Superman Vol. 3: Fury at World's End to make me optimistic that this book will get better as it goes. By no accounts is the character of Lobdell's Superman the same as the character of John Byrne's Superman, or Dan Jurgens's, or Jeph Loeb's (nor any of Superman's multimedia iterations), nor should it be; rather, love or hate the New 52, it's hard to argue that Lobdell's Superman isn't exactly the Superman that the New 52 calls for.
[Review contains spoilers]
Fury at World's End reveals two somewhat contrary elements inherent in Lobdell's depiction of Superman, which pushed and pulled at my reaction to this book. On one hand, Lobdell's Superman Clark Kent could be easily rejected as being "objectionably flip" in the vein of J. Michael Straczynski's Earth One Superman. This is a Superman who wishes he didn't have to have a day job, who melodramatically quits his job at the Daily Planet, who snoops on Lois Lane's text messages, and who at one point rather blithely puts Superboy in harm's way.
In short, this is a terribly immature and fallible Superman of the kind I imagine many readers don't want to read about. At the same time, taken logically, this is exactly where the New 52 Superman might be at this point in his career -- a little rougher, a little less caring and careful than he might be later. Lobdell's Superman is "year one"-ish Superman (or do we say "zero year"-ish now?), even despite that this depiction is generally inconsistent with his portrayal in Justice League, among other places.
On the other hand, incongruously, Lobdell imbues this depiction of a young Superman at the start of his career with a healthy dose of aged Silver Age imagination. These pages are rife with references to Superman's off-screen adventures -- "the Talking Sun of Alktos Prime" and "the Stream of Eternal Maelstroms," among others, not to mention whatever went down last time between Superman and Lex Luthor. Even if this Superman is something of a jerk to stand and talk to, the culture that Lobdell builds up around his Superman offers shades of Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman -- a cosmic Superman who has sci-fi adventures beyond the limits of human understanding.
In this way, Lobdell demonstrates he understands the greater milieu of Superman, even if Lobdell's Superman doesn't necessarily sound like "my" Superman from page to page. Optimally a comic will have an engaging protagonist and also a strong plot, but if we can't have that, I might accept a comic where the protagonist is sometimes a jerk but the plots are strong, with the hope that the protagonist shapes up as the story continues. And in fairness, Lobdell seems to be aware of the Superman he depicts -- Clark later berates himself (perhaps ad nauseam) for reading Lois's text, and in fact the "star-crossed almost-lovers" relationship Lobdell sets up between Clark and Lois is probably the best the two characters have been since the New 52 began. (As for Clark quitting the Daily Planet, I'm still rooting for this to be the product of mind control.)
Fury is largely made up of the Superman parts of the "H'el on Earth" crossover with the Superboy and Supergirl titles. H'el, surprisingly, emerges as a much stronger villain than the faux Bizarro he appears to be; H'el is instead something like Superman's evil older brother, like a Thomas Wayne for the Superman set. Moreover Lobdell reveals in the end that while H'el's origins might not be what he claims (or even knows himself), his past friendship with Jor-El could actually be genuine.
In this, too, Lobdell offers hints that sticking around for the long-run will pay off. The book starts off with the Superman Zero Month issue in which Lobdell offers a wonderfully sci-fi Krypton, and the inexplicable presence of Superman there, combined with H'el time-traveling schemes, suggest a story to come that's even larger and more ambitious story than just this one piece. That Fury/"H'el on Earth" works, when at first glance it looked like it would not, is what makes me enthusiastic to read Lobdell's second outing on this title.
I have not read "H'el on Earth" in full, but I did not have any problem following the crossover from just the "Superman parts." The part transitions don't tend to be based on crossovers, or at least Lobdell elides the breaks by moving the characters to new locations such that I never felt lost when I started a new chapter. If anything, understandably, the threat of H'el increases too quickly between the pages (given that we're reading every third part) and also the relationship between H'el and Supergirl progresses rather fast; I couldn't quite tell how the Superboy issues really factored into the story, but curious readers might want to pick up the Supergirl issues, at least.
Lobdell's Red Hood and the Outlaws collaborator Kenneth Rocafort provides the art, and as opposed to the story, Rocafort needs no time to find his stride; his sharply angled, sketchy figures are perfect for the science-fiction elements of the story (Superman and Superboy's battle armor looks especially good). The conclusion of this book does offer what I believe to be the first use of "that Crisis pose" in the New 52, in which Superman cradles a seemingly-dead Supergirl in his arms; whether credit for this is Lobdell's or Rocafort's, I'm not sure, but I actually didn't like it. The benefit of the New 52, in my opinion, is to escape the storytelling cliches of the old DC Universe, i.e. creating drama in a scene not because of the scene itself, but by visually referencing a dramatic moment from a comic twenty years past. To begin to make these references again is, in my opinion, a slippery slope toward lazy storytelling.
Taken on its own, Scott Lobdell's first full Superman issue, in which Clark Kent snoops and quits, might be worrisome -- I know it worried me. Taken as part of the whole of Superman Vol. 3: Fury at World's End, however, I see rougher parts of Lobdell's Superman smoothing out and plenty of good stuff already there. I wouldn't proclaim the second coming of the "Triangle Titles" era just yet, but after a rough debut in the New 52, I have more confidence now that Superman is on the right track.
Next week: a review of Talon Vol. 1: Scourge of the Owls!