Installment 7: Superman #123
- Cover Date: May 1997
- Released on: March 12, 2017
- Triangle Number: 1997/19
- Writer: Dan Jurgens
- Pencils: Ron Frenz
- Inker: Joe Rubinstein
- Editor: Joey Cavalieri
Spoiler Free Synopsis
The battle continues. Help arrives from an unexpected source. Time is running out. Superman…reborn!
Spoiler Filled Commentary
I have two bits of business to get out of the way right here at the top and the first one is going to date this series for future readers but I wanted to mention it anyway. As of this writing (March of 2017 for the future people) the two Superman titles, Superman and Action Comics, are halfway through a crossover called Superman Reborn. My friend Russell Burlingame (from ComicBook.com) and I were recently talking about the fact that we’re in the midst of the twentieth anniversary of Electric Superman and he mentioned to me that it was a bit of a coincidence that Superman #123 came out twenty years ago, and was titled Superman…Reborn and now we have a storyline called Superman Reborn. So, I wanted to mention that and give Russell full credit for realizing it because I was slow on the uptake with this one.
The second bit of business revolves around the cover to this issue or rather the covers to this issue. When I started planning this installment I initially thought the first line of the Spoiler Filled Commentary section was going to be, “This issue had two covers; a special collector’s edition and a newsstand edition because it was the nineties and that’s how that decade rolled.” Then I looked over at my mail stack and realized that the variant cover for the ninth issue of the current Superman series hadn’t been opened yet and it struck me that the saying about the more things changing the more they stay the same is absolutely true when it comes to comics. Superman #123 did have two covers but every issue of Superman and Action Comics have had variant covers, sometimes more than one, since the beginning of the New 52 back in 2011 and now that I think about it the variant covers have been consistent since 2010 or so.
I guess current DC is trying to outdo ‘90s DC in that department.
Getting back to the issue at hand (that’s a joke, son) I like both covers to Superman #123. I prefer the collector’s edition because not only is it a sleek design but it glows in the dark. Take that current variant covers! The newsstand edition, which I actually bought off a newsstand at Walmart back when Walmart sold comics, has more color and gave Dan Jurgens a chance to get in on the artistic action of this issue, is nice but I like the collector’s edition just a bit more.
It’s by a safety, to put it in American football terms, but it still comes out on top.
This issue picks up right where Superman: The Man of Steel #67 left off. We get two expositional pages catching us up on the action, which may seem clunky but to me it was the way to go. Superman #123 had a lot of light on it because it was the issue where the big change happened. This was the issue that people who were not regularly buying the series were going to buy. Some would pick it up thinking they could flip for a profit down the road and others were interested in the story on some level, so having Lois fill us in on that story so far would give new readers an idea of what was going on. Otherwise you have a cold open on Superman surrounded by rubble and turning into energy.
Sometimes exposition is necessary. Sometimes it can get in the way. This time I will fall on the side of necessary.
The Jack Kirby feel that Jon Bogdanove and Dennis Janke gave the art in Superman: The Man of Steel #67 continues in this issue. From the bottom panel of page four where Scorn is about to punch “the camera” to the first three panels of page five where Superman sails through the air and then pulls a General Zod from Superman II the action just pops off the page and every blow feels like it could level mountains. The action is huge and I think the issue is better for it because the energy is high right from the start and doesn’t let up.
Quick note; Scorn is officially named Scorn on page 6 thanks to Jimmy not being able to hear what Bibbo is saying.
Jurgens brings Lex Luthor into the story on page eight. One of the neat things about the Never-Ending Battle story telling engine is that certain writers seemed to be in charge of particular characters at a given time. For example, when this issue came out Karl Kesel was handling the Intergang side to Superman. After John Byrne left the Superman titles in 1988 Roger Stern took point on Lex Luthor. If there was a major story to be told with Lex it was going to be written by Stern. He wrote the issue where Lex “died”, he wrote the issue where Lex’s “son” first appeared, he wrote the issue where the background of that “son” was explained and he wrote the issue where Lex came back after the events of Fall of Metropolis.
Based on the last few months of Superman that I re-read for this series I get the feeling that at this point Dan Jurgens took over Lex as a character. There’s an issue down the line that illustrates this point better but page eight is a good example of why I feel the way I do. On the surface, it’s a very simple scene; Lex is watching the news and wonders if he should help Superman or let him suffer. If you look closer there’s a lot going on in the dialog. Lex refers to Superman as, “the alien”, which isn’t new but becomes a more regular thing from here on out. It oozes contempt and clues you in on the fact that Lex hates Superman on a number of levels. I also loved how he is so contemptuous of the scientists at STAR Labs and refers to them as “simpletons”. There is a lot of ego being thrown around the room and the cherry on top of the scene is Lex calmly thinking of himself when it comes to assisting Superman. What action will Lex gain the most from? There’s so much character work being crammed into just a few panels and it is brought home by how Frenz and Rubinstein lay out the page artistically.
The next few scenes revolve around Emil Hamilton and Kitty Faulkner trying to save a dying Superman. Dr. Faulkner first appeared in Superman #7 (July, 1987) when an accident at STAR Labs turned her into the She-Hulk like character of Rampage. She made a few more appearances over the next few years and for a brief time she was a supporting character in the Will Payton Starman series before returning to the Superman titles after that book was cancelled. I have a lot of affection for her even when she doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Professor Hamilton goes back to the dawn of the Post Crisis era. He first appeared in Adventures of Superman #424 (January, 1987) where he was portrayed as a mad scientist type with a beef against Lex Luthor. John Byrne brought him back a little over a year later and from there he was Superman’s go-to guy when it came to science. Given the history the two characters have with Superman they are perfect choices to figure out how to make the containment suit that ultimately saves Superman.
The fact that the final piece of the puzzle comes from Lex Luthor (as delivered by the Contessa) was an element of the story that I had completely forgotten about. I don’t know why. It seems like something that would stick out and it’s a neat plot point to drop into the story because now you wonder when the other shoe is going to drop on that. Lois mentions the fact that her mother was in an accident (Adventures of Superman #424, again) and that Lex helped develop the medicine that kept her alive, but at a price. This was a great use of previous continuity to cast doubt on the gift of the fabric and makes the decision to use it a hard one. I loved the drama of this moment and how ultimately Lois is the one to say that they should use the fabric.
From there we get Superman in his new outfit (mostly) and we also get a page where Jurgens explains how things will work for the foreseeable future. The suit allows Superman to control his new abilities and to switch from energy to completely human at will. Jurgens and Frenz give us a comedy beat when Clark realizes that he is completely naked after forgetting that he left his clothes behind when he last changed. At the same time, it was a neat way to illustrate the new, albeit temporary in hindsight, status quo. Things are different now. Clark won’t be ducking into a storeroom or heading to the top of the Daily Planet to change into Superman. From the vantage point of twenty years later this is just a temporary bump in the road. A storyline that plays out after a year. Back in 1997 this was going to be how it was and depending on which creator was talking to the fan press THIS WAS HOW IT WAS GOING TO BE FOREVER.
My favorite scene in the issue takes place at the Kent Farm. Martha and Jonathan helped Clark create his Superman identity back in Man of Steel #1 so it makes sense that they would be present when his new look is finalized. I’m not sure how to take the exchange between Clark and Martha about the cape. Part of me wonders if there is some metatextual thing going on here with Martha focusing on the symbol rather than the cape but I’m going to err on the side that Jurgens was using the Kents to put that final piece in place. It’s interesting to read the line Clark delivers about how he’s ready for the new century now that we are seventeen years into the 2000’s. Sometimes I forget how focused we were about the millennium ending back in the late ‘90s and how pop culture would occasionally rebrand something “for the next century”. It’s not bad and it fits right in with the times but it does make chuckle a bit while at the same time making me nostalgic for that time period.
So, I’ve been mainly reading these issues from the digital copies I purchased from Comixology. They have the bulk of the Post Crisis era available through 1998 even though there are some weird holes in certain series that make me wonder what’s going on with that but they have almost the entire Electric Blue era available. I started picking them a few issues at a time to not only have them because I wanted them but also to have them to take screen shots of the panels I wanted to post here. This saves me from having to dig out the issues from my boxes and then scan them and then load them up into Photoshop to crop and maybe even clean the pages up a bit.
Seriously. Digital comics are awesome and the fact that they were available legitimately is even better but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the heart of buying them off of Comixology is laziness.
Anyway, Superman #123 had this beautiful two-page splash by Frenz and Rubinstein showing Superman flying away as the Kents look on from their front porch. Again, this hearkens back to Man of Steel #1, which ended with Superman taking to the sky and letting us see him fully in costume for the first time in the Post Crisis Era. Comixology or DC Comics seriously dropped the ball in their digital version by only giving us half the two-page spread. I’m confused by this because usually they are good about making such a spread seamless art-wise by going in and removing the page fold you would get if you scanned the comic. I think you lose something by not having both pages because the look on the Kents’ faces is one of the selling points of the new look.
Here’s the page as it appears in the digital version.
Here’s the pages as they appeared in the original comic that I managed to find online.
On a slightly cynical note, there is something a bit forced about how accepting the Kents are of the new powers and look. It kind of feels like when the cast of a television show has to be happy about the arrival of a Cousin Oliver type character. “Oh, this new thing meant to breathe new life into our show has arrived. It’s so wonderful. Let me tell you how wonderful it is because that’s what the script says I should say.” Ultimately, I think Jurgens makes it work without feeling like they are shoving this new status quo down our throats. Having the Kents be excited translated into me being excited.
Such is the power of Dan Jurgens as a writer.
Three more things before I bow out for the week. First, the second and third panel of page eighteen really sell the idea that Lex helping Superman is going to be a problem for the Man of Tomorrow down the line. This was a great way to show that while Superman is glad to have control over his new abilities and that this is the dawn of a new era, there will be complications, so watch out.
Second, the final page with Scorn was a great way to end the issue. It’s another example of how great the Never-Ending Battle storytelling engine could be. Superman has his new powers, but this Scorn thing is still a going concern. Having him see a picture of Clark Kent and feeling like there is a connection there while also wanting to find a way to communicate with the humans made me excited to see what is going to happen next. I’ve written in past installments about how I would eventually get a little tired of secondary characters like Scorn but twenty years later I am seriously liking this character.
Excuse me. I seemed to have dropped my rose tinted glasses.
Finally, this technically wasn’t the first comic featuring Superman in his new costume. According to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics JLA #5 came out the week before this issue did and that had the new Superman on the cover. If the dates are correct, and Mike is usually good about these things, then JLA had the new Superman before his own titles did.
This issue, like the last four books I’ve covered in this series, were reprinted in the Superman: Transformed trade paperback. You can expect a Bailey’s Bookshelf installment on that book in the near-future. It’s an interesting collection and worth discussing.
Next Time: Metallo!