I really liked the first volume of Bendis’ “Superman,” but vol. 2 sees him falling back into some of his bad habits. Specifically, wanting to enact major plot developments without putting in the work to make them feel earned. This starts off with the return of a now-teenaged Jonathan Kent, last seen when his grandfather Jor-El (and remember everyone, he’s the grandfather of the original “New 52” Superman, not this one that came in from the previous universe) offered to take him to space so he could learn how to be a proper Kryptonian/superhero. Unfortunately his grandfather turns out to not be as stable as he initially seemed to be, and Jon finds himself wanting to go home. Before he can do that, they fly too close to a black hole and wind up in another universe. The one that happens to be inhabited by the Crime Syndicate -- the evil version of the Justice League.
Bendis does get some good material from this, such as the creepy conversations Jon has with “evil dad” Ultraman, and it all reads like a fast-paced space adventure for the most part. The thing is that when Jon gets back to his time, he’s just fine. For all that the writer wanted to sell us on the idea that the kid spent YEARS in danger, there’s really no evidence to show for that. It ultimately reads as if Bendis just wanted to age Jon up because he had plans for a teenage version of the character and wanted to create a rift between Superman and his father.
It’s that latter bit which drives the back half of the volume as, before he can have words with him, Superman finds out that the rest of the universe has it in for Jor-El. We find out that Jor-El was part of a galactic collective that was calling the shots behind the scenes (very reminiscent of his “Illuminati” concept back at Marvel) and is now wanted by pretty much everyone for his efforts to make the universe a better place. His words, mind you.
This is why when Superman goes to find him, he’s in the middle of a three-way conflict between empires that want to kill him. Then Rogol Zaar shows up with General Zod and Jax-Ur and things get even crazier. It ends up with Superman and his family on Thanagar making a radical proposal and some time-traveling guests showing up to emphasize how incredibly important this thing is.
If you assumed that I wasn’t a fan of that last bit, you’d be right. It’s a suggestion that comes out of nowhere that’s backed up with lots of gladhanding about how it’s so awesome. I’m also deeply suspicious as to how such a thing is going to be implemented in future cosmic-based titles from DC. Bendis will certainly push it on his end, but will anyone else run with this? Theoretically his proposal has already succeeded because he’s tying it to another team, whose adventures he’s also writing, but it feels like much ado about nothing right now.
Which is a shame because there’s some good character work that’s done amongst all of the action. Superman and Zod’s lightspeed heart-to-heart. Jor-El’s justified bitterness as to why his home planet was destroyed. Superman intimidating the three empires fighting against his father to stop their attack. Then there’s Jor-El’s ultimate fate, which is a genuine heartbreaker. The smaller character-driven stuff works very well in this volume. It’s a shame that it’s propping up some very rickety big-picture ideas.
Making the volume as a whole work better than it should is the art, which is mostly (like 99%) from Ivan Reis and Brandon Peterson. The former handles the present-day sequences and they’re an intensely-detailed delight. Reis showed during his time on “Green Lantern” that he can handle the intense variety of alien races that populate the DCU and he hasn’t lost a step in that time. His double-page spread of Superman taking on the entire three-way spread was a real marvel to behold. Peterson has a cleaner, smoother style that’s maybe a little less immediately impressive when put next to Reis’. Still, he’s got a knack for impressive setpieces, like when the Crime Syndicate makes their presence known to Jon.
It’s not a wholly solid follow-up, but I’m not about to give up on this version of “Superman” yet. Even if the larger points of this volume don’t quite land, the smaller moments are quite solid. They’re also backed up by some pretty great art too. As well as a solid take on the title character. While the new stuff Bendis is trying needs some work, he’s still writing a version of Superman that I can believe in and am still willing to follow for the time being.