Review: Superman: Up in the Sky hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)


Superman: Up in the Sky

Well, my goodness. Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum. Superman writer Brian Michael Bendis' recent Batman: Universe was about the cheeriest Batman story we’ve seen in a while this side of the cartoon Batman: Brave and the Bold, an imaginative Bat-romp through the DC Universe. In contrast, Batman writer Tom King’s Superman: Up in the Sky is one of the darkest, saddest Superman stories maybe ever, taking every majestic thing about Superman — his strength, his ability to inspire — and revealing the tragic implications just underneath.

Which is not to say that King besmirches the Man of Steel’s good name. In the end this is just as much a story about Superman’s heroism — and his responsibility — as any you’ll read. But my goodness is it a tough ride to get there. The idea that Superman’s mere presence causes death just as much as life. Superman beat near to a bloody pulp in his quest. The many gory, graphic deaths that Lois Lane might have faced. Superman forced to weigh the value of one life next to another. This is perhaps not a book for Superman purists, much in the way King’s Batman run may also not be a book for Batman purists, but as always I admire King’s audaciousness and the experimental nature of his stories.

[Review contains spoilers]

I’ve got to also admire who seems to have been the architect of this, Dan DiDio, putting Bendis and King, two of DC’s biggest names, on the Walmart-exclusive Giant books where these two stories were first published. There was no guarantee the Giants would succeed, and whether they did because of their notable creators or not, it was still taking a chance to spend their talents there.

Further (whether this falls to DiDio or series editors like Jamie Rich) that these Superman and Batman stories are so different from the norm in tone and storytelling, and yet DC still saw fit to put them in mass-market books that might have had primarily a non-comics-experienced audience, was also a huge risk that didn’t have to be taken. These stories could have easily, understandably been as safe as the Superman or Batman Confidential series from some years back, and instead we end up with two books that ought be perennial sellers for some time to come.

King’s story sees Superman headed out to space on the trail of one kidnapped girl. It is a wild goose chase, with barely any clues, where the cost-benefit analysis is skewed from the start — the chances of Superman finding the girl, Alice, are low, while the chance of his being needed on Earth in the interim are high; from a purely logical standpoint, this is not a job for Superman. And yet (perhaps contrary to the angst that many writers would inject into this), it’s only Superman who’s reluctant to shirk his other responsibilities — Batman, Lois, and Pa Kent all see the value because, as Batman says, “We’re who we are. And you’re Superman.”

With this, King begins explicating the idea of Superman as “someone else,” doer of superheroic feats greater than Batman or Green Lantern or Flash and so on, though not without great personal cost, or at least mental and physical anguish. We see this in Superman agreeing to examine the voluminous data of the Zeta Beam, even though it means certain death. We see it in Superman simply continuing to be Superman, even though he knows others will try to imitate him and meet their deaths (shockingly, a little boy). We see it in his being willing to be beat bloody to find Alice, to be away from Lois knowing all the gruesome ways she could die, in his finding a way to be faster than the Fastest Man Alive by sheer gumption just to benefit others (all drawn with great drama by Andy Kubert). This is portrayed, among other things, as Superman having hope when hope shouldn’t be possible, being indeed an embodiment of hope, but at the same time it also seemingly involves a great deal of stress and horror.

Up in the Sky only lets up toward the end of its penultimate chapter, and this after the Earth is wrecked and its heroes nearly destroyed by the force that had kidnapped Alice and planned to conquer the universe. The great irony of this story is despite Superman’s reluctance to get involved and the difficulties he faced along the way, in outer space was exactly where Superman needed to be — if he hadn’t been, he couldn’t have defeated the mastermind and saved Earth. King balances all the darkness with a charming final issue finale, Superman and a little kid talking their way through space, which comes back to the very chicken-or-the-egg point of the beginning: Why did Superman abandon Earth to go save Alice? Because he’s Superman.

As with Batman: Universe, King’s dozen 12-page chapters follow one overarching story, though whereas Bendis' end on cliffhangers, King’s are more episodic, with each one picking up with Superman in a different place. That each of these vignettes tell a complete story is on their own impressive; among my favorites was “The Thousand Deaths of Lois Lane,” which intercuts scenes of Lois' potential peril with Superman drudgingly stuck in line at almost the alien equivalent of a DMV. “Man and Superman,” which sees Clark and Superman split, is precisely the kind of short that fits within this story but could as easily have been rejiggered for a standalone anthology. And “If Not an Angel” is King being very daring, suggesting Superman might’ve committed euthanasia and then letting it sit there for three chapters before he clears it up.

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I lauded Tom King’s Batman run throughout, and Superman: Up in the Sky makes me no less impressed with the writer. I’m not sure anyone’s heart could take King doing this kind of thing to Superman full time, but for a drop-in Superman story, especially in this kind of confined space, Up in the Sky is a winner. This hardcover is well deserved, and I wouldn’t blink at it getting an Absolute — even an Absolute that kept Up in the Sky and Batman: Universe together in strange perpetuity, at that.

[Includes cover gallery, Andy Kubert sketchbook section]

Comments ( 4 )

  1. I loved this series, both Kubert and King did great work. I sort of interpreted it as “what is the furthest reach of the Superman concept”. Always fun to see you review the non regular series books (though those reviews are terrific as well of course).

    One thing you pointed out in the Batman Universe review is how these Walmart books, despite being supposedly for a more mainstream audience actually stretch some of the expected structure in pleasing ways, such a short bit always including a fight scene and etc. I more and More think books like this are sort of pointing the way to the next steps of the superhero genre and making it more approachable. Great artists, standalone stories, not the regular plot flow, fun to read, smart stories, not confined to origin stories and so on. Bring on the digital first trades I say!

  2. Kudos all around. UP AND AWAY is Superman 101.

  3. This was such a great story. It’s Tom King writing all the iconic things about Superman in the best way possible.

  4. I almost feel the whole series was to set up the line "Yes ma'am, you are" which was SO contrived and SO corny and still made me literally cheer anyway. It goes up there with "What's so Special About Truth, Justice, and the American Way" as a definitive book to hand to someone who doesn't understand who Superman is.


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