Monday, February 20, 2017

FULL REVIEW: Super Sons #1 (2017)

Super Sons, No. 1 — Regular cover by
Jorge Jimenez. ©DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Cover date: April 2017
On-sale: Feb. 15, 2017
Cover price: $2.99
Pages: 36 (including cover)
Content: Editorial-61%, Advertising-39% (57% house)
Format: Standard, saddle-stiched, glossy paper

“When I Grow Up . . . Part One” (20 pages)
Writer: Peter Tomasi
Artist: Jorge Jimenez
Colorist: Alejandro Sanchez
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Assoc. Editor: Paul Kaminski
Group Editor: Eddie Berganza

ISSUE SCORE: 79.0 (out of 100)

THE BOTTOM LINE (UP TOP): A fun and well-drawn start to a story, although the prologue makes no sense in the context of this issue.


STORY SYNOPSIS: We start with a prologue featuring a boy who may or may not have Purple Man-like mind control powers, seen on what may or may not be a movie set. Then we get an in media res vignette of Robin and Superboy fighting boy-bot duplicates of themselves before flashing back two days to longer vignettes of Superboy being heroic and Robin being a dick, before Robin shows up at Superboy's home and entices him to break into Lexcorp Tower, seemingly just for something to do, as Bat-dad would not take him on a mission. 

COVER (7/10):
The basic image is good in that it pretty perfectly captures the youthful enthusiasm of our two heroes in the iterations of idealistic (Superboy) and determined (Robin). However, given the amount of reds and yellows in the primary and secondary characters, I might have gone with something other than a gradient of orange for the background. I'd also have gone with a lighter grey for Robin's cape, given the sunrise behind him, to better break off the black mass that is his hair, Superboy's hair, and Superman's silhouetted figure. The result of all that black surrounded by similar color tones, when combined with the relatively light contour outline of the foreground figures (Superboy's hand should be rendered in a much heavier line that his cape, for example) creates kind of a muddied image.

Not sure what I mean? Try this expiriment — stand back about four feet from this cover and squint your eyes. What do you see? Kind of a blurry mass, right? Now, take most any pre-1980 comic book and do the same thing. I think you'll find the cover image of the older comic is still clear and "readable," meaning you can still make out what the action is, even squinting at a distance. This means the cover is also much more likely to capture the attention of a casual buyer walking by a newsstand.

Another way to check this to to click the "series gallery" of almost any long-running title at Mike's Amazing World of Comics. You'll find the thumbmail images are clear and readable until the late 1980s or so. Then, for the most part, from the early '90s on, they're so much mud and you have to enlarge the thumbnail in order to make out what's going on.

So, this is a good cover. It's not a great one. At least not in terms of capturing the attention of anyone who was not already intending to buy this issue when they went into their local comics shop the day it came out.

I also have to say I don't love the logo. Using the old BATMAN/SUPERMAN, S-shield superimposed on a bat icon makes sense, but the blue outline of "Super Sons" tends to blend into the black, making the letters look kind of puny from a distance. Also, while I get the attempt at balance by having the first and last letters be the largest, it kind if flies in the face of basic grammar. The "Sons" part of the logo ends up looking like some kind of Bizarro typeface, with the last letter capitalized instead of the first. 

PLOT (6.75/10):
As noted in the synopsis above, we have no plot, per se. Now, we do get some very well-creafted scenes, particularly as Superboy tries to deal with school bullies without revealing his secret identity, and the resulting conversation with his parents. Now, while I say this issue is plotless, the whole bit with the bullies does give this issue an aspect that is introduced, explored and resolved. So, while it's true we don't get very far on the larger business at hand, this issue still provides a complete reading experience. Good job, that.

Robin's scene in the Batcave also is well done. Personally, I have always detested Damian Wayne, but he is somehow less insufferable when contrasted with Jonathan Kent. One can almost see his point, some of the time, with Jon being a a bit too much the l'il blue boy scout. This series has great potential in not only mining their different characters and approaches to life, but also the very nature of the nurture that has resulted in each being who they are. After all, it's long been supposed that Damian came to Bruce Wayne already damaged goods, as it were, but as we see in this issue, Batman's fathering skills have done little to shake the little snot off the path he was sent down by the al Ghuls et. al.

My real issue with this issue though is that we have not one, but two opening scenes that have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the book. The first is the worst. After being introduced to red-headed Purple Boy and his maybe-family, none of these characters are seen again for the rest of the issue. Their part in the prologue will undoubtedly make sense in the completed tale, for however many chapters it ends up running, but to introduce them here and then do nothing with them is unfair to the reader of this issue. As Chekov said, you don't put a Purple Boy on the mantle in Act 1 if you don't intend to fire him. Preferably in that act, because you can't count on your audience to remember after intermission where he was last, or that he even existed.

The second two-page intro is more defensible. After all, that other great playwright of the ages, Mr. Stan Lee, was fond of saying a comic book story is no good unless somebody punches somebody else by Page 3. Comics is a kind of sudden fiction and it makes sense to get right to the action — start in media res, as it were — and the simplest, easiest, albeit most cliched way of doing that is to begin at some high tension point and then flash back to the beginning of the story. That is exactly what Tomasi does here. However, the opening action begins at a point that is somewhere far after the end of this particular issue, leaving the scene almost as stranded narratively as Purple Boy & Co. I'll discuss how this might have been resolved in the editing section below.

SCRIPT (9.25/10):
Tomasi does a really good job with the script, I think. The boys are earnest yet immature, each in their own way, without coming across as fatuous, or bratty. That's not an easy line to tread, especially in the case of Damian. It would be very easy for these boys to seem stupid or mean, yet both end up being kids we'd like to know. In many ways, rather remembering the kids they were, or considering the men they've become, most fanboys can view these characters, as Tomasi writes them, as the people they would have liked to have been (Superboy) and the ones they are (Robin).

All of the dialogue is natural and believable, while Tomasi resists the urge to pound one easy joke after another, being disciplined enough to let the humor rise more often from the reader's knowledge of the characters (even if that knowledge is limited to this issue. Tomasi does a good job of laying out their personas stat) and the situations they are in — like Jack Benny being told, "Your money or your life!" and drawing a huge laugh from a simple pause.

My only suggestion: It might have been worth the delayed-gratification joke to have Superboy ask the substitute bus driver, "Do you have a cold sir?" only to get a, "No. I mean, yeah. Maybe. A little bit." which would have come back later when he's revealed to have ben Robin in disguise, leaving the reader to realize, "Ah, Damian was trying to put on a voice, but clearly isn't as good at it yet as his old man."

LAYOUT (8.25/10):
The storytelling is generally clear. My only complaint was the scene where Robin pushes snow off the school roof onto the bullies. Setting aside how he managed to move all that snow off a flat roof in one fell swoop, the initial panel where the snow hits could've benefited from some good ol' fashioned motion lines. Without them, and based on the impact lines on the ground, I thought at first the snow was being pushed forward by a vehicle or something crashing into the scene. Thus, he next page with Robin on the roof confused me momentarily, taking me out of the story as I had to turn back a page to figure out, ah, yes, snow came down, not across — got it.

ARTWORK (9/10):
I am really quite happy with Jimenez' artwork. As an old-school fan who grew up on Curt Swan, Jim Aparo and Dick Dillin, I like a fair amount of realism in my comic book art. Jimenez' figures are quirky and expressive without being too cartoony. It captures perfectly what I think is meant to be the tone of this series — fun, but not "animated;" grounded, but not grim. .

EDITING (6/10):
Okay, so first, the continuation of the plot critique above. Now, as noted, having two scenes that have no payoff under the covers of this issue is two too many. I would've had Tomasi cut the first two pages entirely, moving them to a subsequent chapter of the story where those characters will be introduced. After all, we lose nothing by losing them here, where we otherwise never see them again, and a prologue works best when it introduces something that will actually happen in that issue. With those two pages saved, I would have had Tomasi tack them on the end, closing the chapter not on the Luther reveal – because the last panel villain reveal is such a tired cliche – but on Luthor unleashing his boy-bots. In that way, the story would end seconds before it began, tying the opening scene to events in this book, instead of to something we can only presume is going to happen in the next issue.

(Aside: THE DEATH OF HAWKMAN has been using the same then/now style, with then never quite tying to the now in of the same issue, to the point where the book has become tedious to read. Frankly, I stopped reading it entirely and am now just waiting for Hawkman to hurry up and die already)

My other comment here is that, given this is a first issue, with a pretty nifty cover (despite my critique, above), Kaminski and/or Berganza should have taken care to make sure potential new readers are clued in quickly to who these characters are. Sure, Tomasi makes clear right away who they are, but where they fit in this universe takes some a priori knowledge.

While even casual fans are probably clued in to Damian's existence by now, I'm sure there are some who are like, "Wait -- what? Superman has a son??" I mean, the whole Superman-died-and-was-replaced-by-the-Superman-who-was-Superman-before-he-was-Superman-and-who-has-a-son-how-is-his-natrual-son-with-Lois-but-not-the-Lois-who-became-Superwoman-and-died-and-is-not-the-adopted-son-they-had-when-this-Superman-was-THE-Superman can be kind of a big continuity horsepill to swallow for anyone who has not been following the Super books for a couple of years. Any uninformed reader picking this issue up is liable to think he or she had landed back on Earth-B, where the rules are made up and the points don't matter.

Now, this issue is pretty faboo and I'm not certain there would be much of a way for Tomasi to weave in the requisite backstory without dropping in some pretty clunky exposition. No knock on him, of course. I'm not sure who could fill that order gracefully. But, given that eight of the 14 ad pages in this issue are DC house ads, it might've been worth losing one in order to include a feature page detailing the history of the Rebirth Robin and New 52/now Rebirth Superboy. Done succinctly, there might even have been room to add a shout-out to the old Super Sons stories of the 1970s that inspired it all.

No doubt, this is a good looking book, even if I am getting tired of the Rebirth trade dress. Sanchez' work does exactly what it is supposed to do, complimenting the story without making me think about him at work, with no fancy tricks that draw me out of the reading experince to think, "Ah, yes, hello, I see what you did there." The moonlit bedroom scene is particularly nice, adding atmosphere and emotional drama with simple, yet elegant, techniques, without drawing attention to itself.

I am of the idea that the coloring and the lettering of a comic book should be figuratively invisible. If I take note of either while reading the story, they've failed to do their job, in my opinion. It should only be afterward, when I look back, that I should pause and think, "Yeah, that was okay."

DOLLAR VALUE (6.25/10):
Here the book stumbles a little bit. It was a quick read, passing in and out of my hands in about 8:30. If one takes the time to read the DC ALL ACCESS promo page of some Wildstorm revival, that, maybe, puts this at 9:30 in entertainment time. That's right on the border or what is tolerable for $3, in my opinion. Break it down, and that's 31.4¢ per minute! Imagine going to the theater to see a 120-minute movie and paying $37.68 just for the ticket!!

It's a first issue. It's the debut of a new property (even if the sons have recently teamed in their dad's books), and it's a pretty good story, to boot. I don't know that this is necessarily going to skyrocket in value, not even the Dustin Nguyen variant cover. However, I suspect this is a book that, when sorting through your collection five or 10 years from now, you'll want to read again, and not think, "Sheesh, I really need to weed this crap out of here."

So, with what I expect will not be super-high sales (maybe 65,000 copies, at most), and with most copies that end up in collections tending to stay there, this may not be an easy issue to score later on out of the dollar bins. Of course, as I've intimated, this is a story that will probably read better in the collected edition than in serialized form. That will likely depress the back issue price of this issue, as johnny-come-latelies go for the tpb, eschewing the need to track down single issues. If some fans convert their collections from floppies to books, that might free up a few issues.

However, if we ever get a Super Sons cartoon or movie, all bets are off.

Lacking that, however, this will probably be a $7 book a decade from now.

Bottom line, this book did exactly what is should have done — awaken in me the sense of wonder I had when I was about the same age as its protagonists. Just about everything about this book was interesting and compelling — even the prologue, with my real beef about red-headed Purple Boy not appearing afterward being the fact he didn't. Superboy was portrayed just about perfectly, being almost exactly the kind of boy I'd want to have been, while Robin was not too abrasive and more the kid sidekick I likely would have been. I mean, I totally would have pivoted a somersault off Alfred's head, if I was able, wouldn't you?

About the only part that made me roll my eyes a bit was the idea that Robin disguised himself as Jon's substitute teacher. The bit was funny when it was the bus driver, but that can be written off as simply tying up the real driver somewhere and taking his place. But do you realize how much work it would have been to imitate a current substitute teacher, or to invent an identity that could get hired as one?! And, in either case, for a 10-year-old boy, even Damian, to fool an entire class of peers for a full 40-minute class period?? Damian would have had to have worked on that gag for months! Oh, I'm sure he totally would, but still, thinking about the logistics of how that would work killed the joke, for me.

Otherwise though, this was a pretty nifty comic book, and I look forward to more.

I'm generally not a fan of twice-told tales. Be original, I say, and quit rehashing old stories for the new continuity. Still, I would like to see Tomasi and Jimenez give their take on "World Without Men," from WORLD'S FINEST COMICS, No. 233. I was about 7 1/2 when that issue came out, and it's the reason I love the Super Sons to this day, no matter how much maligned they are by fans who can't abide their skimming off accepted Earth-1 continuity. 'Cause, I gotta tell ya, this book FREAKED me out, as a kid. I was of an age to be more creeped than turned on by a town populated only by hot young women — "What's their main export, cooties?!" — and I doodled versions of that one-eyed stalk creature for literally years afterward. So, a remake of some sort, using the same monster, would not go amiss. Beyond that, though, I hope the super-fathers will continue to be a presence more felt that seen in this title. I do like Jon's school friends, though, and it might be worth introducing Damian to them, maybe even letting Damian develop a bit of a crush on Lana -- er, I mean, Kathy.

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