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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Action Comics #976 arrived this week, completing the Superman: Reborn story arc with a bang. The fourth and final chapter of the earth-shaking epic was written by Dan Jurgens and drawn by Doug Mahnke. ComiConverse’s Superman reviewer, T. Kyle King, is here to assess the hugely important conclusion.
(WARNING: MAJOR DC UNIVERSE-REARRANGING SPOILERS FOLLOW!)
Action Comics #976 Review:
The Superman Family has been restored… or has it? Are the Superman and Lois Lane who stand before Superboy actually Jonathan Kent’s parents? What will happen when two timelines collide, and what hidden figure manipulated reality to cause their divergence in the first place?
(SERIOUSLY, IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT YET, PROCEED AT YOUR PERIL!)
Action Comics #976 Synopsis:
Atop the ruins of Mr. Mxyzptlk’s destroyed interdimensional simulacrum of the Daily Planet building, a thrilled Jon excitedly welcomes the parents with whom he has been reunited. These, though, are the New 52 Superman and Lois, who recognize neither the boy nor the world he represents. The mischievous imp offers only vague and confusing clues to the befuddled adults, but Superboy encounters a pair of blue energy orbs and begins to sense the outlines of the truth.
Mxyzptlk, fearing the impending arrival of the more powerful force that created the pocket universe in which he has confined the Superman Family, departs, abandoning them there. Jon uses an emotional plea to persuade the New 52 Superman and Lois to let the floating blue phantoms merge with them. This unification of the pre-Flashpoint and pre-Rebirth Supermen and Loises not only brings back their memories of their life together, but also brings the entirety of the existences they represent into singular alignment. Watching from afar, Mr. Oz is astonished at this reality-reordering feat, yet he wonders whether the final word will belong to the restored Superman on Earth or to the unidentified instigator behind these events on Mars.
Action Comics #976 Analysis:
Mahnke was a good choice to pencil the combining of the post-Crisis and New 52 Supermen into a wholly reconstituted Man of Steel. Thanks perhaps to the trio of inkers — Jaime Mendoza, Christian Alamy, and Trevor Scott — who gave definition to Mahnke’s handiwork, more than merely a more sensible neckline separates the looks of the various iterations of the Action Ace who populate Superman: Reborn — Part 4. Colorist Wil Quintana effectively fulfilled the critical task of distinguishing, then combining, the chromatically defined Last Sons of Krypton, while letterer Rob Leigh artfully conveyed the words accompanying the big events and subtle touches of Action Comics #976.
Literally from the beginning, one of the driving themes of DC Comics’ Rebirth has been restoring the publisher’s legacy as the oldest and most established producer of superhero comics. That heritage, of course, includes the company’s status as the original progenitor of the genre, starting with Superman, Clark Kent, and Lois Lane in Action Comics #1. The Big Blue Boy Scout and his supporting cast, consequently, have been the biggest beneficiaries of DC’s new initiative, as the missteps of the New 52 slowly have been reduced and replaced with a Metropolis Marvel who is recognizably Superman.
The upward trend for the Last Son of Krypton has been evident across the board, and nowhere more prominently than in Peter J. Tomasi’s Superman and in Jurgens’s Action Comics. Because of that, fans of the Man of Tomorrow — and, particularly, of the true Superman Family so painstakingly established among Clark, Lois, and Jonathan — understandably were hopeful yet hesitant when Superman: Reborn was announced. The initial solicitations, after all, promised not just to reveal “the shocking truth”, but also to culminate “in a tragic moment for Lois and Superman.” Action Comics #976 specifically was advertised with assurances that the hero’s life would be “drastically changed” by the developments of the crossover. To an audience that often felt disappointed and disrespected during the New 52 era, that foreshadowing carried with it a feeling of foreboding. Had all this restorative architecture been erected just to reclaim the reader’s emotional investment as a prelude to an even more devastating denouement? Were we being set up for the fridging of Lois Lane… again?
Fortunately, the Superman Family’s rise during Rebirth was no mere precursor to a fall from an even greater height. Jon, the purest product of both his parents’ best selves and their enduring love for one another, was the first to recognize what had happened. While the Man of Steel still doubted, dismissing Superboy’s apparent ravings as more of Mxyzptlk’s manipulations, it was Lois — ever skeptical yet never cynical; always dogged in her pursuit of the truth without ever lacking compassion — who urged Superman to trust the youngster she did not know for certain was her son. Once the transformation was completed, the reconstituted Superman stated simply and powerfully: “I’m back. We’re back. And everything is going to be fine.”
In the midst of the transition, though, we see the timelines combining while the unseen Mr. Oz describes the realignment. The mysterious observer characterizes the synthesized continuities as “[c]onsistent with the memories and experiences of all”, “so it all fits.” Admittedly, the issue is light on the specifics, but we get the gist: Jor-El and Lara, complete with Silver Age headbands, are shown sending baby Kal-El into space; the Kents find him in his crashed rocket; Clark Kent goes to Smallville High with Lana Lang, goes to work at the Daily Planet, reveals his secret identity to Lois Lane, dies in battle with Doomsday, is resurrected, and marries Lois; and Clark and Lois have their son, Jonathan, then bring their infant child in to the office to meet their co-workers, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White.
It is open to debate how much of the New 52 survived the switchover, as the most distinctive moments in the merged timeline either are essential elements common to all continuities, overtly allude to such distinctive pre-Flashpoint storylines as The Death of Superman and The Wedding Album, or incorporate the most critical carryover from Convergence directly into the mainstream DC Universe. (With any luck, the flowing together of the timestreams will enable the creators to split a few differences, like keeping Grant Morrison’s Halloween Phantom Zone story but putting Krypto back in the cape.) Although the red trunks have not been restored and the canonical status of the Electric Blue Era remains up in the air, Action Comics #976 very clearly gives the lie to Truth: Clark Kent confessed his secret to Lois Lane, but she did not publicly reveal it.
Beyond that, the nuances of what the combined timeline truly looks like decidedly are unclear. Although Jurgens has offered assurances that the next couple of issues will clear up some of the specifics, the most appropriate takeaway from Superman: Reborn — Part 4 is that, for now, the audience should just enjoy the forest and not get bogged down too deeply in inspecting each individual tree. Glen Weldon said it best: Superman never gives up, and he puts the needs of others first. The minutiae may vary, but Superman stories that possess these traits ring true, while those that lack them do not. Simply put, Action Comics #976 has them, places them front and center, and celebrates their explicit and universal re-elevation — finally! — to primacy.
After the spectral projections of the post-Crisis characters merge with their post-Flashpoint analogues like the Watcher fusing with Tom Baker at the end of Logopolis, the Superman Family re-enters the conjoined continuity at the Daily Planet building, where Lois takes her husband’s hand and finishes his sentence for him, noting that they both feel “whole again.” As the trio heads for home, zooming outward from the page toward the reader, Superman says to his son: “You saved the day. Lead the way, Superboy!” Mr. Oz’s cryptic coda, uttered over images that take the viewer from Earth past the moon to Mars, unquestionably suggest — but stop short of stating — that the unrevealed “him” behind it all is Dr. Manhattan. Because there remain secrets left to expose and storylines yet to conclude, Superman: Reborn was a beginning and not an ending. Lois, appropriately, sums it up when she confesses she “fees like I just woke up from a dream.” In fact, though, it is the nightmare that is over, and it is the dream that has come true once more.
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The New 52 required Rebirth to walk a fine line in regaining fan confidence and reclaiming the noble legacy of Action Comics #1. 975 issues later, DC Comics has succeeded.