin.
Have a look at the first panel. There are four separate things occurring in this panel. First, the scared man is running into the elevator, yelling in fear. Second, the police officers are looking on in horror and disbelief, including Detective Blake. Third, Detective Blake is telling the yelling man to leave the area. Fourth, another police officer is inspecting the evidence of Superman’s brawl.
This is somewhat confusing to read. This is because one panel should convey one major idea, and if other ideas are present, they ought to be subordinate to it. This panel is conveying, at the very least, two separate ideas, all of equal importance. Detective Blake is both re-assuring a fleeing civilian, and looking on in disbelief at the damage. This discrepancy between the art and text, along with the added action of a bemused police officer, creates a very confusing conglomerate where four different things are happening at once. This is tiring to take in, and a poor way to organize information.
This trend repeats itself in the third panel on the page. The art portrays a wary group of policeman, readying their weapons for any threat. The dialogue, however, delivers the information of both their preparation and their discovery of Superman. Two separate and distinct events are happening in this one panel, with only a half-inch of balloon tail separating them.
This same mistake occurs yet again in the fourth panel, shown to the right. There is the police officer who expresses his fear, Detective Blake yelling commands at Superman, and Superman responding. These are two separate events – the conversation between Blake and Superman, and the apprehension of the Police Officers. Mish-mashing all this information together is difficult to read, chronologically confusing, and highly inconvenient. However, it’s no grounds for dismissing the issue entirely. After all, we still understand what is happening and why – a few organization problems on this scale are just minor slip-ups, right?
Unfortunately, it gets worse.
2. Wise Use of Real Estate
After a few pages establishing Superman’s powers and a quick page of Lex Luthor and General Lane conversing on the nature of Superman, the scene switches to Superman fleeing from his pursuers through a less fortunate section of town. A section of town which Luthor has decided makes excellent bait.
Superman, of course, takes this bait.
In the third panel, we run across yet another example of cramming information into a small space. There is one conversation between Superman and the civilian, and then another declaration from the police. Once again, this is inconvenient, but excusable.
But the next two pages start to go downhill. They are filled with absolutely nothing but Superman demolishing street tanks with a wrecking ball, defying military weapons, and generally destroying things. Well, what’s the problem with that? Don’t we need some action in this story! Well sure, but here’s the page that comes after them:
Down at the bottom half of the page, scrunched into two panels, is the people defending Superman for his good deed. This character-defining moment that separates Superman from Lex Luthor, General Lane, Mr. Glenmorgan, and any other character so far, is shoved into a short two panels, while the large 3-4 panel per page money shots of Superman destroying things is given a full two pages. Which one is more important here?
And if this were not bad enough, guess what happens right after the page with the people’s defense of Superman? Superman is attacked by a brigade of miniature robotic helicopters, and he promptly leaves. The people that defended him are nowhere to be seen throughout all of this. They have disappeared from the story after their two short panels of fame, except for a tiny cameo in the last panel of the next page, being shooed away by police officers.
They weren’t important anyway. All they did was provide a character-defining moment for Superman. Expendable at best!
3. Sealing the Deal
After escaping his pursuers, Superman deftly transforms back into Clark Kent and has a decently scripted conversation with his landlady. After reassuring her on his employability and paying his rent, he calls his buddy, Jimmy Olsen, and the scene switches to a train station. And now all the storytelling woes of Action Comics #1 come to a head. Here’s the first page:
In the first panel, we’re establishing three separate characters, one of them being shoved unceremoniously into the edge of the panel, away from the focal point and center of interest. Lois Lane is exhibiting two different emotions: excitement at catching up to their quarry, and curiosity as to who Jimmy Olsen is talking to. Jimmy answers both her and Clark in the same panel.
If that were not bad enough, a whole host of information is shoved into the next three miniscule panels. Clark and Jimmy are friends, Clark works for a rival newspaper, Lois doesn’t really like him, Jimmy receives Clark’s ambiguous warning about trains, and Lois urges for them to catch up to their target. The last panel finally pulls out to establish where we are – but only from an exterior shot that does not show where the characters are. Where is this Mr. Grundig? How close are they to him? Despite rushing to establish a whole host of information in too few panels before, we are still missing vital information on the goals of the characters we are following. The scene just cuts there.
Now who is this Mr. Taylor? What the hell is happening? Clearly, Clark has learned some very important information that affects the safety of Jimmy and Lois – and he quickly makes an excuse to hang up and get into costume. These two panels and the crammed dialogue on the preceding page are the only indication we get of Clark Kent’s relationship to Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. That’s it.
The rest of the page serves to establish that Jimmy has received more information from Clark, advising them of the danger they are in, Lois doesn’t care, the train is breaking down, and Lois confronts Mr. Grundig. If these nuggets of information were actually organized into separate, linked panels instead of being mashed into conflicting moments of time, I would call it a masterful piece of storytelling and not a complete mess.
But if the creators were cramming all this narrative information into such a small amount of space, without any kind of pacing or even basic legibility, clearly they had something plot-defining, character-breaking, and super important planned for the rest of the issue! Something has got to be waiting in the wings.
Nope. The next five pages all focus on a single event – a train crashing and Superman trying in vain to stop it. Five pages, one event. Two of these pages are absolutely nothing but money shots of wanton destruction.
The comic closes with another page of Lex Luthor and General Lane conversing, and a final splash page reveals Superman – rendered unconscious by the collision of the bullet train with the Daily Planet, the young vigilante sandwiched right in the middle.
These last two pages really ought to be moving. The page between Lex Luthor and General Lane is even well done, each panel expressing a singular idea and flowing well into one another. It ends on the particularly gratifying line, “Behold, I give you Superman.” It really ought to be goosebump-inducing stuff. But it isn’t. I don’t feel outraged at Luthor’s manipulation of Superman’s altruism. I don’t feel like I want to be right there with the people, fighting the good fight for the man who saved their lives.
The fact is, I don’t feel a thing because I don’t give a damn about Superman. Perhaps I would have if the whole comic hadn’t rushed through the plot to get to the spectacle. Perhaps I would have if the creators had put the emphasis on Superman’s nobility, his self-sacrifice, his altruism, and his concern for his friends.
But that was not at all their choice. Apparently what was more important was that Superman can intimidate the hell out of an old man, blow up military tanks, zip out of the way of robotic helicopters, and valiantly try, yet absolutely fail to stop a bullet train. After all, it is these events that get the vast majority of the panel real estate, while all the plot and drama – really everything that makes any of that action mean anything – is shoved into tiny panels and choked for space so tightly that the events are barely legible.
This serves to make what might have been an accessible, fascinating, and moving introduction into an all new Superman a disjointed, disorganized, disinteresting romp through money shot after money shot, where plot and characterization serve only as an afterthought.
It’s really rather disheartening, because with a bit of re-organization, Action Comics #1 could have been great.
David, this is a thoughtful and most welcome article, although I am going to quibble a bit. In the interests of full disclosure (and self-promotion), I liked Action Vol. 2 #1, and I explained why here.
I think you’re absolutely correct, David, about how the issue gets worse as it goes on. And I think your points strengthen as they too go on. Your third point, about the train sequence, is absolutely spot on. Too much information is crammed into confusing dialogue, which doesn’t help new readers, and this is especially sad because of how much space is given to the train derailment sequence, which is mediocre at best. I think your second point, about how pages are used in the middle section, is also fair, and it’s one I’d also agree with.
The real problem comes in your first point, although I need to be fair and acknowledge that you admit it’s not your strongest, or that at least the problems get worse as the issue goes on. I do think the opening sequence, right up to Superman’s departure, is a tour de force, although it’s not perfect, and I don’t disagree with you about how a few things could have been made better.
I do think, however, that you use the idea that a panel should convey a single main idea a bit too bluntly. That’s a good rule of thumb, but it’s not gospel. And one can point to countless examples of artistically successful comics that violate this rule. Watchmen, in particular, comes to mind.
Indeed, one of the unique attributes of comics is that they have two tracks: the visual and the textual (much as movies have the visual and the audio), and using them discordantly is often more successful than using them in concord. So, for example, we might get an image of a utopian city with a caption describing a deep ennui. There, the utopianism might be new information, but the ennui might also be, and the power of the sequence derives utterly from the fact that these two ideas are so much out of sync.
This is parallel to sequences in movies, in which sound and image are not in sync for artistic purpose. A happy image might be undercut by use of sound, which signals danger or horror. The most sophisticated works usually play with this discrepancy in some respect. And it’s even gospel, in movies, that audio should precede video, meaning that sound usually comes first in transition from scene to scene, resulting in many such discrepancies, albeit at a minor level.
This is just to say that your rule is only a good rule of thumb, which (like all artistic rules) is meant to be violated where doing so would achieve successful artistic effect.
I actually don’t necessarily disagree with your specific points about that opening sequence. But how you define a “thing,” vis-a-vis your single-thing-per-panel rule, is obviously quite fluid, and it would be easy to take exception to any of your points on this. In one case, it comes down to you arguing a cop shouldn’t reveal his underlying distress while talking to a civilian. In the arrival-on-the-roof panel, your main point is that the surprise of the officers should be separate from the exchange that follows, and that’s a point with which I actually agree — it would have made the sequence better, and I was bothered by that the first time through. But you also imply that Detective Blake’s dialogue and Superman’s response shouldn’t be in the same panel, before turning to your main point. This only illustrates the fuzziness of what defines a “thing” and that your rule, while good, shouldn’t be yielded too bluntly.
And while I do agree with you overall, taste and style are at play too. Silver Age comics used to do far more than two things per panel, thanks in part to their abundance of text. That’s fallen out of fashion, for good reason. But I feel like I do need to point out that you’re giving a recipe for an extreme form of decompression here — and that decompression at that level isn’t the only good form of comics.
So yes, I actually agree with most everything you’ve said here, although I obviously don’t think they ruin the issue. For me, these choices, while not ideal or (towards the end of the issue) actually outright mistaken are far less serious than, say, the lack of logical thinking that went into Justice League #1. And yes, I do know I’m quibbling, adding footnotes to what you’ve written more than refuting it, but please take it as a sign of how much you’ve made me think and how excellent your points are.
Julian, please, quibble away! I may be a grumpy critic when it comes to comics, but I’m always open for discussion and debate – that’s the fun part, after all! The thoughtful discussion I’ve found here on Sequart is continually fascinating! Anyhow, I do agree with your points about how it differs from Justice League #1. I mean, at least the plot makes sense.
It’s just that when I read through Action Comics #1, I actually had trouble staying connected to the story emotionally, and the deconstruction of the issue I did in this article was the result of me asking myself, “Why don’t I care?”
In that vein, you’re right that the first point is indeed the most arguable. I did not mean to imply that Blake’s cry and Superman’s response should not go together (thus the sentence on the conversation vs. the officer’s apprehension being two separate events) – so you’re definitely right, ‘thing’ is a bit nebulous.
I suppose a better way to put it would be that my issue with the police sequence was mostly the timing aspect. It was not so much that text and image were diverging, but that text and TEXT were diverging – I think the best example would be the image of Blake and the police readying their weapons (panel 3) – while having both apprehension (“Careful. He’s strong.”) and surprise (“There, ahead!”) present in the textual elements. This made me feel like there should be another image for their surprise – that I was somehow missing some part of the chronology, and my attention skipped, bringing me out of the story.
To have an example of how to convey multiple ideas in a single panel UNDER an overarching idea (so as to better define ‘thing’) we need only turn to the second-to-last page of this comic – where Luthor and Lane are arguing over what Luthor’s just done – sending a train crashing into the daily planet. This is an absolutely superb page, in my opinion, and I think it is the strongest point of the issue. Many complex ideas are conveyed, the panels flow well, and most importantly, the emotional constants of each character are maintained within each panel:
In panel 1, Lane is outraged and Luthor is dismissive. In panel 2, Lane threatens Luthor, and Luthor justifies his actions. In panel 3, Luthor is fascinated by Superman’s near-invulnerability. In panel 4, he gets a little aggressive and cocky about his accomplishment and ideas (great characterization, as a side note). And in panel 5, he throws up his hands, vindicated, proclaiming his victory, as Lane looks on in disbelief at the screen we see next page. Each panel furthers the emotional states of both characters in separate and distinct ways that match the flow of conversation – it never skips a beat. It’s a really a great page. All of the Luthor/Lane pages are actually just as good, which is why it seemed odd to me that the rest of the comic had so many problems on this front.
Glad you liked the article, and thank you for the very thoughtful comment!
All good points and clearly made. And I do very much feel like I was quibbling, although it got me thinking. As always, your ability to breakdown panels is truly excellent, and it’s something I’ve very much enjoyed and appreciated in your past work here, as well.
I do love how articles come out of questions, like “Why didn’t I like this?” That’s something I always enjoy, and it’s a great starting point that frequently yields good results. And the passion comes through in your work, just as much as the precision.
I do think I’ve got you beat on the grumpy critic vibe. I’ve been quite depressed at times, this last month or so, thinking about how much basic storytelling, both visual and more general, readers don’t seem to be aware of. I sometimes feel like I presume too much, and then I feel quite curmudgeonly. But your work has been a significant help in this regard.
Hey, thanks for the thoughtful article and the thoughtful response. Kudos. :)
Thanks for the compliment! I really do appreciate it, and have enjoyed all my time writing for Sequart.
It’s funny you mention the grumpy critic part, because upon reading this article, my father actually called me, saying, “I liked it, but you kind of come off as a scathing critic – are the guys you’re working for okay with that?” I replied, in so many words, “Dad, you should see Julian.”
Not that I mind! In fact it’s when you’re at your most scathing (Justice League for instance) that I find your work most illuminating and thought-provoking. Passion and precision, indeed.
It would probably have been more fair of me to mention how good the luthor/lane pages were in the article – as an example of how for some reason they got it here, but didn’t everywhere else! And don’t worry about being curmudgeonly, I get rap all the time for my rather brutal standards – I’ve had multiple people tell me that I must not like ANYTHING if I don’t like -insert movie/comic book here-. I suppose I feel that there’s no reason to settle for mediocrity – I want the best, dammit!
Your articles have also been a great help to me in this regard, because your tendency towards letting yourself be scathing helped me get even more brutally honest in what I actually think about comics. Which in turn helps me get better at making them. So thank you!
You’re exceedingly kind, and I struggle with the same process you’re describing.
You have a good father, who’ll read your writing. :)
A big inspiration for me in recent months has been Colin Smith. Because he’s so scathing at times, but he’s so precise that you really can’t argue with his points. I’ve never read anything he’s written and thought he went after a comic for the sake of it. Quite the opposite: it’s clear that there’s a passionate man doing the writing, and he’s scathing because he cares. Not only about comics but also about social justice.
He said something in one of his pieces that I thought was brilliant. I’m paraphrasing, but he said, “Did anyone involved think any reader would find this the best comic ever?” I thought that was such a ridiculously high standard. But then I realized, no, that’s the way I write. It’s not that everything has to be Maus. It’s that there has to be something really cool, really well done, that some reader could latch onto and remember and love. When you think about it that way, it’s not such a high standard. It’s a basic level of professionalism. Not phoning it in.
And respecting your customers who are shelling out presumably hard-earned money. And that’s something we think about very much at Sequart. I can’t tell you the countless hours that go into our books. We’re always striving to make them better. And sometimes it’s so stressful that it feels like it’s going to kill me. That’s not to toot my own horn: that’s what should be basic professionalism.
Reading that line of Colin’s was a revelation, because I suddenly realized that yes, this sounds like a tough standard. But it’s one that’s infinitely reasonable. It’s not that a work of art can’t have flaws. And we can talk about those flaws honestly and precisely, in a way that might actually help creators to see what works, what doesn’t, and how things could be better. Again, that’s holding a standard of professionalism.
One of my guilty pleasures is Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares. And you see that he’s tough, so tough and blunt, but it’s not mean. It’s professional. Shoddy work is not acceptable, and you’re not doing anyone any favors by pretending otherwise.
So yeah, we end up feeling like grumpy critics. Especially in contrast to some of the willy-nilly, emotion-based criticism, both pro and con. But that’s a service we’re doing, to the comics we’re discussing, to the industry, and to each other. We make each other better. And if we’re really lucky, we’ll make comics better. That’s a powerful and beautiful thing, and it’s one I know is in all of our hearts.
Kudos, David, on your work. Everything you said about Action are things I saw, going through, but gave a pass to. I still don’t believe they ruin the issue. But they are correct. And seeing them makes me a better critic. And can make someone a better comics writer or artist. That’s a wonderful gift.
But enough praise. Let’s find something to argue passionately about. :)
Like women in comics!