Like many of you reading this, I recently purchased tickets to the one-night only theatrical release of Batman: The Killing Joke. Though I love Alan Moore’s opus, it’s not a graphic novel for which I hold a great deal of nostalgia; despite being a lifelong lover of comics, I only got around to reading it a few short years ago. Yet even twenty-five years after its initial publication, I instantly understood why it had come to be regarded as a classic. Better Batman stories have been written since, but few if any are as beloved as Moore’s masterpiece.
Action Comics #959 (DC Comics)
Not long after I first read The Killing Joke, I likewise reread The Death of Superman, Funeral for a Friend, and Reign of the Supermen. These are arcs for which I ought to hold a great deal of nostalgia; taken together this was my first favorite superhero story, debuting when I was at just the right age to have been both a neophyte and naïve, having read relatively few other comics with which to compare it and fully believing the marketing hype promising a permeant death for the Man of Tomorrow. Yet the intervening two decades have not been kind to these cherished childhood comics. They suffered significantly from the constant concerns for continuity which, removed from their original context, did nothing to serve the story itself. They had no message to make, no motifs or themes to explore, no reason to exist other than to be sold to speculators first and foremost, and uncritical consumers second. Much better Superman stories have been written since, but (unfortunately) few are as well remembered, even revered, as the Death of Superman.
Action Comics #959 treats the debut of Doomsday with particularly high regard. The issue is a rematch between the last sons of Krypton, interjected with retrospection by Lois back to their first bout, replete with numerous scenes from the fateful Superman #75 redrawn with exacting detail by artist Tyler Kirkham. To hear Lois tell it, Superman’s death was the very crux of history on the earth from which they originated. Everything that came after – the disappearances during “For Tomorrow,” the multiversal Infinite Crisis which left Clark powerless, Kal’s absconding to New Krypton for a year – are seemingly minor footnotes compared to Doomsday as Lois describes the monster. The overstated significance which Lois ascribes to Doomsday echoes that era’s overinflated importance by DC themselves of late. Doomsday’s reemergence in Action Comics and the Eradicator’s in Superman are just two recent examples of the publisher pining for the days when issues starring Superman were selling over a million monthly.
Yet this reverence for the past comes at a detriment to the present and the future alike. Path of Doom is not making nearly the impact that Death of Superman did – and not merely among the general populace, whose attention to the industry is fickle and fleeting, but among regular readers even. I’ve heard much more chatter about the iconoclastic American Alien than the iconodulist Path of Doom for good reason: nostalgia is cheap and easy, but genuine novelty is ultimately more engaging. Like The Killing Joke, American Alien will still be beloved as a masterpiece twenty or thirty years from now. But if Death of Superman will age even worse by then, Path of Doom, standing in its sullied shadow, will be forgotten entirely.
None of which is to say Action Comics is unenjoyable at the moment, only that the real reasons to enjoy it are entirely base. Action Comics is a guilty pleasure. I derive most of my enjoyment of media from critical analysis (some would say over analysis) of each work, particularly the philosophical themes of popular works. In that sense Action Comics is entirely vacuous. But the artwork is amazing, at least more so than Superman stories have been on average post-Swan and Byrne. And I’m finding myself intrigued by the puzzle presented by the presence of Clark Kent, seemingly sans superpowers and separate entirely from his secret identity of Superman. But I also remember looking forward to each new issue of Reign of the Supermen, intrigued as to which of the four claimants was the real Superman.
Action Comics is not good by almost any criteria, and yet I anticipate it more than most any other Rebirth title each month. Sadly, such speaks to the current state of comics more than any quality on the part of Action. We’re in the new ‘90s. Let’s just hope no one gets nostalgic for Superman Red and Blue next.