Review: Superman Blue Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

July 22, 2018

 ·  14 comments

I've often thought of Superman Blue as the beginning of the end.

In their heyday, the "Triangle Titles" Superman team was nigh unstoppable. They're best known for "Death of Superman," but there's a bevy of stories before and after that are just as good. And the way in which the team functioned as a "writer's room" across four Superman titles to provide interconnected, soap opera-style stories has never again been done as well at DC.

But by the time "Superman Blue" came around, the longest-serving member of that team, Dan Jurgens, had written over 60 issues of Superman over at least seven years. The team had seen Superman engaged, killed, resurrected, and married (also amnesic and time-tossed once or twice). Certain events, including a perceived second death of Superman, the "death" of Clark Kent, and the overuse of characters like the Cyborg Superman suggested perhaps the team had told all the stories they had. Jurgens, whose art once anchored the books alongside Jerry Ordway and others, no longer drew; though the books sported some talented artists, the art depicted here is many steps behind its contemporaries, such as Howard Porter's dynamic work on JLA.

The "Superman Blue" plotline stumbled a lot and the stories often focused on secondary characters who seemed more interesting to the creators than to the readers. Parallel to this, the Bat-titles were offering stories like Legacy and No Man's Land, setting the foundation for the modern iteration of Bat-title storytelling, while the Super-titles were struggling to get the audience engaged. When the "Superman Blue" era ended after about 10 months, the Super-titles launched right into their next equally troubled epic, and within a year of that all the titles' creative teams would be replaced. As a loyal and long-time Super-titles reader, I can tell you the end was an unfortunate relief, and the arrival of Jeph Loeb and company a breath of fresh air.

That DC has chosen to collect Superman Blue in four volumes is a wonderful oddity. If anything might spark the casual reader's interest in these stories, it's probably Superman's noted blue costume and/or Grant Morrison's exceptional use of the "electric Superman" in JLA. As indicated, these stories are not great and get sillier as they go, and I am not at all confident in this four-volume series actually ever being all collected -- whether casual reader interest will support this series for four volumes once curiosity gives way to the actual content. But I believe DC's tangible history largely rests in its catalog of collections, and prior to this there was about a 25-issue gap in DC's Superman collections (times four Superman titles!) that, if all of these issues are collected, will be reduced down to about 15 issues (or, an additional year of Super-titles will be collected), and that's a good thing indeed. The beginning of the end deserves its place in history just as much as any other part does.

[Review contains spoilers]

The biggest problem with Superman Blue arrives on its very first page -- Ceritak, the Kandorian alien who would come to be known as "Scorn." In an afterword to this volume (which is a great thing to have, and I hope all four volumes have afterwords), Dan Jurgens talks about how the teams wanted a more fun atmosphere in the books and a "loud, bawdy" character. The Triangle Title Super-teams certainly introduced many compelling original characters to Superman's supporting cast over the years, but the problem is that by the end of this book, there are issues that just feature a Superman A-plot and a Scorn B-plot, and that's it -- the travails of Scorn, instead of Lois, Perry, Lex, or any of the Super-titles' other stalwarts.

Scorn is a hulking, blue behemoth, which makes his storytelling potential both predictable and limited. Ron Troupe, to name another Triangle Titles original, has been at times a Daily Planet reporter, worked some other jobs in Metropolis, was friend to Jimmy Olsen, married Lucy Lane, and so on. Scorn's storylines (so far, at least) play out according to Frankenstein/Beauty and the Beast tropes -- the public mistakes him for a menace and shuns him, a blind girl is the only one who understands him. The girl is the daughter of Dirk Armstrong, the Daily Planet's stereotypical conservative provocateur, another supporting character the book emphasizes -- so there's something of an echo chamber where, if not Superman, the book is wholly focused on some aspect of Dirk or Ashbury Armstrong or Scorn.

It's interesting all these years later to hear Jurgens state reasons for Scorn's inclusion. If a lighter tone was what the team wanted, then perhaps in that vein they succeeded (though shortly after the events of the final Superman Blue book, Scorn would never be heard from again). That Scorn would not, by definition of the character, become a Daily Planet reporter, be active in Metropolis politics, have an opinion about the next mayoral election, ever have any secret identity, and so on, reflects a move by the creative teams away from the gritty realism of early Triangle Title stories (see Dark Knight Over Metropolis or "Going to Blazes") toward a more bombastic Silver Age tone. That's a fine goal; my recollection, however, is that Scorn would continue to crowd Superman out of his own books, and I don't think it's a coincidence that as soon as the next creative team arrived, they dived right back into Metropolis politics with gusto. The creative teams consider Scorn far more interesting than he is, and that works increasingly to the titles' detriment.

All of that said, surprisingly I enjoyed the first volume of Superman Blue more than I expected to. There's no denying this book is tightly plotted -- for books from before the "write for the trade" era that make lots of references to prior events, there's a distinctly graphic novel feel to how this volume starts in Kandor with Scorn and then comes back around to a grand Kandorian adventure finale, or the motif of how Clark Kent's shaving process changes over the course of the book with his new powers. The writers hand off storylines to one another with grace not seen much since and there's always something going on -- how Dirk's appearance in the first issue leads to the two-part Atomic Skull story; how that plants the seeds for some of the Scorn background action in the three-part Metallo story; and then the Kandor four-parter. To that end, I even disliked the Scorn material less than I recalled even if perhaps because I'm gripped watching how the writers weave Scorn through every aspect of this book (for good or ill irrespective).

"Electric blue Superman" is handled well here. It reads desperate -- even Superman wonders aloud how he can possibly do things like shape-change, and ultimately the writers won't explain how Superman got like this nor how he returns to normal, because "why" seems less important than making the change. But a few years from the end of the twentieth century, there's something appropriate about a superhero turning into a bold of lightning and zooming off to face the next threat (if not entirely appropos to Superman). Watching the ultimate superhero have to re-learn how to handle his superpowers is a lot of fun, as is the conceit that when not using his powers, Clark becomes completely human (something we'd see again around Geoff Johns's "solar flare" concept). The "Pulp Heroes" annual, collected here for the first time, uses well the "Clark Kent, mild-mannered hero" concept.

But Superman Blue's other weakness, for me, is the art. From the days when the Triangle Title's artists were almost indistinguishable, here there's stark differences between the works by Ron Frenz, Stuart Immonen, Tom Grummett, Jon Bogdanove, and others (as well as in the depth of color from issue to issue). Joe Rubinstein began inking Dan Jurgens after Brett Breeding departed, and if one compares for instance the Superman #82 of those years to Superman #83, there's a stark difference with how sharp Breeding's inks were versus Rubinstein's, more sketchy and indistinct. Frenz's depictions are at times absurd or overwrought; though Frenz and Rubinstein are both comics legends in their own rights, again their work on the flagship Superman pales in comparison to Howard Porter and John Dell on JLA or Graham Nolan and Scott Hanna on Detective Comics at the time. Though Bogdanove gives this new-era Superman some great Golden Age stylings, at some point in his Man of Steel tenure Bogdanove leaned toward the cartoony, and it's evident here in at times distracting ways.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Superman Blue Vol. 1

Wild sci-fi Kandor stories, you might suspect, are not my favorite, but this time I got the homage to "Nightwing and Flamebird" tales of old with Superman and the (Zero Hour de-aged) Atom zapping in for a mission. It's another example of how, with more seasoned eyes, I'm inclined to give Superman Blue Vol. 1 more leeway than I might have previously. There's other Superman stories that I'd like to see collected, but I'm not sorry these stories are being collected, too. Hopefully the other volumes make it so I can see how this turns out, for the second time.

[Includes original covers (lacking variants), Scorn sketch, afterword]

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Superman Blue Vol. 1
Author Rating
3 (scale of 1 to 5)

Comments ( 14 )

  1. AnonymousJuly 22, 2018

    Thanks so much for getting another "oldie" review in. It's interesting that you've been picking 'false starts'so far. Gives you some interesting history to work with in addition to writing the review!

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    1. Thanks -- glad you're enjoying them! In what way are the books "false starts"?

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    2. AnonymousJuly 23, 2018

      False starts in the sense that it was a bold new era that was backtracked on. Correct me if I'm wrong but I remember hearing Superman Blue being called in various outlets as "how DC wanted Superman perceived in the 21st Century". A few years before DC also wanted Superman's long hair to be permanent.Titans Total chaos had that similar theme of "didn't make a huge splash".

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    3. Sure, that's fair. Ultimately I don't think anyone on the DC side really thought the electric Superman was built to last -- but often I wonder, if one of these "let's change the character for a bit" initiatives really took off, what kind of radical change might we end up with? If people had surprisingly super-liked Jean Paul Valley as Batman or Artemis as Wonder Woman. Maybe that's how we got Connor Hawke as Green Arrow and Kyle Rayner as Green Lantern for so long? If Wally West had bombed as Flash, would Barry Allen have returned decades earlier?

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  2. This was a great review! Love how you place the older stuff in its context, and reflect on its significance to the world of DC as a whole.

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  3. Great work. I’m due to delve into this at the weekend. Better than you remember seems to be the overriding tone of your review. Hoping I feel the same. I’m nostalgic to the whole thing; I remember vividly buying Superman #123 aged 12 just from seeing the cover in the newsagents and thinking “WTF?!”. It got me reading Superman again after I had spent much of the previous 2 years being Batman exclusive.
    I own the old “Transformed” trade but like many I have it remains unread. This will be different.

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    1. How'd you enjoy it, Paul? The Transformed trade actually starts a little earlier; you might enjoy it as a companion to this (Superman vs. the Revenge Squad too, if you've got it.)

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  4. I agree with just about everything you've said about this storyline. I kind of wish this writing team had left after The Death of Clark Kent, because that was the last event by them that I truly enjoyed. It was shortly before the Final Night tie-ins that Joey Cavalieri took over the editorial reins of the Superman books, and I suppose he was under pressure to deliver something game-changing to get people's attention. And this is what we got.

    As for the art, I think Immonen and Marzan were the only ones who were consistently delivering great work. Frenz was only doing breakdowns, and Rubinstein didn't really add much in the way of texture to them. Grummett's pencils were terribly mismatched with Rodier's inks, and I was so fed up with Bogdanove that I actually welcomed Eaton's fill-ins.

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    1. Re: Death of Clark Kent, I was saying over on the Facebook page I was always amazed the creative team never used Conduit again -- great villain. Then again if Superman Blue marks an intentional turn toward the more fantastic (Telos, Dominus, Scorn), then Conduit is one of Superman's last, more human opponents of that era.

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  5. As much as I have a soft spot for this story line, I am amazed that this managed to make it to market whereas the TPB that eventually evolved into the Exile omnibus was cancelled due to an apparent lack of pre-orders.

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  6. AnonymousJuly 24, 2018

    I love these reviews! Great one, putting the book into context and everything. Great!

    I wish DC releases the EXILE OMNIBUS in TPBs!

    David

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    1. Agreed. DC has a tendency to re-release recent omnibuses "cut down" into paperbacks. That's not in the cards through mid-2019 but hopefully toward the end of next year.

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  7. I'm not sure when the Triangle art was indistinguishable..."Reign of the Supermen" worked as well as it did because there were four distinct artists employing four distinct styles on four distinct Supermen. And at least from that period onward, distinct art in the Triangle titles was a hallmark of the era. You can go as far back as the debut of Superman: Man of Steel, and I'm pretty sure the art was always distinct in the titles from at least that point forward.

    And not even mentioning Stuart Immonen's particular contributions...! I get that few fans seem to appreciate Immonen's Superman like I do, much less Immonen himself (I don't know if he's still bitter, but his departure certainly seemed acrimonious (surprising he came back for Secret Identity, really), and the fact that he's never come back to DC supports that. For me, there was no better Superman artist from the Triangle era, and I loved his writing, too. The guy deep down understood that human Superman the '90s worked so hard to find.

    As for Scorn, for me he was pretty blatantly an alternate Superman for an arc that had taken the traditional depiction off the board, and he took the concept back to its roots, a gritty urban defender closely tied with a forbidden love interest, and a distinctly alien aspect to boot.

    I thought this was a hugely successful creative gamble.

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  8. Anybody know when Volume 2 drops?

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