Drew: When I was five years old, I told my then four-year-old cousin that he was adopted. Nobody had told me that he was, and certainly nobody told me that I wasn’t supposed to tell him, but he was immediately distraught, running to his mother to assure him I was lying. A young kid’s relationship to his parents is his whole world, and the thought that there might be something unusual about it is understandably upsetting. Totally unintentionally, I put my aunt in an incredibly awkward position, forcing her to confront a truth outside of her terms, when her son was already distressed by the idea. Complicating the issue was that his brother is not adopted, which only creates more potential for feelings of alienation. Superman has long been the poster child for adoption, but what if his adopted home had its own “last son” that seemed to be every bit as “super” as he is? Might Clark grow a chip on his shoulder about being “the adopted one”? These are exactly the questions Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr. set up in Superman 32, stopping just shy of showing us the answers.
The issue opens with a very familiar story of parents sending their infant son to another world to escape certain doom, only that certain doom is on Earth, and that other world is the mysterious “dimension four”. Only, you know, Earth didn’t die after all, so when the son returns 25 years later suped up on dimension four’s superpowers, he’s more than a little shocked to see it all in one piece. Oh, and now it has an alien protector that does all of the things he can do.
Come to think of it, this “Last Son of Earth”, Ulysses, has just as much reason to feel awkward as Clark does. Sure, he’s originally from Earth, but he hasn’t seen it since he was a baby. Indeed, he thought it was destroyed 25 years ago, so can’t have a great handle on its culture. Moreover, he has competition in the form of basically his polar opposite — a man who wasn’t born on Earth, but has called it home for the past 25 years. The source of conflict here is obvious — especially in light of Clark’s alienation throughout the issue. Johns takes special care to create a need for connection for Clark (delivered somewhat awkwardly by an overstepping Perry White), showing how hard it can be for him to form connections when everyone he knows is a superhero, then hitting us with the ol’ dead parents reminder.
As much as Clark is the ideal power fantasy figure, he’s actually an incredibly isolated character. That runs the risk of turning him into yet another Batman clone, but Johns smartly reminds us that this isn’t Clark’s natural tendency. He needs those human connections more than any of his human colleagues, but the weight of maintaining a secret identity has kept his non-hero friends at arms’ length. The result is a man whose connection to Earth feels a tad strained — something that only gets worse when Earth’s own protector shows up.
Come to think of it, Clark has two reasons to be made uncomfortable by Ulysses’ presence: on the one hand, he might feel threatened by the presence of a doppelgänger who may have a stronger claim to Earth than he does, and on the other, he may simply develop feelings of jealousy seeing someone return to their lost homeworld. Superman has always been above these kinds of petty emotions, but, as Ulysses’ mother points out at the beginning of the issue, we haven’t learned anything about the fourth dimension. Maybe he’s like Superman in every way, and this story will be a bit of a parlor drama about their senses of identity, or maybe that “U” on his chest is meant to evoke the over-the-top villainy of Ultraman. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Speaking of waiting and seeing, I haven’t read Ulysses, so I don’t think I’m qualified to unpack Ulysses’ name here — can you provide any insights on that, Scott? I can note that Ulysses is actually the latinized name of Odysseus, and that this particular Ulysses’ journey back home may reflect that, but it’s too loaded a name to not be a reference. At the same time, Ulysses seems like an out-of-character work for Johns to allude to — he never struck me as much of a modernist. What do you think? Is this the most literate Superman story you’ve ever read, or is the name just window dressing?
Scott: A little bit of both? My guess is it’s an allusion to Odysseus, but I say this only because, as you pointed out, Ulysses has finally found his way back after many years away from home. The obvious difference, though, is that Ulysees, unlike Odysseus, wasn’t trying to get home — he has no family to return to and he also believed Earth had been destroyed. I think we’ll have to wait and see if any other connections emerge. Not to spoil anything, but Odysseus’ return to Ithaca didn’t turn out well for many of the island’s residents, which could be a bad omen for Clark. While we’re talking about name-references, I also like that Ulysses’ real given name is Neil, possibly a nod to Neil Armstrong, another human who was the first to step out into a new frontier. Or Neil Diamond, the first man to venture into The 4th Dimension Of Rock.
I’m definitely intrigued by the potential psychological effects Ulysses’ arrival on Earth might have on Clark. I could see him feeling jealous or even feeling like he’s no longer needed now that a native Earthling with powers equal to his own is around. Maybe Clark is in for some intergalactic soul searching, trying to find his place in the universe. Johns is clearly giving Superman — and Clark Kent — an opportunity to contemplate his role on Earth. Rather than rehash the origin story we all know, he’s created a mirror image of it. Through our surrogate-Clark we get to see how Clark might react if he were able to return to his home planet, while also getting his first impression of Earth. Romita’s art reinforces the mirror-image theme between Clark and Ulysses (they even punch with the opposite arm!)
It’s interesting that this issue presents Clark with an offer to rejoin the Daily Planet. It seems Johns may be eager to revert Clark back to a more familiar life. His phone calls to Wonder Woman and Batman don’t seem to go anywhere, while more available friends like Lois and Jimmy are sitting there waiting to take on bigger roles. Maybe, more than anything, Ulysses’ arrival will allow Clark an opportunity to discover who he wants to be when he’s not wearing a cape. Ulysses is, after all, a human, and he might rely on Clark to show him what being a human on Earth is all about. It would be ironic, given the characters’ origins, but Clark is perfect guy for the job. If it means creating more interesting storylines for the familiar faces around Metropolis, that can only be good for this title.
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