By Gene Luen Yang, Viktor Bogdanovic & Hi-Fi
There is something to be said for the subtle art of defying expectations. When New Super-Man was first announced as part of DC’s Rebirth initiative, reaction was mixed. On the one hand, it was positive news that acclaimed creator Gene Luen Yang would be able to branch out with a series more independent from the larger DC Universe. On the negative side of the ledger, the concept sounded a little derivative. A Chinese Super-Man joining a Chinese Justice League? Did the DCU really need yet another iteration of Batman? Luckily these fears proved to be ungrounded. In the first four issues, Yang did a fabulous job of developing the cast, so the principles do in fact feel like original characters instead of superficial riffs. The series quickly settled into an appealing mix of humor and adventure, as Kenan (i.e. the titular new Super-Man) tried to negotiate his powers and the responsibilities that came with them. This week Yang bring to the fore a couple subplots which complicate the narrative in a surprising and intriguing manner.
#4 ended with Kenan returning home, for the first time since gaining his powers, in order to check the safety of his father. Earlier in the series, Kenan made the foolish mistake of announcing his secret identity to a reporter on live television, which means that his father could be a target for Kenan’s new adversaries, the Chinese Freedom Fighters. However, it turns out that Freedom Fighters member Flying General Dragon is also Kenan’s dad, Zhongdan. Thus, the issue begins with Kenan trying to process the fact that his father is a superhero/villain. The Freedom Fighters started out as a collection of political protesters agitating the Chinese government for more political participation. “Truth! Justice! Democracy!” was their proud slogan.
However, as often happens, life sidetracks the young idealists’ dreams. Zhongdan and Meitai fall in love. They opt to leave the movement in order to have a child, Kenan, yet the movement never quite leaves them. Inspired by internet footage of the newly emerging Justice League, Meitai decides to follow their example, becoming China’s first superhero: The Liberty Goddess. This spiritual link between the Justice League and the Freedom Fighters is a nice one, showing how heroes in one place can inspires others elsewhere. It is hardly a coincidence that the Freedom Fighters’ rallying call is near identical to Superman traditional motto of “Truth. Justice. And the American Way.” The idea of social action plays a large part in this installment. Activism is what initially brings Zhongdan and Meitai together, even if it is also what ultimately separates them. However, Zhongdan does not express regret for his wife’s actions. Indeed, he adopted his own costumed identity as Flying Dragon General in order to continue her work. Overall, the script is strong reminder of the importance of being socially engaged and willing to resist injustice.
Kenan spends the rest of the issue processing this information, along with the declaration that the same government bureau that gave him his powers, The Ministry of Self-Reliance, was connected to his Meitai’s death. Yang resists the urge to send Kenan down a straightforward path, preferring to depict him wavering in multiple directions. He has loyalties to his father and sympathizes with Zhonglun’s cause. In addition, another member of the Freedom Fighters is Zhongdan’s brother, Zhonglun. At the same time, Kenan finds it difficult to abandon his colleagues and friends on the Chinese Justice League. Also, some of those Freedom Fighters start revealing more extreme viewpoints than Kenan is prepared to expect. The sense of which side is “good” or “bad” keeps shifting in ways which add a new layer to the book. Watching Kenan trying to resolve all his conflicting impulses makes for a compelling read.
Viktor Bogdanovic continues to do good work on this series. At first glance, his art might seem like it’s veering in the generic direction of House Style. However, there is definitely a sense of Bogdanovic’s own voice mixed into the pages as well. Bogdanovic is particularly good at conveying emotion through facial expressions and character designs. His costume for The Liberty Goddess is an eye-catching ensemble, as is Deilan’s (in both case, the impression is strengthened by Hi-Fi’s colors which pop off the page). His loose art fits the ambiance of the series quite well.
New Super-Man has not gotten the same attention as some of the more high-profile Rebirth titles, which is a shame. It is one of the very best of the initiative. It is also This Week’s Finest.