DC Comics new digital-first series, “The Adventures of Superman”, released its second issue this Tuesday written and illustrated by Jeff Lemire. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of digital-first, it is simply the publication of comics only on digital platforms (e.g. Comixology), which may or may not be physically published at a later date.
Lemire’s issue reads like a love letter. It considers with care and eloquence what makes its subject, Superman, so very special. Using the framing device of children playing, it looks at why people like Superman and what he informs us about ourselves. It reads like Shakespearean similes quoted between lovers or dear friends, but is told in a way that only comics could truly accomplish. It becomes a story about who Superman is to the people who care about his stories. The narrative is not the important component of the comic; it is in many ways a non-story. The ease with which Lemire seems to write the issue obscures the difficulty of what he accomplishes in making the comic compelling and crafting an intricate message about Superman, without allowing it to become maudlin or too direct.
An important thing to consider before dissecting any of the story is how the framing device of the comic functions. Two boys are at play, pretending one is Superman and the other Brainiac (then various other nefarious faces). They discuss Superman and what they want to imagine in dialogue that feels genuine, something difficult to do with children and it’s an area where Lemire always seems to flourish. The important thing to note about their conversation and the background is that at no time does it indicate Superman is real. Although he appears in the final pages, he never once interacts with the children or their world. The setting of the story isn’t established to be the fictional Smallville or the very real Essex County. The setting transcends the farm, the fort, and the woods through which the children play. Like Superman, the setting is not actually a physical one. It is a mental one, set wherever people have dreamed about Superman. Whether you’re aware of this or not, it allows the reader to settle into the place of the children and relate with their shared experience. As the children imagine stories of Superman, so does the reader. It is an elegant and incredibly effective way to have readers project themselves onto the story and experience the ideas within.
The imagined battle plays through a series of typical Superman story beats. It begins with a mystery, the Fortress of Solitude has been left open, but Superman moves forward into the unknown, undeterred. As the story progresses, the villain changes from Brainiac to Mr. Mxyzptlk (didn’t even have to Google that), Zod, in an oddly cop-like uniform, and many others. It doesn’t matter how strange or powerful the villain is though. Superman remains, prepared to confront any challenge. The challenge in this case is saving the bottled city of Kandor, where thousands of surviving Kryptonians reside. Superman never gives in to the Brainiac’s machinations and saves both himself and the people of Kandor. All of the story beats pull from classic elements of Superman tales. Superman confronts the unknown head on, fights whatever evil threatens others, and always does his best to protect those in need.
The core of the story lies in the final words, overheard by a distant Superman, “Superman always wins.” Those words don’t reflect a cynical outlook on superhero stories; they reflect faith in Superman and what he represents. Superman is an iconic character. In the best Superman stories (e.g. “Birthright”, “All-Star Superman”) he represents the very best of humanity. He is a symbol of hope, strength, generosity, kindness, and so much more. That’s what people think of, when they think of Superman. That final statement does not just reveal faith in Superman, but faith in humanity, and one that is inherently shared amongst fans of the Man of Steel. We don’t believe Superman will win because he’s more powerful. One child gleefully points out that, “Doomsday is way more powerful!” Lemire shows that we believe he will win because he ought to. It’s a statement of faith in humanity, not super strength or laser vision.
Lemire’s artwork creates an additional level to this message. In his creator owned titles like “Underwater Welder” and “Essex County”, characters are crafted in a mundane and often world-weary manner. Adults always appear a little uglier or fatter as the years accumulate, while children tend to be more spry with limbs like twigs. Physical attributes are over-emphasized and better inform the story than typical “house” styles. His illustrations are more effective in conveying details about characters, than the most finely detailed paintings in comics. His Superman in turn appears more human with a farmer’s sort of-face. It’s the appearance of a man who has sweated most of his life and may have had his nose broken a few times. So rather than appearing as a well-muscled heartthrob, he takes on an everyman appeal. He is less god-like and significantly more relatable. In Lemire’s Superman, it is possible to not just see a great fictional hero, but the ones that populate our everyday lives. He may bare a resemblance to one’s father, a favorite teacher, a mentor, etc… No matter who he may remind you of, this Superman is a realizable hero.
Lemire’s layouts also deserve a mention. The books he writes and illustrates always display a deep understanding of how comics are assembled and read. There is less innovation here than in “Sweet Tooth” or his other titles, but there’s also only a handful of pages. Mirroring images of the boys and their imagined characters reflect the incredible power of imagination and stories to change our perception, pointing out once more the import of this character. The final words whipped away by the wind, only to be picked up by Superman’s super-hearing is something that Will Eisner (never a fan of speech bubbles) would most likely have loved to read. It’s worth a couple of re-reads simply to see how this book is assembled.
Jeff Lemire has shown that he is one of the most talented new creators to comics in novel and epic-sized works over the last few years, but this story shows that his mastery of the medium extends beyond larger works. In the smallest of issues, Lemire says a great deal about a character beloved throughout the world and almost a century old. Bravo.
P.S. If you haven’t heard, Vertigo is publishing a new mini-series by Mr. Lemire, “Trillium”, starting this summer. Add it to your pull lists.