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For their first issue of Superman, writer Geoff Johns, penciler John Romita Jr. and inker Klaus Janson (with colorist Laura Martin and letterer Sal Cipriani) have served up an intriguing blend of action and introspection. There are the requisite nods to semi-obscure (Titano!) and really obscure (J. Wilbur Wolfingham?) Superman minutiae, and one subplot seems destined to undo a New 52 development. However, while Issue 32 of Superman Vol. 3 is concerned with managing the Man of Steel’s status quo, a good bit of it revolves around the new character(s) that will apparently drive this story arc.
Accordingly, the issue doesn’t feel quite so much like the start of a bold new era (although it could well be); instead, the new creative team uses the issue to ease into its story, such that the action serves the character work. Considering that almost half of the issue involves fight scenes, that seems like an odd observation, but it’s kind of an odd issue overall.
The question then becomes whether those characters — Superman included — are compelling enough to follow month in and month out. Last month, Johns told Comic Book Resources that readers should “[j]ust give us one issue and that’s all. I think we’ll earn your trust and your time and your investment in one issue because I really believe in this first issue and I really believe in what we’re doing.”
Whether Superman #32 meets that standard is therefore somewhat unclear. It lays out the characters and their concerns pretty broadly, and (somewhat like Johns’ and Ivan Reis’ Aquaman) it depends to a certain extent on answering reader frustrations. Still, on balance, it works. This is a very good issue of the New 52 Superman, with all that implies.
Read on for more, and as always …
Superman #32’s main hurdle is its big new guest star, Ulysses, whose origin is basically the same as Superman’s. Instead of Krypton, Ulysses comes from a parallel Earth (called “Dimension Two”); instead of Krypton’s unstable core, Dimension Two is destroyed by something that looks an awful lot like the anti-matter from Crisis on Infinite Earths. Don’t be surprised if this arc ends up pointing the way to the Anti-Monitor’s big (re)appearance, is what I’m saying. Also, Ulysses gets his powers from the “undefinable energies” permeating the atmosophere of DC-Earth (or “Dimension Four”); Dimension Two is apparently a lot more violent than DC-Earth. (Insert Geoff Johns dismemberment joke here.)
This would be fine, except Johns just got through with a Superman from another Earth with a big U on his chest, stomping around DC-Earth in the pages of Forever Evil — and, of course, Supes is fighting a less-exact parallel of himself in Scott Snyder and Jim Lee’s Superman Unchained. Here, creating a more benign “last son of Earth” seems like an on-the-nose solution to Superman’s latest bout of ennui.
And hold on — ennui, you say? In a Superman book? Yes, impossible as it may seem, the Superman of the New 52 now finds himself reduced to lonely nights with heat-visioned food and old photo albums. In trying to convince Clark Kent to rejoin the Daily Planet, Perry White tells him:
You could’ve asked Lois out a dozen times, but instead you hold yourself back and let a guy like Jonathan Carroll swoop in. And if you ask me, part of the reason you left the Planet in the first place was to keep your distance from all of us. But everyone needs someone to talk to, Kent. I’m not saying I’m that person for you — because I am not — but you need to go out there and find someone who is. It can’t be that hard, can it?
Cue a page’s worth of panels showing one of Clark’s aforementioned lonely nights — Wonder Woman’s got her own problems, Lois is out (perhaps with the new reporter Perry mentioned on the previous page) and so is Batman, Jimmy’s dealing with his parents’ lawyers, and (although it feels odd to say in a Superman book) his parents are dead.
In the context of the New 52 Superman, these two pages of Perry and Clark are almost revelatory. Since the relaunch, the various Superman creative teams haven’t really known what to do with the traditional supporting cast. This issue suggests Ulysses will be Superman’s newest pal, but that’s clearly only in the short term. Once Ulysses’ storyline is resolved, whatever lesson Supes has learned from him seems likely to lead straight back toward the Daily Planet. There’s a new reporter to meet, Perry has the aforementioned bit of expositspiration, and Johns spends another page and a half (or so) on a Jimmy Olsen subplot. If those aren’t signs that things are getting more traditional, I don’t know what are.
Seriously, the fact that a Perry White soliloquy drives the plot is both amazing and frustrating. Of all the main Superman supporting characters, Perry comes closest to a caricature. Lois and Jimmy have had their own series, but Perry’s always in the background. He’s a gruff-but-lovable combination of every crusading-newsman trope since The Front Page. In the “triangle number” days, he got a lot of attention because there were enough pages to go around. However, in the space of three pages (one with Jimmy and two with Clark), Johns, Romita and Janson re-establish him not just as a patriarch, but as the guy who can say “this is how things should be.” Indeed, referring to Luthor’s victory in Forever Evil – but maybe not just that, hint hint — Perry tells Clark “things have been turned upside down.” Carnage has been good for the news business, which is apparently why Perry is hiring; but when Clark rejects the offer, Perry doesn’t go into Clark’s journalistic qualifications. Instead, he makes it clear that as much as the Daily Planet needs Clark, the reverse is also true.
Romita and Janson bring this home in a pair of closeup panels at the bottom of Page 11. The first has Perry looking at Clark earnestly but seriously as he delivers the “someone to talk to” speech. This is probably the best Perry White has looked in years — brow slightly furrowed, eyes wide but not pleading, with all the reader’s attention directed up and left, following Perry’s firm gaze into a well-organized series of speech balloons. The next panel comes in even closer on Clark, who’s looking down and to the right, eyes slightly lidded behind his glasses, as he contemplates Perry’s “can’t be that hard” query. Romita has therefore faced the two away from each other on the page, reinforcing the gulf between them that Perry’s describing. It’s a neat capper to a critical sequence.
What’s frustrating is that it also reinforces Superman being reactive throughout the issue. He’s at the Planet because Perry asked him there. He calls Wonder Woman and Batman because Perry suggested he find a friend. He fights the monster du jour, and consequently meets Ulysses, because he hears a call for help. (Johns doesn’t give Superman any thought balloons or internal narration, but then again nobody else in the issue has them.) That’s why I think this may be a hard sell for newer readers, who might expect Superman to have a little more agency in his own title. However, I also recognize that these could be Johns’ first steps towards getting Supes out of the dumps. Again, the issue may work better in terms of what it suggests, as opposed to what it actually portrays.
Fortunately, the last half of the issue (nine pages, plus a three-page epilogue) features Superman’s fight with the unnamed pilot of an immense, mysterious aircraft that looks like a stretched-out hang-glider. These are generic opponents — the pilot is strong and tough, and the craft shoots big energy bolts — but Romita’s designs are appealingly minimalist. Romita and Janson use thicker lines, and Martin switches to a starker color palette. Romita also paces the fight well, using big panels, a two-page layout, and a climactic double-page spread, to give the heavy hits the appropriate weight. The only confusion is deliberate, and comes when Ulysses and the bad guy (whose name may be Klerik, but it’s also not clear) greet each other in an alien language. Those looking for convincing Super-action will find it here.
In one of the issue’s last big developments (because really, we could see Ulysses and his brand of help coming since Page 5), a brief cutaway during the fight brings in yet another mysterious figure, this one with a robe and staff who claims to have trained Supes and calls him “Clark.” Given Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ focus on Superman’s origins in Action Comics, and Scott Lobell, Kenneth Rocafort, and others’ subsequent looks at Krypton, I’m not sure we need any more additions to his early years. Still, this may be an indication of future revisionism on Johns’ part.
And therein lies what may be the overarching concern with the New 52 Superman generally. In February I argued that “this is Johns’ opportunity to harmonize all the disparate elements of the New 52 Superman into something credible, coherent, and forward-thinking.” While many fans may have their own laundry lists of particularly noxious New 52 elements, I think Johns and company are going for a more big-picture approach. If this issue is any indication, Johns is more interested in building up relationships than tweaking costumes or revising continuity.
For that matter, Johns’ role at DC seems to have changed significantly in the past few years, and not necessarily with the start of the New 52. He’s working on TV shows and (presumably) coordinating with movie folks, and he probably doesn’t have the time to devote to the comics that he did in the 2000s. He comes into this Superman run not as the fix-it man who rehabilitated Hal Jordan and re-energized the Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery, but as part of an A-list creative team who does what they can with what they have. That sounds like lowered expectations for Geoff Johns and John Romita, but it has more to do with the situation than the people.
Anyway, their first issue of Superman was pretty engaging, so here’s hoping they can make it pay off.
And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 8.
NOTES: The most interesting thing in this issue is the Laotian temple, which seems to tie together Brainiac’s three-circle emblem (two on top) with Pandora’s three-eyed skull (one on top); and perhaps by extension, Despero’s three-eyed countenance. I suppose a connection between Brainiac and Despero is more likely, since they both come from other planets and have designs on universal conquest, but it’s hard to ignore Pandora’s (Mother) Box.
Also, I still say the android looks like the Parasite, although he could be one of Doctor Bedlam’s androids. Heck, he could be both.
This issue’s structure continues to get away from the four distinct subplots of earlier installments, and I think that’s wise. I’m not sure the Cadmus or Jason/Superman sequences really needed all of the space they got, but at least they advanced their particular subplots and offered more insight into Fifty Sue, the OMAC “soldiers,” and the Masked Superman (who seems to have energy-manipulation powers beyond simple heat vision). Dr. Yamazake’s remark about the “burning towers” was pretty unsubtle, though.
NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: FrankenHawk (or Hawkenstein)! Masked Superman’s Pal! More Terminator 2 homages!