Review: Superman Adventures Vol. 4 trade paperback (DC Comics)

October 29, 2023

 ·  5 comments

[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.]

In my own way, what I’ve been stumbling to say becomes entirely apparent with Superman Adventures Vol. 4, the final volume. What holds these ten issues together is the question of relationship and belonging: this is a Superman who does not live in a vacuum but rather in a Metropolis (and sometimes a Smallville) filled with supporting characters who have their own rich lives, inflected and irrevocably altered by their connection to a certain Man of Steel.

It helps that Vol. 4 is almost entirely the domain of Mark Millar, allowing us to see this collection as a kind of auteur statement on Superman as an alien whose otherness is negated by the way he embraces those people who have adopted him, those places that he calls home. Even the one story not penned by Mark Millar, from the quill of longtime Super-scribe David Michelinie, is about a Daily Planet janitor who convinces a brain-drained Lois Lane that they’re in love; home, it seems, is where the heart is.

Perhaps I’m not a careful enough reader, but my lament from Superman Adventures Vol. 3 holds true in this one - the art is never distinctive enough for me to tell the difference between Mike Manley, Aluir Mancio, and Neil Vokes. Perhaps the style sheet was less forgiving for Superman than it was for Batman, or perhaps it’s the line between style and substance. Superman stories, for me, are almost always more about what’s being said, while Batman stories are more about how you say it. Put another way, Superman seems to be a hero who lends himself more to a “take,” where Batman’s curious environment is more conducive to moody expression. Or to put it one other way, Superman is an idea; Batman is a mood.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

It’s been said that it’s always a rainy night in Gotham and a sunny morning in Metropolis, and that does bear out in this volume’s bright skies and cloudless days. But Millar is more than capable of wringing out some Kryptonian pathos in these stories, and nowhere is that more apparent than in “Family Reunion,” a two-parter where Superman discovers that his parents Jor-El and Lara survived the explosion of Krypton. As a kid, the monthly wait between issues was agonizing here, and that titanic cover by Manley, in which Lara gleefully calls for the destruction of Earth, made this one of my favorite what-if stories. 

Elsewhere, Clark’s sense of belonging is challenged in another Mister Mxyzptlk tale, “Yesterday’s Man of Tomorrow.” It’s hard to hear the late Gilbert Gottfried in this Mxy’s soliloquies, but the trickster’s latest prank is classic fifth-dimension - convince a young Clark Kent that he’s destined to be a dictator, and hoodwink him into exiling himself to the moon. Mxy’s fabricated future bears a striking resemblance to the world of Injustice, and it’s always fun to watch Mxyzptlk’s elaborate schemes backfire on him. Elsewhere, Millar gives us the animated debut of Bizarro Lois, when Lobo antagonizes Bizarro into visiting earth in “Bride of Bizarro.” It’s an equally winsome tale of what it means to belong when nobody loves you.

Another standout story asks, “How Much Can One Man Hate?” and it’s Millar’s single-issue shot across the bow in the question of why Lex Luthor loathes Superman. As he has done in his other issues, Millar has a fun way of winking at other famous tales, as when Superman implores his enemy, “Why do you waste all this time and energy? Is it the powers? Is it that I have hair?” (Lex’s prominent bust of Einstein, too, is an appropriate nod in the direction of Elliot S! Maggin.) Millar’s answer to that question doesn’t break any new ground, but it is another crystalline distillation that the DCAU was able to empower with a streamlined and timeless continuity. 

Immediately thereafter, issue #28 strikes that Zach King funny-pages funny bone with the auspiciously titled tale, “Jimmy Olsen Versus Darkseid!” It’s not the first time we’ve seen the Fourth World in these animated comics - Granny Goodness popped up in Vol. 3, and then there’s Vol. 2’s cameo from a wide-eyed Scott Free - but Millar packs in just about every Apokoliptian denizen for the kind of bananas plot that only comics can bring you. In an attempt to curry his father’s favor without violating “the Pact,” Kalibak hatches a scheme to swap minds with Superman, only for the plan to go awry when Jimmy Olsen steps into the Mind-Trader’s beam. Body swaps never get old in comics, and seeing our favorite cub reporter skulking through Apokolips is pure gold. The DCAU had a particularly rich take on the Fourth World, enough for at least this reader to long for a collected digest trade just of these Kirby-esque issues.

Vol. 4’s second half isn’t as strong as its first, though it is not without its own surprises. In “Clark Kent Is Superman, and I Can Prove It!” Millar mines back to the first story in this book, with Smallville bully Brad Wilson claiming that he’s cracked Superman’s secret identity. It’s a little like a kid-friendly “Death of Clark Kent,” with Brad as an ersatz Conduit, and the real fun comes from Clark’s performed irritation at the notion that he might be Superman. (The conclusion is crackling dynamite, especially because of what it leaves Brad believing about Superman’s actual secret identity.)

The book closes with a Doctor Fate story about a homesick alien and a Toyman tale about Bruno Mannheim’s brother Vito, but neither story quite sings - and this is the danger of collecting an anthology series. They can’t all be winners, and there’s never really a proper conclusion. And yet, while Superman Adventures Vol. 4 is the final collected edition (for now), Superman Adventures went on for another 30-plus issues, and it did get a proper conclusion, which took Lex Luthor and Livewire to Apokolips. You won’t find it on any bookshelves - at least, not in the places you might think to look - and while these floppies fetch a pretty penny in the back issue bins, the good news is that I’ll be back next time to take inventory of the uncollected Superman Adventures.

Comments ( 5 )

  1. I can not wait until dc collects all the Superman TAS comics. Great review as always.

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  2. While I have all 4 volumes, I would definitely pick it up again if DC re-released it as a compendium or omnibus in hopes we'd get a second volume collecting the rest of the series

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    1. Agreed! I would double-dip for a compendium volume if it helped to guarantee a second volume with the uncollected content. With a Batman Adventures Omnibus and a Batman Beyond Compendium on the way, I think chances are better but still not a lock; Superman collections seem harder to come by.

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    2. We need a DC animated compendium, too. But I think the omnibus and compendium are good signs, as is the recent Justice League Unlimited continuation. Were there some digest-sized reprints of Superman Adventures, or what am I thinking of that might have been titled collections instead of volumes?

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    3. There were recent digest DCAU collections for Supergirl ("Girl of Steel") and Lex Luthor ("Man of Metropolis").

      There was also an abortive digest run circa 2004 that reprinted #16, #19, and #22-39. (The volumes I've been reviewing stopped at #35.) The gaps were to skip non-Millar issues, but then 32, 33, and 37 weren't Millar.

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