THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR ‘THE MAN OF STEEL’ AND FOR ‘SUPERMAN VOL. 1: THE UNITY SAGA: PHANTOM EARTH’ HC.
by Jarrod Jones. Brian Michael Bendis writes with ellipses in mind. He wants you to wait for the big moments, because like any writer worth their salt he knows that they’re only big when they’re earned. His much-ballyhooed Superman run—currently running through Superman and Action Comics with ramifications felt in Supergirl and DC’s latest Bendis-centric imprint, Wonder Comics—is populated with quiet moments, introspective moments, odd moments, silly moments, all of it in service to the big stuff.
His first post-Man of Steel arc, “The Unity Saga: Phantom Earth”, which has been collected by DC in a handsome hardcover edition (in bookstores now), doesn’t just have big moments. It has awe-inspiring moments. Peter Jackson-level theatrics made with David Lean’s laser focus on an epic’s heart and soul. Mr. Bendis teams with Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Oclair Albert, Alex Sinclair, and Josh Reed, most of whom worked on the 2018 miniseries that put the writer at the epicenter of DC Comics’ future, and their efforts match, if not exceed, the series’ Herculean ambitions. Back in 1986, when DC went forward with their first (though certainly not last) major in-continuity shake-up, John Byrne’s Superman #1 felt like the future. This Superman #1 feels like DC as it exists today: non-stop spectacle with philosophical stuff bombing around its captions, an eye ever fixed on the wild things waiting for us in the near future. That’s where those ellipses come in.
So the world’s on a roller coaster to hell (as usual) and while there are pressing questions currently demanding our attention, with so much insanity packed into its pages, this story doesn’t have time to answer them all. What happened to Lois Lane and young Jon Kent? Answers exist in recent issues of Superman and Action, but for those who leap this tall hardcover in a single bound, those answers have to wait.
While their temporary removal from the series was an alarming development for readers devoted to these characters, Ms. Lane especially (for what Superman book written by Jessica Jones‘ Brian Bendis could exist without Lois Lane?), Phantom Earth takes care to explore what their absence does to our Man of Steel. Familial longing leads to introspection, introspection leads to doubt, then fear, and suddenly all Superman is left with is vulnerability, right when the world gets sucked into a hideous under-dimension.
It’s the Phantom Zone, that famously plot-rich domain where Supergirl sent new arch-villain Rogol Zaar in The Man of Steel. Zaar’s biding his time for the ultimate revenge when fate decides to bring the Earth and its resident champion directly to his feet. (There is an actual explanation as to how Earth popped up in the Phantom Zone, though simply blaming it on “fate” turns out to be far more satisfying.) It’s easy to get caught up in the “whys” and “hows” of it all, but it’s clear from the start Bendis favors what’s happening in the moment. So every question that flies through our heads during this bedlam (“where’s Lois?” “where’s Jon?” “did Rogol Zaar actually destroy Krypton?” “how did Earth get here?” and most importantly, “how is it going to get out?”) is zipping through Superman’s as well, which makes Phantom Earth feel more immediate, not to mention intimate.
“All that matters is that the Earth is safe,” Superman tells himself as the void of the Phantom Zone later seals him from his adopted planet, perhaps forever. “That’s all that matters.” That he repeats himself with emphasis is all we need to know that, not so deep down, this is simply a man terrified he’ll never get to see his family again. Bendis excels at these moments, gives Reis and Prado and Albert and Sinclair and Reed every opportunity to make them resonate off the page. Reed especially shines during this volume’s final chapter, where he expands Superman’s rampaging thoughts into a white void provided by Reis’ double-page panoramas.
Equally impressive are the action sequences featuring bloodthirsty Rogol Zaar, whose design feels like an amalgam of the more brutish in Superman’s rogues gallery (Kalibak and Lobo and Doomsday, specifically) and looks at home in the swirling chaos of Reis, Prado, Albert and Sinclair’s muscular visuals. These action sequences are what make Superman such an astounding book to read, largely because they never veer into uber-violence or lose focus of the one man fighting to save the planet. I’m still floored by a sequence in the hardcover’s fourth chapter, or issue, where Superman falls out of the sky, his heart in shatters, his mind galaxies away, while Zaar descends upon our hero with the entire might of the Phantom Zone behind him, in what appears to be Superman’s final doom.
It’s not, clearly, but moments such as these are quite proficient in giving the reader a case of the dramatic shakes. As for Zaar, Superman’s apparent cybernetic ur-enemy, whose own dark histories are touched upon but not fully revealed here (bloodlust, impervious to mayhem, chalky white skin… Czarnian, perhaps? the book doesn’t say), he’s so far the largest threat in this Bendis-led era of Superman and is bound to pop up in later installments. So The Unity Saga: Phantom Earth isn’t so much a complete story but a set-up for future calamities. Peppered with plenty of tantalizing ellipses, Mr. Bendis cooks up scads of drama for Superman’s Never-Ending Battle. Just make sure you leave plenty of room on your bookshelves.
DC / $24.99
Written by Brian Michael Bendis.
Art by Ivan Reis.
Inks by Joe Prado, Oclair Albert.
Colors by Alex Sinclair.
Letters by Josh Reed.
9 out of 10
Check out this 7-page preview of ‘Superman Vol. 1: The Unity Saga: Phantom Earth’, courtesy of DC!
You can read the DoomRocket review of ‘The Man of Steel’ #1 here.