Review: Supergirl Vol. 4: Out of the Past trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

If it were not for the villain reintroduced to the New 52 in Michael Alan Nelson's Supergirl Vol. 4: Out of the Past, one might as well just skip this volume and go straight to Tony Bedard's "Red Daughter of Krypton" or Mike Johnson and Kate Perkins's "Crucible" (or just stop with the final volume of Johnson's initial run and then wait for the inevitable television show tie-in comic post-Convergence). Similar to Justin Jordan's Superboy Vol. 4: Blood and Steel, Nelson spends almost more time on the book's villain than on Supergirl herself, which is a dubious start to any run. As it is, both Supergirl and Superboy get new writers with their next volumes, making these fourth collections basically fillers to pad the space around the "Krypton Returns" crossover. Neither volume acquits their series well.

[Review contains spoilers]

Cyborg Superman epitomizes that perfect blend of 1990s super-cool and really lame. I loved Dan Jurgens's original two-part story of astronaut Hank Henshaw -- part-Marvel parody, part-reminder that even Superman can't save everyone -- and so I was one of those who didn't have to say "Wait, who?" when Henshaw was revealed as the Cyborg Superman in Reign of the Supermen; it was nice to see a character from the early days of the Triangle Titles make the big-time. But ghastly and compelling as the painfully mechanized Superman was, the resultant ubiquity of the Cyborg Superman wore down his shine, through so-so stories like "Trial of Superman" up to and including megalomanic space-dictator Cyborg Superman teaming with the mundane Toyman in the Triangle Titles' nadir, "Superman Red/Superman Blue."

So, like Justin Jordan bringing back an even older set of Triangle Title villains in Superboy Vol. 4, I was eager to see Nelson resurrect this old favorite for a new universe. And while the Cyborg Superman will always be Hank Henshaw to me, I've no problem with Nelson's new origin, which makes the Cyborg Superman a more intrinsic part of the Super-family. There's plenty good story potential to explore -- I'd like to see the Cyborg Superman teamed with General Zod now, for instance.

But Nelson introduces the Cyborg in a markedly padded four-part story -- plus the Action Comics #23.1: Cyborg Superman Villains Month issue -- that takes a long time to get where it's going. In the first issue, Supergirl meets an alien race that can essentially recreate anything out of thin air; the second issue she banters with the Cyborg and fights simulacrums of herself; the third issue, she fights simulacrums of Supergirl cast members and DC Universe heroes; and then finally in the fourth issue she breaks her way free. Surely some of that middle sequence of Supergirl faux-fighting herself and her friends could have been trimmed such to give the book a more complicated plot than just hero versus villain.

Even the Villains Month issue is by turns chilling and dull. That the Cyborg carries out his creator Brainiac's instruction to find "perfection" by challenging aliens to moral quandaries is puzzling; after two or three scenes of the Cyborg spouting, "Who is worthy of perfection?" it also gets repetitive. This doesn't discount the powerful horror of the scene, for instance, where the Cyborg goads one brother to kill another, but in reading this dense, text-heavy issue, I found myself flipping ahead to see when it would be over. Further, the final fate of Supergirl Kara Zor-El's parents that Nelson depicts here doesn't match what Johnson set up earlier; I don't mind different writers doing their own thing, but the change without explanation is another dissonant note in this issue.

At the end of Supergirl Vol. 3: Sanctuary, my biggest hesitation about the switch from Johnson to Nelson was the kind of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy-esque humor that seemed to imbue Nelson's work -- fine in its own place, and the Supergirl issue was even funny, but I wasn't sure "funny" was the right way to go for this title. Fortunately, this doesn't turn out to be a problem; Supergirl's got some funny banter but it never errs to the ridiculous. At the same time, Nelson sometimes loses Supergirl's voice, as when she says, "I don't listen to sanctimonious poseurs like you, Superman," a mouthful from anyone but especially from a teenager, or when she waxes poetic toward the end: "Fists with the mass of moons, legs that burn with the heat of suns! ... I will not stop until I have forged you a world of misery!" Nelson also has Supergirl take to calling the Cyborg Superman "Cy," which is teenager-y but weirdly flip in reference to a cybernetic monster that's intent on killing her.

Ultimately the best parts of the book are the Supergirl and Superman "Krypton Returns" issues. Supergirl has perhaps the strongest character arc of that story, appearing both as her past and present selves; young Kara strikes up a friendship with Superboy, whom she'd later disparage when they meet for the "first" time, while present-Kara leads a clone army for whom she used to hold equal prejudice. The New 52 Super-family didn't get along to begin with, to put it mildly, but Lobdell's purpose with "Krypton Returns" seems to be to bring them together; we see this mostly clearly in Supergirl's changing attitudes toward both Superboy and Superman. The Supergirl issue also includes a fairly gripping battle fought against one opponent, H'el, across two timeframes.

In all, however, I can't see Superboy Vol. 3: Blood and Steel nor Supergirl Vol. 4: Out of the Past having mainstream or popular appeal, and that's troublesome for the immediate spin-offs of one of DC's most prominent properties. Between Cyborg Superman and "Krypton Returns"'s Eradicator, the writers have this long-time reader paying attention, but even the best villains can't save a story without strong plot or character work. The Supergirl title has a few volumes more to go and then it'll be cancelled before Convergence; again, my hope is that once we have Supergirl on TV and Superman in theaters, things will begin to turn around for this property.

[Includes original covers]

Later this week, Batman/Superman Vol. 3: Second Chance.
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