Admittedly, I’ve never been much of a Superman guy. This is not to say I don’t appreciate his value as a character, which I’ve actually really come around to in the past few years. It’s just that, in the Man of Steel’s extremely long history, I’ve come across very few stories that have managed to grip me. The age-old complaint about the Last Son of Krypton, one that anyone reading this review has probably heard on numerous occasions, is that he’s a little too powerful to be interesting. If he can survive anything, and save anyone, then the stakes can never really be high enough to engage the reader on any significant level. The solution to this, of course, is to challenge the hero mentally rather than physically, a tactic that has been tried time and time again. While a lot of these psychological threats have obviously paid dividends for plenty of fans, they just never really pulled me in the way I’d hoped. Then I read the latest from Action Comics, Warworld Rising, and realized just how intriguing Superman can be.
The genius of Rising, expertly written by Phillip Kennedy Johnson, is in the type of mental anguish it chooses to push upon its protagonist. Instead of simply squaring Superman up against somebody smarter or more dangerous, the story gives Clark a moral conundrum that impacts nearly every facet of his life. Surprisingly, this is achieved through the use of a villain typically better known for his pure brutality than any form of advanced trickery. Mongul, the masochistic ruler of Warworld, sends a group of ancient, enslaved Kryptonians (or so they seem) to Earth with the aim of emotionally manipulating Superman toward his untimely demise. The plan works like a charm, with a distraught Clark knowingly heading straight into the trap. Normally, this would not be a cause for concern among fans. A fully powered Superman should have no problem jetting off to another planet, kicking it’s leaders bum, and then heading home in time for dinner. However, Johnson uses several pre-existing plot points to install reasonable concern around the situation for both the characters in the story and the readers at home.
It is established early on that Clark’s powers, for whatever reason, are starting to falter. While Kent himself is not overly concerned, Batman shows a decent amount of hesitation, which usually means there’s a genuine problem at hand. This information, coupled with Jon Kent’s chilling warnings from time spent in the future that Clark is scheduled to soon disappear from history books, aids in heightening the suspense around every decision Superman makes. The character no longer feels infallible, which suddenly makes his and Lois’ constant assertions that he “always comes back” appear foreboding. If Mongul’s plan wasn’t already good enough, he also finds a way to take any form of help from the Justice League off the board. Along with the Kryptonians, an immensely powerful Warworld artifact finds its way into the ocean, causing a political conflict between the United States and Atlantis that threatens large-scale war. With the League preoccupied with humanity’s inability to find peace, Superman is left to deal with his personal obligations alone.
The book leaves off on a massive cliffhanger, leading directly into a follow-up arc that presumably concludes the whole shebang. Having previously stated that I’m not a huge fan of Superman comics, the fact that I’d like to purchase the next volume should speak to just how good this collection of issues truly is. On top of giving its leading man some juicy drama to chew on, the commentary on human nature and the evils of war and slavery are reason enough to buy the comic on their own. I would support the creation of an entire series of stories that’s just the members of the Justice League sitting in their war room, discussing how they should approach matters of international concern. The issue in question is akin to the excellent Japanese film Shin Godzilla, in which the first Kaiju attack is shown entirely from the perspective of government officials who have more than just human safety on their minds.
Warworld Rising is Superman at his very best, willing to sacrifice everything if it means even one innocent person can go home to their family. It’s moral and political intrigue on a level few Superman stories have achieved with such palpable authenticity. We’ve seen writers claim that they’ve devised the final Man of Steel story in the past, but the thing that sets this one above and beyond its competition is that it really does feel like Superman may not make it out alive. Of course, he likely will, but any comic that makes you doubt that even for a second is one worth putting on your shelf.