Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: "Superman" (vol. 3) #32

Let's get a few things out of the way to begin with. First, I'm coming into this issue cold; I've intentionally avoided reading any reviews of it longer than 140 characters, and I'm fairly far behind on the other Superman titles (the only DC book I'm caught up on is Batman, I think). I'm also coming into this issue without too much bias. I quite like John Romita Jr.'s art, but the last series he helped relaunch thirty issues into a major reboot didn't exactly go very well. I've been pretty sour on Geoff Johns since a bit before the New 52 began, despite really liking his earlier work on JSA, Flash, and Green Lantern. His Superman comics have been generally well-regarded, though I never cared for how he discarded character development to tell more nostalgic stories. I did, however, re-read "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes" recently, and quite enjoyed it aside from that linked Perry White line and Johns's signature move of having someone lose an arm. At least it didn't feel gratuitous there.

So, "Superman" #32. To begin with, the cover is gorgeous. It's dynamic, and recalls other classic images by folks like José Luis García-López. The background color scheme is similarly evocative, specifically of Neal Adams' classic "Kryptonite Nevermore!" cover. Also, it's just kind of nice to see Superman running. It's not something he's shown doing very often.

Let's start with the good: This issue sets up a pretty intriguing story. Ulysses has a cool design, and the mirroring themes of loneliness and loss are played out well. Not surprisingly, the book looks great. A great deal of that is due to Romita and Janson managing to make even the talking-heads pages visually interesting, but Laura Martin's colors really knock this book out of the park. Romita's style can sometimes come off as a little flat, but Martin's subtle variations in shading and lighting make everything pop.

In terms of plot structure, a lot of it feels very old-school. The flashback-to-title sequence bit at the beginning is an artifact of more modern, cinematic comic storytelling, but the way this issue lays down subplot threads hearkens back to the serialized stories of the '80s and '90s. I'm currently working my way through Simonson's "Thor" run, which follows that same style: a few pages of the main story, broken up occasionally (and sometimes suddenly) by checking in on the b- and c-plots. Here, those checking-in moments are more panels than pages, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially in this age of shortened page counts. Much as I love Simonson's "Thor," it's still obviously a product of a pre-TPB age, and sometimes the recaps do get a little tedious when you're reading the run straight through.

Speaking of shortened page counts, one of the things I found infuriating about Johns's Green Lantern comics toward the end of his run was his over-reliance on splash pages in a way that felt like he was padding out a too-short script. We get two double-page spreads and a splash page in this issue, but they're all major action or emotional climaxes. Each one feels earned, which is helped by the way that the non-splash panels change in size, growing larger on average as we approach each crescendo in the story. It's a great example of how aspects of the art that we don't normally think about can impact the feel of the story in major ways.

And hey, J. Wilbur Wolfingham makes an appearance! Who could have predicted that?

In terms of criticism, it's what you might expect from Johns: there's no subtlety to be found here. The parents at the beginning, sending their child into another dimension to survive, could only be more obviously allegorical if their names were Jordan and Laura. This motif would probably work a little better if I hadn't just re-read "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes," which opened with the exact same bit.

Repetition is working against Johns on a larger level here as well. Mark Waid expressed his relief on Twitter that this wasn't the same story as in "Superman Unchained," where the Man of Steel has been battling with another Superman analogue. Meanwhile, "Batman/Superman" began with a plot where the World's Finest team met their Earth-2 counterparts; we just wrapped "Forever Evil," which featured an evil alternate-universe version of Superman taking over; "Future's End" has an alternate "masked" Superman; we're barreling toward a crossover that's supposed to have Earths at war (inevitably suggesting additional Supermen); and Grant Morrison introduced no fewer than three Superman analogues in his "Action Comics" run, with the Earth-23 Superman, the Superdoom "killer franchise," and Captain Comet. That's a lot of Superman analogues for a universe that's not even three years old yet.

It's nice to see a softer Perry White here, even if he's basically an exposition delivery machine. His discussion with Clark is sledgehammer-blunt telling-not-showing, and while it's nice that it allows us to name-drop some supporting cast members (that line about Jackee Winters is so obviously out of place, oy) it probably could have been cut in half and replaced with a little more of the scenes we get on the next couple of pages, where we actually see Clark's loneliness. It's "show, don't tell," Geoff, not "tell, then show." With a bit more attention to showing, and a little tighter editing, we could have been actually introduced to Jackee and Lois, instead of having that single panel at the bar.

Altogether, it's a positive start. I'm really looking forward to the next issue, especially seeing some development on these subplots. I hope there's some follow-through on the promise of a robust supporting cast; that's an aspect of Superman comics that's too often overlooked to the detriment of the story and the characters. I'd like to see Geoff Johns letting his top-notch artists handle a bit more of the storytelling, especially outside the big action set pieces, but it's just nice to read a Johns comic where no heroes act like jerks and no one has any limbs severed. Definitely the strongest writing I've seen from Johns since the start of the New 52, and Romita knocked this first DC work out of the park. With Pak and Kuder over on "Action," this is arguably the best that the Superman line has been since the last time Johns was writing Superman regularly.

No comments: