Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is Superman #18. Written by Brian Michael Bendis (Young Justice, Action Comics) with art by Ivan Reis (Green Lantern, Aquaman), inker Joe Prado (Green Lantern, Aquaman), colorist Alex Sinclair (The Batman’s Grave, Hawkman), and letterer Dave Sharpe (Green Lantern, Harley Quinn), this issue changes everything for Superman as he comes clean about his secret identity. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
What does Superman’s mid-life crisis look like? In the pages of Superman, he’s said goodbye to his villainous father, sent his young adult son off to “future college,” and taken on extra responsibility as Earth’s ambassador to the newly formed United Planets. Big events have forced Superman to reconsider his identity and place in the world, and he’s making drastic decisions as a result. But drastic doesn’t mean bad: This week’s Superman #18 has the hero revealing his secret identity to the world, holding a press conference on the steps of the Daily Planet building. It’s a major turning point, and the issue does remarkable work building up to this life-changing moment with emotional interactions between Superman and his closest friends.
Brian Michael Bendis has had a very busy year and a half at DC Comics, writing four ongoing series and eight miniseries while curating his own Wonder Comics imprint. The results have been mixed, which is to be expected when output is so high, but there’s no denying that the move from Marvel to DC creatively reinvigorated Bendis. With Action Comics and Superman, Bendis explores two different corners of Superman’s world, with the former focusing on Clark Kent’s earthbound experiences with the Daily Planet staff while the latter looks at Superman’s place in DC’s cosmic landscape. Action Comics was the stronger title for the first year because of its more personal perspective, but Superman has since surpassed it thanks to a more consistent art team and a story with huge ramifications for both the character and the larger DC Universe.
Ever since the conclusion of the Rogol Zarr storyline, Superman has been firing on all cylinders. Along with establishing the United Planets and reintroducing the 31st Century’s Legion of Superheroes, it brought the Super Sons back together in a very sweet chapter reuniting Bendis with his Ultimate Comics Spider-Man collaborator, David Lafuente, and laid the groundwork for New Krypton in an issue drawn by superhero legend Kevin Maguire. The regular art team of Ivan Reis, inker Joe Prado, colorist Alex Sinclair, and letterer Dave Sharpe returns for Superman #18, and the character acting in the visuals makes it a high point of this run. Much of this book has been defined by spectacular action sequences, and this week’s issue still holds on to a lot of that dynamic energy despite being made up entirely of conversations.
Superman #18 shows why Ivan Reis is one of the top artists in DC’s stable, delivering intricately detailed artwork that captures all the expression needed to maximize the impact of Bendis’ script. Restraint is a major reason why this issue works so well, and it manifests in a number of different ways. Reis’ layouts are constantly shifting—they toggle between tight panels that create a sense of confinement and more open ones that reinforce how Superman’s decisions liberate him. The first page begins with a close-up on a pensive Superman, moments before he flies down to the Daily Planet. The next four panels are all long and thin, boxing the character in to build tension before it’s resolved with a two-page splash revealing the massive throng of people gathered to hear the Planet’s big news.
This isn’t the first time Superman’s secret identity was revealed (it happened five years ago), but the circumstances have changed dramatically this time around. 2015’s “Truth” storyline exposed Clark Kent against his will rather than having him make the decision to come clean on his own, thereby putting him in a defensive position. That’s not the case in Superman #18, also titled “Truth,” which has him revealing his identity because recent events have taught him that secrets can have major negative consequences when they aren’t brought to light.
Bendis is known for his snappy dialogue, but the most powerful moment in this issue comes when he shows restraint and lets the artwork do the talking. Before telling the world about his secret identity, Clark has to tell his Daily Planet boss, Perry White. This happens in a three-page sequence with no text, and Reis nails all of the emotional beats in his artwork. Clark walks into the office with confidence, but that immediately deflates as he walks past a wall of framed front pages featuring Superman, making him realize how much of a role his superhero alter ego plays in the success of the newspaper. He starts to look around at his colleagues, and it’s clear he’s concerned about what his revelation will mean for their future, but he still needs to push forward.
The panels in the first two pages of this sequence tighten in on Clark again as the pressure mounts, but when he goes into Perry’s office, Reis switches to widescreen panels that open up the visuals. Bendis really understands Perry White’s character, and he doesn’t need words to fill this interaction between Clark and his boss with emotion. The layout here is simple—six repeated panels with slight variations between each—but the storytelling is precise. Perry’s body language in the first panel makes it clear that he’s doing his usual haranguing when Clark walks in, and then he shuts up when Clark opens his shirt to reveal his Superman costume underneath. Clark turns his head down to indicate his shame in keeping this secret, compelling Perry to move out from behind his desk and give Clark a hug to show him support in his time of need.
As someone who struggled to come out of the closet for a decade, I had an intense emotional response to this issue, which examines the fear and anxiety of revealing a major part of yourself that you’ve kept hidden from the world. Unlike Bobby Drake’s coming out in Bendis’ All-New X-Men #40, where he was essentially forced out of the closet by Jean Grey reading his mind, Superman #18 has Superman taking control of his own destiny and sharing his secret on his own terms. There’s one exception in Lois telling Jimmy Olsen before Clark does, but Bendis makes a good argument for this by having Lois tell her husband that she’s known Jimmy longer than him and wants to take responsibility for a secret both spouses have been keeping together.
A secret identity made sense when Clark Kent was growing up, and keeping his powers under wraps helped him connect with his humanity on a deeper level. But Clark isn’t that person anymore. As Adam Strange tells him: “First you have a scared, single, alien orphan…then you have a married, father, superhero.” Present-day Clark has different needs than his younger self, and those can’t be satisfied if he’s worried about keeping his identity secret. Superman’s speech to the press encapsulates what makes Bendis’ interpretation of the character so inspiring, using the lessons he’s learned from humankind to find his true happiness. Every day he sees how humans grow, and he’s inspired by them to make some personal growth himself.
Clark Kent isn’t going away, though. Superman’s birth name might be Kal-El, but Clark Kent is his true identity and Superman is the superhero alter ego. Clark is going to continue being a journalist. (Although Perry White’s sullen face during the press conference indicates that he’s very worried about what this will mean for his publication—and considering how many pieces Clark has written about himself, he should be worried.) But then there’s an even bigger danger, the one that compels a lot of superheroes to keep their civilian identities secret in the first place: villains coming after their loved ones. Superman #18 ends with Lex Luthor silently fuming while the Legion of Doom berates him for not anticipating this revelation, and DC has teased the destruction of the Daily Planet building in the wake of the announcement. Superman’s world is changing at superspeed, and this issue does phenomenal work creating excitement for a future full of intriguing opportunities.