James Robinson, writer
Renato Guedes, artist
DC Comics, 2008
32 pages each
James Robinson’s still-young run on Superman, of which these issues comprise the opening arc, is an odd duck among my superhero-reading friends. As far as this group is concerned in today’s superhero-publishing climate, there’s usually a pretty clear consensus as to which titles are good and which ones aren’t. Allowing for outliers in terms of people who really like Jason Aaron or just can’t get into Grant Morrison or something like that, a real schism is rare. Superman has provoked just such a schism.
If you ask me to judge based on this storyline–okay, extended fight scene in the shape of a storyline–it’s pretty good! I can understand how some of the things Robinson is doing could throw some people. For instance, he’s writing this weirdo staccato dialogue, particularly in the first-issue conversations between Superman and Green Lantern and the various members of the Science Crimes Unit. It’s strange sub-Bendis pseudo-Mamet-noir stuff that neither sounds like how people actually talk nor makes up for that with sufficient style; you’d expect it out of a real newcomer, not a storied veteran of high-end superhero comics like Robinson.
But those hiccups sort of dwindle away after a while, and you’re left to focus on the things that work. Provided you’re like me and your ideal Superman comic is like if primary colors could punch each other, there’s plenty. I’ve been a fan of Renato Guedes’ open, strangely delicate linework and character designs back when he co-drew Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek’s memorable “One Year Later” (remember that?) Superman/Action Comics arc Up, Up, and Away!–still one of the two or three best Superman stories I’ve ever read–and he’s in fine form here. His characters are warm and believable, yet he also cartoons, particularly in several fine combat sequences. Hi-Fi’s colors give the musclebound proceedings a purple-pink hue that suggests both vulnerability and tumescence, which is what I for one want out of my superhero slobberknockers.
Meanwhile, the whole idea of the story–big huge dude shows up, should be a standard “Superman vs. brick” battle that Superman wins handily, but it turns out he’s getting his ass handed to him and him and his friends have to figure out why before he gets killed–is a clever twist on the usual “Superman vs. villain of the month” stuff that I always thought was the lamest aspect of the modern-era version of the character, given that, y’know, he’s Superman and it’s tough to convince us he’s in danger very often. (Kudos on that score have to go to Johns, who’s been reliably tuning up Superman’s classic rogues gallery for quite a while now.)
Superman’s main antagonist in this story is the forgotten Jack Kirby creation Atlas. Naturally I’m in favor of bringing back any and all ’70s Kirby characters to the forefront of the line, especially in a way that sort of captures how powerfully written and drawn they all were by instantly making them major threats. That’s what Robinson and Guedes do here, including a shattered-memory origin sequence drawn in Kirby’s style; trying to figure out how Atlas went from heroic but rageful Kirby barbarian to single-minded heel turns out to be key to the story. If, like me, you had no idea who this Atlas guy was before seeing him here–I just thought he was an attempt to take the Atlas character from Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman and make him canon–you’ll enjoy him just fine anyway.
All things considered, I’m suddenly a lot more excited to see Robinson trade eights with Johns during the just-launched New Krypton Super-event. I’m really rather pleased with several of DC’s core properties at the moment, in fact; it’s just nice to see someone whose initials aren’t GJ or GM contributing.