Today, Mark and Shane are discussing Superman 4, originally released August 3rd, 2016.
Mark: Ever since they started teaming up, Batman has been the yin to Superman’s yang. And after 5 years of Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason tackling the Batman/Damian dynamic, it’s an interesting exercise to watch them explore the similar-yet-not-at-all-the-same dynamic of Superman and his son Jon (aka Superboy). Jon is the anti-Damian; reluctant to use his powers, he has no problem keeping his nose clean and following the rules. An eager to learn Jon has provided Superman the perfect opportunity to reiterate his ethos, and by extension allowed Tomasi and Gleason to hammer home their operating thesis: Superman isn’t super because of his powers, he’s super because of the strength of his character.
As an issue, though, I don’t know how well Superman 4 holds together. While individual moments are strong, scenes seem to crash over each other with little to no explanation. Things happen, but why? The Eradicator’s role is pretty standard—protect Superman and restore Krypton—until he explodes, unleashing the souls of Kryptonian citizens. Suddenly, the rest of the issue becomes about finding peace for the dead. Again, I guess. Now I’m 100% on-board for Comic Book Logic, and I’m willing to suspend my disbelief as long as the end result is worth it…
…but I’m not sure that bar is met here. In truth, it’s time for Krypton to be put to rest. The loss of Krypton, and Kal-El’s adoption of Earth as his new home, is a critical component of Superman’s motivation. I am not advocating for Superman to “move on” from the loss of his home and his people. I do, however, think that the potential rebirth of Krypton, and, most specifically, Superman coming face-to-face with those he’s lost is a card played too often and too casually. And as if really going for the emotional gut punch, Pa Kent even shows up this issue, and while his words of wisdom are thematically appropriate for Tomasi and Gleason’s run so far, his cameo feels not germane to the action at hand.
Rather, the moment the Eradicator unleashes Kryptonian ghosts is the moment Superman 4 begins to feel disjointed. Everything up to this point feels like a logical continuation of the Superboy-in-training story we’ve been following so far, everything after feels like it was spliced in from a completely different arc. For example, while I’m delighted and surprised to see Bibbo Bibbowski make a return to the Superman universe, his integration is less than elegant. A significant chunk of the issue is given over to Bibbo and his pseudo-Popeye tics, and it throws off the pacing of the issue to provide a completely baffling interlude for anyone who didn’t read comic in the 90s. That kind of fan service speaks right to the heart of Rebirth, for good and bad.
The plot issues in Superman 4 go beyond strange pacing. I was pretty critical of Dan Jurgens’ Superman: Lois and Clark run, and while Tomasi and Gleason have done a lot to capitalize on the early promise of Jurgens’ premise, they still haven’t been able to solve the Lois Lane Problem. Lois is one of the original capable women in comics, and she’s been sidelined for too long as a mere damsel in distress.
Her portrayal hasn’t been completely dire. Superman issue #2 offered the most compelling portrait of her yet—a confidant to Clark and an equally important parental figure in Jon’s life, she’s mercifully not a nag or a scold (how easy would it be to write her as worried about Jon using his powers and going on missions?), but I’d like to see her used in a more compelling way. She may not be the focus of the narrative—it is Superman, after all—but she deserves better than she’s getting.
And yet! I’m spilling a lot of words picking apart what doesn’t work in Superman 4, but sometimes inelegant means are justified in the end. Undoubtably, the core of the book remains strong. Tomasi and Gleason have a firm grasp on what makes Superman super, so while there might be narrative hiccups along the way, at this point I do not doubt the sincerity of the destination. And that’s good enough for me.
How about you, Shane?
Shane: I actually have to disagree with you about Lois–for the first time in a long time, I think this run is portraying her as strong as she’s been shown in ages. Hell, in this issue she’s actually the one to save Superman at one point, diving into a dangerous situation to attempt to talk down the Kryptonian souls. Her real strength in these runs, though, has been as a partner and a mother, and although I do miss the days of Lois having her own dangerous investigative adventures, this particular story arc is called “Son of Superman”: it’s not about Lois, but about Jon’s growth. Her speech to him in this issue finally gets Jon to set aside his doubts and really take a step forward in his training, becoming Superboy at last.
I’ve been having a lot of thoughts and conversations about different strengths of parenting lately, but one of the things my parents did great was encouraging me to believe the best of myself, and to find the strength to do whatever it is I wanted, or needed. It’s easy to tell your child what to do, or to make their decisions for them, but to really prepare your child, a parent needs to raise them to know, and do, the right thing, and the strong thing, all on their own. Here, Lois takes that step, and although over in Action Comics her time has been spent reacting to Doomsday and trying to protect her son from the truth of what happened before, here she has more of an impact on Jon’s training than Superman ever did. She gave him the tools he needed to believe in himself.
So, you know, that I loved. The rest, not so much. You’re dead-on in that the issue is a jumbled mess of storylines, as the Eradicator suddenly gains an entirely new focus and concept and then suddenly Bibbo is involved due to a completely unnecessary scene-change. I’m thrilled to see Bibbo back, and hopefully his introduction here means big things for the character down the line in Tomasi’s run, but I feel like he could’ve been brought back in a much more natural way. And if we both feel that, as fans of the 90’s “Triangle Era” titles, can you imagine how a new reader might feel? To them, this is something of an oddball character. He’s suddenly important to the plot, owning a mysterious rock that somehow ties into the ghosts of Krypton, but he’s given too much face-time and personality to be just a random character…and yet, he’s not given enough attention for anyone who didn’t already know him to care.
I’ve worried before about Action Comics relying too much on Dan Jurgens’ greatest hits, but now I’m worried, with the reappearance of both the Eradicator and Bibbo, that this title is going to go the same way. One book, sure, that makes sense: harken back to when the title sold gangbusters (hey, I wonder if they’ll bring back Gangbuster?) while still allowing the other title to break new ground. But if both of them circle the same old story points, much as I may personally love them, the franchise is in danger of being run into the ground, guided by nostalgia goggles.
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