Last month, DC Comics kicked off the start of its Rebirth initiative. After a wave of criticism surrounding the way they have treated their characters’ rich histories since 2011’s New 52 relaunch, DC has decided to rebrand. They hope that by restoring their characters’ pasts, they will restore readers’ faith in them as well. Do they succeed? That’s what the Comics Beat managing editor Alex Lu and entertainment editor Kyle Pinion are here to discuss. Book by book. Panel by panel.
Welcome to month two of DC Reborn!
Note: the review below contains **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on this book, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
New Super-Man #1
Writer: Gene Luen Yang
Penciller: Viktor Bogdanovic
Inker: Richard Friend
Letters: Dave Sharpe
Alex Lu: In New Super-Man, penned by American Born Chinese author Gene Luen Yang and drawn by artist Viktor Bogdanovic, readers are taken on a singular journey through a relatively unexplored part of the DC Universe– China. We are introduced to Kenan Kong, a brash teenage jock whose is selected by a secret Chinese government organization to be the test subject for a serum that replicates Superman’s powers. Over the course of this first issue, Yang and Bogdanovic deftly cover a great deal of ground, establishing major characters and themes that make this book a big win for strong storytelling and progressive representation of minorities in comics.
Kenan is not the Super-Man the world needs, but he’s likely the one it deserves. He’s abrasive and a bully. When we first meet him, he’s beating up a fellow student Lixin, who he’s nicknamed Pangzi (translated as fat boy), for his lunch. When he inexplicably saves that same boy from the deadly Chinese supervillain Blue Condor, he flashes his muscles on TV in a show of bravado. When he meets intrepid reporter Laney Lan, he’s more focused on trying to take her out on a date than he is on answering her questions about his heroic actions. He’s not by any means the sharpest tool in the shed, either. In sum, Kenan is a very different kind of Asian character than what we most often see in western media, where Asian men are portrayed as academically intelligent but emasculated and without sex drives. He is much more akin to the Asian dude-bro that has recently started popping up on more progressive TV shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Fresh Off the Boat.
However, Yang distinguishes Kenan from characters like Josh and the fictionalized version of Eddie Huang by making him a member of the blue collar working class. His father is an auto mechanic who spends his free time trying to prove the existence of the Ministry of Self-Reliance, the shadowy group that ultimately ends up providing the Superman serum to Kenan. Kenan’s socioeconomic status immediately makes him more sympathetic to the reader in spite of his superficial combative nature. He’s made even more so when his father chastises him for saving Lixin from Blue Condor because his father immediately knows Kenan was not simply amicably hanging out with Lixin. We learn that every time Kenan beats Lixin up, Kenan’s dad gets a call from Lixin’s dad, the latter of whom is the CEO of Southeast Airlines. This is important not only because it further emphasizes the Kong family’s feeling of powerlessness but also because Kenan’s mother died on a plane that belonged to Southeast Airlines. Kenan may be a bully, but he also has deep-seated wounds that he does not know how to heal.
Throughout this issue, Bogdanovic does a great job of rendering the detailed world Yang has created for his characters. Of particular note are his reaction shots. Bogdanovic does not use many lines on his faces nor does he render them with great detail, but his cartoonish exaggeration of characters’ bodies and facial expressions allows their emoting to hit the reader with great impact. This semi-futurist version of Shanghai is drawn with a stunning amount of variance and detail. Every building looks like it has a story to tell, and which such a richly rendered landscape I hope Yang and Bogdanovic take the time to fully explore it.
What did you think of the issue, Kyle? Do the Trinity analogies this issue closes on hit the nail too hard on the head for you?
Kyle Pinion: I was a big fan, especially of the analogues. There’s something about the off-brand foreign heroes approach that’s always worked for me, going back to my childhood obsession with Captain Britain, Guardian and Red Guardian as Marvel’s international iterations of Captain America. I still think Most Excellent Superbat is my favorite Kirby character that Kirby never created, and with that in mind, returning to China’s effort to create their own versions of America’s heroes and even holding some value and pride in their first “American-style” supervillain is a fun approach to base a series around.
I thought this was a largely very enjoyable issue, which is a relief to say, as I never quite thought Yang got a fair shake during his Superman run with John Romita Jr., and later, Howard Porter. Every single issue he wrote was involved in a crossover, be it the “Truth” storyline or “Savage Dawn,” and I think his work suffered a bit because of it. Though there were some really nice highlights here and there, including a Superman who eats tacos and participates in an underground wrestling club. But it never quite felt like we got a chance to see what Yang could do on brand-name Superman proper. With New Superman, we don’t exactly get that, but what we do receive might be something that plays a bit more to his strengths anyway.
Yang’s best elements as a writer are in how he imbues his character with relateable attributes and three-dimensional personalities. In addition, his ear for dialogue pairs well with the characters he creates once he’s locked in on a solid cast to tell his stories around. Both Boxers & Saints (an outright masterpiece) and The Shadow Hero are good examples of Yang hitting this perfect groove as a scribe. New Super-Man plays to this similar tune in this initial issue, as Yang gets to craft his cast from the ground-up – though still plays to some familiar Superman archetypes. Kong Kenan gets to stick to the “kuh-kuh” sounds of the Clark Kent name, while he gets his own reporter love interest with the familiar “L.L.” alliteration. Much like with The Shadow Hero, there’s quite a bit of “love-letter writing” occurring here, between the familiar Superman tropes, the Captain America-style experiment, and the challenging upbringing and tragedy that marks his life in a way that reminded me somewhat of Spider-Man. I thought making his father a reactionary was an especially good touch, and the conflict that his involvement with the Ministry of Self-Reliance will engender resonated with me with a potential “Aunt May hates Spider-Man” vibe.
I also really liked just how funny Kenan was. Not in a laugh out loud way, but in a loquacious alpha-personality sense. This is a protagonist that I’m very interested in following further. I want to experience his first big adventure as a superhero. I want to see how he clashes with this Batman and Wonder Woman of China. And I want to see his revenge match with Blue Condor, not just because I think Bogdanovic will draw the hell out of it (though he surely will), but because I want to more of this character’s thoughts and dialogue as his world continues to expand and get fantastical. I was sold on the concept alone when I first heard about it, and now that I’ve read it, I think all my hopes for what a Yang written DC comic could be are starting to be realized.
I’d also like to point out that Bogdanovic’s art is so good, he almost makes that New 52 Superman costume look good. Almost.
Alex, do you think Yang makes a good argument for the existence of this character as a spin-off of the New 52 iteration of the character? I’m very excited for the possibilities he lays out here, but it’s almost as if Kong Kenan is the Marvel-ized version of Superman done right, where his predecessor tended to flail when creators were tasked with making a Superman for modern times.
Alex: I certainly do, Kyle! My problem with New 52 Superman was that it seemed like the Superman editorial office was constantly divided on what to do with him. On the one hand, they’d commit to telling a progressive story about a humanized Superman. They hired Greg Pak and Gene Luen Yang, both of whom are writers who are self-professedly concerned with issues of race and representation. Yang in particular often spoke about his run being tied into the exploration of Superman as an immigrant looking for his place in the world. On the other hand, you had heavy-handed editorial decisions that took Superman away from his humanity, the most egregious of which was pairing him off with Wonder Woman in an uneven exploration of divine love. As you mentioned, Yang and Pak were constantly weighed down by action-packed crossover events that distracted from the more nuanced development they purportedly aimed to insert into their respective series. These two competing narratives resulted in the creation of a character that was bad at worst and uneven at best.
As you say, Kyle, Kenan’s story is similar to Steve Rogers’ in a lot of ways despite their personalities being diametrically opposed. I think that tension makes Kenan even more interesting, though. It’s one thing to root for a kind and modest underdog like Steve to find new strength and win the day. It’s quite another to root for a braggadocious person like Kenan, who is still an underdog in the grand scheme of things but goes out of his way to hurt others in recompense for his unfortunate position in the world. I certainly think Kenan is capable of being a hero, but unlike Steve and Peter Parker, who have strong support networks, Kenan has many people actively rooting against him. It will be interesting to see whether his newfound strength takes him down a dark path before heading towards the light.
In addition, while I certainly respect the reading of Superman as an immigrant, I do not totally buy into it. I put it only a few steps above the reading of X-Men titles as a metaphor for racial issues. The idea of a Caucasian extraterrestrial acting as a black or Asian person trying to make their way in American society has immediate problems in my mind. That’s why I really love the idea of Yang grounding his New Super-Man on Earth. Yang doesn’t seem to be aiming for an immigrant narrative in New Super-Man thanks to the series’ Chinese setting, but is instead offering western readers a window into a story that is more globalized. Obviously American-born iconography like the symbols of the Trinity pervade the essence of this book, but Yang pointedly notes their status as global heroes when Kenan sees a video of Superman in action and says “Everybody knows who Superman is.” These symbols don’t just belong to America. They are being appropriated and used all around the world.
In addition, while Yang makes a point of globalizing New Super-Man, he also inserts a lot of his own Chinese heritage into the nuances of the title. Being a first generation child of immigrants, seeing Kenan introduce himself by his surname went a long way in establishing this story as truly based in China. The concept of the Ministry of Self-Reliance reminded me of the shadowy government practices my own parents grew up under and would tell me about. Even the question that Laney Lan asks Kenan about why he saved Lixin, “was it out of a sense of duty?” feels like something much more likely to be asked in a Confucian group-oriented place like China than it would be in America, the land of individualism.
This all goes to say that New Super-Man breaks the mold. The amount of depth and nuance Yang and Bogdanovic have packed into this story is incredible and effectively establishes Kenan Kong as the character New 52’s Superman always wanted to be. While billions of advertising dollars rest on Clark Kent’s shoulders and prevent him from ever truly changing, Kenan is free to be taken in any direction. You can feel that sense of liberty in every scene in this book. Yang and Bogdanovic have fun with their characters and world, establishing new ideas and concepts on every page. Not only is this a book a good argument for why we needed a New Super-Man, it’s another example to list in the argument for putting new characters into classic mantles on a larger scale. Clark Kent may move dollars, but characters like Kenan will move the world.
It’s a huge buy for me. How about you, Kyle?
Kyle: I love it. Buy!
Final Verdict: Buy
Stay tuned for our last review of the day, The Flash #2!