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 #52 was released on Wednesday, bringing to a close not only Peter J. Tomasi’s Super League storyline, but also the New 52 and the post-Flashpoint incarnation of the Man of Steel. ComiConverse’s Superman reviewer, T. Kyle King, takes a look at Do or Die, the story that turned the Man of Tomorrow into yesterday’s news.
Told in eight parts across four publications, The Final Days of Superman followed the Last Son of Krypton through his concluding earthly journey while paving the way for the debut of Rebirth that same day. Technically, spoilers follow, but, really, the title kind of gives away the ending.
Clark Kent, the New 52 Superman, is locked in a fierce battle with Denny Swan, who was transformed into the Solar Flare Superman “by a bolt of sentient energy” carrying a mutated version of the genuine article’s genome. The former is dying of kryptonite poisoning and related maladies, while the power contained within the latter is building to a critical mass. After Batman, Supergirl, and Wonder Woman come to his aid, Superman flies his overheated duplicate into orbit, where he cannot harm anyone on the planet’s surface.
As the Action Ace’s own abilities begin to fail him, he is helped by Clark White, the pre-Flashpoint Superman. The younger hero in blue sucker-punches the older hero in black, sending him back to Earth so only two of the three Supermen will be sacrificed. Using his own solar flare to counteract and contain his doppelgänger’s explosion, the New 52 Superman absorbs the blast and returns to Earth to bid farewell to his friends. As those who knew him mourn his death, Lois Lane makes good on her promise to share his story with the world.
The clean, sharply defined look of Superman #52 was largely the handiwork of Mikel Janin, who shared penciling and inking duties with Miguel Sepulveda while dividing the coloring chores with Jeromy Cox. Janin’s imagery crackles with energy, lending palpable momentum to the action. Together with subtle shadings, brilliant bursts, and Rob Leigh’s dramatic lettering, Do or Die visually packs an enormous wallop. The outstanding artwork arguably is the best to appear in any installment of The Final Days of Superman.
Unfortunately, the writing fails to match the graphics. After getting off to a strong start, what originally was promoted as the Super League saga ultimately unraveled. Disparate story elements that appeared at first to be weaving their way together didn’t just fail to unite cohesively; they so completely failed to have anything to do with one another that whole plotlines simply vanished.
The story’s first installment, in Superman #51, boldly declared on the cover: “In the Heart of the Sun… the Super League is Forged!” Seven issues later, the sun remains a bystander and it isn’t clear what the Super League even is, much less when or if it was forged. Supergirl flies in and out as needed, having or lacking powers as the situation warrants; Kal-El’s breakup with Diana sort of is undone; Lois is a confidante in the beginning, then again at the end, while being sidelined in the middle; Dr. Omen’s sinister secret laboratory on the Loess Plateau seems absolutely central until China disappears from the stage as completely as if Nixon never went there.
The movements Janin so elegantly depicted were scripted as the moment dictated, generating much forced exposition. In the midst of a fast-moving, high-powered fistfight, Clark Kent offered a hurried explanation of Denny Swan’s condition and the Solar Flare Superman expressed his desire to marry Wonder Woman. Both verbal outbursts came from nowhere, and neither appeared to be based on anything.
The members of Superman’s supporting cast show up in succession, each taking a curtain call in a regimented progression. Supergirl arrives on cue after we saw her depart in the previous issue, then Batman and Wonder Woman enter the scene in tandem from the nearby White farm. Fresh from working through marital communication issues in his mountain fortress, the pre-Flashpoint Superman zooms into space at the perfect moment, then along come Lois in a helicopter and Lana Lang in an airplane. Wait, what? That happened how, exactly?
Well, anyway, however everyone got there, they got there, and then came the maudlin goodbyes, followed by the montage that bid farewell to the New 52 (Ulysses in his A.R.G.U.S. cell, Lee Lambert in the fire station, Jimmy Olsen smashing his camera into the flatscreen television on which he and Clark Kent played video games) and offered glimpses of Rebirth (bolts of energy from the dying Superman landing on Lois and Lana, Lex Luthor contemplating his armored super-suit, Dr. Omen reading the headlines).
The imagery is vibrant and impressive, but the story beats are too rushed and too pat. As the desiccated husk of the Man of Steel’s body degrades into dust in a manner so unfortunately symbolic it comes across almost as the confession of a guilty conscience, Batman offers another shorthand synopsis of what has happened, concluding with unselfconscious forthrightness: “He’s… dead… There’s lots of questions—”. The bearded surviving Superman curtly responds, “Which I’ll answer at another time.”
Superman #52 must be evaluated not just in the context of the concluding New 52 or of the nascent Rebirth, but also in comparison to other comics in which the Man of Steel died or was believed to be dying. 1961’s Superman #149 is arguably the best “imaginary story” of the era that spawned that storytelling convention. 1962’s Superman #156 was called “the single greatest Superman story ever written” by the same commentator who judged 1992’s Superman #75 to be the biggest event comic of all time. 2006’s All-Star Superman tops many lists as the Man of Tomorrow’s finest hour.
No one will ever count 2016’s Superman #52 among such classics. The concluding installment of The Final Days of Superman lacked the emotional power of those other stories, partly because the anticlimactic passing didn’t seem to matter, and partly because poor choices evidencing DC Comics’ baffling attitude toward its flagship character made the New 52 Action Ace the iconic hero’s least appealing incarnation.
When Superman: Lois and Clark debuted, the popular (and proper) sentiment was that the real Man of Steel had returned, which inevitably cast the New 52 version of the character in the role of a wannabe or an understudy or an imposter. Far from undermining that perception, Superman #52 emphasized it. Young Clark Kent asks seasoned Clark White, “Who are you?” The bearded older man replies: “A friend.” Those lines, of course, come from 1978’s Superman: The Movie, underscoring the idea that the genuine Superman in this issue isn’t the one in the red cape.
Tomasi did what he could with the materials before him, and Janin led an artistic team that made Superman #52 visually impressive, but the death of Clark Kent’s body can only matter if that physical form is home to Superman’s soul. The New 52 sapped so much of the character’s spirit that there was nothing left to lend meaningful weight to this death. Instead of posing the titular false dichotomy of Do or Die (it turned out to be an “and” rather than an “or”), the eighth installment of The Final Days of Superman ought to have been called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
The least recognizable Superman also will be the least lamented. The New 52 is dead and another (hopefully better) day is dawning as the yellow sun rises on the genuine Man of Tomorrow.
Feel free to sign the guest book at the funeral home in the comments below, and, while you’re at it, ComiConverse with us about Superman #52!
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
Quality artwork was wasted on a story that was as doomed as its flawed hero.