A Tale of Three Supermen

God, I love superhero comics. I know that’s probably pretty self-evident from some of the articles I’ve written in the past, but it’s true! I love superhero comics. But I think it’s funny. In this era where the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the dominant pop culture force on the planet, the source material for these movies is still somewhat looked down upon. True, you occasionally get diamonds in the rough like Mister Miracle (which I wrote about here), but for the most part, Superhero comics are still criticized for being confusing, hostile to new readers and for having toxic fanbases (which is a completely separate article unto itself). Which is a shame, because superhero comic books are a unique art form, and a uniquely American art form at that. And no superhero exemplifies the art form more than Superman. Which is in turn hilarious because despite being the progenitor of the entire genre, I can’t think of a single character who has gotten as raw a deal as Superman. He’s constantly lambasted as being boring, and people seem to really get a kick out of the idea of him either going psychotic or becoming a dictator. And both of those things really stick in my craw. Because Superman is interesting. His personal mythology is actually on the weirder side of the Superhero spectrum. He has more in common with the later works of Jack Kirby than he does with contemporaries like Batman or Wonder Woman. And every now and then, a writer comes along and writes a story where that notion is realized. So today, in what might turn out to be a really long, meandering essay if this opening is anything to go by, we’re going to exploring three such stories: All-Star Superman, Superman Unchained and Superman: Up in the Sky. Hit the link to read on.

Origin Stories

First, I think we need to examine the very unique circumstances that lead to the publications of all three of these books. Because not only do they each paint a picture of a comic book industry in very different places, they also reveal something about that industry’s relationship to The Big Blue Boy Scout himself. So let’s start with…

All-Star Superman

The year is 2005, and the comic book industry is in sort of a weird spot. The 1990s were the biggest, most profitable decade for the industry, but it also ended with one of the Big Two (Marvel and DC) filing for bankruptcy and the bursting of a speculator bubble. Everyone’s been spending the last five years picking up the pieces. And the key to picking up those pieces is the big A-word in comics: Adaptation. Now DC Comics has always been good at this. They were the first out of the gate all the way back in the 70’s with Richard Donner’s classic Superman film. In the several decades since audiences stared up at the silver screen and believed that a man could fly, DC has had a string of successes. The Burton Batman movies had started out big in the 80s before flaming out in a blaze of glory by the end of the subsequent decade. Meanwhile, the DC Animated Universe, or DCAU had been pumping out literally generation defining animation since 1996, starting with the award winning Batman: The Animated Series. The problem was on the comic book front because it seems like very few of these newly minted superhero fans are actually buying comics. By the end of 2005, DC will even start telling the story of Infinite Crisis, a massive, brand-wide story specifically about how DC Comics have become convoluted, dark and edgy. This is the same year that Wonder Woman killed a man by snapping his next on live television. This is the year that Batman installed a satellite designed to monitor the global population for crime. Sufficed to say, it was a weird time. That’s why DC Comics decided to create the All-Star brand extension.

The idea behind the All-Star brand was simple. Take the most iconic characters of the DC Universe, starting with Batman and Superman, and tell stories that are simple, straightforward and unbothered by complicated continuity while still celebrating the unique traits of these particular characters. What’s more, these books would be written and drawn by superstar writer and artists pairings. Was it successful? Well, All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison with art by Frank Quitely is widely regarded as one of the best Superman stories ever. In contrast, All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder is considered to be one of the worst stories every told with its set of characters. But we’ll get into that a bit more later.

Superman Unchained

Let’s jump ahead by about 8 years to 2013. DC is certainly in a very different place than it was almost a decade prior. See, two years prior in 2011, DC Comics had used the otherwise unremarkable Flash crossover Flashpoint to completely relaunch and reboot its entire comic book line. This venture was called the New 52, and fun fact, it was actually my own personal impetus for getting into comic books. The New 52 is looked back upon these days with bittersweet nostalgia. On one hand, it produced a lot of really good comics that are today looked back on with fondness. Scott Snyder’s run on Batman with perennial art brother Greg Capullo is widely regarded as the highlight, but Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman with art by Cliff Chiang, the ever reliable Gail Simone on Batgirl, and Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man (art by Travel Foreman and Dan Green) were also really good. There were even a few diamonds in the rough like Demon Knights, a book by Paul Cornell and Robert Venditti that could best be described as “what if the Justice League comic took place in a wacky fantasy version of Medieval Europe?” Unfortunately, the New 52 was also widely panned for producing some really sub-standard books and being confused and directionless almost immediately out of the gate.

In and amidst the New 52, Superman’s own books had only found moderate success. Grant Morrison had returned to the character for the first time since the aforementioned All-Star Superman with his run on Action Comics. Morrison’s run on AC was regarded as interesting for a renewed focus on the character’s social justice roots, but also criticized for being way too confusing. Which is pretty much par for the course with Morrison, but we’ll get to that. Eventually, Superman would have some well regarded books, like Gene Pak’s run (which featured the character in a de-powered state), but in 2013 people just didn’t seem to care. So in an effort to inject some new life into the character, DC announced Superman Unchained. Unchained would be a new limited series with art by Jim Lee, and written by Scott Snyder, the author of the then ongoing Batman book, and DC’s favorite writer at the time (this will become a trend). How did it go? We’ll get to that but first…

Superman: Up in the Sky

The year is 2019. DC Comics are, once again, in a different place than they were in 2013. By this point, the New 52 had largely been regarded as a failed experiment by many. The most notable reason was that nobody was quite sure what was and wasn’t canon anymore. So DC solved this problem the only way they knew how: with a massive crossover event called Convergence and a company wide reboot called DC: Rebirth. DC: Rebirth was, on the whole, probably a bit more successful than the New 52. For starters, it actually felt like there was a plan this time. It was a weird and often confusing plan, but there was a sense of purpose and direction that had never been present in the prior attempt at a relaunch. Most notably, the DC: Rebirth event saw a bunch of creative teams shuffled around. For instance, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo wrapped up their generation defining run on Batman before handing the character over to the creative team of writer Tom King and artist David Finch. And on Superman, DC had secured the talents of Brian Michael Bendis. Bendis is a living legend in modern comics. His run at Marvel lasted over two decades and in that time period, he was remembered for creating a number of instantly iconic moments and characters. Most notably, BMB is famous for having created Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino Spider-Man who is arguably the most popular superhero of the current day and age. So DC getting Bendis was considered a bit of a coup and they immediately gave him almost total control over the Superman corner of the DC universe.

At this same time, DC Comics tried to do something utterly insane. Instead of limiting their comics to comic shops and the occasional dalliance in Barnes and Noble, they would attempt to sell comics in places that people actually shopped like say…Walmart. The idea was that Walmart would start carrying DC superhero comics, and to mark the occasion, Walmart would get an exclusive Superman limited series written not by Bendis, but Tom King, the guy who was writing Batman at the time. It’s worth noting that around this time, King was also the award nabbing golden boy at DC so it made sense to let him take the most iconic superhero in the world for a whirl. The art duties would be handled by Andy Kubert. In a fun trade, Brian Michael Bendis would contribute to a special Batman series for Walmart with art by Nick Derington. The Superman book, which would run for 12 issues was announced as being titled Superman: Up in the Sky.

Creative Teams

Next, I want to examine the creative minds behind these three books because each one has a very different, and uniquely interesting take on Clark Kent’s superheroic alter ego. As a note, this section will primarily focus on the writers because that’s what I’m most comfortable analyzing. We’ll discuss the artists and their contribution in their own section.

All-Star Superman: Grant Morrison

Make no mistake, Grant Morrison is a demigod of modern comics. He has consistently produced some of the most interesting, experimental and otherwise eye-opening books of the past several decades. For example, Morrison’s big breakout comic in 1988 was his run on Animal Man. In his two year run, Morrison took the otherwise unremarkable C-List superhero and told a gonzo, boundary pushing tale about the very nature of superhero comics. Of all three of the writers we’ll be exploring, his legacy is the most secured. That being the case, Grant Morrison’s writing has a tendency to be absolutely insane. Some of this might have to do with the fact that Grant Morrison is a practicing Chaos Wizard. No, you didn’t misread that. Morrison has spoken at length about his beliefs vis a vi reality and magic. He even cites one of his most popular non-superhero works, The Invisibles, as being part of a years long “hyper sigil” that he enacted in an attempt to improve his own life. It’s even not inaccurate to say that Morrison has been in a decades long wizarding duel with fellow British nutcase/comic writer Alan Moore but that’s another story.

Morrison’s gonzo outlook on life has translated into an incredibly successful career. He often treats his characters like gods. This tendency has extended to Morrison even writing a book called Supergods on the subject. In this regard, All-Star Superman is probably the most quintessential Morrison book. It’s bright, optimistic and filled a sense of wonder and grandeur. It’s also a surreal and often psychedelic trip of a story that directly references the 12 labors of Hercules and tries its best to touch on every corner of Superman’s almost 70 year run. Morrison’s Superman is portrayed as like a combination of Zeus, and Jesus with just a little bit of Mister Rodgers thrown in for good measure. A key part of Chaos Magic is the idea that belief shapes reality. According to Morrison’s own account, he was inspired to write the story when he saw a cosplayer dressed as Superman at San Diego Comic Con. Rather than appearing in a heroic pose, the man dressed in the blue tights was utterly at ease, sitting on the steps of the San Diego Convention Center. Morrison says that this image inspired his take on Superman, the idea that an all powerful being wouldn’t need to constantly appear heroic. Instead, invulnerability would let him be completely cool, calm and collected at all times. Of course because this is Grant Morrison, some versions of this story shake the details up. According to some accounts, it wasn’t a fan but the actual Superman who appeared to Morrison, completely at his leisure and willing to discuss topics like his love for Lois Lane and desire to see Lex Luthor reformed. I’ve only ever seen accounts of this more out there version of the story, but this is Grant Morrison, literally anything is possible.

Superman Unchained – Scott Snyder

The very first comic book that I bought for myself was Batman #1 by Scott Snyder with art by Greg Capullo. Ever since, I’ve been a big fan of Sndyer, who is in many ways the most traditional of the three writers we’ll be exploring. After graduating from college, he worked at Disney for a bit before transitioning into comic books. He’s also a creative writing teacher which scores him points in my book. And I think the fact that Snyder is or has been a teacher is the keystone to studying his style of writing. For example, in that previous mentioned first issue, Snyder begins a story that’s about Batman’s relationship with Gotham as exemplified through the city’s architecture. Over the course of the next several issues, he actually teaches you, the reader, about architecture. Snyder loves using his characters for exposition and he loves to fill that exposition with very intelligent dialogue and observations which often include fun facts that make you feel smarter for having read them. I can’t think of another writer who can have The Joker of all people successfully give a brief lecture on Old English root words in the middle of an incredibly tense scene. In essence, he’s not just expositing to readers, he’s teaching them.

Superman Unchained is, likewise the most conventional take on Superman in this set of stories. That said, while the story is fairly conventional, Snyder makes the clever choice to take us inside Clark’s mind for much of it. A lot of the book’s action sequences are punched up with a sort of inner monologue wherein we follow Superman’s train of thought as he solves problems. This, in turns, allows Snyder to focus on an aspect of Superman that is constantly overlooked or forgotten, i.e. that he’s really smart. Superman isn’t usually thought as the “brainy” superhero, especially when he’s contrasted with Batman, aka the World’s Greatest Detective. But Clark Kent is no dummy, and Superman Unchained really hammers that home. Snyder’s Superman tackles problems by breaking them down analytically and finding solutions in the fraction of a second it takes for a building to collapse. Likewise, Snyder’s style means he’s especially adept at writing characters like Lois Lane, and especially Lex Luthor.

Superman: Up in the Sky – Tom King

God, it seems like I can’t write a comic book article on this blog without talking about Tom King. That’s probably because of all the various authors writing comics these days, his styles clicks with me the most (though Jason Aaron is a close second). Despite winning a bunch of accolades, King himself has proven to be a rather controversial writer in recent years. His run on Batman in particular was very divisive. But speaking for myself, I’ve yet to read one of his books and not come away at least impressed at the depth of his prose. Even something like Rorschach, an utterly unnecessary sequel to Watchmen (one of the greatest comic books of all time) turns into a knuckle-clenching noir mystery that still has time to feature one of the most eviscerating self-critiques in modern comics. Seriously, I’ll have to write a whole essay about Rorschach #7 one of these days. But the problem for many readers is that on his worst day, King’s style of writing is very in your face and, dare I say, pretentious in his lofty goals.

If that is the case (and I’m not saying I agree with it), Superman: Up in the Sky is one of King’s least pretentious comics. Because in this book, King’s writing of Superman is very simple and straightforward. Tom King’s version of Superman is a man who will do the right thing, and succeed in doing so despite the hardships. Like I said, this might sound simple and even boring, but it’s anything but. It’s always worth remembering King’s path to comic book writing. He started his career as a CIA Counterterrorism agent during the War on Terror. After coming home from several tours abroad, he wrote a novel, and was then shifted into writing superhero comics. This complex path through life overshadows all of King’s writing, and Superman is no exception. King’s take on characters like Batman, Mister Miracle and Adam Strange paint them as complex men with troubled psyches. King’s heroes are flawed individuals who try to do the right thing and often suffer the consequences for doing so. It’s worth noting that the first three series that marked him as a rising star, The Omega Men, Sheriff of Baghdad and Vision, have since been re-contextualized as the “Good Intentions” thematic trilogy by the man himself and his fans. Superman is the exception to this rule though. King’s Superman suffers the consequences for doing the right thing, but he can endure those consequences and keep fighting. Because he’s Superman.

Story Or Finally, a Review

At last, the time has come. I’ve provided all the context, so now it’s time to talk about the story of these three utterly distinct, yet utterly wonderful books.

All-Star Superman: The Twelve Labors of Superman

It’s somewhat ironic that the goal of the All-Star brand was to introduce new readers to superhero comics. Because Grant Morrison’s intent with All-Star Superman was to seemingly write the last Superman story. As the story opens, Superman saves the first manned mission to the sun, and in doing so his cells are supercharged with yellow sun radiation. While this makes Superman stronger than ever, it also means he’ll eventually die as his body is converted into pure solar energy and he essentially ascends to the next level of existence. However, a message from the future reveals that in the leadup to his death, Superman will commit the twelve greatest feats of his career.

The ensuing series consists of a collection of self-contained stories that each celebrate a distinct part of Superman’s very weird history. During one story, Superman’s moral axis is flipped by Red Kryptonite causing Clark to become a petty jerk with superpowers. It’s up to Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen to pacify this bully version of The Man of Steel. The entire point of this issue is to celebrate the utterly insane comic book covers from the fifties that have been collectively referred to as “Superdickery.” Other issues focus on complex ideas like Clark Kent’s relationship with Lex Luthor or more simple flights of fancy like Superman giving Lois Lane the ideal birthday. And true to the prophecy, by the end of the story, Superman faces what might be his greatest foe and saves the world once last time.

As I said early, All-Star Superman feels distinctly mythic. Individual issues are like tall tales or folklore. If I had to pick a particular favorite it would be “episode” 6, A Funeral in Smallville. It’s a celebration of some of the weirder parts of Superman lore, but also a sharp, almost visceral examination of Clark’s one true weakness. Though perhaps, the book’s most famous moments comes from episode 10, titled Neverending. In a simple scene, during a day where he’s accomplishing wonders, Superman takes the time to comfort a trouble young woman as she stand on the ledge of a building. He gives her support with the iconic line: “it’s never as bad as it seems. You are much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.” In that one, heartfelt scene, All-Star Superman would’ve justified itself, even if the proceeding comic had been several dozen pages of blank space. Incidentally, because this is Grant Morrisson, in the same issue, Superman creates “A world without Superman” called Earth Q. By the end of the issue, we see a young man in Cleveland drawing a familiar figure with an S on his chest. In the context of All-Star Superman, Clark Kent is our literal divine creator. It’s the kind of story only Grant Morrison could tell and I love it.

Superman Unchained: Truth, Justice and the American(?) Way

Superman Unchained opens with the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. Only, it’s not a bomb that’s dropped from the Bockscar this time, but rather a being of enormous power and might. In many ways, Superman Unchained is the most straightforward superhero series of the trio that we’re exploring, but in other ways, it’s also the most unorthodox. Placing Superman in the middle of a conspiracy thriller doesn’t sound like it would make a lot of sense but here it works beautifully. In addition to the mystery presented by the opening sequence, Superman’s most notable foe in this story is Ascension, a group of terrorist hackers who are causing disasters by targeting highly advanced technological marvels. In the first issue they bring a space station out of orbit, and in the second they hijack a gigantic, state of the art construction robot. In essence, how can the man who can do anything fight an enemy who is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere?

Watching Superman essentially fight a Luddite version of the hacker group Anonymous is pretty great and could’ve filled an entire series on its own. But eventually, we’re introduced to Wraith, and the story takes a turn towards being the closest thing to a “message” comic in this collection. See, Wraith (actual name W.R.A.I.T.H – short for William Rudolph’s Ace in the Hole) is also an alien who came to Earth years ago and happens to be powered by the sun, like Superman. In fact, in deference to the old joke that “Superman is exactly as powerful as the story demands,” Wraith is even slightly stronger than Clark himself. But the difference is that Wraith isn’t a superhero at all, he’s essentially a super-powered assassin for the government, using his powers to eliminate anything the government thinks is a threat. Basically, Wraith is Superman if he really emphasized the “American Way” part of that old mantra and cast off the first two bits. And while the story doesn’t investigate that as much as some readers might’ve wanted it to, it’s a really interesting dynamic for Snyder to play with. Plus, by the end it’s also a story about how Superman brings out the best in people.

In the end, Superman Unchained is definitely a product of its time. The character designs by Jim Lee are all dynamic and just on the better side of too detailed. It’s a story about Superman but it’s also a story “about” Superman and his place in comic book history. It also drags a bit in the middle and there’s probably just a little too much of an emphasis on Batman and Wonder Woman in parts. In fact, the book’s most iconic moment, a two-page splash, has nothing to do with Superman. Though Batman attacking Wraith by remotely driving literally every Batmobile (from Adam West’s car to the ones from the Burton Movies and the Tumbler from Nolan’s trilogy) at him is a thing of beauty regardless. Topped off with Batman giving a wry grin and telling Wraith “don’t worry, they’re insured” helps to remind one why Snyder was able to write that character for an incredibly long run too.

In short, Superman Unchained is a summer blockbuster. It’s a big, explosive book with frequently sumptuous art by Jim Lee. It’s two creatives working at the peak of their game, and if I don’t like it quite as much as the other two books we’re exploring today, it’s because those do just a little bit more with Superman the character. But that said, if you want a fun, no frills Superhero romp, Unchained is where I would start.

Superman: Up in the Sky – So there’s this girl…

Superman: Up in the Sky has a very simple premise. Aliens came to Earth and kidnapped a little girl. Her name is Alice. She’s an orphan and she has nobody else in the world. She won’t be missed. Superman is the only one who can get her back. He hems and haws for a bit, weighing the option to stay on Earth and keep it safe or going to the other side of the universe to rescue one little girl. It’s Tom King writing Superman though, so of course he does the right thing. What follows is an at time even more disconnected collection of stories than All Star Superman. But each story has more or less the same premise: Superman is faced with an impossible choice or some Herculean effort, and he prevails, though he’s usually not left unscarred by the experience.

If All-Star Superman is mythic in tone and presentation, then Up in the Sky is a travelogue. It uses Alice’s kidnapping as the framing device, but really the story is about the bizarre circumstances that Superman finds himself in along the way to rescuing her. In one story, he’s struck by a bolt of red lighting and split into two separate entities: Clark Kent and Superman. By the end, they rejoin and become one again, but the story is also about how Clark Kent is so much more than his powers. There’s the story where Clark is inexplicably thrown back into World War 2 and has the chance to team up with World War 2 era characters Sergeant Rock and Easy Company for a day. There’s a single issue where Superman waits in for an impossibly long time, just to make a lightspeed phone call to Lois back home on Earth. Because he’s worried and wants to hear her voice. There’s also my personal favorite story where Superman goes 12 rounds with an alien boxer that’s a deliberate homage to the time he fought Muhammad Ali in similar circumstances.

Having gone back and re-read both All-Star and Up in the Sky for this essay, I find I like the latter just a little bit more. Don’t misunderstand, All-Star Superman is one of my favorite comics and I’m aware of its pedigree. It played a key part in my becoming a lifelong fan of Superman as a character. You could argue that without All-Star, something like Up in the Sky wouldn’t be possible. But sometimes, it feels as though the story is imposing itself on you. It’s trying to live up to that “All-Star” brand, and in doing so there’s an impetus for everything to feel weighty and important. In contrast, Up in the Sky feels matter-of-fact. Of course this is “just another” Superman story, that’s the point. Traveling across the universe, going through multiple hellish, impossible tasks to save one person is exactly what Superman would do. Of course he would metaphorically sacrifice himself over and over again just to save a little girl that nobody else would even notice was missing. And yet, for all of that, it’s still a fantastic adventure story. What action sequences King does include are expertly penned. And as per usual, King proves himself to subtly be one of the funniest dialogue writers in comics, which adds so much character to the proceedings.

Art

With apologies, visual art has never been my strong point when it comes to analysis. I’m sure hoping this won’t always be the case. I’ve spent the last two semesters teaching students about animation and the fundamentals of visual design so I know a few things. But I’ll always be an English major at heart…

Frank Quitely

By 2005, Frank Quitely had already built a successful working relationship with Grant Morrison. The pair teaming up for a book about Superman was part of the major selling point of an “All-Star” Brand. That said, I have a hard time describing Quitely’s style. My first instinct is to say that Quitely’s style in All-Star Superman is “soft.” But there’s something about the way he draws people. It’s off-putting to see this brightly colored, optimistic world filled with people whose faces are drawn realistically. Lex Luthor’s sneer isn’t malevolent, it’s just sort of ugly (which may be the point – Morrison’s Luthor is impossibly petty). On the other hand, this realism works when we see the anguish on a character’s face and feel every emotion they’re feeling. The entire story of the tenth issue, framed with Clark writing his Last Will and Testament feels so much more weighty with Quitely’s art. Plus, there’s a lot more blood and viscera in this story then I remember. That’s not to say that Morrison has written a R-rated superhero book or anything, but punches knock out teeth and blood flies quite a bit.

That said, the one thing about Quitely’s art that I unabashedly adore is his take on Clark Kent. Clark Kent is always drawn as a meek, mild-mannered reporter who does just enough to hide his connection to Superman. Quitely’s art takes it in a new and really interesting place. His Clark is a bull in a china shop, a Kansas farmhand stuffed into a suit and slouched over by lack of confidence. This version of Clark, a guy who’s just a little too big for this world, and just a little too disheveled makes perfect sense as a foil to the clean cut, upstanding Superman.

Jim Lee

It’s worth noting that of all the men we’re exploring today, only Jim Lee can say that he’s started a comic book company before becoming the Chief Creative Officer of one of the Big Two. Superstar is an adjective that’s often used to describe Jim Lee, but honestly, in this day and age, it feels like even “Superstar artist Jim Lee” falls short. Lee is a master of modern comics with nothing left to prove. Thinking on it, I think the best way to describe Jim Lee’s art style is like a modern exotic sports car. It’s sleek, stylish, and only occasionally has to go into the shop for an extended period of time. That said, despite Lee’s slightly infamous tendency to miss deadlines or delay book releases, his attention to detail and stylistic flairs are second to none…if that’s your thing. Jim Lee’s work is sort of the gold standard for what a “modern” comic book looks like. His influence has extended to the point that most of the current DC superhero movies, TV shows and video games draw inspiration from his interpretations of costumes and character designs. But Jim Lee’s work is not universally beloved. When he redesigned the costumes of all the Justice League there was a lot of blowback about certain choices he made. Most infamously, he made Superman’s suit look more like segmented armor, and he removed the red underwear.

Superman Unchained is probably Jim Lee’s best work from the New 52 era. The book was beset by delays like many of the series that Lee works on. But given that the book is now six years old, that’s hardly an issue to hold against the man. A large part of the reason that Lee’s art works in the comic is that its paired with a story that is, likewise just a little bit too much. The book opens with a conspiracy theory and ramps up the stakes until Superman is having a bare knuckle street fight in the center of the Earth. That sort of story could only be told, visually, with the likes of Jim Lee’s art.

Andy Kubert

Andy Kubert comes from a dynasty of comic book artists. Both his father, Joe Kubert and brother Adam are world-renowned artists in their own right. Kubert’s career has spanned almost forty years at this point and he’s been the artist on some of the most iconic comic books of the new millennium. He teamed with Neil Gaiman for the popular Marvel 1602 series, which re-imagined the heroes of Marvel comics as figures in an Elizabethan tale of magic and intrigue. He worked with Grant Morrison to introduce the now fan favorite character of Damian Wayne, Batman’s first canonical biological son and the current Robin. And he’s been the primary artist of several major event books at DC Comics, including the aforementioned Flashpoint.

Kubert’s work is quintessentially comic book. His superheroes are imposing figures striking heroic poses. He makes great use of bold line work in his outlines. In Up in the Sky, his Superman is perhaps the most classically realized of the three stories. Quitely’s Superman is heroic, but he’s portrayed as being more realistically proportioned. Jim Lee’s Superman was taken from the New 52, when the character was a bit younger, and leaner. Not so with Andy Kubert’s take on Clark Kent. His Superman is a wall of muscle, but the real trick is how he can change our perspective of Clark from page to page. When Kubert’s Superman is angry, frustrated or despondent he feels like a hulking mass of barely contained rage. When he’s distant, Kubert draws him as being aloof, obscured by shadow. Even his Clark Kent can display a wide range of different mannerisms without donning the tights. if I had one complaint about the art in Up in the Sky it would be that, paradoxically, it feels like there’s not enough. At least once per issue, and almost too many times during the final issue, Kubert provides us with (admittedly gorgeous) full page tableaus and then lets Tom King do the storytelling exclusively with text boxes. This is also a writer thing, and Tom King has proven to be fond of using single images to convey a mood or message. But in Up in the Sky it feels like it reaches the point of saturation and then just barely crosses that line.

Conclusion

This is, by far, the longest thing I’ve written for this blog. At this exact point, it already clocks in at well over 5500 words, and ten pages worth of Word Document. And at the end I’m asking myself, what was the point? Well on one hand, I did some nostalgic reading over my vacation and I really wanted to talk about Superman comics. That’s enough in and of itself. Maybe I also want to get more people reading comics, and it felt only natural to write about three great starting points for getting into the sometimes opaque superhero genre. Maybe I’m using this to prime my meager audience for a series of deep, long essays about whatever it is that strikes my fancy. I do need to find a new niche now that I have job security and stuff…

Either way, it was fun to write this. Reading about Superman, and more importantly thinking about Superman just does something for me. In a world that isn’t always perfect, I enjoy reading books about an individual with near limitless power, who will always do the right thing. And I enjoy seeing what that looks like when different teams of talented artists and writers decide to tell that story. I hope you will too. Thanks for reading.

Author’s Thoughts: I’m posting this sans images because I finished writing it and then put off posting it for a week, but goddammit, I want to post something. So we’ll return to this at a later date and add the pictures later.

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