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Superman: Strength
posted February 9, 2006


Creators: Scott McCloud, Aluir Amancio, Terry Austin
Publishing Information: DC Comics, Three-Part Series, $5.99 each
Ordering Numbers:

In Superman: Strength, Scott McCloud has crafted a story that focuses more explicitly on Superman's moral character than the regular consumer of Superman's present-day comics might be uses to seeing. This story, which seems designed to fit in with current DC continuity as it then existed, starts with a visit from Superman's adoptive dad: an actual visit, mind you, not the scary Hamlet kind. For those of you like me who are unaware, in the modern DC Universe Superman's adoptive parents still live out in Kansas. I imagine this allows for stories where Superman can be surrounded by images of Americana and more soap opera chitchat. I guess there's more drama in having Superman land near a farm and fight a tornado than having him pop up in Brooklyn to fight payroll fraud. Unfortunately, having the Kents around robs the character of a key humanizing aspect: namely, that for all his superpowers he can't bring people he loves back to life. I always liked that about the comics when I was a kid. My guess is that years and years of late night four-color talks at the kitchen table with Ma offering to get her boy some pie will never be as effective or powerful as that single panel of a child in front of a pair of gravestones. But there Pa Kent is, and McCloud makes decent use of him.

The story in Strength switches back and forth between Pa telling a tale about Superman's childhood and Superman fighting a small gang of criminals. It's the kind of story that may or may not "happen" in terms of the character's general history, but certainly exists within the reality established within the ongoing Superman comic books. Things kick off promisingly with a group of young bad guys casing Superman, scouting him and figuring out their future margins for error. There's a nice twist on the standard superhero story in that the threat the gang poses is not impressively physical, so the way in which Superman must be negotiated are unpacked in terms of avoidance as opposed to beating him up. This feels much closer to how one imagines criminals would prefer to engage policemen in our reality, and makes Superman's behavior in dealing with them more open to study than it might be in a story about him kidney punching some alien conqueror into submission.

McCloud makes smart use of the various ways in which the gang debates taking advantage of Superman's better nature, mostly to draw him elsewhere. The doggedness Superman shows in returning to their trail is the series' most dramatic indication of its hero's resolute personality. It's an outsized quality kids might relate to: Superman never gives up. The gang eventually steals a piece of technology that allows for instantaneous transportation, and uses it to capture Superman's head. This is another clever move on McCloud's part as it allows for easy separation between Superman's character and his ability to act on it. Not surprisingly, Superman is still Superman even when he's just a head. In comparison, he's not yet Superman when he's just a kid. The child in Pa Kent's story runs from Kansas to Chicago because of confusion he feels due to mixed signals sent him by his male authority figure. Although the story gets bogged down in way-too-convenient details -- Chicago seems to populated entirely by people who can teach Clark Kent a lesson -- at least the running child makes for an effective, memorable image.

The execution of McCloud's narratives leaves a lot to be desired. The main plot feels thin, the events stretched out over an unreliable length of time. This feels doubly weird in that the alternating beats come from Pa Kent's story. I know some older people like to talk, but McCloud makes this feel like the longest story ever. The main problem with Superman: Strength, however, is less with pacing and more with substance. Plot points fail to be resolved in as interesting a manner as their conceptual strength might indicate. The gang leader struggles with some standard father-son issues that become resolved in a fairly boring way: the father is dead and had lied to the son all along, rendering meaningless a specific achievement claimed by the son to trump that lie: dime-store novel stuff. This might have been more effective played up as dark comedy, but it's almost like the authors kind of move away from that at the last second. McCloud offers up a few humorous moments throughout, but not enough of them and none that are very memorable or consistent. Superman cheesily wraps a bad guy in a lamppost; Luther fires everyone; there's a nod to '50s comic absurdism in one citywide threat. The art by Aluir Amancio and Terry Austin feels perfunctory throughout. Amancio does some nice things with perspective within individual panels to indicate just how freakily relentless Superman can be, but in most ways the art fails to distinguish itself.

As an aside, being set in DC's current "married Superman" setting really hamstrings the series. As noted earlier, Pa Kent was a better character dead. In fact, the story might have been sweeter coming from a family friend in Smallville around whom Clark Kent felt uncomfortable, and the disconnect between what someone might assume and what really happened might have made the super-powered portions of the Chicago story more formally interesting. And really, married Superman bores the crud out of me. There's something dull and safe about the expression of his power when you know Superman is responsible for one half of a domestic partnership. Worst of all, helpful, competitive, wifely Lois Lane sucks the life out of every panel she stumbles into. Lane acts like the unfortunate add-on in the last season of a television show, an actress married to the executive producer who had dubious chemistry with the lead brought back and forced down the viewers' throat. Without the focus on her trying to figure out the secret identity and compete with Clark Kent at work, Superman writers tend to turn Lois Lane into a) an insufferable bitch or b) a great-looking, magnificently competent, tiresome helper, knocking people out and throwing switches so that Superman can "finish the job." I imagine she even knows how to throw a punch, due to an uncle or brother or former boyfriend with military training. Am I right? I bet I'm right. The modern Lois Lane is well-meaning soap-opera superhero comics' Poochie.

It may be worth mentioning DC's baffling choice of format. Edited in classic DC style that would rid the story of repetitive action scenes and tell the main villain's origin much more concisely, Superman: Strength would make a fine one-shot in a continuing series. McCloud's ideas are clever; the art can be reasonably appealing at moments. But lifted from the rest of the line and plopped into a three-issue mini-series, Superman: Strength feels overwhelmed; an unassuming TV-movie forced into a 24-episode commitment on HBO. The sad thing is you can't just chalk this up to bad decision-making; clearly something in the direct market allows for stand-alone series and books by name creators above and beyond the usual. Still, there has to be a better way to present stories like this.