So last week was a great week for funnybooks. We got a tidy stack of on-going nerd farm favorites, all of which had great hooks for review. But unfortunately, as it turns out, we’ve only got time to talk about one book. And it’s a newcomer, at that…
Man of Steel #1
by Brian Michael Bendis and Ivan Reis
Superman is a difficult character to get right, in the modern era. You’d think he wouldn’t be. He’s the most recognizable super hero character in the world. He’s got an entertaining set of super powers that, given a writer with even a modicum of imagination, could be the entire basis of stories all by themselves. His rogue’s gallery could use some work, but there are some gems in the mix there, and a few rough stones that just need the proper polish. But mostly… He’s SUPERMAN, for god’s sake. The most classic good guy there is. A good Superman story should be a freaking slam-dunk.
But it isn’t. Super heroes have gotten… COMPLICATED …these last 30 years. The anti-hero reigned supreme for a while, of course, but it’s more than that. Audiences have become more sophisticated. We want our good vs evil fantasies to have a little more meat to them. And though we still crave the thrill of seeing good triumph, we don’t necessarily want that victory to be an entirely clean one. And Superman, bless him, has come to be seen as the epitome of clean. He’s the shining knight, in a world that wants their heroes to have a little tarnish.
So modern Superman writers are kind of stuck. If you DON’T write him as the ultimate good guy, you’re accused of betraying the character. And if you DO write him as the ultimate good guy, everybody shrugs and goes off to read something else.
All of which brings us to Brian Bendis, and Man of Steel.
Bendis, I think, is getting it right. And that surprises me as much as anybody.
I really wasn’t sure how he’d approach the book. Too much of Bendis’ work in the last decade has been kind of jokey and half-assed. Far too glib for its own good, his writing tics turning into ruts that then turned into clichés. I’m just speculating here, but… I think too much of his work got swallowed up by the Event Machine. Early on, even Bendis’ work-for-hire writing tended to have a very personal touch. But when that got chewed up in the corporate group-writing system of the Marvel Summits, turned into line-wide crossovers that were having to serve not just Bendis’ stories, but everybody else’s as well… A lot of the passion went out of his work. His plotting started to feel cynical. Nothing mattered, and his characters acted like they knew it. First the work-for-hire stuff suffered, then everything else did, too. When even Powers became unreadable, I gave up. I’d check in on Bendis projects when I thought they might bring back some of the old spark, but none of them did. Even the Jessica Jones relaunch, much as I wanted to love it, wound up vague and unsatisfying.
So you can understand, I hope, why I was brace for disappointment here. I wanted it to be good. I thought he’d handle the Daily Planet newsroom really well, and he proved he could do that with a short introductory story in that 25-cent comic they released last month. But now, we’re on to the real thing. The first issue of his actual Superman run, and…
I think he nailed it.
Here’s my favorite scene from this issue:
That’s nice work, and it serves two very important purposes: one, it returns a bit of wonder to Superman’s powers. Sure, that “deep meditative” approach to super-hearing is taken from Daredevil (a character Bendis has some experience writing), but it’s important to remind people why Superman is so cool in the first place, and that attention to detail on what it would be like to have these powers goes a long way towards doing that. But even more important, the scene lets us identify with the character. That “song I know, but can’t place” thing is something everybody’s experienced at some point, and just that little point of similarity is enough to get us past the “shining knight” image and into the head of Superman as a human being. And… I can’t stress this enough… that is KEY to making Superman work for a 21st Century audience.
Which is why I think Bendis’ choice of first-person narration is such a good idea, as well. One common complaint about Superman is that he’s not relatable. That he’s so powerful, audiences have trouble really understanding or caring about him. Letting him tell his own story, and filling it with things that render him human, is a nice way around that problem. It lets us in, lets us see beyond the icon. Because even icons need definition. And that may be what it takes to get past that boy scout image.
Not that Bendis is abandoning the boy scout.
That’s the one Superman moment that gave me pause in this issue. Because that scene is pure schmaltz. Don’t get me wrong, now. I like that Bendis chose to introduce us to his Superman by having him rescue a little girl from a burning building. Rescuing people is as key to his make-up as beating up muggers is to Batman’s. I also like that she cussed when she saw him. It takes some of the cutesy curse off the scene. And there’s ample curse to be taken off here. I mean, she’s holding onto a couple of adorable puppies, for god’s sake!
You need SOMEthing to leaven the saccharine sweetness of that, and a kid yelling “Holy shit!” is a nice way of doing it. But having Supes reprimand her for it is just… It plays to the “too square to live” image you’ve got to live down a bit on this book. I mean, sure… This Superman’s spent the last decade raising a kid, so language patrol may just be a knee-jerk thing to him by now. But, still… That is NOT how you shed that “Super-Dad” image.
(Maybe he could have just smiled, and said, “I get that a lot.” That would have been funny, right?)
This is a small thing, though. A nitpick. Especially in the face of everything Bendis got so very right here. Because there’s another great scene following the fire. Superman gets the feeling that something wasn’t right about it, and goes in to inspect the building with his X-Ray Vision. The visual for that is pretty neat…
…but what happens after is even better.
That, as she said, is Melody Moore, the new Deputy Fire Chief of Metropolis. She shares Superman’s concerns about the fire, and there’s some obvious chemistry between them. They hit it off. Sparks, as they say, fly. It’s a short scene, but it feels significant. The fire thing is a nice subplot, one that draws on Superman’s rescue habit for what I assume will become a larger story down the line. Also, though, there’s our new Fire Chief’s initials to consider: MM. That’s just one step removed from LL, the initials that have haunted Superman’s entire life. For those of you not familiar with Silver Age Superman lore, he seems fated to be entwined with people who have those initials: Lana Lang (his childhood sweetheart), Lex Luthor (his arch-enemy), Lori Lemaris (his, I shit you not, mermaid girlfriend), and… Gee, it seems like there was another big LL in there, but I can’t remember… Oh, yeah! Lois Lane!
Lois Lane, who’s been conspicuous by her absence in Bendis’ first Superman stories. She’s left the Daily Planet, we know, and Clark’s given so many longing looks to the photo of her and their son on his desk…
…that it’s obvious something bad has happened. We get a hint of what that might have been this issue…
…but I don’t wanna speculate on what that might be just yet. It does look awfully… CRISIS-y, though, doesn’t it? But I swear to god… If it turns out to be Doctor Manhattan, I will drop this book like a hot rock.
Anyway. Melody Moore. Good ol’ Double-M. She’s attracted to Superman, she shares his concern for the safety of Metropolis’ citizenry, she’s a (no pun intended) smokin’ hot redhead… And if Lois is somehow mysteriously gone… Well. I’m just sayin’: M comes after L. And moving on from LL to MM might be a nice symbolic gesture for a grieving Superman trying to move on with his life after a tragedy.
Plus, her name’s Melody. And just one scene before we meet her, he’s obsessing over a song. Which is probably giving Bendis too much credit, but still… It’s in there.
I don’t know how I feel about this idea, to be honest. I love me some Lois Lane, after all. And in the all-too-brief scene we get with her, Bendis writes her really well.
Seriously. One of the things I most looked forward to in a Bendis-written Superman was getting to read his Lois. If they gave him a Lois Lane solo book to write, I’d be all over it. But if that’s somehow not in the cards… If the powers that be at DC Comics have decreed that the Superman marriage is to be null and void all over again, and this is how they’re doing it… Moving on to MM isn’t a bad idea at all.
At least until Lois comes back.
Because they ALWAYS come back.
There’s one other aspect to this first issue (and, I presume, to Bendis’ opening volley on Superman as a whole), and I’m really not sure how I feel about it. It’s a flashback sequence concerning this asshole…
…and his crazy mad-on for Krypton and all its inhabitants. The story here, apparently, is that this guy caused Krypton to explode ON PURPOSE, rather than accidentally, as has been established since 1939. And I don’t think I like that.
I mean, sure. Planets aren’t generally in the habit of just exploding, as far as I know. But this is funnybook bullshit science, so that’s okay. If you absolutely must explain it, go with the idea (put forth by more than one Superman writer before) that it has something to do with whatever made every damn chunk of the place into a glowing green radioactive death-rock. Blame it on Kryptonian hubris. Maybe they meddled with their planetary core in disastrous ways, and wouldn’t listen to Jor-El when he told them not to. That’s been a part of the story since the 1940s. But DON’T ret-con some 90s-reject-looking super villain into the equation. It’s just…
It lacks elegance, that’s all. It turns a tragedy into a revenge fantasy, and that alters the Superman origin in ways I don’t like. The Kryptonians NEED to be at least partially responsible for their own downfall. It makes Superman mean more, because he escaped all that to become something better. If some nutcase blew the planet up instead, it makes victims of them all. So I’m hoping that turns out to be a lie. Because it’s just not a good idea.
Regardless of what happens, though… Damn if Bendis isn’t doing his best to make this guy into an interesting villain. His name is Rogol Zaar (which sucks almost as much as that character design), and he’s an intergalactic soldier who’s undertaken missions for some kind of universal council of space dudes, representing various advanced civilizations. Or that’s what I think they are, anyway. I recognize Sardath of the planet Rann in there, and one of the Guardians, so I’m assuming the others are characters of equal stature. Which… I’m not sure Sardath’s really on the same level as the Guardians, but… That doesn’t matter now. What matters is that Rogol Zaar petitioned them to approve a “cleansing” of Krypton before it could become a threat to other less advanced civilizations.
Which… That, right there, is kind of a shocking approach. I’ve never really thought of Krypton as “less advanced” than other outer space civilizations. But I suppose it really was. Jor-El’s rocket was kind of primitive, in comparison to the technology we’ve seen from other space people. There’s also no indication that they had traveled very far abroad from their own solar system. In most versions of the origin, Jor-El THOUGHT that his son would grow to gain amazing super powers under a yellow sun, but he didn’t know it for sure.
So Krypton must have been a fairly new space-faring civilization, and one that might very well seem terrifying to established powers. I mean, we’re scared of North Korea having nukes. What if we thought they could transform their entire population, each one capable of single-handedly laying waste to the planet, just by moving them onto our land? We would lose our damn minds! And we might not be wrong in that, either.
So while Rogol Zaar’s plan is heinous… His fervor is almost understandable. And so, when the council refuses him…
…we can feel the pain of his disappointment.
That’s really good villain motivation. He’s wrong. Clearly wrong. But you can see why he thinks the way he does, and how that might warp him into a monster. It’s not quite Batman villain levels of sympathetic evil, but it’s getting there. Or it COULD get there, anyway. We’re only at chapter one with this guy so far, after all, and I’ve watched promising Bendis set-ups turn to shit before.
So we’ll see. But that’s just it: I WILL see. This first issue was good enough… not god’s gift to comics, but good enough… that I’ll be back for more this week. I want to like Bendis. And I want to like Superman. So I want to like this book. Here’s to hoping they can keep the quality high.