GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Superman - page 6
 

Superman: The Last God of Krypton 1999 (SC GN) 48 pgs.

cover by The Bros. HildebrandtWritten by Walter Simonson. Painted by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt.
Letters: Ken Lopez. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

The problem with Superman: The Last God of Krypton can best be summed up in a synopsis: an ancient Krypton goddess, Cythonna, shows up on earth with a bad hate on for all life, and Kryptonians inparticular. Superman fights her. Superman wins. End of synopsis. That's about it. Sure, Superman and Lois do some hand wringing over how potentially unbeatable Cythonna is, Lex Luthor has a bit part, and Cythonna toys with the idea of making Supes the poppa of her children, but in essence that really brief, simplistic scenario describes the story pretty well. There are no significant twists or turns or surprises.

Not a lot to justify 48 pages and $7.95 (CDN.) is it?

The most interesting scene, a jokey "domestic" sequence involving Clark and Lois and a libidinous cub reporter near the beginning, is soured by the subsequent grisly demise of said cub reporter.

The selling point here is the fully painted art by the Brothers Hildebrandt, and that seems to have led Walt Simonson and his editors to conclude they didn't need anything else -- like a great story -- to boost our interest. The painted art is neat, but problematic. The Hildebrandts, frankly, are no Alex Ross. They're pretty good with Lois Lane (though her red hair kind of threw me -- but I guess that was DC's take on Lois at the time) and other, normal, figures, but their Superman and Cythonna lean towards cartoony (as the cover shows) and their action scenes aren't the best. So though it's fun to read a Superman story given the painted treatment, they fail to bring the eerie reality to it that Alex Ross can.

The story opens well, but is pretty dull overall, with some flying about and an extended climactic fist fight, but a dearth of true imagination. At one point, reading up on Kryptonese legends about Cythonna, Superman and Lois wonder if the myths are real. In the old, pre-Crisis days, Superman might've just broken the time barrier and found out -- sure, outrageous, even a little silly, but at least it would be off-beat, opening up story elements like maybe Cythonna meeting him in past and present, suggesting all sorts of nifty plot twists. Cythonna herself is painfully one-dimensional, just a mean lady, killing people for no reason, without anything approaching a genuine, interesting character. Superman himself isn't the brightest Bic in the pack, either. Superman stories used to revolve around Supes thinking his way through problems. Here, the extent of Superman's cleverness is an idea that's so obvious, Lois assumes he had been planning it all along...but Superman only thought of it at the last minute. He even needs Luthor to supply him with a Kryptonite bomb.

Ultimately, Superman: The Last God of Krypton seems like a story that should have been presented as a single issue, regular comic, but was expanded to be a vehicle for the Brothers Hildebrandt. It's not awful, and trudges along reasonably, but it's unimaginative and easily forgettable.

Cover price: $7.95 CDN./$4.95 USA


Superman and The Legion of Super-Heroes 2008 (HC & SC TPB) 144 pgs.

cover by FrankWritten by Geoff Johns. Pencils by Gary Frank. Inks by Jon Sibal.
Colours: Dave McCaig. Letters: Rob Leigh. Editors: Matt Idelson, Nachie Castro.

Reprinting: Action Comics #858-863 (2007-2008)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

One could argue the problem with modern comics is not their obsessive, fetishtic continuity, where every story ties into ever other...nor is it that they completely disregard continuity, changing things willy nilly as some new creative team (or editorial regime) comes along. No, the problem is: they kind of need to be one thing or the other.

I mean, in this story arc, why does Perry White chastise Clark Kent for having no friends other than Jimmy? Isn't Perry his friend? Isn't Clark married to Lois Lane?

Which brings us to Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes -- how or why or when or if this relates to DC Comics' continuity...I don't know. I mean, obviously it does. I guess. But it seems to be ignoring a lot of recent mythology and events as it deliberately harkens all the way back to pre-Crisis continuity. That was back when Superman started out as Superboy and he would frequently team up with teen heroes from the 30th Century for time/space spanning adventures. That was all erased by the Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Legion of Super-Heroes had undergone more than one reboot over the years, and even as this story arc was running in Action Comics...there was a monthly Legion comic featuring a somewhat different take on the team.

But if you've long since given up trying to understand DC's incoherent continuity, this can be a lot of fun. Particularly for older readers...like myself.

The story has Superman being contacted by Brainiac 5, one of the Legion of Super Heroes he used to hang out with as a teen but hasn't seen in years (and the flashbacks are deliberately vague as to whether he was supposed to be active as "Superboy" at that time or not). Seems there's trouble in the 30th Century and they need Superman's help. But when Superman arrives in the future, he finds it's worse than he could imagine. Earth has become a xenophobic police state and though Superman hooks up with a few fugitive Legionnaires, Brainiac 5 himself has vanished, and he was the only one with a plan, or knew why he had summoned Superman. Too make matters worse, a team of super powered beings, calling themselves the Justice League, have misappropriated Superman's own legend to their ends, fuelling the xenophobic philosophy by claiming earth's greatest champion (Supes) was an earthmen.

And the resulting six issue arc works a lot better than it really has any right too.

After a strong opening issue, and a great climactic revelation in that issue, the story falters a bit, as the twists and revelations become a bit fewer, with scenes where we, the reader, are told things, then the information gets repeated later as if writer Geoff Johns forgot. There are a few plot holes and logic lapses. And despite the potentially provocative themes of prejudice and persecution, the story never really seems to act as a profound examination of intollerance. The villains we learn early were all rejected applicants for Legion membership...which seems to be their sole motivation. Johns could be intending it as a comment on the trivial roots of prejudice, but it just seems kind of goofy. Further adding to the problem is the villains know they've lied about Superman's origins -- it might've been more effective if they believed in their own propaganda.

There's a certain irony in Johns tackling this theme, as I'd read some on-line reviewers who've criticized other works by Johns as Xenophobic (and I mentioned some qualms in a Hawkman story). In fact, the way the origin caption for Superman describes him as fighting for truth, justice and "the American way" is a curious contradiction in a story that criticizes such parochial jingoism. Another problem I've had with some of Johns' other work is that he seems to have an unhealthy obsession with violence and sadism. When there's a scene revealing one of the villains has a surgical fetish and doesn't use anesthesia -- well, I almost chuckled out loud, thinking, "Geoff, Geoff, Geoff."

In fact, violence is a problem with a lot of modern comics writers (like Johns, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, etc.) who clearly feel a nostalgia for the comics of their childhood...but can't resist upping the violence and brutality. Though not as bad as some stories, there are certainly aspects here that seem inappropriate for both Superman and the Legion both, and rather contradictory. At one point a character specifically states the Legion doesn't kill...even as some of the visuals would seem to suggest the opposite (in one scene freezing two guys into popsicles!)

And of course, the notion that Superman's legend is so much at the core of the turmoil is also awkward. In recent years, there has been a real attempt at DC to almost deify Superman in a way that just seems...creepy (and I suppose it dates back to Elliott S! Maggin). In the original Legion stories we knew Superman was famous in the future, and the Legion had been inspired by him...but after that, it was barely even alluded to. Here, the misuse of his legend can reshape an entire civilization, and the Legionnaires frame their actions by saying: "What would Superman do?" as if referencing a holy scripture -- it makes them seem more like a cult than a team.

Still, if the story arc fails to quite live up to the potential of the deeper themes inherent in the premise, then as a swashbuckling adventure, it works quite well. Johns throws in a lot of running about and cliff hangers with an almost corny glee that's enjoyable. Despite the grim and gritty...there's also a lot of fun and witty quips as if Johns is having a ball and wants us to, as well, dragging out all the old "toys", including the misfit Legion of Substitute Heroes. Super hero stories set in Dystopian futures can often be quite effective and this is no exception.

Above all...it is just fun to see the old Legion back at play. Or at least a reasonable facsimile (after all, these are supposed to be slightly older, slightly jaded versions of them). As much as I was really enjoying Jim Shooter's run on the recent Legion comic, there is a nostalgic rush to seeing the older characterizations (Brainiac 5, though a little arrogant, is more affable) and Johns' choice of characters to focus on -- the Legion having too many members to use them all equally -- maybe reflects a decision to further emphasize the pre-Crisis differences, using characters like Wildfire and Dawnstar who I'm not sure have been used much in recent years.

A big appeal here is the art by Gary Frank. Frank has a detailed, clean, realist style that is a nice contrast to a lot of modern comics artists who go for the more stylized, cartoony, or manga influence. It's ideally suited to this teaming of Superman and the Legion, since both are often identified with Curt Swan who also had a clean, realist style. I could well imagine a different art style negatively impacting on the effectiveness of the story. Frank has a nice eye for composition and story telling -- the second-to-last page of the first chapter is a perfect example. Although there is a harshness to his line work that means his women aren't that always that attractive -- despite his emphasis on cleavage (and maybe his men aren't, either, but that's for another to judge). I'd also quibble with his decision to redesign the Legion's costumes. If this is supposed to be a grand and glorious return of the "classic" Legion, the nostalgic angle would be better evoked by sticking truer to the classic visuals.

I began this review commenting on how comics are a weird battle between continuity and those who constantly want to reinvent things. I mentioned that the themes of prejudice and xenophobia aren't as well explored as they could be. But with a lot of comics, you're never sure if the "issues" are meant to be taken literally...or as a metaphor for the comics themselves. The very notion of a story where Superman finds his legend being misused by those who wish to imagine him as an earthmen could be seen as a jibe at the mid-1980s revamp of Superman where there was a deliberate attempt to shift the nature of Superman from being an alien on earth (as the previous generation of stories had seemed to be) to an American who just happened to have alien DNA.

Anyway, despite my qualms here and there, I really enjoyed this arc. Part of the appeal is that it is an epic arc that's relatively self-contained -- a grand adventure. I say relatively, because there are passing references to a brief appearance from some Legionnaires a few issues earlier and, more glaringly, because a couple of times the characters make references suspecting there's another force manipulating things. But for the most part, you can pick it up, read it cover to cover, and put it down again, satisfied. Yes, Frank's art definitely goes a long way to shoring up the weaknesses in the plot, and it probably helps to have a sneaking affection for the "classic" Legion of Super-Heroes -- but ultimately, pretty enjoyable.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the comics.

Cover price: ___


Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman 1994 (SC TPB) 192 pages

Written by John Byrne, Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, Dan Jurgens. Art by John Byrne, Ron Frenz, Dan Jurgens, Bob McLeod, Jerry Ordway, Kurt Schaffenberger. Inks by various.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The Man of Steel #2 (1986 mini-series), Superman (2nd series) #9 (a 7 page Lex Luthor story), #11, Annual #1, Action Comics #600 (an 8 page Lois Lane story), #655, Adventures of Superman #445, 462, 466

Additional notes: introduction by John Byrne

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviews can be as important for what they tell you about a book as they are for any parochial opinion a reviewer such as myself might offer. You don't just read 'em for our opinion (after all, who are we?) but to get an idea of what's between the glossy covers (since often comic shops keep 'em in bags, or you might be ordering them sight unseen on the internet). Believe me, simply figuring out what a book is can be as challenging as figuring out whether it's any good.

So to start with, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, isn't quite what I thought it might be (and to confuse things further, there was a Superman novel by C.J. Cherryh called Lois & Clark). This TPB was published to tie-in with the then-airing TV series of the same name, with series' stars Dean Cain and Terri Hatcher on the cover. The book contains the tag line "The stories that inspired the hit ABC television show", implying it's a collection of comics that were adapted into episodes. That doesn't seem to be the case. As well, I assumed they'd be culled from the long history of Superman comics, focusing on the Lois & Clark relationship. Again, I was wrong...on both counts.

The issues reprinted are from a narrow four year period, 1986-1990, starting with the rebooting of the Superman mythos for the modern age and Lois' first encounter with Supes in the 1986 mini-series (also collected in the TPB The Man of Steel). And though some stories touch on the their relationship, many don't. In one story ("Metropolis - 900 Miles" from Superman #9) neither character even appears (that story was also reprinted in the the non-fiction book Superman: the Complete History)! The collection starts out with Lois & Clark as strangers, ends with them dating, but doesn't really convey how the relationship evolved. And since the collection was released in 1994, at a point when Supes had revealed his identity to Lois and (I think) the two were already married, it's not clear why the selections cut off in 1990.

I've commented on what it ain't, so let's now look at what it is.

For the most part, I have no idea why the stories chosen were chosen. It's not that any are truly bad, but they're mainly bland and unmemorable. Some of the stories try to tackle issues: animal rights, homelessness, but often by relying more on in-your-face editorials by the characters than by successfully shaping the issues into dramas with human faces. The re-introduction of Mr. Mxyzpltx to modern Superman stories is reasonably entertaining (ironically, it seems like a throwback to precisely the stories modern Superman writers think their above), even if John Byrne's tinkering with the concept seems inane. "Tear's for Titano" (from Annual #1) starts out promising, mixing serious musings on the issue of animal experimentation with a silly, larger than life story of a giant ape wrecking Metropolis...but the story is largely an extended fight scene that's too thin for its 38 pages.

And if the plots are a tad dull, so are the characters.

John Byrne writes an introduction and, frankly, maybe creative people should resist the temptation to expound upon their work. Once again he writes an essay explaining how brilliant he is, how he salvaged Superman from the wreck of the last thirty years, how prior to him Lois Lane was a misogynistic revenge fantasy (the stuck up girl who never gets the man) -- the same interpretation that Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs had of the character in their landmark non-fiction book, The Comic Book Heroes (1997 edition). In both cases, I can't help thinking Byrne, Jones and Jacobs are revealing more about their own psyches than about the intentions of past generations of Superman writers. But the point is, based on the issues collected here, what Byrne neglects to mention is that in his strive to strip away all the gimmicks and baggage of the last few decades, he and his fellow writers have simply succeeded in making Supes and his friends rather...bland. Lois included! This is particularly accentuated in many of these stories where the adventure plots are often subordinant to following the characters around in (unresolved) sub-plots. Whereas in some comics such scenes can be gripping and intriguing, here I was rather indifferent.

Presumably the chief intention of this collection was to try and woo non-comics reading Lois & Clark fans into reading the comics. That is, a fan of the TV show picks up this collection 'cause of the association, and gets turned onto the comics themselves. Unfortunately, as a proselytizer for the comics industry, I don't think this collection cuts it.

It seems more aimed at fanboys than newcomers anyway, with the emphasis on sub-plots that don't resolve, references to events that happened outside of this collection, or a story that's a joke on Marvel's Fantastic Four (Adv. of Superman #466 -- though "joke" is the wrong word for such a grim and, frankly, pointless tale...though I've subsequently realized it's not quite so pointless as it introduces a character who would later be important to other Superman stories). And not only does this collection downplay the romantic aspect that, after all, fans of the TV show liked, but what's also conspicuously absent from the modern Superman stories is humour. Superman in the '70s often had a charming lightness to it, with running gags involving klutzy Clark Kent or badinage between the characters. And Lois & Clark (the TV series) was, after all, a comedy-drama. Here, though, there's a stodgy earnestness to the characters.

Superman fans looking for a convenient grab bag of tales from that period should enjoy it...others might be better off trying other Superman collections. And Lois & Clark fans might as well stick to reruns.

Cover price: $13.50 CDN./ $9.95 CDN.


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