Tuesday, August 4, 2015

To Embody a Darker Ideal: Justice League Gods and Monsters: Superman #1

The following is my review of Justice League Gods and Monsters: Superman #1, which was posted on PopMatters.com.


Since his creation 1938, Superman has undergone numerous revisions, retcons, and reboots. Everything from the extent to his powers to the font of the S on his chest has changed. He’s like Madonna, constantly reinventing himself while not completely deviating from his core principles. But unlike Madonna, his principles go beyond making music that hasn’t been relevant since the Clinton Administration.

Superman, regardless of the font he uses or the presence/absence of red underwear, still embodies the ideal of truth, justice, and the American way. These ideals have helped him stay relevant as a superhero from the dark days of the hippie era to the afro-loving 70s to the overly grungy 90s. Superman has always found a place in our world. Even as society has become more jaded by Fox News and reality TV, he’s never deviated significantly as a hero and an ideal.

But what would kind of hero would Superman be if he did deviate from that ideal? Would he still be Superman? Or would he just be a Superman who tries too hard to be like Batman? These are the questions that Justice League Gods and Monsters: Superman #1 tries to answer. They’re questions that nobody has really asked before, but the answers are so compelling that some might feel the urge to party like it’s 1938.


Bruce Timm challenged himself with re-inventing DC’s trinity in a new world with Justice League: Gods and Monsters. It’s one thing to make Batman a vampire, but how does anyone go about reinventing Superman? It’s one thing to remove the red underwear, but it’s quite another to completely revamp his story from scratch and still call him Superman. It would be like trying to reinvent Coca Cola from scratch. Is it even possible at this point? Bruce Timm effectively answers that question with a definitive yes.

Enter Hernan Guerra. He’s not Clark Kent. He’s not Kal-El. He’s not the humble, selfless farm by from America’s heartland. He’s not the virtuous, upstanding hero that smiling children and puppies rally behind either. And yet, he’s still Superman. He still finds a way to make himself worthy of that title. He’s not Hyperion, Goku, or some other character that pretends it isn’t a blatant rip-off. He’s Superman. He lacks a cape and goofy red underwear, but Hernan Guerra proves he’s every bit as worthy of that title as Clark Kent.

The story of Hernan Guerra that unfolds in Justice League Gods and Monsters: Superman #1 contains the core aspects of the Superman mythos. He’s the last survivor of Krypton, he was sent to Earth in a ship, and he was raised by a human family. That’s basic Superman 101 and that’s as far as the similarities go between Hernan Guerra and Clark Kent. From this point forward, their stories diverge in so many meaningful ways. Yet in the end, they both become Superman.

Hernan’s story is told through his adopted sister, Valentina Guerra. Since Clark Kent never had a sibling he grew up with, it offers a unique perspective that offers insight and commentary into Hernan’s journey to becoming Superman. Her voice never becomes overly emphatic like John Madden or excessively detached like Ben Stein. Her love for Hernan shows on many occasions. In many respects, she understands Hernan’s journey better than Hernan himself. This alone makes her the most lovable sister outside of Full House reruns.

This journey covers a lot of ground, going from Hernan’s innocent days as a super-powered kid to his not-so-innocent days as an embittered young adult. But what makes this journey so engaging are the obstacles he faces that Clark Kent never had to deal with. Clark Kent was raised in the mid-west in a small community full of friendly, down-to-Earth people. He could walk down the street and nobody would bother him. That kind of environment might as well be a Father Knows Best re-run on TV Land because for Hernan Guerra, this is not the environment that shaped him.

In addition to being a biological alien, Hernan happens to be the kind of alien that Donald Trump loves to insult in his speeches. His parents are Mexican migrants who live at the very bottom of the social and economic ladder. They’re subject to discrimination, poverty, and outright racism. It’s the kind of path that could just as easily turn him into Lex Luthor instead of Superman, but he never strays too far, nor does he go bald.

At the same time, Hernan establishes early on that he’ll do things that Clark Kent would never do. He lets a plane crash, he insults his mother’s religion, and he fights back when a bunch of stereotypical redneck racists attack him. He won’t always do the right thing, but he never gets to a point where he seems inclined to throw those principles aside. He’s not a Boy Scout, but he’s not Bart Simpson either.

In this sense, the morals his parents and sister instill in him are very influential. It’s not at all unlike the influence the Kents had on Clark. But because of the different circumstances, Hernan becomes a very different kind of Superman. He’ll fight for truth and justice, but he’ll do it his way. And if that clashes with the American way, he couldn't care less.

Hernan Guerra’s evolution into Superman was a lot harder and a lot darker than that of Clark Kent’s. Because of this, he goes about being Superman in a very different way. He’ll use violence. He’ll kill. And even those who complained about the ending to Man of Steel will understand his methods. It won’t make the kind of icon that gets plastered on kids’ lunch boxes, but it will make the kind of icon that gets the job done.

The greatest accomplishment of Justice League Gods and Monsters: Superman #1 isn’t just establishing Hernan Guerra as Superman. It’s establishing the kind of Superman he is. His sister understood it best. The world can be a dark place and sometimes it takes someone who understands that darkness to do something about it. Hernan Guerra understands it in ways Clark Kent never will. Hernan has been subjected to poverty, racism, and Ann Coulter books. This means he might not be the Superman we all need, but he will be the Superman that we deserve.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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