Friday, February 9, 2018

Review: Superman #40

Superman #40 came out this week, starting a new storyline by writer James Robinson and artist Doug Mahnke. We all have heard the news of Brian Michael Bendis going all-Byrne on us when he joins DC, taking over all the Superman books. Knowing a bold, new direction is just around the corner, I'm not surprised to see a side story in the book. Why would Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason continue to world build if they aren't holding the reins anymore?

And Robinson's story feels quite familiar. There is a Silver Age sentiment to the idea of Superman saving a planet about to suffer the same fate as Krypton. Back in those days, this would be told in 18 pages or so. Now it is an arc. And, as we are now in 2018, I anticipate that it won't be as black and white or cut and dried as those simpler stories. Here there is a clear science vs religion component. And my guess is that the 'protagonist' isn't going to be pure. These are cynical times.

I've talked up Doug Mahnke for years here and have loved his work since first discovering it on Major Bummer. But what I love in this issue is his treatment of Jon. Jon looks like a kid. He's all gangly with limbs all awkward and everywhere. Jon has great kid expressions, from fear to snark. I wouldn't mind seeing Mahnke on a Super Sons issue at some point.

On to the book!

'The Last Days' opens with Superman and Superboy hanging out at the Fortress. Given the heavy Kryptonian history this story leans on, I'm not surprised to see the splash page focused so heavily on the Jor-El and Lara ice statue.

Kal is hoping for a bit of a heart-to-heart with Jon and can't seem to find him in the expanse of the fortress.

Jon comes skipping into the scene, beaming about exploring the Fortress, and stating that this place is way cooler than the Batcave. I do like that there is a little 'my dad is cooler than your dad' vibe that comes out of the Sons now and then. But it is this opening scene that really showcases how Mahnke portrays Jon. Superboy literally jumps into the scene.

Superman reminds Jon that this is a special day. After a couple of bogus responses ('pie and ice cream' day, 'Detective Chimp' day), Jon realizes that Superman is serious. I was hoping ... nay praying ... that it would be the Kryptonian Day of Truth. But it turns out that it is the anniversary of Krypton's destruction, a day Superman honors.

These three panels are a wonderful mini-story.

That first panel shows that Jon's mind is reeling. Superman is expecting a legitimate answer, he doesn't have one, and he is worried about letting his dad down.

Then the light bulb goes off and he must remember the occasion. So we get this look of cool confidence as he says the answer. Those sleepy eyes just sell it.

But I like that Jon is proud and interested in his Kryptonian heritage. If it is to stay alive, it has to be learned and remembered.

Superman has set up a simulation of the planet exploding. Kal has Jon watch it. In a weird turn, Superman casually says to his son 'that's how 3 billion people died'. What a weird sort of statement. In my head, he says it matter-of-factly, almost in a drone. And I don't necessarily know why you would make a kid watch that.

As I said, Jon wants to learn. He doesn't want this to be forgotten. Finally, we get a Supergirl mention in this book. But she is mentioned after Krypto. And it would have been nice if Kara was here with them, or at least having her absence explained in a way.

 In a case of comic book cosmic karma, after the two honor Krypton, an alarm goes off in the fortress. Another planet, Galymayne, is about to explode like Krypton. And Superman has vowed he wouldn't let another planet suffer the same fate. After a little back and forth, Jon convinces his dad to take him along. It is a father/son mission.

I like how Jon says it is fate that they do it together, especially given the occasion.

I don't know if I like the two of them hiding this from Lois. But I get it.

And the art is great as Jon takes in the wonders of space for the first time.

 And there is a fun bit as Superman explains how his arrival on other worlds usually plays out. People come flocking out. The local protectors surround him. They take him to the leaders of the world. And usually it all goes well. This is sort of standard operating procedure for Supes. I loved that bit.

But this time there is a wrinkle. The planet is a devout world, fiercely faithful in Dhermet. And if the planet is to explode, it is Dhermet's will. The people will allow it to happen. It is their way.

We are deep into Prime Directive stuff here. Can Superman intercede if a world doesn't want him to? Should he? And I don't know if Superman calling this 'insane' is respectful to these people's beliefs. That said, hard to walk away from 3 billions deaths you can stop.

And how deep will Robinson go to make this an allegory for our times? In a world where people believe the world is flat; in a time where scientists debate climate change and air pressure in football, in a time where religious belief is often ridiculed, these people could quickly become caricatures. And I hope that won't happen.

 But there is power in belief. These people are of a sort of hive mind in their faith to Dhermet. And when they all start concentrating on removing Superman's powers so he can't save them, that belief comes to pass. Suddenly Superman and Superboy are weakened.

The congregation wants to depower the supers so they can't save the world. They even threaten execution for heresy. So we are seeing these people are zealous in their beliefs.

Still, should Superman usurp their control?

Hmmmm, prime directive indeed.

But this is supposed to be a riff on the Krypton storyline. And so we need a Jor-El.

Superman and Superboy escape and are rescued by Klain, a scientist who is reviled. He also is trying to save the planet. He grabs Kal and Jon and whisks them off in his ship to a lab.

Does Klain have a rocket? Is he trying to calm the planet's core? Does he have a young son?

There is a bit to unpack here. Klain really talks down about the rest of the population, calling the believers of Dhermet brainless and myopic. So he is just a zealous in his reliance on science. And I am going to go out on a limb and predict that somehow Klain is responsible for the planetary instability. We'll see.

So will this descend into some quagmire of preachiness? Or will this rise up and be a science fiction parable told well? In the current comic market, both are equally possible. But I have some faith in Robinson and Mahnke. So fingers crossed.

And while I'm glad Supergirl is mentioned, I would have loved to see her a bit more. Given that she was old enough to feel the pain of Krypton's destruction, she probably would have been very interested in saving Galymayne.

Overall grade: B/B+


Martin Gray said...

Nice review, there was lots to like here. Kara's presence would have made sense, and been enjoyable, but I hope no one sees it as a huge deal. If Kara appeared every time it was logical, this would be a team-up book. How about we tell the creatives on Twitter how much we'd like more Super-Family interaction. Who knows, Brian Bendis may be up for it.

Anonymous said...

It was refreshing to see Jon mention cousin Kara. Small things like that can help reders to dream that there is a good relationship between the Kryptonians that Rebirth hasn't really been able to convey much in the comics.

I still hold dreams that Jon and Kara will go adventuring together. It might be Rebirths biggest waste in untold stories that we never got to see Jon grow up in the presence of cool cousin Kara and see a sort of sibling interaction between them. I'm guessing there will be decades until we see a new superchild again.

This would have been a perfect issue for a Superfamily adventure, but I'll take the mention happily.

I have one issue with this arc and it's a huge one. This exact story was literally just told in the Green Lanterns. Save doomed planet inhabitants only to be thwarted by a fatalistic religion. As soon as I realized, I lost all interest in the arc. I wish the editors prevented this from happening. There are enough stories to tell without repeating stories within a month. I felt the same way when they did the evil Jor-El arc directly after the evil Zor-El arc, and they couldn't even make an interesting crossover out of it.

I am starting to wonder if editors only do proofreading nowadays. I expect editors to prevent retelling same stories immediately after, I expect editors to know the basic Super-lore such that there being more than one pod leaving Krypton and I expect editors to build a semblance of a shared world. I am beginning to think that I expect too much.

The Phantom Zone behaves differently depending on title, there is not a trace of the Cataclysmic metal event in National City. And now it looks like when the arguably smartest entity in the universe puts together the next Justice League constellations to meet a world ending threat he would prioritize a psychotic human Arkham patient with cleavage and a painted mallet over one of the arguably most powerful, good hearted, self-sacrificing heroes in the universe.

I would also expect editors to prevent writers from repeating the mistakes of the past. Why are we seeing the new age of DC heroes being as bad of a sausage party as the old age? Why are the upcoming Justice League constellations as bad of a sausage party as they were decades ago.

DC is leaving their rockstar writers too unchecked. There is reason imo for a stronger editorial process at DC with better/more powerful editors that can lead DC into the future.

Anonymous said...

Finally, a Kara mention! ... Even if it was after Krypto.

And still, a "science vs religion" story? Eww. Such a kind of theme demands a nunanced approach which super-hero comic-books are rarely capable to achieve.

Anonymous said...

Anyone else curious about the last Kryptonian that Jon was interruppted while mentioning. At the point in time this tales place, is Jor-El sitting in a rocking chair out on the Kent farm? Did Zor-El survive and go good, is Zod and Co suitable to keep the culture of Krypton alive? Does he consider Kel-Ex to be a kryptonian, is Streaky in continuity with a Kryptonian heritage?

My guess is Kel-Ex but I would be curious what the writer intended.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Green Lanterns. In the last issue I just read there is a panel with Supergirl and Powergirl together. Maybe Jon was going to mention Karen next. What is Powergirls origin in Rebirth anyway? Since old supes is now in continuity, could Powergirl and Supergirls adventure in Kandor still be in continuity? This brave new world melts my mind.

Professor Feetlebaum said...

The idea of Superman and son remembering Krypton's destruction was reminiscent of the story in Superman #150 (January 1962) "The One Minute of Doom!" Superman, Supergirl and Krypto come together in the Fortress to observe a minute of silence for their lost world. In cutaway scenes, the citizens of Kandor and even the Phantom Zone prisoners take part. The story was written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Al Plastino.

Nutation said...

Anonymous said...

Anyone else curious about the last Kryptonian that Jon was interrupted while mentioning.

I expect that Jon's comment was deliberately cut off so that the reader wouldn't think he gave a complete list of survivors. The reader can mentally fill in any of the names you mentioned. It leaves the situation fluid for future stories.