‘Superman vs the unstoppable Rogol Zaar!’ is what the cover promises. We don’t get that this issue, but it is coming. What we do get is the best Superman story since Brian Michael Bendis took over the character.
The issue opens at STAR Labs, where supervillain Live Wire, in a quest to expand her powers, expects to be the big story. Not quite.
So much for forcing the scientists to help her upgrade her electrical abilities. Superman arrives and he has his own hopes for her.
In his other identity as a reporter, Superman is used to delivering bad news. And even though it’s the STAR guys who have put Earth in a particularly precarious position, he’s not angry at them, just sad.
Off Earth, but still in the Phantom Zone, Rogol Zaar – the alien who claims to have killed Krypton – meets one of the inter-dimensional prison’s longest-serving, and all-round worst, residents.
Jax-Ur intends to show Rogol Zaar who’s boss courtesy of his prison gang.
That worked well Jax-Ur, you criminal mastermind, you.
On Earth, as he staves off as many Phantom Zone-connected disasters as he can, Superman checks in with his Justice League teammates.
Then, a curt reminder to citizens of Metropolis not to give in to their worst urges.
And a visit to the Hall of Justice, where a cerebellum of super-scientists, with the refreshing exception of Blue Beetle Ted Kord, is having a bit of a panic.
By issue’s end, Zaar and his new army of Phantom Zoners are ready for a raid on Earth. Superman knows it, but he ain’t cowering.
There’s so much good stuff here. Superman believing Livewire has a better side. Him having a sharp word with regular people who are helping themselves rather than helping out in a crisis. Ray Palmer pulling rank on Mr Oh-So-Terrific followed by his understandable incredulity that STAR scientists are yet again diving into mad science with little thought for the consequences. Jimmy Olsen being used in an understated, but logical, manner.
And finally – finally! – we get a sense that Rogol Zaar has potential as an ongoing foe, his calm takedown of Jax-Ur, both verbal and physical, giving him some much-needed villainous charisma. So far he’s simply been Doomsday with a bigger vocabulary.
Oh, and there’s an utterly wonderful one-page gag showcasing one of my favourite DC B-listers, which I shan’t spoil.
There’s art to astonish courtesy of penciller Ivan Reis, inkers Joe Prado and Oclair Albert, colourist Alex Sinclair and letterer Josh Reed. Reis uses smallness to sell that above-mentioned joke, while he goes big, very big, in order to show what a threat Zaar is to, well, just about everybody. The compassion on Superman’s face at various points is glorious, while Reis’s formidable, ready-for-anything Man of Steel is stellar.
And I’m most intrigued by the background details of Batman With Vomiting Action – bell, book and candle? Was he trying a spell to help Earth?
The regular cover by Reis, Prado and Sinclair is decent, but the variants are outstanding, with Adam Hughes’ Clark image just pipping David Mack’s lovely nod to Superman #1 as my favourite (I wonder why he didn’t come up with this two months ago…).
I can’t fault Bendis for his understanding of Superman – this is a hero who inspires, who cares, a man who is here to help rather than judge, someone who leads not because he thinks he’s the best, but because others look to him. And in Reis and friends, Bendis has partners who can translate his vision into truly memorable visuals.
Suddenly, I’m excited.