Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Superman 16, originally released January 30th, 2013. This issue is part of the H’el on Earth crossover event. Click here for complete H’el on Earth coverage.
Patrick: You know that knock-knock joke that goes “Knock-knock.” “Who’s there?” “Banana?” Of course you do, we were all kids once. It’s a simple exercise in tension and release: when you hear “orange,” you get a visceral little rush knowing the “orange you glad I didn’t say banana” is mere moments away. The Justice League’s assault on the Fortress of Solitude has been one long Banana Knock-Knock joke. But when we finally get the “orange,” the door we’re knocking on teleports somewhere else, making me wonder why the fuck we’ve been putting up with this jokester saying “banana” for so long.
Superman 16 is an issue in which very little happens. And that which does happen is immediately undone by H’el’s as-of-yet ill-defined powers. The Justice League (+ Superboy) fight their way through the Fortress of Solitude, and between some kind of half-plan and sheer might, they breach the Star Chamber and Superman is face to face with H’el. Ready for a final showdown? Too bad! H’el still has the ability to telelport people and things — apparently regardless of their size — so he moves the Fortress (conveniently leaving Batman, Cyborg, Wonder Woman, Superman and Superboy on some ice flow). H’el throws the switch and seemingly everyone on earth simultaneously knows that they’re fucked.
This issue opens on a flashback to H’el’s final days on Krypton. Everyone on the planet knows that their days are numbered and H’el is the heroic student of Jor-El. It might be the end of his world, but H’el has never been happier to be a part of this family on this world. Only, Kara doesn’t remember something like that happening… We know H’el’s lying, not just because his eyes dart about shiftily, but because we know there was a huge effort to cover up Jor-El’s doom-saying. Jor-El didn’t die a Kryptonian hero, he died ostracized. So H’el’s a liar, right? We know this — ever since he successfully recruited Supergirl, we’ve known that he’s not giving her the whole truth so she’ll unknowingly help him destroy Earth. But this fantasy that he crafts for Kara… kind of unnecessary, right? He’s even making the weird mistake of peppering it with details she would have been aware of. Which means he’s trying to convince himself that it’s true.
For the first time, I find myself sympathetic to H’el, not because of what we know to be true about him, but because of what she wishes were true (but obviously isn’t). It helps that Kenneth Rocafort renders this fantasy in such enormously stunning Rocafortian beauty.
The rest of this issue, however, doesn’t ever match that same air of mystery and wonder. A good quarter of the issue is devoted to the Justice Leaguers hacking and slashing their way through the alien technology in the Fortress, while another couple pages are devoted to H’el’s baffling courtship of Supergirl. That’s so far from delivering on the promise of “H’el vs. Superman” or “Superman saves the Earth.” Also, it is narratively frustrating to spend so many issues with our characters fighting through the Fortress of Solitude, only to give H’el the ability to move the thing. Especially because H’el activates the machine immediately after moving the Fortress. There was no need to demonstrate that the League had essentially accomplished nothing.
I’m also just fatigued by the sheer number of times Superboy’s powers and/or appearance are explained in the narration. In fact, while I sorta like the third-person omniscient narrator in this series, it gives us WAY to much useless and unnecessary information in this issue. Someone tell me how a page that looks this cool is benefited by all of this text:
Or on the next spread, which feels the need to explain Superboy’s origin (which is a re-tread of both the information and the questions raised in the last issue of Superman) and introduce Cyborg and Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman. Kinda feel like she needs no introduction. Scott Lobdell makes sure to include in Diana’s vital stats: “Superman’s current lover.” First of all: “current?” Hilariously judgmental. But most importantly, that information is never relevant in this issue. None of the other introductions explain Superman’s relationship with the character, why the insistence of labeling her as a “lover?”
Confoundingly, Lobdell doesn’t explain how they’re able to get into the Star Chamber. Batman states the problem: that H’el is anticipating their BOOMs, and can redirect them. And then everyone but Superman BOOMs… giving Superman the opportunity to just fly in there? What was stopping him from just flying in there in the first place?
And then there’s the issue of the giant stone space-oracle that has awoken to witness the end of the world. Call me crazy, Drew, but that seems like too much. We’re already dealing with a villain that will destroy the solar system (or galaxy, depending on who’s explaining his plan at the time) in order to travel back in time to alter history. Do we really need another thing to further doom the world? Also, why does it obliterate everything it sees? Doesn’t that mean it’s always bearing witness to the destruction of things?
Drew: Let the record show that I always thought this Oracle business was too much. I think the title “H’el on Earth” effectively emphasizes that H’el should be the primary antagonist of this crossover, and we still don’t have nearly enough on his motivations to effectively understand what’s going on with him. Patrick, I love your read that H’el’s account of things is what he believes (or wants to believe), in spite of it’s obvious falseness. It kind of reminds me of the first appearance of Bizarro on Superman the Animated Series:
This is one of my favorite takes on the Bizarro origin (and admittedly, the one I’m most familiar with), so I may be predisposed to making this particular conclusion, but leaving aside who H’el might really be (and what that might mean going forward), it seems clear that he has some kind of Replicant memories — that is, he doesn’t know they’re fake. Of course, that means somebody else is pulling H’el’s strings, but I can’t really imagine who would be so invested in destroying our solar system, or making it so personal to Superman. Hellspont, I guess, but only because he’s literally the only other player in this game.
But pulling the camera back to include planets beyond Earth and Krypton begs the question: why couldn’t H’el use literally any other star as his fuel? I get that the DC universe is littered with inhabited stars systems, but surely there’s one star somewhere that nobody cares about. The fact that H’el never so much as suggests an alternative is a pretty clear signal that he’s out to destroy Earth, specifically. Then again, nobody else has suggested it, even though Clark apparently believes H’el really does want to save Krypton. He calls H’el’s goals “mad but noble,” which makes it sound like he just needed some guidance to not kill everyone on Earth. Like, I figured out this solution immediately, and I don’t have super intelligence — why couldn’t Kal, Kara, or H’el come up with this as a reasonable compromise to their “we have to destroy Earth to save Krypton” plan?
Actually, does H’el even know that his plan will kill everyone? He assures Kara that nobody on Earth will be harmed, but is he lying, or just ignorant? The fact that he’s been so willing to lie makes it hard to trust him, but again, why hide this fact when they could go to any other star in the universe? Kara doesn’t want to kill any Earthlings, and it really doesn’t make sense for H’el to go out of his way to do so. In fact, if H’el had made it clear that he was committed to not killing anybody, Superman probably would have helped him. Essentially none of his actions make sense, but it still seems entirely possible that his makeup will wipe off and he won’t even be able to form sentences anymore.
Rocafort’s art is as lovely and intricate as ever, but his cheesecakey Starfire-in-a-bikini tendencies are starting to return. Look at this Wonder Woman:
We’ve had some gripes about her poses in Justice League, but I think the basic anatomy here is pretty grotesque. As ever, Rocafort’s regular colorist, Blond, deserves as much credit (and blame) for the art here — he really goes all out to demonstrate the precise shape of those breasts.
H’el fatigue has definitely set in. It wasn’t long ago that my excitement for this title was rubbing off on Superboy (Superboy!), but it certainly feels like it. I’m excited that H’el’s plan is finally in motion, though I’m not sure if that’s because we’re one step closer to answers, or just one step closer to the end of this event. Either way, we’re in the home stretch here — I think we can make this final sprint.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?