By Gene Luen Yang, Viktor Bogdanovic & Hi-Fi
One of the mission statements for DC’s Rebirth initiative has been the idea that the publisher had veered too far into the territory of dark and gritty. Yes, post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC is best remembered for the iconic brooding work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. At the same time, it also produced Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ Justice League, a title whose whimsical buffoonery, absurd situations and endearing characters came to define the team for a generation. Somewhere along the way, as the argument goes, DC lost track of such diversity in styles and let their titles fall into a stale uniformity of “seriousness.” This editorial preference hit its nadir with many of the failures of the New 52 relaunch. As with any overarching theory, it is a radical oversimplification, yet one which DC’s Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns embraced with his Rebirth Special. Blaming Alan Moore (literally and figuratively) for the darkness, Johns declared that the time to right the ship had arrived. One of the best examples so far of Rebirth’s newfound interest in lightheartedness has been New Superman whose second issue does a first-rate job of continuing the promise of last month’s debut.
Issue #1 introduced readers to Kong Kenan, a young man living in Shanghai. Kenan’s first impression is not a positive one, as he is seen bullying Lixin, a heavyset classmate. However when supervillain Blue Condor tries kidnapping Lixin, Kenan impulsively decides to do the right thing and fight back. This being the 21st Century, such a public display of heroism is immediately recorded by cellphones, posted to the internet and goes viral. Soon Kenan is approached with an offer from a mysterious government agency, The Ministry of Self-Reliance. They grant him superpowers and the promise of filling the Superman role in their new Chinese Justice League. Problem is current members Bat-Man and Wonder Woman do not take an immediate shine to the latest recruit.
While there is plenty of action in this issue, first between League members then on the trio’s first mission together, the real star of the book are Yang’s character skills. Kenan is a troublesome young man, all full of fluster and arrogance. Yang is smart in not giving Kenan an instant moment of growth, instead preferring a one-step forward, two-steps back approach. His initial reaction to meeting Bat-Man and Wonder Woman is to compliment how well the latter “fits” her uniform, while mocking the former’s bulk. Even after the duo proceeds to easily beat Kenan, he remains unapologetic. At the same time, though, Yang tempers his character with more sympathetic elements. He is haunted by the memory of his mother, who died in a plane crash. (The airline is run by Lixin’s father, which adds context, while not excusing, the bullying). His relationship with his father, Zhangdan, is estranged, wrapped up in his conspiracy theories about a mysterious government agency, The Ministry of Self-Reliance. Perhaps some of Kenan’s more extroverted tendencies were developed as a way to make his preoccupied father pay closer attention to his son?
The strong character building also applies to Baixa (Bat-Man) and Deilan (Wonder Woman). When the synopsis for this series was first announced, there was some skepticism among fans about the smartness of creating Asian counterparts to established heroes, instead of new heroes from scratch. Kenan himself, in a playful bit of meta, seems to echo this critique with his own initial reaction to the idea. However, Yang quickly convinces the reader otherwise. Both Baixa and Deilan riff on familiar traits of the heroes, while never feeling like carbon-copies. Some of this is done through humor. “Bat-Man always does his homework” is a great one-liner which simultaneously mocks the classic iteration, while helping to define the personality of the most recent. It is also quite funny. Moments like these help define a character and leave readers looking forward to more of Baixa and Deilan as well as Kenan. There is also perky TV reporter, Laney Lan, an appealing update of Lois Lane.
This combination of whimsy and adventure is well conveyed by artist Viktor Bogdanovic. He starts the issue off with a dynamic action scene, the highlight of which are the swirling loops of Deilan’s vibrant pink lasso. Bogdanovic is equally good at the character moments, especially facial expressions. He is able to clearly convey emotions without reducing anyone to type.
In some ways, New Superman is reminiscent of Marvel’s recent success with Ms. Marvel. As with New Superman, Ms. Marvel used the legacy tradition to create an appealing character who represented segments of the population not well-served in the past by the Big Two. While too early to claim New Superman can achieve Ms. Marvel’s lofty heights as one of the best comics being published, the DC series is off to a very strong start. If DC wishes to argue that Rebirth is about adding (in several senses) more color to the DCU, New Superman is a perfect example of that idea at work. If Rorschach and Blue Beetle could all share a stage, why not Bruce Wayne and Kong Kenan?