Review: Superman: The Coming of Atlas hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I wanted to like James Robinson's Superman: The Coming of Atlas. The work Geoff Johns has done of late on Action Comics in Last Son, Escape from Bizarro World, and Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes are among the best Superman stories in years; I've mentioned that I thought the stories Kurt Busiek wrote on Superman alongside Johns weren't quite of the same caliber, so I was eager to see how Robinson fared in replacement. Much as I treasure Robinson's work on Starman, however, his first Superman foray failed to move me.

For their intended goals, the two main story arcs of Atlas do work well. Krypto the Super-Dog plays a large role here, as Robinson moves him from the "bad dog" as which he was previously portrayed to ultimate acceptance by the people of Metropolis. This is a good and worthy move, if perhaps unworthy of a four issue storyline. Second, Robinson certainly gives the reader a thorough introduction to the new villain Atlas; I'm still not sure I understand what motivated Atlas beyond general world domination, but his personality comes through clear and there's a certain boisterous orneriness to him that's quite enjoyable.

Unfortunately, The Coming of Atlas feels like decompressed comics at their worst. I talked previously about how Geoff Johns's recent Justice Society of America: Thy Kingdom Come is a long, decompressed storyline, but where every scene feels necessary. In the first chapter of Atlas, Superman appears for only a couple pages playing frisbee with Krypto before a group of generic Science Police fight Atlas in the rest of the space.

There's a number of two-panel pages where Superman punches Atlas or Atlas punches Superman. We're supposed to understand Atlas as a power-house a la Doomsday, but the fact that Atlas remains squarely in the center of Metropolis through the whole story while Superman punches him, flies away, punches him again, etc., makes it feel like a two-issue story stretches to four issues perhaps to fill a scheduling hole.

More importantly, however, I had trouble warming to Robinson's Superman. In the first pages, Superman makes a joke to Green Lantern Hal Jordan about how "exotic" the late hero Jade was, to which Hal must remind him that Jade both died tragically and dated Kyle Rayner, not Hal. This isn't exactly a Superman I'd want to hang around with.

Later, when Lois asks why something Clark says sounds dirty, he responds "Rao, I have no idea, Lois, why does it?" Renado Guedes's art gives Atlas a classic look, but here his Clark is so wooden that it's impossible to tell whether Robinson intends Clark to be kidding or serious. Clark emotes to Lois, "I've had a big life ... but you're the one I've spent that life waiting to love," followed by a ridiculous image of Lois straddling Clark in her underwear. Far from funny or romantic, entire sequence makes Robinson's Superman seem boring and vaguely juvenile.

In addition, while I appreciate that Robinson's trying to highlight Superman's supporting cast, a few sequences left me scratching my head. When Lana Lang tries to aid Superman, she's fired from her CEO position at LexCorp (that didn't last long) by an automated Lex Luthor hologram -- even though Johns and Busiek clearly established that the powers that be at LexCorp hired Lana purposefully to escape the shadow of Lex, who's now considered a criminal. Supergirl hears Superman's call for help with Atlas while she's inexplicably playing with some lions on a veldt; understanding that Atlas beats Superman rather severely, both Supergirl and Lois seemingly fall to tears very quickly in this story. And off panel Atlas apparently defeats both Steel and Superman's old friend Bibbo, wearing a Superman shirt -- two callbacks to the death and return of Superman that seemed gigantically out of place almost twenty years later.

Again, one bright spot in the story is Atlas, whose over-the-top personality (think Aquaman on Batman: The Brave and the Bold gone bad) steals each scene. I was disappointed, however, that given Robinson's attempt to create a villain that was Superman's physical equal, we learn in the end that Atlas's powers are magic-based. Though this allows for an interesting (if strangely ill-timed) conversation between Superman and the Teen Titan Zatara, it seems to me to belie some of the "cunning" and "power" that the book's jacket promises Atlas has. The villain becomes something of a Mr. Mxyzptlk -- Superman only has to find the right magic McGuffin each time he appears, and Atlas will disappear as he did this time, quite unceremoniously.

I've very much liked James Robinson's writing in the past, not to mention he was darn nice the other day answering my question via Twitter. Here's hoping I'm more impressed with his Superman work the next time out.

[Contains full covers, including variant covers; introduction by James Robinson]

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8 comments:

  1. I like Starman & The Golden Age as much as the next guy, but I think Robinson's writing is a smidge overrated because of the love people have for those two books. Face the Face, LXG: The Movie and JL: Cry for Justice seem to be bearing this out.

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  2. Glad I passed on the hardcover. For what it's worth, Robinson wrote some solid-to-good parts in New Krypton vol.1, though it annoys the heck out of me that he's using the old Kirby Guardian rather than the Morrison one.

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  3. His work with Mon-El has been great, so far. I haven't read this story yet, but I've heard many similar complaints. I haven't read his older books, so I have no debt owed or comparison to make. However, I am planning on reading The Golden Age soon, so it'll be fun to see where all the fever came from.

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  4. Robinson's work on Superman gets better, so I've heard, so I'll be interested to see when I start New Krypton not too long from now.

    I like Morrison's Manhattan Guardian (just reading an issue last night, even), but Kirby's Guardian (and Dubbilex, and Project Cadmus, and the Newsboy Legion, and Angry Charlie ...) have so much history with Superman, even post-Crisis, that I'm glad to see Jim Harper back, but certainly everyone has a favorite.

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  5. The ending seems to come with one last blow, ultimately putting this story along with the dozens others that involve superman fighting a being as powerful as him, only to emerge victorious somehow in the end. A guest appearance by young magician Zatara serves little purpose except to remind us that he didn't fall of the face of the earth after the Teen Titans. Without Krypto, this story would be pretty unremarkable to say the least.

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  6. The fact of the matter is that this trade was simply a fight, and not a good one at all.
    Krypto was the only good character in this story. The fight was pathetic. Atlas barely moved. All he had was strength. Who cares that it's magic. He was nothing compared to Doomsday in DoS. He didn't leap, dashed or did anything. Supes could have easily fried him from a distance or used his powers in good combination. And if Superman can detect a gorilla's heartbeat when attacked by magic, he should have detected Patriot. Bottomline, lame fight, terrible combatants, and just nonsense.

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  7. I agree that this trade was pretty disappointing (I've been commenting on old reviews because my local library just added an entire shelf of superhero graphic novels). It reminded me a lot of the 1990s Superman: The Animated Series, where each episode was essentially a smackdown between Superman and some foe.

    I loved Krypto's characterization; actually, that was the only thing I took away from the book. Essentially, this was $20 I could have spent on a comic book about a flying dog, and thank heavens I didn't. Every other characterization in the book is so off, as CE rightly points out. And there are a lot of threads that haven't been picked up on, to my knowledge. Atlas's disappearance at the end screams for another issue to wrap up the storyling (no luck), though we have an Atlas in All-Star Superman (whose characterization I much prefer), and I don't know that anyone's done anything with Lana leaving Lexcorp (which sounds like a bad Meg Ryan comedy). This is, in essence, a teaser for New Krypton, and not a very good one. Fortunately, Robinson's stuff *did* get better on New Krypton.

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  8. I think Atlas reappears in New Krypton *somewhere*. It's all so big, I got lost. I bought only issue 1 in HC & want to go for the rest in HC to make an even set but there's a lot better stuff I'd rather own in HC like Johns' JSA, BOOSTER GOLD, GREEN LANTERN, SUPERMAN, Waid's THE BRAVE & THE BOLD, FLASH etc.

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