I was looking forward to this.
Yes, seriously. I was looking forward to reading a Superman comic book. Like, hanging-around-the-mailbox-until-it-got-delivered-level looking forward.
This has never happened before.
As many of you might well be aware of by now, Superman is my most detested superhero in the history of comic books and, quite possibly, the least-interesting character in fiction to me ever. The boring, invincible last son of Krypton has done nothing but irritate me, both in stories related to him and larger pieces. My favourite moments in comics usually occur when he’s getting the snot beaten out of him (especially when Batman comes knockin’ with a kryptonite ring), and every story I’ve read of his (bar one) has made me want to buy as many Superman comics as is financially possible, put them in a pile and re-enact Guy Fawkes Day on my front lawn. Ok, that’s probably overdoing it a little, but still – I can’t stand the smug blue-clad bastard.
And yet, there’s no escaping it – the combination of a young, fallible Superman and the writing talents of one Grant Morrison (whose credentials are well enough known on this website) was one that was just far too tantalising to pass up.
And you know what? It was bloody awesome.
Before I forfeit my rights as a member of the Anti-Superman League (which, according to this book, is an actual thing) let me get to the plot; in a world where superheroes are only just starting to peek their heads out of the various woodworks they spring from, renegade Kryptonian youngster Kal-El is busy kicking ass and taking names in a Metropolis almost as crime-riddled as modern-day Gotham. He deals with many personal troubles, such as paying rent, keeping a job and fighting corrupt businessmen from across town while dealing with a younger, soda-drinking Lex Luthor (who looks unsettling like Mr Morrison himself in what I suspect is a bit of self-insert wish fulfillment…hopefully).
Suddenly, his city is captured by high-class computer virus Brainiac, who subsequently shrinks, bottles and stores it alongside other similarly-poached population centres that reside on his orbiting tentacle spaceship thingy. It’s up to Superman – city pariah – to stand up against his civvy oppressors and save the day.
Superman is treated here as a much more relatable, fallible hero throughout Men of Steel‘s pages; granted, he can still leap tall buildings, catch bullets and run so fast he literally burns his shoes off, but he also gets pinioned – rather painfully – by a runaway train, has electro-shock therapy that really hurts, and gets his ass handed to him on multiple occasions by Braniac and his mind-altered human accomplice. The Clark Kent bits are no less enveloping in their ability to draw you into caring about the character; I very much felt Peter Parker influences when Clark pays rent, goes out for burgers with Jimmy Olson and has a few near-misses with Lois Lane (the relationship with which is not given major focus, which is definitely a point in its favour since Lois Lane still has the two-dimensionality of a birthday card).
On top of that, the back-up stories collected at the end – focussing on additional characters like Steel and the Kents – fleshed out the world a lot more and gave the spotlight to a few background players, which I thought was a really nice touch. If the 8-page stories featuring other characters continue like this – hopefully without an issue that focuses on Krypto the Superdog – then it adds another dimension of narrative value to the tapestry presented by Superman’s adventures.
There is no tiptoeing around this – I friggin’ loved this book. Way, way more than I thought I would. I liked it so much that I trawled the Book Depository for cheap Superman texts before stopping myself and going “No, no, not that far. Pre-Morrison Superman hasn’t gotten any less shit than before”. I don’t want to pull a Ted Mosby on Superman and suddenly declare my undying affection for his character and his stories, but it’s hard to deny the fact that I really enjoyed Men of Steel – I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of the best New 52 releases I’ve experienced thus far, and could well end up in my top list of the year.
That said, it’s not completely flawless; the early parts of the narrative feel a little rushed, particularly Superman’s capture and quick escape from Luthor and his cohort of military scientists, and the side-story at the end with the Legion of Super-Heroes felt a little rushed and slightly out of place (unless it’s the sequel hook for the next arc, which I suspect it is). An element that will certainly alienate non-Morrison fans is further use of his trademark “tell the audience as close to bugger all without being completely incomprehensible” style, which does work well and is surprisingly meager in the main story.
But really, the flaws are very minor in comparison to the narrative’s grand, sweeping reintroduction of the Man of Steel as the beginnings of what will hopefully be his journey towards becoming a more likable, interesting hero with genuine struggles and an honestly engrossing personality that doesn’t take pointers from empty teaspoons. And really, if it’s a full-on Superman story that’s good enough to snare me – one of the staunchest anti-Supes dudes out there – then that should tell you it’s worth checking out.
The artwork gets divvied up between Rags Morales and Andy Kubert (the latter of Flashpoint fame). For the most part it’s bloody gorgeous; it’s nice seeing Superman look like someone other than Christopher Reeve for once, and his younger self actually looks more handsome than his chiseled, muscle-bound adult body; don’t read too much into that. It’s richly textured, especially when the trademark blue and red suits appears, and on the whole was quite pleasing to look at. I would say, however, that no matter who draws her, Lois Lane still looks damn ugly – she’s like if Ellen Page and Dave Grohl had an ugly son that then decided to stuff eggplants down his shirt.
The dialogue is 100% Classic Morrison from start to finish, which is a good and bad thing – like with all his other works it relies heavily on readers being able to put pieces together themselves, and as with the Superman Beyond segment in Final Crisis there’s a lot of over-the-top para-science talk that is at once grandiose and hard to understand. But hey, if you sign up for Grant Morrison’s writing, you get Grant Morrison’s writing – and it’s certainly one of the bigger draw cards for me, and the reason I ended up buying Men of Steel in the first place.
So now it seems I must eat my words, chow down on crow and admit that it is possible for Superman to really not suck all the time. This does not mean he’s leapt to a spot in my favourites list, nor does it mean I’ve changed my stance on his previous titles being nothing but a boring, invincible hero tackling boring, far-too-vulnerable-by-comparison villains.
It also does not mean I’ve changed my mind about the best scene in Hush being when Batman smacks the crap out of Superman with a kryptonite ring – and you know what? Despite Men of Steel‘s awesomeness, I’ll still cheer when Bats delivers that solid right hook.
BEST QUOTE: “I didn’t even know cities had keys.” – Superman