One of the most difficult problems encountered by Superman creators is finding conflicts that can challenge the Man of Steel. In Superman #40, the titular hero points this out himself when wondering whether there is Kryptonite, magic, or a red sun nearby to stop him from doing whatever he decides is best. Defeating the Man of Steel in a purely physical battle is difficult without the inclusion of a deus ex machina. Yet physical battles are far from the only sort of adventure that Superman might encounter. Finding an impossible challenge that tests the hero's convictions and morality is difficult. That is what makes Superman #40 a frustrating read in part, because it has discovered a great challenge and sidelined that challenge in favor of the standard deus ex machina.
The issue focuses on Superman and his son Jon's reply to a planet that is facing almost the exact fate of Krypton. They arrive prepared to save the day only to learn the path to doing so is far more complicated than expected. The challenges imagined here raise issues of self-determination, faith, and difficult narrative of the outside savior. There is meat on the bone, but the issue devolves into the standard Superman antics that readers have come to expect since the Silver Age. It's not a bad turn, but it's far from good.
That isn't to say the issue is without charm. The newest volume of Superman has been at its best when focusing on the father-son relationship at its heart. It's easy for Superman to be the good guy, but there's still novelty in watching him teach his son to become the same. The pair engage with their Kryptonian heritage early in the issue, and Jonathan's mix of understanding and childhood exuberance turn the history lesson into something lively and natural. This is the dynamic that continues to make the rest of the issue exciting even as it falls into a familiar rut.
Mahnke's pencils are unfortunately a poor match for the material on the page. An abundance of lines and details that add nothing to character or moments distracts from the levity of individual moments. There is a grit to this world that does not match the story being told. Superman's cheeks are excessively scratched, creating neither shadow nor scars. The essential layouts are effective in relaying the story, but the story does not feel quite right. At best the pages strike a middle ground relaying information and offering a few key moments, but never delivering the awe or joy that readers are told they should witness.
The alien planet is a disappointment after the first few pages of its introduction. Seahorse-like aliens promise a unique society with cities, fashion, and more all unique to who they are. Everything after an initial spread is a close-up of individual characters or so focused on action that the people who Superman wants to save never take on much character. Heavy application of shadows and dark colors makes it difficult to discern any individual characteristics among them. They are a vaguely defined concern in both artwork and dialogue, making it all the more difficult to care what their eventual fate might be
As Action Comics and Superman move ever closer to a titanic landmark issue and big change in creative lineups, it's hard to not read Superman #40 as filler. Even its most promising elements, a challenge that cannot be solved purely through power, is quickly tossed aside for more standard action beats. There's no real concern to be felt for those at risk, and that leaves the series resting on the charm of Superman and his son. It's a strong baseline, but there's so much more potential within these pages that is not being realized as it settles for a holding pattern.
Published by DC Comics
On February 07, 2018
Written by James Robinson
Colors by Wil Quintana