Review: Superman Adventures Vol. 2 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.]

Superman Adventures, Vol. 2 is both a completionist’s dream and nightmare. That’s true not only because it’s a midpoint in the aborted reprints of the DCAU’s Man of Steel book (a conversation for another time) but also to the way that this particular volume reads, the choices its editors made, and the unusual structure imposed on this volume as a standalone anthology book. I didn’t notice these patterns and problems as a young reader, but taking this volume in one sitting, Superman Adventures becomes an exercise in apophenia.

Taken as a whole, the second trade collection of Superman Adventures begins and ends with stories about Superman suffering from mysterious plagues; the collection bifurcates a pair of Mark Evanier stories about the streets of Metropolis; the book’s best chapters are on either end of Evanier; and at the heart of the book is another third of the crossover that “started,” more or less, in Batman & Robin Adventures, Vol. 3. Put another way, the structure forms a perfect palindrome - Plague/Best/Evanier/Crossover/Evanier/Best/Plague - and I found myself fairly flummoxed once I’d passed the halfway marker in the book. Hadn’t I just read all this before?

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

From another point of view, the book begins with Scott McCloud’s three final issues of Superman Adventures: a two-parter about Superman’s aforementioned malady, followed by a zany baseball game that reads like a Silver Age classic. (Issue #13 was originally published with the Bronze Age tagline “Strange Sports Stories!”) McCloud is as good as ever here, and Rick Burchett remains a steady hand at the artistic till. Though the two-parter about an ailing Superman overstays its welcome by a few pages, McCloud makes the time for some of his standout tropes: an overwhelmingly selfless Superman, silent panels punctuating gags about time, and a powerfully human supporting role for the doctor treating Superman. Unbeknownst to Superman (or so we think), Dr. Bernard is being blackmailed by Lex Luthor to sabotage the Man of Steel’s recovery.

If Dr. Bernard is wearing the theatrical mask of tragedy, his scientific counterpart Emil Hamilton is surely wearing the comedian’s face. In “Grand Slam,” Superman throws out an opening pitch before the baseball diamond is overtaken by alien gladiators who insist that Superman join them in combat, lest the entire planet be destroyed for his refusal. It’s bonkers big action from there, illustrated ably by Burchett, and Hamilton’s climactic batting practice is a perfect punchline to this issue - and, indeed, McCloud’s tenure with this Superman. One wonders, on the strength of Superman Adventures, whether McCloud might have become to Superman what Paul Dini is to Batman.

McCloud’s successor is no slouch - no less than Mark Evanier, apprentice to Jack Kirby and a scholar in his own right. While Evanier’s later uncollected issues of Superman Adventures would pair the Last Son of Krypton with Mister Miracle, his two issues here might well be dubbed “Streets of Metropolis,” spotlighting Angela Chen and Bibbo Bibbowski. These stories are not instant classics, dealing with forgettable mercenary villains in sci-fi get-up, but it’s nice to see Angela and Bibbo take center stage in a way that eclipses but doesn’t overwhelm Superman’s heroism. What’s more, Evanier writes a note-perfect Clark Kent, unable to open a jar while also managing to scour a room of paper files to find the necessary dirt on Lex Luthor. If McCloud was interested in the formal play of a cartoon city like Metropolis, Evanier is exploring the deep humanity of the city, right down to its most discreet resident, Clark Kent.

And speaking of Clark Kent, he’s the star of this volume’s undisputed best story, “Clark Kent, You’re a Nobody!” – which also happens to be the debut issue of one Mark Millar on writerly duties. It’s one of the better-kept secrets that Millar, late of the hyperviolent Millarworld line, should have written twenty issues of an all-ages Superman book, and if his first issue is any indication, readers are in for a treat. This story starts with a familiar conceit - Clark Kent discovers that he’s no longer Superman, but someone else is - yet Millar spins the obvious conclusion into an exceptionally eerie Twilight Zone premise. In short, for those of us who speak Batman, it’s “Perchance to Dream” by way of Rod Serling.

The book wraps up with an oversized special issue starring Lobo, scripted by David Michelinie and carrying the Silver Age-esque title “Misery in Space.” Once again, Superman is the victim of a virus that could destroy all life on earth, but a sojourn to space might be just the thing to cure him - if, that is, he can persuade Lobo to help him. It’s a little less fun than I remember it from the first time I read it, yet this interpretation of the Last Son of Czarnia still holds up, and it’s impossible to read without hearing Brad Garrett’s gravelly voice in my head.

Before this oversized issue, though, right at the center of the book is another piece of the crossover that saw Superman, Batman, and Doctor Fate wielding magical amulets and facing villains from another dimension. Where the Batman issue managed to read smoothly enough in isolation, the Superman chapter is all fits and starts. Superman flies in and out of portals willy-nilly, Doctor Fate drops by like some sort of medicus ex machina, and even Lois Lane gets in on the mystical fun by withdrawing a Kirby-esque bazooka from a magic hole in the sky. The flashbacks with Clark Kent and John Zatara never quite sing, and there’s the peculiar inclusion of Scott Free, whose presence only makes sense if you’ve already read the Adventures in the DC Universe annual (uncollected here or anywhere).

Aside from that collection snafu, this annual sits at the center of the trade collection, yet its cover date puts it first chronologically. With Scott McCloud’s name on the cover, it makes sense to get to his three stories first, but putting the annual dead-center - particularly with this book’s peculiar palindromic structure - gives it a place of prominence that the trade never quite survives. Consequently, while Superman Adventures Vol. 1 felt like a proper unified anthology title, the one-offs and oversized stories prevent Vol. 2 from feeling like it ever really gets going. Despite being only the second volume of four, it reads like a catch-all collection of issues that are only together because they hadn’t been reprinted before. 

In the end, the whole is so much less than the sum of its parts, but our next volume is back to basics - no annuals, no crossovers; just nine issues, two female sidekicks, and one of my favorite “World’s Finest” tales.


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