Superman: The Last Family Of Krypton #3 came out last week, marking the end of the Elseworld's mini-series and Cary Bates' return to comics. As the first true Elseworlds book in a long time, this one certainly was ambitious. In three short issues, decades of time have passed on Earth. We go from baby Kal-El arriving with his family to him being a seasoned Superman. That degree of time passing must be a challenge for a writer as you are only allowed to show a thimble-full of what exactly has been happening on that world. Yes we see the main scenes, but the nuances that evolve over time cannot be shown so as a result you need to fill in the gaps yourself.
This series was not about Superman alone. It really was about the whole dysfunctional El family, primarily Jor-El and Lara. Superman, in some ways, feels like a minor player here. But it is clear that every El has some psychological baggage that they bring to the table. Jor-El and Lara must be reeling a bit with survivor's guilt. Jor-El deals with it scientifically, vowing that planetary destruction won't happen again. Lara deals with it spiritually. Kal-El struggles just as he does now ... as a man caught between two worlds, made more glaring by the presence of his parents. And Valora and Bru-El feel like they don't belong necessarily to either world, somewhat super but not as super as their family.
A lot of the themes here resonate from prior Superman stories. I mean, that is what Elseworlds are right ... a tweak of the current mythology? The one thing I will say is that I don't know if I have seen Jor-El portrayed in such a negative light before.
The first scene is an interesting tweak of the classic Superman #247 ("Does the world need a Superman?"). Jor-El is brought before the Guardians and told that his utter control over the events on Earth has stunted the growth of humanity. Why should people strive for anything when Jor-El can do it for them more easily?
But it goes beyond the activities of everyman. The presence of the Els has stopped the evolution of super-heroes on Earth as well. Jor-El save Abin Sur before he died. Lara stopped Joe Chill. The twins stopped the lightning bolt that would have made Barry Allen into the Flash. As helpful as they think they are being, the Els are probably a deterrent to human evolution. (Of course, there is no mention of stopping the creation of super-villains as a counterbalance.)
Whereas the Elliot S! Maggin story ends with Superman ruminating over the Guardians similar warning, here Jor-El takes an almost opposite position. Rather than listen to what the Oans are saying, Jor-El dismisses them. He doesn't care about the heroes he has stopped or the potential he has retarded. He has kept the world safe. So he doesn't care about these warnings. He angrily leaves.
Hubris is another running theme here as many characters pride lead to their downfalls. You have to be pretty sure of yourself to tell off the Guardians of the Universe.
But as time passes, the El family continues to grow and grow apart.
An omnipresent figure in all their lives is Lex Luthor who has become a sort of surrogate son to Jor-El. All along we have noted how Lex is stockpiling some weapons which he will eventually use against his ersatz family. Here he shows Valora that he has a chunk of old school Gold Kryptonite, capable of stripping a Kryptonian of their powers permanently.
But even as he welcomes Lex into the family and thrills over Luthor's accomplishments, Jor-El cannot keep his true family in order.
Kal is in familiar territory for us readers, acting as Superman and living as Clark Kent. But despite his good works, it is never enough for Jor-El who publicly chastises him for not calculating a tidal wave's power accurately enough to stop it in a single act. No matter what it seems, Jor-El will never be proud of Kal's decisions and that is enough to estrange the two.
In the meantime, Valora has seemed to embrace the ways of Earth, graduating Harvard Law, becoming a Senator's aide, and rarely using her powers.
Bru-El clearly has an inferiority complex, mired in near daily therapy and acting out.
And Lara's devotion to her Raology movement has her helping others but maybe losing track of her own family. In many ways this is really Lara's story as she struggles to keep her family together while helping out the many people of Earth.
I did like this montage shot of Cat Grant covering the family TMZ-style. There is no doubt that the super-family would be front and center of social media like this, hounded by the paparazzi and dissected in front of the world.
Angry at the coverage of her failing marriage and suddenly having access to Jor-El's sanctum, Lara uncovers what her husband has been doing in there all this time. He has set up an informational transfer device which allows him to review all Earthly transmissions at high speed. (It sort of reminded me of Ozymandias sitting before the bank of television panels, absorbing the information with a sort of osmosis.)
Realizing that Jor-El has become a sort of world-wide voyeur, micromanaging the most minute events of Earth while ignoring his own kin, Lara finally leaves him. He is no longer who he was. He is now a secret dictator, controlling everything while showing a benevolent exterior.
I got the sense that this had been a loveless marriage for some time.
Despite this personal tragedy, she continues to shine, setting up healing centers ... both spiritual and physical healing. Lara really is a very likable character here.
I thought all along that Bru-El would die in this book as a sympathetic loser who would be trying to do good to get his father's approval only to fail. Boy was I wrong. Instead, he is weaponized by an evil Luthor (who finally sheds his good guy guise).
Luthor cures Bru-El of his Kryptonite weakness, embeds a K-cannon in Bru's chest, and mindwipes him making him the perfect killer. Bru becomes a sort of Metallo.
Luthor, after decades of being the Prince of the world, decides that he is sick of being #2. His hubris blazes as he needs to be the #1 intellect on Earth and only Jor-El is in his way. It is time to eliminate the Els, become a hero on Earth, and ascend to the throne. He even let's himself go bald (even though he discovered a cure for baldness) as a physical manifestation of his disdain for Jor-El.
Lara finally realizes that she needs her family together. She arranges for a family reunion (even nudging Jor-El there by slipping in family photos into his cerebral info-feed).
Bru arrives and tries to blast Jor-El with his Kryptonite payload only to have Lara take the shot instead. Bru is easily dispatched by Kal and both Lara and Bru are brought to Jor-Corps for treatment.
Again, this might be an overdone villain plot. Wouldn't using the Gold K and a good old-fashioned pistol be an easier way to pull off your revenge. Pedestrian ... yes, but effective.
But the attack by Bru was just the first part of Luthor's plot. In an echo of the plot of Superman Returns, Luthor activates Jor-El's crystal land growth technology. With tendrils of crystal making their way to Earth's core, the entire planet is in peril. Luthor plans to disable to tech at the last minute, setting himself up as the planet's savior. With Jor-El supposedly eliminated by Bru, there will be no one to stop him. He will finally be #1.
I thought the whole 'land' plot line was a nice little swipe from the Donner and Singer films.
As we expected, Brainiac has also been in cahoots with Luthor since his upgrade to a 13th level intelligence. But that upgrade included part of Luthor's personality. Guess who else has significant pride ... Brainiac!
He didn't particularly care for being called a slave by Luthor. He looks at himself as #2 behind Luthor and he'd like to be #1 himself. So why not let Earth be devastated by Luthor's plot? He disengages Luthor's kill-switch. Suddenly, the threat of the Kryptonian crystal technology is very very real.
Jor and Kal cannot stop the growth underground, so they need to take the fight to Luthor and Brainiac instead.
But instead of facing off against a Luthor and Brainiac team, they only face Brainiac. Showing there is no honor among thieves, Brainiac kills Luthor.
In what I think is the weakest part of the story, some how Kal talks Brainiac into stopping the crystal growth by shutting down and basically committing electronic suicide. Kal tells Brainiac that is Earth is decimated, Brainiac will only be considered a pawn of Luthor. But if he stops the crystals, Brainiac will be lauded as a hero. How will Brainiac want to be remembered? I suppose it plays on his pride a bit, but what arrogant prideful person kills themselves? Wouldn't Brainiac not care and go out into the universe?
I don't know ... this just didn't work.
With the only villains on Earth eliminated, the Els just need to deal with the fallout. It turns out that Luthor's K-beam was a bit more nefarious than we thought. While Lara initially becomes better, on day 5 she is overwhelmed by a second delayed internal K-blast and dies. Luthor set in the second dose in hopes that Jor-El would survive long enough to see Luthor ascend and then die in agony. Nice villainous touch if a bit dramatic. Lara may die but her good works go on as her healing centers thrive.
Valora exposes herself to Gold K willingly, deciding life as a human leader is best for her.
Bru is cured of his Kryptonite infusion and begins the road to recovery. His mindwipe leaves him at a third grade level of intelligence.
And Superman ascends to become Earth's true hero.
As for Jor-El, those events finally show him the errors of his prideful ways. He decides to fade into the periphery and let his son become the hero that the world needs. It all seems a bit pat. Wouldn't the near destruction of Earth make Jor-El's worries surge even more? I think this is a nice ending ... but I would have liked to see more of Jor's decision behind this.
Overall I thought this was a nice mini-series, a nice diversion from the current continuity with some ripples of the Silver Age. Part of my complaint here is that so much of the story just happens without much build up. Most of that comes from the format ... decades needed to be covered in 3 issues. We can't have build up in so compressed of a book. Still, there were some nice parts here and I always like it when Superman's destiny is always to be Earth's hero no matter what happens.
Renato Arlem's art is a scratchy sort of delight. It isn't clean and smooth and that echoes this world where people are striving to be heroes but mired in dysfunction and conflict.