New in Paperback: The Last Son of Krypton
Richard Donner, Geoff Johns (script)
Adam Kubert, Gary Frank (art)
DC Comics, paperback 2013
Fans of the legendary DC Comics hero Superman will always owe a debt of gratitude to director Richard Donner, who brought the character to new cinematic life in 1978′s Superman and 1980′s Superman II. These were special effects extravaganzas of their time (the average 2013 moviegoer could finance them both with a vigorous Kickstarter campaign); they starred grizzled industry veteran Margot Kidder trying to act winsome as Lois Lane, a slumming Gene Hackman gleefully stealing scenes as Lex Luthor, and most of all, a sheer revelation, Christopher Reeve as a suddenly magnetic and interesting Man of Steel, a Superman who could not only convey easy majesty but also wink at the slight silliness of it all. “You’ll believe a man can fly,” the first film’s famous publicity tag claimed, but the real miracle of Donner’s movies went far beyond some (admittedly fantastic) flying sequences – we believed a man could fly, yes, but we also believed a man could be Superman, and that felt great.
Donner’s arch-nemeses in making his movies wasn’t Brainiac or Metallo – it was a pair of bellicose, erratic brothers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who acted as producers and general-purpose money men. They could be relied upon to intrude their crass, spur-of-the-moment improvisations into Donner’s artistic vision, and eventually all parties concerned had had enough – Donner left the set of Superman II in mid-production, and it wasn’t until years later that fans were able to see his ‘director’s cut’ of the movie he would have made if not for those meddling millionaires.
So Donner’s is a name to conjure with, among Superman fans, and any subsequent pairing between the director and the superhero is instantly noteworthy. The most recent (and final?) such connection was a run Donner did as co-scripter (with fan favorite Geoff Johns) for a Superman story-arc back in 2008-2009, now reprinted in paperback under the title Superman: Last Son of Krypton (not to be confused with the very entertaining 1978 novel of the same title by Eliott S. Maggin). In this story arc, the biggest narrative given is one that featured prominently in Donner’s movies: Lois Lane knows Clark Kent is Superman. Donner’s implication – indisputable from a dramatic standpoint – is that neither Lois nor Superman can rise above the merely comic without that fundamental change … and the one further change it invokes: babies. Long-time sci-fi fans will smile at the idea (perhaps recalling Larry Niven’s hilarious 1971 essay describing how unlikely it would be that a human woman would survive Kryptonian coitus), but in The Last Son of Krypton readers need not wince: Lois and Clark only adopt the boy in question, whose rocket-ship crash-lands in Metropolis one day.
They name him (in an affectionate nod to Reeve) Christopher, and he is indeed Kryptonian – but he’s the son of another villain from Donner’s movies, the ruthless and grandstanding General Zod, only he’s an adorable moppet instead of a rampaging megalomaniac.
The main dramatic point of the issues collected here is the Kents 2.0: instead of kindly Kansas couple Jonathan and Martha Kent taking in little baby Kal-El and raising him to be a fine upstanding Midwestern American, we have several charming scenes of Lois and Clark trying to raise a super-powered boy in the big city. Of course there are battles aplenty, especially when Zod and his Kryptonian minions want young Chris for themselves, but the volume’s main emotional payoff is character study – something of a rarity for Superman story-arcs and therefore much to be encouraged.
But wait, some of the non-comics people among you will no doubt be saying: isn’t Superman himself the last son of Krypton? Who are all these other Kryptonians? This, too, is covered in Donner’s first epic film (and well-established in the comics long before that): for years back on Krypton, the most dangerous criminals were sentenced to a bleak alternate dimension called the Phantom Zone, where they existed as formless wraiths until their sentences were served. The only catch: when Krypton exploded, all those criminals were stranded in the Zone – but with the proper extraction technology, they could live again.
Hence, the survival of Zod & crew – and one other survival as well: a character from the old Superboy continuity named Mon-el, whose alien physiology rendered him extremely vulnerable to lead poisoning and who was put into the Phantom Zone not as punishment but in a desperate attempt to save his life until some kind of cure could be found. Amidst all the action and high drama of the issues collected in this paperback, the scenes involving Superman and poor exiled Mon-el are the best.
Of course none of the grand goings-on recorded in this volume still apply in the current DC universe. In the wake of the company’s “New 52” reboot, there is no Christopher Kent, and Lois Lane has been demoted again to not knowing that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person (she’s also been kicked out of Superman’s love life, in favor of Wonder Woman). So The Last Son of Krypton – which always stepped right to the edge of accepted continuity anyway – is now very firmly a tale of a lost time. But Johns’ scripting is very enjoyable, and although Kubert’s artwork takes some getting used to (his gangly, intimate style really isn’t suited to the Superman visual mythos), he really delivers his big dramatic moments. And Donner’s particular spin on the character is easily detectable even in this much-changed landscape – conjuring cinematic might-have-beens on every page.