Friday, September 9, 2011

Action Comics #1

So after some technical (and meteorological) difficulties, I finally downloaded Action Comics #1.

And it's pretty good!

So I'm not going to talk about it. Well, sorta.

Instead, I'm going to talk about a recent episode of the FX show Louie and hopefully use that to bring things back to Superman and Action Comics #1. Spoilers follow, natch.

In the episode in question, Louis CK, a comedian, travels to Afghanistan to entertain the troops. Now we know by virtue of him being the main character of the show which bears his name that while his experiences in a warzone might change him a bit, they will not do so drastically - he'll not get shot, his chopper won't crash, he won't witness a bloody sacrifice on the part of a soldier. If any of that happened, the show would become a much different thing, and while I wouldn't put it past Louis CK to try something like that, it would only be cartoony-style where a Bad Thing Happens one week and the next nobody ever talks about it again. This would undercut the gravitas of the episode and I don't see Louis wanting that.

So how does the show get the audience to feel anxious as the invulnerable main character travels through dangers that cannot harm him?

They give him a duckling.

Turns out, right before Louis got on the plane, one of his daughters stashed away a baby duck in his luggage. They were watching the baby ducks as part of a class project and in order to prevent her dad from being lonely on his trip, the daughter put one in a box and packed it away in his bag. Louis discovered the duck (and a note) pretty much upon arriving on base. Because the duck is important to his daughter, he now has to protect and care for it. However, we the viewer know from previous exposure to Louie that the show has absolutely no problems going dark. No matter what Louis-as-character might feel for the duckling, Louis-as-writer/director will not hesitate to kill it in a horrifying, depressing, or horrifically depressing way.

And there's our tension. We know nothing will happen to the main character, but the duck is fair game. Because the duck is little and cute and helpless and has the love and tears of a pretty blonde girl backing it up, we immediately don't want anything to happen to the duck.

What's more, because Louis is on this super-macho base surrounded by soldiers (even his co-performer is an ex-Ranger), he feels the need to hide the duck. He doesn't want anyone to know about it for fear it will change their opinion of him (and it does - when he reveals the duck to the cheerleader he's trying to make a connection with, it totally changes her opinion of him). So in a way, Louis develops this secret identity. This only serves to heighten the tension as we watch his bag with the duck tucked away in it gets tossed around, carried on a helicopter, and even possibly placed in the middle of a firefight.

Eventually, the duck is revealed during a tense standoff between the soldiers and some locals with guns. The antics of a man desperately trying to chase down a waddling baby duck relieves the tension of the scene and also the tension of the duck. We know then that the duck lives and later, we see it make it home.

So what's this have to do with Action Comics #1? Well, first off, we know Superman is invulnerable. Not just by the fact that invulnerability is sorta his schtick, but that he's the main character in a flashback comic. I hit on this briefly in my comments on Justice League #1 - there's no tension when we know the characters will survive and thrive, either because their name is on the cover or because it's a flashback. This shifts the focus of the story from "Will The Character Make It From Point A to Point B?" to "How Does The Character Make It From Point A to Point B?"

Justice League did not answer this question very well. I mean, it tries, but it does so by rote, like if you memorized the answer to an essay question the night before and just copied down on the test the next day. Maybe it will get better at answering this question in later issues (#1 feeling like the first 5 minutes of a Michael Bay movie and all), but I'm not sure. With all those characters running around, the need for massive dialogue info downloads is pretty high. This info-spew makes it feel like that answering the question is not very high on the list. "How Did The Justice League Form?" "Darkseid attacked, duh."

Action Comics #1, on the other hand, makes it very clear that it's all about answering the question "How Did Superman Become Who He Is Today?" The whole comic reads like it will be focused on Superman's growth.I mean, he's not able to leap a tall building in a single bound, he's not faster or more powerful than a speeding bullet train. Even more, and this might be wishful thinking on my part but it brings us back around to the duckling, it seems to realize that just answering that question is not enough to make for a good story. We need the tension to make the action scenes work. I mean, sure, it was great to see the Jimmy Olsen references ("best friend," Jimmy's cellphone ringtone), but it was better to see him become a duckling again, that frail and fragile creature whose name is not on the cover who could get hurt during the course of the story.

Now, the chances of anything actually happening to Jimmy is pretty low, but I think that the danger to the character is there. Think about it. This is, what, a 5+ year flashback? Jimmy's entire character is based on his naivete, his earnest need for adventure. Will that foundation still be there in five years? If not, will there be any need for Jimmy? Something could happen to him (not to Lois) and Superman could move on as normal.

Still, to hedge my bet, I'll point out the existence of Clark's landlady and the potential cast of characters who live in his building. Those people, unknown before Issue #1, are definitely ducklings. As is the named cop from the opening scene and the corrupt businessman who seems to be in cahoots with Luthor. Something could happen to all those people, even if (maybe especially if) they are built up and developed over the course of the next several issues. Something will happen to these ducklings that will lead to Clark developing not only his powers, but his identity as Superman.

There were no ducklings, not even false or potential ones, in Justice League #1. There was just some required action and required information being spewed.

So yeah, Action Comics #1 is pretty good. I wish they had lead with it on August 31st.

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