Installment 3 – Superman #120
“The Kandor Connection”
- Cover Date: April 1997
- Released on February 12, 1997
- Triangle Number: 1997/15
- Writer: Dan Jurgens
- Pencils: Ron Frenz
- Inker: Joe Rubinstein
- Editor: Joey Cavalieri
Spoiler Free Synopsis
Strange things are afoot in the City K. Clark starts feeling out of sorts. An unexpected visitor. A trip to the arctic doesn’t go as planned. Freedom.
Spoiler Filled Commentary
The road to the new powers and costume begins!
(There’s something about starting this particular post with a dramatic sentence complete with exclamation point that just feels right.)
The first thing that stands out to me about this issue is the cover. There’s nothing truly remarkable about the piece but I like it just the same. Covers with this sort of over-the-top copy hit me right in the center of my fannish heart. To be fair the cover is writing checks that future issues will cash, especially when it comes to the “new menace” stalking Metropolis and the threat to the strange new world but I am going to totally overlook that because…well…I can.
There are two events in this issue that stick out as the most important. One of them involves a character that will soon become “a thing” while the other deals more directly with the changes Clark is about to go through.
The character I just mentioned is named Ceritak and this issue is his first appearance. He’s one of the citizens of the Bottle City of Kandor and soon he’ll be known by another name; Scorn. Ceritak plays a key role in the opening of this issue and through him we get to see more of how Kandor actually works as a society. We saw some civil unrest during the Tollos storyline but here we not only see parts of the ruling council but also an example of someone that doesn’t want to live by the rules that have been imposed on them. Ceritak spends the first few pages leading the authorities on a merry chase through the skies of Kandor. He’s arrogant, reckless and maybe even a little bit sexist, which normally would make me dislike the character but Dan Jurgens’ writing and characterization actually makes me feel sorry for the big lug.
By showing this unrest Jurgens makes Kandor feel like a real place. If you are going to bring back a sacred cow from the Pre-Crisis days you need to make it interesting and in this case “interesting” translates as a schism in the populace of the city. There are those that are like Certiak’s father (a member of the city council) who have worked to make something of the hand that they have been dealt and don’t wish to rock the boat. On the flip side you have people like Ceritak who are sick of eating the same synthesized food every day and feel that living on Kandor has removed the ability for the culture to evolve past its present form. On the surface it’s your typical young vs. old generation struggle but when you dig deeper it’s really about those that have developed a galactic case of Stockholm Syndrome and don’t want to upset their captors versus those that have had enough of a life without free will.
All this complexity and we’re only three pages in.
The other event that has more of a direct impact on the changes ahead start in the Sullivan Street apartment of Lois and Clark and continue in the Fortress of Solitude. A simple Sunday morning scene starts to go pear-shaped starting with the toaster exploding when Clark touches it followed by Clark becoming immaterial while trying to grab a cup of coffee. These events are the culmination of similar “accidents” that we’ve been seeing in the Superman books over the past few months. These were merely sub-plots before but now they’ve been moved to the front of the story and have become part of the plot-plot.
On a deep and personal level I miss this sort of storytelling in the Superman titles. At the risk of sounding like an old man yelling at all these kids to get off his lawn I lament the days when stories would be teased several months out and then actually paid off later. It wasn’t always gold but it gave me something to sink my teeth into as a reader. To be fair we’re seeing flashes of this in the contemporary Superman titles but nothing to the level the previous regimes took this form of storytelling to. Rationally I know that time marches on and that the Superman comics that existed from 1988 to around 2002 were the product of a series of creative teams that managed to catch lightning in a bottle and create what was ostensibly a weekly Superman book. I also know on a rational level that those writers and artists were one of the few teams of creators working on a character with multiple titles that were able to make it cohesive with only a few hiccups along the way.
On an irrational level I want comics to be like they were when I was in my teens and early twenties while also wondering why these kids won’t get off my freaking lawn?
During the apartment scene, Lois and Clark receive a visitor in the form of Dirk Armstrong. Armstrong first appeared in Superman: The Man of Steel #61 and was hired by Daily Planet owner Franklin Stern to write a column that some would call right wing and others would call conservative. If you talk to fans of this era they will, more often than not, tell you he’s a Rush Limbaugh-esque character and there is some merit to that. Most of Dirk’s appearances consisted of him getting into arguments with Lois or Perry and serving as the voice of the opposition to whatever point those characters were trying to make. Sometimes he could be played two-dimensionally but the scene in this issue is more even handed.
Like Ceritak I almost feel for what Dirk is going through. Jurgens plays him as someone that truly believes in what he writes and while those opinions aren’t popular at the Planet he isn’t a bad guy underneath. He has a point when he tells Lois that they judged him even before they met him, though to be fair Dirk hasn’t exactly been the most welcoming of characters. This is the first mention of his daughter and we’ll be seeing a lot of her in the near future.
The main plot ramps up again when Clark has to change into Superman and discovers that his powers are even wonkier than he thought they were. Normally Superman wouldn’t have a problem with catching thieves or the bullets that said thieves fire at him but suddenly those bullets are passing right through the Man of Steel and hit a civilian. You would think that his hand passing through the coffee maker would be the straw that broke the camel’s back and it might have been if the police chase hadn’t passed by Lois and Clark’s apartment. Having a bystander get injured because of Superman’s changing powers ramps up the drama and makes finding out just what the heck is going on that much more important.
With an injured civilian we get the added dramatic bonus of Dirk wondering why Superman didn’t stop the bullets like he normally would. The idea of people thinking Superman might pose a danger to those around him is more commonplace in today’s comics and movies. Writers got some mileage out of this during the New 52 and it was one of the core ideas of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Back in 1997 this was an oddity. Superman wasn’t treated like Spider-Man with a newspaper editor or reporter thinking that he’s a menace. The difference here is that Dirk always considered Superman to be one of the good guys and this incident calls that into question. With that one thought balloon Jurgens gives the idea some nuance. It has been twenty years since I’ve read these comics so I don’t remember where this goes and while I normally hate the whole “Superman’s a menace!’ angle I’m looking forward to seeing how the creators of this era play with it if it does become a “thing”.
After getting the man to safety Superman takes Lois to the Fortress of Solitude and I was reminded of one of those little things that I had just plain forgotten over the past twenty years. This was Lois’ first Post Crisis trip to the Fortress. At first I thought, “That can’t be right. Surely she had been there before.” I thought about the many twists and turns of their relationship from the moment Clark told her he was Superman in Action Comics #662 (February 1991) until this issue and realized that I was completely wrong. Lois had never been to the Fortress. To be fair the Fortress was pretty much destroyed during the latter part of Reign of the Supermen and was just brought back six or so months in real time before this visit. Add in the fact that this version of the Man of Steel didn’t dwell on his Kryptonian heritage as much as his predecessor did and it makes perfect sense that Clark never took Lois to “his place”.
There isn’t a lot of time for showing Lois around because in short order Superman almost gets sucked into the Bottle City of Kandor. This is one of the few weak points of the issue for me. It’s not that I disliked the scene and I certainly see how it was used to get Ceritak out of Kandor. It’s a particular piece of Lois’ dialog that throws me off.
I realize that characterization is subjective but it feels weird to see Lois Lane say something like, “All the Pulitzers in the world won’t help you solve this one, Lois.” It doesn’t work for me. I can see Lois being shocked that Clark was sucked into the bottle city. I can see her feeling momentarily helpless because she’s in an alien fortress buried under tons of ice and doesn’t know how anything works. I can’t see her saying that line. It didn’t ruin the issue for me but it was just weird.
From there the issue wraps up rather nicely. Superman escapes Kandor and realizes that something about him has changed. This explains why the Fortress robots didn’t recognize him back before Final Night. Clark and Lois leave the Fortress because Clark doesn’t know if further exposure to Kandor will make him worse. It ends their part of the issue on an uncertain tone, which I love. I used to curse this sort of drama but I’d curse it in the way people curse being scared during a horror movie even though they love that charge of adrenaline. This is the sort of storytelling that kept me coming back to the Superman titles week after week, month after month, year after year. I know what’s going to happen now and I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen back then but there was that small bit of uncertainty that makes getting the next issue non-negotiable.
The final page of the issue made for a great cliffhanger ending. Ceritak breaks on through to the other side and shouts to the heavens that he’s free at last. I had totally forgotten about this part of the story and even though I have long been of the opinion that the Superman books would eventually suffer from focusing too much on characters like Ceritak/Scorn and Dirk Armstrong and his daughter I have to admit that this made me excited to see what happens with him next. As my friend Tom Panarese is fond of saying, nostalgia is a hell of a drug. I wouldn’t be going through these comics like this if I wasn’t under the influence, so to speak. What was once an annoyance becomes something you miss and I think that’s why I am getting all excited at seeing how Scorn’s story plays out.
And that brings us to the end of Superman #120. The pacing of the issue was typical of the Superman books of that era but since I was a fan of that era that wasn’t a problem for me. I like the layered storytelling of the time and that each chapter gives us another piece of the puzzle. This issue was significant not only because it was Lois’ first trip to the Fortress but also because it was the first appearance of Ceritak and furthered the Kandor sub-plot.
More than anything it was fun. I had fun re-reading this book.
Next Time: What’s happening to Superman’s powers and why! Plus, the Atomic Skull strikes again!