Comic Book Review
Superman: For Tomorrow (Vols. 1 & 2)
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artists: Jim Lee (Penciller), Scott Williams (Inker), Alex Sinclair (Colorist), Rob Leigh (Letterer), Nick J. Napolitano (Letterer)
I was warned not to read this. “It’s bad,” I was told, “don’t waste your money on it.” Not just by people I know, either; the reviews of both volumes on Amazon.com were not kind, “Overhyped,” “Confusing,” and “Whatever Azzarello was trying to do, he failed” being common sentiments. Being a contrary bastard, I went out and bought both volumes in paperback anyway this past week. I mean, fuck, it couldn’t be as bad as all that . . .
And it wasn’t. With For Tomorrow, Brian Azzarello tries to do something deep and serious with Superman. He doesn’t ultimately succeed, but that doesn’t wash out the entire effort. This isn’t a perfect story, it’s not one of the great Superman tales, but it has some interesting things to say and it’s worth giving a look.
One million people have vanished without a trace from all over the world, including Lois Lane. Superman was off-planet helping Green Lantern out of a jam when it happened, and is consumed by guilt that he wasn’t here to try and stop whatever it was that caused the disappearance. He spends much of the first half of the story (collected in Volume One) talking things over with Father Leone, a Metropolis priest who is dying of cancer. The talks with Leone are the best scenes in the story, searching and provocative, as Superman ruminates on his place in the world and his role as humanity’s protector.
Supes spends most of the story’s first half narrating to Father Leone his involvement in a civil war in some anonymous shithole country. Angered by their senseless killing of one another, Superman disarms both sides, declaring their conflict over and unwittingly touching off another war in the neighboring country. Superman arrives at the headquarters of General Nox, leader of the rebellion, and fights his genetically engineered man-beast Equus, discovering mass-graves he assumes are the doing of Nox along the way. After the first fight with Equus, Supes confronts Nox about the graves, only to discover that Nox had nothing to do with it, that those killings were the work of the man Nox and his army have just deposed. The episode is meant to demonstrate the folly of Superman playing God and imposing his will on us to end our silly little wars; it’s effective, but comes a little late in the game, I think — not for this story, specifically, but for Superman in general. He’s been around for 70 years (11 or 12 in continuity); shouldn’t he have figured out that he can’t fix everything by now?
The confrontation with Nox and Equus doesn’t just serve as an object lesson to Supes — it also allows him to discover that an incredibly powerful weapon used by Nox against his enemies is responsible for the vanishing of Lois and the other million people. Nox discovered the weapon and used it without understanding it, causing people other than his intended targets to disappear. While Nox and Supes are going over all this, Equus comes back for more, and, after a brief reprise of his throw-down with Superman, activates the weapon and vanishes himself, along with a few hundred thousand more people from all over the planet.
The first volume ends with a spectacular fight between Superman and four powerful entities summoned by Halcyon, an Amazon sister of Wonder Woman: the gigantic embodiments of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water. After fighting the giants head-on for a few pages, things turn more conversational. The giants demand Superman (who they address as “Foreigner”) leave the Earth, or else they will kill everything on the planet. In response, Superman informs them that once they have killed everything else, he will still be alive, and with no other life left on the planet to protect, he will destroy them: “I will burn off your ozone and tear away your atmosphere. I will vaporize your oceans and I will break you apart with my bare hands. I will scatter you . . . and you won’t be anymore. Then — reluctantly — I will find a new home, as a foreigner.”
Father Leone asks what he would have done had the elementals not backed down from the threat — would he have destroyed the world? Superman never answers him. It’s a wonderfully rendered sequence, and a smashing way to end the first volume. Unfortunately, it also sets the bar so high for Volume Two that the second half never quite measures up.
For Tomorrow (Volume Two) opens with Superman flying Father Leone to the Fortress of Solitude, where he informs the priest that he plans on using the weapon taken from Nox to vanish to wherever everyone else went, to try and save them. Around the same time, Batman and Wonder Woman figure out that this is what Superman intends to do, and Wonder Woman flies to the Fortress intent on stopping him. She breaks into the Fortress, initiating an automatic self-destruct mechanism. Supes and Wonder Woman fight, a sinister government agent named Orr shows up, intent on recovering the mysterious weapon, and Superman convinces Wonder Woman to protect Orr and Father Leone from the collapsing Fortress, allowing him to activate the weapon and vanish.
Superman finds himself in Metropia, an artificial paradise created inside the Phantom Zone in case the population of Earth ever faced destruction, ala Krypton, and had to be evacuated to safety in a hurry. As he explores Metropia, Superman slowly remembers that it was him who created it and then meditated to wipe it from his memory. The weapon recovered from Nox is the key to enter Metropia, which Superman left there with a group of powerful automatons (shaped like his Kryptonian parents, and Clark Kent), in case it was ever needed. The key found its way back to Earth when it was discovered by someone else, someone who Superman apparently forgot about, someone who was in the Phantom Zone already . . .
Yep, good ol’ General Zod. He discovered the key and sent it back to Earth, hoping Superman would find it and come to Metropia, thus enabling Zod to kick his ass and take revenge for Jor-El banishing him to the Phantom Zone in the first place. It’s not that I wasn’t happen to see Zod — whenever he shows up I always think of Terrence Stamp in Superman II, chewing up the scenery like a motherfucker — it’s just that I get the impression Zod’s been a bit overused in the Superman comics lately. I don’t read them monthly, only a paperback collection here and there, but it seems like some version or another of Zod’s been used as the surprise villain in about fifteen different Superman comics in the last five or six years. His appearances are starting to lose a little of their impact, ya know?
Realizing that Metropia is now too dangerous to exist, Superman transports everyone else back to Earth and orders Metropia to destroy itself. While Superman and Zod get it on in Metropia, shadowy agent Orr has cured Father Leone’s cancer by transforming him into a genetically engineered monster like Equus. To prevent Zod from traveling to Earth, Superman sends the key back to Father Leone. Orr wakes Leone — now called Pilate — intending to help him break out of the government lab where he’s being held; Leone sees the key and escapes to Metropia instead. Not thrilled about facing life as a remote-controlled genetically mutated killing machine, Leone pleads with Superman to kill him. Superman pities Leone, but refuses. Equus shows up, and he has no problem killing anyone, so he and Leone wrestle and throw each other into oblivion as Metropia crumbles.
Zod and Superman are all that are left. As he is about to be consumed by the destruction, Zod begs for Superman to save him. “Superman, save me!” is a phrase often repeated in the story, described to Father Leone by Superman himself as his “holy trinity.” Zod is the last to say it, and Superman fails to save him before the world collapses and Zod is consumed. Back on Earth, all those who originally vanished reappear. Superman builds himself a new Fortress of Solitude, this one inside what looks like an ancient Mayan pyramid, and wonders, when the end of the world really comes, who will save him.
So yeah, it’s not perfect. Volume Two, especially the second half, takes a mostly serious, introspective story and turns it into a goofy series of fights. What happens to Father Leone is really disappointing; he was the most interesting character in Volume One, and by the end of Volume Two he’s been transformed into a silly sci-fi monster. And the idea of Superman being able to construct a realistic earthlike paradise inside the Phantom Zone all by himself, with no one knowing about it, and then wiping it from his own memory, seems a little far-fetched. I know the old song credited him with “x-ray eyes and super-brain!” but come on . . .
Some of the other reviews I read complained about the non-linear storytelling, but I had no trouble following it, and it ends after the first half anyway. Jim Lee’s artwork is outstanding, as expected. The guy is probably the best artist working in superhero comics right now, just a phenomenal storyteller . . . though he does still have his juvenile tendencies. For all his talent, the dude just can’t help himself when it comes to drawing women. He loves drawing big fat tits. Looking at his rendering of Lois — essentially indistinguishable from Wonder Woman — I recalled a line in John Byrne’s Man of Steel mini-series when Clark described Lois as something like “pretty, but not the most beautiful girl in the world.” Remember that? Neither does anyone who’s worked at DC Comics since.
Azzarello’s done better work than this (100 Bullets with the outstanding artist Eduardo Risso), but he’s done a lot worse, too. I enjoyed For Tomorrow a helluva lot more than Broken City, his overheated “Batman as Sam Spade” run on Batman a few years ago. And even though it loses its way at the end, I appreciated the attempt at telling a serious story that gets inside Superman’s head in a way that’s never really been done before. Ever since the Byrne reboot, Superman the Humble Farmboy has been the dominant interpretation of the character. It’s a great interpretation that’s yielded some fantastic stories (including my favorite Superman story ever, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Superman For All Seasons), but there are other facets of the character to explore. For Tomorrow takes a crack at Superman as God. It doesn’t quite succeed, but it is a noble and interesting failure.