Not Quite a Moral Challenge in Superman 40

By Mark Mitchell

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

While Superman’s abilities to punch hard, fly fast, and jump high are the sizzle to his steak, the real meat (pardon the tortured metaphor) of Clark Kent as a character is his strong moral center. Comic books are lousy with characters possessing superpowers, but only a precious few represent truth and goodness like the man from Krypton. That’s why the Superman stories that really stick with us are the ones that find ways to challenge his moral certitude — and by challenging it, ultimately end up amplifying it even more. At multiple points, James Robinson and Doug Mahnke’s Superman 40 is on the precipice of testing the Man of Steel’s philosophical strength in interesting ways, but never shows any interest in doing so.

For instance, there’s the seed of an idea in Superman watching a one hour long holographic simulation of Krypton’s destruction as a way of marking the anniversary and honoring his home planet. It’s an act of self-flagellation unmoored from Superman’s generally upbeat attitude, and asking why Superman needs this moment of bleak rememberance once a year seems worthwhile. Does it act as the yin that centers him and balances out his sunnier yang? But Superman 40 isn’t interested in asking why. Instead, the fact that Superman would subject him and his son to such a display is taken for granted, and the issue quickly shifts focus to Galymayne — another planet on the brink of destruction — as Superman and Superboy rush to save it from the same fate as Krypton.

Here, again, is another missed opportunity to challenge Superman. When he and Superboy arrive on Galymayne they’re shocked to find that the High Priest and his followers don’t want to be saved. They consider their planet’s destruction to be the will of their god, and if the citizens of Galymayne genuinely want to die with their planet, who is Superman to tell them they can’t? Unfortunately, the morality of this choice is never truly considered since the High Priest is portrayed as malicious from the get-go, and the story quickly devolves into a chase sequence that ends with the Kent boys being saved by Klain, a scientist determined to save his world. This conflict between faith and science is ripe for exploration (see also: many episodes of many Star Trek shows), but is weighted so heavily from the get go that this arc’s destination seems obvious.

Any Superman story that primarily challenges Superman’s physical strength has a high bar to jump over; Superman is so OP and has been around for so long that it takes a great deal of originality to create a challenge that doesn’t feel rote. Superman 40 relies on the least interesting elements of its story, but the germ for something unique is there.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

2 comments on “Not Quite a Moral Challenge in Superman 40

  1. This felt vaguely like the Saga arc where the heroes were on the doomed… umm, moon? Whatever it was.

    The problem is, this comic dove headfirst into Three Stooges level emotional resonance. Mark’s point about watching Krypton’s doom is right on point. This could have been a whole comic, exploring what it means to Superman and through inheritance, what it means to Jon. Instead, it actually has Jon joking about not remembering what day it is and leads to, “Let’s do it!” from Jon, like they’re going to go put in the last board in a treehouse that took all week to make.

    They rewatched 2 billion souls snuffed out of existence and it took 3 panels to forget to be somber and reverential because they were interrupted by the “CHING DING” of the alarm.

    And I’m not going to get into the caricature of religion in the planet they tried to save.

    The story was pretty dreadful.

    Art: I don’t understand some of the choices – why are they wearing goggles? Are the aliens wearing evil clown masks or are those their noses? But Mahnke consistently draws a cool Superman and Superboy and I like how the comic looks. I think the colors are a bit muddied which tends to happen in space comics, but I at least found most of this good to look at.

    But damn, this wasn’t my favorite start to an arc.

  2. Didn’t Green Lanterns JUST do almost this exact story? And in one issue, nonetheless?

    I didn’t hate this issue the way everybody else here did, I think there’s some really nice stuff between Clark and Jon, but yeah, mostly messy nonetheless. Where’s Tomasi and Gleason? I wonder why their storylines have been so sporadic the last year?

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