Spotlight Sunday 7.8.18
The conclusion of the introduction to a new chapter for DC’s flagship character means that there are spoilers ahead for…
The Man of Steel 1-6
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
“I meant caca poo poo on some level.”
Within my lifetime there have been two significant shifts in employment between the “Big Two” comic book publishers that can rightly be referred to as seismic. There was another – and, as of this writing, arguably the most significant – that occurred just a bit before my lifetime began.
That one that predates me is, of course, when Jack Kirby, less than a decade after revitalizing and reinventing comics with Stan Lee, departed Marvel and went to work for DC.
In 1986, John Byrne, who had long been a fan-favorite at Marvel and was famously-quoted as being content to be “a cog in the machine that is Marvel,” shook things up by departing for the, er, bluer pastures of DC once his Marvel contract expired.
And now we see another major shake-up as Brian Michael Bendis, who, regardless of whatever your feelings about his work there may be, has been a driving force at Marvel since 2000, makes the move to DC.
Comic book publishing is a relatively small industry, and such movement is common, particularly among freelancers, and it’s not my intention to downplay the movement of other creators between companies that have occurred over the years; one could easily compile a litany of significant departures and returns that have had a tremendous impact on the industry – and fandom – over the decades.
However, few of them have involved creators who were so thoroughly associated with one company defecting, or creators who achieved such renown and had so much impact during their employment.
I also can’t recall any other such change in employment that garnered as much publicity, particularly with the latter two, which got some coverage outside of trade publications – I recall reading an interview with Byrne in, of all places, The National Enquirer – and with house ads in comics published by the receiving company, as seen above.
In addition to the ads, Byrne’s imminent arrival is even eluded to in a story published around that time, in what is one of my favorite gags from the fourth-wall-shattering Son of Ambush Bug:
Part of the big news of the arrival of Bendis goes beyond what he’ll be doing in terms of writing comics, as he’s also being tapped to provide some amount of assistance with DC’s multimedia efforts in film, television, and streaming, which would itself be big news, given that he has played some part in the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both directly and in terms of providing much of the source material that the movies have adapted.
At 50, Bendis was alive at the time of Kirby’s exodus from Marvel, but his arrival at DC has more in common with that of Byrne, taking over the Superman titles following the completion of a six-issue mini-series titled The Man of Steel, which sets the new status quo for DC’s most well-known character.
(It’s worth noting, however, that while Kirby didn’t take over the Super-books, much of his work did involve the Man of Steel, as significant portions of his Fourth World Saga unfolded in the pages of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.)
Unlike with Byrne’s Man of Steel, however, Bendis is not providing a whole new origin for the character or introducing significant changes to continuity, but he is changing things up quite a bit by shuffling the pieces around.
(For my take on Byrne’s Man of Steel, you can visit my old, defunct blog, starting here.)
Some of those changes were loudly decried as soon as the first issue hit the stands, as they involve the – presumably temporary – removal of two important characters, one of whom has been there from the start and is, in many ways, given the current state of the world, a character who should be getting more exposure, not less.
That specific character is, of course, Lois Lane, who is largely absent from the book. There’s a strong case to be made for the assertion that in a time that is increasingly hostile to both women and members of the press, Lois Lane should be front-and-center in the Super-books.
I agree, but I would feel that way anyway, just because it’s Lois Freakin’ Lane, and she should be front-and-center no matter what. As I’ve said before, it’s her 80th anniversary, too, so she should be getting just as much attention as her husband.
The other missing character is, of course, their son Jon, and the question of “Where are Lois and Jon?” is just one of the mysteries explored throughout the mini-series.
In the first issue, with art by Ivan Reis and Jay Fabok, we find ourselves somewhere out in the vastness of space in the not-too distant past, before the destruction of Krypton.
A warrior named Rogol Zaar is arguing to a conclave of cosmic and alien entities – including Appa Ali Apsa of the Guardians of the Universe – that the people of Krypton represent a unique danger to all life throughout the universe, owing to their tremendous scientific prowess and their unique physiology and physical capabilities.
He argues that the universe must be “cleansed” of the infection of Kryptonians before that can happen.
From there, we move to the present, to Metropolis, where, after apprehending two Batman rogues who were hiding out in Metropolis, Superman helps the local Fire Department deal with a burning building.
While surveying the damage, we catch snippets of memories of Jon and Lois asking about some unseen phenomenon. While he stands there distracted by the memories and the devastation around him, he’s approached by Melody Moore, the new Deputy Fire Chief/supermodel, and after some brief flirtation revolving around the fact that this fire, like several other recent fires, was the result of arson, Superman flies off, informing the improbably-attractive Deputy Fire Chief – we’re informed that she’s “taller than Wonder Woman” – Superman flies off, mentioning that one of the people he just apprehended is an arsonist who goes by the name Firefly, so that might be worth checking out.
We move back in time again to find Rogol Zaar on hostile alien world where he’s visited by Appa Ali Apsa who is there to inform him of the decision made by “The Circle” RE: Krytpon, Eradication of. While they all have a great deal of respect for Rogol Zaar’s many deeds – whatever they may be – given that the people of Krypton are peaceful, and that no one is on board with destroying an entire planet and killing its population just because some guy says they should. And so he is instructed that under no circumstances should he engage in any planet destroying.
This does not sit well with him.
Back on Earth in the present, we find Clark in the newsroom at The Daily Planet, where it’s clear that Lois is very much absent. Looking at a picture of his wife and son, Clark flashes back to a typical evening at home with his family, an evening interrupted by a mysterious flash of light…
The second issue, with art by Evan “Doc” Shaner, Steve Rude, and Jay Fabok, opens with Krypton’s destruction, and an argument between Appa Ali Apsa and another member of “The Circle.” The Oan asserts that it was just a coincidence, but Lord Gandelo is convinced that Rogol Zaar is responsible, and hints that he believes Appa Ali Apsa was complicit.
The Guardian isn’t here for being accused of such a thing, however.
From there, Appa heads off to Rogol Zaar’s home, to find it abandoned, and he expresses his hope that Zaar died, along with all of the other ugly secrets.
On Earth, a nosy new reporter at the Planet is digging into the mystery of the absence of Lois and Jon.
Superman, meanwhile, is off in California, on his way back from helping out with tsunami relief elsewhere, dealing a quick defeat to Toyman, who had hoped to have better luck with committing crimes somewhere that Superman (normally) isn’t.
It is where Green Lantern normally hangs his ring, however, and he pops by to say hello to Superman and help with the clean-up. Superman is a dick to him and takes off once GL starts asking personal questions, but it’s just Hal, so it’s not like it matters that Superman is a dick to him.
As he flies away, we catch another glimpse of that night with Lois and Jon, as a strange object appears inside the blinding light, and Supes takes out his obvious frustration on the moon.
At a bar somewhere in the Vega system, a very-much alive Rogol Zaar learns that a Kryptonian survived and lives on a planet called Earth.
On that planet, Clark, who (foolishly) thinks he owes Hal an apology, has a run-in with that nosy new reporter, while listening to Perry lament the state of print media, and then rushes off to deal with some problem he sees unfolding live on a TV in Perry’s office.
We end with Rogol Zaar making his way to Earth.
Issue three, with art by Ryan Sook and Fabok – it’s worth mentioning that Fabok’s been providing the art for the Lois and Jon flashbacks – opens with Rogol Zaar landing on Earth and making his way to the Fortress of Solitude, overcoming poor Kelex, the robot butler/sentry, and then looming menacingly (Is there really any other way to loom?) over the bottle city of Kandor.
In Metropolis, Superman is at the scene of another fire, engaging in some more friendly banter with Melody Moore, though they’re not alone, as Superman brought Batman along to help investigate the fires.
While there, however, Superman hears an alarm that only he can hear, and heads to the Fortress, only to find it destroyed.
Superman wasn’t the only one to hear the alarm, however, and his cousin Supergirl arrives just in time for the two of them to discover that Kandor’s bottle has been shattered, the city destroyed, and its people murdered.
Taking only a moment to mourn, the two Kryptonians head off in search of the perpetrator, and Clark thinks back to that night with Lois and Jon, as the object opens to reveal a humanoid figure inside.
The – deliberate – trail the two heroes follow leads them straight to Metropolis, where Rogol Zaar awaits.
Issue four, with art by Kevin Maguire, and, of course, Jason Fabok, finds Superman and Supergirl in a pitched battle with Rogol Zaar.
The special preview, with art by Jim Lee, featured in Action #1000 takes place (off-panel) in the middle of this fight, and we get another flashback to that night, in which it’s revealed that the figure inside the object was Jor-El, still rocking the Mr. Oz look, stating that he’s there to take Jon.
Zaar takes off before Superman regains consciousness, and Green Lantern shows up (despite how much of a dick Superman had been to him) and insists that they’ll bring the League in on this issue, and asks where Jon is. No one pays any attention to Hal, of course. Supergirl heads off in search of Zaar, and Superman heads back to the ruins of the Fortress, where Zaar is waiting. Zaar confirms that, as he hinted during the battle, he knew Jor-El, and asks Superman if he’s procreated, as he comes up behind him, preparing to chop off his head.
It was, however, merely a ruse on Superman’s part to draw Zaar in close enough to hit him with a solar flare.
Issue five, as illustrated by Adam Hughes (and Jason Fabok), opens from the perspective of the last thing the citizens of Kandor ever saw.
From there we cut to the continuation of the battle between Superman – apparently the previously-established “using a solar flare depletes his powers for a day” thing is no longer established – taking place on the moon.
On Earth, yet another fire has been started in Metropolis, and the Deputy Fire Chief who is just as hot as the fires she puts out, shows up in time to find Supergirl rescuing the building’s residents and putting out the worst of the blaze. Supergirl is looking for her cousin, but Melody doesn’t know where he is (Though she’d like to…RAWR!), but fortunately the Justice League shows up to help with the search.
With a little guidance from Wonder Woman, Kara realizes where Superman would take Zaar, and rushes to the moon, where she finds her battered cousin unconscious under a layer of lunar regolith.
Back at Justice League HQ, the recuperating Superman and the League put their heads together to try to figure out where Rogol Zaar has run to, or, as Diana points out, strategically retreated to, given that he is a “creature of war.”
Superman tries to puzzle out the meaning of the symbol Zaar wears – a sort of circle with a slash through it – and then, prompted by Batman’s reference to Zaar wanting to cleanse the universe of Kryptonians, Superman takes off, leaving Supergirl annoyed that he just keeps bailing on her.
But he had a good reason to be a dick – Rogol Zaar is planting some kind of device at the Earth’s core!
Oh yeah, and Jor-El is there for Jon because he wants to take him on a cosmic journey to learn things that his parents can’t teach him on Earth. Yeah, it’s a no from Lois and Clark, dawg, but Jon is up for it.
Issue six, with art throughout by Fabok, has some more fighting, but the fight is ended by Supergirl who shows up with a Phantom Zone projector to put Zaar away. Superman says that’s only a temporary solution, as they need answers. Kara agrees, but points out that under Kryptonian law, if he really did destroy Krypton, and because he definitely destroyed Kandor, Zaar would have been sentenced to an eternity in the Zone.
Mixed in with the fighting, we get the rest of the story of that night, on which it’s revealed that the reason Jon is up for the trip is not just that he thinks it will be cool, it’s that he’s very worried about the possible future in which he loses control of his powers and kills millions of people. It’s his hope that his grandfather can teach him what he needs to know to prevent that.
Jor-El’s invitation includes Lois and Clark, but Clark can’t shirk his responsibilities to Earth. Lois, however, can.
And so, despite Clark’s reluctance, Lois and Jon agree to go on a summer tour of the universe with Jor-El.
(In addition to being there to keep an eye on her son, Lois plans to write a book about her experiences, though I’m not sure how, exactly, she plans to sell a book about her adventures exploring the cosmos with her alien father-in-law and her half-alien son without, you know, telling the world that she has an alien father-in-law and a half-alien son.)
A bit after reading it, I realized that the final issue also gives us a bit of an explanation for why #TheTrunksAreBack – Superman gives Lois his costume to wear, for her protection (pushing a button inside the belt buckle will adjust it to fit her) on her space adventure, and when Lois asks what he’ll wear, he says that he’ll “find something.”
As Superman, Supergirl, and the League hold a memorial service for Kandor, Supergirl states that she’s going to head out into space to find the answers they weren’t able to get from Rogol Zaar.
She tells him that she’ll be back, and so will Lois and Jon.
Superman informs her, however, that the device Jor-El left with him that would allow him to communicate with Lois and Jon was destroyed in the battle, and so, with his cousin gone, he’s now more truly alone than he’s ever been.
The issue ends at the firehouse, where the fire-haired Deputy Fire Chief is visited by a kid who says that he’s seen on TV that no one knows who’s been starting the fires, but that he knows who’s been doing it, because he’s seen the culprit with his own eyes. The arsonist is…Superman!
Okay, so, first things first. The art, across-the-board, is fantastic, which is not the least bit surprising given the level of talent involved.
Having multiple artists was a smart move on DC’s part, as it helped to ensure that the book would be on-time despite the brutal weekly publishing schedule. (As it is, due to some personal issues, Shaner wasn’t able to complete his issue, but who can complain when Steve Rude stepped up to fill in for him?)
When Byrne did his Man of Steel back in 1986, he had the advantage of having one of the best artists in comics working on the book: himself.
I gather that Bendis is something of an artist himself, but it’s not what he’s known or acclaimed for, so it made sense to bring in top-tier artists to bring his story to life, as it helped to generate some additional excitement, and it guaranteed that, regardless of how the story turned out, it would look great.
The obvious question is, how did the story turn out?
In the first issue, Superman repeats the tautology “Fire is fire,” several times. I…I don’t really know what that’s even supposed to mean, but there is another tautology that sprung to mind as I read this: Bendis is Bendis.
That can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective, but it’s something that is bound to have an impact on the telling of the story, no matter how good the underlying story is, or isn’t.
In terms of the underlying story, while it seems like something that significantly disrupts the status quo without completely shattering it, there’s really not that much to it. There are some mysteries still to be solved – did Rogol Zaar really blow up Krypton? It seems likely, but we never actually see it happen, despite the fact that he nearly does it to Earth, so there is room for doubt. Was Appa Ali Apsa in on it? If so, why?
Destroying Kandor seems like a big deal, but is it? It’s been quite some time since anyone did anything with Kandor – that I’ve seen, anyway – and whether or not it even existed in current continuity was something I’m not sure I knew the answer to before now.
I’m also not that keen on the “I destroyed Krypton!” trope, personally. My preference is for it to have been a natural event – admittedly, Byrne also set up some artificial circumstances that ultimately led to it, but it was never the result of some deliberate effort by a third party – rather than someone taking an active hand in causing it. I say that mostly because it just doesn’t matter. While there are interesting stories that can be told about Krypton, Krypton itself isn’t the point.
The whole “Circle” thing strikes me as a science-y knock-off of the old DCU parliament of magical entities, The Quintessence, and also feels uncomfortably close to the whole Illuminati thing Bendis did over at Marvel, which, bleh.
Beyond that…I’m not going to lie – the idea of Lois and Jor-El and Jon having adventures across the cosmos has a certain appeal, particularly in that it gives Lois something to do for a change, and I would love nothing more than to see Jor-El finding out that his invulnerability and super-strength provide him no advantage whatsoever when it comes to butting heads with Lois.
But when you’re place-setting the new status quo for the Superman books, taking Lois (and, to a lesser extent, Jon) off the table just seems like a boneheaded move.
Within the narrative, it made a kind of sense, as it kept them safe from Rogol Zaar, but the people who quite vociferously criticized Bendis for not taking this opportunity to focus on Lois were 100% correct, although I’m not certain that I would really want to see Bendis doing any sort of extended take on Lois.
My other quibble is around continuity. There is some commitment to it, particularly with the callback in the form of Jon worrying about his possible future, but the sequences showing “that night” with Jor-El lacked some punch, as there was no reference – beyond the visuals in terms of Jor-El’s appearance – to the Mr. Oz storyine, or the resolution – or lack thereof – to the arc, with Jor-El’s redemption. Here, he seems much more like he was at the beginning of that arc than he was at the end of it, and there’s no reference at all to the mysterious force that transported him away from Krypton in the first place, and then away from Superman at the end of that storyline.
I suppose there’s the potential for that to be addressed as the mystery of Rogol Zaar, and the nature of the relationship he claims to have had with Jor-El, is explored in Superman and Action.
(One assumes that Jor-El knew that Rogol Zaar was on his way to Earth, and that, more than a sudden desire to show his grandson the universe, was the reason for his sudden appearance.)
But beyond the issues I have with the narrative – though obviously of a piece with it – is…Bendis.
It’s been quite some time since I’ve read anything he’s written. I absolutely loved Alias, but I have never gone back to reread it for fear of the aversion I later developed to Bendis ruining the experience.
That aversion is something that developed over time, and it was cumulative. It was a lot of little things. Plot points that made no sense. The inconsistent relationship with continuity. The way someone might make a casual reference to some villain committing an atrocity that is completely out of character for that villain.
And, of course, the dialogue.
Bendis writes dialogue that is intended to be naturalistic and that reads as if written to be spoken aloud rather than simply read on a page.
It’s often sardonic, cynical, and wry, filled with pop culture references, strange idioms, and just the slightest hint of contempt for whomever the words are being addressed toward.
And it’s the way everyone he writes talks.
Men. Women. Old. Young. Cosmic entities of incalculable power older than the universe itself. Dogs. Cats.
It’s a kind of patter, and it has a rhythm, and it can be – in small doses – entertaining.
In. Small. Doses.
But it’s never a small dose, and the fact that everyone sounds exactly the same – if you removed the context of what’s being said, you could just randomly swap the tails of the word balloons between characters and it wouldn’t really change anything – just wears you down.
That said, it’s possible that he’s improved a bit, or I’ve built a tolerance in my absence from his work, but it’s not quite as bad here as I expected it to be, though I’m inclined to give the credit to the editing skills of Chen, Cotton, and Cunningham, who were, perhaps, able to rein him in a bit.
There were also some clever bits; I liked that in the battle at the Earth’s core Superman goaded Zaar into attacking – and moving away from the doomsday weapon he was working on – by expressing sympathy for him and betraying just the slightest smile when the tactic worked.
I also liked the notion of the denizens of the underworld realizing that Superman has triggers, certain expressions, tones, and volume levels that will catch his attention. It was a good set-up that delivered a solid punchline.
And sometimes – like I said, in small doses – his dialogue tics can work; I particularly liked the bit when, after telling her it was nice to meet her, Melody Moore watches him fly away and quietly says, “Nice to meet yooooou, Superman,” only to have him look back at her and have her realize, “Super-hearing!”
(That said, I’m annoyed by where the excessively-attractive flirtatious redhead – just like his first girlfriend – with an alliterative name that’s one letter removed from the standard Superman alliteration who pops up and has to work closely with him just as he becomes a temporary bachelor is so obviously headed.)
Of course, one of the many other problems he has, even if he does manage to give characters distinct voices – it does happen, on occasion – is that he’ll have come up with something that he thinks is clever that he really wants someone, anyone to say, and he’ll just have those words come out of some random character’s mouth, with no concern about whether it’s at all in character.
See, for example, the quoted text that opens this post, spoken by the Flash. Because, sure, that’s something he would say.
Obviously, his work resonates with people, and he is capable of doing good and even great things, but I have to admit that while I recognize the significance of his arrival at DC – I called it “seismic” and spoke of it in terms of Kirby and Byrne for a reason – I was not exactly thrilled to learn that he’d be taking over the Super-titles.
In point of fact, I viewed it as the worst-case scenario.
(Honestly, as much as I love his work on Thor, if DC had to poach anyone from Marvel to work on Superman I would so much rather it had been Jason Aaron.)
Still, all of my concerns and complaints aside, there is enough that’s interesting to keep me from removing Superman and Action from my pull list for the foreseeable future.
Ultimately, I’m relieved that while the shift in terms of employment is seismic, the shift in the status quo of the character is less so; certainly, I wouldn’t want Bendis in charge of a complete relaunch of the character, and while Lois is – temporarily, one hopes – out of the picture, at least there was no dissolution of their marriage and elimination of the possibility of any kind of romantic relationship as there was with the New 52.
SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL VOL. 1 (KINDLE & COMIXOLOGY) – A stunning tale of heroics and history, SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL VOL. 1 magnificently retells and reinvents the origin and early adventures of the Man of Steel. In this fastpaced, revelatory book, Superman begins his ascension to iconic hero as he leaves Smallville and becomes Metropolis’s revered protector and guardian. Featuring the Man of Steel’s legendary first encounters with Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, and Batman, this amazing book also includes a deadly battle with Bizarro, a fateful encounter with Lana Lang, and Superman’s astonishing discovery of his Kryptonian heritage.
ALIAS OMNIBUS – Like I said: I can’t bring myself to reread it for fear of destroying my love for it, but if you haven’t read it, you should check it out…
Once upon a time, Jessica Jones was a costumed super-hero, just not a very good one. Her powers were unremarkable compared to the amazing abilities of the costumed icons that populate the Marvel Universe. In a city of Marvels, Jessica Jones never found her niche. Now a chain-smoking, self-destructive alcoholic with a mean inferiority complex, Jones is the owner and sole employee of Alias Investigations – a small, private-investigative firm specializing in super-human cases. In her inaugural arc, Jessica’s life immediately becomes expendable when she uncovers the potentially explosive secret of one hero’s true identity. But her wit, charm and intelligence just may help her survive through another day. Thrust into the midst of a conspiracy that reaches the highest levels, has Jessica burned too many bridges to turn to old friends for help? Plus: Jessica travels to upstate New York to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl rumored to be a mutant in a prejudiced small town, goes on a date with the Astonishing Ant-Man, teams up with Jessica Drew, the original Spider-Woman; and confronts the demons of her past! Collects Alias #1-28, What If? Jessica Jones had Joined the Avengers.
SUPERMAN: THE MANY WORLDS OF KRYPTON – From some of the industry’s greatest creators come the life and times of Jor-El, father of Superman; the story of a forbidden love that would ignite a civil war and lead to the eventual destruction of the entire planet; and the Kryptonian legends that defined their history.
Collects World of Krypton (Vol. 1) #1-3 and The World of Krypton (Vol. 2) #1-4, with stories from Superman #233, #236, #238, #240, #248, #257, #266 and Superman Family #182.
That does it for the Spotlight. Be sure to check back on Saturday for the Showcase.
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