“The Man of Steel” was a decent enough start to Bendis’ run on “Superman” and “Action Comics.” It showed he had a good handle on the character, even if the stories being set up didn’t really grab me. “Phantom Earth,” however, is a big step in the right direction. It’s got a great setup for a crisis worthy of Superman and offers further evidence that the writer knows what he’s doing with the character. Even if some of the larger details of his run seem a bit fuzzy at this point.
Superman’s in kind of a weird place at the start of this volume. Lois and his son have taken off with the (alternate universe) version of his father, he’s set up a new Fortress of Solitude in the Bermuda Triangle, Martian Manhunter is trying to convince him to take over the Earth for the good of the galaxy, and a Dominator fleet is bearing down on the planet. One of these problems is solved a lot more easily than the others and it’s while Superman is pondering those that something happens.
That something would be the Earth being thrust into the Phantom Zone. Our planet is now in the same pan-dimensional prison that Krypton threw all of its worst criminals into. The problem is that there’s a much more recent addition to it that spells real trouble for Superman and Earth: Rogol Zaar. The unstoppable cosmic warlord who has vowed to rid the universe of the Kryptonian menace now has his most hated foe and his home right where he wants them.
The idea of bringing our planet into such an awful place is certainly a good one. We all know what the Phantom Zone is like and the danger upon learning what has happened to the Earth is certainly palpable. Even if the reason behind it can be boiled down to, “S.T.A.R. Labs was doin’ a thing and then WHOOPS!” that’s forgivable because it allows a lot of good stuff to happen as a result.
Chief among these things is showing us Superman at his best during a crisis. Even when he doesn’t know how to get Earth out of the situation it’s in, he’s still able to hold it together to inspire the people around him. Whether it’s the Justice League (in a limited role here), the scientists at S.T.A.R. Labs, or some random looters who give up what they’re doing immediately after Supes pops in for a second to tell them to “Cut it out! NOW!” Even with the dual threat of the Earth in the Phantom Zone and Rogol Zaar on the warpath, Superman’s presence still manages to be reassuring even when he’s barely holding it together.
Which is at least once in this volume. When he looks like he’s about to give in, however, he’s able to pull himself back because he’s Superman. He was raised right and knows the right thing to do. Even if it’s damn hard.
The right thing, of course, is helping out people whenever and however he can. Bendis’ Superman comes off as someone who couldn’t stop helping out other people even if he wanted to. It’s something that’s hardwired into his personality and conveyed quite well in this volume. First in a conversation with Martian Manhunter where he keeps popping off to save people in the middle of it, and then a bit later in an interior monologue where he explains that while he can turn off his super-hearing he just doesn’t. Because that would mean tuning out the cries of people who need help. This is great stuff and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Bendis get inside the title character’s head like this.
What I didn’t enjoy were a lot of little things strewn throughout the volume. There’s that conversation with Martian Manhunter about how he wants Superman to lead the world. Not only does that feel antithetical to Superman’s ethos, it’s vague enough to give me bad flashbacks to other hazily defined Bendis concepts like “Time is Broken” or “Mutant Revolution.” We’ve also got that A-list villain who shows up towards the end to raise the stakes, except his presence doesn’t wind up adding all that much. That’s in part due to the really abrupt shifting of gears at the end that leads the main arc of the story to stop rather than finish before it jumps into the next storyline.
Still, even the questionable stuff in this volume looks great thanks to its artist, Ivan Reis. A longtime collaborator with Geoff Johns on the likes of “Green Lantern,” “Aquaman,” and “Justice League,” he’s one of the best superhero artists at DC. He’s got a great handle on how to frame action so that it looks appropriately epic while also investing it with a lot of eye-catching detail as well. That allows moments like the double-page reveal of the Phantom Zone to hit the reader with the impact that they deserve.
Even if this volume doesn’t quite have the makings of a “Saga” or much in the way about “Unity,” it’s still solid story well told. I like Bendis’ take on Superman more here and he’s found a really talented collaborator in Reis whose art energizes the narrative. This may just be the first real volume of “Superman” from the writer, but it also feels like it’s another successful step towards him getting his mojo back full-time.