Our first-ever unanimous victory goes to…
NEW SUPER-MAN VOL. 2: COMING TO AMERICA
Writer: Gene Luen Yang
Artist: Billy Tan, Viktor Bogdanovic
Cover: Viktor Bogdanovic and Mike Spider
There are no shortcuts in life.
That remains true even if – or perhaps especially if – a brilliant scientist of questionable morality shows up one day and offers you all the powers of Superman.
Those are the circumstances of the life of Kong Kenan, a young man who, in his role as the New Super-Man of China, has the powers of Superman – sometimes, anyway.
The “sometimes” is a result of the lack of shortcuts in life, and Kenan is learning that there is more to being Superman – or Super-Man – than being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
We’ve seen some evidence that Kenan is learning those lessons since we first met him as a brash, attention-seeking bully who gained some instant fame after standing up to a super-villain (who was terrorizing the same classmate that Kenan had just been bullying moments before) and catching the attention of the mysterious Dr. Omen from the Ministry of Self-Reliance.
Kenan was a little more interested in catching the attention of the pretty young reporter, Laney Lan, but couldn’t help but be intrigued by Dr. Omen’s offer, as she offered him the ultimate shortcut in life.
Soon, a powered-up – sometimes – Kenan was fighting alongside the Bat-Man of China and the Wonder-Woman of China as a member of the Justice League of China.
While his heart was mostly in the right place, Kenan’s brain was often somewhere else, or, as Bat-Man might say, entirely absent. In the course of his adventures, Kenan discovered that his boring old father was actually involved with a metahuman terrorist organization trying to bring democracy to China by any means necessary, learned that his mother’s death in a plane crash years earlier was no accident, ended up losing his father after finally really meeting him for the first time, and learned that Dr. Omen’s process had done more than simply give him Superman’s powers, they had imbued him with Superman’s qi, his very essence.
This understanding provided the first step towards getting a handle on his powers, as it became clear that his motives had an impact on his ability. If he wanted to be like Superman, he had to be, well, like Superman. The New Super-Man finds himself always having to ask, “What would Superman do?”
At this point, Kenan has a reliable handle on just two of his powers: strength and invulnerability.
To learn more about mastering his qi, and the rest of his powers, Kenan becomes a student of an old, blind man called Master I-Ching – a character first introduced in the 1960s in Wonder-Woman – who teaches Kenan about the eight trigrams that represent the different aspects of reality and represent different aspects of reality, and align with different parts of the human body. For Kenan, they also represent his superpowers.
Traditionally, the trigrams are arranged as an octagon.
The symbol on Kenan’s chest is an “S,” and it is also the Kryptonian symbol for hope, but I-Ching points out that it represents something else:
It shows the path Kenan must follow to master his powers.
The path has no shortcuts, and will not be without challenges, as Kenan learns when he activates his super-hearing, and finds himself overwhelmed by the pain. Not a pain that he feels, personally, but the pain that he hears. The pain of everyone around him.
Still, while he has learned a great deal already, the lesson about the lack of shortcuts hasn’t quite penetrated his steel-hard skull, so when Lex Luthor pays a visit to the Ministry of Self-Reliance and offers Kenan a shortcut to mastering his powers, the New Super-Man – with a disapproving I-Ching in tow as his interpreter – is soon making his way to America.
It turns out, to the surprise of no one reading this, that Lex’s poor command of Mandarin was merely an affectation and there was no need for I-Ching to translate, but his presence turns out to be for the best as Lex inadvertently opens a literal gateway to hell, and I-Ching, chasing off demons with a simple look, proves that there’s more to him than meets the eye (so to speak).
Still, it works out for the best, as the journey leads to an encounter with the OG Superman, who provides Kenan with some guidance about dealing with the pain that he hears.
“The trick, Kenan, is to only let yourself get lost in the pain of others for just a moment. Then remember that their pain isn’t actually yours. That’s why you’re in a position to help.”
Kenan also learns, somewhat mysteriously, from the guardians of the gateway to the afterlife, that neither of his parents are on the other side.
(Meanwhile, in China, Bat-Man and Wonder-Woman have grown increasingly suspicious of Dr. Omen and the Ministry, and have discovered the body of Kenan’s father – though they can’t tell if he’s alive or dead – being stored in some kind of super-sciencey tube by Dr. Omen.)
Kenan also picks up a new friend an ally, a young speedster who had been working with – and then turned against – a group of metahuman mercenaries who had been hired to retrieve the ancient artifacts that Lex had used to open the gateway, and joins the Justice League of China as the Flash of China.
As a bonus, Kenan also learned how to activate his x-ray vision. The real lesson from the trip to America for Kenan, though, is a simple one: no more shortcuts!
Upon returning to China, Kenan learns to activate his super-speed, and challenges the new Flash to a race, which proves to be something she had been impatiently waiting for, so it seems that, perhaps significantly for Kenan, who has been finding himself not having much luck on the romance front, with Laney Lan showing no interest, while Dr. Omen’s assistant Mingming, who introduced Kenan to I-Ching, is showing a lot, though Kenan isn’t reciprocating, even though he’s just begun to notice that “she’s kind of hot,” the two are very like-minded.
However, it’s the Wonder-Woman of China who will have the most impact on Kenan’s life, as a threat from her past, made even more of a threat by the machinations of a mysterious nefarious figure who appears to be something of a Yang to I-Ching’s Yin, attacks Shanghai.
In an earlier story, we learned a little more about the past of Wang Baixi, the Bat-Man of China, as he returned to the academy where he trained for that role, and he ends up creating the Joker of China, so now it’s time for Peng Deilan, if that is her real name (it’s not) to get her turn in the spotlight.
The story proves to be another variation on the theme of shortcuts and the lack of them, in which it turns out that Deilan – the name Dr. Omen gave her upon discovering her – is a character from an ancient Chinese fable that turns out to have been a true story.
As the team squares off against their dangerous enemy, they get an assist, of sorts, from Super-Man Zero, Dr. Omen’s secret first attempt at creating a new Superman. Unlike Kenan, this Super-Man was never a normal person who had Superman’s abilities bestowed on him, he actually is Superman’s power manifested in physical form.
Possessing awareness, but lacking any real identity – or, significantly a sense of morality – Super-Man Zero had been kept hidden, and was considered a failure, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Super-Man Zero saves the day, kind of, and is temporarily de-powered in the process. Kenan moves in to detain him, but finds himself unable to do so, as his sympathy for the honestly somewhat pathetic creature moves him to let him go.
This is, of course, a mistake, as the I-Ching lookalike shows up, re-powers him, and sets him to attacking the Ministry as Emperor Super-Man.
With the Ministry crumbling and her life endangered, and having been informed about what Baixi and Deilan discovered in their investigation, Kenan decides it’s the perfect time to confront Dr. Omen with his suspicions about her role in the death of his mother.
As she falls to what looks like certain death, given that Kenan hasn’t figured out how to direct his qi to give him access to flight, Dr. Omen says that she didn’t kill Kenan’s mother…because she is Kenan’s mother!
And with that, this volume ends.
One of the great and terrible things about comics – particularly super-hero comics – is that their storylines are frequently convoluted as hell.
If you’re an avid reader, that’s often part of the fun, but for new readers just jumping onboard, it can be more than a little daunting and frustrating.
Even here, in a series that has only been running for a short time, there’s a lot of confusing and complicated history.
As I mentioned last week, much of that confusion stems from the question of what has and has not happened. The seeds of New Super-Man were planted long before its first issue hit the stands in the pages of old Superman. Who was, thanks to the “New 52” relaunch, something of a new Superman himself.
During that series pre-“Rebirth” run, Superman developed a new ability – the one used by Super-Man Zero in the climactic battle – called a “super-flare.” Essentially, it allowed him to release all his stored solar energy in one gigantic, energetic burst of heat and light. Doing so would leave him de-powered for up to 24 hours while he replenished his stores of energy.
His periodic use of that ability was the basis for Dr. Omen’s work, as she collected the residual energy from those super-flares.
Where it gets complicated is that this Superman was dying, and as he was dying, some of his power was leaking out, and going around taking possession of people and acting, kind of, like Superman. However, lacking the true guiding identity of Superman, it tended to make a mess of things, and behaved without solid moral judgment, much like Super-Man Zero.
Eventually, Superman did die.
Except…well, there was yet another Superman, the one who had existed in the continuity before the “New 52,” and he soon took the place of the old/new Superman.
Except…something is amiss in the timeline – hence the “Rebirth” event – and some of it got sorted out and merged, so that “New 52” Superman never even existed in the first place, and the Superman of this timeline is the same one as the one from before, and he had all of the same adventures we read about before the “New 52,” but also had some of the same adventures that the Superman who no longer existed had.
Confused yet? Of course you are; I am, and I’ve been actively reading this stuff.
I bring this up, because so far in the “Rebirth” period, Superman hasn’t done a “super-flare,” and there’s no evidence that he ever did. So what did Dr. Omen use for her work?
Further, it’s been established that years ago, as he did back before the “New 52,” Superman died at the hands of Doomsday. (He got better.)
However, during the “New 52,” there was a different version of Doomsday that resulted not in Superman’s death, but in Superman himself becoming Doomsday as a result of a virus. That virus was used by the mysterious adversary to revive Deilan’s ancient enemy, but if the traditional Doomsday storyline is what happened now, in “Rebirth,” where did this “Doomsday virus,” that was no part of the original story, come from?
How is babby formed?
Who was phone?
HOW’D IT GET BURNED?
Presumably, some of these questions will be answered, and during his pep talk with Kenan, Superman informs him that there is some threat, something capable of changing everything, and that the time will come when Superman will need Super-Man.
In a lot of ways, New Super-Man reminds me of the Superboy comic in the ‘90s. Like Kenan, Superboy was an attempt at recreating Superman who didn’t have full access to Superman’s powers, was often brash and impulsive, if well-intentioned, and just looking to have a good time. Hopefully, as Kenan matures and grows into his role he’ll follow a path that leads to being considerably less angsty, mopey, and broody than where Superboy ended up. As anyone who read the adventures of Wally West as the Flash can attest, seeing the adventures of characters maturing and following the path to their destiny can be an immensely satisfying experience, and I look forward to traveling that path with Kenan.
The central premise of this site and the platform it’s intended to become is that comics are for everyone, and as the Wonder Woman movie so amply demonstrated, representation matters.
It remains a bit more socially-acceptable to continue to rely on lazy stereotypes when presenting Asian characters in popular culture than it is for many other groups, so I see a lot of value in this more nuanced approach that delves into Chinese folklore and philosophy, and grapples with the complexities of contemporary China through the lens of super-heroism.
I’m particularly pleased to see the attempt at rehabilitating the character of I-Ching, who, in his original incarnation, could charitably be described as well-intentioned but deeply flawed and misguided. The mysterious adversary makes a direct callback to an even more overtly racist period of comics history, at one point disguising himself as somewhat infamous racist caricature from DC’s history.
One of the subtle ways in which we see the value of representation, and the pervasiveness of unconscious racism in comics, is in an aspect of comics that is too often overlooked: the lettering.
Lettering is often used in comics to indicate differences in spoken language. That is, while you’re reading it in English, a character might be speaking in Russian, or French, or, as here, in Mandarin. Typically, this is represented by placing the non-English dialogue inside of brackets. (With a footnote to explain “Translated from German” or whatever.)
Here, in a book in which the bulk of the action takes place in China, the approach is to call out when someone is speaking English, with the Mandarin dialogue presented as the default, standard lettering, and English dialogue called out by making the text blue.
Like I said, it’s subtle, but it’s significant.
The art of New Super-Man is done well, with interesting character designs that help to give each character a definite sense of personality. Baixi, for example, is a Bat-Man who relies even more heavily on brain rather than brawn than his Western namesake, and, as, Kenan is so quick to point out, is a bit less physically imposing, tending to be a bit…softer, to put it more kindly than Kenan would.
That said, there is an extent to which it looks a bit like what has become a kind of house style at DC, the ultimate exemplar of which is the work of David Finch. In some ways, the style is derivative of the work of DC executive (and superstar artist of the 90s) Jim Lee. That’s not bad, certainly, and given Lee’s popularity, it’s understandable, but I’m wary of a comic company aiming for a flat sameness across its line.
I seem to find myself often trying to straddle the line between legitimately critiquing the art of a book and being outright insulting of the artist. The insult side of the line is one I’m never aiming for, and while I wish that the art were a bit more distinctive, I have no real complaints about its quality.
This has been a somewhat longer ramble than most, owing to the fact that this volume collects multiple issues of the series, but It’s probably well-past the point at which I should stop. There’s a lot I didn’t get into, so if you find yourself at all intrigued by the adventures of Kenan, Deilan, Baixi, I-Ching, Dr. Omen, and the rest, I definitely recommend picking up this volume and the one that preceded it.
That’s it for this Spotlight Sunday. Thanks to everyone who voted, and be sure to come back for the next Weigh In Wednesday.