Superman Annual #1 came out this week, the opening volley of the Scott Lobdell era on the character.
Plotted by Lobdell, scripted by Fabian Nicieza, and drawn mostly by Pascal Alixe, the book reads a bit uneven. There is a lot of Superman in this book, no doubt. But there are also a lot of other characters in here as well, interacting on the periphery of the plot and probably foreshadowing some big crossover in the future. As a result, it felt a bit disjointed, as if DC was using this book to introduce (or reintroduce) me to some characters I haven't been following.
And it is an interesting opening chapter for Lobdell to start his Superman run with. For starters, Superman is basically ineffective this entire book. He is outgunned by the main villain Helspont. In some ways, that's good as it places Helspont in a high tier of someone who can actually be a threat. By being trounced thoroughly and yet continuing to rise up to fight again, I got a sense of how Lobdell characterizes Superman. There are some nice bits sprinkled throughout that make me think Lobdell understands the essence of Superman. But by having Superman be completely powerless against the threat, I felt like Superman did little here, instead having things done to him. There is a fine balance between establishing a worthy villain and making the hero seem worthless. This skirted on the later.
Perhaps the biggest thing that I thought about this being Lobdell's opening chapter is that it felt like a big story that Superman was a part of rather than a Superman story. It almost felt like it should be a one shot with a unique title highlighting the Daemonites.
The book opens with a flashback to Helspont's origins some 3000 years ago. He feels that his mother's intermingling of Daemonite genes with other races has weakened the proud race. He wants to bring back the glory of a pure race, re-establishing the Daemonites as conquerors of the universe. Sounds pretty racist and evil. And the queen responds appropriately, exiling him.
But Helspont, here called Artus, also makes other comments ... about rising infant mortality, worsening autoimmune deficiencies, and cancers. His own wife died in childbirth from some medical weakness. And all this decay is happening while the rich ruling class indulges itself. This sounds like he is trying to save a sinking ship, trying to help the dying 99% while the 1% throws parties.
So maybe the guy with the flaming skull head isn't all bad? It is hard to get away from the 'pure race of conquerors' bit though.
After the flashback, we get to see what Lobdell thinks of Clark. I have to say I liked what I read.
As Clark he likes to take the subway in to be among the people, to be normal. He thinks it makes him feel ..... (shudder) ... grounded. I don't know if I will ever hear that word in regards to Superman again and not think of JMS' wipeout of an arc.
But then we get this panel about Lois. When thinking about the more sensational aspects of the Planet's news these days, Clark misses Lois. She would straighten things out. He misses her, lamenting the fact that he didn't realize what she meant to him.
Now as much as I loved this panel ... I mean loved it ... it flies in the face of the cover of Justice League #12 and all the news about that. I'd prefer this panel to that story every time.
His trek to work is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a massive spaceship hovering over Earth. A super-vision peek reveals Helspont is there. Switching to his costume, Superman flies into space to confront the Daemonite. But before he can reach the ship, he is stopped short by Helspont.
Now this is what a 2 page splash should be. Because Helspont is literally tugging on Superman's cape. (I wonder if that line is lost on younger readers.) Regardless of Jim Croce lyrics, it shows just how powerful Helspont is, just how beneath him he feels Superman is. This is a playground maneuver. I don't need to hear Helspont lord his power over Superman. This image does it for me. That is what comics should be about.
This tug is followed by a backhanded slap to Superman which sends Superman crashing into the moon and knocking him out!
The annual then takes a bit of a sidetrack as Helspont sends out emissaries to some of the alien heroes on Earth, trying to persuade them to join his mission and discussing the legend of 'The Thirteen Scions of Salvation'.
Much like Helspont beating up on Superman, his agents also pack a lot of power as they confront the heroes.
First Martian Manhunter gets beaten up by the female Salu. Now J'Onn recognized her as an agent of Helspont and initiated the fight. But she ends it. And leaves after telling him he either is going to join Helspont or die.
Given the Steranko-like panel effects and the rough art, my guess is these pages were done by Marco Rudy. Perhaps these were initially planned to be in Stormwatch?
Then the ever-voluptuous Starfire is approached by Quom. Naturally, he finds her sunbathing on the beach in a mere slip of a bikini. Where else would you find Starfire?
Anyways, in much the same way, she initiates a fight with Quom and is dispatched easily. He also reminds her about the legend of the thirteen and tells her she needs to join or die. It is interesting that Starfire has heard about this legend, equating it to a fairy tale rather than a prophecy.
And this being the Starfire interlude, the art is much smoother. But I wonder if these were pages ear-marked for an issue of Red Hood.
And then Lord Defile (yeesh ... what a name) shows up to batter Hawkman and also give him the ultimatum of joining Helspont or dying. Again, the art here is different ... maybe Tom Raney? Could these have been pages originally planned for a Hawkman issue?
Between these scenes, Superman is actually saved by Grifter and brought onto his pod. Again the art is different. Could these have been lifted from a Grifter issue?
Remember, this annual was initially solicited as a completely different story written by Keith Giffen. Could DC have decided that rather than running these bits through individual titles building a crossover there, that they simply consolidated them, bulking up a single issue of Superman into a super-sized Annual?
The bottom line is that the 'Thirteen' myth isn't mentioned again, only in these other heroes' interludes. So given the initial bend of Helspont wanting a pure race, having him gathering other races in a way that didn't impact the main story with Superman, felt wrong, as if scenes from one movie were cut into another.
In the meantime, Superman makes his way onto Helspont's ship to confront him.
Helspont states his reason for visiting Earth was to kill some of his sleeper agents that he has on the planet. Helspont even kills some of his crew that is helping keep Superman at bay. It is the action of a madman that Helspont justifies by swearing that his execution of millions will, in the end, save trillions. He also says his agents welcome death if he orders it. Superman isn't so sure they went willingly. And the ends never justify the means.
It turns out that there are a lot of Daemonites living among the people of Earth. Thousands of years ago Helspont put them there to help keep track of the metagene in Terrans' DNA. He thought that gene might rectify the problems in his own races' genome.
Unfortunately, those agents went native and lost sight of the task. And so they needed to be eliminated.
This is an interesting plot point, one I hope gets explored more in the future. Were these being immortal? Long-lived? Did they mate with humans?
The truth is Helspont didn't need these agents on Earth to act as a shepherd humanity's metagene. Superman is doing that already. Look at that last panel. Helspont smugly standing there, hands behind his back, while Superman is small and on his knees. Superman has been unwittingly serving Helspont and is basically powerless before him. Another nice panel meshing words and pictures.
So I credit Lobdell for elevating Helspont as an adversary for Superman. Helspont's whole demeanor throughout this encounter has been one of haughty derision, just effortlessly turning aside Superman's attacks and doing whatever he wanted to do. And to add a wrinkle to all this, Helspont states that not only has he killed Kryptonians before, he knew Jor-El!
And here I thought Helspont was basically just an Atomic Skull/Mongul mash-up. He seems deeper and more interesting than that.
And so we get this final panel showing a defeated Superman, clueless about what he should do next.
Had this been a stand-alone Superman issue ... if the Martian Manhunter, Starfire, Grifter, and Hawkman pages not been in here ... I probably would give it a B+ for the opening scenes of Clark and for defining Helspont so formidably.
Unfortunately, those pages are in here and seem out of place. I can't help but think that when Giffen's Annual was shelved that DC cobbled this thing together from a planned Superman issue and some pages from those characters titles. And while those pages involve Helspont, they don't mesh with the story involving Superman.
As a result, the book felt just disjointed enough, the art just varied enough to drop a bit.
Pascal Alixe's art is pretty good as he channels Gary Frank and does a decent job. As said above, panel composition was solid throughout.
And, at least in this issue for one panel, Clark mooned a bit over Lois. So at least I got that going for me.