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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Left with fewer powers and no secret identity by Truth, Superman has begun to track down the many enemies who are conspiring against him in Justice. On Wednesday, the story arc continued as the Man of Steel worked to locate HORDR in Superman #46 by writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Howard Porter. ComiConverse’s Superman correspondent, T. Kyle King, is here to review the latest installment.
One month after challenging readers in Street Justice, Yang and Porter are back with Knocked Out! Superman is working at Oakland’s Thousand One House as a participant in Queen Shahrazad’s Mythbrawl, but is he sinking deeper into the spectacle or struggling back toward reclaiming his superhero status?
In his two weeks of taking part in Mythbrawl, Superman has forged a friendship with Haemosu while trying to locate HORDR. Haemosu takes the Man of Tomorrow to a nightclub for mythical figures, where the Kryptonian is given a lead on what happened to Apolaki. Jimmy Olsen and Condesa have come to California in search of Clark Kent, who tells them to go home to Metropolis.
Superman goes to San Francisco to confront Yurei, who previously lured Apolaki into a trap so the Quarmers could absorb his energy. The Man of Steel learns that HORDR has been tracking his movements since his arrival and that the sand clones are “an unexpected by-product of our energy purification process”. Superman’s own superpowered sand clone attacks Clark, who fights back until the silicon duplicate’s heat vision strikes Jimmy, who followed the Man of Steel. HORDR_ROOT appears on screen, replaying the video in which Superman threatened anyone who harmed his friends. HORDR_ROOT defiantly dares the Man of Steel to “come harm me back!”
Aided by colorist Hi-Fi’s vibrant hues, Porter really shines as an artist in Knocked Out! He includes a wealth of valuable background details without distracting the audience from the action in the foreground. (Stan Lee even shows up as Big Belly Burger’s employee of the month.) Just as Yang is beginning to flourish fully as a writer capable of crafting culturally diverse Superman stories, Porter has brought a subtlety to the enterprise that enables him to portray a Korean metahuman club with nuance. Hi-Fi brings brightness to this night life while also lending sepia tones to Jimmy’s memories and adding the genuine sense that the gritty spit-curled Superman clone actually is composed of solidified sand.
The script for Superman #46 called upon Porter to draw a wide variety of character types, from ghosts and cat creatures to Condesa and an evil female version of Edward Scissorhands, and, in each instance, he delivers with aplomb. The artist’s take on Jimmy Olsen is a particularly nice touch, as the young cub reporter is depicted with the same shock of red hair falling in front of his left eye that also is shared by Shahrazad.
What really makes Knocked Out! work, though, are Yang’s words. The author really packs a lot into a single issue without making any part of the story seem forced, overstuffed, or out of place. Superman #46 tracks a pair of parallel investigations – Condesa’s and Jimmy’s search for Clark and the Action Ace’s hunt for HORDR – that together move the story forward, but Yang takes time to add layers and variety along the way.
Calling one another “Red” and “Blue” (in a nice nod to some older Superman stories), Jimmy and Condesa banter about her mathematical talents, which Olsen likens to Aquaman’s ability to communicate with undersea creatures. On his way offstage, Superman shares a fist bump with a fellow Mythbrawler, and, when Shahrazad draws his story out of him, the flashback sequence recreates the scene from the 1978 film in which young Clark lifts the car on which Pa Kent was changing a tire.
Olsen’s own reverie takes him back to his first visit to Big Belly Burger with Clark as a new Daily Planet employee, when he snapped his first shots of Superman besting bad guys before storefronts with delightfully historical names like “Swan’s Boots” and “Ordway & Byrne Antiquities”. At last understanding why Clark just happened to have to slip off to the bathroom while the Man of Steel was saving the day, Jimmy places his order at the burger joint, asking for milk to drink, just as his former co-worker did before.
Although this is a serious story, jokes abound. Haemosu removes his mask to reveal his alien face, observing that it would have “been embarrassing” to walk into the nightclub wearing his Mythbrawl headgear. Noting that the womanizing Apolaki “was all about mythical tail”, Haemosu hikes a thumb in the direction of the feline female who has an actual tail. When she accuses her ethereal friend of stalking Apolaki, the wraith placidly replies, “I didn’t stalk him. I haunted him. I’m a ghost. I’m supposed to haunt.” There is even a jab at folks like us who read and write about comics on the internet when Clark tells Jimmy, who recently has been fired by Perry White: “I don’t think your blog post will have the effect you’re hoping for.”
At the heart of Superman #46, though, is Yang’s powerful notion of the dual nature of Clark and Kal-El. Once again, we share the Metropolis Marvel’s struggle through his internal monologue: Superman enjoys Mythbrawl, but admits he shouldn’t; he wants to explain to Jimmy that he left to protect his friends, yet realizes that he can’t; he responds to a blast of freeze-breath from his sand clone by wondering whether what he is feeling is jealousy or “just pain.” In dramatic counterpoint to his ill-conceived threat to repay harm to his loved ones “a thousandfold”, Superman delivers his similarly hyperbolic Mythbrawl monologue while experiencing a vitality that almost makes him “believe the words coming out of my mouth.”
As was the case in Greg Pak’s recent Action Comics #46, though, the struggle transpiring inside the Man of Steel’s mind results in redemption through the deeds to which his wrestling leads him. Throughout this issue, in spite of its title, Superman is restrained in his use of violence. He pulls the punch he throws at Crow during Mythbrawl, apologizing as he lands it and promising afterward to leave his knuckles unwrapped for their next performance. He later literally disarms Yurei in self-defense while leaving her entirely unhurt.
We learn that, the day after accepting Shahrazad’s job offer, he returned to Sungetix, only to find all trace of the tech company gone, and he has been searching for Apolaki ever since. When asked by the Pampangan sun god’s ghostly former paramour why the “S” on his chest is colored incorrectly and whether his Superman schtick is just a “lame pick-up routine”, Clark calmly replies: “No, this isn’t a pick-up routine. And it’s not an ‘S’.”
Yang’s Superman is flawed, but he is neither a seething mass of rage nor an aloof amoral avatar. He is haunted by his alienness – by the idea that humanity loved him not because he was good, but only because he was strong – yet, even in his reduced human state, he is willing to take on an empowered doppelgänger of his former self in mismatched individual combat.
More to the point, once Jimmy is injured in the fight, Superman immediately disengages and rushes straight to his friend’s aid. “I was right”, the severely and perhaps fatally wounded Olsen utters weakly. “You’re… still… the same guy… fighting villains… You’re still… Superman.” Earlier that evening, Haemosu had promised Jimmy he would get to see the Man of Tomorrow fight an epic match “more real than truth”, and so he did.
We are not yet back to having a Superman more real than the ersatz Man of Steel from Truth, but we are getting there. Unfortunately, Lois Lane does not appear in Knocked Out!, but neither is she overtly disrespected as she was at the World’s Finest Café, and, since Yurei says that HORDR was going to kill Clark at its mountain hideaway, Superman #46 makes it explicit that, by revealing his secret, Lois unmistakably saved his life.
Little by little, Yang is using the Justice arc to walk the Action Ace back from the precipice on which he teetered in Truth, incrementally inching Clark Kent and Lois Lane – and, with them, Superman himself – in the direction of their genuine, and more interesting, selves. The Man of Steel makes passing mention to Yurei that his re-enactment of divine legends in Mythbrawl is allowing him to “power myself back up” gradually; the absence from this issue of any fixation on tacos indicates that the real Superman is returning, and the counterpoint between the courageous Clark and his super-powered sand clone confirms that it takes much more than heat vision to make a hero.
While I understand my fellow Superman fans’ continued ambivalence over whether the direction of the Man of Steel is good or bad, Yang’s last two issues, taken together with Pak’s latest pair in Action Comics #46 and Batman/Superman #26, signal that we may have passed the tipping point, and survived it. (Granted, Superman/Wonder Woman remains horrendous, but perhaps that explains why Yang’s Superman recalls Bruce Wayne fondly yet elects not to dwell on Princess Diana.) The next issue will go a long way toward telling the tale: HORDR_ROOT concludes Knocked Out! by making the false claim that, if Superman is “for real,” he will make good on his promise to do to the villain something worse than what the sand clone has done to Jimmy. The final page provides the theme of the ensuing installment: Eye For An Eye! – the very thing Lois correctly warned was not what made Superman Superman.
Without his powers, Clark Kent may no longer be super, but he remains a man, and he is what Friedrich Nietzsche said man was: a rope stretched over an abyss between the animal and the Superman. Holding the limp body of Jimmy Olsen in his arms at the end of an issue filled with myths and ghosts, looking ahead to the coming confrontation with HORDR_ROOT in which he will either give in to the worst instincts to which he publicly swore shamefully to surrender or heed at last the wise words of Lois Lane reminding him of who he truly is, Superman is called to reserve no share of spirit for himself, to want to be wholly the spirit of his virtue, and to walk as a spirit over the bridge.
I believe Gene Luen Yang will get him there, because he’s right: It’s not an “S”.
What did you think of Yang’s and Porter’s latest collaboration in Superman #46?
As always, we welcome your insights as we ComiConverse in the comments below!
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
Slowly but surely, Gene Luen Yang is moving Superman back where he needs to be.