Superman and the mystery metahuman working for the US military are at one another’s throats. The stranger’s physiology is similar to Superman’s, but with decades’ more exposure to solar radiation. He’s stronger, knocking Superman from Utah to California; his aim’s good too, as he’s sent Superman to the spot where General Sam Lane runs a super-secret world defence base known as the Machine. The being introduces himself by his codename, Wraith, and explains that he’s been on Earth 75 years. Lane adds that the Machine was created to research the technology that came to Earth in Wraith’s spacecraft, and eventually became a vital part of US defence – with Wraith as its secret weapon, an enforcer to make the world a safer place.
Lois Lane, meanwhile, is over Nova Scotia, desperately trying to save the lives of everyone on a plane after Luddite terrorists Ascension shorted its power. She has a plan – it’s a long shot, but it might just work.
In Metropolis, escaped convict Lex Luthor is clomping and splashing across Hob’s Bay, heading for one home in particular …
Those are the broad strokes of Scott Snyder’s story. The details include an explanation of why Sam Lane really hates Superman, and it’s not simply the Luthor motivation that he’s an alien. It’s that he believes Superman to be a coward, unwilling to make the hard decisions and really make the world a better place, by taking down dictators and thereby saving lives; he thinks Superman is comfortable with only those tasks that bring applause and admiration.
He’s wrong, I think. It’s not about courage, it’s a matter of self-determination. His first few stories apart, Superman has traditionally believed that it’s not his place to act like a god, shaping the affairs of his fellow men and women. Yes, he’ll save them from immediate threats, and massive calamities, but he’s not going to swan in and act like some one-man coup.
This issue – the apt title is Prayers Answered – also shows us just what an ass Lane us, not simply wanting Superman subdued, but demanding he kneel before him (I suppose you’d call it a Zod complex). All his attitude does is make the Man of Steel uncharacteristically angry.
Wraith’s an intriguing sort, speaking words of peace but enslaved to the military for 75 years – of course he’ll follow Lane’s orders, he’s been raised by soldiers. He’s a twisted reflection of how Superman might be if he’d been found by the authorities rather than the Kents.
While we’ve seen more militaristic versions of Superman many times over the years, Scott Snyder’s story these past three issues feels fresh. It’s perhaps the scale of the tale, with flashbacks to 1938 and 1945 and scenes set around the globe – most Superman stories never explore our planet beyond Metropolis, Smallville and the Arctic. It’s also been grand to see Superman really have to fight for his victories, both mentally and physically. And the Lois we’re getting is a hero in her own right, daring and smart and inspirational. As for Lex Luthor, well, he’s impressed with his intellect so far, and this issue hints that he has something truly fiendish in store.
Snyder’s script asks questions about what it means to be a hero, and nicely balances passion with action and exposition; if the angry Superman at the start of this chapter were representative of the series as a whole, I’d be nervous, but Lane has been pushing all his buttons, physically and emotionally. And Superman does calm down – I believe he’s learning lessons along the way.
The art of penciller Jim Lee and inker Scott Williams remains summer blockbuster in scale, crackling with energy in the fight sequences, with a mix of splashes and tiny panels to control the pace. I actually prefer the quieter moments, when we see what the artists can do when asked to nail a particular expression – suspicion, desperation, puzzlement and so on. They do a pretty good job. Add in the colours of Alex Sinclair and Jeromy Cox and we have an explosion of superhero pop. My favourite panel is a splash (well, look at all that water – then click on image to enlarge).
Now that’s a neat spin on the old Lex Luthor power suit. I also like the satellite-motivated use of a map background as Superman is kicked cross country by Wraith – a fun device.
A two-page epilogue drawn by Dustin Nguyen and coloured by John Kalisz is stunning, in its quiet way. Something as simple as the placement of light within the panels had me staring in wonder. I hope that at some point this art team gets to do a whole issue – perhaps a ghost story for Christmas.
Pop quiz! The Machine is located in Needles, California – which famous literary figure has a brother there?