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 #51 was released this week, following a palate-cleansing Wednesday on which no new issues starring the Man of Steel hit the stands. DC Comics began bridging the gap between the end of the New 52 and the coming Rebirth with the opening installment of writer Peter J. Tomasi’s Super League story arc. ComiConverse’s Superman correspondent, T. Kyle King, brings you his review.
Clark Kent has been set free from Truth, and the sun has set on Savage Dawn, so the Metropolis Marvel is in a time of transition as the countdown continues to the time the pre-Flashpoint Superman reclaims center stage as the one and only Man of Tomorrow. How will Tomasi tackle the passing of the Kryptonian torch? I’ll let you know, but, beginning with the sentence after this one, there will be spoilers!
The newly-restored New 52 Superman is dying. Thorough testing in the Fortress of Solitude has confirmed that the cumulative effect of the Darkseid War, the prolonged exposure to kryptonite, and the fight with Rao have left the Action Ace terminally ill. Kal-El continues to do his superheroic duty, but he takes the time to ask Lana Lang to bury him beside Jonathan and Martha Kent in Smallville. He also seeks out Lois Lane so she can tell his story to the world.
From the Loess Plateau in China, Dr. Omen uses a supercomputer to slip inside the Fortress’s firewall for an unknown purpose whose focal point is a mysterious figure suspended in a hidden laboratory. In Minnesota, a paroled prisoner on the run from the law unexpectedly collides with a bright light from the sky, and he emerges from the conflagration aglow with electricity, declaring: “I’m Superman!”
Fans knew huge changes were afoot when the Rebirth creative teams were announced: Tomasi is taking over the main Superman title, Dan Jurgens will continue the Superman: Lois and Clark storyline in an Action Comics run in which the historic issue numbering is restored, and Gene Luen Yang is slated to script the adventures of a Shanghai teen with newfound Kryptonian powers in New Super-Man. Inevitably, this seismic shift from the current continuity reboot to a line-wide realignment would involve upheavals.
After the various square pegs of Truth were wedged awkwardly into the round holes of Savage Dawn, Tomasi’s approach in tying together the loose ends that are left with what we know is to come was refreshingly direct. Superman #51 opens with the Man of Steel looking straight out at the audience and announcing: “I’m dying.” The writer must simultaneously provide closure and offer foreshadowing for the Super League story, so forthrightness was the way to go.
The premises underlying Superman #51 are numerous and convoluted, yet plausible. The combined impact of recent events running through various Superman and Justice League comic series has made the Metropolis Marvel’s prominently announced mortality matter. Hairline fractures in the Fortress’s defenses following its separation from the JLA Watchtower and Vandal Savage’s Stormwatch Carrier have left the Arctic haven vulnerable to outside attack. A trio of seemingly unrelated pages set in North Branch undoubtedly opened the door for the sort of transformation that awaits Kenji Kong. Yes, we finally know what’s up with Superman in Rebirth, and, so far, it adds up credibly.
I have not been a fan of Tomasi’s work on Superman/Wonder Woman, most probably because that often execrable title featured the nastiest and angriest version of the Action Ace during a Truth arc which included too much moody brooding. I would like to think Tomasi was winking at the audience, and telegraphing his shift in tone, when he had Superman muse in this issue: “I’m angry” before explaining that his annoyance stemmed from his inability to continue saving his adopted homeworld.
Tomasi’s uplifting script about a heavy theme is given wings by Mikel Janin’s artwork and colors. The graphics in Superman #51 are detailed but not excessively laden with lines, subtly shaded without being too deeply shadowed, and brightly hued yet not so light that the pictures lack poignance. The simplicity of the imagery helps prevent the complexity of the converging story threads from becoming too busy. Janin uses his broad color palette to convey a wide range of moods as expertly as a composer using a musical score to invoke emotion in the shifting scenes of a film.
Because Superman #51 inevitably treads upon thin ice. Tomasi wisely elects to embrace the risks he has no choice but to run. By choosing as his title The Final Days of Superman, Tomasi as much as invites the necessary comparison he could not hope to avoid, although DC Comics did him no favors by making the connection explicit through the issue’s closing advertisement for Grant Morrison’s Wonder Woman: Earth One.
If you’re going to tell a multi-part tale about Superman dying, you are going to be judged against All-Star Superman, and unavoidably found wanting. Knowing that, Tomasi proceeds to have fun with it, and, despite the seriousness of the plot, he manages to tell the story without descending into Zack Snyder’s grim idea of “fun.”
Straight out of the gate, on the double-page splash following the shocking opening line of Superman #51, Tomasi pairs his hero with Krypto, who was reintroduced into the New 52 continuity during Morrison’s Action Comics run. Lest the inclusion of the Dog of Steel be too nuanced a nod, Janin shows Krypto bringing Superman his cape, calling attention to the modern era’s baffling absence of the super-pet’s iconic cloak.
After the Man of Steel got so far afield during Truth, Tomasi, who was complicit in that regrettable detour into darkness, used Superman #51 to get the Action Ace back to his historic roots. The title of The Final Days of Superman echoes that of Edmond Hamilton’s classic Superman #156. Homage is paid to Ma and Pa Kent not just in the Smallville Cemetery, but also in the statuary of the Fortress of Solitude.
Most notably, Tomasi, perhaps the perpetrator of the most abhorrent scene in all of Truth, makes a noble effort to redeem two female characters he previously unfairly maligned. A sweet sepia-toned scene on a swingset captures Clark’s idyllic heartland childhood in the moments before he delivers the heartbreaking news of his hopeless prognosis to his oldest friend, Lana Lang. At the issue’s conclusion, Superman pays a visit to Lois Lane and makes no attempt to minimize its significance, explaining: “I came here specifically to see you.”
The moments the hero shares with the most important friend of his youth and the most important relationship in his adulthood give us a glimpse of the Man of Steel’s maturity in confronting his mortality. His sincerity in giving each woman her due individually shows meaningful progress toward reclaiming what was sacrificed in the New 52 reboot and squandered upon the altar of Truth.
Superman #51 overtly represents the beginning of the end for this incarnation of the Last Son of Krypton. The creative team’s challenge is to wind up what is winding down, to kick off what is coming forth, to make us mourn the passing of Superman’s most regrettable iteration, and to accomplish all this coherently and compassionately. The first installment of The Final Days of Superman got the Super League story arc underway in a more than merely functional fashion.
What did you think of Peter J. Tomasi’s and Mikel Janin’s Superman #51? ComiConverse with us by sharing your thoughts in the comments below!
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
Charged with the duty to shepherd Superman through the transition into Rebirth, Peter J. Tomasi provided a promising start.