No comic book reader with even a cursory knowledge of the history of the medium could deny the importance of Neal Adams contributions in the past. Alongside his most notable co-creator, Dennis O’Neil, Adams was instrumental in reestablishing a more serious tone for Batman, a necessary tonic after the high camp of the Adam West television series still fresh in readers’ memories. More significantly still, their collaboration produced some of the defining issues of the Bronze Age during their run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, tackling societal issues from racism to drug abuse. But much like many of the products which bear the “Stan Lee” branding today, Adams’ Superman: The Coming of the Supermen #1 serves only to tarnish that legacy.
The biggest selling point on the book ought to be Adams’ pencils, but at seventy-four years of age the hands which once rendered the definitive version the Emerald Archer here produce shaky and unsteady linework. Not only so, but on many pages the faces on different individuals, male and female alike, are nearly indistinguishable from one another, particularly on page ten in which Lois is looks more like Clark Kent secretly disguised as his newscaster colleague, replete with his signature split-curl. Worst of all, the panel composition results in a jarring pace throughout the issue, with some actions seeming utterly abrupt. A veneered veteran of the industry ought to understand conventions such as gutter space better, but there’s no indication of such in this issue. On page twenty, as an example, immediately after posing a question to Luthor, the next panel is once again Superman stating, “Fine. Don’t speak,” with no indication of any passage of time between the two indicating Luthor’s silence.
Adams’ design of the various characters is more mixed in quality. Gone are Superman’s needless armor paddings and back are his signature red trunks. But this is less Adams’ take on a perennial, evergreen Superman, and more so one rooted entirely in his own heyday of the 1970s. Of course, the Schwartz-era Adams is here channeling (Unsurprisingly, given his cover work on some of the most celebrated Superman stories of the time.) the same era in which Clark Kent was featured as a style icon in Gentlemen’s Quarterly so it’s appropriate that he can still suit-up for his job at GBN unlike the dressed-down mild-mannered reported of more modern times. But ‘70s fashion is a double-edged sword. Lois is garbed in the ridiculous pantsuit-and-broche combination of the era, and Luthor, once again rotund, is seen sporting ridiculous neckwear as well.
The fashion is notable as it speaks to the anachronistic qualities of the issue. Despite their garb and their Schwartz-era careers as televised newscasters, this Lois and Clark are clearly denizens of the current day (A farmer and his wife in the opening pages talk about discarding their camera-equipped smartphone.s). Ironically, whereas Schwartz and O’Neil once made Clark a network anchor to modernize the character, Adams’ regression of the Clark to the same posting forty years later seems exactly that: regressive. In the era of smart phones and online news, the written word has once again eclipsed broadcast as the primary means by which Americans access the news. The Clark Kent of the 2010s is more likely to share similarities with Conor Freidersdorf than Brian Williams.
Such serves only to highlight how poor a decision it was to return Lois and Clark to GBS. Adams uses Lois’ broadcast throughout the issue as a narrative clutch. In lieu of traditional narration boxes, Lois narrates the events of the issue as they unfold, though often her contextualizing and commentary are clearly for the reader more so than any actual viewers; it works exactly as well (which is to say, not at all) as the Channel 52 backups with Ambush Bug. Worse than Lois’ awkward dialog is her characterization: abrupt, partial, and uneven-tempered. At one point she invites Luthor on her show to speak to the countermeasures his company has employed to repel the assault from Apokolips. Even as they speak parademons are attacking his own headquarters, yet instead of focusing on the ongoing alien invasion threatening to destroy the city, Lois instead snidely comments, “Any ‘counter-measures’ in the works for another powerful alien I can think of?” Luthor, in turn, goes from accusing Superman of being a dangerous invader no different from Kalibak to chastising Superman’s absence for not saving the city.
The characters and the narrative the inhabit are muddled beyond comprehension. The only thing transparent is the supposed mystery, but given the design of “The Messenger,” it is entirely obvious that Adams is drawing from Arthur C. Clark’s Childhood’s End for inspiration, with the three new Superman from a future in which humanity has become superhumanity. The only twist is the presence of ancient Egyptian aliens, the most tired trope in all of science-fiction. Adams is clearly an artist first and a writer second. And yet the art too is terrible, and not merely for an icon of the industry like Adams. Last week, Max Landis continued to delivered one of the greatest Superman stories ever with American Alien. It’s an utter shame that just seven days later Adams has delivered one of the worst in years with The Coming of the Supermen.