‘Superman’ #32: An Auspicious Start For John Romita, A Return To Form For Geoff Johns [Review]
To say that I’ve been a pretty vocal critic of a lot of the stories that Geoff Johns has written over the past decade is putting it pretty mildly, but I was holding out a lot of hope for what he and John Romita Jr. would do on Superman when they took over the book with this week’s issue. I mean, the last time Johns was the writer of a Superman book, it was with a run on Action Comics that had a thrilling cross-time adventure with the Legion of Super-Heroes; one of the best Brainiac stories ever; and a story where Superman briefly got the power of Superman Vision, a red-blue-yellow beam from his eyes that turned whoever it hit into Superman. It was fun, exciting and new in a way that Superman stories are always criticized for never being, and if Johns could return to that kind of storytelling alongside an artist that I love as much as I love Romita, I wanted to be there to read it.
With Superman #32, Johns and Romita have in fact captured a little bit of that magic. This inaugural issue is loud, it’s bright, it’s honest in the way that Superman needs to be, and it’s definitely exciting.
The only real problem is that while it does its level best to be new, a lot of what this first issue does feels like it’s going back over ground that we’ve already been walking on pretty recently.
Johns is obviously one of the most prominent and popular writers in superhero comics, having shepherded DC through its past few Big Events and helped define the aesthetic of its “New 52″ universe through Justice League and its endless string of spin-offs. But Superman is one of the rare times when Johns is actually overshadowed by the reputation of the artist he’s working with. The real story here for a lot of longtime superhero readers isn’t that it’s Johns returning to Superman, it’s that it’s John Romita Jr. is working for DC after a thirty-year career at Marvel — something that DC’s played up with a series of “ROMITA IS COMING!” ads that echo Marvel architect Jack Kirby’s arrival at the company all the way back in 1971.
I don’t think that Romita crossing the street is quite as big a deal as Kirby’s arrival at DC — because there’s virtually nothing that could happen in comics that could be — but I can’t deny that it’s pretty gosh-darned exciting. I’ve been a fan of JRJR since I started reading comics, and there was a while there where I honestly thought that seeing him draw Batman in that early ’90s Batman/Punisher crossover where Frank Castle tries to kill the Joker was going to be the only time we’d see him really take a crack at one of DC’s heroes. But this? Getting him on a flagship title with a history that dates all the way back to 2011 (or possibly 1939, depending on who’s counting), paired up with a writer who’s synonymous with the creative vision of the company, to work on the DC superhero? It’s the kind of the best-case scenario for people who’ve been wanting to see Romita do work at DC.
And he delivers beautifully.
Under inker Klaus Janson and colorist Laura Martin — both among of the all time greats — Romita’s art is absolutely gorgeous, full of the same kind of energy that he’s been bringing to Marvel titles for his entire career. His “acting” is phenomenal — Superman has this look of determination and intensity in every scene that just melts away when he’s Clark Kent, replaced with this sort of quiet humility that sells the quiet moments of his life without making it seem like he’s brooding in the throes of melancholia. The action looks pretty perfect, as it usually does when Romita’s drawing dudes getting punched.
As to the story, it’s shockingly solid — and I say “shockingly” only because it stands in marked contrast to the other book Johns wrote that’s out this week, the muddled and overblown Justice League #31. It’s almost to the point where it’s hard to believe that the same person wrote both comics, but Johns is definitely pulling from his best bag of tricks in full force in Superman. The difference is that in this book, focused on a character that Johns really gets, they work well.
One of the most frustrating parts of Justice League over the past three years has been the issue where Amazo shows up already defeated — the reintroduction of a major Justice League villain with cool powers for the New 52, something that should by all rights be a pretty exciting story, starts with him already defeated so that the heroes can stand around talking about the logistics of transporting him to prison, which is literally the opposite of what I want superhero comics to be about. Here, there’s a similar approach with Titano showing up for a grand total of three pages, but it works a lot better, largely because there are few wounds that a double page spread by Romita of Superman punching the living hell out of a giant robot gorilla cannot heal.
More prominent, though, is the practice of having characters just bluntly (and awkwardly) state everything they are thinking to each other out loud.
I know I’ve clowned the idea of Johnsian Literalism more than once, but by itself, there’s nothing wrong with what’s going on in the pages here. If I really had a problem with people just literally saying whatever it was that they were feeling in superhero comics, I wouldn’t be the fan that I am of Jack Kirby, who named a character that represented the dark side of humanity “Darkseid.” The problem is when that literalism is applied to these melodramatic sensibilities that are presented as being dead serious, trying to poke your brain with enough words to get some kind of emotion out of you instead of using them to convey information that you need to have that emotion on your own.
That’s not what’s going on here. It’s Johns re-centering, getting a handle back on Clark Kent and Superman, showing us where he’s at in these comics so that we can understand the underlying theme of the story, this sense of loneliness that comes from setting himself apart from both of the worlds that he lives in. It’s an idea of Superman I’m generally uncomfortable with, but again, it doesn’t seem like dour moping here and it works. Even if no human being in the history of the English language would ever actually say “you’re affable, if not a little too self-effacing” out loud to another person.
The only real problem is that this approach to the Superman character covers some ground that’s already been mapped, even in the three short years of the New 52. The arrival of Ulysses as a strange alternate Superman whose origin mirrors Clark Kent’s is really well done, but it’s the third or fourth time in three years that we’ve gotten that story — fifth if you count Bizarro, though that’s reaching — and coming so soon after Scott Snyder and Jim Lee used a very similar premise for Superman Unchained, it feels like we’re right back where we started the last time there was a big-name Superman launch.
That’s DC’s eternal problem with Superman — they get locked into doing the same thing over and over, giving credence to the idea that Superman is boring. In reality, he’s anything but, but if all you see from him is just the same old fights against General Zod for 20 years, then there’s no getting around that idea. For right now, Ulysses and his origin story and the strange threat that he represents are exciting, but there’s still no getting out from the shadow of the story we just got about Wraith that played around with these same ideas.
Really, that’s the only big flaw in this issue, and I honestly hope that it can get around it and forge something new and exciting that’s all its own. Romita’s work is beautiful enough that it even makes Superman’s terrible New 52 costume look great, and when Johns is working with a character that he has a connection to and an understanding of, the enthusaism and talent that made him a fan favorite so quickly comes through. That’s what’s going on in Superman, and between this and what Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder are doing in Action and just how good Unchained was, it finally feels like DC has its flagship titles back where they need to be.