Superman: Up, Up, And Away (DC Comics)

Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns reinvigorate the Man of Steel with this intense exploration of his love for Lois Lane and his conflict with Lex Luthor.  

192 pgs FC; $14.99

(W: Kurt Busiek, Geoff Johns; A: Pete Woods, Renato Guedes)

 

The Superman titles were in a bit of a rut in early 2006, with three monthly titles (Action Comics, Superman, and The Adventures of Superman) running through standard hero-vs.-villain stories that were enjoyable enough but didn't leave much of an impact. After being gifted with the giant reset button known as Infinite Crisis, DC editorial overhauled the Superbooks by paring the line down to two titles and bringing in two of their most talented writers, Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek, for the revitalization. The result: Up, Up, And Away, one of the finest Superman stories in years.

 

The cover to Up, Up, And Away by Terry and Rachel Dodson. Click thumbnail for a larger imageCollecting the 8-part story running through Superman #650-653 and Action Comics #837-840, Up, Up, And Away builds off a seemingly simple question: what if Superman wasn't so super? After the events of Infinite Crisis, Superman is left completely powerless. We join the story one year later, with Clark and Lois taking in a movie version of his life as Superman. The movie-within-a-comic acts as a shy and fitting allusion by Johns and Busiek to the then still-pending release of the film Superman Returns, as Up, Up, And Away acts as a return for the comic form of the original superhero, not only a return from a year without powers but also a return to the heart of what makes Superman work as a character.

 

Initially, he is reluctant to return to superheroing. If the world is ever in peril, he's got his cousin Supergirl on speed dial (a.k.a. the classic signal watch), letting him dedicate himself to being Clark Kent full-time. Clark is a better husband, a better reporter, a better man, by not being Superman (he even actually needs his glasses, a nice touch). Lois, for her part, has finally settled into the idea that she no longer has to share the love of her life with the rest of the world. Her coming to terms with her feelings is the heart of the story's first half. As Clark must sit idly by, watching Green Lantern and Hawkgirl defend the city, his city, from a supervillain attack, Lois hesitantly speaks, unable to meet Clark's gaze as she says, "I've…been very happy this past year, Clark. I love you as Clark, as Superman, it doesn't matter."

 

The cover to Superman #650 by Terry and Rachel DodsonThe supervillain attack in question turns out to only be a diversion for Lex Luthor, newly released from prison but still presumed guilty in the court of public opinion, who has now lost his company and is out for revenge. Though Superman's powers finally begin to return (as if there was any doubt), he is still out of practice and at half power when he's forced to enter a battle with Luthor, a knock-down, drag-out fight that truly gets to the heart of what it is that pits these two against each other.

 

"[Lex] once told me that he believed he had the ability to cure cancer, to eliminate famine," Lois points out early in the story. "But Superman was always in his way. Now that you're gone, what's he up to? What's he using all that energy for?" That is the central conflict between these two men: Luthor has convinced himself that his evil deeds were never his fault, but with Superman out of the picture, he did not rise to the occasion, and now with Superman back he must stare his own failure right in the eye. The moment is powerful, one of the best moments in the history of the character.

 

It's hard to say, given the wording of the credits, which writer was responsible for most of this book, but it certainly reads like a Kurt Busiek comic. Clark's internal narration throughout carries the heart of the story, echoing Busiek's take on the character in the Superman: Secret Identity miniseries while hitting the same deeply personal notes of his work on Astro City. Pete Woods handles the art for six of the eight chapters, and does a fine job as well. Woods has certainly come a long way since his work on Deadpool in the late-90s; his clean, heavy lines recall Ed McGuinness, but with a more realistic, less bulky spin, and he handles both the drama and action with equal skill.

 

The cover to Action Comics #837 by Terry and Rachel DodsonSo much happens so fast in Up, Up, And Away that some great ideas are not fully explored. When Clark is still powerless, he is given a Green Lantern ring, a brilliant idea that could have gone in any number of directions, yet Busiek and Johns don't run with it. It's hard to argue for more tangents when you have a story this tight that works so well, but it feels like there is a lot of untapped potential in a powerless Superman that the writers chose not to cover. The only other downside is that Woods was not able to handle all the art chores; the remainder of the book is drawn by Renato Guedes, a good artist whose thin-line style is not similar to Woods in the slightest. A unified look could have made this strong book even stronger.

 

When it comes down to it, Up, Up, And Away is simply a perfect Superman story. Busiek and Johns get this character. They get the relationship between Clark and Lois, between Superman and Luthor, between Superman and the world he protects, and the fact that these two great writers will continue to helm the two monthly Superman books means that we readers will get great stories starring the Man of Steel for the foreseeable future.

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