In 2006, in the wake of Infinite Crisis and the changes to continuity that it brought, DC took the opportunity to tweak the Superman mythos. It was less of a tweak than a realignment. With Superman Returns and the debt that it owed to the version of the character made famous by Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner still fresh in everyone’s minds, Superman, his supporting cast, and even some of his history, were given facelifts to bring things more in line with their cinematic counterparts. Among the more notable results are those featured in Superman: Last Son of Krypton, which collects two stories that ran in Action Comics between 2006 and 2008, “Last Son” and “Brainiac.”
Superstar writer Geoff Johns was brought in to do what he does best, streamline and distill a character’s complicated history into its most iconic components, and present stories which would both be accessible to new readers and embrace decades of obscure continuity. Johns had done what seemed like the impossible when he not only brought Hal Jordan back to life in the pages of Green Lantern, but reinvigorated the entire Green Lantern franchise by finding the potential in every corner of the character’s history. Johns’ co-writer for the first part of his new Superman venture was none other than the director of the Man of Steel’s two finest cinematic efforts, Superman: The Movie and Superman II, Richard Donner.
The first story collected in this volume is “Last Son” which not only re-introduced the most familiar and formidable of cinematic Superman villains, Zod, Non, and Ursa, to modern DC continuity, but tried to bring the Superman comics further in line with the version most recently seen on screen in Superman Returns. Superman Returns, perhaps wrongheadedly so, introduced a young child with superpowers as the offspring of Kal-El and Lois Lane. While it would have been nearly impossible to introduce a biological child for the couple in the comics, Johns and Donner (with Andy Kubert on art) instead introduced a mysterious boy of Kryptonian origin, who suddenly appears on the scene in a strange spacecraft, and that the government, naturally, has significant interest in. Perhaps more interesting than the story, however, is the imagery lifted directly from the Superman films that suddenly peppers the pages, including a crystalline Fortress of Solitude, and a hologram of Superman’s father, Jor-El, which the Man of Steel consults for advice.
Among the criticisms leveled at Superman Returns, and perhaps one of the reasons it underperformed at the box office, was the lack of a superpowered menace to raise the stakes. While that film was saddled with the rather thankless job of reintroducing a cinematic mythology that hadn’t been seen in nearly twenty years, even the film’s defenders were left hoping that any potential sequel would up the ante in the action department. While a sequel never materialized, “Last Son” reads like a natural extension of the film. We have Superman coming to terms with the reality of fatherhood as he convinces Lois that they should adopt the young Kryptonian boy (who, in a nice touch, they name “Christopher”), but we also have the introduction of the Phantom Zone villains, who most famously antagonized Superman (and destroyed Metropolis) in 1980’s Superman II.
The portrayal of the Phantom Zone criminals, and the attendant destruction of Metropolis that their battle with Superman brings, should please any Superman II fan. What’s more, Johns provides brief spotlights for a number of other members of Superman’s rogues gallery, including Bizarro (depicted in terrifying fashion by Andy Kubert), Lex Luthor, Metallo, and the Parasite. Much like the approach he took with Green Lantern: Rebirth, Johns throws the kitchen sink at the hero, simultaneously letting readers know what else there might be in store for future issues, and turning formerly minor or incidental villains into a-level threats. “Last Son” doesn’t quite satisfy and there are a few issues of chronology and logic which might leave readers scratching their heads, but when read as an homage to Superman II or a possible sequel to Superman Returns, it’s a fun romp through the Superman universe, where every character behaves exactly as you would want them to, right down to the odd line of familiar dialogue.
However, it’s “Brainiac” which will really get you humming John Williams’ familiar theme music. While Richard Donner no longer shares writing duties with Geoff Johns on this one, Gary Frank’s art more than makes up for whatever “Superman cinema” ethic that Donner had brought with him. Frank’s Superman is, for all intents and purposes, Christopher Reeve. The likeness is almost uncanny, and this was clearly no accident (all one has to do is read one of Johns and Frank’s other collaborations, Superman: Secret Origin, which owes an even heavier debt to the Donner/Reeve Superman films to see this). Brainiac had long been a potential Superman screen villain. The argument can be made that the supercomputer at the end of Richard Lester’s dreadful Superman III might have been, with a little more imagination, Brainiac himself. Virtually every unproduced Superman screenplay written between 1990 and 2005 (and there were quite a few, which I’ll write more about in future articles) featured Brainiac as one of Superman’s antagonists. And with good reason.
Brainiac hadn’t been as absent from the Superman mythology of recent years as the Phantom Zone criminals had been, so Johns had to do a little more explaining to bring this “definitive” version in line with already established continuity. It’s a tricky proposition, but it works. The problem with Brainiac is that it often seems there’s only one or two stories which can be told about him. Brainiac stole the city of Kandor from Krypton before its destruction, shrinking and bottling it for his collection, and eventually comes to Earth with his sights set on bottling Metropolis and studying its exceptional Kryptonian protector.
As a matter of fact, that boilerplate Brainiac story is virtually identical to the unproduced Superman: The New Movie screenplay, which would have been the fifth installment of the Superman franchise had it been produced in 1991. That screenplay, written by comics veteran Cary Bates, was heavy on the sci-fi, and would have introduced the city of Kandor to Superman’s cinematic heritage. I’m not implying that Johns is ripping off an unproduced script that he almost certainly never read. Far from it. The similarities, though, are indicative of just how naturally Brainiac (and that “basic” introductory Brainiac story) fit into a more “movie friendly” Superman universe.
“Brainiac” is not without its surprises, and is, on the whole, a more satisfying read than “Last Son.” However, the real star of the second half of this Superman volume is Gary Frank’s artwork. His delineation of Superman as a remarkable homage to Christopher Reeve aside, Frank’s art is evocative and dynamic. The alien worlds, Kryptonian technology, and terrifying, sterile robotic figures are spectacular. Brainiac and his horde of drones would feel right at home in a James Cameron or Paul Verhoeven sci-fi flick. Rarely in recent years have Superman and friends looked this right.
It’s unfortunate that DC chose not to also include Johns and Frank’s previous story, “Superman and the Legion of Super Heroes,” which ran in Action Comics between the two collected here. However, their reluctance to do so only further drives home my point: Superman: Last Son of Krypton is a collection meant to evoke both Superman’s cinematic past and his possible future. In other words, if “Last Son” could be read as Superman Returns II, then “Brainiac” is absolutely intended to be the Superman V we never had. Or, if you’d prefer to ignore Superman III and IV (nobody would blame you), it’s the Superman III that we (and the character) actually deserved. With Man of Steel now less than six months away from theatrical release, prominently featuring General Zod (and friends) as the major threat, can Brainiac be far behind? Has there ever been a better time to capitalize on these elements of the Superman mythology?
A more complete accounting of this short-lived attempt to make the Superman of the comics more like the familiar Superman of the screen would have taken a larger volume. Johns and Frank’s Superman: Secret Origin owes a tremendous debt to 1978’s Superman: The Movie. And while Superman and the Legion of Super Heroes doesn’t have any cinematic analog (at least…not yet), Frank’s artwork makes the spiritual connection between everything strong enough. As it stands, though, Superman: Last Son of Krypton is a satisfying, thoroughly action-packed volume of Superman stories. Essential reading for devotees of Richard Donner’s vision and Christopher Reeve’s incredible performance which made us all believe a man could fly. Do yourself a favor, and keep your John Williams soundtrack handy when you read this. You’ll need it.