By: Grant Morrison (writer), Rags Morales (penciller), Rick Bryant (inker), Brad Anderson (colorist)

The Story: Ooh—I love your miniatures in a bottle collection.  Wait, is that my house in there?

The Review: I tend to feel Superman has the same problem as the Flash in terms of appeal.  The whole heart of the Man of Steel is he’s one of the finest and purest superheroes you can think of, a blank perfection which makes him respected and admired, yet also inaccessible.  To exacerbate matters, he’s just so darn powerful that he can afford to stick to his guns; if you have the ability to solve any problem without sacrifice, you never have the problem of making tough choices.

In All-Star Superman, Morrison overcame these obstacles by giving our hero big, Herculean challenges which allowed him to actually struggle.  Morrison’s attempting something like that here by taking away a sizable amount of Superman’s strength and knowledge, putting him on a lower footing than his problems.  It’s certainly raised the stakes for him across the board, but for us readers, seeing him wheeze as he jumps hurdles that wouldn’t have even made him blink some months ago has been a rather jarring gear-shift.

That’s why this coming showdown with Brainiac (I’m pretty sure we all saw him coming some time ago, so I won’t even bother calling this a spoiler) is a very welcome event.  Superman’s not only going to have to fight without the benefit of his peak abilities, he’s going up against one of his greatest foes of all time—don’t let that “1.0” designation fool you.  Brainiac, like Luthor, derives his menace from his mind, not his brawn.  Even though Superman spends only a very brief part of this issue physically fending off Brainiac’s various robo-guards, he’s under attack the entire time as Brainiac constantly strives to screw with his mind.  The climax of all this is Brainiac’s attempt to force Superman into one of those sticky choices that plagues so many of his heroic peers from time to time: save the people of his origin or those of his adoption?

Ultimately, while the question may be a nail-biter for the rest of us, it’s a moot point for our hero.  For one thing, Brainiac miscasts the decision as a “nature versus nurture” problem, as if Superman choosing to save either Kandor or Metropolis is a symbol of loyalty.  The issue is Clark knows nothing—or at least, very little—of his pre-Smallville life.  So the real question is whether his desire to learn more about his background is powerful enough for him to betray the life he lives now.  No matter how you slice it, the answer is probably not.  Besides, this is Superman; he would never allow anyone to force him into such a quandary: “I won’t choose between any one life and another!  All of these people are under my protection, you got that?

The preceding twoissue break has had a good effect on Morales, apparently; his work looks more consistent, cleaner, and more expressive her than it did in the last few issues he drew.  His old-school aesthetic plays to Morrison’s ironic sense of melodrama very well, but there are still awkward emotional transitions.  For example, in one panel, Superman’s shouting in defiance and anger at Brainiac; the very next panel, his face is completely sober and quiet, a very sudden dip in the story’s energy.  Believe it or not, little things like that can throw you for a loop.

The “Steel” back-up is fine, better than Sholly Fisch’s first take on the character, and Brad Walker’s art (colored by Jay David Ramos and David Curiel) seems even more lush and beautiful than I remember.  Unfortunately, Fisch still can’t quite escape his crutch on clichéd sentimentality (“It doesn’t take one hero.  It takes millions of them.”), which does little to promote John Henry Irons as a character, and it makes the whole tale rather predictable.

Conclusion: Imaginative and smart as always, but not all that inspired.  This series still has yet to live up to its hyped-up promise, and those cloying back-ups certainly aren’t helping.

Grade: B-

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – The new origin of the Superman suit, I must say, is cool, but it doesn’t have the homespun charm of Ma Kent sewing the costume from scratch.  The latter is the better story, quite frankly.

– And the award for Most Awesome/Douchey Phone Greeting goes to, of course, Lex Luthor: “Hello again, it’s the world’s foremost scientific mind!”

– Jimmy Olsen reminds me of several of my (brief) acquaintances in that he seems to have no filter:  “Behold! Dr. Alexander Luthor! Major league military science attaché.  Imagine the A-Team!  Ghostbusters!”  He’s like a carrot-topped Robin Williams with a pageboy haircut.