T. Kyle King’s published work ranges from newspaper columns to film reviews and from short stories to law review articles. Most notably, he served as a site manager and staff writer at DawgSports.com, a daily weblog devoted to University of Georgia athletics, from 2006 to 2013, and he is the author of a book about the history of the college football rivalry between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Clemson Tigers published by Clemson University Digital Press in 2013. Kyle is a lifelong comic book fan whose thoughts on comic books previously have appeared at ComicsVerse, Progressive Boink, and the Superman Homepage. Kyle is a Superman guy.
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Darkseid is dead, and some members of the Justice League have been granted god-like powers as a result. Individual superheroes are wrestling with these sinister new abilities in The Darkseid War, and ComiConverse’s Superman writer, T. Kyle King, has taken a look at the God of Steel installment written by Francis Manapul and drawn by Bong Dazo.
Justice League: The Darkseid War – Superman #1 zeroes in on the Man of Steel as he returns to Earth from Apokolips. The dark solar energies of that evil alien world have infected and affected Superman, transforming him into the god of strength. Is he still the same superhero underneath?
Just as it appears the Man of Tomorrow has abandoned Metropolis, he returns home with a bang: Superman, his appearance changed to an eerie glowing black and white, crashes into the Daily Planet building while battling an irate alien in a battle suit. Superman pulls his diminutive assailant out of the creature’s oversized armor, dismissively tosses his opponent aside, and heads to Melvin’s Diner to demand apple pie.
When the alien departs, he unleashes a creeping plague of black gunk that eventually envelopes all of Metropolis. Jimmy Olsen plaintively appeals to the seemingly indifferent Man of Steel’s better nature just before the entire city is stilled by the tar-like substance. To prove his power, Superman frees the city by freezing the ooze with his super-breath and smashing the now-brittle substance into shards. The darkened hero then flies away while ominously observing that the appearance of Metropolis’s restoration to normality is deceiving.
I hadn’t planned on following any part of The Darkseid War until I learned this issue prominently featured Jimmy Olsen, so I suppose I should start by addressing the significance of Superman’s pal. In an interview published the day before this issue was released, Manapul offered his thoughts on the role Olsen plays in God of Steel, saying: “Jimmy is essentially the hero of the story. He is really Superman’s best connection to humanity…. Jimmy is the best reminder of who Superman was and how that contrasts with the powerful, corrupted guy in the book. He’s a great analogue for us as fans.”
These comments drew some negative responses on social media from fans who rightly noted that Lois Lane, lately much maligned as the betrayer of Clark Kent’s secret identity in Truth, has for more than three-quarters of a century been Superman’s actual best connection to humanity. While I am a Jimmy Olsen fan, I agree with the critics who contend that Lois ranks first on the list of the Man of Tomorrow’s capeless confidants. Her absence from Justice League: The Darkseid War – Superman #1 is therefore noteworthy, and, in light of her conspicuous omission, it certainly would have been wise of Manapul to be more mindful of the reaction his words were likely to elicit when he substantially exaggerated Olsen’s relative significance.
Manapul is mistaken when he claims Jimmy is “Superman’s best connection to humanity”, but, as a guy who spent 20 years starring in a solo series with the words Superman’s Pal in the title, he’ll certainly do as a suitable substitute in a one-shot comic. Besides, we’re talking about a story in which a black-clad protagonist possessed by an otherworldly embodiment of evil displays an inclination to devour multiple slices of pie at the local diner; any tale that contains such overt reminders of Twin Peaks’ Dale Bartholomew Cooper may as well feature the comic book character who shares the FBI agent’s middle name, James Bartholomew Olsen.
Dazo delivers a traditional depiction of the Daily Planet cub reporter, complete with red bow tie and green sweater vest, and he highlights the photojournalist’s youth by having him pedal a bicycle through Metropolis traffic while wearing a child’s safety helmet. This is amusing, but it’s a bit over the top, which is a common problem with God of Steel.
Of course, this is a superhero comic book, so there are plenty of places where the brashness of Dazo’s graphics and the boldness of Hi-Fi’s colors are more than welcome. The double-page splash that introduces the title while the two-toned Superman batters his opponent’s enormous exoskeleton with Earth serving as their backdrop is eye-catching, as is the later two-page layout showing the Metropolis skyline with the horror of the inky alien infestation grotesquely depicted in the foreground.
Subtlety, however, is not the strong suit of this issue’s imagery. Every emotional display is overwrought. Jimmy’s facial expression remains unchanged for more than nine consecutive pages, even though he is utterly immobilized for fewer than five of them. For three panels, super-breath looks disconcertingly like super-spit. The Kryptonian power-punch that liberates the city sends shock waves across two pages, producing a smash so outsized, it literally contains three A’s, four S’s, and five and a half H’s.
In the artwork, though, Dazo’s and Hi-Fi’s form follows Manapul’s function, as the script is nothing if not blunt. Before entering the diner where he expects to find the superhero who has been taken over by an outside force, Jimmy makes eye contact with the audience so he can sell the telegraphed double meaning of the line: “I hope you’re in there.” (Just in case anyone was dense enough to miss it, though, Jimmy’s first words after being freed are, “Superman! You’re in there!”) A similar forthrightness is evident in each piece of dialogue; every character’s words are direct, declarative, and unfiltered.
What isn’t overly on the nose is entirely inscrutable. It’s unclear at the beginning where Superman and his attacker land after appearing at first to crash into the Daily Planet newsroom. It’s unclear at the end why Jimmy is yelling, “Superman, wait!” while running through the newspaper’s offices carrying a cup of coffee immediately after being freed. There seems to be no discernible reason why the alien speaks English in reverse, and no explanation is offered for why the Man of Steel’s piercing blue eyes momentarily peer out through his monochromatic exterior when the departure of a pigeon leaves him entirely alone. The story frequently veers from in your face to over your head.
Finally, any aspect of God of Steel that isn’t either obvious or inexplicable is derivative. The ordinarily lovably gruff Perry White is openly cynical here, just as he has been in the Truth and Justice arcs in the main Superman books. The black gunk that overtakes Metropolis looks suspiciously similar to the alien tar unleashed by Wrath in Action Comics. Most notably, the crepuscular Kryptonian whose solar batteries have been charged by the darkness of Apokolips offers an apathetic alternative that actually is less brutal than the Man of Steel seen in Superman/Wonder Woman.
In his recent interview, Manapul opined: “I think anytime you do an evil Superman, it feels like an exploration of what makes him super…. It’s all about him, and that fundamentally changes who Superman is. And brings to light what he’s usually all about: he’s completely selfless. Exploring him in this manner reminds us what makes him such a different character from all the other heroes.”
Is that really an exploration we’re lacking? We’ve just come through Truth. We’re still working our way through Justice. Superman: American Alien is on tap for the very month during which Justice League: The Darkseid War – Superman #1 was released. Was there truly a need for one more dark take on the Man of Steel? It seems to me that, when it comes to crafting comics concerning a corrupted Kal-El, we’ve been there and done that – and Superman is there, is doing that, and is still wearing the T-shirt. God of Steel was perfectly fine for what it was, but it ultimately occupies the shallow end of a pool that already was deeper than it needed to be.
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T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
This rehash of overused themes covers familiar ground in an unoriginal and confusing manner.