by Spencer Irwin and Michael DeLaney
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Spencer: I’ve never considered myself very patriotic. I appreciate the freedoms and privileges I enjoy as an American citizen, of course, as well as the sacrifices so many have made in order to ensure them, but it’s hard for me to fully support a country built on slavery and genocide, a country that’s struggled to properly care for minorities and the poor, a country that effortlessly and thoughtlessly kills foreign innocents in their own homes. I’m not comfortable putting my faith in an organization whose agendas so often shift (or can so easily be bought); I’d rather put my faith in individual people.
On paper, then, I probably shouldn’t like Superman 28, the conclusion of Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, and Scott Godlewski’s brief “Declaration” storyline. In many ways Clark, Lois, and Jon’s road trip is patriotism at its finest, yet what endears me to this story is the focus the creative team puts on people; on the people who sacrificed so much to fight for their beliefs, and on the very human cost of America’s many wars. That’s a thesis I can get behind.
Much of what I wrote about Superman 27 a few weeks ago applies to this issue as well (for better or for worse), but issue 28 doubles down on the more personal narratives it touched on last time with Deborah Sampson and Ryan Duffy, and the story is all the better for it. It’s one thing to hear about the heavy causalities of the Korean War, but quite another to see how those casualties have effected characters we already know and love.
Okay, I certainly don’t love General Sam Lane, but it’s still interesting to see how he initially took up his crusade in order to follow in his older brother’s footsteps. This actually seems to be one of the more common themes of the issue: the sacrifices made in wartime are horrific and heartbreaking, but can inspire others to serve a higher calling themselves.
At Gettysburg, the creative team takes an entirely different approach to the human stories and human cost of the Civil War, starting by hinting at the ghosts that haunt the battlefield.
I don’t think we’re supposed to believe that these are literal ghosts (though you can never tell in the DC Universe; Clark’s right not to dismiss the idea), but they serve the same purpose here, the losses Gettysburg suffered bringing a palpable, lingering sense of loss to the battlefield over a century later. The idea of these men’s deaths certainly haunts Jon, if nothing else — we only see the ghosts in the border-free panels framed through Jon’s point of view, after all.
Actually, I love the contrast Godlewski, Tomasi, and Gleason create here. Jon is a modern kid viewing Gettysburg through the modern lens of his smartphone camera, which is a far cry from the fates of the young men we see playing out in flashback all around Jon. Jon gets to enjoy such a privileged existence precisely because of the sacrifices those young men made (and thankfully, Jon is a Kent through and through and clearly understands the gravity of this), but I get the sense that they’d be okay with that; that’s exactly why they were fighting, after all.
A few pages later, the creative team veers away from this idea of sacrifice somewhat. The Kents stumble across the Dowd family, who couldn’t be a more neighborly (furthering this Superman run’s streak of people generally being good if you give them a chance). The Dowds are celebrating the birthday of their great-great-grandfather, a Civil War soldier named Thomas, who survived losing a leg in battle only to be washed away and drowned by a freak flash flood, his body never found. Thomas couldn’t make any kind of noble sacrifice; he lost his life for no reason simply because war — and really, even the world itself — is just bleak and cruel sometimes.
The creative team doesn’t shy away from that kind of pointless loss and brutality. There’s no happy ending for Thomas, but Superman can help the Dowds find some peace.
This is another one of those moments Tomasi and Gleason do so well, one of those moments that effortlessly reminds us all why Superman is the hero, the greatest inspiration of the DC Universe. This isn’t just Clark’s inherent heroism, but his way of giving back to the soldiers who have sacrificed so much for him. That said, it’s also an alternate kind of heroism, a way to help people that revolves around kindness and compassion, not war, murder, and patriotism, and I think that’s an important counterpoint to the rest of this issue.
Michael, how do you feel about the message Superman 28 is preaching? What about the execution? There’s times throughout these past two issues where I feel like I’m being lectured, and it’s frustrating, because there’s some real familial chemistry between these characters that absolutely sings, but vanishes completely whenever they start rattling off war statistics like some sort of history-robots. Also, what do you think about Clark’s statement that Korea is the “Forgotten War?” Saying media glossed over it feels a bit strange when the war is the setting of one of the most popular and most widely watched television shows of all times.
Michael: When I was in high school, I spent about 2 weeks in France with my French class. I had packed multiple disposable cameras — digital cameras were a luxury — and took photos of all of the sights: The Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, and The Mona Lisa, behind her protective glass. The strangest place we visited was Normandy, which was stocked with memorials of the soldiers who gave their lives storming its beaches. I took a photo of my friend by one memorial and he didn’t smile because it felt weird to smile. When you’re visiting a place of remembrance and reverence, it’s a lot different than buying little trinkets from vendors as you wait in line to climb The Eiffel Tower.
It’s with that same reverence that Tomasi and Gleason approach the Kent’s trip to D.C. Clark and Lois aren’t taking Jon to great American landmarks with souvenir t-shirts and postcards, they’ve taken him to these solemn places that exemplify real life heroism. Granted these places probably also have t-shirts and postcards, because capitalism.
Spencer, after reading Superman 27 I thought “I am glad I’m not the guy stuck with writing about this issue.” That being said, I think that you have dissected both parts of “Declaration” with healthy amounts of respect and skepticism. I briefly explained the premise of Superman 28 to my friend who replied “that’s why I think Superman is an extremely boring character.” While I disagree with him I do understand where he’s coming from.
As a concept I am 100% onboard with Tomasi and Gleason taking a breather to show us Superman’s love for America because it’s completely in character for the Man of Steel. Though he’s technically an illegal (literal) alien, Clark Kent is all-American. He’s the ideal that the GOP heralds, despite the fact that he would fundamentally disagree with a lot of their policies if he existed in reality. The Superman of yore fought for “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” But like Captain America in the face of the Marvel Civil War, Superman stands for American ideals over political policy.
Superman 28 is a weird comic book, especially for 2017. The bulk of the issue is Superman out of costume, touring D.C. monuments telling his son how awesome America is. It’s a piece of propaganda fiction that would help sell war bonds if this were 1944. And I don’t mean to use the term disparagingly — propaganda doesn’t need to be this surreptitious device of manipulation. What Tomasi and Gleason are trying to achieve here — as Spencer noted — is a recollection of American history through the lens of the individual soldier and the ripple effect that sends through time.
The issue comes off as preachy because it IS, but it’s not because it’s through some agenda — liberal or otherwise. Superman has always been preachy because he stands above the rest of us as an ideal to strive towards. Besides a sometimes skeptical Batman, I don’t think there’s many heroes within the DCU that don’t view Superman as a role model superhero. So it’s no surprise that Superman 28 has The Man of Steel teaching his son (the next generation) how important it is to not lose sight of the people who actually fight our wars.
I think that Superman 28 suffers from a severe lack of conflict however. This doesn’t mean I need a Superman comic book concluding with Supes punching said conflict in its space face but generally there should be something to overcome, right? Grant Morrison’s New 52 Action Comics was very messy, but what I loved about its initial issues was its echoes of the Golden Age “Superman of the people.” Superman stood up to the 1% bullies in a way that only Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster could’ve dreamed of doing. There are plenty of groups that hate those American ideals that Superman stands for — both here and abroad — and it would’ve been nice to see Superman OR Clark stand up to them in some way or another.
Though he might not make the grand political gestures I’d hope for, Superman does do something I often daydream about in traffic: he flies his vehicle over it all. Though the prose might be heavy, Scott Godlewski keeps the imagery light and fluid in Superman 28. Godlewski modernizes Clark Kent’s squareness in a way that I had yet to see by drawing him in a plain hometown t-shirt with patterned shorts and boat shoes — a preppy dweeb I can relate to.
I think my favorite sequence of Godlewski’s is where Clark is sitting restless in bed with Lois. First and foremost this is a great example of Lois and Clark’s dynamic — she knows he needs to fulfill his compulsion for heroism. But visually I really dig the way that Godlewski makes use of the negative space here. Besides the white outline of the four initial panels, the black background envelopes the page. It’s almost as if Clark and Lois’ bed is floating in the same night sky that hangs above their RV in the previous panel. Godlewski then illustrates how Superman is quite literally above us all as Supes transcends the page in the final panel that is unbarred by a white exterior.
Spencer, I realize that I didn’t answer your question about The Korean War. Though you didn’t call attention to it by name, you make a good point about M*A*S*H, which I must admit I never watched. Despite the show’s popularity, Tomasi and Gleason’s labeling of Korea as “The Forgotten War” kind of resonated with me. Pop culturally, I think that we glamorize WWI and WWII and we defame The Vietnam War. With those two extremes, along with wars in the Middle East, I think that The Korean War can get lost in the shuffle.
My relationship with American patriotism is probably as complicated as Spencer’s is. Nevertheless, I am grateful to be living in a country where I can have such an opinion of patriotic indifference/existentialism. In the same way I’m happy that DC Comics can publish a book like Superman 28: I might not be completely onboard with it but I love what it stands for. Finally I’d like to leave you with Superman 28‘s Pixar-esque license plate Easter Egg: AC1-1938. In other words: Action Comics 1, 1938.
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