The Superman books face a tricky continuity problem these days. The TRUTH storyline, dealing with a depowered Clark Kent who has been “outed” to the world as Superman, is well-established in Action Comics, Batman/Superman, and Batman/Wonder Woman. But we don’t yet know exactly how that happened. We have joined the story in the middle of things, and although it has so far been a well-written and potentially fascinating development of the Superman mythos, the central mystery of how Lois Lane discovered Clark’s identity, and why she revealed the truth to the world, remains. It is a situation vaguely reminiscent of the ONE YEAR LATER arc from ten years ago, when the various DC books picked up the status of the universe twelve months after the events of Infinite Crisis. In that case, the weekly comic 52 gradually filled in the back story and development of the new status quo. With the TRUTH storyline, we look to the flagship title of the Superman books to carry the weight of the main plot.
Superman #41 does not answer our questions, at least not yet. Told as a tacit flashback from the current Superman status, instead the book initiates an arc that seems designed to culminate in the outing of Clark Kent. Once again, the 52 model comes to mind. Author Gene Luen Yang was the focus of great excitement when he was announced as the new writer for Superman. Probably best known for the highly regarded American Born Chinese, Yang had experience and skills that promised an interesting take on the man of steel. After all, perhaps the most enduring division between Superman readers, and Superman writers, is between those who prefer to emphasize Clark Kent’s humanity, to make him in effect a dude from Kansas who happens to have enviable powers and a complicated family history, and those who would rather delve into the psychology and personality of Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, bearer of the legacy of a mighty but vanished civilization. Yang’s previous work prophesied a sophisticated and insightful exploration of this dual of identities.
In Superman #41, however, Yang takes a somewhat different approach. Although touching lightly on themes of culture and fish out of water, he spends most of the book discussing identity more generally, and specifically the implications of identities based on secrecy and deception. To ease us into this, he skillfully plays off the fact that Jimmy Olsen is now privy to Clark being Superman. He builds a web of multilayered quips and repartee, most emphasizing Jimmy’s sense of humor, which are perhaps not especially original but prove amusing and effective nonetheless.
Of more importance is the overall shape of the plot. Clark, Jimmy, and eventually Lois are investigating a mysterious figure supplying advanced weaponry to unsavory customers. The malefactor in question turns out to be a popular Metropolis politician, emphasizing the theme of identity based on lies. Clark is guided in this investigation by an anonymous source who, distressingly, is aware of his secret identity and seems determined to play puppet master. This double down on the dangers of deception about one’s true self might have come across as heavy-handed, but Yang keeps the pacing quick and the plot moving, which wards off that problem.
Where Yang does show weakness is in his characterization of Clark. Our hero is not exactly what one would expect of Superman. He is, rather, nervous, jumpy, and even frightened. At one point, he confronts Jimmy with something approaching a physical threat, scarcely the action of Superman toward his best pal. At another, his response to the unseen manipulator’s demands skirt the edge of cowardice.
Still, for all the troubling interpretations of the main character, this issue largely succeeds. The timing problem with regard to the rest of the DCU will be tricky, and some will probably be very frustrated by the lack of clear and quick answers. But, especially when combined with the rest of the TRUTH storyline playing out across the other Superman titles, this shows potential to launch Superman effectively into DC's new era, an era already beginning, at least in terms of fan-response and literary quality, on a much better foot than the now-defunct New 52.