I used to never understand Superman. But Mark Russell and Michael Allred showed me the light.
As stated in my chat with the duo, their new book, Superman: Space Age, helped me really understand the Man of Steel for the very first time. Everything about this book, which chronicles a young Clark Kent coming to terms with his powers and place in the world at the middle of the 20th century, makes for a true crash course in exploring and appreciating Superman.
1) American History 101: I mentioned earlier that the series spans the mid-20th century. More specifically, the narrative touches on the late ’60s/early ’70s (give or take), with references to massive events like the assassination of JFK and the Civil Rights Movement, among others. More than just a great reminder for your AP studies, the history lesson does a few essential things for the book. For one, it grounds the story in the real world, and it gives a certain sense of depth and some overall stakes for Superman. As it turns out, that kind of context is really vital in showing where he works best (i.e., as perhaps one of the only “fantastical” characters in a world that needs a dash of that superpowered magic). At the same time, having Superman come of age in this era feels like a great parallel of sorts — he’s literally growing alongside our own modern socio-political landscape. That not only helps further contextualize Supes in an important way, but it shows the complicated nature of Superman as a hero in an imperfect, ever-shifting moral landscape.
(There’s also a connection with Crisis on Infinite Earths, and that event acts as a kind of neat framework for the story at-large. It’s a smart choice in that it A] makes that event feel extra poignant and B] marries DC with actual American history for even greater stakes and significance.)
2) The Jokers Get Serious: Both creators are perhaps best known for their more “humorous” takes on the superhero genre. Writer Mark Russell, for instance, wrote the heartwarming and bitingly satirical One-Star Squadron. Meanwhile, artist Michael Allred is the creator of the uber-bonkers Madman. Yet this is a decidedly serious tale, and their pair’s more kooky, somewhat lighthearted tendencies really help to show the softer, more human side of Superman. There’s lots of great, albeit highly targeted moments of levity, like Superman being thwarted by an errant bird, or some of his early days in Metropolis working for The Daily Planet. These moments never take away from the tone and impact of the story itself, and it feels like Russell and Allred took the time to create a mature, thoughtful story without forgetting some of the zany tendencies of telling a story about a flying alien demigod who rocks underwear on the outside. More creators shouldn’t be afraid to treat Supes not as some aw-shucks farm boy but as a more complicated patchwork of diverse sentiments.
3) A True Vision: And speaking of Allred — not to mention his wife, colorist Laura Allred as well as letterer Dave Sharpe — the art here is just fantastic. It’s in the visuals that we get to really understand Michael Allred’s ability to balance the dash of humor with some overt, era-appropriate glamour. Allred’s style is already pretty perfect, and he has the right level of drama and depth to make a massive, history-spanning story like this feel really powerful. His design for Superman, for instance, feels both historically accurate (with the appropriate gravitas) while also having that slightly homegrown quality, which is a perfect metaphor for this book. The same goes for his creation of the Fortress of Solitude, or his overhauled design of the Batman suit (more on that a little later). All of it feels like the perfect balance of comics silliness, accurate storytelling/world-building, and some gripping period drama. There’s just this kind of drama and larger appeal baked into the art, and it fosters both a sense of wonder without taking away from a more nuanced, grounded story.
4) Oh Look At That: Speaking of Batman, he’s probably a great representation for another thing this book does well: re-contextualizing other characters. Batman is played up like an early version of Iron Man (his suit even looks a tad that way), and that decision feels like a great way to reframe the Bruce Wayne-Clark Kent dynamic. It’s too early to tell how that’ll ultimately go, but I get the sense that their budding connection could help explore big ideas of the time (military intervention, the growing rate of progress, etc.) We also get a slightly “new” take on Lex Luthor, who facilitates a lot of the tension of #1 by having a true supervillain penchant for pot stirring via nuclear armaments. These decisions expand and enhance Superman’s world, and they’re vital to creating a world where we can really explore his approach to superheroism. If Superman were to operate in the same old fictional world, or one that wasn’t as equally nuanced and/or complicated, it just wouldn’t be that effective. Superman is only great when he can reflect or contextualize the larger world he’s actually trying to save.
5) Nothing Oh-So Pristine: I can’t say the book’s totally perfect, especially as we’re just one issue in. As much as all of the history really works, there’s a lot going on, and some of it can feel crammed in a bit. It’s as if they wanted to hit every major landmark of the ’60s, and while it all lands pretty well, it does create a slight sense of whiplash between people and ideas being covered. Perhaps as a side effect of that, as the book builds toward issue #2 and Superman working with the new Justice League, there’s not enough emphasis place on Green Lantern and Wonder Woman. (The latter especially feels shoehorned in at the very last second.) They could obviously get more room in issue #2, but as it is now, it’s another instance of perhaps too much. Now, while I don’t want to erase some possibly real narrative issues down the line, the book tries to manage these issues with a heaping help of charm. They ultimately feel like a function of the story and not missteps, and if they do deliver, then it will only make the story all that more entertaining and impactful.
6) A Final Word: This debut issue sets the stage for a remarkable tale of politics, history, and the heroes we look up to. And getting this fella on board is 1,000 times harder than leaping the Burj Khalifa on one foot.
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