Review: Superman - Up, Up, and Away trade paperback (DC Comics)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Superman: Up, Up, and Away, like the newly de-powered Man of Steel featured in this story, does not soar, though it does leap a few tall buildings in a rather impressive manner. Up, Up, and Away is a soft Super-relaunch, tasked with reinvigorating the Superman comics line in the wake of DC Comic's mega-crossover Infinite Crisis, without actually restarting Superman's continuity. The trade, written by DC superstars Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek, hits all the right notes and revitalizes all the right characters--Jimmy Olsen is loyal; Perry White's the gruff. cigar-chomping boss; Lex Luthor's the villain--and atones for plenty of Super-sins of the past, but at times the writers' apologizing gets in the way of the story itself.

One year after Infinite Crisis, Clark Kent is still without powers, though he's made great strides in regaining his previously lost Daily Planet job. Clark is investigating Lex Luthor and the Intergang criminal organization, making him a target for both, and a stream of his enemies, including the Prankster and Bloodsport, come after him. Clark is able to overcome his mental block to bring his old powers back (and some new oens), in time for Lex to take revenge on Metropolis with an ancient Kryptonian warship. Superman defeats Lex, receiving the crystal necessary to build his Antarctic Fortress of Solitude.

Up, Up, and Away has all the trappings of both an origin story and a classic Superman tale. The protagonist, our Clark Kent, starts out de-powered and unsure of himself, and finished confident and Super. The villain, of course, is Lex Luthor, as it should be, and the story's mystery is tied to Superman's Kryptonian origins. There are salutes here to both Superman Returns and the Smallville series, and aspects of the plot strongly mirror the movie. Moreover than the somewhat disappointing Superman Returns: The Prequels comic book released around the same time as the movie, Up, Up, and Away is a comic I'd be comfortable giving to a fan of the Superman movies and knowing they'd enjoy it.

One of the main tenets of Infinite Crisis was to rebuild the camradery between the superheroes, and Up, Up, and Away demonstrates this almost immediately. Supergirl swoops in to save Clark Kent without any of the previous awkwardness in Superman and his cousin's relationship. Green Lantern and Hawkgirl fill in for Superman at one point, and at another, a whole army of heroes tries to come to his aid. This is comforting, on one hand, as the great mistrust between the superheroes had become grating, but at the same time, I found myself skeptical that so many heroes would be allowed to know Superman's secret identity. Before now, Superman barely seemed to know Hawkgirl, but here she joins him on a secret mission. I was surprised that we did not see a reunion with Batman here, though that might have taken away from Superman's "return," and I imagine the authors were holding that for the beginning of the new Justice League of America series.

Unfortunately, Up, Up, and Away, an eight-part story, is about two parts too long, and I can tell you which parts, too: the fourth and the fifth. Back in 2002, Geoff Johns helped write a Superman crossover called "Ending Battle," where just about every existing Superman villain, and some newly revitalized old ones, attacked the Man of Steel. This is trademark Geoff Johns, who made his name on The Flash and JSA with his "villain renewal" program, but unfortunately, many of his new villains weren't used in the Superman series or its associated spin-offs again. Johns and Busiek take the opportunity in Up, Up, and Away to bring three or four of these villains back, but surprisingly without any of the characterization that Johns usually brings to his villains. Instead, the villains are hurled en masse at Superman in an ultimately unresolved subplot dealing with the Intergang criminal organization, and Superman's two issue fight with these one-note villains takes away from his more interesting conflict with established villains Lex Luthor, Toyman, Metallo, and the new Kryptonite Man.

Part of the criticism leveled at the Superman titles in the past has been their portrayal of Clark Kent as a wimp, and Lois Lane as a shrew. Johns and Busiek are obviously aware and concerned about this, and I appreciate the respect with which they treat both the characters, but one could get a toothache from all the saccharine leveled at Clark Kent in this story. Lois praises Clark; Jimmy praises Clark; Perry praises Clark; Lex Luthor singles out Clark to drag him into an alley, such a good and effective reporter he is; and at one point, the entire Daily Planet newsroom applauds one of Clark's scoops. The alternative, certainly, could get worse, but it borders on ridiculous and adds to slowing the story.

The writers portray Lois as initially content with Clark's new human state, and then make her supportive (almost incongruously so) when Clark's powers return. Obviously Johns and Busiek are trying to repudiate the "Lois-as-neglected-wife" syndrome even as they try to grant that Lois might prefer her husband at home than risking his life. This playing both sides of the fence doesn't quite work for me; ideally, I would think, Lois should be even more in favor of Clark being a superhero than even Clark is. The awkwardness shows in a strange soliloquy that Lois gives for Clark's super-hearing, where she explains that even thought she said she was happy when he didn't have powers, she's still happy now that he does have powers. As long as the writers stick to that second part, however, I'll accept a little awkwardness getting there.

In the course of regaining his powers, Superman is now gifted with "super-intelligence," which he possessed in some of his earlier incarnations. My concern is that the Superman writers will misuse this, turning Superman into a know-it-all or using this as an aspect of competition between Superman and Batman. In a Newsarama interview, Busiek described this as Superman's brain working "faster and more precisely ... His memory's sharper, more encompassing." I'm hard-pressed to imagine this as more than a one-note plot device, where Superman sees something in the beginning of a story, and then super-remembers it later. Given these writers' treatment of these characters, I have faith that they'll use Superman's new powers wisely, but I'll be curious to see whether this was a necessary addition.

[Contains full covers]

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4 comments:

  1. Wow, I stopped reading DC a couple years ago (with the exception of Darwyn Cooke's stuff and an occasional "checking in". I didn't know Supes had lost his powers or that camradery was the point if Infinite Crisis (so much of what DC does seems aimed at killing humor nowadays). So if that camradery is back does that mean Supes and Batman have ok'd Wonder Woman's murder of Max Lord? Seems out of character for them to let that go. And does this now mean Supes has a FoS but at the North and South poles? Good review, in that now I don't feel like I missed anything but it's nice to know what's going on with Superman.

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  2. I dunno. I enjoyed the heck out of this book; it's one of my top three Superman TPBs. Lots of great characterisation, fun ideas, gorgeous art, and a hell of a climax. I didn't really mind the Hawkgirl/Green Lantern scene, but I actually didn't like the army of heroes bit. I thought it was distracting, and read more like a "okay, this is why other heroes aren't interfering in Superman's story" -type explanation. Then again, I've always preferred it when Superman seemed like the only superhero on the planet, and I guess you need to put that explanation if you're going to have the aforementioned Hawkgirl/GL cameo. But yeah, it's a great book to hand over to the uninitiated.

    And the lack of a reunion scene with Batman is because he has his own "return" arc over in Face the Face by James Robinson. Which, curiously, has crappy paper quality, even though it's of the same page count/price as Up Up and Away.

    Michael: Over in Brad Meltzer's Justice League of America, Superman firmly says that everyone starts out again with a clean slate. Which might be a bit of a cop-out, but, well, a whole year did fly past.

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  3. Everyone starts with a clean slate again? I am so not liking that. It totally just destroys any responsibility either the characters have or the writers. I'm sorry but that's lazy writing. If you're gonna destroy a character like Wonder Woman and make her a murderer (which they did in my opinion) at least pretend there are consequences.This just makes me hate DC more now. So disappointing.

    I'm sure the Robinson book is good though, cuz he's a fine writer. I just don't get why he or Busiek or any of the others that are so good are sticking with DC.You're right Jeffrey, it's a copout but I am very grateful to you for pointing it out and replying. :)

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  4. Jeffrey -- I agree on the "Superman being the only hero" idea, especially on "origin" stories (and I'm of two minds as to whether the lack of this has helped Smallville or not. And a review of Face the Face coming toward the end of this week.

    Michael -- I'm still working out a response to your thoughtful concerns about DC, Wonder Woman's murder of Maxwell Lord, and the like. Will post soon. Thanks for reading!

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