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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DC Comics’ ambitious Truth storyline came to a close this week with Superman #44. Our Man of Steel correspondent, T. Kyle King, examines the fourth chapter of Gene Luen Yang’s and John Romita Jr.’s, Before Truth.
Lois Lane has revealed Clark Kent’s secret identity to the world, and HORDR’s Quarmers have drained Superman of much of his power. Now that we have seen where Truth ultimately concludes, Yang and Romita have taken us back to the end of the beginning.
In Metropolis on the day after the world has learned that Clark Kent is actually the Man of Tomorrow, supervillains have declared open season on Superman. The Royal Flush Gang attacks him on the street outside his apartment, then the Daily Planet staff is held hostage by Livewire, Shockwave, Killer Frost, Killer Croc, and the Atomic Skull. Superman withstands all of their attacks, as well as an assault from a distraught former mail carrier who blames Clark for the death of his wife.
While the Man of Steel is saving his kidnapped friends, Lois asks her father, General Sam Lane, to send in his soldiers to help with the rescue. Perry White, who was injured in the showdown at the Daily Planet, tells Clark he is fired. With Jimmy Olsen’s help, Superman broadcasts a warning to his enemies that he will avenge “a thousandfold” any harm that comes to the people he loves.
Lois attempts to reason with the superhero, but he flies off, hides out in a low-rent motel, and slices off his iconic spit-curl as he begins giving himself the close-cropped haircut seen in other series’ installments of Truth. Elsewhere, HORDR_ROOT, now occupying a new host, enters the interdimensional antechamber where the villains from the parallel stories in other books are meeting. Upon arriving, HORDR_ROOT declares that he will “force the Man of Tomorrow to help us remake the world.”
Truth has been a frustrating story arc, partly because the ambitious project to remake the Man of Steel has restricted the writers’ range of options, but also because four different plot threads were woven separately through four different books before the villains were knotted together in a common cause. The fact that the tale told in Yang’s and Romita’s Superman series was the first to occur yet the last to end only made matters more disjointed.
Accordingly, this story commences at a bit of a disadvantage, and the situation is not helped by Romita’s artwork, which feels rushed. While the fight sequences feature a genuine (if exaggerated) kinetic energy, the characters’ faces are rendered as unfinished rough sketches. Worse yet, much attention to detail is dispensed with in favour of random; enough to make Rob Liefeld blush.
Romita’s pencils are improved considerably by the impressive efforts of colorists Dean White and Leonardo Olea, however. Because the solar-powered Superman is now enervated as well as exposed, it is symbolically significant that the entirety of Before Truth – Part 4 takes place after sunset, and White and Olea make the most of their opportunity to show off the bright lights of the big city in Metropolis after dark. Between the vivid hues of the various villains’ energy outbursts, the flashing lights atop the vehicles of the major municipality’s first responders, and the bare glare of the naked bulb in the motel bathroom, the comic’s colourists provide enough lens flares to make J.J. Abrams proud.
This issue gives the reader the sense that Yang “gets” Superman, yet is hamstrung by DC’s dictate that the story must end in a predetermined place. Yang, the son of Chinese immigrants, has displayed keen insights into Superman’s inherent duality as a person with two names who is the product of two cultures. Thanks to Yang’s appreciation of the first superhero’s fundamental attributes, he is able to make effective use of Truth’s central premise of a weakened and revealed Man of Steel.
For instance, despite the edginess of an issue that opens with a particularly gritty rendition of the Royal Flush Gang, Superman has not entirely lost the sense of humor he has long displayed when cheerfully battling bad guys. Although his wisecracks now are less whimsical than they are world-weary, it was refreshing for him to answer his grim assailants’ menacing intimidation with a sarcastic, “Sorry, buddy. My building’s got a no solicitors policy.”
Later, at the Daily Planet, Clark answered Livewire’s threats with quips at Steve Lombard’s expense. Superman may not have been smiling while he said it, but the real Man of Steel nevertheless shone through in those lines. Unfortunately, the foreordained result of Truth mandated that such moments would prove fleeting. In the fight to save his friends, Superman’s bravery too often gave way to bitterness, culminating in the closing image of Clark cutting his hair in the bathroom of a fleabag motel.
If given the discretion to chart a course of his own choosing for Superman, Yang could be a wonderfully innovative author of the Man of Steel’s adventures, but corporate constraints currently limit his creativity. Truth does not do justice to Yang’s uniquely American way, to Superman himself, or to DC’s proud history of cleverness amidst coercion.
The resulting hodgepodge is more than a little jumbled. Superman #44 takes place on the evening of the day following the events of the previous issue, but Before Truth – Part 4 starts with Clark Kent walking home along Clinton Street, casually strolling down the sidewalk with his briefcase in his hand and his sports coat slung over his shoulder while wearing his civilian clothes, complete with glasses.
Why is his carefree presence so utterly ignored by the ordinary populace of Metropolis?
Having just escaped from HORDR’s Quarmers and military helicopters not more than 24 hours before, how can Clark be so blithely oblivious to his obvious peril?
The time of day, his direction of travel, and his attire all suggest he is walking home from work, but we know that cannot be the case, since his secret identity has been made known and his incensed editor clearly has not seen him since the story broke, because Clark has not yet been fired.
The setup for the opening scene makes no sense whatsoever, but even this inexplicable sequence takes a back seat to what awaits the Man of Steel at the Daily Planet. After dispatching a plethora of bad guys such as Livewire and the Atomic Skull, villains whose individual energy signatures would prove so significant at the STEEL lab in Manassas, Superman next encounters… a disgruntled postal worker equipped with high-powered wrist-pistols with a seemingly endless cartridge capacity? After losing his job as a mail carrier, how did Dylan have the means to acquire such sophisticated weaponry? Was he a customer of the gun-running state senator whose misdeeds have so completely vanished from the story? What possessed the supervillains to think that, if Killer Croc and Shockwave were no match for Superman, Dylan the distraught mailroom employee would provide adequate backup?
Such incomprehensible bits are baffling, as is the moment when Clark calls the hospitalized Perry White “Chief” and the outraged editor neglects to answer, “Don’t call me ‘Chief’!”
There are, however, some nice moments involving other Daily Planet staffers. Jimmy has two lines in the entire issue, but both of them are winners. “See?” Olsen observes when Superman rescues the hostages, “I told you guys he’d come!” Afterward, when the Man of Steel thanks his photographer pal for helping him broadcast his warning to the world, Jimmy shrugs it off with a simple, “Of course. Whenever you’re ready.” Yang has given us the essential Olsen in just a dozen words.
Lois, who has been by far the most maligned character throughout the Truth arc, finally gets a sliver of redemption in Superman #44. While the improved treatment she receives in this story is too little and too late, it is better than nothing after Lois has been so unfavorably portrayed before now. The award-winning reporter who hitherto has been beloved as much for her compassion as for her passion finally shows signs of being recognizably Lois Lane when she stands up to her father and tells him to send in the troops to assist Superman, “not as a news story” but “as a friend.”
When Lois confronts her former co-worker after the hero’s public promise of vengeance, she defends her actions and, more importantly, reminds him how much he still needs her honest advice and genuine friendship in his life. To prove the value of her insights, Lois correctly admonishes him that “an-eye-for-an-eye isn’t how Superman is supposed to work!” Truth being what it is, the Man of Tomorrow sullenly answers: “Maybe not before.”
Yes, before, but also always. That is what Lois knows, and it is high time she was allowed to speak her mind with such accuracy and authenticity. It also is what every Superman fan knows, and, while Yang has been permitted to let bits and pieces of the Man of Steel shine through, the premise of Truth has necessitated that the hero utter such falsehoods. The end result of this incompatible patchwork is, as HORDR_ROOT would have put it, only “sort of” Superman.
Now that Truth has concluded, are you pleased with this bold new direction for the Man of Tomorrow?
Where do you expect Yang and Romita to lead Superman from here?
As always, we invite your participation in the ComiConversation!
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
Gene Luen Yang can write Superman well, but Truth’s story constraints and John Romita, Jr.’s rushed artwork detract from this issue.