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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Superman came through Truth with his powers diminished and his secret identity revealed. Now, in Justice, the Man of Steel is striking back at the dark conspiracy that brought him from the mountaintop to the valley. The story continued in Superman #45, and ComiConverse’s T. Kyle King has a review of Street Justice.
Writer Gene Luen Yang was joined this month by artist Howard Porter for a story that carried Clark Kent from Metropolis to Oakland, where an encounter with HORDR_ROOT led the Man of Steel to visit an underground club, to discover the re-enactment of an ancient myth by dueling metahumans, and to accept an unusual job offer.
Clark meets at a cafe with Condesa, who tells him she helped HORDR take over a California-based energy company called Sungetix. As soon as Lois enters the cafe, Clark slips away, rides atop a plane bound for Oakland, and visits the Sungetix corporate office. Inside, he finds Quarmers being constructed, encounters HORDR_ROOT, and wins a battle with an animated superpowered sand sculpture named Apolaki.
Onlookers inform Superman that “Apolaki used to rule the Thousand One House”, which leads the Man of Steel to the club bearing that name. Inside, Queen Shahrazad introduces Mythbrawl, a superpowered showdown between Haemosu and Mayari. Superman intervenes to protect Mayari from Haemosu, learning later that what he witnessed was the retelling of a Pampangan myth on the verge of extinction. Offered $500 a match to participate in the show, the financially destitute Superman joins the cast of Mythbrawl.
I found Superman #45 to be the most challenging issue yet from the Truth and Justice story arcs. Yang displays his range as a writer by injecting genuinely surprising plot turns and insightful asides that add individual personality and local color to his characters and scenes. On the whole, Street Justice was a well written tale. (We will get into the minutiae of “on the whole” in a moment.)
Porter proved to be a welcome addition to the Superman creative team. John Romita, Jr., always was an odd fit for the Man of Steel, as the look of his pencils seldom matched the style suited to Superman. DC infamously had house artists Murphy Anderson and Al Plastino re-draw the faces on legendary Marvel expatriate Jack Kirby’s Superman figures, so there is no shame in the dissimilarity between Romita’s style and Superman’s look. However, Porter’s work more closely adheres to the depiction of the Man of Steel lately made familiar by Aaron Kuder in Action Comics and by Doug Mahnke in Superman/Wonder Woman.
Yang has offered the intriguing perspective that Superman is the product of two cultures who bears two names. The writer, a first-generation American born to immigrant parents who grew up in California’s Silicon Valley, is in his element in this issue, and the richness of his experience and insights shines through in Street Justice. This layered story manages to unfold slowly, leaving time for subtlety, while moving swiftly as fast-paced action carries the comic quickly from one scene to the next.
What I wrestled with as a reader, though, were the ways in which this story, like its author and its hero, was the product of two worlds. By turns, Superman #45 stars both the diminished Man of Steel of Truth and the nobler Man of Tomorrow from the character’s more iconic earlier incarnations. Perhaps this dichotomy is deliberate and Yang is depicting Superman’s internal struggles through his external actions, but the hairpin turns in the protagonist’s thoughts and deeds are somewhat jarring.
Superman #45 begins with two pages of exposition through Clark’s internal monologue as he packs up in his motel room and leaves to meet Condesa. When recounting the events of the preceding issues, Superman thinks to himself: “Lois Lane, in an attempt to free me from HORDR’s grip, revealed my identity to the world.” This marks the first time in either Truth or Justice that the Man of Steel has evinced the slightest understanding of his friend’s honorable intentions in breaking the news that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same.
This lone line from the subdued splash page was hugely heartening, as it showed some small step forward from the embittered Superman of Truth toward the compassionate Man of Steel who sees the best in others, and in no one more than in the conscientious and courageous Lois. Just two pages later, though, Clark is sitting in the World’s Finest Café at the corner of streets named Siegel and Shuster — an exquisite touch, by the way — when Lois walks in and, rather than show his former colleague common courtesy, he sullenly slinks out another door.
Superman subsequently speculates briefly that HORDR_ROOT may have taken over Lois’s body and mind when she posted his secret to the internet. Although it is a fleeting thought the Man of Steel leaves uncompleted, it still makes absolutely no sense. HORDR_ROOT didn’t want to reveal Clark’s identity to the world, inasmuch as HORDR only had leverage over Superman because that fact remained a secret. HORDR_ROOT had already told his Kryptonian captive that he could upload the revelation instantaneously from where he stood; he didn’t need to hop bodies to make the secret known, and he wouldn’t have taken the time to do so when facing a Superman who still had super-speed. Clark ultimately concludes that Lois’s “voice was her own”, but neither he nor the writers have been willing to let her speak in it.
Superman rides to California atop an airplane in a panel that is cool, both in its language and in its imagery, but the very next panel shows Clark standing outside Sungetix headquarters in Oakland while thinking that, “according to my phone, that’s the company.” Of course, as the panel makes plain, he also could have figured that out by getting his head out of his smartphone and reading the bright yellow sign above the entrance blaring “SUNGETIX” in bold letters.
Upon finding HORDR_ROOT in the Quarmer factory, Superman grabs the villain by the throat and bellows, “For what you’ve done to me, you’re lucky I don’t squeeze!” This is an improvement over the brutal Man of Steel from the execrable Superman/Wonder Woman #22, but not by much, and certainly not by enough.
The ensuing battle with Apolaki is a bit too pat; Superman sees his opponent isn’t breathing, which gives the Man of Tomorrow license to destroy him without really breaking his code against killing, and the Quarmer head that just happens to land beside Clark in the melee enables him to siphon his enemy’s energy and reduce Apolaki to a pile of sand. The story is moving at a brisk pace by this point, so the reader does not have time to think too much about this sequence, but, upon reflection, it is difficult to make much sense of it.
Superman’s conversation with Oakland youths on the city streets is effectively portrayed, and a local police officer delivers a good line when addressing Clark, “You in the Superman T-shirt!” The Man of Steel rapidly bounds away, but he does so while thinking, “I’m gonna stay in this T-shirt so you know who’s coming after you, HORDR_ROOT. So you know who’s taking you down.” Does the hero think HORDR_ROOT doesn’t know who’s coming after him? Does Clark believe the privacy-invading specialist wouldn’t recognize him without the T-shirt? Has Superman forgotten that the symbol on his chest is a Kryptonian crest that means something other than vengeance?
Down to his last few dollars, Clark can’t afford the cover charge at the Thousand One House, so he uses his fading superpowers to sneak inside while recalling a time in middle school when he sneaked Lana Lang into a movie theatre without paying. Jonathan Kent calmly told his son that he had not been given such gifts as super-speed for such selfish purposes. Superman muses, “I never did anything like that again — until today. Sorry, Pop.”
While I always like being reminded of the ways in which the Kents set their son’s moral compass in Smallville, this rumination is troubling. Is Superman really confusing a self-serving attempt to view a movie for free with surreptitiously slipping into a club to investigate bad guys because a bouncer refused to admit him? Does Superman really believe he has not used his powers to gain admission to a business operating for profit of whom he was not a paying customer since he was in junior high? Isn’t that what he did at Sungetix six pages earlier? Finally, since when did Clark begin referring to Jonathan as “Pop” rather than “Pa”?
At this juncture, though, the Man of Steel has no time for such considerations, because he is hungry, so he spends his last $19.65 on tacos. Up until now, we have seen Clark flashing wads of cash at every turn throughout Truth, purchasing burritos and T-shirts, renting motel rooms, and even buying multiple motorcycles and sophisticated Waynetech equipment without much concern for his financial resources, but, suddenly, now that it serves the purposes of the story for Superman to be insolvent, he’s down to his last twenty bucks.
The humanizing challenge of the Man of Steel truly knowing hunger for the first time in his life is an appealing plot point made available by the ongoing arc, but surely someone in the Justice League would be willing to float him a loan while he’s down on his luck, right? What about the job he got in Action Comics with a legitimate employer? Are there laundry service positions open in Talladega but no comparable job opportunities in Oakland? Does he not have the option of, say, catching a criminal and collecting the resulting reward money? Now that he’s been outed and Jimmy Olsen is looking to cash in as an author of coffee table books, could he not make a deal with a publisher that would pay both Superman and his pal for the rights to Clark’s life story, to be told in an authorized biography penned by the former cub reporter? These honest alternatives to bankruptcy are left unexplored in order to set the stage for the eyebrow-raising ending.
Mythbrawl then begins, introduced with the zeal of a carnival barker by Queen Shahrazad, who tellingly describes the contest as “more real than truth itself!” This is the cue for the arrival of a Superman more genuine than the one we saw in Truth: Clark, now sated, correctly concludes that, because “Pop wouldn’t approve” of meta-humans being paid to battle one another for the entertainment of an audience, he should “get my answers and get out of here.” For the sake of expediting that objective, he takes the direct approach, stepping forward through the entrance to the ring and politely saying, “Excuse me. Shahrazad, right?”
The Queen doesn’t so much as look his way. Instead, she dispatches one of her superpowered minions, Crow, to take care of the Kryptonian. Crow throws a punch, and Superman confines his response to simple self-defense. Clark catches Crow’s fist in his open palm and calmly proclaims, “I have a few questions about Apolaki.” Leaving Crow to clutch his smarting hand, Superman approaches Shahrazad, swiftly concluding upon the basis of their exchange that the animated sand sculpture he encountered was a clone rather than the real Apolaki.
While Superman and Shahrazad have been speaking, Haemosu has been gaining the upper hand over Mayari in their Mythbrawl. Appalled, Clark exclaims, “He’s going to kill her!” When the Queen evenly answers that Haemosu merely intends to “take her eye out”, the Man of Steel remains unsatisfied, asking, “And you’re going to let him?!” In order to reinforce the point, Shahrazad reiterates the premise: “Didn’t you hear my intro? This is more real than truth.”
Sure enough, a Superman more real than Truth stands revealed as Clark leaps into harm’s way, taking on the fireball-hurling Haemosu to protect the battered Mayari. The Man of Steel wages a fair fight until his opponent is defeated, but Haemosu still succeeds in causing Mayari to lose an eye, leaving Superman to stand over the enemy he has conquered and think: “This isn’t what our gifts are for.” Clark’s face reveals the anguish he feels.
Backstage afterwards, Haemosu confronts the Man of Tomorrow and threatens to “make a bonfire outta your guts.” Superman replies drily, “You mean like how you did back there in the pit?” Shahrazad explains that Mythbrawl is a re-enactment of a nearly forgotten legend from what today is a part of the Philippines: Apolaki, the son of the creator of the world, battled with his sister Mayari for control of the Earth until he put out her eye. Instantly regretting his action, Apolaki agreed to share power; “with his two shining eyes,” Apolaki commanded the day, while Mayari, with the softer light of her lone remaining eye, oversaw the night.
While relating this tale, Queen Shahrazad (whose bright thatch of red hair obscures her left eye) has used her own meta-human healing abilities to restore Mayari’s lost left eye. Superman marvels at this miracle, but the Queen cautions him that Mayari is destined to suffer the loss again: “We can’t escape our stories.”
“Have you figured us out by now, Superman?” Mayari asks, though she is facing out at the reader, so her question is not really directed at the Man of Steel. She continues, “We are gods and goddesses from mythologies on the brink of extinction.” Shahrazad adds, “The Mythbrawlers perform so they won’t be forgotten. It’s quite literally a matter of existence and oblivion.” Deferring until later her explanation of what became of Apolaki, the Queen offers Clark $500 a match to participate in Mythbrawl. He thinks to himself how many tacos that will buy, and, on the next (and last) page, Superman enters the ring, clad in a cape and saying to himself: “Sorry, Pop.”
The delivery of this message is rather heavy-handed, of course, but the point bears underscoring: Clark cannot evade who he is, because Superman’s stories inevitably will be repeated, as the only alternative is obsolescence leading inexorably toward annihilation. That is a lesson DC Comics’ Superman shop would do well to learn anew, and Yang displays his gift for rebuilding in increments the myth left desiccated by Truth at intermittent intervals throughout Superman #45.
Unfortunately, the process of getting the Man of Steel from where he is back to where he belongs proceeds in fits and starts in Street Justice, in which, at best, every two steps forward are followed by one step back. An apparently improved attitude toward Lois almost immediately devolves into an unwillingness even to speak with her, then an admirable moral stand true to Superman’s upbringing melts away at the prospect of being able to buy more tacos.
This is an oversimplification, though; the challenges of facing homelessness, hunger, poverty, and unemployment are new to the Man of Steel, and, if portrayed appropriately, these conditions can prove illuminating for a character who battled slum lords and corporate exploitation on behalf of the downtrodden during the Great Depression. A revival of the life lessons learned in Smallville, as shown in Superman’s initial reaction to Mythbrawl, would be a welcome return, and Yang is deft enough to deliver on this promise.
Making good on that potential, though, will require much more than Superman #45 had to offer, even though Street Justice may prove ultimately to serve as a solid start. It is not sufficient for Superman simply to think noble thoughts; those fine intentions must translate into admirable actions. He cannot just entertain kind inclinations toward Lois, but must also exhibit kindness to her. He cannot just remember what Pa Kent taught him and initially act consistently with that moral direction, but must also follow through to the end, even when hungry and strapped for cash. (It likely will help his confusion, and ours, too, when we all gain a greater understanding of the reason HORDR cloned an animated sand sculpture of a Filipino legend who makes his living as a club-fighting re-enactor.)
The challenge of Superman #45 is that its inherent duality leaves its readers with the clear choice of concentrating on its delights or on its deficiencies. I cannot answer for anyone else the question of whether to focus on faith in the resurgence of the Superman of the past, or fear of the retention of the Superman of the present, when contemplating the prospects for the Superman of the future; I understand why recent events have left many fans of the Man of Steel so discouraged and pessimistic that they can only view the glass as half-empty. Superman, however, has always been about the triumph of hope over experience, and I have just enough trust in Gene Luen Yang’s intention to take Clark Kent back to the World’s Finest Café at the intersection of Siegel and Shuster that I choose to view the glass of Superman #45 as half-full.
Which way did you look at Street Justice? Tell us your opinion and ComiConverse with us in the comments below.
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
Gene Luen Yang’s intriguing script presents a Superman suspended between who he now is and who he ought to be.