Clark Controls the Narrative in Superman 4

by Patrick Ehlers

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

Earth is trapped in the Phantom Zone and Superman is being attacked by Rogol Zaar and an army of Phantom Zone prisoners! It’s a dire situation, and not one that Superman has any confidence that he can solve by punching it. Instead, Superman has to redefine his terms of victory, drawing Rogol Zaar out of Earth’s atmosphere just long enough for Ray Palmer to shrink the planet and slide it out of the Phantom Zone. Clark is able to accomplish this because he controls the narrative, even as Rogol thinks he has the upper hand. Rogol’s tactics are better, but Superman controls the goals those tactics are meant to achieve. Artist Ivan Reis and writer Brian Michael Bendis fill the issue with examples of Superman controlling both the stories about him and the method and medium in which those stories are told.

This is most obviously articulated in a flashback story that shows Clark imparting some fatherly advice to his son. Jon’s upset that someone is spreading some kind of lie about the Super family. Neither the who or the why of this scenario is important, and Bendis never gives it to us. The lesson, as summarized by Jon, is patience.

It’s actually kind of reminiscent of Jor El’s speech from the 1976 film Superman. “They can be a great people, Kal El, if they wish to be…” But in this context, Clark is trying to tell his son to pick the fights that matter, and let the rest of them melt away. The conflict, the fight, the story, only has meaning if they let it have meaning. He’s controlling the narrative. It’s the same thing he tries to do with Jax-Ur, convincing him that teaming up with Rogol is treasonous against Krypton.

Reis has Superman physically controlling the comic book page the entire issue. Right from the first page, the red blur of Supes’ cape determines the physical boundaries for a panel contained within it.

It might seem like those top corners are awkwardly cut off by the lines of Superman’s cape, but it makes a clear statement: this panel is contained within the cape. While Rogol thinks he’s got control of this situation, it’s Superman who determines how physical space on the page is used. Take a look at any big action beat – they’re all lead and framed by Superman himself, with Rogol and Jax-Ur nestled within the parameters he’s set for them. My favorite example comes on the penultimate page.

Up, down, left, right – Superman has a position of dominance in every extremity on this page. Even has he’s getting pulled back onto this Phantom Planetoid to keep fighting Rogol Zaar, he’s in control of the story.

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

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