Review: Superman Vol. 1: What Price Tomorrow? hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Superman What Price TomorrowThe titular series starring DC Comics's best-known character (or second-best, depending on your point of view) is one where there's not a lot of room for error, history notwithstanding, and especially not at the very start of DC's New 52 initiative. Writer George Perez succeeds in presenting a contemporary Metropolis in Superman: What Price Tomorrow?, but the plot of the book itself is clunky and ill-conceived. Perez publicly blamed editorial interference for any difficulties his six Superman issues might have had, though the problems don't seem to be caused by any mid-arc shift in storyline; rather it seems What Price Tomorrow? takes too long to reach its conclusion for not enough payoff.

[Review contains spoilers]

What Price Tomorrow? begins with the destruction of the Daily Planet building and globe; the Planet becomes part of Galaxy Communications's Planet Global Network, complete with a shiny new building and globe, with Lois Lane as a television news producer and Perry White and Clark Kent still on the print side. The ongoing depiction of Lois's work to run a multimedia news agency (with allowances for fiction) is one of the strong points of Perez's story, but it's countermanded by Clark's boycotting the change because of his new, supposedly corrupt bosses.

If PGN's broadcasts become sensational, there's never any actual wrongdoing committed, such that from beginning to end Clark Kent and Superman seem stick-in-the-muds, the only characters in this book who can't embrace change. "What price tomorrow?" is never a question posed in the book nor does it have much relevance to Superman's battle with aliens run amok; rather it seems Clark -- or Perez -- seems to be warning of some imagined danger of progress that the book doesn't uphold. Like Deathstroke: Legacy, it's tough not to see What Price Tomorrow? and its demolition of the old ways as a metaphor for DC's New 52, but unlike in Deathstroke, it's progress that wins here and leaves Clark and the old ways in the dust.

The doings at the Planet and Clark's unhappiness are background to the first three issues, where in each Superman is attacked by an alien that says "Krypton" and dissipates when Superman defeats them. The three battles proceed almost entirely the same way, to the point where Superman's fight with an ice creature in the third issue is completely predictable based on his fight with a fire creature in the first. Perez, in his defense, may have been barred from using classic Superman villains while they appeared in Grant Morrison's Action Comics, but nonetheless the conflicts here are wildly generic and repetitive enough that they could certainly have been combined into one or two issues.

Perez then takes another issue for the aliens to stalk Superman; an issue for the aliens, as a faux Superman, to act dictatorially toward Metropolis; and then in the final issue the faux Superman battles Supergirl and the real Superman saves the day -- certainly, there's an element of padding there, too. It hasn't been clear before that the aliens could emulate Superman, so when they replace him, it's jarring -- the reader is never confused that Perez means this to be the "real" Superman, but at the same time, for Superman to act out of character in his "first" arc is a questionable decision. That it turns out finally that the aliens were just bugs stuck to Superman's new suit is laughable, saved only by the way in which Perez's story ultimately dovetails to connect with Morrison's.

Perez teases here that Lois Lane knows Clark Kent's identity, something that certainly can't be the case this early in the New 52. Though surely Perez wasn't right for this book, it would have been interesting to see him write his way out of storyline, likely with some of the secret identity tricks that were the joy of old Superman comics and even into the John Byrne era. Early reviews of Superman #1 made much of Lois Lane's "new boyfriend" in that issue, but he's actually a minor character and readers will be interested to see that it's Lois pining over Clark before the story is done, though it's uncertain how long that will last with subsequent writers coming on board.

As a kind of Newsroom meets superheroics, Superman would have an enjoyable atmosphere if the main character himself didn't seem to be so disgusted with it all; though given new roles, Lois, Perry, and Jimmy Olsen are their familiar selves and it's even energizing, to an extent, if the book didn't make it so clear the audience ought not be enjoying it. Perez's incessant dialogue and narration (necessitating two concurrent pages of nine panels each in third issue) is certainly too much, but adds to the "reported" feel of the book. Unfortunately, Superman: What Price Tomorrow? is just a Superman story, neither inspiring nor ground-breaking for the Man of Steel's first New 52 outing. Whomever the audience wants to blame, the book remains a missed opportunity.

[Includes original covers, Superman designs by Cully Hamner and Jim Lee]

Later this week, my review of Ann Nocenti's Green Arrow Vol. 2: Triple Threat. Don't miss it!
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5 comments:

  1. I'm beginning to wonder if those numerous creators who left DC over "editorial conflicts" at the start of the New 52 were being "interfered with" for a reason; that is, maybe the editors genuinely felt that the product wasn't up to par, and so were trying to fix things. That is, they were doing their job!

    Of course, the online community was quick to hate on the big corporation and pick up for the beloved creators. Someone like George Perez certainly would have earned that much respect.

    Anyway, I guess DC figured out that they needed more firepower behind Superman, what with putting one of their new top guys - Scott Synder - on the character.

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  2. Yeah, this book just did not hit it. I expected better from a flagship title and a prominent creator, but between the lackluster story (which seemed afraid to say "Eradicator") and the inability to retain an artist I was off Superman by the end of the arc. Is it too much to ask for a confident and capable Superman a la All-Star Superman?

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  3. I appreciate Perez's attempt to give readers more bang for their buck, cramming a lot of story in each page, but to me it just slowed the arc down to a crawl. I don't mind dense storytelling as long as the story being told is interesting, but that wasn't the case with this collection.

    It must be hard to launch a rebooted Superman series set in the present day when you can't reference anything that happened in his first adventures, nor use Lex Luthor or Brainiac as the main antagonist. This book was stuck in a holding pattern for a whole year, waiting for Morrison to finish filling out the details of Superman's past, but now it seems to be on the right track thanks to Lobdell, who's taking some chances and moving the character forward.

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  4. I liked this volume more than I probably should have, but even I'll admit that it's rather weak. Unfortunately, I think the next volume is yet another holding pattern (with Keith Giffen and Dan Jurgens brought in as the temporary creative team) so it might be volume 3 before one of DC's flagship titles starts to go anywhere.

    Something I've said before, and I'll state it again. I personally like the idea of a Superman-Wonder Woman romance in theory (as executed in Justice League vol. 2, maybe not so much), but based on what's hinted at here, it's all just a tease and eventually things are going to revert back to the Superman-Lois Lane status quo.

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  5. Zach, I don't have the book in front of me now, but I was getting that "oh, it's the Eradicator" vibe a couple times when I was reading this, too. I wonder if that's what Perez wanted to use and couldn't, and then he had to punt to space lint instead.

    I'm with you, shag: "I don't mind dense storytelling as long as the story being told is interesting."

    Scott, unfortunately I think DC has set themselves up with the New 52 such that if Clark does start dating Lois again -- or Barry dates Iris, etc. -- then we're back to the old 52 again. Basically any relationship between Clark and Lois you have to expect from the outset is doomed -- they'll get together and break up, get together and break up, but if they get married or she learns the identity, that's the ballgame, I think.

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