Death by Editorial: The Great Action Comics #19, and Why DC Doesn’t Like Superman

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It seems like modern Superman fans have it pretty hard today. If anyone out there feels similarly, I’m sure you can relate to something I’ve had to contend with: having to defend Superman to a world that seems to appreciate anti-heroes and goofy assassins more than true heroes (I’m sorry guys, Deadpool is NOT a better character than Superman), and having to remind people that the Man of Steel today is actually equipped with well-defined pathos. Basically, having to defend Superman at all, sucks. A lot.

Hopefully, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel will go a long way in convincing people everywhere that Superman’s best days are far from over. Even in comic book stores, it seems like truly good Superman comics are kind of hard to come by on the new release rack, and the sales would seemingly reflect that. While I thoroughly enjoyed Grant Morrison’s recently concluded run on Action Comics, I understand that it’s not for everyone, and it didn’t go quite as far as I would have liked in convincing even other comics fans that Superman was a character to follow.

So, when an issue comes along that has very high potential to be a go-to for the Man of Steel in monthly comics, that’s a feat that definitely deserves both recognition and reward. That issue came out this week, in the form of Andy Diggle and Tony Daniel’s Action Comics #19. I’ve been a fan of Diggle’s for a long time, and while I was sad to see Mr. Morrison leave, I was optimistic about what the future would hold for the title with Diggle at the helm. Although I’ve been critical in the past of Mr. Daniel’s writing on the Batman titles, I’ve never been critical of his artwork. I think he’s one of the best artists in comics today.

So, when hearing about the news surrounding Diggle’s departure from the title, I naturally became worried. Diggle cited “professional reasons” for leaving the title, and though I may be assuming too much, I think it’s safe to say that this falls on the shoulders of editorial interference on the part of DC. More on that in a second.

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I went into Action #19 with a bittersweet feeling in my heart. By the time I finished the issue, that feeling grew tenfold faster than a speeding bullet. Unlike the main Superman title and a few one-off appearances in other corners of the DCU, Action #19 felt like the best of Grant Morrison’s early issues of the title, showcasing the fact that this is a younger, brasher Man of Steel who has very little reservations about getting physical if he has to. Mr. Diggle made the modern, New 52 characterization of Superman very clear in the monologue of the first few pages, where he tells us that he’s here to “protect, not to provoke,” and for me this just culminated in chills when Superman says that he never throws the first punch, but he always throws the last.

This is all accompanied by blockbuster visuals provided by Mr. Daniel, who makes even the most bombastically action-packed scenes of Michael Bay’s Transformers films seem tame by comparison. Not only was this the Man of Steel, this was also a man of power. That sense of awe had been missing from Superman in the comics over the last several months, and even the action of Ivan Reis and Jim Lee’s Justice League pencils didn’t help to give as much scale to Superman’s power as Daniel has managed to do in the first few pages of Action #19.

Then, of course, reality sets in. Not only is this just the briefest glimpse of what the run could be, but this is a full third of what was promised to us months ago to be an ongoing endeavor. After all of the publicity from DC and the Superman 75th anniversary interviews Diggle participated in, the whole thing will be over in just a couple of short months.

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“Creative differences” is not a new phrase for comics fans, especially for Superman fans in the very recent past. Since the dawn of the New 52 in September of 2011, we’ve pretty consistently heard of creative casualties surrounding creators who’ve worked on the Superman character since the relaunch. George Pérez was the first casualty, the man who began the new volume of Superman when the New 52 first launched.

Pérez gave us probably our greatest glimpse at the frustrating process of working on Superman in an interview with ComicsAlliance, where he said, “Unfortunately when you are writing major characters, you sometimes have to make a lot of compromises and I was made certain promises, and unfortunately not through any fault of Dan DiDio, he was no longer the last word, lot of people making decisions, going against each other, contradicting, again in mid story.”

He continued, “ I had to keep rewriting things because another person changed their mind, and that was a lot tougher…They wanted me to recreate what I did through Wonder Woman, but …I couldn’t do it anymore. I did have to tell [Keith Giffen] I can’t wait to get off Superman. It was not the experience I wanted it to be.”

Unfortunately, the editorial decisions wouldn’t be any kinder to Keith Giffen or collaborator Dan Jurgens, as that team wouldn’t last more than a single story arc. Because of these past difficulties relating to the same character, and other similar instances happening with other characters (like Joshua Hale Fialkov’s departure from Green Lantern Corps and Red Lanterns over those pesky “creative differences”), I think it’s safe to assume that editorial has struck again, creatively choking Diggle and forcing him to feel he had to go. DC’s not commenting about it and both Diggle and Daniel have chosen to remain relatively silent, so until we hear the whole story, I think DC needs to take a hard look at how they treat certain creators, and yes, even how they treat Superman.

We don’t seem to be hearing many complaints about this kind of interference in the Batman office, and I think I know why. In an episode of Kevin Smith’s “Fatman on Batman” podcast, Batman writer Scott Snyder rather appropriately stated that DC “needs him” on the Bat titles to ensure their success. Because of this, I’d think it likely that Snyder is allowed a greater degree of creative freedom in Gotham’s corner of the DCU because A) his early stories (i.e. The Black Mirror) sold well, B) Batman is safer due to his near-universal popularity, and C) greater freedom has likely been a large factor in the Batman title’s high level of commercial success.

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If anyone from DC editorial (or higher) floats across this article, maybe you guys should ask yourselves a few things. Are the Superman titles better because of your hard-lined mandates for the character? Or, would a writer like Mr. Diggle, obviously capable given what we’ve seen in his other work as well as his first issue of Action, thrive creatively and commercially if you loosened the leash a little bit more? Are your mandates so imperative that you’re willing to sacrifice potentially higher sales and critical attention that could be yours by, God forbid, letting a team tell a story that might actually resonate with people?

Or, if you editors really are fans, then are you actively doing Superman himself (not the brand, but the man) any favors by potentially limiting his audience in his 75th anniversary year? Trust me, if comics fans (your audience, by the way) hear that Superman comics right now are “same ol’, same ol’” then I can promise you: they’ll put down that issue of Superman or Action and go straight for the latest in a long line of Deadpool gimmicks (right now that’s Deadpool Killustrated). For me, that’s a travesty.

I am a colossal Superman fan, and a comics retailer. This week, I took a great deal of pride in being able to show people an issue of Action Comics that told a new story and could introduce people to a whole new side of Superman that’s been missing from the entire DC Universe line. Because of this one issue, I feel like I not only know the New 52’s Superman a whole lot better, but that I actually like him more and may even prefer him to previous incarnations. Because Diggle has basically been forced off of the book, the tragedy here isn’t as much for him as much as it is for Superman himself.

Yes, the commercially safe Superman Unchained is coming, and will likely be successful (and quite good) with Mr. Snyder’s and Mr. Lee’s names attached to it, but Andy Diggle and Tony Daniel may have been the team to bring Superman back to a level of quality that the Man of Steel hasn’t enjoyed in either of his main titles for quite a while. Even though I feel for Mr. Diggle, I feel more for Superman, and am truly saddened that the company he calls home isn’t treating their flagship character with a greater degree of reverence, and a lot more respect.

Screw convincing other fans to like him, I thought that DC Comics itself liked Superman more than that. Through their actions, though, apparently I was very wrong.

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…I just wish DC would let him do it.

You can pick up Action Comics #19 now from your local comic shop, or on ComiXology.

  • pud333

    100% agree. Besides Morrison doing his thing, Superman has been a disaster in the new 52. While I enjoyed the H’el on Earth arc, I was left a little empty. The art was pretty and nice but I don’t think any of those artists on that crossover ever portrayed Superman with power and authority. I really hope Man of Steel is amazing and finally returns Superman as THE superhero. All the other heroes should be bowing down to Superman. I loved TDK trilogy and I hope they can do the same for Superman. He of all characters deserves an epic trilogy!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000099197903 J.d. Boucher

    DC’s editorial has been screwing over a lot of people lately, It was their fault writer John Rozum quit New 52 Static Shock and it wallowed in mediocrity. Plus that whole fiasco with them wanting to kill off John Stewart as well.

  • kerrer

    I have yet to read AC 19 yet, but you just got me really excited about it. I feel very similarly as you Chris about Superman in the New 52. I liked some of Morrison’s stuff, but it quickly got too weird and convoluted for my tastes. I’ll probably pick up the trades and read it as a whole. I’ve liked Scott Lobdell’s run so far, but it’s not mind-blowing or anything. Both books need to be way better. The best modern day Superman stuff I’ve read is Geoff Johns’ work, and I wish that were the character we see in the New 52. Snyder and Lee talked about Superman: Unchained quite a bit at Wondercon, and I’m pumped for that. Hopefully that book will force the others to step up the game and that MOS gets mainstream audiences interested in Superman again. The Superman: Unbound movie was awesome to watch at WonderCon (Clark and Lois’ relationship in it was pitch-perfect)! I’d say Superman was the emphasis at WonderCon, but the books are clearly pretty mediocre at this point. They have a few months to get their act together.

  • Naes

    I’ve had a lot of problems with the New 52. It is easy to see the steady decline in comic sales charted year after year. The New 52 doesn’t address ANY of the industry’s real, systemic problems. Instead it’s just another PR stunt like Marvel Now.

    Why can’t they figure out Superman? It’s simple. DC editorial can’t figure out how to make Superman cynical, violent and mean-spirited like the rest of the New 52 titles, because he is a bright, positive character intended for kids… but one that adults can enjoy as well. When did the notion of “all ages” become a dirty word? It doesn’t mean childish. The best storytelling with these characters in recent memory has been in the DCAU which is basically all ages. Comics were all ages when I was growing up in the mid-90s but stopped being like that somewhere in the early 2000s. And the industry has steadily declined. Coincidence?

    Frankly, I don’t even think they’ve done Batman very well either. Just ramp up the decapitations, profanity, blood pools and have the Joker run around with his face stapled on (as if that’s even physically possible) looking like a jackass and ignore the overall mediocre writing. How about a secret society that has controlled things behind the scenes for centuries? Oh, the League of Assassins? No. the Court of Owls, silly. Never seen that story line before.

    I can say I haven’t read a single storyline since the New 52 other than “Penguin: Pride and Prejudice” that I’ve enjoyed from beginning to end. World’s Finest seems to be a bright spot. It seems that the quality of writing has actually declined post-reboot. I wonder if that’s editorial interference. Not that DC should care about one fan like myself. I’ve always got back issues. I think I’ll go read Strange Apparitions.

  • http://shawnskvarna.com Shawn

    I’ve been a Superman fan since I was old enough to be able to know who he was (somewhere in the very beginnings of my single digit years in the 80s) and he’s been one of my all-time favorites ever since. Having said that, I can’t agree more with your article.

    Confession time: I have not attempted to read Superman in monthly form for years. The New 52 was my first real attempt to try and keep up with the character and see how he’d be reinvented. I did follow Justice League, Action and Superman for their first story arcs. After that, Action Comics and Justice League, for the most part, were the books that I kept in my picking it up out of habit purchases. When Lobdell and Rockafort got onto Superman I tried it out again after not buying the title for about a year or so and even though their take on the character felt a bit better than anything that could have been done up to that point, it still paled in comparison to what I love about the character.

    To this day if anyone asks me what’s a good Superman story I’ll point them at Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s Superman: Birthright. That book hit note for note what I love about the character but did it in a modern enough way that it’s a perfect introduction for new audiences. Waid got what made Superman work at his core while also mixing elements of Smallville in enough that anyone following that show could pick up this book and run with it. And, from the looks of it, it seems to me that Man of Steel will be borrowing some of those elements to tell their new take on Superman. Can’t say I’m surprised or upset about that, honestly.

    When DC announced Andy Diggle and Tony Daniel jumping on Superman I admit I was pretty interested to see what they had planned. As of writing this comment, I haven’t had the chance to pick up the issue and honestly the whole controversy of Diggle leaving the book made me feel I didn’t even want to pick up the book just for the simple fact that I didn’t want to see “what might have been” and then be left with a story that Diggle meant to tell being told by someone other than the writer himself (or worse, have a story be dramatically changed from what the writer originally envisioned based on editorial or another creative’s take on the original idea). I’ll have to see what I think when I visit my local comic shop.

    While I understand all of the characters under the DC banner are corporate owned characters, it saddens me that the way corporate handles those characters turns them into unappealing imitations of the heroes I grew up loving. Between editorial changes, creative team shuffles, crazy crossover mass events, marketing tie-ins to TV shows, movies, video games and toy lines, it’s turned me a bit sour on books that turn into mismanaged train wrecks (the New 52 Superman felt very much like that to me at least).

    I feel like the only books I’ve kept up with out of the New 52 are the ones that felt well planned compared to creating on the fly. Snyder and Capullo’s Batman was the must read of the group for me. I also enjoyed Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Frankenstein and even this new Justice League of America title for the most part. Most of those books felt like they had a long game already figured out and were working towards a goal instead of creating an odd patchwork continuity by having teams on them that were trying to achieve something, they were trying to prove the relevance that these characters can stand on their own and tell good and interesting stories.

    But it does sadden me that Action Comics, Superman and even Justice League don’t really ignite my inner fanboy’s excitement. In fact, most of those books only helped to add to fans’ preconceptions that Superman isn’t interesting or relevant, in my opinion. While the opening arc of Action did grab my interest and provide a half decent intro to who the New 52 Superman is, I never connected with him enough to want to get to know him like I did the pre-New 52 version. It just goes to show the sign of the times when a Superman fan like me can’t get his fix from any of the Superman titles but gets excited when the newest issue of Batman hits the shelves (another book I didn’t read monthly until the New 52 started). Here’s hoping that Snyder and Lee’s Superman Unchained book can at least give me some hope of being excited when the Man of Steel hits shelves.

  • Milly

    Brilliant article. DC’s attitude to Superman (and Lois!) makes my heart sore and the fact that Diggle did so much in one issue only to bow out immediately is not only frustrating but like rubbing salt into an open wound. I echo the hope MoS offers some kind of turning point for the way Editorial treats the character(s).

  • Sergio Marx

    Very good article. I miss the comic book talk on the show. The movies are great and lots of fun but still… I’d welcome a bit more of the good old printed page. I haven’t heard or read the gentlemen’s opinion on the “Death of the Family” story arc, nor on Damian’s actual death, for example.

  • Stock

    Don’t know the internal politics at DC or Marvel, but it has to be said that keeping a character as reverential and quite frankly, indestructible, as Superman interesting must be an almost impossible task. You’re starting from a point that makes that already an extreme: A character who has almost no vulnerabilities except that he has lived as a human. An extremely good human who has people he cares for. Other than that he is a Man of Steel. Which is a reason you get the gimmicks from time to time. The New 52. The cleaning of the slate while keeping the same meat on the table.

    Superman/Clark has to have a center, a base that can’t be altered. He can’t be going off all Tony Stark. And finding adversaries worthy enough to give him any anxiety or trouble must be terribly difficult as well. For 75 years! Month after Month. And he cannot become God, even though for all practical purposes he is in this fictional Universe, a god. That would be the ultimate betrayal of the character.

    I feel for these guys, editors, writers, and artists all, for having to do this as their chosen profession. To satisfy you guys as older fans, while still bringing in new fans to replace the ones they either alienate, price out, or who simply can’t continue due to life’s other pressing responsibilities being comic book buyers.These guys must go to work fearing the next dumb decision they’re going to make, and how its going to be embraced by fans. Not saying cut them some slack. I hope they read your critiques and take them to heart. But walk a mile in their shoes, if you can.

  • http://chrisclow.tumblr.com/ Chris Clow

    I understand where you’re coming from, Stock, but that’s coming from a bit of a different place than the intention of my piece. Working on ANY legacy character that’s had as much history as Superman is undoubtedly a difficult task, but it seems that the editorial staff at DC isn’t allowing for the kinds of stories that you’re proposing, unless they come from a select group of people.

    Superman does need adversaries that give him trouble, and he needs to confront problems that are both resonant and relevant with today’s storytelling trends. Although, because of the continuous creative shuffles on Superman, I think it can be inferred that editorial itself doesn’t want to go in the direction you’re proposing.

    There are legions of writers that would kill for the opportunity to add to the legacy of Superman, and Diggle was hired by the editorial staff for the strength of his pitch. That pitch turned into a fantastic first issue, but when Mr. Diggle wanted to exploit his ideas and create a potentially fantastic story with, perhaps, the exact the recommendations you’re making, there is a conflict and he leaves the book.

    I understand that the job of editorial has a great deal of difficulty, but when the eager writers who are excited about their opportunities to tell Superman stories are rebuffed because of mandates that can be construed as counterproductive to both sales and positive critical reception, it’s those mandates that should be reexamined.

    Some creative mandates are good for consistency in the world and character traits, but when you get into creative directives and limits than you’re minimizing a realm that needs to be expanded because of the great deal of stories created over Superman’s 75-year existence.

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