New Super-Man is just such a cool concept. Obviously the very conceit of a Chinese Superman was temping, but hearing Gene Luen Yang talk about his ideas for Ching Lung and the Bagua made it obvious that something remarkable was happening in this title. Unfortunately for me, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy a Superman title while a serial harasser oversaw the line. New Super-Man seemed doomed to fade away, unseen by any expressing their discomfort with DC’s response to sexual assault, especially as hints began to drop that the series would conclude at issue #18.
But it was not to be. All of the sudden a Buzzfeed article pushed Eddie Berganza out and Yang announced that New Super-Man would live on as New Super-Man and the Justice League of China! So now, at long last, I sit with my first issue of New Super-Man and, I must say, it is just as interesting as I expected.
New Super-Man and the Justice League of China #20 declares the “Dawn of a New Era” on its cover, inviting readers to jump on board, whether attracted by the new title, the dismissal of Berganza, or simple curiosity. Though much can be deduced, especially if you know the premise of a less than perfect boy being given the powers of Superman, there is much that is left unsaid. The relationships between the team are drawn out rather nicely, but it’s not always clear how they resemble or differ from their American counterparts, and the origin of their abilities and the rules surrounding them are only loosely hinted at.
Nevertheless, issue #20 immediately throws readers into the midst of an engaging plot. As Kenan struggles to master his new powers as the master of Yin and Yang, he’s called upon to discover balance within himself in a way that’s not merely still, but sustained and honest. Giving Super-Man, or really any Superman, a level of instability in his powers is a great device that helps to create a different standard of danger and the results on Kenan’s personality are tremendous fun. Without the rest of the series to support it, it can be slightly confusing exactly how much to trust I-Ching and Ching Lung and whether Kenan needs to lean into or away from his Yang, but it’s a fulfilling start to this part of the character’s arc.
Yang’s choice of villain is also top notch. Bringing in Sleez immediately introduces a character who is a believable threat to the JLC as well as an enjoyable source of humor and energy. While he can be…unfortunate in the wrong hands, Sleez is wonderful in his despicable nature and clarity of purpose.
But of course, while he makes for a solid antagonist, Sleez is merely a bit of clever misdirection. The real story is unfolding on the other side of the boarder. There we’re introduced to what can only be the Aqua-Man of North Korea, a strangely literal take on the character. The Aqua-Man is honestly only interesting enough to support a single issue at this point, his story limited in its scope and focused on one Game of Thrones-esque monologue, but the trick is that that’s all he needs to be. This is his first and only issue and he’s entrancing for his introductory sequences. Especially with his bizarre but wonderful powers, there’s something weird and fantastic about him that feels very much in the spirit of Kenan’s own powers.
The series continues to use text color to express loan-words, immediately emphasizing the themes of outsiderdom and gatekeeping present in the greater narrative. There’s not much to say about its interaction with this particular issue, but it remains a fascinating mechanism of the series that deepens the story and encourages active reading.
Brent Peeples and Matt Santorelli’s art is best in big moments. Depicting the alien unsteadiness of a giant spider crab, the stoic power of the Lantern Corps of China, or the quiet simplicity of Kenan’s meditations seems simple for them. Indeed, the issue’s moments of punctuation are almost universally strong, placing power where it needs to be and communicating cleanly and easily in a responsive style.
However, despite the strength of these moments, the in-betweens are slightly less consistent. While the general quality of the book holds steady, at times there’s a feeling of aimlessness in the art, where the visuals drift from what you’re used to and there’s no guiding feeling to help you through the transition. Kenan’s face and expressions frequently shift throughout the book and make for some of the most noticeable examples of this phenomena. It’s strange how many merely passable panels have snuck in beside strong, otherwise consistent work, especially because, in most of the book, their adaptability and versatility is one of their greatest strengths.
Part of what’s most interesting about New Super-Man is that its not an elseworlds. In many cases, concepts that would be stronger as complete reinventions are forced into continuity because of a perception that they need to be canon to matter. But, while I’d happily follow Yang, Peeples, and co. into a world where superheroes are a Chinese phenomena, that’s not what this is at all. Yang is playing with the core concepts of DC’s heroes and doing so in a way that has primacy enough to stand on its own but still benefits from comparison enough to coexist alongside the American classics.
Though I worry that some new readers might want for a little more context, New Super-Man and the Justice League of China #20 is a wonderful jumping on point that favors new and interesting concepts over explanations and rehashes. Gene Yang instantly imbues these characters with emotion and relatability, confronting, but not being limited by, the connection between the personal and political. With an engaging story structure, plenty of fun moments, and a strong connection to the book’s past and future, New Super-Man and the Justice League of China #20 opens its newest chapter with strength and easily finds a way onto my pull list.
New Super-Man and the Justice League of China is currently available in comic shops from DC Comics.