When Words Collide: How Can You Go Wrong with Jose Garcia-Lopez's Superman?

Mon, June 3rd, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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HOW CAN YOU GO WRONG WITH JOSE LUIS GARCIA-LOPEZ'S SUPERMAN?

Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez defined the style of the DC Universe for an entire generation. If we grew up as superhero fans, we likely wore something sporting his designs, or had birthday parties with his Superman and Batman on our paper plates, or defaced our comics to send in the subscription form so we'd get bent copies of the "Justice League" in the mail each month because his illustrations made the house ads look so appealing.

For most of his long career, Garcia-Lopez has been a more-than-skilled utility player for team DC, working behind the scenes to specify the look of DC merchandise, or to provide fill-in art here, or draw an occasional miniseries there. He's penciled hundreds of issues of various comic books, but he's seldom drawn more than a few issues in a row of anything. He's not tied to any lengthy run, and many of his biggest fans probably know him best for his nine non-consecutive issues of the licensed-but-better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be "Atari Force" or the three issues of the sci-fi deconstruction named "Twilight" he produced in collaboration with Howard Chaykin. He produced excellent work on both of those unusual series, but that's the Garcia-Lopez approach: make stuff that looks great and reads cleanly.

That's perhaps part of the irony of his career. Garcia-Lopez has produced so many iconic images of the DC superheroes that the public's image of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (and friends) as comic book characters is probably based on the merchandise that has used his drawings, but he's not just a guy who draws pretty poses. He's a storyteller. One of the best.

And just a couple of months ago, for the first time ever, DC released a hardcover book devoted specifically to the work of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. As they've done in recent years, with spotlight books on various artists tied to DC icons, they've compiled a bunch of Superman stories drawn by this one artist, by the one-and-only Garcia-Lopez, and bound them together in a handsome volume. Even though Garcia-Lopez never drew a whole lot of consecutive Superman issues, he drew plenty of Superman comics over the years, and this volume, entitled "Adventures of Superman: Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez" collects sixteen Superman-centric stories originally published between 1975 and 1981.

Unfortunately, it's not a very good book.

The early work is rough, and though it's recognizable as proto-Garcia-Lopez it's not as polished and elegant as his work would soon become, even when strong inkers like Bob Oskner and Frank Springer provided the finishing touches. The first few stories in this volume show a Garcia-Lopez seemingly conflicted between dynamic foreshortening of the Neal Adams variety and Curt Swanish figure drawing. His Lex Luthor striding across the stage looks bold and well-defined, but when he draws Superman in action, it becomes a tangled mass of bulbous shoulders and hunched posture, as if the character were struggling to fit inside the panel, or bursting out of the borders almost at random. Garcia-Lopez's draftsmanship and layout ability were certainly competent in these earlier stories, but his work was still in its formative stages and it's noticeably clumsy compared to what it would become a few years later.

That transition doesn't take long, and it's immediately evident by 1978's "Superman vs. Wonder Woman," reprinted in the middle of this book from what is unattractively called "All-New Collector's Edition #C-54. "This massive story, billed as an "All-New 72 Page Novel in Comics Form" on the back cover of its original printing, pits the Man of Steel versus the Woman of Wonder in a story set during World War II featuring villains like Baron Blitzkrieg and Sumo the Samurai and cameos by Albert Einstein and Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Written by Gerry Conway and inked by Dan Adkins, the story features double-page splashes and wartime heroics and outer space action and a none-to-subtle message about the perils of atomic weaponry. It's a mostly silly and preposterously melodramatic story that looks amazing and that's really the problem with this collected edition as a whole: "Adventures of Superman: Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez" is absolutely filled with terribly written stories, and even when Garcia-Lopez's art shifts toward greatness, it's still in the service of something not really worth reading.

And in the case of the "Superman vs. Wonder Woman" reprint, the art doesn't even get the treatment it deserves. When "Collector's Edition" #C-54 was originally released, it appeared in an oversized tabloid format. The page size was twice what we see in this volume, and shrinking the art to fit the traditional bookshelf collected edition size does nothing to emphasize the power of Garcia-Lopez's art. Obviously everything in this book had to be printed at uniform size -- this isn't an artsy Chris Ware project where we get a gorgeous box set of Garcia-Lopez comics of varying sizes, but the point is that even though the book lists the artist's name as part of its title, this isn't a showcase for Garcia-Lopez's art as much as it is a collection of stories about Superman that just happened to be drawn by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. And as a collection of stories about Superman it's a pretty lousy group of tales.

The heavy-handed "Superman vs. Wonder Woman" wartime adventure is actually one of the more enjoyable chapters in this book, even with Gerry Conway writing dialogue like "It's HORRIBLE -- like a NIGHTMARE! Athena help me, I've got to DO something -- but WHAT?" and a lot of handwringing metaphorically played out by Wonder Woman and Superman smashing stuff. But at least Baron Blitzkrieg gets to chew some scenery and look villainous doing it.

The other stories in this volume, even the ones in the second half of the book after Garcia-Lopez refines his style into something more elegant and gracefully confident, are mostly the worst kind of Bronze Age comic book stories: lingering sci-fi absurdism from the Silver Age but undermined by their attempt to make sense out of everything to keep things grounded in something resembling reality. Whether it's Conway or Len Wein or Marty Pasko, this particular grouping of Julie Schwartz-edited Superman comics feature what feels like a restrained sense of wonder but an insistence on a never-ending barrage of alien threats and superficial moral dilemmas. The stories are just supremely weak, whether they reprint issues of solo Superman tales from his self-titled comic or, as we mostly see later in the book, efforts from the first few years of "DC Comics Presents" where Superman teams up with the Flash and the Metal Men and Firestorm and more.

The best of the bunch is David Michelinie's tale from "DC Comics Presents" #3, which gives us a relatively fresh take on a meet-up between Adam Strange and Superman, in a story that's a bit more lively than most others in the volume, and gives Garcia-Lopez a chance to draw sci-fi landscapes and the fish-out-of-water that is a space-suited Adam Strange in downtown 1970's funky Metropolis.

But that's not much to treasure in a volume filled with so many pages of bad decisions made to look nice thanks to a more-than-competent penciler and his dutiful inkers.

Sadly, this isn't the kind of book that's going to turn anyone into a Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez admirer, and those who already respect and admire his work are better off picking up back issues of comics where the stories actually mattered more or where he wasn't as hampered by scripts that didn't take advantage of his skills.

Or just pick up a tattered copy 1978's "All-New Collector's Edition" #C-54 the next time you hit your local comics convention. It will probably cost about the same as this reprint volume, and though it's considerably shorter, the Garcia-Lopez artwork is twice as big and won't waste your time nearly as much.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, dc comics, superman, jose garcia-lopez

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