Superman: The Last Family of Krypton
(2010 - three double-sized issues, DC Comics)
Writer: Cary Bates. Art: Renato Arlem.
A few years ago, DC Comics had instituted an official banner -- "Elseworlds" -- for alternate reality stories re-imagining key properties in different times or circumstances. Literally dozens of Batman "Elseworld" specials were produced. Eventually, though, DC announced it was retiring the Elseworlds label -- either because sales were slumping, or maybe DC editors had too many meetings with new talent where the pitch would go: "Nyah, I don't have an idea for a Justice League story...but I've got a killer idea for an Elseworlds Justice League story!" And of course, once DC re-introduced the concept of parallel realities into its universe, was a story an "Elseworlds" story...or was it a story that took place in the "real" DCU...just in a parallel dimension?
So it was unusual to see this 2010 mini-series sporting the old Elseworlds label. Did that mean it had been sitting on a shelf for years, maybe indicating a lack of editorial enthusiasm...or the opposite, that DC brass was so keen for it, they decided to resurrect the Elseworld's label just to justify publishing it? The other interesting thing is it's written by Cary Bates -- one of the defining shapers of the Superman line from the 1960s to the 1980s. He had left comics (to work in Hollywood) but has made a few forays back into comics in recent years, and now here presents a saga involving the character with whom he is, arguably, most identified.
The premise takes the classic Superman origin, wherein baby Kal-El is rocketed from the doomed planet Krypton to earth, then it tweaks it by having it be not Kal-El alone, but his parents Jor-El and Lara, too, who escape to earth, arriving as a superpowered family. And the ensuing three issues (48 pages of story per comic) explores what would happen if a family of Kryptonians arrived on earth, bringing their Kryptonian experiences and philosophy with them...as well as being simply a family dynamic, as the personalities and values of the different members of the El family (which also comes to include a couple of siblings for Kal-El) sometimes clash with each other.
Some variation on this concept has been aired a time or two before. Such stories often tending to be dramatic, apocalyptic, rife with menace and violence (after all, Kryptonians are unstoppable powerhouses).
So what at first seems odd, even anti-climactic, about Last Family is how kind of low-key it is. The El family isn't some looming threat. At the same time, neither are they squeaky clean paragons. Joe-El uses his power and scientific knowledge to benefit humanity with his Jorel Corp organization...but remains fairly condescending toward humans, always aware of his own superiority. Lara is less arrogant, yet challenges her energy into more spiritual and philosophical pursuits, introducing "Raology" to earth. As mentioned, this is as much a drama about family as a super hero/fantasy adventure, as their separate interests start to divide the two elder Els. And life on earth affects the next generation in different ways, their youngest children -- born on earth -- struggle to find their place. And then there's Kal-El.
Part of the gimmick of Elseworlds stories often seems to be the inevitability of fate, or destiny, how no matter how far the story diverges from established mythos, things will drag the characters back to familiar patterns. So Kal-El's life mirrors the life we are more familiar with as Lara, believing he needs a life out of the spotlight (the El's being international celebrities), gives him into the foster care of the Kents, so that he grows up in Smallville, eventually becomes Superman, and is the only one of the Els to adopt a secret identity. The problem with such Elseworld stories is it can almost be a crutch, or even a handcuff. If the point is too see how this reality diverges -- or doesn't -- from the "normal" one, the thinking seems to be it requires hewing close enough overall to highlight the contrasts (if Kal-El were to become a lounge singer named Bill...it might no longer seem like a Superman story). And some of it is built on an expectation that we know the regular mythology -- so Clark (Kal-El) joining the Daily Planet, or becoming involved with Lois Lane, is kind of filled in in short hand, rather than developed as part of a stand alone narrative. And though much of the story can seem like it's strictly about Kryptonians on earth, later attempts are made to tie it into the greater DC U, showing how the Els inadvertently affect (and alter) the destiny of other would-be DC super heroes (after all, being adults when they arrive on earth, essentially earth is protected by super beings two decades before Kal-El would've become Superman).
Yet even if some of that distracts from the elegance of just telling a completely self-contained tale about aliens on earth, neither is it particularly confusing. Bates is enough of a pro to explain what needs explaining, and doesn't rely on excessive trivia and "in" references that only a hardcore comics fan will get. For example a xenophobic anti-El group protests the Els, and calls itself "Doomsday" -- an obvious "Elseworlds" play on the Superman villain of that name. But noticing that isn't relevant to the story, and if you didn't "get" it, it doesn't hurt your enjoyment of this story one bit.
The overall result is a saga that kind of grows on you. The very fact that Bates eschews the more obvious, and typical, super hero concepts of big battles and ramped up violence becomes a genuine appeal...and maybe harkens back to the Silver Age of Superman comics on which Bates cut his teeth. Much of the super heroing tends to involve the Els interceding in disasters and plane crashes, the occasional acts of out right villainy dealt with often in just a few pages. The drama of the series is most definitely meant to derive largely from the character interaction, and watching these very human super humans interact, with all their nuances, their nobility and pettiness. Indeed, when the story does veer more totally in a hero/villain direction toward the climax, it can almost seem a bit trite -- even as, in a super hero story, one does kind of desire a villain to be thwarted.
At the same time, despite Bates' clear focus on the characterization, it could be argued there is a certain arms length approach to the characters. We are interested in them...more than we are emotionally riveted by them. Even Kal-El is a more a player in an ensemble than a hero through whom the events are filtered. Yet there is a subtlety to the effect. As mentioned, the saga grows on you, page by page, chapter by chapter (the three issues split into a total six chapters).
Aiding this all is the art by Renato Arlem. Sometimes even a good artist ill-matched with the material can have detrimental results. I was unfamiliar with Arlem, and what with his interior pencils hidden behind Felipe Massafera's beautiful, fully painted Alex Ross-esque covers, I wasn't sure what to expect. But he has a nice, realist style, full of richly rendered environments. There's perhaps a harsh, European vibe to the art, evoking maybe an overly gritty feel at times. But his art reminded me of a mix of Frank Quitely and Howard Chaykin -- the latter inparticular with a kind of cold, rigid inking (although not as creative in the panel compositions). The Quitely/Chaykin/European influence can also be detected in the the way he lovingly details Lara's backside in form hugging pants in a few panels...in a series not otherwise prone to salaciousness. So although the art may partly contribute to my sense of a certain aloofness from the characters...it's a trade off, but I'd definitely say it's a major plus more than a minor minus. And, indeed, it suits an old school Superman story, Superman -- to my mind -- often benefitting best from a realist art style (ala Curt Swan).
The Superman mythos has changed over the years...and changed back. In the 1980s, John Byrne and DC revamped the legend after The Crisis, re-imagining Krypton as a cold, spiritually dead society on the wane. But over the years, writers have started to drag the legend back to the earlier vision, and in this saga, Jor-El and Lara are definitely evocative of their pre-Crisis versions, in wardrobe and personalities. A funny little aside is how there are frequent homages to the 1978 Superman movie in the story, bits of dialogue meant to evoke that movie. One can understand younger creators being influenced by that film, but it's funny that Bates would be as much, given his association with the character pre-dated that Hollywood film. But in that vein, Arlem's Jor-El, though starting out as a square jawed Superman type, by the final issue is starting to look a little like Marlon Brando, who played Jor-El in the movie.
Anyway, The Last Family of Krypton presents the scenario of a family of powerful aliens arriving on earth, influencing human technology, philosophy and evolution, climaxing in a desperate showdown with evil that threatens the very planet...yet manages to remain, at its core, a story about family, a little loving, a little dysfunctional, messy, and all too human. And it's that very low key focus that maybe emerges as its greatest strength. Bates presents a story with a kind of Silver Age "imaginary story" vibe, yet told with a modern subtlety and sophistication...for an enjoyable effect.