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


[A series on DC's animated tie-in comics collections by guest reviewer Zach King. Zach writes about movies at The Cinema King and about comics on Instagram at Dr. King’s Comics.]

Although I can still hum the theme tune - indeed, I heard it in my head multiple times while reading Superman Adventures Vol. 1 - for whatever reason, Superman: The Animated Series has never assumed the same place of prominence in my imagination that Batman: The Animated Series will always hold. Its overall legacy hasn’t been quite seismic, but its ripple effects are still being felt today; we have Livewire, yes, but also Clancy Brown’s definitive turn as Lex Luthor. (You could equally argue that Michael Ironside is to Darkseid what Mark Hamill was to The Joker, but we won’t get to Apokolips until Vol. 4.)

For me, though, Superman Adventures holds a special place because it was, with Peter David’s Supergirl, my first mail-order subscription. (I know, I’m surprised it wasn’t Batman, too.) I read these issues over and over as a kid, probably about as many times as I was reading Batman & Robin Adventures, which shared the stands in 1996. Superman: The Animated Series debuted in September 1996, with the first issue cover-dated for November 1996; the show ran through 2000, while the comic lasted another two years, for 66 issues and a few one-shots.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

DC began to collect the run in 2015 but only got about halfway through the series before the reprints stopped. I’m certain that the reprints began as a tandem response to collecting The Batman Adventures, and I’m equally sure that the sales weren’t there like they had been for Batman. It’s a completionist’s nightmare, but it’s also a loss for the Man of Steel’s readership, because Superman Adventures is a collection of real meat-and-potatoes stories, heavily focused on character and setting in a way that feels inextricable from the Triangle Era.

As a child of the '90s, the Triangle Era was Superman - long hair, soapy plots, deep bench of supporting characters. It felt like a long-running TV show, with familiar faces and esoteric plot threads weaving in and out, and reading it week to week felt like binging a Netflix drama. It was at times arcane - Lex was a clone of himself, Conduit had cracked Superman’s identity, and Superman Red was feuding with Superman Blue1 - but it had a real heart. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the first issue of Superman Adventures, which reads so much like an issue of the John Byrne reboot that inaugurated the post-Crisis Superman. Here, animated mainstays Paul Dini and Rick Burchett regale us with a frame story in which Clark Kent narrates his latest adventure to Ma & Pa Kent, who are eagerly scrapbooking his exploits. We also get a very Byrne-esque Lex Luthor, who has a wonderfully hammy monologue that captures this incarnation perfectly, concluding, “The people must be shown in no uncertain terms how dangerous this alien can be.”

Burchett sticks around for the bulk of the issues collected in Vol. 1, but Dini departs after the first issue, turning scripting duties over to Scott McCloud. As a young reader, that name didn’t mean much to me, but now that I’ve read Zot!, The Sculptor, and (of course) Understanding Comics, I am completely fascinated by the fact that Scott McCloud wrote a dozen issues of Superman and no one seems to talk about it. McCloud’s plots are quirky and character-driven, orbiting as much around the comics form as around superhero antics. In hindsight, it’s no surprise that the man who wrote Understanding Comics would take his obsessions with representations of time and space into Metropolis, but it’s refreshing to know that the stories I loved as a child are equally compelling to an adult.

Throughout McCloud’s stories, characters shrink to the size of a gnat or expand to tower over skyscrapers, and in another, a ray gun makes Superman super-heavy. Better still, Burchett keeps pace with McCloud’s formal experimentation, keeping the miniaturized Jax-Ur and Mala on model opposite the comparatively titanic Dan Turpin, and when Burchett draws a gravitationally dense Superman, you can practically feel the weight of the book shifting in your hands. And in a story that’ll have you flipping backward and forward, Mister Mxyzptlk makes time run backward to taunt the Man of Steel with his own failure to save the world. Letterer Lois Buhalis gets in on the fun, too, etching word balloons as mirror images. (Even after McCloud’s departure, the Mxy issues were among the best in Superman Adventures.)

Equally true for Vol. 1, though, is McCloud’s ability to wring intimate human pathos from stories about an omnipotent Kryptonian. In chapters so reminiscent of McCloud’s Zot!, which grounded the cosmic fantastical amid the earthbound commonplace, Metropolis gets fleshed out with stories about a girl who has a crush on Superman, a kid who idolizes Lex Luthor, and a certain cub photographer almost literally dying to get the perfect snapshot. Where The Batman Adventures would tell more grounded stories as a way to explore Batman’s psyche, these McCloud tales are more about building out the world of Metropolis in a way that, again, feels of a piece with the Triangle Era writ large. So too does the inclusion of Ron Troupe’s niece Tasha, Lex Luthor’s masseuse Miss Watson, and of course Metropolis mainstay Emil Hamilton.

All of this is not to say that McCloud isn’t telling stories about Superman’s rogues gallery, though he leans on them much less than The Batman Adventures used the Arkham regulars. There’s a very excellent Brainiac story, delving into the frankly brilliant presentation of the villain as Krypton’s former AI gone rogue. (Now there’s a story that seems freshly topical …) Later, McCloud’s Livewire story with artist Bret Blevins finds the former shock jock censoring airwaves to give the women a chance to trump their male counterparts. Vol. 1 then wraps up with a Toyman story, reminding us how insidiously creepy — and at once delightfully perfect — that character design could be.

Superman Adventures Vol. 1 is such a different beast from The Batman Adventures, and yet it would have to be — Metropolis ought to be a bright ray of sunshine compared to the psychological complexity and pain of Gotham City. It’s a surprisingly effective counterpoint, and McCloud takes such great care to inject fun into the proceedings. I had wondered what it would be like to revisit these books after Understanding Comics, and I am equally curious now to hit Vol. 2 with another big name gracing the cover — no less than Mark Millar himself. Stay tuned!

  1. Editor’s got to butt in here. Clearly we have different conceptions of the Triangle Titles era! You’re talking Conduit and Superman Blue, I’m thinking “Dark Knight Over Metropolis” and Mr. Z.  ↩︎

Comments ( 2 )

  1. Great review. Superman TAS is criminally underappreciated and frankly it deserves more respect. It helped to establish the larger DCAU and paved the way for JL and JLu. I hope you get to review more great STAS comics in the future.

    1. Thanks, Bossman! I'll be reviewing all four Superman Adventures trades, plus a fifth review to catch all the uncollected issues.

      Definitely agree that STAS was foundational for what became the DCAU. As a kid, I loved those team-up issues, and in hindsight it's a shame that this comic series didn't funnel that energy. Instead, though, the creators really sought for a timeless Triangle-inflected Metropolis, and to me that WAS (and still is) the heart of Superman comics.


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