Action Comics #844, December 2006, DC Comics
writers: Geoff Johns & Richard Donner
artist: Adam Kubert
colorist: Dave Stewart
letterer: Rob Leigh
associate editor: Nachie Castro
editor: Matt Idelson
For all of our talk about the dinosaurs, has anyone ever conjectured about how that last dinosaur might have felt, wandering the world with the grim and sobering knowledge that it was the only one left of its kind? In his first issue Action Comics, movie director Richard Donner, with the help of comics veteran Geoff Johns, explores this concept through the heat-tinted eyes of Krypton's Last Son, Superman. Yet, like a filmmaker that understands the importance of maximizing one's running time, Donner isn't satisfied with just a somber exploration of Kal-El's utter isolation; he turns it on his ear by introducing another last son, fallen to Earth -- specifically, the center of Metropolis -- in a rocket and, despite his super-strength, still vulnerable to the probing and greedy mechanisms of man. As quickly as Superman trusts the government to care for the child, when the boy is mysteriously transferred to another facility, the Man of Steel steals the kid and whisks him away to -- you guessed it -- Smallville, where, like the Superman legend itself, the story will really begin.
As I began to explain yesterday until fatigue rudely possessed me, I was interested to analyze Richard Donner's take on the Man of Steel in his native medium. We fans have learned the hard way that, when a beloved character makes his way to the silver screen, his rich past can be (and usually is) too easily erased to accommodate the whims of a blockbuster-hungry Hollywood studio, establishing a story that seemingly "works" for a more general audience despite the original incarnation's ability to inspire the cinematic move in the first place. In Action Comics, Kal-El's native title, Donner couldn't rely on Reeve's charm, Brando's stoicism, or Hackman's malevolence to shroud an otherwise shallow (and frankly, rehashed) Superman story. This Superman has died and come back to life, has transitioned from poorly used electric-based powers, has dealt with ridiculous threats like Emperor Joker, and although a writer doesn't have to acknowledge these tales in his respective story arc, he also cannot deny that they are threads in the tapestry. Said writer can only hope to weave his own thread, to make the landscape more colorful while maintaining the fabric's integrity, lest it unravel altogether.
Donner is adding his own color, alright, but time will tell with the Superman mythos can sustain the impact. I should interject that I am holding Donner exclusively responsible for this arc's consequences, because although Johns is his co-writer (credited before him by name, even), this issue has so easily adapted to the essence of "cinematic Superman" that one can only assume that (1.) Donner proactively sought to maintain his stamp on the Superman franchise (which, although adopted by Bryan Singer, is still visually, audibly, and definitively his), or (2.) DC willing transformed the heart of their flagship title/character to bend to the whims (and publicity) of a heavyweight like Richard Donner. He did direct all four Lethal Weapon movies, you know. Why shouldn't we add the "S" emblem to Superman's belt? General audiences expect such continuity between the films and the comics. Never mind how the comic audience feels when things go the other way, eh?
But I digress. As much as I did enjoy the introspective layers the premise of this issue unpeeled, including Superman's pondering of how different his formative years would have been had he landed in Kansas City rather than Smallville in the context of the government's interest in this mystery child, I couldn't help but wonder what inspired Donner to walk down this treacherous road with comics' most respected but arguably underappreciated hero. When Straczynski took over Spider-man, his inaugural story arc, which also messed with the lead's otherwise untampered origin, asked the simple question, "What if Spidey isn't the only one?" This issue pops the same question with a Kryptonian twist, not by excluding Supergirl, but by pushing the envelope with child completely incapable of caring for himself. Supergirl stood on her own red-booted two feet rather quickly. By making the child open to the elements, Superman's sensitivity to his singular nature is exposed, as well.
Interestingly, Batman is experiencing a similar predicament in his self-titled series, as his son has returned from the forgotten pages of Son of the Demon, in which Talia abandoned the baby to save her beloved from his own insecure need for family. Check out August's review of World's Finest #263 for an earlier take on our heroes' vulnerability toward their own respective legacies, which may be Superman and Batman's greatest commonground, the quest for justice aside.
A quick word about the art: Adam Kubert (whose brother is working on that Batman story I was referring to -- another interesting coincidence) captures Superman's savagery better than any artist has in a long time. His scope is as cinematic as Donner's input undoubtedly demanded, and while Big Blue is a juggernaut in the wake of his frustration and disappointment, grimacing with jaw muscles that could probably hold a breaking dam together, at the same time mere pages earlier he's a teddy bear hovering outside of Lois's window, wondering if the cosmos has spit out someone with whom he can finally relate. If the compromises made in the design of Superman (and the other characters, like Perry and Pa, who just don't look like themselves) was Kubert's idea, I'd be sorely disappointed, because otherwise he's offering his best work in a long time.
A few questions about this true "last son of Krypton": If Krypton exploded when Clark was an infant, why is this child still so young? Did another small chunk of civilization survive, as in Supergirl's case? Or does Bizarro's appearance next issue hint at another possible origin for this kid, somewhere along the parallel dimension or cloning lines? Ultimately, this child cannot survive the story, lest his presence in the DCU change everything we know and expect from Superman and Krypton's torrid past. Still, even with the kid dead, such a cataclysmic event should plunge Supes into a state of depression even the best follow-up writer couldn't ignore. Then again, this may explain the issue's first act, depicting Kal-El in the Fortress of Solitude, speaking stoically with with birth father, discussing his presence among mankind in the past tense. If you think Superman has had a tumultuous romance with Lois Lane, just think about his affair with humanity. He's been trying to win our hearts for decades. You can change your belt buckles all you want, Spit Curl, but we'll still use your kin as WMDs the first chance we get. It's just the way we are.
Which brings us back to the last dinosaur. Which was more traumatizing to that sensitive pea brain, do you think -- the bitter acknowledgment that he was the last of his kind, or the realization that the Earth would survive without him? If dinosaurs ever did roam the planet (and some aren't so sure), they would've been the ruling class, yet, as that last dinosaur lay dying and an ant scurried in front of his film-crusted eye and he realized that the bugs made it but he and his kind didn't, perhaps he embraced the thought of death over an inevitably inferior life. Is this where Donner is taking Superman -- to the point where exile from humanity is better than living amongst its selfish shortcomings, its refusal to feel indebted to Supes' saving the day in the face of an acquisition that could result in his heartbreak? Or, as I proposed earlier, is Donner cradling the Man of Steel, sheltering him from his own elements like an overprotective mother, the preserve his mark on the icon's legacy? Such a conclusion is difficult to reach with just one issue, but if my suspicions are accurate, "Last Son" may be the last straw for fans simply clamoring for a Superman whose greatest enemy isn't always himself.