Monday, April 16, 2018

A salute to Superman writer/artist Dan Jurgens as ACTION COMICS hits 1000 issues this week!


I just want to allow a moment for this to sink in. ACTION COMICS, the comic book that began its run in June 1938 with Superman's first appearance, this week releases its one-thousandth issue. It's a staggering milestone in comic book history. That it more or less coincides with Superman's 80th birthday is also something to celebrate.

I've written many times before about my history with Superman comics, so I'm sure some of this will be familiar to longtime readers. The Superman milestone is a bit bittersweet for me because this issue also will mark the FINAL appearance from writer/artist Dan Jurgens in the regular Superman titles, at least for the foreseeable future. His run (and the run of his SUPERMAN collaborators, Patrick Gleason and Peter Tomasi) comes to an end as Brian Michael Bendis prepares to shepherd both Superman titles.

Dan took over writing ACTION COMICS about two years ago, with the launch of the REBIRTH line in ACTION 957. I'll talk a little more about this run later, but it's perhaps my favorite handling of the character in the last 10 years or so. And yet, it's not even Dan's most notable success with the character. When he leaves this world, I'd be shocked if the first line of Dan's obituary doesn't refer to him somehow as "the man who killed Superman" in one of the biggest selling comic books of all-time.

There's an interesting synchronicity between Dan's time with the character and my own buying habits. I can't remember a time when I WASN'T a Superman fan, but when I was very young, it wasn't like I was able to buy the comics every week. When I was six, my aunt got me the then-current relaunch of Superman by John Byrne in the six-issue MAN OF STEEL miniseries. Then over the next few years, I'd buy Superman comics from the local book store whenever my parents could be talked into it.

There was a particular story that made me a permanent reader and got my parents to take me to the comic store for regular trips. In SUPERMAN 28, the Man of Steel exiled himself to outer space, in a soul-searching story that lasted about six months. To a nine year-old, this was EPIC stuff and I had to get each chapter as it unfolded. The third part of the story, SUPERMAN 29, was written by and featured the art of... Dan Jurgens. Within a few months, Dan was drawing the ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN title and eventually took over writing it too.

So in a weird way, my regular association with Superman comics lines up almost exactly with Dan's. His art quickly became my favorite among the book. (I have to note that he's in a virtual tie with Jerry Ordway for the title of my all-time favorite Superman artist, and that at least two of my other favorites, Bob McLeod and George Perez also were on the books during this time.)

My Golden Age of Superman extends from about 1989 to 1994, more or less from the EXILE to the ZERO HOUR storyline, and Dan's work was essential to that. This was the period that included the Death and Return of Superman storylines, as well as PANIC IN THE SKY, KRISIS OF THE KRIMSON KRYPTONITE, and DAY OF THE KRYPTON MAN. All of them are landmark stories and were huge influences on my view of the character, but there are a number of wonderful standalone stories mixed in there - and a good chunk of them are Dan Jurgens's tales. recently complied a list of "essential" Dan Jurgens Superman stories, and just about all of these would make my list too. I love just about all the mega-storylines from this era, that crossed through the three, and later four, Superman books. Aside from those, I always had some affection for the really good single-issue tales that the creators would get to do between those stories. Off the top of my head, my favorites include:

Metropolis Mailbag: a concept introduced in SUPERMAN 64 is that once a year on Christmas, Superman reads his fan mail and does what he can to help those in need. It's an emotional little holiday tale that shows us the small kindnesses that Superman can accomplish with his powers, as well as reminds us that even he has his limits in what he can do for people. There's a humanity to this era of Superman and stories like this are a major reason why. A year later in SUPERMAN 76, we saw the entire DC community of heroes pulling together to answer Superman's mail, as this holiday fell during the period where Superman was dead.

Homeless for the Holidays: In ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN 462, Clark Kent learns that a co-worker has fallen on hard times, and with the help of Perry White and the staff of the Daily Planet, gives her a Merry Christmas and a new home.

Face to Face with Yesterday: ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN 474 - Another holiday tale, this one centered on a sin from young Clark Kent's past. A high school classmate of his has been comatose since a drunk driving accident senior year. On the night his parents are finally pulling the plug, Clark Kent pays his first visit there in a long time, and grapples with his guilt over not doing more that fateful night.

(This issue is also notable because it was the first issue with a price hike. Most of DC's other books had jumped from 75 cents to a full dollar nearly a year earlier. The Superman books held on the longest, but felt the price hike with this issue. Dan actually wrote a letter to the fans via the issue's letter column, saying he knew this wouldn't be popular with readers and relayed his own tale of pricing woe. When he was a boy, ACTION COMICS jumped from 12 cents to 15 cents, which meant he could only afford two of the three issues he intended to buy on this particular trip to the drug store. The cashier took pity on him that day, and gave him the issues at the lower price. I remember thinking what a nice gesture it was on Dan's part to basically take the time to say to the fans, "Yeah, I've been there too" and over something ultimately so minor that no one would have thought less if he DIDN'T say anything.)

SUPERMAN 131: one of the epic Lex Luthor stories. Having kept Superman occupied with a minor crisis, Lex settles two old grudges at once by having the Mayor assassinated and hiring (and later betraying and murdering) his hated foster father to do the deed. Oh, and he becomes a father and has his wife put into a medically induced coma while all of this is going on. It's Lex Luthor at his most evil.

LOIS & CLARK: an 8-part storyline that puts some pieces into place for REBIRTH. Clark and Lois are in hiding, enjoying a quiet life on an Earth different from the one where they lived their entire lives. But they can't stay out of trouble forever, and the stakes are higher now that they've got a 10 year-old son name Jon who doesn't know his father was once one of Earth's greatest Superheroes.

The dynamic of Superman and Lois having a young son became one of the corner stones of REBIRTH. I gushed about this storyline soon after it started, and almost two years later, I can attest that the storytelling in both Superman books felt fresh, emotional and were the kinds of Superman stories that I hope are told for years to come.

At WonderCon, Jurgens mentioned that making Superman a father ensured that he'd have plenty of fresh ground to explore with the character and Lois. Superman has matured, and Dan pointed out that during his first run on the character, they would make the character a bit more reactive than he'd been before. (As he put it, "Our Superman would get angry" rather than always being totally chill.) I like the paternal side of Superman getting showcased again, as during the Curt Swan era, he definitely felt like a "dad," an older sort of soul than the portrayal in the Christopher Reeve movies.

I bring up Curt Swan for another reason - he's the only person to have drawn more Superman stories than Dan. Curt's regular run on Superman comics lasted about thirty years or so, and then even after MAN OF STEEL brought an end to it, he'd often be back for special projects and fill-ins right up until his death in 1996. He easily has drawn more stories than Dan, but once you get past those two, whoever's in third place would have to be FAR behind Jurgens.

If you tally the total number of Superman stories Dan has been involved in, I understand it's just over 230 issues, but that includes a substantial number where he was writing without drawing. For many readers like me, Dan Jurgens is the definitive Superman artist, and not just because he wrote and drew Superman 75, where he got to kill him. (Dan also got to do the honors in 1996 when Clark Kent finally married Lois Lane.)

For this reason above all others, his capacity for amazing Superman art, I had to buy a Superman sketch from him when I had the chance a few years ago. I've met Dan in person about four or five times now, and it's always been a pleasure. He's truly one of the kindest people you could meet at a comic convention, and always seems happy to engage the fans.

I mentioned before that my regular run reading the character began almost exactly when Dan started writing and drawing him. Dan left the book in late 1999, after over ten years with the character. I stayed a bit longer. That particular incarnation of Superman continued more or less until the FLASHPOINT storyline in 2011.  This storyline prompted a line-wide reboot of ALL DC continuity, called The New 52, meaning that from September 2011 going forward, all of Superman history had a clean slate.

As a long-time fan I was bummed, but I decided to give it six months to see if I liked what the new teams were doing. I figured out pretty quickly the new approach wasn't to my tastes, but with the seventh issue, DC announced a "new" Superman artist... Dan Jurgens. That was enough to get me to stick around for Dan's run, which ended up being only six months. When he left a year into the New 52, I left too. There was something poetic - I came in with Dan Jurgens... and I left with him.

(If this sounds familiar, you probably read me talking about it here and here, when I walked away from the books for what I assumed was permanent.)

Of course, that meant that when Dan came BACK, I was probably obligated to follow suit. And I did. I check out his LOIS & CLARK out of curiosity, as the Superman and Lois featured in that book weren't the New 52 versions, but "my" versions that I grew up reading. Other than that, didn't buy many new comics for almost four years. I'd kicked the habit and accepted that the current Superman comics weren't for me. I saw no reason to get back into them.

Then DC made probably the ONE announcement that would change that: Dan Jurgens was taking over ACTION COMICS, and it would be starring the Superman and Lois from LOIS & CLARK, along with their super-powered son.

Every time I think I'm out...

And now that run is coming to an end, and in bittersweet fashion, it ends even as it feels like there are tons of stories that Dan has left to tell. Though he was coordinating his vision of Superman with the creative team on the SUPERMAN title, this was the first time that Dan truly had full control over the storylines he was telling. His last run on the books was when there were four monthly titles that fed into and out of each other. It was an amazing feat of collaboration, and Dan worked with some great talents writing the other books, such as Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, Louise Simonson, and Karl Kesel. Reading the last two years of ACTION, I really got a sense of how Jurgens was able to really take ownership of his plotlines rather than being part of a four-book relay race.

I feel like I've grown up with Superman in more ways than one. The EXILE story found him adrift, trying to figure out who he was. He came out of that more matured and over the years he revealed his secret to Lois Lane and proposed, he died and came back, he married the woman he loved, watched friends and parents die, and became a father. He's matured and become more thoughtful, perhaps even wiser as he became paternal. I like the depth that's given him.

Because of these elements, the REBIRTH storyline is unique among Superman runs. Gleason & Tomasi have also gotten to play in that sandbox, but it's Dan Jurgens who truly got things rolling when he introduced Jon Kent in LOIS & CLARK. It launched a Superman era that couldn't be anything but different from what came before. Assuming these changes endure (and I really hope Bendis doesn't eliminate them), Jurgens can still be proud that he was the first person to break that ground with Superman. How many people are lucky to have TWO iconic runs with the same legendary character?

I last saw Dan a few weeks ago at WonderCon, where he was generous enough to fit me on his busy sketch list and then went above and beyond on my request. This was a riff on a crossover from 1996 called DC VS. MARVEL. The two companies teamed up for a miniseries that pitted the heroes of both universes against each other, with the outcomes of five of the fights determined by fan votes. In a massive injustice unmatched by any electoral shenanigans since, the fans voted that Storm should be Wonder Woman in battle. (See that fight here.) Dan was one of the artists on that miniseries and ended up drawing the Wonder Woman/Storm fight. That made my sketch request pretty easy to come up with...

It may have taken 20 years, but the Amazing Amazon is at last avenged, and we now have the outcome of the battle, the way it should have gone and drawn by the man responsible for the original work. Dan went above and beyond what I expected the result to be and this might be one of my favorite comics-related possessions of all time. To my knowledge, this is the only time he's been asked to do this particular request.

Dan, thank you for 30 years of great Superman stories with more to come. Thank you for all those books I read again and again as a boy, to the point where entire runs are pretty much memorized in my head, down to some of the smallest details of the panels. So many of those stories meant everything to me as a kid, and when I'm fortunate enough to see your art on new Superman tales, I'm always transported back to those days.

Thank you for showing us there's no end to the kind of stories that can be told with a Superman who represents the best in all of us. And thank you for underlining that humanity in him by making Superman a loving husband and a wonderful parent. It's nice to have Superman stories that achieve depth while still being appropriate for the youngest readers, just like the tales of the era I grew up with.

Like Curt Swan, I think you'll end up associated with this character up until your last days on Earth. You clearly have more stories to tell and I can't imagine I've read my final Dan Jurgens Superman adventure. But the end of this chapter deserves to be commemorated and of everyone contributing to Wednesday's ACTION COMICS 1000, it feels most right that you're there. Congrats!

Oh, and happy birthday to you too, Superman. Here's to 1000 more! If the villainous Word Bringer actually exists, maybe I can be there as a brain in a jar for ACTION 2000!

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