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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New Super-Man #1, the enthusiastically awaited brainchild of writer Gene Luen Yang and penciller Viktor Bogdanovic, was released last week. As one of the most novel products of DC Comics’ Rebirth initiative, the series introduces Kenan Kong, the teenaged Shanghai superhero. ComiConverse’s Superman scribe, T. Kyle King, reviews the introductory issue.
Yang, who is widely recognized for his excellence as a graphic novelist, has long woven his personal experience as the son of Chinese immigrants into his work. While writing Superman, he emphasized the fact that the Man of Steel was the product of two cultures and had two names. What may readers expect from New Super-Man #1, which sets a superhero story in the modern-day Middle Kingdom?
Kenan Kong, the son of a Shanghai mechanic, is picking on his bespectacled overweight classmate, Lixin Luo. In the midst of this harassment, Lixin, the son of China Southeast Airlines’ chief executive officer, is kidnapped by the Chinese super-villain Blue Condor. Kenan frees Lixin by striking the costumed criminal in the head with a thrown soft drink can.
A cell phone video of the incident made by Primetime Shanghai reporter Laney Lan rapidly goes viral, and Kenan’s newfound celebrity earns him a television interview with Laney, an upbraiding from his conspiracy theorist father, and an invitation from Dr. Omen to submit to an experimental procedure that could give him Superman’s powers. He takes the mysterious scientist up on her offer, with surprising results.
Made in China — Part One begins from some interesting premises. Dr. Omen and her clandestine Ministry of Self-Reliance were woven into the backstory of Peter J. Tomasi’s The Final Days of Superman, so the fresh start of New Super-Man #1 is in certain respects a continuation of previous plotlines. Likewise, although there are obvious and intentional parallels to the emergence of Clark Kent as the Man of Steel, Kenan Kong is an entirely new character living in a different part of a world in which Superman already exists. (Fortunately, since this is no mere Red Son rehash, New Super-Man #1 easily sidesteps some of that graphic novel’s pitfalls.)
These unusual circumstances present not only challenges, but also opportunities, and Yang makes the most of them. Initially, the voice we hear belongs to Kenan, but the face we see is that of Lixin — or, as Kong cruelly calls his classmate, Pangzi, which translates as “fat boy”. Luo looks like he could be China’s Clark Kent, so Yang skillfully plays to the reader’s probable preconceptions before deftly calling attention to them when Kenan incredulously observes, “Hold up—don’t tell me you think I’m the tubby kid with the glasses and the punchable face!”
Having first underscored the superhero tropes Superman has done so much to create since 1938, Yang then proceeds to undermine them, reminding us of our own unspoken assumptions as a necessary preface to taking his tale, both literally and figuratively, in a different direction. The author is letting us know, straight out of the gate, that this is New Super-Man #1; this is not the Superman of old.
Freed from the conventional constraints he so carefully has highlighted, Yang is able to interweave the original with the familiar. Instead of giving us a mild-mannered Clark who willingly takes the abuse of others, the writer presents us with an overconfident Kenan who dishes out the taunts and torments. Yang knows his audience is aware that Kong will become the titular hero, so he can be comfortable disconcerting the reader with the realization that the new Super-Man is a bully — because, in a subsequent sudden shift of direction, he later will give us an enlightening insight into the reasons the protagonist has singled out Lixin as a target.
This same careful layering also is evident in the journalist who catapults Kenan into the public eye after he launches the Soder Cola can he swiped from his victim as a missile to incapacitate the Blue Condor. Just as Lois Lane is essential to Superman, Laney Lan is indispensable to New Super-Man #1. In one sense, of course, Laney is simply the Shanghai analogue to the reporter with whom she shares a nomenclatorial syllable: Lan, like Lane, is an intrepid and attractive correspondent with the typical double initials who is as immediately drawn to the new hero as he is instantly taken with her.
Laney nevertheless is her own woman. Just as Lois Lane was a product of her time, so is the Chinese newscaster who has the wherewithal to take a cell phone video of the confrontation with the Blue Condor while her coevals are gawking in awe. Lan’s quick thinking and initiative earn her the scoop; she shares the digital footage of the encounter, outpaces all other journalists in snagging the first interview, and arranges an appointment to research a follow-up profile. Kenan thinks “she’s just my type”, but his reflections on her looks make it clear that she is not concerned primarily with her appearance, and she amusingly rebuffs Kong’s clumsy advances. Yang subtly stresses the fact that Laney departs from Chinese custom by listing her given name before her surname — yet an equally nuanced panel emphasizes the reporter’s presentation of her business card using both hands, in keeping with established etiquette. Such telling details augment the authenticity of a story that employs diversity purposely.
Yang’s careful characterization is enhanced by Bogdanovic’s pencils, Richard Friend’s inks, Hi-Fi’s colors, and Dave Sharpe’s letters. The overall aesthetic of New Super-Man #1 strongly visually suggests a country and a culture distinct from those of the United States without lapsing into objectionable Western stereotypes or cookie-cutter characters. The closing scene depicting Kenan’s transformation in the origin chamber is beautifully rendered, personalizing the hero’s experience sympathetically and consistently with the creator’s intent “to take what’s universal about Superman and explore it in a brand new cultural context.”
Add to that a cliffhanger ending, and Made in China — Part One adroitly introduces what promises to be one of the more innovative and intriguing series to have emerged from Rebirth. Gene Luen Yang, who capably brought his unique storytelling sensibility to bear on the Last Son of Krypton during the otherwise largely regrettable and forgettable Truth, now has been afforded the chance to create on a blank canvas. New Super-Man #1 is an encouraging affirmation that it was wise of DC Comics to offer him that opportunity.
As always, we invite you to ComiConverse with us in the comments. Let us know your reaction to New Super-Man #1!
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
Gene Luen Yang effectively blends the unique with the established in this highly original debut.