Superman #39 Loses The Powers But Brings In The Heart

I’d been excited for the collaboration between Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr. since it was announced and while I’ve been routinely impressed with the comic they’ve been putting out, […]

I’d been excited for the collaboration between Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr. since it was announced and while I’ve been routinely impressed with the comic they’ve been putting out, thanks to both Johns’ understanding of the character as well as JR JR’s gorgeous art, it was what I was expecting. Nothing about it reached a level of character-defining that some of Johns’ superior work has done.

Until Superman #39 that is. This comic is maybe the best Superman story since the New 52 began, with only Grant Morrison’s Action Comics #13 standing as its rival. This may sound like damning it with faint praise since this has been a rough few years for Superman. What makes this comic incredible is how it changes up the dynamic of Superman while still enforcing the things that make him such an amazing hero.

The comic follows up the events of Johns’ previous run where Superman learned that he had the ability to expel all the solar energy he has in his body to create a powerful Dragon Ball Z-esque blast of energy. The only catch is that he has to spend the next 24 hours as a human. With this knowledge, he reveals to Jimmy Olsen that Clark Kent is Superman and they spend the day together.

The idea of a depowered Superman has been done before. The comic 52 -a weekly series released in 2006 not to be confused with the company-wide title all comics now bear- had Superman depowered for a year and numerous elseworlds stories have played around with it, but in 52 Superman was not the focus and this is not an elsewords story, so it is focused on the ‘real’ Superman.

The frustrating thing about many of these elseworlds stories is they generally use it as an excuse to give Superman an existential crisis, wondering what he is without his powers. What makes the work of Johns and Romita Jr. shine is how little things change for Superman. He might not be faster than a speeding bullet and might be a little surprised at how cold air feels when you don’t have the right jacket on, but he still never hesitates to help people. Without doubting himself, he catches a child falling from a tree and the climax features a Superman talking down a man with a gun and a hostage, keeping him from hurting anyone. When Jimmy confronts him on the risk he takes, Superman gives the most basic of retorts.

Screenshot 2015-03-20 00.33.51

“You think I only step in front of guns because I’m bulletproof?”

I’ve often criticized Johns for his on-the-nose writing, using sledgehammer-like metaphors to explain characters and their motivations but lines like that show why he’s become accustomed to using them. When he uses them right they cut to the core of what makes a character great in ways no other character could be.

The book ends with Superman and Jimmy having food on the rooftop while Superman regains his powers, talking about the differences between being a normal human and being the last Kryptonian. Perhaps my favorite bit here is where Johns asks Jimmy if Jimmy thinks he only hears bad things with his superhearing. It feels like a response to a scene in Superman Returns where Superman hears all the suffering in the world. Perhaps in a world like that it made sense why Superman was such a reserved and resentful person. In Johns’ comic, however, Superman doesn’t just hear the suffering, he hears the joy and the love in the world, a literal world-level confirmation of what he’s fighting for. In the end, Superman concludes that things really weren’t all that different when he doesn’t have his powers.

There’s a lot of clever stuff here, particularly in the way Clark and Jimmy’s interactions teach us what it’s like to be Superman.  Clark will note the minor differences he hadn’t expected, casually referring to how he does things as Superman and having to adjust. It never feels like Clark is whining though, rather that he is intrigued and interested to learn. Just as Superman is learning about us this issue proves that even after over seventy-five years of adventure we still have things to learn about him

Screenshot 2015-03-20 00.40.43