After the two-month Future State hiatus, the Man of Steel is back and there are big shoes to fill, both in and out of the pages. Writer Phillip Kennedy Johnson (The Last God, Future State: House of El) takes the reins of Superman from Brian Michael Bendis for the new Infinite Frontier era. Can Johnson make the series his own, or are we retreading familiar ground?
Bendis’ run on Superman (and Action Comics) has been mixed for me. At times, he’s taken Superman to really interesting places by having him reveal his secret identity to the world. Other times, Superman is just fighting some kind of very large alien. Since 2018, it was always a give and a take. Bendis reintroduced the Legion of Super-Heroes, but that was a story that took over a year and a half to gestate. And as someone who isn’t particularly interested in the Legion, it was one of the bigger anticlimaxes I’ve read in recent years.
Then, there’s the controversial decision to age-up Superman’s son, Jonathan Kent. When he was first introduced, Jon quickly became a fan-favorite character. Seeing him learn how to use his powers and his burgeoning friendship with Damian Wayne were charming and wholesome in a way that Superman stories should be, but can often lack. Unfortunately, teenage Jon hasn’t had too many opportunities to prove himself as compelling of a character as his younger self was. Superman #29 seeks to change that.
In “The Golden Age”, Johnson and artist Phil Hester want to remind readers of the youthful exuberance of the early Jon Kent stories, while still delivering an emotional depth and general sense of unease that comes with age. The issue opens on Clark and Jon taking on some alien threat and juxtaposes the strength we see with a narration that describes a child seeing their parent become vulnerable for the first time.
The narration of course mirrors the arc of the issue. After a second encounter with the aliens leaves Clark wounded, he tries to play it off for Jon, but Jon knows better. “I was in the future,” Jon tells his father, tears beginning to stream down his face. It’s an emotional moment that could only be pulled off because of Johnson’s restraint, holding back dialogue until halfway through the issue.
Until this point, it’s Hester’s artwork that does the emotional heavy lifting. Faces and body language are expressive thanks to his cartoon style reminiscent of Superman: The Animated Series. Clark and Jon appear angular, muscular, but not too detailed. Sharp outlines and bright primary colors (courtesy of inker Eric Gapstur and colorist Hi-Fi, respectively) emphasize a style that should be familiar and welcoming to fans of the ’90s cartoon, potentially someone who hasn’t engaged in Superman comics in some time.
Paired together, Johnson’s story and Hester’s art present a transitional moment for Superman. It’s a look readers know, but a new set of rules are about to enter the picture. This issue straddles the line between old and new and its ultimate success is contingent on where the story goes from here. Part two of “The Golden Age” will be released later this month in Action Comics #1029 and after that, the stories in Superman and Action Comics will diverge and new artists will join Phillip Kennedy Johnson, setting new tones in the process. So far, I’m impressed. I care where Clark and Jon’s story goes from here, but it’s going to take some time to get the full scope of what’s going on in Metropolis and beyond.
Speaking of, Superman #29 features a short backup story called “Tales of Metropolis: Bibbo” starring Jimmy Olsen and Bibbo Bibbowski. It’s written by Sean Lewis (Future State: Superman of Metropolis) with art by Sami Basri (Harley Quinn). Unfortunately, it’s a story that feels antiquated and contrived. Not only that, but it is diametrically opposed to the ethos of the Infinite Frontier initiative. DC is telling us anything is possible but they chose to start with Bibbo, a 1940s street tough who’s down on himself because he can “never get the girl.”
Bibbo is on a date with Dolores, a woman who’s out of his league. He and Dolores are harassed by a man who turns out to be a mysterious new water-based villain called Deadstream. After Bibbo and Deadstream fight, Dolores turns out to be a projection from another mysterious new villain called Projectress. The whole runaround is meant to be a scheme to get the non-Super heroes of Metropolis to join together for an ominous reason that is not explained. Maybe the story will come together in future installments of “Tales of Metropolis,” but I’m not going to hold my breath.
Superman #29 is a great start for Clark and Jonathan Kent, with a strong emotional core. Unfortunately, the backup story doesn’t live up to the potential of what Infinite Frontier can be.
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