Review: Superman Vol. 5: Under Fire hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Superman Vol. 5: Under Fire, Scott Lobdell's final volume of his run, shows potential, but I fear that potential will be wasted with Lobdell's departure. Lobdell emphasizes Superman's supporting cast -- such to remind me, even, a bit of the Triangle Titles -- but the reader has no assurances that the next writers will pick up any of these threads. I can only hope Lobdell gets to wrap up a little bit of it, at least, in the parts of the "Doomed" crossover collected elsewhere.

For many of the positives in this book, I can also think of an equal negative, and it continues to be true that Lobdell's Superman will not appeal to everyone. At the same time, I like writers that take risks and do things differently with these long-standing characters, and Lobdell accomplishes that here even if it's controversial.

[Review contains spoilers]

Arguably the strongest part of Under Fire is not Superman's battle with the new New 52 Parasite, though artist Ken Lashley does a nice job with the mutated villain. We've seen Superman vs. Parasite, however, as recently as J. Michael Straczynski's Superman: Earth One Vol. 2, and after Jeph Loeb fashioned a truly compelling mystery utilizing the Parasite now some ten years ago, Lobdell's more traditional "power-mad monster" Parasite story doesn't really measure up.

But at its core, Under Fire couldn't be mistaken for a Parasite story; it's a Lois and Clark story. Non-traditional, to say the least -- Lois's consciousness is an astral projection separate from her comatose body, and she knows Superman's secret identity. Yet even at the tale's most unusual, Lobdell makes starkly clear that Clark Kent and Lois Lane are best friends -- and largely platonic ones now, different from the early days of the New 52 and even early in Lobdell's run. I'm hard-pressed to think of another close friendship between a man and a woman in the DC Universe that doesn't contain some romantic element; pre-Flashpoint, the answer probably would have been Superman and Wonder Woman, but not any more. This current dynamic -- that Lois and Clark are long-time like-minded colleagues who care about one another as friends -- brings a wonderful freshness to the characters, and it's to Lobdell's credit that he presents it without equivocation.

What will likely turn some off this story is that Superman risks letting Lois Lane die in order to protect his secret identity. Lobdell also establishes that if Lois had been returned to her normal form, she would have revealed Superman's identity to the world. One is perhaps not exactly on the same level as the other, but in these two aspects Lobdell demonstrates that Lois and Clark, despite being friends, are each products of their respective spheres, and make decisions for good or for ill based on those world-views. Each is heroic but flawed; each is working for the greater good and also being selfish.

Some might suggest Superman should never be selfish, but this is fully in line with Lobdell's Clark spying on Lois's text messages early on and self-importantly quitting the Daily Planet. Away from the Smallville/Earth One model, Lobdell's Clark is one who's fully-realized as Superman (leading the Justice League, etc.), but still doesn't have all the answers -- who's impetuous, who makes split-second wrong decisions, and who later second-guesses his choices. I find this infinitely more interesting than a know-it-all Superman who's never unsure of himself. Would that Lobdell had another twenty-five issues to go, I think the end result would be more palatable; I feel certain Lobdell's Superman at some far off time would be one who's learned from his mistakes and "graduated" into who we commonly think of as Superman. Whether the larger audience has patience for a "learning" Superman in the regular Super-titles is, of course, debatable; I'm fine with it here, myself, though felt less sanguine, for instance, about how Superman was still "learning his lessons" at the end of Man of Steel.

Jimmy Olsen, Cat Grant, and Morgan Edge all appear in these pages; throw in Jose Delgado and we could as easily be talking about the Triangle Titles. One of the highlights for me of Lobdell's run has been his Cat Grant, still the gossip columnist of her early iterations but with a thinly-veiled moral streak that saw her follow Clark out of the Daily Planet (and then basically employed him and helped him earn his reputation back). Here, Edge offers to buy Cat's now-successful website, and when she later refuses, he threatens her. While I have some sense that Lobdell will wrap up the "psychic Lois" story before "Doomed" ends, I wouldn't venture the same is true about Cat and Edge, nor do I see incoming writer Geoff Johns picking the thread up. It's a shame because the New 52 Superman hasn't had a self-sustaining supporting cast so far for the most part, and it's another area where I feel Lobdell was just getting started. (Ditto that Lobdell, Rao love him, resurrects the New 52's vacated Daemonite storyline, something else I doubt another writer will touch.)

Under Fire is bookended by parts of the "Krypton Returns" and "Doomed" storylines. Of these, I can say more about the "Krypton Returns" issue, which I've read; it's a good conclusion to an overall good crossover, though with no explanatory pages I can imagine someone who hasn't read "Krypton Returns" having trouble figuring out what's happening. (Since Superman Vol. 4: Psi-War ended on a lead-in cliffhanger to "Krypton Returns," it seems a significant omission on DC's part not to have included the "Part 1" Action Comics Annual #2 in this book, too.) The "Doomed" issue actually does have an explanatory page, but I found the issue less successful; there's a couple instances where Superman's face transforms or he's wearing this beatific smile that doesn't match the dialogue. In the disconnect between text and art I wasn't sure what I was supposed to understand was happening.

Superman Vol. 5: Under Fire isn't perfect, but feels more intentional and relevant than its companion Superboy and Supergirl Vol. 4 editions. At one point Scott Lobdell promised to tell the "most ambitious Superman story ever"; not sure if that was "Doomed" or not, but a part of me is disappointed Lobdell won't get to tell it, if he didn't. With Superman hitting the big screen again next year, no doubt DC needs to ramp up their Superman creative teams, but as with Teen Titans, I genuinely believe Lobdell cared about his Superman work and I wish it had gone on just a little bit longer.

[Includes original and variant covers; sketches by Ken Lashley]
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2 comments:

  1. That mention of older Parasite stories makes me nostalgic for Greg Rucka's "Adventures of Superman". The whole Ruin and Parasite Twins storyline didn't pay off as much as I would've liked, but it was one of the most thorough uses of the Superman mythos, including some great Mxy stories.

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    1. There were some parts of Rucka's Superman -- his portrayal of Clark Kent, mainly -- that I didn't like, but found the story overall (unsurprisingly) interesting, nuanced, and mature, especially as it rocketed toward the Ruin story's conclusion. Maybe we're cursed that ever Superman era will make us nostalgic for the one before; what we have now isn't up to that level, and of course neither was what we had before equivalent to the heyday of the Triangle Titles.

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