Review: Lex Luthor: Man of Steel trade paperback (DC Comics)

Saturday, April 29, 2006

All good post-Crisis comic book fans should in their comics-life be moved by at least one defining Lex Luthor story. For me, it was Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography, by comics writer/novelist James D. Hudnall, a wonderfully noirish tale about a reporter who sets out to write Luthor's biography and gets too close to some dangerous truths. Without spoiling the finale, there's a twist at the end -- just when you think you understand the angles that Luthor and the reporter are playing, it turns out they're just pieces of an even larger game.

This graphic novel really brought home to me the power that the businessman post-Crisis Luthor could wield, in the same vein as John Byrne's Superman #2 and Superman #9’s "Metropolis 900 mi.” Special kudos, too, should go to the mid-90s "They Saved Luthor's Brain" storyline, which could have seemed ridiculously far-fetched if it hadn't been handled with such chilling, spooky drama.

The newest volume in the Luthor library is Brian Azzarello’s Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, ostensibly the book which inspired Azzarello to his twelve-issue Superman run (despite its secondary release). In Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, Luthor outlines any of a number of philosophical grudges against Superman: that Superman cannot empathize with humanity because he can't feel pain as we do; that Superman's power is unchecked, and as such any relationship with Superman that seems built on respect is actually built on hidden fear; and most of all, in representing the ideal of human potential, Superman squashes that very ideal -- if mankind is always trying to be Superman, they'll always fail, and therefore never live up to mankind's own potential.

The philosophies of Luthor's argument as presented by Azzarello are interesting, and perhaps even convincing, especially the last; Azzarello parallels Luthor's frustration at Superman's greatness with his assistant Mona's frustration at Lex's love for his creation, Hope, instead of for Mona herself. Whether Luthor himself realizes the irony is unclear, but Azzarello demonstrates the point to the reader well: if you've ever felt spurned because the object of your affection only has eyes for a celebrity instead of you, this is a glimpse of Luthor's fury at Metropolis's divided loyalties.

Unfortunately, the story fails in its promise to demonstrate Superman as the villain and Luthor as the hero. The plot of the story is simple, and mostly it's been done before: to challenge Metropolis's adoration for Superman, Lex Luthor creates a hometown hero that answers, of course, to him. Yet, even though Luthor falls in love with his creation, he doesn't hesitate before he sacrifices her in the end, just to break off some of the sheen on Superman. Luthor cries, and we're meant to feel sorry for him -- but to get to that point in the story, he's already lied, cheated, and murdered, while Superman himself has been largely absent. One is left with the feeling that Luthor's bad consequences have brought on his own bad deed. Even in the Smallville episode "Lexmas," when the young Lex Luthor chooses a dark path, we feel sorry for him because we know he's coming from a place of hurt. Azzarello's Lex Luthor starts and ends as a villain -- it's hard to feel much of anything for him.

One bright spot in this story, however -- and perhaps the only reason I’d recommend a non-continuity Superman story at this point -- is Azzaello’s use of the Toyman. We live, frankly, in a dangerous day and age, and we’re beyond the point where Winslow Schott surrounding himself with small children and having a tea party can still look innocent. Azzarello, late of Vertigo books, meets this head-on -- while the Toyman doesn’t actually do anything untoward (or moreso than your average super-villain), Azzarello portrays him as justly scary. Toyman’s appearance surprised me, giving some screen-time to this underused villain, and helped to make the story more engaging than it might otherwise have been.

If this is your first Lex Luthor story, Man of Steel might just work for you. It’s well-written, well-plotted, with gorgeous art by Lee Bermejo, and no major flaws … except I’ve seen it before, and frankly, don’t try to make Lex Luthor out to be a good hero. It’s so much more fun watching him be a bad villain.

On to a bit more Wonder Woman now, and then some Green Lantern and Adam Strange. Happy Spring!

Odds and ends for Monday, April 24

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Haven't noted it in a while, but there's been a couple updates to the trade paperback timeline lately, and more to come.


With help from Mike Sterling at Progressive Ruin, we come to find that while Outsiders: Crisis Intervention was advertised as including "select scenes from various DCU books" showing Donna Troy's recruitment drive, the only item additionally included are pages from Firestorm #19. Which is suprising, but ultimately better than nothing, as really most of the other appearances of Donna Troy are already collected in other volumes, as such: Teen Titans #29-30 (Teen Titans: Life and Death), Outsiders #30-31 (Outsiders: Crisis Intervention), JLA #122-123 (JLA: World Without a Justice League), Superman #223 (Superman: The Journey), Wonder Woman #222 (Wonder Woman: Mission's End), JSA #77 (to be collected).


Meanwhile, Mike's revelation of differences between Outsiders #30 and the Outsiders: Crisis Intervention trade paperback has quickly made the big time, as it was picked up this weekend by Blair Marnell's All the Rage.* Personally, while I don't mind DC fixing continuity mistakes from the monthlies to the trades, a la Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (though that missing page still smarts), I find it somewhat offensive to think that DC would use their trade program to "clean up" dialogue or images already printed in the monthlies. Now, I'm no glutton for the gross-out, but to think that trade paperbacks represent the "corporate censored" version of regular comic books would, over the long run, anesthetize or in some way cheapen the value of trade paperbacks. If I recall correctly, DC also did this with a second printing of one of the Infinite Crisis issues, where poor Superboy's language was also cleaned up. It's a slippery slope, kids.

* Does anyone else find the Conditions of Entry page for All the Rage kind of annoying? I mean, Lying in the Gutters doesn't have one. When we go to read All the Rage, we know it's just rumors, and furthermore, clicking the little button isn't going to keep any rampaging fanboy from repeating the rumors as truth if they see fit. Not that it's a giant deal, but the more clicky buttons you can cut out of your life, the better.

Superman: That Healing Touch review

Thursday, April 20, 2006

It is perhaps a credit to Greg Rucka's versitility as a writer that the same person who brought us the superb Batman: Death and the Maidens--heir apparent to Denny O'Neil--and who started the ball rolling in redefining Wonder Woman for a new generation, is the same writer behind Superman: That Healing Touch. In this latest Superman trade, we do indeed see the crackshot ear for dialogue that whips through Rucka's Batman work, as well as the overarching conspiracy/mystery done that illuminates his Wonder Woman. But there's also a lag to the work, an overall drag that is arguably not Rucka's fault at all, but instead a virtue of the general presentation these days (or those days, as the case may be) of Superman in the DC Universe, which just doesn't scream "Superman" to me. As I've written before, neither Chuck Austen nor Greg Rucka's 2004 Superman quite worked for me; instead, I think my ideal of Superman is somewhere in the middle.

In Superman: That Healing Touch, the villain Ruin sends two new Parasites at Superman, intent on drawing his secret identity out into the light. Superman defeats them, with help from Steel and Mr. Mxyzptlk, as he begins to realize that Ruin is targeting him not only specifically, but personally. An Identity Crisis-fueled crossover visit from Wonder Woman and Batman only makes Superman's decision as to what to do about Ruin more muddled; later, we learn that Ruin is working for Lex Luthor and the Villains United society, as Lois announces to Clark her wish to have a baby.

Most of what doesn't work for me about Rucka's Superman is in his Clark Kent. Observe, for example, page 34 of this trade. Here, we see a bumbling, mild-mannered Clark bringing groceries in to his apartment, soft-spoken and seemingly almost afraid of his own shadow. Now, you and I both know that Clark Kent can bench-press the Daily Planet globe. He wears his spectacles, of course, so that he can sit down to a normal dinner with his family without the whole world pestering him. But the mild-mannered veneer of Clark Kent is an act, and not only do post-Crisis Superman comics support this, but even Christopher Reeve, when he flirts with Lois Lane on her balcony as Superman and then knocks on her door as Clark, gives a nudge-nudge-wink-wink look to the camera so that we all know the mild-mannered veneer is an act.
It's an act. In Rucka's grocery scene, however, there's no irony; it's pure, unadultered meek Clark Kent. It misses the point; it's all of the mildness with none of the wink.

Rucka's Superman is one full of doubt. At the end of the trade, Lois is hopefully looking to the future, while Clark is nearly paralyzed by his insecurities. He consults Batman and Wonder Woman about Ruin, and leaves with no better ideas than when he started. Who is this hero? Not the Superman who leads the Justice League, surely. Not the Superman who brought the fight against Brainiac to Warworld in "Panic in the Sky," or who battled Doomsday with no thought to his own safety in "The Death of Superman." The 2004 writers of Superman have so bought in to Clark Kent's veneer of humility that they've actually started writing him that way. People, we know Superman, and this Milquetoast is no Superman.

I did enjoy, however, the good old-fashioned mystery here. Rucka creates a villain extrodinaire in Ruin, and the secret of his identity truly draws the reader in. We know something's up with Pete Ross, who may-or-may not know Clark's identity (don't even get me started on the Luthor-knew-but-yet-he-didn't-know-so-how-could-he-tell-Pete-re:-Manchester-Black question, which one hopes Rucka will ultimately address). We have the return of Emil Hamilton, last seen half-crazed. Most interestingly, we have Lois's shooting, which looks more and more like a case of political friendly fire. I am eager to see where all of these plots go, even if I squirm through the getting there.

I've never been crazy about the idea of Lois and Clark having a baby, and if you want to read a nice handling of this issue, please go track down the true classic Superman for Earth by Roger Stern. Quite frankly, I've yet to see enough writers handle the Lois/Clark marriage well, to have faith in how they'd write Superman as a father. On one hand, it's a nice parallel between Superman as Earth's protector and the protector of his own offspring, as well. It gives him something to fight for--as if Superman fighting to protect his adopted planet wasn't enough. But on the other hand, what I believe is more likely is that little Lara Lane-Kent becomes as Robin the Boy Wonder sometimes is--the human hostage. Let alone the writer who comes in to write little Lara's rebellion against Superman for protecting the world while not spending enough time with his child. We end up with a Superman portrayed more like Oliver Queen than Clark Kent--kids, I think it's a slippery slope. I'm willing to be convinced, sure, but when Lois starts telling Clark she wants to have a baby, I get very, very worried.

Chuck Austen writes a brash, bold Superman--a Superman who's sure of himself, but at times too confident and smart-mouthed for his own good. Greg Rucka writes a detailed, complex Superman title that's mature enough for today's audiences, but his Superman's so full of doubts that it's hard to see what's so super about him. Give me the Superman who went to Blazes to save Jimmy Olsen any day, the Superman who used Mr. Z's gem to imprison the Krypton Man. This was a Superman confident and capable, a Superman who held down a good job and a realistic relationship with Lois Lane. Greg Rucka's Superman: Ruin Revealed is on the horizon; maybe what he accomplishes there will be more to my taste than what's here.

[Contains full covers, "What Came Before" pages.]

Read positive reviews of Greg Rucka's Wonder Woman: Down to Earth, Wonder Woman: Bitter Rivals, and Wonder Woman: Eyes of the Gorgon at their respective links.

Soon now to go to Green Lantern: Rebirth and Adam Strange: Planet Heist, before taking a break and starting in on The OMAC Project. Thanks for reading; Collected Editions appreciates you!