When this book was announced, a lot of people took the description of it as “the anti-All-Star Superman” and used it as an easy punchline when talking about a writer they didn’t like writing a character a great many of them love. Taken out of context, yeah, that description might be troublesome if you assume it is trying to be a bad comic instead of a good comic. That’s a bad faith argument that discounts the point Landis was going after. All-Star Superman is an epic paying tribute to a very specific era of Superman’s comic book history. The anti-All-Star Superman, as Landis described it, would be modern take on the character that focuses on him as a person in the smaller moments of his life between all the big things readers are used to seeing.
This book has been successful at being the anti-All-Star Superman and being pretty damn good at it. The first issue focused on Clark’s feelings of alienation, pretty well-trodden material, but enlivened it by adding a layer in which Jonathan Kent grapples with his own fear of his increasingly alien son in order to discover that his love wins out. The third issue allows Clark Kent to be a real, sexual being who gets to express some frustration with his absentee, alien parents. You get the picture; this Clark Kent doesn’t carry the burden of being an icon and, in this pocket continuity Landis has strung together, gets to be a man. So maybe that’s why I found myself underwhelmed by this issue that does focus more on Superman as an icon even though Clark Kent doesn’t actually do any Superman-ing on page.
Starting with the immediate thing in this book that felt a bit off, it wasn’t especially clear why Jonathan Case was chosen for this issue. He’s got a bit more of a throwback style with his clean lines, square jaws, and art deco design sensibilities. You can see it in his creator-owned work like The New Deal and Dear Creature (the latter of which I gladly bought from him at NYCC last year); like the great Evan Shaner, he’s not the most modern artist. So, you’ve got this talented penciller whose figures more resemble a Kurt Schaffenberger Superman comic than one drawn by Jim Lee, and have him draw a dialogue-heavy issue about friction between three friends where iconography/symbolism is discussed rather than illustrated.
When Clark’s friends Pete Ross and Kenny come to visit him in Metropolis in this issue, their discomfort with feeling out of place in the city is a point of friction between them and Clark but it’s not demonstrated in the art. Drawn with the same clean lines, well-fitting clothes, and solid haircuts, they simply look like a couple of normcore guys that don’t look out of place in this environment. There’s also a matter of the acting in this issue not being all that convincing. A very important scene where Pete blows up and launches into a tirade is robbed of a lot of emotional power as Pete’s facial expression starts at a high level of frustration and stays at that volume for the next few panels. There’s nowhere for Pete, and the scene by extension, to go after that. And the dialogue can’t carry it either.
Max Landis is not new to comics. He’s read comics for much of his life and written them before this series but he is predominately a screenplay writer and that shows here even as John Workman does his best to make it look readable. There’s simply too much dialogue here per panel as Landis seems to have lost track of the fact that a page of dialogue in a film can happen in seconds while a page of dialogue on a comics’ page takes up physical space. Seeing a wall of text coming from Pete Ross has the effect of potentially putting the audience more firmly on Clark’s side as they’re both on the receiving end of this verbal assault but that doesn’t really work for the book because Pete is meant to be demonstrably right as he asks questions and make statements that Clark has no answer to except to run away from them. A more stated opposition could make the reader engage more emotionally with his decision to flee, make the reader engage more emotionally with Clark as the entire series has done up to this point.
As a whole, the writing really is a step down across the board from the previous entrees in this miniseries. There’s Landis’ aforementioned difficulty with the dialogue overtaking the page as well as some unfortunate lines thrown in explaining away elements of Superman’s character. The new reason presented here for Clark to wear the Kryptonian shield on his chest is an interesting and possibly unique twist on the “S stands for hope” addition from Mark Waid that fit well with the book’s broader themes about Clark having unconsciously making himself into a symbol that people project themselves onto. But Clark explaining the practical uses for his cape or why he no longer wears goggles feel like unnecessary additions. If the character’s going to say he only wore the goggles to keep bugs out of his eyes then prepare for a reader to start ask themselves, “Does Superman get bugs in his eyes? Why would he stop wearing the goggles if they keep bugs out of his eyes?”
The idea here in this issue is a good one: Clark Kent is so caught up in being Superman that he hasn’t considered who Superman is, what he stands for, and what his duty is. Unfortunately, this only exists in conversations with nothing being shown. Pete Ross tells Clark these things; he tells Clark that the world is changing and that maybe he should try getting together with those other superhero types. The previous issues did their fair share of telling but they did have conflicts that played out in interesting ways. The aforementioned issue one uses Clark’s flight to demonstrate his otherness and the third issue uses a case of mistaken identity to help Clark figure out who he is when stripped of details that he sees as central to his identity. There’s an encounter with an alien force near the end of this issue that teases an interesting way this book could have demonstrated the gulf between Clark and his friends as well as his lack of self-awareness.
The next and final issue promises a fight and, say what you will about superhero fights, they are a visual display of conflict that should tell you about the characters engaged in battle with each other through their actions. This series isn’t meant to be a big superhero comic. It’s about the smaller moments that gradually reveal and make someone into the person they are. Small moments by superhero standards are still liable to be larger than most of ours so it will be interesting to see if the next issue levels out to more reflect the quality of the previous issues or goes even larger in contrast to this quieter moment.