Wednesday, 2 March 2011


1. Icons.

There's no question that these two characters are both iconic superheroes. Going further, Superman has become an archetype of the superhuman (even though he's technically not human and, at the very least, he was preceded by Philip Wylie's novel Gladiator). But Superman was the first (1938, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) to appear in comics and his comic book descendants number in their hundreds.

In 1962, Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko created Spider-Man. The difference here was that (although there had been teenage superheroes before, they were usually -with the exception of Superboy- sidekicks with no distinguishing personalities. Peter Parker, however, faced all the usual teenage problems, made even worse (though the terms hadn't been invented then) by the fact that he was both a nerd and a geek but without any other nerds or geeks to hang out with. So was born the superhero with problems which soon became an archetype (or cliche, if you like) of its own, even though in one way Spider-Man is Superman's bastard son.

With Superman being about 73 years old and Spider-man an aging 39, it's not suprising that their origins have undergone several re-interpretations as times have changed. Now while Marvel Comics simply ignored changing times without rebooting Spider-Man (though we have seen several explorations of his origins but they don't change things, rather update them in a little more detail), DC Comics rebooted their entire universe at least three times in the last 25 years. With the first of them, DC hired writer/artist John Byrne to reboot Superman, getting rid of Superboy, Supergirl, and Krypto the Superdog, and de-powering a character who had become virtually (and boringly so) effectively omnipotent in the process.

Superman: Secret Origins is a fresh look (in a 6-part comic series) at Superman's early years starting with him as teenager and ending with establishing himself in Metropolis. Spider-Man: Big Time isn't quite the same, but it is part of an ongoing process to refresh the character and the environment surrounding him. So, apart from the fact that the two trade hardback collections arrived today and I read them both, there is a thematic link which is the reason I'm linking the two together in one review.

2. Superman.

Because of his powers, Superman can easily be boring and uninteresting as a character and credible threats have to be ramped up to ludicrous levels. In this story, however, we're looking at a teenager and a young man learning how to come to terms with his powers and the dangers they involve and in learning about the world. It's a journey to the beginning of maturity and the focus is on the man and not the superhuman. The storytelling is clear, uncomplicated

The art by Gary Frank (a British artist) is clean, detailed, and realistic. If you were to make a criticism it would be to call him Bolland-lite. (Another British artist working in American comics who has a strong clear line in detailed realistic artwork but with an often humourous touch.) His style is pleasing to the eye, his panels never confuse, but genuinely enhance the story.

Geoff Johns is a talented but often inconsistent writer. Here, thankfully he's on good form and he tells the story of Superman's early years with a sensitive touch. He hits all the usual bases -Lana Lang, the first girlfriend, discovering his origin and the trauma it causes, meeting teenage Lex Luthor (before the premature baldness set in naturally, Johns even brings in The Legion of Superheroes. And cut to Clark Kent's wide-eyed country boy arrival in the great metropolis of... Metropolis to start his job on a near-bankrupt Daily Planet. He quickly meets Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. Lois, and this is where Johns scores very highly, is a sharp intelligent young woman and she quickly notices that Clark's bumbling act is just that and she challenges him on it, though she doesn't get an answer. And on to the conflict with Lex Luthor, hero of the city, which includes effective reworkings of stock Superman villains the Parasite and Metallo. We also meet Lois's  estranged military father who is almost as much of a bastard as Luthor. And there's lots more.

This manages to balance stock scenarios with often subtle changes which enhance this retelling of an oft-told tale. Indeed this is so good it's the perfect introduction to the superhero comic for someone who's never read one before. I was enjoying reading this so much I felt frustrated when I came to the end that there wasn't any more.

3. Spider-Man. 

Spider-Man has always been the most likeable of superheroes, making jokes as he saves cats/people/the city/the world from disaster but, like the legendary comedian, his mask hides a sensitive soul, in this case it's Peter Parker. Unfortunately the comic lost its way over the years drowning a morass of legendary bad long-running epics like the much-loathed Clone Saga. When Marvel, using the talents of writer Brian Bendis and artist Mark Bagley (his art is on the lines of Frank), issued Ultimate Spider-Man, a refreshing reworking of the teenage hero with some new twists the comics fans cheered loudly and this, I suspect lead Marvel to consider reworking the orginal hero.

For the last three or four years, several writers working as a team but now mostly Dan Slott, the character has been revitalised by changes in his life, new supporting characters, new villains, and several surprises. We meet J. Jonah Jameson Jnr's father for the first time (no-one knew he had a father!) who turns out to be as likeable as his son is a pain in the arse and who marries Aunt May. Peter has just got a new girlfriend who works for the police as a forensic scientist, and far too much more to mention.

Big Time, the title is only significant at the end, is the latest collected installment in the revitalisation of the character and it's a good one. Opening with Spidey leading the Avengers against Dr Octopus's robots, we get a new Hobgoblin (oh well) whose secret identity knows Peter. The Black Cat is back to help, mostly, and the Kingpin isn't (well he's back but not to -oh never mind).  But the biggest event is that Peter gets the job he should have always had which sets the scene for major and positive changes.

The art by Humberto Ramos is on the cartoony side which suits the tone of the story. We're talking fun superhero stuff here and definitely not the place to start for those not familiar with the Spider-Man mythos. Those who are will enjoy it a lot.

Post Script: Secret Origin.
"I was enjoying reading this so much I felt frustrated when I came to the end that there wasn't any more."

 And it turns out that there's a very good reason for this. While checking Google Images for stuff to include here, I came across some that weren't in the book. Because they weren't in the book. At least not in my copy which was missing a chapter/issue about Clark's Kryptonian heritage. So I've sent it back to Amazon to be replaced.

Something I omitted to mention, artist Frank, presumably after discussion with or under orders by Geoff Johns, has deliberately modelled Clark Kent after Christopher Reeve which I wasn't sure I'd like but having read the book consider it a fine tribute to the late actor.

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