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Superman braces for major changes.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for approaching Man of Steel with mixed emotions. On one hand, this is the first major DC Comics project from writer Brian Bendis since signing an exclusive contract with the company late last year. That’s a pretty huge deal. On the other, the Superman franchise wasn’t exactly in need of a major status quo upheaval. For the past two years it’s been doing just fine in the capable hands of Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and Dan Jurgens. But like it or not, big changes are brewing for Superman. The good news is that Man of Steel #1 suggests the character is still in capable hands.

Thankfully, this Man of Steel isn’t following the same approach of 1986’s Man of Steel, which saw writer/artist John Byrne chronicle a revamped origin story for Supes before commencing his run on the monthly Superman comic. The last thing Superman needs right now is yet another origin story retread. The new Man of Steel is much more about looking ahead to an uncertain but intriguing future. What little flashback material there is in issue #1 is largely geared towards fleshing out Superman’s newest major villain, Rogol Zaar, and his possible role in the destruction of Krypton.

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Zaar was the main point of concern coming into this series, as the villain didn’t enjoy a particularly strong debut in Action Comics #1000 last month. Between the wonky character design and the fact that this franchise has had its share of villains tied to Krypton’s destruction, Zaar didn’t do much to impress. But part of the problem is that Bendis and Jim Lee’s Action Comics #1000 story dove right into a major brawl between Superman and Zaar, leaving little room for character development. This issue doesn’t have that limitation. With this relatively quieter and more introspective approach, Zaar does begin to develop an appeal all his own. At least now we know what drives him, even if much about this character remains shrouded in mystery. The trade-off is that this series doesn’t exactly rocket out of the gate in terms of pacing, but this seems the better approach.

Even more important, Bendis establishes that his distinctive voice is indeed a proper fit for the Superman franchise. Any concerns about Bendis’ wordy dialogue overwhelming the series or clashing with Superman’s world prove unfounded here. Bendis actually seems to have a pretty firm handle on the character at this early stage. He’s confident and unashamedly decent, yet quietly troubled by problems that are only vaguely alluded to in this book. Bendis seems intent on exploring Superman’s loneliness, but without simply sweeping side everything previous writers have done to give him a family. It’s never easy to make Superman seem powerful yet relatable, yet Man of Steel looks to have no trouble in that regard.

It surely helps having such an amazing art team to bring this script to life. It’s much easier to depict that subtle pain beneath Superman’s warm, powerful exterior when penciller Ivan Reis and inker Joe Prado are rendering that exterior. Reis and Prado are in top form with this issue. Their clean, detailed depiction of Superman and his city never fails to impress. Nor does this issue ever falter when it comes to conveying nuanced emotions and character dynamics. The issue seamlessly transitions between action-oriented scenes to dialogue-heavy fare at the Daily Planet without missing a beat. In terms of page structure and overall tone, this is a very different sort of Bendis comic. We’re so used to seeing Bendis work with the likes of Alex Maleev and David Marquez and Sara Pichelli now. Reis’ art brings with it a much different sensibility – less grounded and more idealized.

Colorist Alex Sinclair frequently stands out, as well. Sinclair brings a moody, otherworldly vibe to the Rogol Zaar scenes, and a tense, dramatic flair to the main action sequence and its fiery imagery. More than with most artists, Sinclair seems to give the whole of Metropolis a life and personality all its own.

It is unfortunate that Reis and Prado aren’t quite able to finish this issue on their own. Not that Jason Fabok isn’t a worthy replacement, but it’s probably a bad sign that the series is relying on fill-in art right out of the gate. Should fans be worried considering that some of the artists attached to Man of Steel have a reputation for slowness as it is? Is there any hope of this book maintaining a consistent look and feel over time?

The Verdict

Did Superman need the dramatic overhaul Man of Steel is setting up? Perhaps not, but at least the character has a promising future under new writer Brian Michael Bendis. This issue shows that Bendis has a firm handle on the character, and also helps Rogol Zaar stand out in a way he didn’t in Action Comics #1000. The top-notch artwork also helps, though the fact that this series is already resorting to fill-in art is a worrying sign.



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