Tuesday, May 12, 2009

From the Read Pile #1:

DC Comics
Writer: James Robinson
Penciller: Renato Guedes

Of all the costumed crusaders out there dispensing two-fisted justice, Superman remains my absolute favorite. He's the original, the template for just about every superhero that's come down the pike since Action Comics #1 first hit the stands in June of 1938. He's got the best powers, the best supporting cast, and the best mythology built around him in comics history. He's the pioneer of an entire genre of comics, the dominant one in the West for over 60 years. He is, in short, the best.

However, I confess that for all my admiration of Superman as a character I haven't actually read much of his comics of late. Oh I'd read trade paperbacks starring Superman, such as SUPERMAN: BIRTHRIGHT, SUPERMAN: RED SON, or JSA: THE LIBERTY FILE (all of which will be getting reviews in the coming months), but his actual ongoing titles I hadn't followed with any degree of regularity since about the period of the Reign of the Supermen back in the '90s. It wasn't for any one reason, though if pressed I could argue that I felt that in the period since his death and return Superman's books had been in something of a holding pattern. Sure, there was the illusion of change; his marriage to Lois Lane, the whole 'energy being/electric-blue/man of teal' arc, the various crossovers and annuals assuring me that things would never ever be the same again, but it struck me that the greatest chances being taken with the character and his portrayal were oftentimes the ones outside DC Comics canon.

Still, the fact remains that as a Superman fan I wasn't reading Superman comics. Mentioning this fact to a friend I was taken to task on this and questioned about it. How could I be a fan of the character if I didn't follow his books? A bit irked by the notion, I made sure that the first chance I got I would purchase one of the Man of Steel's titles and read it for that simplest and purest of motives: irritated spite. While on my trip to Seattle I stopped by a local comicbook store and immediately grabbed the first Superman comic I could find, a copy of SUPERMAN #686. In retrospect, the lead character's lack of presence on the cover and the World Without legend above the eponymous title and beside the S-shield, as well as the Featuring Mon-El and the Guardian should have been the tip-off, but I was too eager to be righteous to care. I plunked down the $2.99 and made a note to read the book immediately. This was going to be great, my first Superman book in years!

And of course, he wasn't in it.

So eager had I been to reclaim my title as Superfan (get it? Heh. . .okay, we'll never do that again) that I'd walked blindly into the midst of the World of Krypton arc. There are others more qualified to explain the ins and outs of that storyline, but the basic gist is that a colony of lost Kryptonians have established themselves on an artificially constructed planet within Earth's solar system. Superman has gone to New Krypton to ensure the people of his birth world stay out of trouble, but he left the planet (and the city of Metropolis) in the hands of some friends of his; the aforementioned Mon-El and the Guardian.

The Guardian is a bit easier to explain, so we'll start with him. He's a clone of a hero from the golden age named Jim Harper, a top-level athlete and old-school crimebuster who rocks a blue and gold uniform and carries a shield, now upgraded for the 21st century with the ability to fly (think a souped-up version of the hoverboards from Back to the Future Part II and you're in the ballpark). Harper's been tapped by the city of Metropolis to head it's superhuman law-enforcement division, known to most as the Science Police. He's the seasoned pro of the book's new status quo.

Mon-El is a bit trickier. I make a vow every time I do these reviews not to allow the dreaded 'c-word' (continuity!) to rear its ugly head in my pieces, but it's damned hard not to talk about. . .that stuff. . .when dealing with Mon-El. The basic story is this: space explorer Lar Gand hails from the world of Daxam, a world that is amazingly like Krypton(so much so that its been theorized that one is a colony of the other), so much so that Daxamites on Earth gain powers that are identical to that of Kryptonians(flying, super-strength, invulnerability, laser vision, the super-senses suite, etc). The only hitch is that instead of the usual Achilles heel of Kryptonite, Daxamites find the lead in our environment to be a deadly poison. So while they can juggle tanks, a Daxam native can't deal with a #2 pencil(always good to keep one handy, just in case of maurading Daxamites). Gand crash-lands on Earth, and the lead exposure gives him partial amnesia. He meets a young Clark Kent who initially theorizes that Lar must be a survivor of Krypton too. Selecting the day and his Kryptonian house, Clark names his long-lost 'brother' Mon-El. Gradually the lead poisoning worsens though, and the truth is uncovered. To save Mon's life, Clark uses his father's Phantom Zone projector to send the dying astronaut into the otherdimensional void of the zone to keep him from dying. Which is kind of like pushing someone off a cliff to keep them from burning to death, but hey, comicbook logic. Within the zone, Mon/Lar drifts for years, unable to do anything but watch the world go by as an intangible, inaudible, and invisible wraith. Through circumstances much too convoluted to get into here, he is released from the Zone with a cure for the lead poisoning. He's the young hero with a lot to prove in the book's new status quo.

Essentially the book is a depiction of Mon-El's first day on the job as Metropolis's new protector, with Guardian acting as his mentor and guide to a world he's only really experienced secondhand through the Zone. We also get bits of flashbacks as Superman prepares to leave Earth for New Krypton, giving everyone a chance to get ready for things once he's left. By book's end, we've established Mon-El as the new hero of Metropolis in a brawl with the supervillain Rampage, and Mon's civilian identity of Jonathan Kent as the newest member of the Science Police. A new character, Billi Harper (descendant of the original Jim Harper/Guardian I) is a potential love interest for Mon/Lar/Jon (oof), and John Henry Irons (aka Steel) acts as a link to the book's eponymous hero, acting as the voice of the Man of Tomorrow in his absence. It's basically the pilot for a new series-within-a-series.

Let's start with what I liked and then we'll segue into the stuff that irked. The art is really, really good here. Guedes has a style that is at once pseudo-realistic without taking me out of the four-color fantasy world that is a superhero comic. His depictions of Mon-El flying are really striking and he gets the look of all the main characters down pat. His style blends the kind of 'NYPD Blue Meets Justice League Unlimited' theme they seem to be shooting for in this book and I dig where it's coming from.

The initial premise kind of threw me, but after reading this first issue I have to say I'd like to see more of where this is going. The idea of heroes working to keep Metropolis safe while Superman is away dealing with the latest crisis du jour is an intriguing one, and I like the idea that in his absence it takes at least three heroes and an army of power-armor wearing cops to do what Superman does in basically an afternoon. Mon-El is a breath of fresh air in that he is a Superman archetype that doesn't have any heroic experience and needs a support base to help him. Guardian is kind of the Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon character; wondering if he's past it but he's still got a job to do and he'll be damned if he doesn't do it to the best of his ability. Jimmy Olsen will act as Mon-El's link to the world at large, pointing him toward more global crisis using the resources of the Daily Planet, while John Henry Irons will provide the kind of superhero mentoring for the 21st century that Guardian can't. It's an interesting setup with a lot of different ways to go. I'm almost sorry this'll all be swept away when Superman returns.

The use of Superman in the issue as kind of a nebulous figure, letting everyone know his game plan, what to expect from Mon-El, what to expect from his absence, was a nice touch too. The fact that we never really get a full-on look at Superman in the book is a neat little tease as well. Basically, if you want to see Superman, you need to pick up a copy of WORLD OF KRYPTON #1. He isn't going to be here anymore, this book belongs to Mon-El and the Guardian now.

So yes, very strong first outing. Now on to the things that rankle a bit:

The dialogue. Oh lordy. James Robinson is one of my all-time favorite comics writers; his work on STARMAN alone warrants its own lengthy diatribe(and will get one, I promise. Just have to finish the next More on Moore bit and we'll tuck into it), but for the love of God what the hell happened? Robinson's prose always leaned a bit toward the florid, but lately it's just gotten annoying. Take this bit of Superman dialogue I lift verbatim from a dialogue between Superman and Steel:

'I know you've not worn the armor as much of late. . .'

That's the line. Now can you see Tim Daly, George Newburn, or Christopher Reeve's voice reciting that piece of stilted verbiage? Not really. Ian McKellen maybe.

It's just so clunky. There are some easy fixes for this:

'I know you haven't been wearing the armor lately.' (see?)


'I know you haven't been wearing your armor as much.' (it can be done)

Or even

'You haven't been wearing your armor much lately, I know.' (clumsy, but still)

Seriously DC, I will edit Robinson's dialogue for free. Contact information available upon request. A mere page later when talking to Jimmy Olson Superman sounds relatively normal, but the inconsistency is jarring nonetheless.

Another little thing, and it is a tiny nitpick at best, is the use of Rampage. Dr. Karen 'Kitty' Faulkner was an employee of S.T.A.R. Labs who--in the grand comicbook science tradition--got exposed to some eldritch energies and was transformed into a mohawked, musclebound marauder. She was recently featured in a couple episodes of Justice League Unlimited as a baddie, but for the most part she's been depicted as a woman who, while initially going loony, had her transformations and 'hulked-out' persona under control a la one Jennifer Walters. So why is she depicted as a supervillain? This may bring up the c-word (continuity!), but did I miss something? Either Robinson didn't do his research or they just threw her in to be 'random muscle mass for Mon-El to fight'. It struck me as lazy writing.

Still, these are minor quibbles at best. On the whole the book was enjoyable, and promises to lead into an entertaining storyline that I'm interested in following over the long haul.

Rating: 4/5

Until next time,


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