“Superman In Chains”
Lex Luthor and Gen. Sam Lane have been performing a battery of torturous tests on “the alien” (“'It.' – It's not human,” Luthor keeps reminding the uncomfortable technicians). Clark holds up to electrocution, poison gas, everything they throw at him – not unscathed, but his body healing itself before their very eyes. John Henry Irons is somehow associated with the military and this “black ops” unit – until now, because he resigns in outrage. I'm sure there would be serious security/non-disclosure consequences, but those aren't addressed. Another portentious character introduced here is John Corben, who's been working with Irons on a “steel soldier” program that Luthor figures is made obsolete by the advent of “the alien,” whom Luthor erroneously takes to be a shape-shifting precursor to wholesale invasion because the supposedly “real” form we see via a mummified corpse apparently pulled from some other spacecraft is vaguely canine or even goat-like but with six legs – Clark laughs out loud at the very idea that that's his “real” form. From what I've seen on the 'net, many are taking that to be Krypto's Ave atque Vale to the DCnU. I hope not. Anyway, Luthor makes the mistake of talking too long to his captive, which gives Clark's body long enough to recover the strength to make a break for freedom, and the latter half of the issue is Clark fighting his way out and leaping off across the Metropolis skyline.
Along the way, Lois has basically connived her way into the installation – and briefly encounters Clark right before he jumps away. On another blog, responding to an early quick write-up which simply said (paraphrasing) that Clark pauses during his escape for “a brief moment with Lois,” I commented that – sight unseen – that description reminded me of Ferris Beuller racing across the backyards at the end of the movie, trying to beat his sister home before she blows his whole “day off,” nonetheless getting caught up short and strolling back to suavely introduce himself to the two sunbathing babes before resuming his dash. It really is nothing like that. Clark does pause long enough to grin sheepishly, “Small world,” to an astonished Lois.
We also find out that Clark knows nothing of his Kryptonian heritage. “Krypton” to him is a “noble gas … number 36.” Even his association with a spacecraft comes as news to him. But during his dash for freedom he encounters his own “basket-like” space-ark (see the wonderful behind-the-scenes aftermatter, which almost makes up for the fact that this $3.99 book only gives us a story of DC's “holding the line at $2.99” page-length) which starts spouting all kinds of Kryptonese – not in the faux alphabet encoded English used for what, the last twenty years?, most popularly on Smallville, but rather in an alien language rendered in the English alphabet. “Ha-la! … Ha-la Kal-El! … Ha-la-la! … Ha-la Kal-El don Jor-El va Lara-Lor-Van-Vax-El! … El-Kor! … El-Krypton! … El-Rao! … El-Eded! … Kal-El!” Some of this is obviously recognizable and I would even venture a guess that the first full sentence is something like “Hello Kal-El son of Jor-El and Lara-Lor-Van-Vax-El!” The name of Krypton is clear, as is the name of the Kryptonian sun – and (main?) God Rao. The rest I'm not sure of, and there seems to be too many “El's” in there for the common understanding that this is the name of the “House of El” to be correct. Well, I guess it could be a family name that is a homonym for what looks like some kind of article like “the” – or maybe it carries some other semantic meaning altogether in “El Kor” et al. The aftermatter doesn't really elucidate on this, other than Morales' agreeing with Morrison that “El” being the Hebrew word for God brings to mind Moses hence the redesign of the little spaceship to look more like a basket. In addition to the thirty-some-odd-year-old revelation that “Kal-El” meant “Star-Child” in Kryptonian, it has been commented that “Kal-El” can be read as “Hand of God” or "Strength of God" in Hebrew, which has been connected with the Jewish origins of Siegel and Shuster. I'm not certain, however, when their character was first called “Kal-El.” According to Roger Stern's introduction to the 1995 edition of the very first Superman prose novel, The Adventures of Superman (1942), by George Lowther, "Siegel and Shuster originally presented the alien couple as Jor-L and Lora in the newspaper comic strip (the two Kryptonians would not be formally introduced in the comic books until Superman #53 went on sale in 1948). In Lowther's story, for the first time they become Jor-el and Lara. The spelling of Lara would carry over into the comics, and the Man of Steel's sire would eventually become known as Jor-El" (pp. xvi-xvii). I'm not sure when that eventuality happened, however, although I seem to remember hearing (possibly on the Golden Age Superman podcast?) that the form “Kal-El” never appeared during the Golden Age, i.e. the 1940s. Examination of that 1948 origin story from Superman #53 (as reprinted in Superman: From the 30's to the 70's), is no help, of course, because the lettering is all capitals, d'oh! So what does that distinction between "-el" and "-El" mean, anyway? Incidentally, although JOR-EL and LARA are named in 1948 story, the child is not. He is referred to variously as "the baby," "our son," and "the helpless infant." On the other hand, Lara refers to the child as "Kal-el" on p. 14 of the 1942 Lowther novel, so ...?
What else do we learn in this issue? Well, John Corbin is about to make a terrible mistake and become Metallo by implementing the unperfected “steel soldier” technology on himself – ostensibly to combat the threat of a once-again-free Superman but really to show Lois who's the real man. Because it turns out they have a past, and he's still pining for her. We also find out that Luthor is in contact – being manipulated? – by some mysterious figure who apparently has given him much of what he knows about “the specimen” … but whom he does not know is alien itself, orbiting undetected just above the Earth. Oh, we find out that the short little cape that Clark sported in the first issue – and recovers in this one – is even tougher than he is, basically impervious to anything Luthor and Lane could throw at it. Not so the rest of his homemade costume which is a bit the worse for wear.
Overall another excellent issue, and if I had to point to one title that I'm most excited about in the New 52, it would be Grant Morrison's Action Comics returning Superman to his originally-published form. It's apparent from other “present-day” appearances that he is just at the beginning of his developing powers. In character as well, although hints that I've seen in some of those “present-day” appearances tells me I'm not going to think they develop him far and fast enough toward the mature, level-headed hero that Superman should be. For five or more years ago as these Action Comics tales are, the young, brash, hot-headed, impulsive – and fun-loving (it's obvious he's having a good time once he breaks free) – vigilante doing what he thinks is right regardless of what the law might say – and knowing he's got the power to do so pretty much with impunity – is fine, even an interesting take on the character that matches up with his earliest published stories seventy-odd years ago. If he's going to be the center of the DCnU superhero universe in the present, the hero that everyone looks up to not just as the most powerful among them but also as their moral center, there's got to be more than that, however. This kid has a lot of growing up to do.
I will say I wasn't as taken with the art this issue. I like Rags Morales, generally, but it looked oddly rushed and I note that there are actually two pencillers listed – Morales and Brent Anderson, as well as two inkers. Since the individual pages are not credited and I don't have a discerning enough eye to know for sure who did what, it's very possible that it's one or the other and not both of them – but I think I've always liked Anderson's art as well, so I go back to my “rushed” interpretation. Some of the figures look overly sketchy, and in a couple of places they look downright distorted. Luthor literally looks like an “egghead” in a couple of places. Comics are a visual medium, and to me it's important to have good, consistent depictions of the characters … who should in a story like this look realistic, not like charicatures. That's a judgment call, my opinion, doubtless not shared by everyone, but hey – this is my blog! It's the way I feel.
As I commented above, this “bigger” issue, one of only four (I think) $3.99 titles being put out by DC as part of the New 52, is filled out with several pages of text, background information where Morrison and Morales give their thoughts in the redesign, both on things they depicted in these first two issues as well as sneak peeks at things that are coming in future issues – such as what looks like a thoroughtly reimagined and yet very retro-sci-fi appearing Krypton that I'm really looking forward to seeing.
'Til then, Cheers! – and thanks for reading!