Superman has quickly become one of DC Comics' "can't miss" monthly titles. The newest issue, written by Brian Bendis and drawn by Ivan Reis, continues to build on recent major storylines, including Superman's role in the United Planets and the continuing fallout from him publicly revealing his identity. While both the United Planets and him coming clean about his identity seemed like good ideas when they were first presented, Superman #21 shows how precarious both situations are and how Superman's blind faith often results in unexpected problems.
In many ways, Bendis' ongoing Superman story is a throwback to the "Triangle era" of Superman comics that told one continuous story over the course of multiple series and months, instead of trying to wrap a story up in six issues for trade paperback publication. While it requires a bit more commitment as a reader, this long form approach brings out the best in icons like Superman whose personality and base motivations are etched into popular consciousness. In building up a story layer by layer over the course of 20+ issues, we not only receive a more nuanced look at how Superman works, but it also makes the motivation of both his allies and foes appear much more believable.
For instance, in Superman #21, Lois is dealing with the fallout of Superman unilaterally speaking for Earth during the formation of the United Planets. When Superman said he "spoke for Earth," it was a throwaway line, a way for Superman to have a role in a universe-altering event. However, a few journalists from a rival publication (upset that the Daily Planet got a leg up on stories by having Superman on staff for years) are looking to spin Superman's role into something different, which could turn public opinion against Superman. This plot line only works because Bendis planted the seed for it issues ago and let it gestate, giving it time to turn into a proper obstacle for Superman to overcome rather than some contrived threat.
Of course, Superman #21 is more than Lois trying to talk down a jealous journalist (although she easily has the best line in the issue). Superman continues his epic fight with Mongul, complete with plenty of Kirby Krackle, space ships, and laser blasts. Part of me thinks that Bendis keeps sending Superman into space because Ivan Reis draws one hell of a space-bound battle, but I really can't complain about that. I'm also impressed that despite all of the aliens and spaceships, Superman still doesn't feel like a sci-fi book. It's a "Superman" book, and that's largely due to Reis' deft touch and ability to humanize Superman no matter what planet he's currently occupying.
Superman #21 is what every superhero comic needs to be. It lingers on the big moments when it needs to, it doesn't rush through conversations or scenes, and it doesn't fall prey to padding an issue for the trade. By building a story slowly (but not too slowly), every issue of Superman provides both payoffs to past readers and new surprises and complications to be solved in the next issue.
Published by DC Comics
On March 11, 2020
Written by Brian Bendis
Art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, and Oclair Albert
Colors by Alex Sinclair
Letters by Dave Sharpe
Cover by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, and Alex Sinclair
Author's Note: The seeds of Superman's current dilemmas were planted all the way back in Superman #1 and Action Comics #1, which seems like an impressive commitment given today's superhero comics landscape. Bravo.