The first year of DC’s New 52 has come and gone, and what a year it’s been. The new status quo in DC’s publishing practices and continuity have brought quite a few changes to Superman and his related titles. Big Blue’s history has been reworked and rewritten by Grant Morrison while both Supergirl and Superboy have gone through rebirths of sorts. The question is: Are their comics any better for it? Let me do a quick review of all four of the Superman Family titles and I’ll let you know what has and hasn’t worked since last September. I’ll rely on the rest of you to give me feedback on what you agree with and what you think I’m completely off-base on.
What worked- I haven’t really kept my adoration for this title a secret. I’m a dedicated fan of both Superman and Grant Morrison, so putting the two together made sure that this was my favorite monthly title for the last year. This book has taken no prisoners in its approach to the man of steel. It was fearless in presenting Superman as a leftist, social crusader at the start of his career much like he was when he first hit the comic book scene in 1938 during the great depression. Morrison has also paid homage to Silver Age concepts like Superman’s involvement with the Legion of Superheroes and all the imaginative wonder that comes with his cosmic lifestyle. We’ve seen some of Superman’s long-forgotten abilities make a comeback like his super memory recall brought to us through that subtle Krypton flashback dream in issue #5. Kal is super intelligent again and can even read a flash drive without the aid of a computer. We’ve seen classic villains reimagined and the multiverse explored in issue #9. Morrison has even given us some of his classic surrealist touch through his use of The Little Man villain and his weird powers. All of this and Superman never stops moving for an instant. Each issue of the series has delivered a kinetic, energized type of storytelling worthy of being called ACTION Comics. Grant Morrison is just doing what he’s always done: Paying homage to the character’s history while updating it for the present and the future. It feels like Superman has finally emerged from the Modern Age as his true self once again.
What hasn’t worked- If there’s any criticism I can give this book it’s that it hasn’t been quite the masterpiece that All-Star Superman was. Though, it’s probably not a fair criticism to make. All-Star Superman was a finite piece with a clear beginning and a set ending. It was also set out-of-continuity in a universe all its own. It didn’t have to navigate the intricacies of having to be a flagship monthly title that set a new status quo for a character’s history within a larger universe. Still, when compared to its super-predecessor, Grant’s Action Comics doesn’t have the same grace or insight that All-Star so deftly wields. It’s also suffered from fill-in artists having to swoop in to make deadlines and it was more than a bit disruptive that the main narrative had to be paused after issue #4 so Rags Morales could catch up with his work load. The point is that Action Comics isn’t perfect, but I’d still hype it as being the best monthly Superman run in the last decade if not in the Modern Age as a whole.
What worked- The strength of this version of Superboy rests in how different he is from the Conner Kent version that came before him. Scott Lobdell and Tom DeFalco have both embraced the idea that someone grown to maturity in a test tube wouldn’t have the same notions of right and wrong as someone who was, say, raised on a Kansas farm. To say that this Superboy is morally questionable is putting it lightly. He’s already been responsible for more than a few deaths though, for the most part, inadvertently. He’s also recently robbed a bank and gone partying with shallow celebrity youths. Kon-El is apathetic to both human life and human law, and is on the fence about wanting to be a superhero at all. This speaks to the notion that not everyone born with powers will use them responsibly or even with malicious intent. Some will simply wield their powers with a selfishness that can be inherent to a generation that’s never had to work for anything. I wonder if we can read any real-world implications into that. Hmmm… Superboy has also had some of the better cameos from former Wildstorm stars. Caitlin Fairchild, Grunge, and Warblade have all been successfully introduced to the New 52 universe through the Superboy title. It’s also been fun to see Superboy’s relationship with the Teen Titans grow. Issue #10 when he’s trapped on the deserted island with Wonder Girl is a highlight of the series thanks to the sexual tension alone. Bunker has also become an interesting best friend to Superboy in this new world. It hasn’t always been pretty, but Superboy is hip, vibrant, and action-packed. It’s easily my second favorite title of the Superman Family.
What hasn’t worked- The first problem with this series is that most of the interesting plot points fell to the wayside far too early. In the beginning, I was hoping to see a romance blossom between Superboy and one of his two handlers: Caitlin Fairchild or Ravager. Though much was hinted, both relationships came to nothing as the characters were repurposed for The Ravagers monthly series. I also liked Lobdell’s idea of having Superboy’s consciousness being spread throughout his entire body as a result of his tactile telekinesis power. It seemed like it could have been an interesting way for Kon-El to experience the world around him. However, it’s barely been mentioned since the first issue and hasn’t led to the exploratory story telling that I’d hoped it would. I know I mentioned Superboy’s relationship to the Teen Titans has been a strength of this book, but it’s also held the series back in a lot of ways. If you weren’t reading the Teen Titans along with Superboy then you missed major parts of the story like Superboy’s battle with the Titans and his rescue from N.O.W.H.E.R.E.’s operating table. The plot also became a bit jumpy and disjointed the closer we got to The Culling crossover. Going from issue to issue it was hard not to feel like you missed something because the transitions were less than smooth. Finally, the book seems to be falling into a repetitive superhero formula of meeting and beating a new villain every week ever since Tom DeFalco took full writing duties over from Scott Lobdell. It’s made me worry about the book’s future going forward.
What worked- I’ll admit, it took me a little while to get on board with this book but I feel like I’m just about there now. The most compelling moments of Kara’s journey so far have been seeing her adjust to her new powers and to life on Earth. Her super-hearing going out of control in issue #1 was a great tactile moment that showed us exactly how hard it is to control super powers, and both writers Michael Green and Mike Johnson as well as artist Mahmud Asrar should be commended for it. There have also been simple moments like Kara going to her first concert in issue #8 or eating her first pizza in issue #11 that have been touchingly human and a bit funny. Watching this young girl adapt to her new life has been the real pull of this series and as a reader you can’t wait for Kara to find some sort of normality on Earth. There have also been some truly epic battles in this Supergirl monthly. She really let her cousin, Superman, have it back in issue #2 which has sparked lengthy debates on just how powerful this girl is. I personally enjoyed her showdown with the Worldkillers in issue #7. These alien warriors were rather unique and Kara had to be resourceful to win the day. Finally, it’s been great to see Supergirl gaining some things of her own. Superman has his timeless friends at the Daily Planet and his arctic Fortress of Solitude as well as a fearsome rogue’s gallery of classic villains. Supergirl seems to be slowly picking these things up with her new friends the Smythe siblings, her brand new underwater fortress, and foes unique to her like Simon Tycho. This shows that steps are being taken to give Supergirl an identity all her own which is important to the success of any monthly series. It should also be noted that Supergirl has had the most consistent creative team out of all the Superman Family books. That’s gone a long way to keeping the book on the right path.
What hasn’t worked- This book has been more of a slow burner compared to the rest of the Superman family, and it hasn’t quite found its identity yet. I mentioned above that it’s taken steps by introducing her friends, her headquarters, and her villains. Yet, it’s taken a year to get all this and Kara still hasn’t found much of a status quo for her life. She almost found it when she was living with the Smythes in New York City, but then she decided that she was putting them in danger and hit the road again. The fact that she’s been constantly jumping from one thing to the next has made the book’s direction tough to peg down which makes it hard for a reader to get comfortable. The title has also taken some stretches to keep Supergirl isolated from the rest of the DC Universe. The fact that she acted with mistrust and hostility to Superman in issue #2 is understandable considering her confusion and how she got to Earth, but the fact she continues to treat him this way in issue #12 is a bit bewildering. He’s the only other Kryptonian on Earth. Why would she still treat him like an enemy? They also had to take some liberties to make sure that no other superhero would disturb her fight with the Worldkillers in New York City. It is still hard to believe a world with the Justice League and Stormwatch wouldn’t have intercepted a new Kryptonian yet. I guess that’s just the challenge of dealing with a collective universe, though. I’m also waiting for this book to give me something a bit more. Thus far it’s been plot driven and shallow. What you see is what you get. I’m hoping Supergirl can be used to tell a story larger than the superhero genre. I eagerly await what Green and Johnson have in store for Kara in the book’s second year.
What worked- The Superman monthly title has certainly been a lighter fare than its sister book Action Comics. It’s been easier to digest as a traditional superhero title than Grant Morrison’s experiment in action. It’s also successfully brought a lot of traditional Superman elements to the table. For instance, it was great seeing Lois Lane help Superman defeat the invisible creature in issue #2. It was also great to see the Daily Planet staff completely bewilder Clark Kent in issue #6. These moments brought me back to some of the better moments of Superman from the Bronze Age and Post-Crisis era. This book has also been useful in fleshing out the lives of Superman’s supporting cast. We’ve seen Lois Lane promoted to a television news producer and Jimmy Olsen become Clark Kent’s new roommate. We’ve been treated to the familiar, oddly comforting sight of Perry White chomping down on a cigar. We’ve seen two possible love interests for Clark Kent come and go in the form of Heather Kelley and Lucy Lane. All of this has been pretty fun and it’s good to see that the Daily Planet is still alive and well in the New 52. Superman has also brought Helspont in as a major villain in Superman’s rogue’s gallery. This former Wildstorm powerhouse has been a welcome addition to Superman’s list of enemies which could always use another foe that can challenge Kal-El physically. Finally, there’s been some great superhero art in this series thanks to the likes of George Perez, Jesus Merino, Nicola Scott, and Dan Jurgens. Superman has looked every bit the icon thanks to these talented artists.
What hasn’t worked- Superman has definitely been the weakest title of all four Superman Family books. The title has arguably struggled for years now dating back to before Flashpoint and the New 52. It feels like this book is being held back a bit. Personally, I think DC went out to make this the more reserved and traditional title just in case Morrison’s Action Comics ended up being too alienating to Superman readers. As a result, Superman has been a book that’s taken very few risks and it feels boring. It’s also had a hard time holding onto a creative team. George Perez left the book as writer after issue #6 to make way for Dan Jurgens and Keith Giffen. Giffen exited after issue #9 and Jurgens finished his run with issue #12 as Scott Lobdell is scheduled to take over as writer this September. Perez explained that he decided to leave because he couldn’t take the editorial decisions he was being held to. The writer-artist claims he wasn’t being told what Morrison was doing in Action Comics which was set five years in Superman’s past, so that affected what he could and couldn’t do in Superman forcing him to make last minute changes based on new information. He even went so far as to say much of his scripts were dictated to him by the editorial staff. If this is all true, it explains a lot and begs the question as to why the Superman writer wasn’t being kept up to date on what was happening in Action Comics. It also makes me wonder how much of the weak plots we’ve been reading for the past year has come from the writers and how much has come directly from the editors. It’s always been my opinion that, for a book to succeed, it needs a writer who has a clear vision of what they want to do and say with their stories. It feels like the Superman title hasn’t been allowed to have that yet. Perhaps Scott Lobdell can turn things around when he starts his run with issue #0 next month.
There you have it. Action Comics is by far the best and my favorite while Superman lags behind the rest. Overall, I’d say that the Superman Family of titles are stronger than they were before Flashpoint. Action Comics has been a top ten selling comic title every month except for one since Grant Morrison began his run. Even Superman has been hovering around the late twenties and early thirties since the start of the New 52 whereas both books were in the late forties pre-Flashpoint. Supergirl has a consistent creative team now which is a major improvement to the confusion her book was experiencing in the waning days of the previous universe. Although I really enjoyed Jeff Lemire’s run on Superboy, I think Scott Lobdell did a fine job reinventing the character for the new world. Looking to the future, I’m a little worried about what will happen after Grant Morrison leaves Action Comics with issue #16. I really like the changes he’s made to the Superman character, his powers, and history. I worry that Superman will fall back into the bad habits he had in the Post-Crisis DC Universe that made his stories so hard to digest in its latter days. I can only hope that the creators that take on the next year of Superman’s life take Grant’s run to heart when they approach their stories. I honestly believe that Superman is back on track to being a more interesting character and hero. Let’s keep him that way.