I’ll be blunt — given what a mess otherwise-celebrated writer Gene Luen Yang made of things during his run on the “main” Superman title recently, I was initially in the “think I’ll pass on that” camp when I heard that his next project for DC would involve chronicling the exploits of the Man of Steel’s new Chinese counterpart/knock-off. The idea of a teenager given super-powers in a clandestine government-funded experiment sounded kind of played-out, as well, and the more I heard about it, the more I thought the book sounded like a loser.
But then a few preview pages began to leak online, and I had to admit that Viktor Bogdanovic’s art looked pretty good. The small sampling of the script we were able to glean from said pages read reasonably well. And hey, who knows? Maybe heavy-handed editorial dictates — always a strong possibility whenever supposedly-“reformed” serial sexual harasser/assaulter Eddie Berganza is in charge of a comic — were more to blame for the woeful direction of Yang’s tenure on Superman than anything the writer himself did or didn’t do. The possibility therefore existed that, given a bit more “free reign” with a character of his own semi-creation, America’s newly-appointed Ambassador for Youth Literature (not sure what that job exactly entails, but it certainly sounds impressive) might just come up with something at least kinda good.
Besides, who do I think I’m fooling here, anyway? I’ve given every other DC “Rebirth” debut issue a shot (frequently to my regret), so what was the harm in gambling another three bucks on New Super-Man #1?
Granted, one could argue as to whether or not the introduction of a Shanghai-based Superman is any way necessary, given that DC already has a little-used Chinese super-team called The Ten that they seem to have no real clue what to do with, but who are we kidding? Giving that bunch of also-rans a monthly series would amount to nothing so much as a countdown to cancellation from the outset, so it makes a lot more sense, at least from a business standpoint, to foist upon the world’s most populous nation its very own Last Son of Krypton — even if he’s, ya know, every bit the Earthling that you and I are. And if issue one is any indication, it’s that very humanity that will — or at least could — prove to make 17-year-old Kenan Kong a character worth following for the foreseeable future.
He initially comes off as something of an arrogant ass, to be sure — maybe even a bully. But it’s an instinctive act of bravery in service of a schoolmate that he typically picks on (a kid whose family he has a bit of a history with, as we come to learn) that first brings him to the attention of aggressive “new media” journalist Laney Lan (even in China all the women in Superman’s — sorry, Super-Man’s — life get the “LL” treatment) and, later, to a top-secret experimental research division of the Chinese government. As you probably gleaned from the opening paragraph, these are the folks that bestow upon him the “gift” of his new powers, but what he does with them — or perhaps what his would-be “masters” force him to do with them — well, that remains an open question. We find out pretty quickly that he’s not the first “guinea pig” they’ve tried this on, but he is the first to make it out of their lab alive — unless you count the Bat-Man and Wonder-Woman that he meets in the book’s actually-pretty-kick-ass cliffhanger. Yeah, I’d say things might just have the potential to get a little interesting here.
Whether we’re talking watches, sunglasses, suits, or stereos, the cheaply-made imitation of popular and/or prestigious Western products has inextricably woven itself into Chinese economic life at this point, so it’s no surprise that even the fictitious representatives of the “powers that be” we’re briefly introduced to in this comic would look westward for “inspiration” in the creation of their own super-heroes. American cultural exports are a big business, as everyone knows, but something almost always gets lost in translation in foreign markets, and for those who prefer something with a bit more of a “close to home” feel, the gap between exported image and importing customer base has been closed by any number of “Chinese Madonnas,” “Chinese Michael Jacksons,” and “Chinese Whitney Houstons” over the years. Why should Superman escape the grip of cultural appropriation when Pamela Anderson can’t?
Okay, fair enough, Clark Kent was raised by two loving parents who instilled him with values so unshakable that his status as the last survivor of a doomed planet with literally no one else he can actually relate to only seems to trouble him on the rarest of occasions, while Kenan Kong was raised by a cold and emotionally distant single father who seems constitutionally incapable of showing his son anything even remotely resembling concern, much less actual affection, but for us hopefully-lucky (it remains to be seen) readers, that just means that he might have a more difficult — and consequently interesting — time of it when it comes to adapting to his new status as National Hero Who Can Do Just About Anything (NHWCJ — nah, an acronym just doesn’t work). So far, at least, all evidence seems to be pointing in the direction of a bumpy and memorable ride.
Bogdanovic’s art, it bears repeating, is really nice here and captures enough of the vitality and optimism of Chinese youth culture to make me think he’s actually visited the place (which, for all I know, he may have), and Hi-Fi’s bright and energetic color palette adds a welcome exclamation point to the book’s visuals. Throw in some cool costume designs and dynamic (if brief) fight sequences and you have a book with sufficient artistic “chops” to match Yang’s rapid-fire pacing, authentic dialogue, and involving characterization. Add all this together with the fact that the Asian and Asian-American fan bases are woefully under-represented in the comics medium (something you’d think Jim Lee would have done something about earlier in his tenure as co-publisher at DC) and I feel perfectly comfortable in calling it: New Super-Man is going to be the surprise hit of the whole “Rebirth” initiative.