GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Superman - page 7
 

Superman / Supergirl: Maelstrom
is (for the moment) still reviewed here in my mini-series section.


The Man of Steel coverThe Man of Steel 1988 (SC TPB) 150 pgs.

Written and Illustrated by John Byrne. Inked by Dick Giordano.
Colours: Tom Ziuko. Letters: John Constanza. Editor: Andrew Helfer.

Reprinting: The Man of Steel #1-6 (1986 mini-series)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

The mini-series that helped kick off DC Comics' "new" age, when it overhauled its entire line in the mid-'80s, The Man of Steel re-tells Superman's origin, as well as his various initial encounters with Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Batman, etc., diverging somewhat from what had, up to that point, been established DC "reality".

Curiously, John Byrne hasn't shaped it into a single story, nor has he even presented a "Year One" sort of format. Instead, he leaps months, even years, between issues (from Superman's arrival in Metropolis, to the final issue, something like five or six years have been covered). In a way, The Man of Steel seems less like a mini-series, than an on-going title of which only some of the issues are reprinted. It's an odd editorial decision, to basically let one man (and his editor) map out Superman's legend, as opposed to allowing it to unfold naturally as later stories (and creative teams) require it.

What's even more curious is that I enjoyed it.

That might seem like an odd statement. After all, John Byrne is a giant in the field, and The Man of Steel mini-series was initially hyped as the most significant comic since Action Comics #1 first introduced Superman in 1938. But I'd kind of been ambivalent toward Byrne as a writer-artist, rarely impressed with his writing, and feeling his once-great art style deteriorated from wearing too many hats. I initially picked up the first two issues of The Man of Steel...and didn't bother with the rest. It was only recently, once I'd fallen back into comics, that I decided to track the remaining issues down, just for the heckuv it.

That's why I'm kind of surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I didn't expect to. Although, maybe it was that very lack of expectation that helped.

Art wise, this is well drawn, with a nice sense of composition. And I don't think inker Dick Giordano's contribution can be ignored. Often Byrne's art, particularly when he inked himself, could seem cold, even oily, with a flatness to the figures. Giordano brings a softer, rounder look to the pencils, giving them depth and warmth. I was also pleasantly surprised by the dialogue, with some nice scenes of character interaction, and even clever lines. There's good mood and a pleasant, laid-back ambience in art and writing. In fact, the strongest parts tend to be the character bits.

I think one of the reasons I quit on the series the first time around is the plotting. As mentioned above, this isn't a single story building inexorably from issues to issue, yet Byrne hasn't really delivered great, imaginative plots for the individual stories, either. He's so busy introducing his versions of these characters, he hasn't thought to introduce them in stories that are memorable in and of themselves. Perhaps the strongest story is Superman's first encounter with a Bizarro clone -- a plot Byrne freely borrows from the original story published in Superboy #68 (reprinted in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told). Even then, Byrne's version isn't quite as good (this despite his claim in an editorial published in the original mini-series that comics have become more sophisticated).

Intellectually, I can think of so many reasons not to like The Man of Steel. The thin plotting, the greater violence (with Superman involved in hostage takings, terrorist attacks and, with Batman, a serial killer -- not to mention Batman himself as a more brutal character) while lacking the flamboyance that used to make Superman stories fun. Uneven characterization -- this is supposed to be a deeper, more sophisticated take on Superman, and particularly Supes-as-Clark Kent, yet Byrne doesn't bother showing us that Clark had any interest in journalism prior to joining the Daily Planet. Why did he chose that career? A lot of the series is like that -- though supposedly starting from scratch, it relies on the fact that we already know the particulars, so Byrne doesn't bother fleshing it out. This becomes problematic when, in the final chapter, Supes is staggered to learn he's from another planet -- the reader assumes he knew that!

There're also aspects that go unresolved. A couple of panels in the first issue show a shadowy figure lurking about (including in the barn doorway of the last page) and another question is raised in the final issue -- neither of which are answered. For me, a mini-series should resolve, else why publish it as a mini-series, instead of just an on-going series?

But all that naysaying falls before the fact that I did like The Man of Steel, for whatever reason. I looked forward to starting on each chapter. And this despite the fact that another reason I didn't expect to like it is because I'm just not big on the whole post-Crisis DC Comics reality, particularly in regards to Supes.

There are a lot of ways, subtle and not so subtle, that Byrne's Superman diverged from the guy I grew up with. The Kents are still alive, Luthor's a business man, not a scientific genius, Supes' powers aren't quite as powerful (though he can still do wonderfully silly things like inhaling a roomful of gas), and Clark Kent isn't quite as nerdy. Changes that, I'll admit, I take some issue with. The Kent's being alive robs the character of his isolation and the undercurrent of poignancy; and surely the mythos, the whole pop cultural/socio-political resonance of Superman-Clark Kent, is the idea of the mousey guy who's really a Super-man. In a way, this Superman seems to be a rejection of the whole egalitarian thesis (not to mention empowerment of the dis-empowered) -- that, deep down inside, even a schmuck is potentially a hero -- that fired the character, and the genre, to begin with. Perhaps, in its largely fruitless push for mainstream acceptance, comics are rejecting the very nerds, readers and creators, that invented the genre (in favour of just a different class of nerd). Sad, if true. It's like some teen drama, where a character blows off his true friends to run with the hip crowd, only too late realizing the error of his ways.

This dual identity also provided for an intriguing (and subtle) question. Everyone knew that nebbishy Clark Kent was a false mask for macho Superman...but there were occasional hints that there was more of square Clark in Superman than even Superman realized. As well, the modern, more confident Clark raises character problems -- would Clark really proudly display his high school football trophies knowing he won them thanks to super-powers? Wouldn't he, if anything, be ashamed of his dishonest "wins"?

But the biggest problem I have with the modern Superman is the decision to make him clearly, and uncategorically, an earthman who just happens to be from outer space. Even more, Byrne, the British-born Canadian, insists repeatedly that Superman is, first and foremost, an AMERICAN (even pairing him off against foreign terrorists at one point).

The Superman that had evolved throughout the Silver Age was, in many ways, an alien, the proverbial Stranger in a Strange Land. Sure, it was kind of silly -- the guy had lived his whole life on earth. But he never really quite belonged ("like a pearl among the swine" as Steppenwolf once sang), seeming most at home in his Fortress of Solitude, surrounded by Kryptonian artifacts, writing his memoirs in Kryptonese. This gave Superman, easily one of the more simple, gentle-in-tone of DC's comic books, a touching undercurrent of melancholy, of poignant longing -- Supes, literally, could never go home, 'cause home had blown up long ago. There was also an undercurrent of religious symbolism, as the only begotten son of the Utopic planet Krypton is sent to earth. Superman, it has been argued, was the Christian story of Jesus reinterpreted by a couple of Jewish kids and translated for a secular 20th Century. Byrne clearly rejects all that. Superman is a good ol' boy whose values have been shaped by heartland America, not an alien civilization. Byrne even takes the extra step of de-romanticizing Krypton, robbing it of its Utopic trappings. Where once the planet's destruction could be viewed as a cosmic tragedy, now it's just the mercy killing of a civilization on the wane. Which is ironic, because in recent years and comics, DC has chosen to actually deify Superman in a way even his Silver Age version wasn't -- stories glorify him, even as the character seems less God-like.

Byrne's Superman is just a little more like every other super-guy on the market... which may have been the intention.

This is a Superman refashioned for the Republican '80s -- no longer is Superman the immigrant Jeww (as some have suggested) but an American WASP. Nor is there the shadow of melancholy clinging to him. And he now reflects American values -- not values imbibed from a dead civilization.

All that's pretty heavy analyse, particularly since, as I've repeatedly said, I enjoyed the Man of Steel. But I thought it was worth mentioning.

The fall-out from this mini-series is, well, unclear. Many of the things Byrne and DC tried to eliminate from the mythos have, I believe, been re-introduced in recent years (the Fortress of Solitude, Superman robots, Kandor, multi-coloured Kryptonite), while things Byrne retained (Supes having powers as a boy) have been written out -- suggesting that this "milestone" was less than permanent. But then, that's true of the whole post-Crisis reality. I'm not even sure how much of this is "official" DC continuity anymore. And for a series that was hyped as soooo significant, with the first issue published with two separate covers, I'm not even sure it's appreciated much in the collector's market.

Still, for all my negativity, read in the right mood, The Man of Steel is a pleasant journey through the life of Superman -- at least, one version of him, anyway.

This is a review of the stories published in the Man of Steel mini-series

Cover price: __ CDN/ $7.50 USA.


Superman: Red Son - cover by Dave JohnsonSuperman: Red Son 2004 (SC TPB) 166 pages

Written by Mark Millar. Pencils by Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett. Inks by Andrew Robinson, Walden Wong.
Colours: Paul Mounts. Letters: Ken Lopez. Editor: Mike McAvennie, Tom Palmer, Jr.

Reprinting: the three issue, prestige format mini-series

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

Number of readings: 2

Additional notes: intro by Tom DeSanto; sketch gallery; covers

I recently re-read this (almost a decade later) and then re-read my review below to see if it warrants a re-write. Funnily, this still pretty much says everything I would say now. The only caveat I would make is that my review is maybe a tad too academic, or cerebral (perhaps because I went into it expecting it to be grittier, more "realistic"). I think most of my points -- pro and con -- are valid, the only thing I perhaps fail to fully emphasize...is that I really liked Red Son. It really is an engaging, imaginative work and does hold up -- in the sometimes over-glutted world of graphic novels, collections, and "Elseworlds" sagas -- as a stand-out work: mixing fantasy and fun super hero-ing with deeper themes and ideas. Now: on with the review:

DC Comics Elseworlds line of alternate reality stories have seen both major and minor efforts presenting mini-series and one-shots re-interpreting their line of characters in different realities, postulating various divergences from established DCU history. But few seem to have engendered as much controversy as Superman: Red Son.

The premise has Superman coming of age in the 1950s -- having been raised, not in Kansas, USA, but in what was then the Soviet Union. And he's a good communist, to boot.

Those expecting a nitty-gritty examination of Superman raised in the paranoia drenched Soviet Union will be disappointed. This isn't the Superman story as imagined by, say, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Nor is it a serious dissertation on capitalism vs. communism. This is a fantasy, a bigger-than-life spectacle re-imagining the entire world re-shaped by the presence of super beings, with action and intrigue. At its heart, it is a character study. And a rumination on the nature of power.

You see, this Superman isn't much different from the one who appears in the monthly comics. He's still a good-hearted champion...except he's been raised in a state where the use, and abuse, of power is accepted as the norm. In a sense, it posits the question that if Superman is the same, but raised in a different environment, how then does that affect his out-look? This is still a Superman who believes he has an obligation to help people...the question is, how far will he go to provide that help?

It begins in the 1950s, at first focusing on the United States and the reaction as the world learns of this Soviet Super Man. Writer Mark Millar nicely captures some of the likely paranoia of the times as panic spreads and people report seeing flying men all over the place. Then the story shifts to Supes himself. Millar's Soviet Union is, perhaps, a bit too squeaky clean, with even Joseph Stalin seeming almost avuncular rather than a despotic tyrant (but them some have said Stalin could be personable as long as you weren't on his bad side). But, in a sense, that's the point. We are not seeing the Soviet Union from the point of view of the man in the street, but from Superman's more priviledged position as a favourite son of the revolution. In America Supes gains an arch nemesis in Lex Luthor, here a synergy of the pre-Crisis and post-Crisis versions of the character (a scientific genius and a big business man).

The saga spreads over the next few decades as we see a radical re-shaping of global politics. Under Superman's ostensibly benevolent guidance, the U.S.S.R. actually becomes a thriving enterprise, wooing more and more countries to its side, the United States increasingly an isolated, unstable third world nation. How a man with super powers can create a strong economy is never really addressed, which is why you can't take the story as a serious political thriller. The how isn't important, it's what happens from there that's important. Superman sees himself as a benevolent force, ruling through compassion and by heroic example...even as he authorizes behaviour modifying surgery on dissidents. While Lex Luthor is America's greatest hope...even as he is, well, Lex Luthor. At times, Millar can be nicely subtle, portraying a reality where we aren't always sure where right and wrong lie. At one point, a character observes that Luthor might be as much of a demagogue as Superman, to which another replies, "but at least he speaks English". A cutting comment on knee jerk nationalism. There's a particularly effective line when Superman remarks that his system must be working because no one complains...not even in private. It takes a moment or two for the chilling implications of that comment to take effect.

Throughout, the pacing is good, and the dialogue effective (witty at times, heart felt at others) and with Superman not a black hat bad guy, he can retain our sympathy. Albeit, Millar so focuses on the broad canvas ideas that the human drama can sometimes be sidelined, such as Lana Lang, here a Russian peasant, who crops up...but doesn't really affect the story much, or a Soviet security chief whose relationship with Supes never quite rises above being a plot device.

To be honest, it's not like much of this hasn't been tackled before, most notably in Squadron Supreme. And conceptually (not so much socio-politically) there are echoes of JLA: Earth 2.

It's a testament to Millar and company that those comparisons, though noteworthy, don't really detract from Red Son. Because the work is quite strong in its own right, the presentation grandiose. It's a thoughtful examination of serious concepts, while also a fun, larger-than-life fantasy; the heart of the thing is character-based, even as there are plenty of action scenes. It's a strength (and a weakness) of the book that, despite the obvious high-minded intentions, it seems, first and foremost, entertainment.

That can be a mixed bag. Lex Luthor's super-genius borders on goofy which, I think, (I hope) is part of the point. Millar wants this to be a gee whiz super hero adventure, even as it surrounds a core of serious discourse. The "reality" of the story is more meant to be symbolic, to allow the themes to stand untainted by the demands of reality.

Some of the controversy the book has acquired is intentional, as is made clear in the introduction by filmmaker Tom DeSanto and by interviews Mark Millar has given. It's meant as a metaphor, with Superman's U.S.S.R. standing in for George W. Bush's U.S.A., asking: just because a nation has the power to re-shape the world, does it have the right? (Again, we're speaking in theoretical ideals -- the quagmire that is "post"-war Iraq seems to show that it ain't that easy, even for a superpower, to exert its will). Such politicizing may turn off some readers, but they can always pick up JLA: Liberty and Justice instead which seemed, at least metaphorically, as an endorsement of the war on Iraq.

Millar's story, though, encounters some unfortunate bumps. Millar suggests that Supes, being an alien, may be interfering in a world he has no right to be interfering with. Does that mean if Superman was an earthman, everything would be all right? And since Supes is, symbolically, an immigrant, when does he get to be treated as equal to everyone else? I don't think Millar intends his point to have a racist or anti-immigrant theme -- far from it. I think he's just imbibed one too many comics tackling similar themes using similar language. There are also moral qualms raised. If Superman is, essentially, a decent man who, nonetheless finds himself taking on the role of villain...does that mean Lex Luthor, who's actions are clearly villainous, is a hero? In fact, Luthor no more seems to represent democracy, nor the "average" man, than does Superman. The presentation of Luthor as this uber-genius led me to wonder if the twist ending would be that it was just a dream fantasy of Lex's (it isn't). But Millar seems to let the epilogue get away from him a bit, jettisoning his own themes to set up his (admittedly clever) final scene

The art is quite frankly, beautiful. I'd only seen Dave Johnson's art as a cover artist, where I wasn't always impressed with his craggy figures. But here, his work is very good -- dramatic, striking, and intimate when it needs to be. Even more surprising is that the art chores are assumed by another artist, Kilian Plunkett, part way through...and one can barely notice the change, the two styles are so similar and equally striking, with shades of Howard Chaykin, Michael Lark and Gil Kane at times. The colours by Paul Mounts are also most effective, capturing a brooding but vibrant look, without miring the thing in too dark shades that obscure the action. I don't mind admitting that the engrossing art goes a long way to helping gloss over any narrative pot holes.

Because this is an Elseworlds story, there are plenty of nodding references to established Superman mythos...and the DCU in general, with Wonder Woman, Batman, and even a certain green power ring playing a part in the story. That's fun for the regular fan reader, and can provide layers of resonance (like a certain poignancy to the Lois-Superman relationship...or rather, the lack of a Lois-Superman relationship). But it also means that Red Son isn't always going to be an easy fit for casual readers, an audience for which DC's marketers were presumably hoping. With that said, the use of Batman and Wonder Woman and others is generally justified by the story, adding legitimately to the narrative...rather than just seeming like inserts for the sake of the fandom, or to emphasize the "DC Universe".

Not quite as penetrating as I expected, nor fully exploiting its idea of Superman in the U.S.S.R., Red Son nonetheless emerges as an engrossing read that, despite covering familiar themes and ideas, deserves taking its place among the better comic book epics of the last decade or so.

Cover price: $27.95 CDN./ $17.95 USA.


coverSon of Superman 2000 (HC & SC TPB) 96 pages

Written by Howard Chaykin & David Tischman. Pencils by J.H. Williams, III. Inks by Mick Gray.
Colours/letters: ....

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: July, 2011

Additional notes: this was later re-issued in 2011 in comic book form as DC Comics Presents: Son of Superman.

Son of Superman is an "elseworlds/what if...?" story set a few years in the future. Superman had disappeared (and presumed died) years before, and the U.S. is a polarized state of haves and have nots, with the Justice League acting as agents of the government (the haves) while a terrorist group borrowing Superman's legacy by calling themselves The Supermen stage bombings in protest of social iniquity. And then one day, a teen-age boy named Jon Kent discovers he has super powers and is, in fact, the son of Superman.

On the surface, Son of Superman seems like it could be a compelling, rich drama -- but that's partly because, well, it already has been. I mean, these kind of near future Dystopian superhero stories are pretty much a dime a dozen, and Chaykin and Tischman haven't really brought much new to the table. You can see in it echoes of The Dark Knight Returns, and Kingdom Come and many others. Because it's less than a couple of decades in the future, familiar heroes are still around, with Wonder Woman and a grey haired Batman still active (because this is a comic, the women seem to keep their looks better than the men do!) Even Superman turns out not to be as dead as believed -- I hesitated about mentioning that, whether it's a "spoiler", but I figured knowing that this Superman graphic novel is, in fact, partly about Superman is good to know for prospective readers (as opposed to thinking it's only about his son). In fact, part of the story revolves around the father-son dynamic, as the two try to get to know each other.

Unfortunately, overall...I really didn't think this worked. Chaykin is one of those hot and cold writers, who can write some great, clever, provocative stuff...and can also churn out a lot of bland filler. Despite Chaykin often being one of the more political writers in comics, and the story set within a politically charged reality of rich versus poor...the politics just comes across as half-hearted, as though Chaykin threw it in to make it seem provocative, but without the gumption here to really tackle big, weighty issues. It feels like token window dressing. Of course, how much this is Chaykin, and how much Tischman (a writer he has partnered with before) is its own question.

The story itself feels oddly choppy and disjointed, scenes not really seeming to follow -- or make sense next to -- other scenes. It's almost as if they had a vague plot blocked out, but wrote the actual pages with weeks inbetween, not bothering to flip back and remind themselves what they had written previously. I'm not sure if I've read much by Tischman before, but he did write a Star Trek comic I read which I likewise found oddly disjointed, as though scenes were missing, and which had to my mind stiff dialogue.

Here we have a scene where Jon has an argument with his mother, Lois Lane (of course) where she tells him she doesn't want him to be a super hero, or to use his powers just to party (the two options he's considering)...and then in the next page, he is flying around in a costume. Logic throughout is loose and tenuous. Lex Luthor is behind much of the villainy (of course) and at one point, a character threatens Lex by suggesting he'll tell Superman Lex is behind it all...yet then Superman concludes that anyway based on no other proof other than, well, he is Luthor after all.

The dialogue feels a bit stilted and the human interaction forced. Elseworlds stories are always a bit tricky, because the question is, how closely is this supposed to mirror regular continuity? That is, are we supposed to imagine this as the familiar characters, but in a possible, plausible future? Yet this reminds me a bit of another Chaykin Elseworlds story -- Superman: Distant Fires -- in which I didn't really find myself believing these versions of the characters as being logical extrapolations of the "real" ones. But, as I say, maybe in an Elseworlds story, they don't have to be.

While Jon himself is a rather bland, frankly kind of unlikeable character. He's basically your usual hip, callow teen character, that will no doubt strike some readers as cool...and others, like myself, as just kind of boorish.

The story wants to explore the characters, with both drama and humour, without really creating fully realized characters we care about. The generational conflict between Jon and Superman feels just kind of forced, as do scenes where Jon takes a political stand...when we hadn't really seen much sense of him being politically aware. There's a love interest for him...but she only appears on about four pages. Hardly enough to make us interested in the relationship.

The art by J.H. Williams III left me kind of mixed. On one hand -- it's beautiful, atmospheric work, with an almost photo-realist vibe at times. On the other hand, as storytelling...it seemed a bit wanting. It was more beautiful than it was engaging. The characters seeming a little stiff, the expressions posed. In a story where I felt the script wasn't really breathing life into the characters, the art likewise didn't quite give human personality to the characters.

Ultimately, there's not really anything here that hasn't been done -- and done better -- on other projects, both before and, to be fair, after (in Chaykin's attempt to portray the family dynamics within the Kent family, I was reminded of Cary Bates later mini-series, Superman: Last Family of Krypton...which I thought handled such characterization better and more convincingly).

Cover price: __ .

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