Batman/Superman #19 came out last week, the next chapter in the 'Superman's Joker' storyline. This is another one of those arcs where writer Greg Pak is putting Superman into unfamiliar territory, making him uneasy in his skin, and therefore ramping up the suspense. How would Superman fight against a maniac like the Joker, someone attacking Superman not only physically but also psychologically? While I miss a more classic Superman, Pak's stories have kept me on the edge of my seat. And when I am a rapt reader, I am happy.
I also love the fact that Supergirl is such an important part of this story involving Kandor. This impacts her just as much as Kal. Maybe more given that she actually grew up on Krypton. To exclude her would feel off.
But as great as the story is, what I really appreciate is that Pak uses this story to wrap up a number of lingering plot lines that have irked me for some time. Most of them arise from Doomed, which was an awkward clumsy overlong arc with a number of feints and dropped plot points. Pak somehow is able to clutch a few and weave them into a nice story. Nothing seems forced. And it still keeps up the suspense.
The art here is by regular artist Adrian Syaf. Syaf gets a chance to stretch his legs a bit here with the alien terrain and mix of large panels including a double page spread revealing our villain. I think this is Syaf's strongest issue so far.
And we start out with a very chilling sort of opening.
There is narrator extolling all the virtues of Kandor, the impressive people that lived there, the beauty of the city, the strength of their police. But then we get a recap of Brainiac stealing the city. We see Superman rescuing them from Brainiac (although the narrator paints Superman as going native, caring for Earth more than his people).
And then we see Kandor as it is now, what has happened at the hands of whoever this narrator is.
It is in ruins.
It is a very engaging opening sequence running the gamut from praise and beauty to fear and destruction. In many ways, it tells the tale of a failure by Superman. And when you add this picture of a destroyed city with that feeling that Superman couldn't stop this from happening ... well that is a rare place to be as a Superman fan.
This hooked me.
From the subatomic headquarters of S.H.A.D.E. (I forgot this even existed), the heroes from last issue look upon Kandor, discovered to be in a field in Iceland. They see it in ruins, with evidence of battle throughout. There was a fight here.
Using some Ray Palmer tech, the microscopic heroes will grow and stabilize to Kandor size and will investigate. Supergirl, Superman, and Batman will head in, even though Kal and Kara will quickly lose power in that environment and Batman will struggle with the gravity there.
I like how Lois wants to go. But, as has been the case throughout the New 52, she is left on the sidelines. They don't have enough equipment to let her go.while I would say that makes sense, I am so aching for Lois to be involved I wouldn't have minded if she went.
Now people might remember that early in Doomed, Scott Lobdell showed us that the Kandorians had awoken, banging on the bottle. So what happened? At the very least, Greg Pak is answering that question ... something which has been in the back of my mind.
Once inside, the heroes decide to head to Supergirl's friend Tali's house. They have been hunted on Earth by the Kandorians and are looking for someone they can trust. And Tali is the only person they know in there who they feel they can trust.
But this is not the 'normal' Kandor. Soldiers walk the streets in perfect synchronization, as mind-controlled automatons.
And outside Tali's house, Superman trips an automatic hologram which provides some exposition for the villain. He has come to Kandor, the land of Superman's aunt and maternal grandmother, and taken over.
Now wait a minute. I know Kara is on the El side of the family. But wouldn't she know that her Aunt's mother lived in Kandor? Maybe not.
And then this 'King' fed the citizens a ton of lies. Jor-El set off the explosion of Krypton when people didn't believe him. Kal could have saved them but decided to keep them like pets.
This villain has captured the comatose Kandorians, brainwashing them, reviving them, and setting them up as the ultimate Superman revenge squad.
Superman cast as the villain? Interesting. Cast as a villain in a way that seems plausible if you don't know anything about him? More interesting. Cast as a villain in a way that seems plausible to tiny super-powered brainwashed Kryptonians? Very interesting.
And nice art here by Syaf, making it seem like negative propaganda, a monstrous Kal towering over the city.
While the video plays, Kandorian troops show up to confront the hated Els.
In another showing of how diabolical 'Superman's Joker' is, the troops all explode, rigged to self-destruct. Superman has to witness the death of some of his people ... painful even if they are not in their right minds.
This is a Batman villain move, taunting Superman, bringing in family, all in hopes of unnerving him and making him easier to defeat. This is why Batman is better suited for this mission. He understands what this villain is trying to accomplish.
So the heroes decide to split up.
Superman won't take the bait. He'll send Batman to stop the brainwashing center, saving Superman's aunt and grandmother.
Superman and Kara will head to the platform that lets the Kandorians head to Earth. They can't let these super-assassins get out and murder more innocents. Nice teamwork by the super-cousins! And nice big art by Syaf!
But you know how this is going to play out. The longer the super-cousins are in Kandor, the more of their power they use, the more of their power they will lose. After a display like this, you know they will be vulnerable.
And then the reveal. The villain behind all of this, Superman's Joker, is The Phantom King, Dr Xa-Du!!
Now this makes sense! Thank you Greg Pak.
Xa-Du was the first criminal sent to the Phantom Zone. He has a grudge with the Els. He has an axe to grind with Kal-El.
And he was another one of those hanging plot threads from Doomed. The heroes freed him to try to get his help with sending Doomsday back to the Zone. But then ... poof ... he was gone. As if the writers forgot they wrote him in.
He is a big enough threat, with a big enough psychological hang-up about Superman, to do all this.
One question though ... is that just an image of him? Or literally him, giant before the tiny Kandorians?
Like the Joker though, it is as much a mental attack as a physical. Even though Batman stops the conversions in the tower, three brainwashed people are ready to attack ... Aunt Mara-Van, Grandma Dame Kela-Van, and Kara's pal Tali. This can't be easy for Superman or Supergirl!
What could be more hurtful than needing to fight your own family? Potentially to the death?
Nice cliffhanger, the perfect bookend to the slow build of the opening sequence.
I know that most of my New 52 rants about Superman have been about the lack of a 'classic' Superman, fighting his rogues, working at the Planet, being an inspiration. And I know that Pak's stories seem to veer away from that (although Pak portrays Superman and his ethics perfectly).
But ... they are gripping! They are entertaining. They are compelling.
I have read a lot of Superman stories in my time. When I read a story that feels fresh, that feels like Superman is out of his element, that things aren't easy ... that is a win.
I almost feel like DC should let Pak run Action, writing stories just as he has been. Let Superman be the 'classic' book (as Johns seemed to be doing). And Batman/Superman can be a wild card.
This has been very good arc, well-paced with both big action moments and smaller, powerful character moments too.