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Flashpoint: Project Superman (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

I actually quite liked Flashpoint. I can accept that the event had its flaws. It was a less than ideal set up for a radical shift in the status quo and a significant proportion of its tie-ins were absolutely terrible, but these are problems that seem inherent to any big “universe-altering comic book event.” However, despite that, I liked the idea of viewing the DC universe “through a glass, darkly.” Seeing familiar, but distorted reflections of DC icons cast as terrifyingly cynical nineties anti-heroes.

By positing that any world inhabiting these grim anti-heroic substitutes was severely broken, Geoff Johns was able to reaffirm the idealism of the Silver Age. Contrasting DC’s stable of iconic heroes to their darkened reflections allows us to take stock of what is really essential to them as characters. Project Superman provides a glimpse at an alternate version of Superman, one raised under very different circumstances. It dares to ask what is the essential ingredient in making Superman the character we know and love.

It’s a deeply flawed three-issue story, and can’t measure up to Brian Azzarello’s superb Batman: Knight of Vengeance, but it’s still a fascinating look at what makes Superman into Superman.

A broken world...

A broken world…

Let’s get this out of the way. The third issue in this series is a massive disappointment, as it reduces the story into a typical knock-down superhero brawl in the heart of an already damaged London. The grim London setting (and the decision to present Kal-El as a young boy) evoke comparisons to Miracleman, which is not something that a superhero comic should really do unless it’s willing to compete with Alan Moore’s epic deconstruction in quality. Quite frankly, Project Superman can’t.

The third issue also makes the mistake of reducing Lois Lane to cheap emotional leverage used to manoeuvre Superman into where the story needs him to be. There’s an obligatory reference to her Lois Lane & The Resistance miniseries, but it’s very clear that she’s just here to provide some angst for the comic book’s male lead. She admits that it’s a cliché, but that doesn’t excuse writers Scott Snyder and Lowell Francis for using Lois Lane in such a lazy and exploitative manner.

Details are sketchy...

Details are sketchy…

It really seems like they just cynically waited until her own aforementioned tie-in was finished so that they could kill her off here to provide a nice bit of motivation to turn Kal-El into the superhero that he needs to be. It’s a nasty piece of writing, a shocking cheap tactic and the kind of thing that I really wish DC would move away from. It’s not the idea that female characters should be immune from negative portrayals or meaningless deaths. It’s just the use of Lois in this way which grates.

Sam Lane also dies here, but his death is treated in a very different way. Lois’ father gets a more heroic death, trapping the villain for quite some time. He isn’t merely distracting his foe like a fly so Kal-El can prepare the killing blow, he’s risking his own life to save the lives of others. Also, the death of Sam Lane doesn’t generate the same reaction in Kal-El. Indeed, the boy barely seems to figure out that the only person in the project who has ever nice to him has died.

Well, at least she died to motivate an A-list superhero...

Well, at least she died to motivate an A-list superhero…

One imagines the loss of the man he’d known for years would resonate just as much (if not more) as the girl he met a couple of times. I’m not accusing Snyder and Francis of being sexist here. It’s a heavy accusation to through around, but I honestly don’t think that there was any malice in their portrayal of Lois. However, her death was just the most convenient way to generate the outcome they wanted. They really should have thought more about the implications of just casually killing her off like that.

It casts a pretty significant shadow over the rest of what is otherwise a really good comic. I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t acknowledge the contributions of Gene Ha. Ha has a wonderful gift for drawing faces, and his comics tend to humanise the participants a great deal. Despite the fact the last issue descends into a knock-down brawl, it’s the humanity of Project Superman which really resonates.

Lighting up the page...

Lighting up the page…

At times, the comic almost feels like an impressionistic collection of snapshots taken from another life, fleeting glimpses of what could have been, and Ha’s illustrations are a major part of that. Even when he’s drawing hulking supermen and aliens from outer space, they are still recognisable and expressive, their faces conveying emotions and nuance remarkably well. Ha is a major part of why Project Superman works.

It’s also the simplicity of the story. There are really two competing narratives about two alternate versions of Superman in this comic, and neither is especially original. We’ve seen Superman contrasted against arrogant all-powerful inhuman beings before, so it’s not as if Neil Sinclair represents something especially novel. Similarly, we’ve seen quite a few “what if Superman didn’t land on the Kent farm” stories as well. Still, Project Superman is a well-told version of both of these stories, for the most part.

It all begins a-zen...

It all begins a-zen…

Sinclair is a fairly typical ubermensch, but he’s interesting nevertheless. The notion of supersoldiers and individual conscience resonates in the current political climate. Given current political realities, “the American Way” can be quite problematic when it comes to Superman. In a multi-cultural and relativist world, the suggestion that Superman is a champion of a particular foreign or social policy is unnerving. It’s no coincidence that Action Comics recently generated controversy with a story where Superman renounced his American citizenship.

These aren’t questions you can really deal with in mainstream continuity, because they’d involve taking a side and consciously politicising a massive corporate icon. That story in Action Comics probably only got published because there was a massive reboot less than half-a-year away. However, free from the shackles of continuity, using an alternate universe as a backdrop, there is freedom to ask those sorts of questions about a potential Superman.

He's got the spine for this...

He’s got the spine for this…

Sam Lane is pretty clear about the politics of the situation when briefing Sinclair. “But you get it. People with no allegiance building metahumans without patriotism. For the next war, we’ll need soldiers and heroes, not guinea pigs.” Later on, he informs his first subject, “I’m creating the hero America needs. And that means someone we’re sure of.” It’s clear that – to Sam Lane – the fight for “the American Way” is not just a nice rhetorical flourish, but a firm political mandate.

There’s the implication in Project Superman that Sinclair might, just might, be Apollo. Apollo is the Superman analogue from Warren Ellis’ Stormwatch and The Authority, right down to the solar powers. However, by the nature of the stories featuring Apollo, he’s more politically charged than Superman. He’s also more cynical. Apollo is a “Wildstorm” character, one who existed in a separate continuity from Superman until Flashpoint decided to merge together various DC publishing lines under their mainstream banner.

Blast from the alternate present...

Blast from the alternate present…

Truth be told, I’m not sure the consolidation was necessary or even ideal. The Vertigo titles have suffered. China Miéville’s rather wonderful Dial H for Hero withered under the expectations of a mainstream superhero book, when it could easily have been the next Sandman. The Wildstorm books have also had difficulty finding their feet. Voodoo and Grifter were among the first casualties of the relaunch, and Stormwatch had a lot of difficulty finding its feet. It’s still a shadow of its former self.

Still, that said, if you absolutely have to merge the brands (and my inner cynic suggests that it wasn’t a creative decision), then you can do a lot worse than Project Superman. If you’re going to introduce characters created as analogues for iconic DC characters, then you might as well be honest about it and use them in that capacity. Having Apollo and Superman around is redundant if you don’t differentiate them. The same is true of Midnighter and Batman.

He has a certain energy...

He has a certain energy…

So Project Superman does true to contrast the two. Sinclair is defined as a man who has lost touch with his humanity. “Lane had wanted an everyman hero,” he muses. “But I was no longer just a man. I was something more.” That makes a fairly efficient contrast to Kal-El, who is an alien who found kinship with mankind. I’ll confess that I’m disappointed this dynamic hasn’t carried over to the “new 52”, but it works efficiently enough here.

At the same time, Project Superman reinforces the idea that Kal-El isn’t so much powered by sunlight as he is by human affection. The scenes of Kal-El bonding with Sam Lane are strangely affecting, and there’s something strangely touching about Lane’s attempts to offer the child something approaching a normal life, even getting him an alien dog to play with. “He’s bonding, Dr. Ridge. Connecting. That’s better than we’ve done in the last nine years.”

Top of the Lionel...

Top of the Lionel…

(I also like the contrast between Lane’s honest affection for his surrogate son and the brief dysfunctional snapshot we get into the Luthor family. It’s moments like that which give the comic a sense that we’re only really seeing impressionistic snapshots of life in this alternate world, rather than a truly holistic approach.)

Despite the cynicism of the set up, with the destruction of Metropolis, the life of captivity, Snyder and Francis remain somewhat optimistic. They seem to suggest that, no matter what his origin, Kal-El can’t turn out too badly once he experiences some measure of human love and compassion. Ha draws this version of Clark as physically stunted, probably because of his lack of exposure to sunlight, but the implication is that this Superman hasn’t been properly nurtured. Nevertheless, he remains Superman. Some things are constant.

He's a new man...

He’s a new man…

To be fair, Project Superman never ties back into the main Flashpoint series as well as Brian Azzarello’s superb Knight of Vengeance. It doesn’t reveal some wonderful subtext to Johns’ tightly-plotted five-issue miniseries. However, it does provide a nice glimpse at two alternate half-formed versions of Superman, both of which hint truths about the character.

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