Peter Campbell — 07-Jun-11
For such an iconic character, there are few truly memorable comics featuring Superman. There’s a balancing act that few creators manage to pull off successfully, and the result is a comic that’s staid, or twee, or camp, or disastrously modified to fit current trends. In this issue, they’ve opted to create a comic that reads like a throwback from the 1970s.
It begins with Superman being presented with a key to the city (honestly, how many keys does he need? There must be an entire room in the Fortress of Solitude devoted to the damn things). The ceremony’s interrupted by an alarm call from Jimmy Olsen and off he flies, key in hand, to discover a barely-clad supervillain called Livewire in the process of terrorising Las Vegas. The obligatory fight scene ensues, followed by a resolution that relies on ingenuity rather than violence, and the issue’s completed by a speech in which Superman reiterates his belief in The American Way.
As with many writers in recent years, Straczynski and Robinson are obviously attempting to play around with the elements that have defined Superman as a character, and doing it in an affirmative rather than a reactive fashion. It also seems squarely aimed a pre-teen audience, which may be a sound commercial decision on their (or DC’s) part – it’s not adults who hanker after those Superman covers and backpacks, after all.
Aiming at a younger audience has its advantages. Events are explained and depicted very clearly, and there’s seldom any knowledge about back story or the rest of the DC universe required to understand what’s going on. Thought balloons are used to illuminate character’s motives. “She’s like a child throwing a tantrum. A child that can move at the speed of lightning, and is just as deadly. I can keep her from hurting anyone, but how do I stop her?” muses Superman, while rescuing a derailed train.
At the same time, this literalism makes it rather unsatisfying to read. You might argue that a 48 year old man shouldn’t really be reading a Superman comic and expect any real engagement with the material, but there’s no reason why a children’s comic can’t also be appealing to an adult audience, as the likes of Carl Barks and C.C. Beck have shown in the past. The lapses in logic are annoying too. Really, is sheltering behind a car the best protection against bolts of electricity? And that key Superman flies off with – why does it suddenly disappear in one panel, and then miraculously reappear in another?
It’s drawn throughout in a style that recalls (and in best swipe file tradition, sometimes literally is) Neal Adams and Mike Grell. Clarity is its main strength, but quite apart from its derivative feel, it appears to rely heavily on photo references, with Superman gaining a boxer’s bashed-in nose in some panels. There are notable instances of reusing elements of one panel in another (photoshopped, I presume) – which is fine, but not when it becomes so obvious that it starts to become distracting.
The overall result is a curiously old-fashioned experience, like stepping back in time to read a comic from my pre-teen years. It’s an attempt to re-engage with the character’s roots, but you suspect its intended audience is too worldly-wise these days to want a comic that recreates another era. Interesting, but hardly essential.