Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it is Man Of Steel #5. Written by Brian Michael Bendis (Spider-Man, Jessica Jones) with art by Adam Hughes (Betty & Veronica, Hellboy: Krampusnacht), Jason Fabok (Justice League, Detective Comics), and Alex Sinclair (Justice League Vs. Suicide Squad, Hawkman), this issue delivers major revelations, a devastating Super-brawl, and breathtaking artwork. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
Brian Michael Bendis’ move from Marvel to DC was one of the biggest comic book news stories of last year, a shocking development that saw Marvel’s most influential writer of the past two decades shifting his allegiance to the competition. DC recognized what a major move this is: It rewarded Bendis by handing him the reins of the Superman line, folding his creator-owned Jinxworld imprint into its lineup, and giving him a new imprint where he’ll have the freedom to create his own interpretations of established DC concepts. By the end of September, DC will be publishing six monthly Bendis books, four of which are the writers’ original ideas. That’s a lot of material, but given the strength of Bendis’ Man Of Steel, there’s ample reason for readers to be excited about this new phase of his career.
The weekly six-issue Man Of Steel miniseries has Bendis setting up his runs on Action Comics and Superman that begin next month, introducing new characters, taking familiar faces off the board, and pitting the hero against a new foe with a deep connection to his past. DC is putting some serious artistic muscle behind Bendis’ Superman run, and, including the stories in Action Comics #1000 and DC Nation #0, he’s working with some of the biggest names in superhero comics: Jim Lee, José Luis García-López, Ivan Reis, Evan “Doc” Shaner, Steve Rude, Ryan Sook, Kevin Maguire, Adam Hughes, and Jason Fabok.
Bendis’ tenure at DC got off to a rocky start with an underwhelming story in Action Comics #1000 detailing a fight between Superman and his new enemy, Rogol Zaar, with out-of-place commentary on the return of the hero’s red trunks. His story in DC Nation #0 was a massive improvement, shifting focus to the Daily Planet to give a better impression of how Bendis writes Clark Kent and his supporting cast. He has an especially firm handle on Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White, an exasperated employer struggling to deal with the seismic changes in the industry to which he’s dedicated his life. It’s been too long since the Daily Planet felt like an integral part of modern Superman comics, but Bendis remedies that by removing key aspects of Clark Kent’s personal life so he can examine his relationship with his work.
A major mystery in Man Of Steel is what happened to Lois Lane and Jonathan Kent, and each issue has had short interludes drawn by Jason Fabok that slowly roll out the answer. While Bendis is defining the post-Rebirth status quo for the character in the present-day sequences, these flashbacks show him working with elements introduced in the past few years, particularly a Super-family that includes Clark and Lois’ son and Superman’s birth father, Jor-El, who was revealed to be the villainous Mister Oz in “The Oz Effect.” Jon has a grandfather who wants to teach him about Kryptonian culture, and, in this week’s issue, Jor-El offers Jon the opportunity to join him on an educational journey through the galaxy.
Jon’s parents immediately object, but he’s made his decision and wants to go on a space adventure with grandpa. While there’s still one more issue to find out how this resolves, it’s safe to assume that Lois joins Jonathan and Jor-El on their cosmic voyage, creating a fascinating subplot for the rest of Clark’s family while he’s dealing with ongoing problems on Earth. Lois Lane stepped into an action-hero role at various points in Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Superman run, and this change in setting could reinforce the tough, intimidating side of Lois that has made her such a fierce reporter. Imagine a Lois Lane series that has her in a cosmic adventurer role while spotlighting different assignments from her journalist path thematically tied to her current situation, written by a Bendis pal like Kelly Sue DeConnick or Chelsea Cain. Lois Lane is a character with international name recognition, and it’s well past time for her to take center stage with her own comic.
Lois, Jon, and Jor-El are lucky to be off the Earth right now, because Rogol Zaar is on a mission to cleanse the universe of all Kryptonians and any places they have inhabited. He was responsible for the destruction of Krypton, and he’s followed the planet’s last survivors to their new home. He destroyed the Kryptonian artifacts in the Fortress of Solitude and annihilated the people living in the bottle city of Kandor, delivering a major blow to Superman’s spirit before beginning the physical attacks. Last week’s issue had Superman, Supergirl, and Rogol Zaar facing off in Metropolis, but the fight moves off-planet in Man Of Steel #5, which begins with a brutal showdown among the stars.
Adam Hughes joins Bendis for this extraordinary issue, featuring some of the most stunning imagery of any superhero comic this year. The first page is a chilling full-page spread presenting an ant’s-eye-view of Rogol Zaar staring into the city of Kandor before he commits mass murder on the unsuspecting populace, putting the reader in the position of the victims. The composition of this image is directly tied to Superman’s mindset, reflected in narration that has him fixated on what the people of Kandor experienced in their final moments. It’s a splash page that accentuates how small and helpless these people are against this gigantic threat, followed by a two-page spread that completely changes the scope as it shows Superman pulling Zaar away from Earth.
Each issue of Man Of Steel begins with a splash page built around a circle in the center, and these images are connected. The first issue shows a healthy Krypton, the next issue has an exploding Krypton, and the next has a healthy Earth, visually tying Superman’s birth planet with his adopted home. Last week’s issue opened with a close-up of Superman’s eye after it had shot a heat ray, and this week’s has Zaar’s eye looking down at Kandor, the former being used to protect people, the latter serving as a harbinger as doom. The circular imagery is maintained for the following spread in Man Of Steel #5, with the Earth situated at the center of the left page. That positioning indicates that it is Zaar’s next target, an idea emphasized by the villain’s ax hanging directly above it, waiting to deliver the executioner’s blow.
Man Of Steel #5 is the first issue not fully colored by Alex Sinclair—Sinclair isn’t a bad colorist by any means, but his heavy digital rendering isn’t the best fit for everyone. The uniformity of his coloring adds consistency to a book that cycles through artists, but the work of Doc Shaner and Steve Rude in particular requires a lighter touch to match their streamlined, classic superhero aesthetics.
DC makes a very smart move letting Hughes do his own coloring in this issue. Hughes’ palettes are very expressive, like the gentle peach and blue of the Kandor spread, creating an atmosphere of peace and calm before the devastation. The palette moves to the opposite end of the spectrum when the action shifts to Superman and Zaar in space, but the hero’s cape, trunks, and signature S-shield are colored with bright red and yellow, highlighting the iconography to show that no matter how dark it gets, Superman brings the light.
The influence of Hughes’ recent time with Mike Mignola’s Hellboy shows during this big fight, and he’s working with flatter colors and bolder graphic composition to heighten the impact of this battle. He colors a close-up of Zaar’s fist crashing into Superman’s face with blazing red. A headbutt with canary yellow, indicating that Superman’s actions don’t have the same power as his opponent’s. In one of the coolest moments in the fight, Zaar pounds Superman with the back of his fist in another deep red panel, and the force of the hit drags the above panel border in its wake.
Hughes mastery of powerful superhero artwork is on full display in this issue, which also includes appearances from Supergirl and the Justice League. Anytime Hughes gets to draw Wonder Woman is cause for celebration after his legendary cover run on her solo series, but he also has a striking interpretation of Cyborg that accentuates his robotic nature with inhuman proportions for his arms and legs. Hughes disregards all of the unnecessary glowing lines of the current Flash design for his interpretation of the speedster, and his Batman is a pool of black defined almost entirely by his silhouette.
Hughes hasn’t had many professional opportunities to draw Supergirl, but his cover for Supergirl And The Legion Of Superheroes #23 is an iconic image of the character, leaning into his classic pin-up influence to create a visual of Kara that is full of personality and sex appeal while maintaining a fundamental elegance. His interpretation of Kara in Man Of Steel #5 downplays sexuality and prioritizes strength, both physical and emotional. Her first appearance in this issue is a stunning shot of her carrying a bed full of children out of a burning building, showcasing the rich expression that Hughes brings to his characters. Later in the issue, Supergirl serves as a rock for her battered cousin, with Hughes paying homage the cover of Crisis On Infinite Earths #7 for a panel that has Kara pulling Clark from a pile of rubble on the moon.
Bendis is a creator that understands the importance of writing to an artist’s strengths, and there’s a palpable excitement in the visuals for Man Of Steel. He’s giving his collaborators the opportunity to push themselves in terms of both action and character work, and the results have been gorgeous. This week’s issue is a high point in the miniseries, and ideally it won’t be too long before Bendis and Hughes work together again because their perspectives mesh incredibly well.