Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Superman: Up, Up, and Away! Review (Kurt Busiek, Geoff Johns)

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no – it’s that rarest of beasts: a good Superman book! 

Whether or not you enjoy this book comes down to how you feel about classic Superman. By that I mean classic outfit, demeanour, and world setting – he isn’t the dickish New 52 Superman or the psychotic Injustice Superman or a combination of both in JMS’s Earth One Superman; he’s the true blue hero of yesteryear. If that character’s not your bag, you’re unlikely to enjoy Up, Up and Away! If you do like the original guy though, you’ll really like this one, like I did. 

It’s a year after Infinite Crisis when Superman lost his powers. He’s been plain old Clark Kent for a while and his life post-Superman is actually pretty great. He’s become a dependable journalist (much to Perry’s delight), he’s spending more time with his wife, Lois Lane, and he’s enjoying the little things like pretzels slathered with mustard (apparently his favourite snack!). Metropolis is doing fine without Superman as Supergirl has stepped up as the city’s new protector, but Lex Luthor, now ex-president and bribed out of criminal charges, is free and Superman’s brief holiday is about to come to an end. 

What makes this such a good Superman book is the well-balanced character study split down the middle – first half, Clark Kent, second half Superman. Usually the focus is more on the Superman side so it was great to see Clark get a lot of the page count for a change. 

Clark is made vulnerable and is unable to deal with problems the usual way: transform into Superman, punch the villain out, use superpowers to solve the problem. Now, he’s got to rely on other superheroes, if they’re around, like Supergirl, Green Lantern and Hawkgirl, or else deal with the situation by putting himself in danger regardless of the (now very real) possibility of death – the mark of a true hero. 

Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns have created a fantastic situation and make the most of this opportunity for a much more involved read. Not least because the common complaint about Superman is that he’s boringly invincible and difficult to relate to because he’s essentially a god. Well, all of a sudden he’s humanised in more ways than one, and by developing his new life, Clark’s character resonates more deeply for the audience. 

Busiek/Johns also bring back long-forgotten villains like the Prankster, who uses refrigerators and Walk/Don’t Walk signs to cause havoc in downtown Metropolis (a very Batman ’66 moment!). Normally a silly bad guy like him wouldn’t cause much trouble for Superman – but Clark? It’s a whole new ballgame! In this book, the villains aren’t the story like they usually are – Clark is. They’re there to further explore and challenge Clark’s newly depowered status, and it works really well. 

The first half of the book is excellent but the second half takes a bit of a dip. Clark gets his superpowers back just like that! No real reason, they just appear one day. It’s a bit disappointing. And from there, Superman’s world is quickly brought back in line with the pre-established version: Superman’s Fortress of Solitude reappears, Jimmy Olsen is given the signal watch back, Lex goes from being the ruthless corporate businessman to his mad scientist role from way back when, and Clark is the unreliable reporter. The swiftness of reinstating the status quo is a bit too neat for my liking. That’s not to say it’s the worst it’s just that it feels at odds with the freshness of the first half of the book. 

And speaking of Superman’s return, there’s a gut-wrenching moment that reminded me of the dismal Superman Returns movie. Lex begins his punishment of Metropolis using kryptonite and giant shards of the crystal sprout up across the city, similar to that scene in the movie when the same thing happens. Fortunately this is the only instance where the comic bears any similarity to that movie!

Besides that, this book has one of the best Superman/Lex fights ever. From the epic battle between Superman and the Lex-piloted giant morphing Kryptonian robot to Superman being temporarily depowered to the level of a human and the two fist-fighting on the Metropolis docks, it’s a brilliantly plotted fight that gets to the core of the characters’ conflict. Even Jimmy has a part to play in Superman’s victory which was a nice touch from Busiek/Johns. 

Up, Up and Away! is a well-written character study showcasing what readers love about Superman as well as building up his personality as Clark Kent for those who feel that side to him has been underdeveloped. It’s entertaining, it’s smart, and it’s a strong Superman book – Kurt Busiek and co. bring it with this story arc! Fans of the real Superman will really like this.

Superman: Up, Up and Away!

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