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: The Coming of the Supermen #5 was released last Wednesday, presenting the penultimate installment of Neal Adams’s sweeping and strange Man of Steel saga. Big Barda, Mister Miracle, and Metron all make appearances in Strangers in a Strange Land!, which ComiConverse’s Superman writer, T. Kyle King, is here to review.
Demonic messengers, Darkseid, New Gods, New Krypton, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, and unexplained connections to the Middle East continue to collide in Adams’s odd ode to Jack Kirby, but is the story adding up, or is it all one enormous Big Lipped Alligator Moment? (Some spoilers follow!)
Arriving to free Rafi from Granny Goodness’s web, Superman is aided by Lois, Big Barda, and Mister Miracle. Once the boy is safely retrieved, Metron shows the heroes the train that carries escapees from Apokolips either to freedom or to their deaths. Superman departs after being given another enigmatic message by the dragon-like emissary.
On Earth, the uneasy alliance between Darkseid and Luthor has broken down, as the overlord of Apokolips threatens to dismantle the mad scientist’s laboratory and the hairless human genius openly mocks the seething embodiment of evil. Darkseid attempts to summon his army through the Boom Tube, but Superman shows up instead, prompting the villains to turn on one another violently… and perhaps fatally.
For those for whom further confirmation was needed, Superman: The Coming of the Supermen #5 proves irrefutably that this is the series in which Adams is giving the Action Ace the same inscrutable treatment he gave the Darknight Detective in Batman: Odyssey. Of his insane Caped Crusader epic, the iconic creator infamously observed, “I cannot give you an overview of the plot.” Much the same may be said for this series after Strangers in a Strange Land!
Narratively, the latest chapter begins precisely where the previous installment ended, setting the stage for the linear progression of the story. The early exchange between Superman and one of Kalibak’s troops is a tad contrived, but not horribly so, and Lois’s intervention with the shock stick she picked up on the back streets of Apokolips tracks logically. From there, though, Superman: The Coming of the Supermen #5 is off the rails and off to the races.
Big Barda and Mister Miracle appear absolutely out of nowhere, although Rafi’s comments suggest he somehow has gotten to know them somewhere along the way. This raises serious questions why they did not intervene to rescue the boy from Granny Goodness, but the Daily Planet’s star reporters do not bother to pose these inquiries. As incoherent appearances by Barda and Scott Free in a Superman comic book go, this one ranks right behind the time Kal-El and Barda made a porno movie.
No sooner have Superman and Lois become aware of Scott’s and Barda’s presence than Mister Miracle uses a puff of smoke to transport them all to the tunnel in which Metron is serving as a “traffic cop on the road to freedom.” Adams’s symbolism is far from subtle — the oppressed masses fleeing from Apokolips are attempting to get away on what quite literally is an underground railroad — and his plot devices are entirely contrived.
To get Strangers in a Strange Land! to this point, it was necessary to jettison essentially everything from the series’ first four issues. Orion appears in all of one panel in the midst of a battle, then disappears completely without explanation. Granny Goodness is zapped once, offers a brief critical appraisal of Superman’s and Lois’s witty banter, and vanishes. Kalibak pops in to utter one suggestively divided scenery-chewing line (“Suck… your last breath, Kryptonian!”), then, after being felled by two punches while Superman chats amiably with Rafi, he is gone.
While waiting for the train to arrive, Mister Miracle and Superman have a curious conversation in which the New God says he feels Darkseid knows they are there. Scott goes on to explain that the planet has room enough to accommodate New Genesis, New Krypton, and Apokolips. He even provides a helpful hologram to illustrate how the world might be divided. Barda, however, makes it plain why even an agreement for New Genesis to share New Krypton’s force field would not provide a workable solution: “The Boom Tube! It can penetrate to anywhere!” She goes on for another couple of sentences, in order to underscore the point.
After allowing time for all this exposition, Metron appears and goes all Gandalf on the Man of Steel, twice declaring that he shall not pass. Unfazed, Kal-El expresses his sense that there is “something different” about the mysterious Fourth World figure, which Metron confirms: “As if I have a purpose.” That newfound sense of mission is quickly revealed, kind of, when the train comes roaring through, only to be destroyed by a trio of heavily armed robot orbs.
Rather than respond to the unmistakably hostile “thoom thoom thoom” of cannon fire with action, Superman simply stands there and stupidly asks, “What are those…” The train then explodes, prompting Lois to exclaim: “Oh my God! They’re blown to Hell!” Mister Miracle adds an almost comically aghast, “They just wanted freedom!” Kal-El confronts Metron about his callousness, receiving in response a roundabout explanation that he can make humans and machines see what he wants.
This unsatisfactory rationale does not justify why a Kryptonian and a couple of New Gods also could be fooled, nor does it let us know why Metron did not simply conceal the existence of the train in the first place. Superman nevertheless understands that the explosion of the train was just an illusion. “You see,” Metron tells Kal-El, “these robots have ‘seen’ the ship has blown up… and they’ve reported it as such…” Throughout this exchange, all three robots are hovering right there beside them, presumably reporting these same revelations from the spot at which Scott sensed Darkseid was aware of their presence.
At that point, the narrative need for there to be exactly three robots is revealed, as the trio of substitute Supermen identified in the series’ title shows up to smash the mechanical orbs ere they can advance down the tunnel and confirm the train made it through safely. The sudden appearance of the costumed Kryptonians does not catch Kal-El by surprise, as he calmly remarks: “I take it this is your daytime jobs.” Superman’s memory is as bad as his subject-verb agreement, as the threesome revealed their respective non-heroic career paths in an earlier issue.
Confronted with the prospect of the “escapees from Darkseid’s horror show” settling on New Krypton, the Man of Tomorrow wonders how the Kandorians will respond if the refugees from Apokolips double-cross their superpowered hosts. The Kryptonians’ absolute lack of anything constituting a plan is revealed in their answer: “We’ll deal with it.” When Superman protests, the line is merely repeated.
None of this explains anything, but all of this is plenty good enough for Superman, who tells Lois that “things have to change” because “Evil has advanced too far” while he “fought in the street… with punks.” The Metropolis Marvel insists that “only I can fix it” — even though he has the New Gods and a planet full of Kryptonians for backup — so he needs her to babysit Rafi because the two of them “are my Achilles heel.” (“Achilles heel”, incidentally, is an interesting phrase for Superman to use when describing his ultimate weakness, since there are other terms for that.)
Superman: The Coming of the Supermen #5 here enters what a comic book physicist might characterize as an Adams singularity. Scarcely seven pages after the writer pointedly noted that no place was safe from a Boom Tube, Superman says that, unless Lois and Rafi are someplace safe, he is “virtually helpless.” Not only is this narratively nonsensical and a staggering mischaracterization, it eerily echoes Bruce Wayne’s declaration in Batman: Odyssey that he was “the weak sister.”
The bat-winged angel appears wordlessly for a panel, then vanishes again in the course of a page-turn reveal in which the Man of Steel appears to argue with himself, answering, “No!” even though he had been the last person to speak. Awkward dialogue and tone-deaf comedic beats are littered throughout the exchange, from Mister Miracle’s snarky “Ta-rue” to Superman’s mystifying insistence that Lois cannot report these events in the Daily Planet to the messenger’s only spoken words in Superman: The Coming of the Supermen #5: “It is as he says. The game is deep in! Daddy gotta go to war.” It is as if Adams is attempting simultaneously to trance-channel Jack Kirby from the ‘70s, David Lynch from the ‘90s, and a 75-year-old’s conception of the hipsters of today.
All this is unfortunate, because, visually, Strangers in a Strange Land! has some strong moments. At times, Adams’s artwork still looks rough and feels rushed, but the blocky bold strokes and big sprawling spreads help to heighten the overt Kirby homages. The chiseled muscularity of this lantern-jawed and spit-curled Superman is iconic, and such images as the Action Ace sharing a kiss with Lois Lane and Darkseid venting his red-eyed rage at the laughing Luthor are reminiscent of Adams at the height of his powers. Superman: The Coming of the Supermen #5 looks great.
The writing, though, steadily has descended into a maddening mess. The Bronze Age-style overemphasis — complete with an exclamation point at the end of the tale’s title — is misplaced when the crucial plot points being underscored don’t add up and are later ignored. Adams’s dialogue ranges from pulp-novel hyperbole to ham-handed comic relief, accompanied by inscrutable non sequiturs (“This is too much for a grown reporter to watch!”) and ersatz dramatic tension concocted out of needlessly accusatory exchanges between Superman and Lois.
Perhaps recognizing the inelegance of his writing, Adams employs in Superman: The Coming of the Supermen #5 another of his tricks from Batman: Odyssey; namely, having the characters comment on the graceless nature of their own word choices. Lois tells Superman his efforts to convince her to remain with Rafi had “better not be a bum steer”, and, just as every member of the audience consciously marvels at the use of the phrase “bum steer”, Superman speaks for each reader when replying, “Lois… I can’t believe you just said, ‘bum steer.’”
The credits for Strangers in a Strange Land! list an assistant editor and a group editor. What editing, precisely, was done to Adams’s script? Since one of letterer Cardinal Rae’s prominent word balloons declares, “The Kryptonian has gone beserk [sic]!”, it is unclear whether there was even any proofreading done. An exchange between Lois and Rafi perfectly sums up the problems of Superman: The Coming of the Supermen #5: “You wouldn’t understand.” “Whatever.” “Let’s go.” “Whatever.”
With this issue, the series undergoes a whiplash-inducing change of direction, kicking earlier characters by the wayside while bringing in new ones who assert that their presence is for a purpose without accounting adequately for their aspirations. Kal-El completely shifts gears, only to show up in Luthor’s lab to referee the villains’ metaphorical chess match rather than confront the problems facing the New Gods and the New Kryptonians on the ground. In none of these events is there even a hint of what Darkseid had to do with building the Egyptian pyramids.
Making matters much worse, Superman does virtually nothing in this issue. The Man of Tomorrow throws a trio of punches over the course of the initial six pages of the story, uses a single burst of heat vision to free Rafi from the web two pages later, and otherwise does not use his superpowers to do anything more remarkable than briefly to defy gravity over remarkably short distances. In Superman: The Coming of the Supermen #5, Orion zaps the shock troops of Apokolips, Lois takes out Granny Goodness, Big Barda and Mister Miracle take down Kalibak, drones evidently destroy a trainload of innocent civilians, the costumed Kandorian trio smashes the robots, Darkseid’s and Luthor’s dispute ostensibly turns murderous, and Kal-El stands idly by through it all.
That is not the Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster Superman we were promised by Adams at the outset of this enterprise. Although the fifth installment of this six-issue limited series looks great thanks to the artist’s classic graphics, it suffers tremendously from the disjointed hodgepodge that has come to define his work as a writer. Like the escapees from Apokolips, we readers are being rushed at a pell-mell pace to a destination that will be either liberating or disastrous, and Superman: The Coming of the Supermen #5 leaves me more worried than ever that, if this ends in a colossal fireball, the explosion will not merely be a Metron-induced mind trick.
ComiConverse with us in the comments to let us know what you thought of Strangers in a Strange Land!
T. Kyle King is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow him on Twitter: @TKyleKing.
Neal Adams’s artwork is great, but his writing is weak and increasingly incomprehensible.