Review: Superman Vol. 1: The Unity Saga: Phantom Earth hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

March 3, 2019

Brian Michael Bendis' Superman Vol. 1: The Unity Saga: Phantom Earth is an interesting take on the Man of Steel, at times bold, at times irreverent. In using a wide swath of the DC Universe, Bendis doubles-down on his Man of Steel miniseries, demonstrating that the scope of that story wasn't just for the "pilot," but rather is what we can expect from the Superman title month in and month out. At the same time, the broad strokes of Phantom Earth are dangerously, even disappointingly, similar to Man of Steel, and that gives a problematic sense of Bendis treading water with his first real outing. Phantom Earth is good, but it doesn't feel as though it moves this story forward as much as one might hope the first volume would.

[Review contains spoilers]

Phantom Earth finds Superman and the entire planet Earth suddenly trapped in the Phantom Zone, bringing Superman once again face-to-face with Rogol Zaar, supposed murderer of Krypton. Superman, Supergirl, and the Justice League battled Zaar all throughout Man of Steel, and to see Superman and the League back up against Zaar and his compatriots so quickly threatens what little mystique Zaar had. Zaar, as it is, is something of a generic bruiser character and overexposure doesn't suit him, not to mention that his fight with Superman is so similar as for one to just feel like they're reading Man of Steel all over again.

The big difference is that Zod makes the scene this time, and Bendis' triumph is the operatic final issue in which Superman's narrations hang eerily in the air and he considers whether Zaar deserves death, even by proxy, for his crimes. Masterfully, and jarringly, Bendis undercuts this by snatching Superman and the reader out of the fray mid-fight, returning to regular storytelling and leaving both Superman and the audience without a clear sense of what happens next. That's a brave, smart narrative trick, allowing the audience to feel the same discombobulation that Superman does, but at the same time, a lack of closure doesn't really benefit this. We've just sat through a Rogol Zaar rematch one volume from the last time, and this one doesn't even end in a conclusive way.

I do appreciate that Bendis uses Zod, following along well from Zod's last appearances in Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps. Bendis also uses evergreen Superman villain Livewire and broader DCU figures like Ray Palmer, Ryan Choi, and Ted Kord. I thought Bendis' flashback to Superman and son Superboy Jon Kent were well done and in line with Peter Tomasi's portrayals of Jon, especially important given what comes next for this book. And the whole book, with the conceit of STAR Labs accidentally shunting the planet into the Phantom Zone and then the Atom having to shrink it to get it out, has a Silver Age-y tone that seems appropriate for the Superman title.

Comics probably takes itself a bit too seriously and so Bendis isn't necessarily wrong to take the piss out of it a tad here; whether that his efforts seem too irreverent is a commentary on reader or author remains to be seen. The bits where Adam Strange can't find Earth are funny and a clever play on Strange's situations, though with really no purpose aside from comedy. Batman narrates his own vomiting in stilted, scientific, ultra-Batman fashion. And as with Man of Steel, Bendis' Flash is way off, writing Barry Allen like the cartoon Justice League Unlimited's Wally West -- and then indeed Bendis elbows that very critique when he has Barry say, "I think I forgot which Flash I was for a second." I don't like this kind of thing, which feels too self-referential and takes away from the story, though again I recognize it's meant to subvert those very kinds of feelings.

As in Man of Steel, Bendis writes a Superman who is very confident, almost seemingly to the point of arrogance, commenting early on that it's "unusual" for him "not to know what to do." Elsewhere Superman keeps having to duck out on a conversation with Martian Manhunter, which while perhaps realistic is a choice Bendis is making to depict Superman as somewhat impatient, somewhat distracted; this is a kind but not kindly Man of Steel. And ultimately Superman goads Zod to kill Zaar, if in a moment of weakness, but is taken out of the fight before he can mitigate that; Zaar defeats Zod, but if he hadn't, we might have a Superman with blood on his hands. I don't mind Bendis making Superman somewhat fallible, but again it's a choice, and one that won't endear Bendis' take on Superman to every fan.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Superman Vol. 1: The Unity Saga: Phantom Earth

Brian Michael Bendis' Superman Vol. 1: The Unity Saga: Phantom Earth is captivating and controversial, which certainly better than being plain and unsurprising. That it goes back to much the same well as Man of Steel is unfortunate, because I don't think we get much sense of where this title is going or what it'll be about -- at least until the final page. Anyway, there's a sense of excitement here on Bendis' part and good positioning of Superman at the head of the DC Universe, and much of that improves on where Superman was a decade or so ago. I'm eager for Bendis' Action Comics, which I think might be more my speed, and for the revelations about Superman's family in this title's next book.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Superman Vol. 1: The Unity Saga: Phantom Earth
Author Rating
3.5 (scale of 1 to 5)

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