Review: Superman, Vol. 1 – Before Truth by Gene Luen Yang & John Romita Jr

Before-Truth-Cover-201x300The Superman titles have undergone a renaissance recently, sparked by the arrival of Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder on ACTION COMICS, and followed by Geoff Johns’ and John Romita Jr.’s brief stint on SUPERMAN. Now Gene Luen Yang steps up to the plate – the acclaimed writer of American Born Chinese – with Before Truth, the first volume in his run on SUPERMAN. And with Romita Jr. by his side, he’s redefining Clark Kent for the ‘New 52’ generation. Fans rejoice: we’ve finally got a Superman who’s emblematic of the character we know and love, who stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way; but also renewed and rejuvenated under this new stewardship.

Before Truth picks up where Johns’ The Men of Tomorrow arc ended. Superman has discovered a new power – a solar flare that obliterates everything in its radius, but leaves him powerless for up to 24 hours. Why introduce a new power into Superman’s mythology, you might ask? Well, this version of Superman is de-powered; he’s not quite the God-like being readers have become accustomed too, so the solar flare ability is effectively a ‘last resort’ option. When all else fails, when Superman has got to lay it all on the line, he ignites. This allows Yang and Romita Jr. the opportunity to showcase Clark Kent’s misapprehension of the human condition; a few sips of alcohol leave him inebriated, and he’s developed a newfound appreciation for food. These are small touches, but they add layers to a Clark Kent who has been fairly uninteresting since DC relaunched with the New 52.

Before Truth introduces the villain Hordr, who has learned Superman’s secret identity and threatens to expose him to the world unless he does precisely what’s demanded of him. Aided by Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, Superman deliberates between his desire to maintain a normal life as Clark Kent and refusal to bow down to the villain’s command. But ultimately, it might be a decision that’s taken out of his hands . . .

Gene Luen Yang and John Romita Jr.’s SUPERMAN is, simply, a rip-roaring superhero tale. They haven’t aspired to redefine Superman’s character or continuity; rather, they’re focused on telling a good story and implores readers to pick up the subsequent volume. There’s no doubt about that. Solid characterisation, rapid pacing, great Romita Jr. art –  it’s all here. A Superman story for readers, old and new, to enjoy.

ISBN: 9781401259815
Format: Hardback
Pages: 224
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 12-Apr-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Secret Hero Society – Study Hall of Justice by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen

9781760276539.jpgThe cynic in me wanted to view Derek Fridolfs’ and Dustin Nguyen’s Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice as a perfunctory vehicle to spotlight younger versions of DC comics heroes and villains ahead of the release of the blockbuster film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But I’m a sucker for the DC’s ‘trinity’ – Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman – and I’m a long-time admirer of Dustin Nguyen’s art. So despite my hesitations, I pulled a copy from the shelf and dived in… and I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was delighted. This is a book that’ll have both adults and kids in stitches, scouring pages for inside jokes and references, and enraptured by the core mystery. In other words, it’s a winner.

Young Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and Diana Prince form their own Junior Detective Agency in the halls of Ducard Academy in Gotham City when they realise there’s more to their new boarding school for ‘gifted’ children than meets the eye. They’re an oddball triumvirate, each displaying the divisive characteristics that’ve been portrayed in the comics for decades. Together, they unravel the mystery behind the school’s secret headmaster, overcoming the villainous obstacles in their way including fellow students Lex Luthor, Harley Quinn and the Joker, as well as dastardly school staff including General Zod, Hugo Strange, Vandal Savage, and so forth.

Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice is layered with references that young fans and older will enjoy – but every element is explicated well enough to ensure the layman won’t be left lost and confused. This is fundamentally a story about friendship – how different personalities, regardless of upbringing, can be moulded into an effective team – with a good amount of super-heroics thrown in. It’s told through traditional comic book pages, journal entries, pamphlets, text messages, and report cards, and the variation enhances the tale’s readability. The only flaw I identified was the novel’s pacing. The story takes its time to get going – it’s not plodding, but necessarily measured in order to establish the characters and their world – but in contrast the climax feels rushed, like suddenly the storytellers realised they were running out of pages. It’s not a major issue, and it certainly doesn’t take away from the novel’s successes, but it’s a noticeable stumble.

This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a kid. It’s fun and quirky, but doesn’t talk down to readers. I’d love to see further adventures in this universe, and there’s certainly a ton more characters to explore from the DC Universe.

ISBN: 9781760276539
Format: Paperback
Pages: 176
Imprint: Scholastic Australia
Publisher: Scholastic Australia
Publish Date: 1-Feb-2016
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Superman – The Men of Tomorrow by Geoff Johns & John Romita Jr.

Men of TomorrowJohn Romita Jr. is synonymous with Marvel Comics – his runs on Spider-Man, Iron Man andDaredevil are legendary (and for this reviewer especially, his stint on Peter Parker: Spider-Man, in the nineties, was seminal), so the 2014 announcement that he’d be coming to DC to work on Superman garnered waves of attention. That he’d be united for the first time with DC’s superstar writer (and Chief Creative Officer) Geoff Johns, was icing on the cake.

Up to this point, Superman’s adventures in the ‘New 52’ universe have been a mixed bag. There’s been some great stuff – Grant Morrison and Rag Morales’s initial issues in Action Comics, and latterly the work by Greg Pak (also in Action), and Scott Snyder’s Unchained – but there’ve been troughs, too. Years back, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank combined to create some of the best Superman comics of the past decade – in fact, possibly of all time – so the outlook following the Johns / Romita Jr. announcement looked positive; Superman fans were being rewarded for their patience with a kick-ass creative team. The Men of Tomorrow is the result.

The story revolves around Ulysses; a strange visitor from another dimension, who shares many of Superman’s experiences. Like the Man of Steel, in order to survive impending doom, he was rocketed into the unknown as a baby, to a place where he developed incredible abilities, and matured into adulthood with the belief his home planet had been destroyed; that he too, like Superman, was the last son of a dead world. When a being from Ulysses’s adopted home attacks Metropolis, Ulysses aids Superman in stopping the threat, and the two form a friendship.  Ulysses is stunned his home planet survived, and with Superman’s help, he seems destined to become another of Earth’s mighty protectors. As the story unfolds, Clark Kent is reunited with his old crew at the Daily Planet – Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and Perry White – and begins to manifest a new superpower; one he can’t control, and with possibly devastating consequences. Bad timing; because Ulysses’s intentions mightn’t be as pure as they’d seemed…

John Romita Jr.’s art is exemplary, but won’t be to everyone’s tastes. He is a masterful storyteller, but perhaps not an artist you’d select for a pinup. There’s a workmanlike quality to his style that is admirable; his focus is on the story, and ensuring it’s laid out as functionally as possible. Thankfully, Johns gives him plenty of space to dynamically render the blockbuster scenes; our first sighting of Superman is spectacular, as he careens his fist into the giant-sized Titano.

Johns is on point here, too; though his depiction of Superman and his supporting cast is more reminiscent of the pre-New-52 world. Not a bad thing; it’s nice having Clark Kent back as newshound for the Daily Planet, and interfacing with his pals liked he used to. Still, in terms on continuity, The Men of Tomorrow doesn’t quite fit with recently scheduled programming; perhaps that’s why DC Comics chose not to number this volume.

The Men of Tomorrow isn’t quite vintage Superman, but it’s up there with the best of the character’s offerings from the New 52. It’s great seeing Romita Jr. stretch his wings and play with characters, and a world, he’s never touched before. For the art alone, this collection is worthy of a place on your shelf.

Review: Superman – Earth One Volume 3 by Straczynski and Syaf

Superman Earth OneThe third volume of J. Michael Straczynski’s re-imagining of Superman is flawed, inconsistent, and ultimately brings into question the purpose of DC Comics’s entire line of ‘Earth One’ original graphic novels in a post-New 52 world. Look closely and you’ll see, this is a story full of good intentions, but inept execution means it’s filled with more valleys than peaks.

Superman: Earth One – Volume 3 immediately loses appeal because it’s yet another retelling of the General Zod storyline we recently saw come to life on the big screen in Man of Steel. Regular readers, such as myself, have seen Zod’s origin retold on innumerable occasions over the years, as the elastic band of modern day continuity twisted and tweaked the character to suit a particular moment in Superman’s history. Straczynski’s take is particularly uninspired; almost a cardboard cut-out of what we’ve seen before. A shame, as with supposed free reign, surely the writer could’ve thought outside the box, just to differentiate his Zod from countless others. Artist Adrian Syaf’s redesign of the character is similarly uninspired; a hood shrouds Zod’s eyes in darkness, making him look especially untrustworthy, which makes the United Nation’s decision to back him over Superman even more laughable.

As Volume 3 opens, Superman remains an enigmatic figure, a super-powered threat that must be taken very seriously. Considered a saviour by some, a menace by others, young Clark Kent’s alter-ego is suffering from a case of the Spider-Man’s – – hey, it could be worse, at least he doesn’t have J. Jonah. Jameson giving him grief. The US Military have employed Mr. and Mrs. Luthor – that’s Alexandra and Lex, by the way – to develop the means to harm, or ideally destroy, the Man of Tomorrow. And they choose the moment Superman is battling Zod to test the device; targeting only Supes, naturally, not the other Kryptonian, because the UN have granted him a free pass (for nonsensical reasons).

Amidst all the fighting, Clark Kent’s relationship with his neighbour takes a romantic turn, and Superman’s gradually developing an affiliation with Lois Lane, too (who uses a Superman-symbolled Bat-signal, yes, really) to get his attention. Straczynski’s most comfortable during these quieter moments, nailing Clark’s general unease with himself and his struggles to lead a successful double-life, but these fleeting moments aren’t enough to salvage this convoluted mess. The Luthor’s are underdeveloped, and the culminating battle, which has fatal consequences, lacks any sort of resonance. The artistic highlights, which include some wonderfully dynamic iconic shots of Superman doing battle, or taking to the skies, are let down by occasionally clunky layouts and shot selections.

Superman: Earth One – Volume 3 is undercooked, almost rushed; from its overall plot, to its dialogue, to its art. Plot contrivances abound; the art fluctuates between very good and average; Straczynski’s characterisations of his cast vacillates uncannily. It’s all a bit of a mixed mag, and severely disappointing.

Review: Superman Unchained by Scott Snyder & Jim Lee (DC Comics)

UnchainedOn paper the pairing of acclaimed writer Scott Snyder and legendary illustrator Jim Lee on a nine issue Superman series sounds incredible. Both are inarguably supremely talented men – over the past four years, Snyder has written some of the best comics being published, and Lee has long-established his pedigree; I wasn’t reading comics during his X-Men years, but I loved his work on Loeb’s epic Hush storyline in Batman, and Miller’s All Star Batman & Robin. But the tastiest ingredients don’t always mix; and that was my overwhelming response to Superman Unchained. It flirts with greatness, but doesn’t quite reach it. While it’s undoubtedly the best interpretation of the ‘New 52’ Superman we’ve seen (so far) it’s not the standout must-read Superman story fans of the Last Son of Krypton have been pining for. I would happily hand over a copy of Superman: For All Seasons in the hands on a newbie Superman reader; so too any storyline in Geoff John’s pre-New 52 run. Superman Unchained just doesn’t resonate like those.

The story opens with satellites falling from the sky, and Superman doing his thing, rescuing those endangered by the falling gargantuan chunks of metal. He misses one – even Superman’s prone to errors, y’know – but thanks to the intervention of a mysterious and powerful individual, nobody is harmed. But Clark Kent wants to know: who was the interloper? And so, he investigates, and is introduced to Wraith, who falls under the command of a certain General Sam Lane; and queries the veracity of Superman’s mission for “truth, justice and the American way.” Unchained utilizes the core members of Superman’s supporting cast – Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen all play vital roles, so too Lex Luthor and fellow Justice Leaguers Batman and Wonder Woman. The series is imbedded in continuity, but one needn’t be invested heavily in the DC Universe; Snyder is the master of streamlining his narratives to ensure maximum readability, veteran or newbie.

I’ve never considered Snyder an action-oriented writer – which isn’t to say his comics aren’t peppered with brilliant moments and set-pieces (Capullo’s renditions of his Batman scripts are a joy to behold), but he’s always been more focused on character. In Unchained he takes a different route; the pages are packed with action, presumably catering to Jim Lee’s strengths; there’s little nuance to Lee’s work, which, depending on the story, can be a blessing or a curse. In the case of Unchained, it’s a little of both. Superman’s battle scenes are dynamically drafted and a pack a lot of punch – but there’s something missing in the quieter moments. Having seen Snyder’s scripts executed to perfection thanks to artists such as Capullo and Jock, there’s an evident lack of true cohesion between these two. They make it work as best they can, but I can’t help but envision Unchained with a different artist. Indeed, Dustin Nguyen illustrates occasional flashbacks during the book, which are the artistic highlights: imagine the entirety of Unchained in his hands! If only…

Snyder gradually escalates the menaces facing Superman throughout Unchained, but its climax is satisfactory rather than astounding. It has a certain symmetry, which works, but I’d anticipated it, which lessened its impact. There’s a ton of fun to be had with Superman Unchained. It’s not the defining New 52 Superman tale I’d hoped for, but it shows Snyder has a firm grip on the character, and I’d love to see him given another opportunity to work with him. As for Jim Lee, who I feel I’ve been tremendously disdainful towards here, I’m excited to see where he lands next – his name connected to a project still excites me. But as we shift farther away from his ‘peak’ years during the nineties, I feel he has to pick and choose his projects carefully. His “big budget” style certainly has a place in comics.