Review: Superman: The Unity Saga Vol. 2: The House of El hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Sunday, December 08, 2019

There's an impressive amount packed in to Superman: The Unity Saga Vol. 2: The House of El. It is a nine-issue trade, collecting Superman #7-15, so maybe some heft goes without saying. But by my count writer Brian Michael Bendis packs at least three different "acts" into this one ongoing story, making it feel perhaps even fuller than full. I was down on Bendis' first Superman volume, finding it a rehash of his Man of Steel miniseries, but here Bendis' Superman forges its own way, is emotional, and distinguishes itself smartly from Bendis' Action Comics while being no less interesting. We're in an era of good Superman stories, and it's so exciting.

[Review contains spoilers]

Peter Tomasi's Rebirth Superman, as I've said, never quite coalesced for me. I recognize the strength of his Kent family by way of Norman Rockwell, but the implicit implication that everything would always be all right for Clark, Lois, and son Jon took away a lot of the suspense for me. Bendis, to his credit, creates drama without angst; where other writers would create division between Clark, Lois, and Jon about the newly returned Jon's abuse at many hands in space, Bendis keeps the Kents totally forgiving, even as they each individually question their own decisions and mourn the time lost. Though the events are based around tragedy, these characters are far more interesting when faced with real adversity, and seeing them treat each other with understanding is more what I ultimately expect from Superman and his family than other depictions across the years.

Indeed, it's rather understated, but essentially what Bendis establishes is that Jon Kent has been kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured for the last five-or-so years. That Jon remains so optimistic is a testament to Bendis' writing of the character's character, but I hope at some point Bendis will address some understandable trauma from Jon's experiences. Suffering at the hands of multiple bad actors, Jon's retelling (and how he tries to spare his parents some of the worst parts) reminds of the harrowing presentation of Alice's captivity in TV Batwoman's recent "Mine is a Long and a Sad Tale" or the horrors of Hanna Yanagihara's A Little Life (Jon's foiled attempt to get help from the Green Lanterns was especially wrenching). Certainly, Bendis does well presenting the sorrow that Clark and Lois feel in hearing Jon's tales (and how they try to downplay it for Jon's benefit); one would hope these characters cannot help but be changed, and perhaps that'll help to explain some of Superman's rumored decisions next time around.

I've not yet decided if Bendis is a "let's do this because it'll be cool" writer or a "everything has a purpose to be revealed later" writer, which is why as yet I'm not quite sure how to take Jon's imprisonment on the Crime Syndicate's earth. Bendis' Ultraman is almost too wonderfully creepy to just be incidental, the way he imprisons Jon and then visits him to use Jon both as confidante and punching bag. One very much wants to see more of this villain to understand Ultraman's relationship with Jon from his perspective, and of course also to see Superman and Jon take on Ultraman in a fairer fight. There doesn't seem to be a Crime Syndicate story around the corner, but I'm curious if Bendis will get there eventually.

And all of that is perhaps the slower part of the story, before Superman, Jon, Supergirl, and Krypto all face off against General Zod, Jax-Ur, and Rogol Zaar. That's a fine sequence action-wise — among other things, Bendis' Superman takes great pains to avoid violence against those otherwise innocent in an intergalactic brawl — though I did come away from it unsure about the overarching question from Bendis' run so far, who is Rogol Zaar and did he destroy Krypton. We get here, as I understand it, just the Superman issues of a Superman/Supergirl crossover. While this book is plenty understandable and there are no obvious gaps (Superman and his resurrected father, the "Mr. Oz" Jon-El, go one way while Jon and Supergirl jaunt to her title for a bit), it seems as though between the pages some understanding is reached about Zaar that's not shared with the reader. For instance, we get a flashback where Jor-El is hunting Zaar, but then we never see the outcome of that sequence such to really understand Jor-El and Zaar's connection.

It was a shock to me when Jor-El was summarily executed at the end of this book and I was rather surprised Superman didn't object more, even if he only learned of it after the deed was done. (Also that there's technology out there that can send someone back to the very instant of Krypton's destruction seems a rather important thing taken very lightly). Essentially with this book, Bendis has now closed the loop on what he inherited with the Superman titles; granted he could have just ignored Mr. Oz entirely, but instead Bendis used him, parlayed him into the return of the Legion of Super-Heroes, and that done, then killed him off. That seems to me a good use of natural resources, so to speak, so in that way I'm glad Bendis gave Mr. Oz some purpose (after his lackluster use in Action Comics), though I'm not sure Oz's arc quite seems whole; again, I'd have preferred a little more insight into Jor-El's role in the destruction of Krypton, his connection to Zaar, and so on.

And then, in the end, we get the Legion of Super-Heroes; I knew this was coming but when it landed originally it must've been a barn-burner. I wasn't sure if we'd find that the Legion already knew Superman and it seems that they don't, which is a shame; I like the whole "they recruit the lonely boy in Smallville" bit, though I guess it'd be weird if this same Legion hung out with both young Clark Kent and then young Jon Kent. Anyway, their appearance is so brief that I'll withhold further judgment until I see them in action proper, though I'm delighted Bendis will be writing a Legion title and the whole "they arrived at the wrong time" shtick pretty perfectly sums up the Legion's mix of experience and youthfulness. I had hoped Bendis' Legion would be some kind of hybrid Legion a la the end of Geoff Johns' Legion of Three Worlds — actually, let's be honest, I was hoping Gates would be in the crowd scene, if not also XS, and they weren't, but we can always hope for another time.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Superman: The Unity Saga Vol. 2: The House of El (hardcover/Kindle)

So Jon's quest, Joe-El's giant space battle, and the Legion of Super-Heroes — indeed Superman: The Unity Saga Vol. 2: The House of El is a full book. I am particularly impressed with the way that, as operatic as this book gets, Bendis still manages moments of hilarious, mundane "realistic" humor, like the scene on an alien world where Jon has to go to the bathroom "and I don't want to go here." Despite opinions (probably not entirely wrong) that Brian Michael Bendis is crowding Jon Kent out of this book, he sure writes him well at the same time.

Eager for more of Bendis' Super-titles as soon as they come back around.

[Includes original and variant covers, Ivan Reis page sketches]

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Superman: The Unity Saga Vol. 2: The House of El
Author Rating
4.5 (scale of 1 to 5)
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