Shelby: Comic books have to be one of the most restrictive forms of media out there. As a writer, you’re stuck dealing with characters with 70-odd years of history hanging around their necks like a lodestone. Deviate too much, and millions of voices cry out in anger before you find yourself suddenly silenced (creatively speaking). But if you don’t deviate enough, you find yourself with a story that is at best seen as a cliché and at worse doesn’t make any sense because there’s no way to make sense of that much backstory. I have a lot of respect for the writers who walk that line, and walk it well; I don’t envy them the choices they have to make. While I have lauded Scott Snyder in the past for his treatment of Batman’s origin story in Year Zero, his take on the Man of Steel falls a little too close to territory we’ve tread before for me to really enjoy it.
The world is about to end. Flash Fact: there are 919 active nuclear missiles in the world, and Ascension has just launched all of them. Even with all hands on deck, Batman is predicting a 60% stop rate at best, which will leave 367 missiles to easily bring about nuclear winter. Despite the help he could provide, Wraith heads off to protect American targets instead of going with Superman to stop Ascension itself. After some wall-smashing and villain posturing, Ascension activates their base’s self-destruct, destroying all of the earthstone except for one shard which Lois and Superman were able to hold on to as they escaped. Superman manages somehow to activate the crystal and uses it to cause all the missiles to self-destruct before dropping their payloads, and everyone is saved.
Wraith tries to kill Superman when he refuses to turn the shard of earthstone over to the military, but luckily Superman has a detective friend who likes to prepare for all sorts of contingencies; after Superman demonstrates his Wraith-version of kryptonite, Wraith leaves with a standard, “This isn’t over” warning. As Superman tries to figure out just what is going on with the earthstone, he’s interrupted by a most unwelcome house-guest: General Lane and a lot of very big guns.
It’s pretty well-known around the imaginary Retcon Punch offices that I’m not a big fan of Superman as a character. Setting aside the fact that he’s just a little too squeaky clean for my tastes (I like my characters like I like my men and my coffee: with just a little bit of grit), he’s just too big. His powerset is so unstoppable, conflicts have to be escalated to unheard of proportions to exist as credible conflicts at all. One nuclear missile? That’s just baby-town frolics for Clark, better make it near a thousand. Most powerful being on Earth? Well, here’s another alien who’s just like him, but more so. It’s no surprise that this issue strikes me as just more of the same Superman stories we’ve seen before. Massive global threat, Lois in danger, a miraculous save, a new powerful enemy, it feels like it’s been done before. I know I’ll get called out for blasphemy on this, but I’m also not that big of a fan of Jim Lee’s work. I recognize how important he is to the industry, and I respect him immensely for the work he’s done, but when I look at something he’s drawn, I just see a really good example of what comics used to look like. Artistically, I think Dustin Nguyen’s two-page epilogue is more visually intriguing; I love the heavy shadows and basic shapes that compose so much of the images. Lee tells the story, sure, but Nguyen sucks me into the scene.
That’s not to say this issue isn’t without merit. Snyder continues to humanize Clark by breaking down his thought process as he works to save the world. It’s easy to look at the character and see Superman only, but Snyder works to remind us of the man at the alien’s core. When I can’t sleep at night, it’s because I’m thinking about work stuff, or blog stuff, or how I don’t exercise nearly enough, or how I need to eat better and should also probably be better about managing money; nowhere in my mantra of things to worry about is the number of active nuclear missiles. By including the image of Clark laying awake at night thinking about those missiles, Snyder binds Clark and Superman together as the single character they are. Like any other regular person, Clark worries at night, it’s just that his worries are proportionate to a character as large as Superman. And while I might not find Lee’s pencil’s to be particularly intriguing to look at, he imbues his characters with a lot of … well, character. I love this little scene when Superman gives his boy Bruce a shout-out for the Wraith-kryptonite.
Patrick: You like your coffee with grit? I mean, I knew you had a type when it came to men, but coffee? (Also, everyone do yourself a favor and google “cutest batman.“)
I think Synder gets at a few more universal truths than you’re letting on in this issue. Sure, he embraces the absurdity of a superbeing assigned with stopping 35% of that 919-missile payload (322 warheads for those playing at home), but the things that he struggles with are decidedly more human. The first big decision that Superman has to make in this issue is to either a) stop his share of the missiles or b) take his chances confronting Ascension directly. Clark chooses to go to Ascension, and in so doing could have let those 322 warheads explode, and that’s over six times as many as would be necessary to completely fuck the world. We’re seeing some super arrogance in that moment — it’s the same arrogance that makes Clark hate the commercial depiction of himself saving a cat and then taking a self-satisfied nap.
All of which is to say that Superman knows he’s Superman. If that’s not enough, we can add to his stunning list of superpowers the ability to interface with some earthcrystal directly, accessing a network of satellites and missiles in motion across the globe in an instantaneous and nuanced way. Remember, he doesn’t just detonate the bombs early, he dismantles them without detonating the payload. It’s a miracle, and there’s no explanation for it, but of course Superman can save the day.
I think a lot about what kind of Superman story I would ever tell, given the chance. And one of the voices that always lingers in my head in Shelby’s: “too clean, too powerful, too right.” She’s correct, of course, but part of the tension is that we know this information, and therefore, we know that the storyteller will try to throw something at Superman than he can’t quite handle… right up to the point where, it turns out, he just can. That’s what I see in this earthcrystal moment — a solution that cannot be predicted and only works because Superman believes it will work. That’s at the heart of this Superman vs. Wraith debate. They’re both benevolent creatures of immense power, and the only reason we side with Supes is because we know he’s our hero. Clark believes that what he’s doing is right, and therefore it is.
It’s hard not to agree with him. He is largely a selfless man. My favorite scene in the issue takes place back at the fortress of solitude, as Lois gets a tour of Clark’s zoo. Lee channels his inner-Seuss, when drawing the creatures that Lois specifically describes as “not cute.”
He’s not rescuing dogs — or cats, for that matter — because that’s too utilitarian. A dog can love you back and is loyal and adorable and everyone understands that. But Clark’s sacrifice has no such benefits for him. These are survivors from dying worlds — “strays” as he calls them. Lois’ exploration of the fortress of solitude leads her to another conclusion: it’s less of a vacation home and more of an office. Superman doesn’t get a vacation home because Superman doesn’t get a vacation.
It’s a lot harder mentality to understand, this idea that Superman’s service makes him great. Snyder manages it gracefully, and even lets the dude see eye-to-eye with Batman a few times. That’s a pretty successful Superman story in my book.
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?