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Superman and Rogol Zaar at the center of the Earth in Man of Steel #5, DC Comics (2018).

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The joys and frustrations of Brian Michael Bendis’ Superman

After years at Marvel, Bendis jumps to DC, and turns the Man of Steel into one of his own

Brian Michael Bendis, Adam Hughes/DC Comics

There was an element of shock when DC announced that Brian Michael Bendis was taking over Superman. Bendis had spent nearly two decades as the top writer at Marvel Comics, and, in all honesty, Superman wasn’t the obvious choice for him. While he’s certainly no stranger to the kind of cosmic superhero epics that readers expect from the Man of Steel, Bendis’ long history in crime comics and grittier superheroes made Batman the more obvious pick. There was even the potential to pick up a character like the Question or Cameron Chase and take them from the B list to the bestseller list overnight.

But if Bendis’ first six issues at DC Comics, the miniseries Man of Steel, have shown anything, it’s that Superman was the obvious choice. The Marvel Comics titan has a genuine and obvious affection for Superman that’s every bit as strong as his connection to Peter Parker or Luke Cage, and it shows in the way that he writes him.

The tricky part is that it doesn’t always come through with everything else.

DC Comics house ad for Brian Michael Bendis’ Superman. Jim Lee/DC Comics

There’s a longstanding tradition at DC Comics that when someone who defined their career at Marvel comes over, they wind up on a Superman title. When Jack Kirby crossed the street in 1971, 10 years after he launched the Marvel Age of Comics alongside Stan Lee and changed superhero comics forever, he started in the pages of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. That was the title that launched the Fourth World saga, in which the Last Son of Krypton — redrawn by Al Plastino so that their flagship character wouldn’t use Kirby’s style and look too much like a Marvel hero — was as much of a major player as his redheaded sidekick.

It happened again in 1987, when John Byrne relaunched an all-new Superman #1 after spending the previous decade redefining the Fantastic Four and, with Chris Claremont, the X-Men. When John Romita Jr. finally came to DC in 2014, after a 30-year career of working almost exclusively for the competition, his first gig was Superman, too.

In 2018, the same thing happened with Bendis. After spending the past 18 years becoming the ultimate company man for the House of Ideas — to the point where he even moved his creator-owned titles to Marvel under the Icon imprint — Bendis made the leap to DC, debuting in the pages of Action Comics #1000 and launching a new Man of Steel miniseries right after.

DC Comics’ house ad for Jack Kirby’s DC Comics work. DC Comics

His arrival was heralded with exactly the kind of fanfare that had been given to Kirby, in a very literal sense, with house ads proclaiming “BENDIS IS COMING” in deliberate recreation of the “KIRBY IS COMING” ads from ‘71. And honestly? It should’ve been.

Kirby had been one of the driving forces at Marvel for ten years when he came to DC, and while there’s no disputing that he’s one of the most influential comics creators who ever lived, Bendis’ career at Marvel had gone almost twice as long with a massive influence of his own. He was the writer on Avengers when they became Marvel’s flagship franchise, picking up the reins put down by the X-Men at the end of the ‘90s. He’s the co-creator of Jessica Jones. He reinvented Spider-Man twice. Like it or not, for a long time, on the writer side of things at least, Bendis was Marvel.

Superman is the kind of character that you don’t associate with Bendis, who has always found a solid footing in his characters’ most engaging flaws. He defined his tenure at Marvel by exploring Spider-Man’s youth and all the mistakes that go along with being a teenager, and by exploring dark themes with Jessica Jones, who might end up being his most famous original co-creation.

Those are stories that are far removed from what works for Superman, but they’re also pretty far afield from what we’ve seen so far of Bendis’ Superman work. The most “Marvel Comics” writer of the 21st century has gone right for the character that the entire DC Universe is built around, and while it didn’t take the form we might’ve expected, it was pretty great.

Or at least, Superman himself was. Bendis is well-known among readers for his signature dialogue tics, including the repetitive, rapid-fire, back-and-forth conversations that often fill his panels. It was something on display in his Action Comics #1000 story, where the Gilmore Girlsian patter was focused on the subject of Superman’s red trunks making their triumphant return after seven years of increasingly bad redesigns that tried to one-up the most iconic superhero costume in history.

His take on Clark Kent and his invulnerable alter-ego, on the other hand, didn’t feel like Bendis. It felt like Superman. He’s thoughtful, he’s concerned with the people around him, he’s smart and curious and kind of charmingly square. He feels awkward about discussing his personal life because he literally has all the responsibility for everyone in the world resting on his shoulders, and he uses that responsibility as an understandable reason to get out of uncomfortable conversations with Green Lantern. He gets frustrated with himself. He’s exactly the kind of relatable, responsible, solid dude that you want Superman to be.

There’s a scene in the final issue of Man of Steel that might honestly be one of my favorite Superman scenes in recent memory. When his son, Jon Kent, freaks out about how there’s a possible future where he ”kills millions of people” because he can’t control his powers, Clark kneels down and tells him that you can’t spend your time worrying about possible futures and bad timelines, and that all you need to do is focus on what you’re doing in the world right now.

Clark Kent and his son, Jon, in Man of Steel #6, DC Comics (2018). Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Fabok/DC Comics

The wonderful moment builds on the incredible metaphor of what anxiety looks like in a world full of talking telepathic gorillas, where you can actually travel to the future and see if everything works out okay. In the best case, you run into the Legion of Super-Heroes and an art-deco 31st century. But what if you see something else? Would you be able to act, knowing that any action you take could send you hurtling towards a timeline that’s even worse than the one we’re in?

Beyond that, though, Superman is the perfect character to give this speech. There are few things DC Comics as a company loves more than an alternate timeline where Superman is either a killer, a villain, or otherwise in need of being beaten up by someone, usually Batman. They’ve done two video games about this exact premise, which are the only non-Lego video games Superman has starred in since 2006.

The idea that Superman is aware of all this, because he lives in a world where alternate timelines are a tangible fact of reality, is great. It makes him smart. It makes him a person whose concerns are commensurate with the abilities that he has. But the fact that he’s talking about this stuff while also dealing with the (relatively) smaller problem of a string of arsons in Metropolis reinforces the idea that he’s out there fighting his Neverending Battle at all possible scales. It makes him a good dad, and for people who are coming to Superman for the first time in a while, putting that version of Superman forward instead of scowling strongman with glowing red eyes means something.

Bendis is working with artists like Steve Rude, Doc Shaner, Ryan Sook, and Kevin Maguire, any of whom could be a draw on a Superman title no matter who was writing it, but there’s something that’s really working here. It’s always a tricky proposition to ascribe opinions to creators based solely on their work, but it seems pretty safe to say that Bendis likes Superman as a character, and it’s evident that he understands him.

The biggest problem comes in the form of the book’s villain, Rogol Zaar, whose name I have to look up every single time I want to talk about him, because he’s less of a character and more of the superhero equivalent of radio static in a humanoid shape. I have my sincere doubts that there is any force in this world or the next that will make me care about him. That’s partly because I have a particular, personal dislike of stories that center on Krypton, but partly because of the simple fact that it’s already been done.

“What if Krypton… was murrrrrdered?” is one of the first ideas you’d come up with if you wanted to tell an epic Superman story, and makes sense, too, if you view the destruction of Krypton as the great motivating tragedy of Superman’s past, as many writers do. It’s like having Batman run into Joe Chill as an adult; it allows for the possibility of a resolution to that tragedy. It becomes something to confront, and since you can’t really do that with geologic instability, there has to be a villain.

Rogol Zaar in The Man of Steel #4, DC Comics (2018). Brian Michael Bendis, Kevin Maguire/DC Comics

That’s probably why it’s exactly the plot of Superman: Earth One, by Shane Davis and J. Michael Straczynski — another Marvel-exclusive transplant who wound up on a high-profile Superman project. That book featured a different genocidal alien with a name that’s not worth looking up, and it wasn’t good there, either.

The only time it has been good is in Superman: The Animated Series, and even there it was shifted into a form that made more sense, and was a little more complicated than just “what if it was this guy, though?” It wasn’t a new villain created for the role, it was the long-established Brainiac, and he wasn’t truly responsible for Krypton’s destruction, he’s just the one who allowed it to happen by discrediting Jor-El.

The simple fact is that there’s already a huge presence in the Superman mythos that ties Superman back to the destruction of his home planet. It’s called Kryptonite, and it’s kind of a big deal.

There’s always a possibility that this idea could work, but Rogol Zaar isn’t the character to make it happen, even if Superman showing up at as he’s trying to bomb the Earth’s core and asking “Hey, what’s that?” is a pretty great moment. Despite a few efforts to tie him to the history of the DC Universe, there’s just nothing to Rogol Zaar in the six issues we’ve got. Plus, we don’t actually get to see him fighting a bunch of tiny Supermans on panel, which is the real tragedy of the destruction of the shrunken Kryptonian city of Kandor.

As for everything else in Man of Steel, most of it falls into the realm of unexpected, but not necessarily thrilling. The great moment in Superman talking to Jon about alternate futures is balanced out by Jon talking like a tiny adult rather than a kid, and while Bendis’s signature patter actually does work well for Lois Lane, whisking her out of the book seems like the weirdest choice of the whole run.

Jor-el in The Man of Steel #4, DC Comics (2018). Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Fabok/DC Comics

Along the same lines, doing a story where the guy who destroyed Krypton shows up to murder anything even touched by that planet’s legacy is undercut quite a bit when Superman’s Kryptonian dad, Jor-El, inexplicably pops out of a spaceship to drag the supporting cast into an off-panel space adventure. I’m behind on a lot of titles, but I am by no means the new-to-DC reader that might be pulled in by Bendis’ arrival, and I have no idea what that dude is doing alive and not exploded into bits by the literal premise of this story.

What sums it up best is the book’s new character, a firefighter named Melody Moore, who’s also investigating the arsons plaguing Metropolis. Her appearance is far more notable than that of similar characters we’ve seen in the past — like Lupe Leocadio, another boots-on-the-ground public servant from Greg Rucka’s short run on Action Comics back in the 2000s — because of the absence of Lois and Jon.

There’s a deliberate line drawn between them — the fact that Melody has M.M. initials rather than the Superman mythos’s traditional double-L isn’t a mistake. It’s a choice; and easy to see as a mission statement about moving the book forward, even if it’s only by a single letter further in the alphabet.

The potential to do that is clearly here. This week, the first issue of Bendis’ Superman focused on some genuinely great character work of Clark Kent alone and adrift without his supporting cast, but it also bore an ominous blurb touting Rogol Zaar’s imminent return: It looks like that precarious balance is going to continue for now. At the core of it, though, is a Superman that’s easy to like, whose humanity comes through not in spite of trappings of Krypton or the powers that are far beyond those of mortal humans, but because of how we see him dealing with them.