Grumpy Old Fan | This week in bad Supermen
On Tuesday, Comic Book Resources interviewed Superman writer Geoff Johns, penciler John Romita Jr. and inker Klaus Janson, who (as the headline put it) want to “inject optimism” into the series. As part of that interview, Johns contended that the Man of Steel’s desire to connect with his fellow Earthlings makes him “more relevant now than ever.”
Considering a couple of ongoing storylines, this current focus on positivity sounds like a voice crying in the wilderness. Today we’ll look at the end of Earth 2’s “The Kryptonian” — which features two alternate Supermen — as well as the latest installments of “Doomed” in the regular Super-books.
Naturally, SPOILERS FOLLOW for Earth 2 #26, Superman/Wonder Woman Annual #1, Action Comics Annual #3 and Action Comics #34.
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More often than not, the Bad Superman is triggered by some impossible calamity, like Lois Lane’s death. This causes him to re-evaluate his moral underpinnings and ethical code, and (in the best laboratory-mice tradition) try to take over the world. From 1991’s alt-future Superman Annual #3 (when Intergang destroyed Metropolis with a nuclear device) to Injustice: Gods Among Us (when the Joker killed not just Lois, but her unborn child), the possibility of a super-tyrant has become more and more prevalent.
However, today’s two arcs come at the Bad Superman from slightly different angles. In Earth 2, Lois dies (apparently) during Apokolips’ first invasion — and so (apparently) does Superman. Supes comes back as an unstoppable Apokoliptian agent, with the implication that Lois’ death helped facilitate his transformation, but I don’t think the connection is ever made explicit. Besides, Lois comes back too, sort of, with her consciousness transferred into the Red Tornado android. Eventually they find each other, but Supes is too far gone, and actually heat-visions the Earth-2 Jonathan Kent in a moment of rage. Evil or not, there’s no excuse for that.
See, I have mixed feelings about Earth 2. On one hand it feels like a series that could have been about society rebuilding itself following a devastating Apokoliptian invasion, but instead chose to revisit (and, for that matter, re-stage) that invasion. There hasn’t been a lot of optimism in this series, and the revelation that Darkseid turned Superman evil — five years after the world watched Superman die — might have been the biggest gut-punch.
Nevertheless, despite its use of super-violence, Earth 2 (written by Tom Taylor, pencilled by Nicola Scott, and inked by Trevor Scott) has proven to be a pretty well-done superhero serial. The heroes of the proto-Justice Society are often outnumbered and tend to be outmatched, but they persevere. Along the way they’ve picked up powerful allies, like Red Tornado, the water-manipulating Aquawoman, and the pacifistic Val-Zod, the titular “Kryptonian.” The new issue #26 throws them all against the forces of Apokolips, and spoilers! they end up doing pretty well. In fact, they do well despite the cover (and the solicitation copy) promising an event which never happens in the issue.
Considering what’s coming for these characters and their world — helpfully teased via back-of-the-issue editorial bombast — Earth 2 #26 has a bittersweet quality. Green Lantern tells his colleagues that “now, together, we [will] take back our world.” It’s as hopeful as this series has been since its early accounts of the heroes emerging; but it can’t last.
What’s more, it comes just a few pages after the end of the evil Superman, who’s destroyed in a fight with the S-wearing Val-Zod. Again, the cover would have you believe that Power Girl arrives in the nick of time to beat some sense into her unhinged cousin. The actual plot point is probably more clever. Val-Zod doesn’t want to fight Supes, telling him “I get it. We all get it. Violence, death, rage. Damn, you’re boring!” Thus, Val keeps Superman occupied while the other heroes work on stopping Apokolips’ doomsday machines. Suddenly, while they spar, Superman literally starts breaking down, cracking like parched ground, until revealed as the Earth-2 Bizarro. Lois/Tornado arrives, says “this world is too dark and too ugly with you in it,” and blows Bizarro into a million rocky pieces. It’s very meta, and although I don’t read Injustice (which Taylor also writes), it’s a nice way of distinguishing the series’ super-antagonists. Maybe it’s not the best way to go if you’re a Bizarro fan, but still.
With so much closure, it’s sadly appropriate that this issue is the last for original penciller Nicola Scott. Not only has her work helped ease the transition from original writer James Robinson to Taylor, it’s also helped ground the series in a way that makes the more challenging elements easier to take. The epic scenes of global sci-fi warfare that Earth 2 has required Scott to draw represent a shift in subject matter from the more street-level adventures of Birds of Prey and Secret Six, and on a more regular basis than her Wonder Woman arcs. However, Scott’s emphasis on expressive characters, and her attention to giving those characters weight and personality, gives their stories more impact than a penciler who might focus only on energy and destruction. The series’ Super-characters are good examples of this. Jimmy Olsen and Val-Zod are both fairly young, and Scott’s work acknowledges this; but she also draws Jimmy as if he’s always in motion, while her Val is more contemplative and intense. Likewise, her Lois/Tornado conveys both determination and longing, even behind pupil-less golden eyes. Finally, her Superman has gone from a pretty standard model (i.e., in issue #1) to a built-for-combat juggernaut, whose skin cracks (hmmm …) around his constantly-glowing eyes.
And that brings me back to Val-Zod, the character Earth 2 has been building up for the past few issues, and one who’ll surely be prominent in the World’s End weekly series. Frankly, with all of Marvel’s announcements about a female Thor and Sam Wilson becoming Captain America, I’m surprised DC hasn’t reminded people that Earth 2 features a gay Green Lantern and a Superman of color. Indeed, since he appreciates the meaning and legacy of the S-shield, Val is just the sort of inspired-by-Supes figure DC might want to advertise. (Good thing he wasn’t saved by Power Girl after all.) However, the World’s End featurette calls him a “not-so-Superman” and urges him to “step up quickly and break his vow of pacifism.” By contrast, the Earth-2 Batman is a “badass” who “makes Bruce Wayne seem tame by comparison.”
Now, that could be just overblown ad copy designed only to attract attention. If not, though, I hate to think that Earth 2 and its weekly spinoff would simply exchange one extreme Superman for another. Oh well — can’t get to Futures End without more punching, I suppose.
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Speaking of recurring plot points, the “Doomed” crossover rolls into its thirteenth installment (and fifth month) with this week’s two Annuals and Action Comics #34. Collectively, these three issues feature the contributions of two different writers (Charles Soule on S/WW Annual #1 and Greg Pak on the Action Annual and Issue 34), nine pencilers (with Pascal Alixe, Jack Herbert, and Cliff Richards doing both Annuals and Aaron Kuder both Actions), nine inkers (again including Alixe, Kuder and Richards), three colorists, and four letterers.
Billed not as a patch on the original 1992-93 death-and-return storyline, instead it’s a sort-of sequel to the New 52 version of said storyline. We haven’t actually seen that version, but I know there have been references to it in places like the Grant Morrison/Rags Morales Action Comics and Doomsday’s “Villains Month” special from last year. (The latter, written by Greg Pak and drawn by Brett Booth, framed it pretty effectively as a prophecy-slash-bedtime story told to young Kara Zor-El on Krypton.)
Anyway, “Doomed” is a big stew of horror and carnage wrapped in alien invasions and mind control. As in the ‘90s, the Cyborg Superman and Steel are involved (and so is the Eradicator, kind of); Mongul’s causing trouble; and as in Dan Jurgens’ sequel The Doomsday Wars, Brainiac is pulling the strings. For that matter, since Lois has been co-opted by Brainiac for the past several months, she’s alternately fighting for control of her body (same as Clark) and turning green-skinned cyber-hero to give Superman moral support. I’d say more, but I don’t have the space to get into This Week In Super-Loises. A whole horde of New 52 supporting characters are involved as well, from Harrow, the Ghost Soldier and Baka (introduced in Pak and Kuder’s first big Action arc) to Dr. Veritas (from the Scott Lobdell/Brett Booth days) and Morrison and Morales’ Phantom King. Essentially “Doomed” has been Brainiac’s shaggy plot to turn humanity into a huge hive-mind, but first readers had to slog through months of Supergirl and the Justice League fighting a Dooms-ified Man of Steel.
That’s been the most confusing part of this crossover. Even turned gray and pointy, it was unclear at any given moment whether Super-Doom (ugh) would be making positive or negative contributions. Often he did the right thing just to mess with people. Fortunately, now that the Doomsday infection has been cleared up (as of Action Annual #3), and things are on a more familiar footing, “Doomed” has a chance to land safely, if perhaps inelegantly.
The thing is, I appreciate “Doomed’s” ambition. The original “Reign of the Supermen!” succeeded because it felt like a natural extension of the Superman books’ previous story arcs. Similarly, “Doomed” reaches back throughout the New 52 Super-titles, arguably as far as the inaugural Action arc spotlighting Brainiac and Metallo. Like their predecessors of 20-plus years ago, these creative teams seem to want to showcase the depth and breadth of Superman’s New 52 setting. If this means payoffs for certain extended character arcs — Lois-iac, for instance — thereby enabling the familiar setup that Johns, Romita and Janson have, then that’s fine too. The connections “Doomed” is making are nowhere near the synchronicity of the ‘90s (which was in a class by itself), but they’re a good step towards harmonizing the past three years of disparate influences.
I realize I’ve gotten pretty far from the notion of a Bad Superman, so here’s where I pull my own essay back together. The Bad Supes of “Doomed” isn’t merely a primal instinct personified, nor is it a malevolent force. Instead, it seems to be an expression of capricious power applied indiscriminately. It wants to get rid of Clark because he represents control over Superman’s tremendous abilities. The unfortunate parts of “Doomed” are the meandering path it took to get to that point, and the hazy nature of the Doomsday virus’ influence. The Bad Superman of “Reign” was much more to the point: a villain who blamed Superman for his wife’s death and sought to a) take over the world and b) ruin the Man of Steel’s good name, with the latter almost more of a priority. While both “Doomed” and “Reign” put Superman’s reputation at risk, the older story did so insidiously, whereas today’s arc is much less subtle.
Specifically, the first several installments of “Doomed” seemed content to dwell on Superman’s descent into monstrosity. In hindsight I suppose it would have blunted the initial impact if readers knew it’d be reversed in time for the final act, but after so many iterations of Bad Supermen it got old pretty quickly. Val-Zod’s “we get it” might as well have been directed at this arc too.
Again, though, with Superman back to normal and a giant space-monster set to swallow Earth, “Doomed” has set the stage for a big blowout finale. Here’s hoping our hero doesn’t come out of this one with a mullet.
And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 14:
- Story pages: 20
- Barda/Emiko/Terminator pages: 5
- “Let’s rob Terrifitech” pages: 5
- Cal/Madison pages: 1
- Cadmus Island pages: 5
- Lois Lane pages: 4
- Fifty Sues in this issue: 2
- Freckle-faced teenage girl supervillains with whom Deathstroke has worked: at least 2
- Lois Lanes in this issue: 2
- Lois Lanes in this issue who have been merged into some form of cybernetic life: 2
NOTES: Judging by the photo on Lois’ desk, Clark will get a spitcurl-emphasizing haircut at some point in the next five years; and Lois may well find out his secret identity. One good thing about the craptastic Five Years From Now seems to be that Lois and Clark got/will get a lot chummier.
It continues to bug me that a character named The Key, whose schtick used to be that he could open any lock, needs someone’s help to break into a building. Except for the hints about Plastique’s powers, that plot is just marking time, presumably so we don’t forget about it. Trust me, that won’t happen. Please feel free to focus on other things while our intrepid band of burglars is on hold.
Naturally, there are a couple of connections between this issue and the aforementioned Earth 2 #26. There, Lois/Tornado tells Martha Kent to go to “the Langs,” and here we see Earth-2 Lana, “collaborating” with the Global Peace Agency on Cadmus Island. New 52 Lana — I’m not sure we can call the main-line setting “Earth-1″ — is a whiz-bang electrical engineer (currently being seen in “Doomed,” of course), so it looks like Earth-2 Lana went into a different scientific field.
Also, this week’s Earth 2 gave us glimpses of Mister Miracle and Big Barda, both mind-controlled into working for Apokolips. Here, ironically, we see them both captured by GPA forces. The Global Peace Agency was created by Jack Kirby for OMAC vol. 1 #1 (October 1974) in order to avert the Great Disaster (as seen in Kirby’s Kamandi), and since then it’s been mostly benevolent. Seems like Steve Trevor worked for them on the “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” cartoon. Since I just finished re-reading Final Crisis, I’ll note that there, the GPA recruited Renee “Question” Montoya to be an agent, presumably to tie her blank-faced mask to Kirby’s original blank-faced GPA agents. Now, the GPA is apparently coordinating the roundup of all the Earth-2 refugees. For whatever it’s worth, Earth-2’s “World Army” is arguably a counterpart to the GPA, and it too worked mostly for good, so that makes the Earth-2 folks’ predicament even more ironic.
NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Hawkman is angry! Hawkgirl is curious! Superman is wet! And Parasite is … there!