It is the beginning of Villains' Month over at DC Comics, an event where the bad guys are taking over the comics and we get to hear their back stories, origins, and adventures. It is an interesting concept complete with the silly adornment of lenticular 3-D covers. But there are some reasons why I enter into this promotion with some trepidation.
For one, the DCU is already completely dark. What we need is a Heroes' Month, not a deeper look at the bad side of the universe.Second, the titles that might need a boost in sales that could come with something like this were left off the printers. You won't find Supergirl or Worlds' Finest or Vibe or Katana this month. And third, the lenticular covers are somewhat hit or miss.
Let's take a closer look at the first Villains' Month book I purchased, Action Comics #23.1, Cyborg Superman. And I will ask you to settle in because this is a long post with a long preamble before the review.
This book takes a close look at the new Cyborg Superman, the villain that Supergirl is fighting in her book. It turns out that the Cyborg is the corrupted form of Supergirl's father Zor-El. It is written by the current writer of Supergirl. Shouldn't this be Supergirl #23.1? And while the 3-D effects of the Cyborg work well on the cover, Superman in the background is always blurry. And why is Superman even on the cover?
But outside of those publicity concerns, I will be up front in saying that I didn't like this issue. And most of that revolves around the idea that, once again, DC has decided that Zor-El is a villain. It was bad enough when Jeph Loeb and Joe Kelly had him be insane, having his naked teenage daughter prance around him, while vowing to kill Kal-El. Luckily, Geoff Johns and Sterling Gates were able to retcon that version.
With the New 52, Mike Johnson and Michael Green made him less of the perfect father and more of a tortured soul. Much like Jor-El, he loved his family and wanted to save his child from the destruction of Krypton. Unlike Jor-El, his means don't justify the ends. He didn't tell Alura of the upcoming disaster. He experiments on Kara. He tricks his daughter into the rocket. He did all of this to save his family from the dread of their impending doom and to increase Kara's chances of living. He didn't seem evil. He seemed desperate, willing to do anything to save his family in the least psychologically scarring way. I didn't like this Zor-El. But I didn't hate him either. If anything I pitied him for not thinking he could include his family in his plans. Things don't turn out well ... but he tried.
Now writer Michael Alan Nelson has wiped away any good will I have for the character. In this issue, we see a different Zor-El - angry, jealous, petulant, immature. The pity I felt for him, the desperation I felt in him, are now replaced by repulsion for this man who hurt family because he couldn't move past an obsession with his brother.
And the question is why. Why did DC think this would be a good story? Why does Supergirl's world need to be even more tarnished than it was? Why does Zor-El have to be something other than a loving father? Why does he need to be a villain.
Moreover, the story itself might reveal the origins here. But the events make little sense, don't flow well, and doesn't make me understand the Cyborg's motivations any better.
Michael Hawthorne provides decent art here. He tells the story adequately but without anything stunning.
We start out 9 months after the destruction of Krypton. Argo City is in shambles, circling a blue sun ... all events we learned earlier in the Supergirl book.
Brainiac arrives, called to the city by a distress beacon. 7.24 million people are dead, making Argo about the size of Dallas. A few remain alive, including Zor-El.
Brainiac immediately recognizes Zor-El as the 'lesser brother of Jor-El', Krypton's greatest mind. I wonder just how Brainiac knows the El family so well. Is this because of Jor-El's failure at Kandor? Repelling the Multitude as we know he did from Morrison.
But I found it odd that Brainiac would not only know Zor-El but also would qualify him as the 'lesser'. It felt a bit forced, as if Nelson needed to beat us over the head with this plot point of Zor-El's anger at constantly being compared to his brother.
We then flashback to before Krypton's destruction. Jor-El thinks rockets are the best way to escape doom. He shows Zor-El Kal's destination of Earth.
Zor-El thinks Brainiac tech, while unstable, is the right answer even though Jor thinks it won't hold up.
From the start, Nelson shows us that this Zor-El isn't a nice guy. He calls Earth 'a cesspool of subliterate barbarians', a world of bloodthirsty peasants. Clearly Zor is someone who isn't exactly open to different people or cultures.
And look at the sheer anger on his face when Jor-El questions his Brainiac idea. This isn't a two-way rivalry. Jor-El is trying to help and Zor-El jumps down this throat for questioning his theories. Still, Jor-El leaves him the plans for the rocket.
Zor-El simply isn't likeable.
Brainiac decides to change Zor-El, mutilating his body, stripping his mind of its memories, and changing the remaining flesh to look like Jor-El. He crafts the 'ultimate Kryptonian', a mix of machine and man, formed in image of Jor-El.
Now why would Brainiac do this? I don't know if I understand why he would form this being, let alone think about it enough to make him look like Jor-El. Again, this seems forced by Nelson. How awful will it be for Zor-El, who hates his brother, have to wear Jor-El's face? Yeah ... I get it ... you are piling hate upon hate.
But then ...and again I don't know why he would do this ... Brainiac sends the Cyborg Superman out into the universe to find others looking for perfection.
Once again we flash back to Krypton.
Zor-El just can't get the Brainiac tech to work in any stable way. With the date of destruction looming, Zor-El becomes more secretive, more sullen, snapping at Alura and demanding that Kara stays close to home.
Realizing the Argo dome might not come to fruition, Zor-El has to swallow his pride and use Jor-El's plans to build Kara's rocket.
I'm not expecting Zor-El to be father of the year. But this seems needless. We already had a morally dubious Zor-El from the earlier run. He didn't need to be detestable.
Now the 'search for perfection' leads the Cyborg to the planet Kampara. Over the rest of the issue, he asks the people there to make difficult moral decisions, asking them to forget their morals and emotions, and choose to be perfect.
So he asks this Kampari if he wanted to live enough to condemn his friends. He asks another Kampari to show how much he wanted to live by killing his brother. There is a lot of death and destruction.
I suppose the point here is that Zor-El is asking these citizens to make amoral decisions he made when a person. Maybe a glimmer of his own issues are bubbling to the surface.
But I think I might be stretching things, trying to find some depth to this story.
There was one scene that I thought stood out positively.
Kara finds her father working on the Brainiac pods and asks him to mend the rift with her uncle. She worries about him using Brainiac machines. She cares for him and wants to help.
And for once, that hatred and anger that we see in Zor is gone. He is smiling.
It is clear from this scene he very much loves Kara. And it is clear she is devoted to him as well.
Too bad this is so fleeting a moment. Because this is a likeable Zor-El.
We all know what happens. Kara gets rocketed away. The Brainiac tech holds for a short period of time.
How awful then that Zor-El gets no peace.
But once more, Nelson hammers home the sibling rivalry, now having Alura wish Zor was more like Jor. Now this seemed not only unnecessary ... but unwarranted. Believe it or not, Zor might be better than Jor here. Jor-El is dead! Zor-El and Alura are alive! Maybe they can retrieve Kara eventually.
Yes, it doesn't change the secrets and lies. But I don't think Alure would be so cruel. Or so tangential. Why say Jor-El is better?
The slaughter of the Kampari continues and we see the death throes of Argo up close, Zor-El holding his dying wife in his arms.
Is the Cyborg's statements about losing emotional attachments and becoming cold and analytical the Zor-El in him trying to distance himself from pain? That might work if he wasn't such a casual killer in this issue, massacring the Kampari in twisted ways.
So this whole issue shows me just how immature Zor-El is - envious of his brother, quick to anger, moody and overly emotional. I cannot sympathize with him or his current condition. I don't see why Zor-El needed to be this way. I don't see how it adds anything to his character. And I don't see why him becoming the Cyborg is a good one.
Moreover, we didn't get to see how he lands on I'Noxia. We don't see why he is obsessed with finding his memories. And I still don't see a clear way that I can tie in the back story of Zor-El to the motivations of the Cyborg.
Perhaps I am too tied into history. Perhaps the failed attempt at making Zor-El into villain from a few years ago is still fresh in my mind. Perhaps I am not understanding Brainiac's motivations to do all he did here. And maybe I am missing the key piece to how the flashbacks somehow feed into the events on Kampari, making it enrich the Cyborg's motivations.
But this issue didn't work for me. In fact, it saddened me a little.