Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: Superman #39

Superman #39 came out this last week, the final issue for the mega-team of writer Geoff Johns and artist John Romita Jr.

With the Ulysses storyline in the rear view mirror, Johns decides to slow things down and give us a character-driven issue. Living without his powers (because of his super-flare energy depletion), we get a day in the life of vulnerable Superman. And with Jimmy in on Clark's secret identity, we get to see how Superman's Pal reacts to not only the secret but also to who Superman is, what he represents.

One thing I feel is that Superman has been diminished a little over the last few years. The initial New 52 Superman had feet of clay, wasn't inspirational, and as a result I struggled with caring. In recent times, with Pak on Action and Johns on here, we are reapproaching the sort of Superman I need to read. And this issue brought me back to a simpler time where Superman was bigger than life, the person we should aspire to be like, a hero.

I am also one of those people who feels that Superman is the mask and Clark is the real person. I think that Superman would emphasize the 'man' part of his name. And it is Clark's upbringing, the lessons Ma and Pa gave him, that shaped who he is. We have seen Superman without powers before and we have seen him fight for truth and justice without powers before as well. But this issue, in the context of the New 52, felt fresh.

Romita and inker Klaus Janson's art is blocky and relatively ugly. But at least there is some meat on the bones here. There aren't many of those needless splash pages that have eaten up story space in this issue. And the one oversized paneled two page spread has an artistic resonance.

I don't know if Johns was planning for his run to be short because he is leaving a pretty big subplot open.

Remember that cloaked man who was observing Superman fight Ulysses and talkd about 'teaching' Superman? I thought it was going to be some version of the Eradicator. Or maybe a robot Pa Kent. Or something else.

Well, at least we now have a name. Mr. Oz. And in what looks like mind control, he has someone mail a package to Clark at the Daily Planet. The person has a tattoo that could be a Z superimposed on an O. (At first I thought it was Adrian Veidt's Nostalgia Perfume bottle.

I have a mega-theory about this guy ... but I'll save it for the end.

Last issue ended with Clark revealing he was Superman to Jimmy.

Here we get to see Jimmy's response, from shock to wide-eyed to more shock to more wide-eyed. Even the progression from darker to lighter color in the background works nicely. This is a great moment for Jimmy and it is getting brighter the more he thinks about it.

I thought it would be Perry that Clark would reveal this too. I would prefer it was Lois.

But I don't mind Jimmy. There is some youthful energy here.

And then Jimmy wonders why he didn't notice it before. Why didn't he see that Clark was Superman?

Is it the glasses?

I had to include this moment because it reminded me of one of the wildest books of my youth, Superman #330. In that issue we learn that Superman is constantly using low-level super-hypnosis when he is wearing Clark's glasses, skewing their perception of Clark to something a little less Super.

And so begins a day in the Private Life of Clark Kent. It is a day where he is vulnerable.

He shares with Jimmy what it is like to have powers. He tastes differently. He hears differently.

But even without his powers, Clark is willing to sacrifice himself, hurt himself if necessary, to help others.

That includes diving to the ground to catch a kid falling out of a tree. Nice.

At least in his time on the book, Johns puts Clark back at the Planet.

I would love to see some sort of office fallout from this. Remember, Clark gave a 'holier than thou' speech in the Planet as he stormed off to ClarkCatropolis. Wouldn't there be some ill will? Or schadenfreude that he is back?

I did like the return of some journalistic rivalry between Lois and Clark. This felt retro and classic and welcomed.

We then get a great scene in which Superman, even without his powers, confronts a crook who is holding a gun to a hostage's head. A bullet could kill Clark at this moment. But he won't stand down. We have to help. Not only help the man being held. But help the crook, help him see how pulling the trigger would make things much much worse.

Without blinking, without pausing, Superman makes his way through the police and asks the man to put down the gun. The man will pay for his crimes. But pulling the trigger would be crossing a horrible line.

And that frank talk, that inspirational presence gets through to the man.

He hands the gun to Superman.

The crisis is over. Without a punch. Without powers.

Afterwards, Jimmy questions why Superman would risk his life there.

Superman says that he doesn't jump in front of guns because he has powers and won't get hurt. He does it because it is what is right.

"What choice did I have?"


Maybe Zach Snyder should read this.

Having been exposed to the sun for the day, Superman's powers finally return.

As I said before, Romita reins it in this issue with several 9 panel pages and standard page layouts.

But the end has Superman and Jimmy sharing a snack on the Planet roof, a 2 panel, 2 page splash. While printed horizontally, they are oriented to be held vertically (see the fold in the scan).

While the majority of these pages is a building, I thought this use of space worked well. This whole story is how Superman was human for a day. Here he says that he didn't feel that different. He was the same person with or without patient. It shows his humanity.

And here, we see Superman as a small element of the page. This isn't a huge heroic iconic pose, bigger than life. This helps bring across the point of his humanity. That in many ways Superman is a guy with big ideals and ethics, who has powers that help him.

In the end, Mr. Oz package arrives, a blank notebook with an S-shield cover. The future is yet to be written.

Okay,  I think Mr. Oz is ....Geoff Johns.

Oz is someone manipulating things behind the scenes, behind the curtains (like the Wizard of Oz). Here, Mr. Oz seems to be viewing Superman from somewhere else, like a movie. Oz claimed to teach Superman important lessons like not 'punching down'.And, of course, the blank notebook meaning Oz isn't writing anything moving forward.

Johns, as a real person who wrote Superman, would be seeing things from a distance, pulling the strings by writing the stories. He did teach Superman lessons as his writer. As the writer, he has 'mind control' over characters like the person on the first page. And he is off the book. His pages are empty moving forward. Maybe Oz is somehow Johns responding the Superman stories that came before him, trying to reteach him those lessons. Heck, the first thing I thought of when I saw the Oz tattoo was Veidt's Nostalgia. Maybe Johns is nostalgic for the sort of Superman he wrote.

I'll say it again. Mr. Oz is Geoff Johns.
Or is that more a Grant Morrison thing?

Anyways, stories like this are few and far between these days, a rest issue showcasing the character of Superman. While old timers like me remember this selfless Superman who emphasized the Clark within him, we haven't seen this too much recently. Of course, I loved it.

This issue was the highlight of Johns' brief run for me.

Overall grade: A


Martin Gray said...

Spot-on, this is a terrific issue, with us disagreeing only on the reLatvia ugliness of the Romita art - it's only his Superman I have a problem with, I find his Clark generally fine, and sometimes good.

I doubt there'll be fallout from Clark's leaving the Planet - I think DC has realised it was a mistake and just want to move on. While I disliked the idea of Clark as a blogger, I did enjoy seeing more of Cat. I hope she shows up soon.

Your Mr Oz theory could work, but I doubt that was Johns' original intention - I'd like to think he was building to something, not just playing metafictive games. I could see him coming back to the storyline in a special, or annual.

Jay said...

Yeah, this was definitely the best issue of the run. Loved everything with the exception of the package reveal. I found that to be extremely underwhelming. But as a stand-alone issue, really good stuff. I have some disagreements with Johns in how Superman should be portrayed in regards to Super vs. Man and the like, but I'm right with him in everything I saw here.

Anj said...

This was a great issue to end on.

It was sort of a classic take. Much needed.