Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Action Comics #1 changed comic books forever when it debuted 80 years ago, introducing a new character whose wild popularity created the genre that became synonymous with the medium. Superheroes have since jumped off the page and become bonafide pop culture juggernauts, and Superman laid the groundwork, starting with comics before moving into highly successful radio serials, TV shows, and movies. Action Comics is the first American comic-book to reach issue #1000, and DC Comics is celebrating this milestone with an 80-page prestige format special paying tribute to Superman with 10 short stories by a variety of creators.

Action Comics #1000 (DC Comics) is an emotional, exciting celebration of Superman’s evolution and the core tenets that have stayed constant through these changes. It explores the hero’s past, present, and future, examining his relationships with his city, job, friends, family, and enemies. Departing Action Comics writer-artist Dan Jurgens—the man who killed Superman back in the ’90s—kicks off the festivities by having the people of Metropolis and Superman’s superhero allies gather to show their support for the man who has shaped their lives, and fellow ’90s Superman creators Louise Simonson and Jerry Ordway look at how Clark Kent balances his job at the Daily Planet with his costumed crusading. There’s a new story featuring unpublished art by Curt Swan, who defined Superman’s look in the Silver Age, but it’s one of the flimsier stories because it has writer Marv Wolfman inserting Superman into pages that weren’t created with him in mind.

The high point of the issue comes from the current Superman creative team of Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason, who take the hero and the reader on a journey through Superman history courtesy of a time-travel trap set by Vandal Savage. Gleason and colorist Alejandro Sanchez create full-page illustrations brimming with character, and they capture the spirit of each era in the tone of each image. A standout visual shows Superman shortly after his debut, putting intense effort into stopping a train because his powers weren’t as strong. It sets a point of contrast for the shot that immediately follows, which has the indestructible Superman picking up a tank on the battlefield, fully realizing his larger cultural potential as a symbol for U.S. superiority in World War II.

The best stories in Action Comics #1000 highlight how Superman is a symbol for the strength and resilience of the human spirit. “The Car,” written by Geoff Johns and Richard Donner with art by Olivier Coipel and Sanchez, cleverly uses the cover of Action Comics #1 as the foundation for a story about how Superman helped pull American citizens out of the turmoil of the Great Depression. Coipel draws a stern, sexy Superman whose build and posture call to mind the circus strong-men that inspired Joe Shuster’s original design for the hero, with a splash of Jon Hamm in the facial features.

Clay Mann uses a Christopher Reeve likeness for the Superman in his short story with writer Tom King, “Of Tomorrow,” which adds an extra dimension to this reverent eulogy for the planet Earth and Clark Kent’s adopted parents. As the Earth’s sun expands into a red giant five billion years in the future, Superman gives Jonathan and Martha one last update about their family, which has survived and grown over the millennia. It’s a beautiful goodbye that is also the only story to focus on Clark’s relationship with his parents, and that one shot of a Reeves-inspired Superman incorporates the memory of the actor who was the character’s face for a generation of fans.

The weakest piece in Action Comics #1000 is the one that’s been hyped the most. “The Truth” marks the DC debut of writer Brian Michael Bendis, who leaves Marvel Comics after nearly 20 years, and his story with artist Jim Lee sets up an upcoming plotline rather than offering a self-contained work speaking to a larger theme. There have just been nine stories that showcase the complexity and depth of this hero, and this underwhelming prologue ignores what makes Superman so interesting. Bendis kicks off his run by making Superman a punching bag for a villain that is totally basic in both characterization and design, and having civilian bystanders come to his aid while spouting awkward, out-of-place dialogue commenting on the return of Superman’s red trunks.

There’s one good moment when Superman stops himself from flying through a window, but it’s not enough to elevate a bland fight scene that readers have seen over and over again. Bendis is about to take over both Action Comics and Superman after the six-issue, weekly Man Of Steel miniseries, and while “The Truth” isn’t very inspiring, DC is providing multiple easy entry points for readers to get a taste of what Bendis is cooking up. Next week’s DC Nation #0 has Bendis delivering a second Man Of Steel prologue with the legendary artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez—who contributes a story with Paul Dini in Action Comics #1000—and as one of three stories in a 25-cent one-shot, it’s going to be read by a lot of curious DC fans. The publisher is banking a lot on its high-profile hire, and the wave of Bendis Super-books over the summer is going to reveal if that investment pays off.

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