There’s a golden age in every run where every comics reader has hope for a new direction of storytelling. Then there’s a period of time where they see that direction struggle and realize that maybe this run won’t be everything they hoped it would be. Superman: The One Who Fell by Phillip Kennedy Johnson is a mediocre set of two different stories: “The Golden Age” and “The One Who Fell,” which is convoluted and confusing. Together, Phillip Kennedy Johnson has called them “a personal letter to his son.” But in focusing on that personal letter, Johnson often struggles to make the main story similarly compelling and enjoyable.
Written by Phillip Kennedy Johnson
Pencils by Phil Hester (“Golden Age”) and Scott Godlewski (“The One Who Fell”)
Inks by Eric Gapstur (“Golden Age”)
Colors by Hi-Fi (“Golden Age”) and Gabe Eltaeb (“The One Who Fell”)
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Collects: “Golden Age”: Superman #29 and Action Comics #1029 and “The One Who Fell”: Superman #30-32
The first story, “The Golden Age” with art by Phil Hester, focuses on Jonathan Kent coming to accept the reality that his father could die soon. As Johnson writes, “There’s a golden age where every kid knows their parents are indestructible… but it doesn’t last forever… they look at us more closely. They see someone… mortal. The day a child sees their parents stumble, the world suddenly becomes uncertain.” This letter-like omniscient narration is beautiful and really parallels the experience of Clark as a parent. He appears to be strong, immortal, and god-like to the world, and yet at his core he’s Clark Kent, a man whose life has been full of grief and tragedy, but who tries to look as strong as he can every day. To Johnson, he sees parents as Superman: each parent is just trying to find their way in the world.et as much as this narration works as great characterization for Clark, it doesn’t work as well with Jonathan.
Jonathan Kent endured isolation and living in hell-like conditions with his only company being a version of his father who was mentally unstable and terrifying for six years of his life. When he sees his father get injured, Jonathan’s reaction seems out of character. Often, older Jonathan Kent is treated in many ways as a generic version of his father whose only personality trait is that he worries about his dad. Kennedy needed to spend more time justifying the Jon and Clark relationship. He never tries to differentiate Jonathan in any meaningful way outside of his powers. While Kennedy shows how Jonathan is no longer the little boy he used to be because he won’t play “coneyball,” he fails to characterize Jonathan as anything more than a carbon copy of his dad.
Rather than fleshing out Jonathan, PKJ wastes multiple pages on very similar images of fighting space bugs. To open the comic, Johnson gives readers six pages of generic bug-punching over the first sentences of his omniscient narration. Of those six pages, the first four pages could have been placed in any order and fail to tell any sort of sequential story. Rather than treating every page like valuable real estate, Johnson spreads his words thin and relies on Hester to fill in gaps. In doing so, he opens his story with filler content. This filler content occurs again 3 pages later, where the Supermen are fighting yet another wave of the same generic aliens over four more pages. After over half of the first issue, Johnson has yet to establish any foundation for his story, and there’s been relatively minimal plot past fighting bugs. While the omniscient narration is impactful and makes insightful comments, it’s also slowly dragging its feet. Over the first six pages of the book, there is only an average of three panels per page with an average of six words per panel. The last sentence I just wrote had more words on it than the average page of Johnson’s opening scene in Superman, and while minimal word use can be effective, the lack of storytelling with the art, results in wasting space. This filler problem continues at multiple moments throughout “The Golden Age,” which results in the story feeling empty overall. This is compounded by the fact that Part 2 of “The Golden Age” follows the same plot, opens with fighting aliens while the letter occurs, and then closes with similar father-son dialog. For “The Golden Age” to act as an introduction to Infinite Frontier‘s Superman, but fail to set up or characterize Jon and Clark for the issues of storytelling to come, results in a disappointing opening story.
The second story, “The One Who Fell,” has much less filler; however, the plot is often difficult to understand. I first read this story as the single issues came out. I found the story very unclear and was always confused about who was who and what was happening. On my first reread, I found it slightly easier to understand, as there weren’t gaps between the issues, but only on my second reread did I finally figure out all the details of the story. Often I found the characters hard to remember. While having very alien names can be an effective tool, as books like Far Sector by N. K. Jemisin shows, the names still need to be easy to remember, otherwise referencing a name can create confusion. I also found the plot would jump and/or require readers to piece things together that with more visual clarity could have been more effective. For example, when the Shadowbreed surrounds Superman, the plot cuts away and then the results of that plot twist don’t resurface for another nineteen pages. When we come back to Superman, very little of what happened is explained, leaving readers confused and feeling like the twist was somewhat pointless.
Yet once I got through the confusing plot, I was able to acknowledge where Johnson was trying to go with the story. At the heart of the story are two father-son relationships: Clark and Jon, and Qarath O Daanim and Qarath O Bakkis. In both relationships, the sons find themselves in the shadow of their fathers, who are both heroes to their people. In Qarath O Bakkis’s case, his father’s shadow (the Shadowbreed) controls him, while in Jon’s case, he overcomes his father and proves that he has potential to be the better Superman. Jon has a higher ceiling with more nuance in his abilities.
There’s also a really cool framing device around the story. Like “The Golden Age,” the story is told in the context of a letter. With the letter from Clark to his son, Johnson really captures the emotional elements of watching your child grow up. When Clark and Jon fly to Thakkram, Clark flies slightly back and reflects on the nostalgia of remembering young Jon with his innocence and joy. “You are a miracle. You’ll do things I never could. But I’ll always miss reading to you as you fall asleep… as I brush your hair out of your eyes imagining how amazing your life will be.” Johnson may have struggled with the plot, but he really captures the mix of sadness and joy that comes with fatherhood.
Through both stories in Superman: The One Who Fell, Johnson tells stories of Jon stepping up and proving that he can surpass his father as the best Superman, while Clark reflects on Jon’s life. By the end of this collection, it is clear that Jon is ready to be the next Superman. While the characterization of Jon is lackluster and just Clark 2.0, there is a surprising emphasis on the bittersweet shift coming. In many ways, Clark is reflective of the Golden Age, defined by his purity of goodness, while Jon is the Silver Age, combining his laser eyes into one and accessing the scientific nonsense of Hyper Violet light. The collection may not have worked consistently, but at its heart the collection is a last look at the past two years of the Jon and Clark dynamic, one that’s about to change dramatically as we head into Action Comics: Warworld Rising and Superman: Son of Kal-El Vol. 1: The Truth.
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