08 March 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #19: Superman Returns: The Prequels

Comic trade paperback, 128 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2006)

Borrowed from a friend
Read February 2010
Superman Returns: The Prequels

Story: Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris
Writers: Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray, Marc Andreyko
Art: Ariel Olivetti, Karl Kerschl, Rick Leonardi & Nelson, Wellington Dias & Doug Hazlewood
Letters: Rob Leigh, Pat Brosseau, Jared K. Fletcher, Nick J. Napolitano
Colors: Nestor Pereya, Jason Wright, Richard & Tanya Horie, Moose Baumann

DC Universe Timeline: N/A
Real World Timeline: 2001-6

I really enjoyed Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. As a Superman fan, it struck all of the right notes for me: a Superman conflicted about his place in the world, justifiably so, but still perfectly willing to do what needed to be done when things got bad, having indulged his one moment of selfishness. I looked forward to the expansion of the Superman mythos with a son for Clark and Lois. And as for Lex Luthor-- despite everything, I utterly love Gene Hackman's interpretation of the character, and Kevin Spacey picked it up perfectly. So, it was with some interest that I opened this book, a set of "OFFICIAL move prequals" (sic) that came out shortly before the film did.

Superman Returns takes place about five years after Richard Lester's Superman II, five years while Superman has gone to visit the remains of Krypton and Lex Luthor has been rotting in prison. This book contains four small stories helping to bridge that gap-- supposedly.

"Krypton to Earth"
If you've watched Superman: The Movie, you've already experienced this story. In fact, if you know any variant of Superman's origin, you already know this story: it's the last days of Krypton, with Jor-El presenting his findings that Krypton will explode, the authorities ignoring him, and Kal-El being launched into space for Earth. Just going by my memories of Superman: The Movie, it's a fairly faithful recreation of that film's opening sequence, though it has some extra bits, such as a scientist who presents findings that disagrees with his findings. Jor-El presents his promise to the council in a nicely ambigous fashion: "Neither my wife nor myself will ever leave Krypton." Getting Jor-El's thoughts as he assembles little Kal-El's ship and the knowledge crystals he will take with him is a strong addition, especially his thought that Kal-El "will give the people of Earth an opportunity for greatness far sooner than would normally be possible."

But it's very much a case of been-there-done-that. There's no new wrinkles here, nothing unexpected. This is a story that has been told and told again. Indeed, the makers of Superman Returns very consciously did not retell it because they knew it had been told enough. Yet here it is again. I found it hard to care. Yet, as Jor-El's recordings played those fabulous lines, I got chills down my spine: "Remember, Kal-El, they can be a great people if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good... I have sent them you... my only son." But I did get chills because of anything actually in this comic, or just because it made me remember Marlon Brando's narrating the film's excellent trailer? Probably the latter... which doesn't really speak well for this story.

"Ma Kent"
What's Martha Kent been up to the last five years? With her husband dead and her son gone, not terribly much. This is a quiet story, working to establish the way Ma feels about her son-- how much she loves him and how much she misses him. Even with him gone, she still does everything he needs, faking postcards from Peru to send to the Daily Planet so no one wonders about what's happened to Clark. The story cuts back and forth between Ma in the present and various snippets of her past, mostly Clark's childhood. She misses him, but all she can do is move on and live her life.

Yet she can't, not quite. She's caught in some sort of strange limbo. Clark's gone, but at any given moment he might be back. There are constantly moments where she starts, thinking that it's him-- but it's not. It never is. She needs to let him go, but she never will. It's a nice little character piece, and the flashbacks effectively fill us in on the backstory of Superman: The Movie and how the Kents raised Clark, as well as adding some snippets about his decision to leave the Earth. Despite its quietness, this is probably the most effective story in the collection-- certainly it has the nicest art.

"Lex Luthor"
I've mentioned many time my appreciation for Lex Luthor, and that extends to even (especially) the Hackman/Spacey incarnation. So of course I was looking forward to this story. But I don't think Palmiotti and Gray really get Lex: there's a bit where he ruminates on the dangers of Superman: "How do they know he's not the vanguard for an invasion of super-powered beings?... Who knows what kind of spaceborne diseases he carried?" As Lex himself would say: "WRONG!" Those are obviously not true to any reasonable person, and Lex Luthor is always reasonable. It's what Superman represents that threatens Luthor, not some kind of physical danger. His determined, conniving nature comes across well, though, as he plots for his eventual release and woos Kitty Kowalski, his henchwoman in the film.

Unfortunately, most of this story simply recaps Superman: The Movie and Luthor's plot and capture there. (No Superman II, strangely. In fact, all of these prequels seem to gloss over it.) It's the highest degree of recap in this collection and it's boring. I mean, I understand that someone might want the people seeing Superman Returns to be familiar with what happened in the earlier films-- there was a gap of twenty years in the real world, after all-- but surely the sort of people who pick up prequel comics to superhero films are the sort of people who already know what happened? The other big sin of this story is that Lex totally lacks the sense of humor his film incarnations possessed. He was played by Gene Hackman, for crying out loud, of course he was a little campy, but you can't quite believe that the Lex in this comic was ever involved in nuclear-powered real estate schemes, which is a shame. And there's not even one reference to "the greatest criminal mind of our time"!

"Lois Lane"
The last story in the book was also the least effective for me. It depicts Lois writing her story "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman", which we know from Superman Returns won her a Pulitzer. My problem with this story is that it doesn't know what it's about. It's supposed to be about Lois moving on, finding herself, and closing the chapter of her life that's about Superman. The story, like the others in the book, recaps Superman: The Movie's key moments, interwoven with Lois's burgeoning relationship with Richard White. But the relationship with White gets about two pages-- not enough time to convince. And we know Lois hasn't moved on, because Superman Returns ends with her writing a newspaper article disagreeing with this one.

"All we need is the belief in ourselves," writes Lois, but it's not convincing coming from this mopey Lois. It doesn't help that the artwork here is stiff, not really displaying emotion on any adequate level to the story being told. Ultimately, I was unengaged in Lois's problems, thanks to both the writing and the artwork, and that's the worst part of all.

Overall, this slim volume is fairly mediocre. None of the stories are outright terrible, but all of them spend too much time retreading Superman: The Movie, and none of them compellingly represent the characters they're supposed to be filling us in on. A wasted opportunity to really flesh out an excellent film.

Do you know what? This is the last one. That's it. No more Faster than a DC Bullet. Back in June 2008, I started reading the 21 comics my friend had loaned me, claiming that "you get the pleasure of journeying through them with me over the next couple months!" Well, here we are twenty-one months later, and I've finally finished. They were arrayed with quick regularity on my reading list, but slowdowns thanks to graduate school meant I averaged only one a month-- and then it took me three months to do one. That's when I promised myself I'd do at least one every month, or I'd never finish, and I managed to keep that promise and then some, wrapping up slightly ahead of my predicted April 2010 date. It's been a long, fun journey, and I hope you all have enjoyed reading about these stories as much as I've enjoyed reading them. Except for Absolute Power. Great Rao, I wish I'd never read that.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

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