Even as I lust after DC Comics' Starman omnibus volumes, it's hard to believe I might use the phrase "currently much-maligned" and "James Robinson" in the same sentence. And yet, I write this just after the controversy surrounding the violent conclusion of Robinson's Cry for Justice miniseries, and mixed reviews over Robinson's work since he returned to DC Comics -- including my own review of Superman: The Coming of Atlas, which I had trouble with initially but subsequently came around to.
As such, I had some anxiety about what I'd find in Robinson's Superman: Mon-El; fortunately, the news is good. Mon-El affords Robinson the canvas on which I think he works best -- a blank slate -- and at the same time allows him to clear up some of the difficulties previously found in Atlas.
[Contains spoilers for Superman: Mon-El]
I mentioned in my REBELS review that my fond memories of Vril Dox are when he saved Superman from Eclipso; indeed, my familiarity with Mon-El (nee Valor) begins about that time, too. Setting aside a Legion of Super-Heroes connection about which I was only vaguely aware, Mon-El was essentially to me a Superman-esque blank slate who became, in the Valor series, kind of a goofy space-faring swash-buckling hero (with a cameo in the first couple issues by the Matrix Supergirl and a long-haired Lex Luthor), until that series ended in a confusing Legion implosion at the end of the Zero Hour crossover. Mon-El appeared a couple other contradictory times: with Superboy Kon-El in the past and future, but then again in Jeph Loeb's Superman: Return to Krypton storyline, and then again when Supergirl joined a still different Legion of Super-Heroes herself. Which is to say, for all the times I've read about Mon-El, there was never one specific version or characterization I felt I could hang my hat on. Until now.
Helped immesurably by the short Geoff Johns/Richard Donner story that begins this book, James Robinson posits Mon-El as Superman's adopted brother and a stranger in a strange land, and ultimately that's about all we need to know. As Mon-El begins a new life in Metropolis, Robinson smartly draws attention to Mon-El's stilted speech pattern, reminding us at every turn that not only is Mon-El not from around here, but he's been cooped up in the Phantom Zone for twenty years and is therefore as unfamiliar with Earth customs as he is with the customs of his native Daxam -- he's experiencing everything for the first time, he only has about a year to live before the lead in Earth's atmosphere kills him, and despite it all he still wants to be a superhero out of loyalty to Superman. Robinson creates in Mon-El a kind of wobbly newborn Bambi, optimistic, heroic, and full of wonder, and it's an engaging combination that makes the reader want to follow Mon-El as he stumbles through learning how to protect Metropolis.
Equal in the spotlight is the Guardian, Mon-El's opposite number and Metropolis's new Science Police chief. Whereas the Guardian Jim Harper is himself a clone of the Golden Age hero and returning to Metropolis after a long hiatus, he functions in the story as the voice of experience, calculating every move against Metropolis's super-villains while Mon-El learns on the fly. At times, with dynamic-but-realistic art by Renato Guedes, Robinson's tough-as-nails Guardian seems a far cry from the more cartoony Tom Grummett-drawn Guardian in Karl Kesel's Superboy series (which I encountered some time before I read Jack Kirby's original), but there remains an inescapable thrill to see the Guardian back in the pages of a Superman book. Robinson's choice to pair the Guardian romantically with the Justice League Dr. Light seems almost ridiculous, so different were their worlds in the mid-1990s, but now makes a strange kind of sense. As with Mon-El, what works here is Robinson's driving force behind the characters -- he gives them so much personality that it's impossible not to be swept up with them, and as such one's willing to accept just about anything Robinson throws their way.
Atlas makes his next major appearance in this book after Coming of Atlas, and the sequence redeems to an extent Robinson's previous volume. The Atlas-centric final chapter features a knock-down, drag-out fight between Atlas and Superman's ally Steel, with frankly not much dialogue and multiple large-panel pages of the two punching and kicking one another. Artist Pere Perez mimicks Guedes style well (though sometimes the two-page horizontal layouts are tough to follow), but at first I was a bit offput by the bevy of quick-read action pages. This is what I didn't like in Coming of Atlas either -- and then I recognized Robinson's intent here. Atlas is meant to be a force of nature, a Doomsday-level threat, and when Atlas lets loose, the entire story comes to a halt, focused entirely on the action, because that's the effect that Atlas has. I like my comics wordy, but I see what Robinson's getting at, and that assuages my concerns somewhat.
Indeed, I felt gigantically relieved that Robinson handled the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane with seriousness and sensitivity in this volume, after a somewhat silly and sexually gratuitious showing in Coming of Atlas. Robinson gets the unenviable job in the Superman: New Krypton project of writing the scene where Clark tells Lois he's leaving Earth for New Krypton, and Robinson handles the pages with cinematic aplomb, intercutting Clark's conversation with Lois with a similar conversation with Ma Kent, avoiding melodrama, and giving Lois and Ma the understanding one would expect from the wife and mother of Superman. Further, there's a similar scene where we see Superman bid good-bye to his friends and allies in miniature, and then later we read the conversations in full (possibly having to do with the scene repeating between the connected Superman and Action Comics titles) that I thought Robinson handled especially well; again, the word "cinematic" comes to mind, and I imagine the reader benefits from Robinson's screenwriting abilities in his comics writing.
But as engaging as Robinson's Mon-El is -- and I don't want to lose track in this review of the basic point that I liked this book and think it's worth a read -- finishing this book did leave me with a sense of having seen it all before. Robinson's Mon-El isn't terribly far from his Starman Mikaal Thomas, nor does Atlas in this book differ much, in moral uncertainty, from Robinson's Shade or Bobo Benetti. Indeed, two prison guards discussing Derrida in one sequence practically screams "written by James Robinson" much like Copperhead opining on transistor radios in the pages of Starman, only then it seemed ground-breaking and now it seems showy. What's changed, I'm sure, is not Robinson but my reaction to his writing; when Robinson imbued his Starman characters with backgrounds and interests in the mid-1990s, this was something we'd rarely seen in DC Comics before, but a decade later after Robinson went on hiatus and begat Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Judd Winick, and Brad Meltzer in his place, Robinson-ian characterization is now the norm. If anything, there's a bit too much Robinson in this volume, now that the writers who came after him have built on his methods.
In Superman: Mon-El, James Robinson quickly loses the constraints of writing under seventy-five years of the Lois/Clark relationship or getting up-to-date on Lana Lang's status with LexCorp, and gives Mon-El and the Guardian his own, quite enjoyable sensibilities. There's still a bit about Mon-El I'm fuzzy on (like, if Superman knows the Mon-El is destined to be released from the Phantom Zone by the Legion of Super-Heroes and live out an important life in the future, why does he still stress about -- or even consider -- trying to free Mon-El in the present?), but one thing I know for sure is that Superman: Mon-El goes a long way toward convincing me that James Robinson is back in comics in force. I'm very, very curious to read Cry for Justice given all the outcry about it; you can be sure there'll be plenty of space given to that here at Collected Editions a few months from now when it comes out.
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