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Richard Donner & Geoff Johns’ Run on Action Comics – Last Son, Escape from Bizarro World, Superman & The Legion of Superheroes & Brainiac

In light of the recent announcement that the villain of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot will be General Zod (brought to the screen by Terrence Stamp in Superman II), we thought we might take a look at the run which reintroduced Zod to comic book audiences (written by the director of the first two films).

You kinda figure that Geoff Johns would be the perfect fit for Superman as a character. I mean, no character needs to re-engage with his roots while seeming fresh and renewed quite like the modern Superman. Despite his iconic status, the character hasn’t really registered on global pop culture since Richard Donner brought him to life in Superman, the first of the modern superhero films. Fittingly enough, legendary director Donner joins Geoff Johns as co-writer for the first half of the run – if you needed any more indication that this was a pairing to be excited about, consider the fact that Donner gave Johns his first “in” in show business, working as the director’s assistant. If you needed any more, take a look at how perfectly illustrator Gary Frank draws the Man of Steel, making him look like Christopher Reeve. However, although the run is entertaining and engaging, it can’t help feeling a little incomplete – as if Johns is spending more times aligning the pieces on his board rather than playing with them. Still, it’s a pretty damn good collection of Superman stories that Johns and Donner have put together here.

Superman is adrift no more...

The two key words here seem to be “accessible” and “reinvention”. Over the years, the character’s continuity has become so tangled and complicated that it has become his own source of Kryptonite. It’s inevitable that a character written for seventy years picks up baggage along the way, but there’s only so many evil Kryptonians you can keep introducing while still claiming that the boy in blue is “the last of his kind”. Although Johns and Donner certainly don’t shy away from the hero’s alien heritage, they do their best to pull back on the heavy continuity.

Indeed, while their opening arc – Last Son – makes passing reference to figures as diverse as Superman’s cousin Kara and the events of Infinite Crisis, these slip by relatively unnoticed. The main reference is the film series, from the familiar sight of one of Perry White’s inspirational life lessons providing a moment for Superman to eavesdrop on the world around him to a sneaky violation of the Fortress of Solitude (this time by Zod rather than Luthor) to Jor-El’s observation that “you are not one of them”, the story beats are familiar. It’s never really awkward or heavy-handed – the movies are engrained enough in popular culture for the moments to seem enchantingly appropriate, but Johns and Donner craft a distinct enough story that – despite some overlap in moments and characters – the collection feels like a continuation rather than a retread.

Bizarro has the world in his hands...

Superman’s supporting cast is whittled down to the archetypes that we’re all familiar with from years of media exposure, the villains are from the high calibre end of his admittedly shallow pool of opponents, and every aspect of the character that isn’t entirely engrained in popular culture as to be instantly recognisable (for example, a scene in Last Son with Metallo assumes the reader is familiar with Kryptonite, but not with the multi-coloured varients – which the character illustrates in a “don’t try this at home” sort of way) is quickly and efficiently explained to the reader.

Truth be told – and this is really the highest compliment that I can lend to a run on any of the major comic book characters – I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend these collections to readers with only a passing familiarity with the character – indeed, most of the cues hark back to the original movies. The temptation is to credit Donner with lending the series that strangely familiar yet magical style, but I think that risks underestimating Johns work here.

That is one super-dad!

As his work on The Flash and Green Lantern demonstrate, author Geoff Johns has a wonderful way of cutting straight to the heart of a character. In particular he has done wonders in humanising DC’s gallery of superheroes, no mean feat since writers like Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon are particularly fond of referring to it as a “pantheon”, evoking imagery of gods among men. Here Clark is wonderfully and effectively explored – witness the wonderful flashbacks to conversations between Clark and his father in Escape from Bizarro World, which helps underscore just how important those last three letters in “Superman” are.

There’s a powerful moment in Brainiac where the eponymous villian suddenly “gets” his adversary, identifying him not be the planet of his birth, but by the values he holds: “Earthman”. In fact, when Zod attempts to define Clark as “son of Jor-El”, the hero replies, “The name’s Superman, Zod.” There’s more than a hint of irony in Perry White’s suggestion that Clark needs to “relate to people!” This is an approach which starkly contrasts the attempts to explore Superman’s own exploration of his racial heritage in New Krypton – but one, I’d argue, which suits the character better.

Superman always looked up to his father...

Indeed, if there’s a core observation about the character running through these stories, it’s the value of that upbringing and how Clark’s humanity, rather than his alien gifts, that define him – a fact emphasised through the central role his adoptive father plays and through the conflict at the heart of Last Son. Indeed, the young Kryptonian that Superman takes under his wing doesn’t necessarily learn about his powers from Clark as much as his values. Superman’s origin has been explored time and time again (indeed, Johns himself has written a Secret Origins story for the character), and what’s fascinating is how Johns and Donner use Christopher to put a new slant on it – one which doesn’t put the emphasis on Superman so much as his parents.

“The son becomes the father,” Jor-El would suggest throughout Donner’s Superman adaptations, and it is certainly true here. Clark arrives on his parents doorstep, lost child in hand. “A young boy fell from the sky,” Clark explains to his folks. “You took him home. You forged documents. Your raised him as your own.” And then a plea, “Tell me how you did it.” Indeed, this defining moment is echoing even in the most remote of these collections – in Superman and the Legion of Superheroes, we see the arrival of an alien orphan in 3008 A.D. to a couple who bear a startling resemblence to the Kents. However, as could just as easily have happened, the arrival isn’t welcomed with open arms – “We do what all law-abiding citizens would, Mara,” the man warns his wife. “We kill it.” How lucky Superman was to find the family he did when he did. The origin of Superman is even playing out in Escape from Bizarro World albeit (suitably enough) as a reversal – the old man is abducted and taken to his (wannabe) son’s home planet.

Look at Brainiac, all bottled up there...

I mentioned New Krypton earlier. Speaking of the mega-event which followed (dominating the Superman books for almost a year, if not more), it can’t help but feel like this is all set-up. It isn’t that the stories aren’t well-written and entertaining (they are) or that they don’t contain character beats (they do), it’s just that it seems Johns is gearing up for something, in the same way that the early issues of his run on Green Lantern seemed to gearing up for Sinestro Corps War – indeed, as a sidenote, it’s fun to spot the references to the on-going work here – everything from Bizarro Hal Jordan’s recruitment into the Sinestro Corps (I wonder what Sinestro is going to do with a flawed clone of his archnemesis – no, not like that, you sick pervert) to references to “the continued growth of Coast City”.

Anyway, there’s a strong sense that Johns has an epic, sprawling story to tell encompassing the whole of the Superman mythos. Part of me knows that this was undoubtedly meant to be New Krypton, but it feels wrong that the momentum picked up here should be spent on a series under the direction of another author. Add that to the fact that New Krypton – despite its wonderful premise – ended up being a rather disappointing experiment, and it leaves this run feeling a little underwhelming.

Jor-El always had a big head...

It’s not necessarily fair to complain about what a series isn’t, but it was just something that occurred to me while reading it. It could, in fainess, be simply down to the fact that Johns’ tenure was relatively short, whereas he has generally enjoyed long runs on big-name titles that allow him to not only reinvent the title character, but also play out ideas and long-term arcs with them. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite happen here.

Still, he manages to open up the character in wonderful ways. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend these books to anyone unfamiliar with the iconic hero (okay, maybe less so Superman and the Legion of Superheroes – though Johns handles that story’s baggage quite well, but I’ll probably talk more about that one when I get around to discussing Legion of 3 Worlds). He does so by embracing the most enduring iteration of the character, even though it isn’t one on the page. The entire collection is dripping with references and homages to Richard Donner’s two films. Here General Zod is rebooted to bring him in line with the meglomaniac of Superman II – you can even hear Terrence Stamp’s voice in your head as you read it (although it seems the authors were too afraid to work in a direct “kneel before Zod” reference – “bring them to their knees” will have to suffice). Illustrator Gary Frank has taken the films as his reference – not just for the lead but for characters like the supporting Ursa. And there is no way that naming the child “Christopher” was not an affectionate homage (even Adam Kubert’s more “sketchy” art style seems to use the movie actors as references).

The Caped Crusader indeed...

That isn’t to say that Johns and Donner draw exclusively from that source, nor that they are afraid to contribute anything new to the legacy of the Man of Steel. Brainiac reimagines the titular alien as something closer to his Superman: The Animated Series iteration than before, painting him as a collector of knowledge and tying him to Krypton’s destruction (and it really works). The image of Bizarro sculpting a world with his bare hands in Escape from Bizarro World calls to mind a similar moment for the original hero in the classic All-Star Superman. Hell, even as Johns rewrites the history of Brainiac to tie him to the superhero, he takes the time to acknowledge the villain’s somewhat campy backstory – even namechecking Milton Fine. Johns has always been great at reconciling characters – streamlining them down to their core components.

Here he crafts the myth of Superman which echoes through more than a thousand years – even on another dying world, aliens are familiar with Superman and his fight for “truth, justice and the universal way” (another bit of continuity wisely streamlined there – after all, he’s not a nationalist icon, he is, as he points out, “for everyone”). Of course, he still has to work within the confines of the mainstream DC universe – unlike, say, Grant Morrison’s phenomenal All-Star Superman – but here Johns has crafted a “best of all possible worlds” iteration of the character and the mythology. He has pruned a very large and long overgrown bush, but left all the best flowers intact – no matter where they came from. Indeed, given how crazily complex his legacy can be – and Superman and the Legion of Superheoes is based on the premise that the character lives in a tangled continuity that can be hard to navigate and understand – it is quite the accomplishment.

Old man Kent rocks out...

Indeed, legacy really is the key here. The zinger at the end of Last Son articulates something that is really common sense – “a human and a Kryptonian are incapable of bearing a child together” – but somehow it still packs a whallop. Suddenly Superman’s goal to, as Luthor mockingly articulates it, “inspire anybody to be a better human being” seems all the more perfect – his example will be all he leaves behind. In that respect, Superman and the Legion of Superheroes is a perfect penultimate chapter for this saga. It allows us to see what Superman leaves in his wake, and makes Earth-Man’s petty attack on his legacy all the more shameful.

Geoff Johns and Richard Donner haven’t crafted the perfect Superman run, but they’ve done a dman fine job of putting all the pieces together. Though it ultimately feels more like a bridge than a significant chapter of itself, there’s a lot to love here. Indeed, I wish that both had been able to stay on and guide New Krypton – I sense they might have managed a better balancing act than James Robinson, Sterling Gates and Greg Rucka did. However, what we ultimately get here is a transitional phase, a collection of stories which re-establish Superman in the wake of Infinite Crisis and reflecting the DC Universe’s constant cycle of rebirth and regeneration.

What happens if Clark Kent is ever strip-searched?

Still, you’ll believe a man can fly…

You might also be interested in our reviews of other Superman stories including work from the author:

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for an informative and well-considered reeivw, Mike. All I knew of Chronicle’ previously was the trailer, the majority of which seemed to consist of Generation Y brats lowering the bar. That and posters like the one featured in your article really put me off. From what you say, though, this flick puts me in mind of Unbreakable,’ a very impressive superhero film with a similar No Boots / No Cape policy (well, sort of there is a poncho ). But I don’t know. I have been mourning what I think of as the fading of the superhero aesthetic lately. Having just completed a thesis on Grant Morrison (wow! Showing off and name-dropping at the same time!), I have lived in close quarters with Flex Mentallo’ for months, and what I love about that book is its unashamedly celebratory foregrounding of all the superhero silliness.’ Morrison’s Supergods’ really spoke to me as well, and I honestly do feel that the superhero genre has a particular aesthetic at its core, and those ‘1930s trappings,’ refined over decades, are its heart. It’s what kept me watching Batman: the Brave and the Bold’ and what stopped me watching Heroes.’ I can’t help but feel a little alarmed when I see Zack Snyder quotes like the one you mention. I love Snyder as a visual stylist, and the evidence I have seen suggests he is at his best on the outer fringes of mimesis, if not completely hallucinogenic. Grounded’ Superman? I can think of at least one recent project featuring that character linked with the word grounded,’ and we all saw how well that was received. Maybe I’ll end with a little provocation: Unbreakable’ notwithstanding, no spandex, no code-names, no silliness’ = not really superheroes.

    • I’d argue those are just trappings, though – they aren’t the heart of the genre. They’re nice to have, but they aren’t essential. I’d argue Unbreakable is probably one of the best superhero films ever made – if only because it deals with its themes and idea in a way that more superficially superhero films (like Superman Returns, or Daredevil) don’t. A superhero doesn’t need to be grounded, but they can be grounded. It’s just a measure of doing it right. Grounding a character because you think it inherently improves them is a very stupid idea, and I’d argue that with “core” characters liek Sueprman or Spider-Man, grounding them takes away from their power. on the other hand, Batman and the X-Men are easy enough to effectively ground. (Although Singer and Nolan’s films are still bristling with superhero concepts (microwave emitters? fear toxins? bat sonar?) , just lower key than most expect from the genre.)

      Do you have that thesis on-line? I’d love a look. I plan on re-visiting Flex soon, and it might be nice to get another angle on it.

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