It would be largely impossible (and pointless) to talk about this months Action Comics if we don't embrace in full awareness the reveal on that last page, the secret of Superman's long-running hooded stalker and enigmatic man of mystery - Mr Oz.
****So. If you still have not read the issue and are unaware of what the secret revealed therein is, turn away from this posts, and thread, now.****
'Subject the absurdity, the sheer theatricality of it all, to some due consideration. As so bizarre and illogical is the figure of 'Mr Oz', and what it is he is revealed to be, that one has to question whether any of what we see is actually what it appears...'
Due to the unfortunate time and place it inhabits in the Superman canon it is doubtful many of today's readers of Action Comics are aware of, or were even there
for, the story that appeared within Action Comics #507 & 508 some thirty-seven years ago - "The Miraculous Return of Jonathan Kent".
It might seem unfair to bring the story up here in 2017 I have to admit, but in an issue just out that features those old Bronze-Age standby's Steve Lombard and familiar antics in the Daily Planet offices, memories are evoked and a connection made to that obvious parallel storyline told in the past, and never forgotten. In my defence it was one of the early Superman stories I had the pleasure of reading back in my youth and the character substance within it resonates even now. Despite the passing of time and a profound sea-change in the Superman landscape, this is a story that not only stands its ground today, but acts as a beacon for just how fine the storytelling and context of the Superman/Clark kent context was at that time. Via the deft plot-macguffin of an amorphous alien force seen over in the recent New Adventures of Superboy
book, of which Cary Bates also wrote, the selfless good nature of Jonathan Kent earns him a special gift, of one wish granted. He therefore wants to see what will become of his Son as a grown man and adult... and in the span of two unintendedly special issues Cary Bates crafts a story that is both typical of the era of Superman, and yet stands taller from it by utilising the established history of the characters involved to deliver such a warm and human story of much missed relations and carrying on with life. A deeply affecting story, one that is astonishing in retrospect to think that this story was nevertheless just another entry in the Cary Bates/Curt Swan conveyor belt production line that were the Superman
titles of the era. How effortless they made such outstanding entries seem. "The Return of Jonathan Kent" stands out to me when reading this months Action Comics as in a remarkable twist writer Dan Jurgens treads a similar plot-line, but wearily with a far darker and less human-interest air to it...
How long writer Dan Jurgens has been aware of the real identity of the Geoff Johns created 'Mr Oz', and what his own role would be in finaally revealing it, is difficult to say at present. Certainly the clues as to a family connection were right there from the very first appearance of the character as yet another of comicdoms stock robed mystery figures watching from the shadows of some hi-tech lair, pure theatre, a theatricality of which Dan Jurgens utilises to such an extreme with this issue that the faceless 'Mr Oz', with his ornate staff now depicted unambiguously as a scythe, is not so much man of mystery and some biblical themed mission as a man possibly being used as dress test dummy for some tailor creating fancy dress... if that seems rather too sublime and glib a comment then I urge you not to dismiss it - as the apparent absurdity of the Grim Reaper themed 'Mr Oz' unfolds this issue the revelation on the last page that this robed hooded pastiche' is in fact somehow Jor-el should be cause for taking a serious reassessment of what it is we have been seeing to date, and thereby subjecting the absurdity, the sheer theatricality of it all, to some due consideration. As so bizarre and illogical is the figure of 'Mr Oz', and what it is he is revealed to be, that one has to question whether any
of what we see is actually what it appears... But we shall return to this later.
Whether artist Viktor Bogdanovic's energetic, and yet haphazard, layouts are to your personal taste the first chapter to 'The Oz Effect' carries with it the feel of a production that almost belongs to another era, an artstyle that utilises the sort of facial expressionisms and verve favoured by early 90s stars and sometime Superman contributors Art Thibert, and to a lesser extent Dusty Abell, fair clashes with today's more sober and classically trained generation. Whatether the thinking was behind commissioning Bogdanovic to launch this new storyline is an attempt to emulate the sense of the big grandiose superhero storylines that hallmarked the early 1990s one cannot say, but then so many of the choices of artist today on DCs main titles can be just as hard to fathom. Perhaps the kindest compliment to make of Viktor Bogdanovic's contribution here is that it does its job, his isn't a subtle approach to layout. Faces and the emotion they give are rudimentary. But for a first opening act that is largely fizz and set-up it does its job....
So, an opening sequence set in the dark bowels of the ARGUS project and an imprisoned Metallo suffering great pain. It's a distinct point as Pain is very much at the core of Dan Jurgens' storyline as it progresses. On the face of it, at a first reading, Action Comics #987 is a slight experience, a succession of moments and awful carnage that don't seem to make much logical sense. As Mr Oz grandiosely steps forth from the surrounding darkness to address the suffering Metallo the theatricality is atypical of what we have come to expect of the character; here is an actor, a creation, a distraction from the truth. The assumption made is that he may be here to recruit the defeated and powerless cyborg, after all what little we do know of Oz is that he has an interest in rescuing such fallen curios and taking them away for safekeeping, particularly of interest are those recently despatched by Superman himself. A detail which makes his actual purpose for visiting Metallo rather puzzling in the context as stood before the cyborg's exposed Kryptonite heart it isn't pity of curiosity that has brought him here, it is, shockingly, execution.
The sequence clearly exists to ease the reader into the events that follow, as we go on to watch the explosion of carnage and horrific violence which Mr Oz is seemingly the architect behind it is right here on the first two pages where authorship makes its stamp and for the purposes of drama Mr Oz has paid a visit to the incarcerated and helpless Metallo in order to (presumably) execute a threat to Superman and ensure that his Kryptonite shard will never threated him again. As we see the shard suspended in the air above the Scythe of Mr Oz the former air of ambiguity that has shrouded Oz's motivations and agenda till now begin to coagulate into something far more sinister and vicious in their tone. If Mr Oz was ever hinted at as being as a terror-smith these last three or more years then the evidence is thin indeed. But the reasons given for visiting Metallo and ending his life here ring entirely hollow when we have seen full well that this is the same man who deflected the unstoppable killing machine that is Doomsday from secure banishment to The Phantom Zone and into the rather less secure confines of Oz's own bunker complex. If concern over Superman's well being were his true motive then the murder of the defeated and imprisoned Metallo lacks a convincing logic to it. Certainly so when Metallo is by far the least pressing concern to Superman's potential wellbeing and future happiness - after all was this not the very man who left the notorious Lex Luthor
alive in the previous issue?
Perhaps then it is the sample of Kryptonite which is the real prize. Though of course if Oz were indeed Kryptonian himself he quite evidently shows no sign at all of being affected by it... a curious detail to be sure.
As said Dan Jurgens scripting for this issue is, on the whole, not at all subtle. The very first pages feature the protagonist of the tale laying forth his agenda in a hitherto unseen callous inhumanity. The contempt for earth's peoples and the searing conviction that we are all to a man subhuman and corrupt leaves us in no doubt that Mr Oz is revealed as the maddest of men. A terror-monger of the most dangerous of convictions. And what follows as he apparently triggers sleeper cells and agents across the world to ignite chaos and violence is a crude shorthand to make us hate him in turn.
Set against this narrative shorthand for pure evil is Superman, arriving on the fourth page to intervene in an accident that has jeopardised an important shipment of vaccine headed for overseas charity, as a crowd of onlookers confronts and rounds on a police officer attending the scene the context and target for their anger is altogether a confusing and unconvincing affair, after all of what fault is it of this officer that a health organisation wagon has crashed from a bridge while in pursuit? What of the thieves who drove it so dangerously. Indeed, where are
the thieves? Even Superman seems to pay no mind or curiosity to their fate.
It's an utterly contrived and staged scene. Just the first of several. And one has to be mindful of analyzing too deeply such a bolted together succession of set-piece moments and purposely designed atrocities by which to beat the sensibilities of both Superman and the reader senseless by. For with the most deliberate of intent and urgency it is Dan jurgens' mission here to demonstrate to us in no uncertain terms as to just how wicked, how without concern for mankind, that the soon to be revealed Jor-eL is - This man is to be sen as public enemy #1, just so you understand that.
It's a very deliberate form of madness and provocation of course. Previous to this Mr Oz is a character neither good nor evil, a figure seemingly concerned with the unseen presence of the all-powerful Doctor Manhattan. For the purposes of challenging the ethics and personal identity of Superman though something much more personal had to be contrived if Oz were to be repositioned as a Superman problem rather than a Manhattan/Rebirth problem. So to challenge and press the values of as upstanding a figure as Superman the choice of Oz being revealed to be Jor-el does make a good deal of sense, after all Jor has historically been depicted as the very finest of what Krypton had to offer. A thoroughly fine and outstanding human being in whatever form the Superman mythos has been represented to take over the years. Even in the harsh light of the NEW-52 revision the selflessness and decency of Jor-el remained unchanged. So with that weight of historical legacy even though the Jor-el of the present is a figure who is the product of successive revisions and redesigns the character can be said to be fundmentally no different in his core attitudes and function as the one whom Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first presented lo those near eighty years ago.
As the final page of Action Comics #987 arrives then and the ruined face of he who claims to be Jor-el steps forward the exterior scarring we see mirrors the internal scarring of man who has clearly suffered a great deal... a man tormented to the point where he has nothing at all left but soul-withering bitterness and an uncharacteristic hatred of humanity. Most curiously - Of earth's
'It has to be asked just what is the rationale for a survivor of Krypton, it's pre-eminent scientist at that, to arrive at the conclusion that organising deliberate and vicious terrorist acts on a foreign lesser able peoples is at all the logical route to take in life, or even the rational one..'
On the face of it there isn't any logic on offer here. Neither the motives of, the actions of, nor the identity of, the hooded pseudo-mythical figure of Mr Oz make much of any sense as all that we know is simply matter that has been thrown at the wall of this issue and we the reader being asked to accept the chaos as-is and challenged to make what sense we can of it. That we see that 'Mr Oz' is apparently the architect and guiding force behind global terror and a calculated organised campaign using agents to incite violence is a detail which Dan Jurgens makes a specific point to show to us. With participants in the unfolding chaos and carnage being show with distinctive Oz tattoo's one wonders at whether Mr Oz is really the sort of chap who would, and could, recruit a small army of like-minded unquestoning disciples such as this. But more directly as we follow the addled logic of the man, it has to be asked just what is the rationale for a survivor of Krypton, it's pre-eminent scientist at that, to arrive at the conclusion that organising deliberate and vicious terrorist acts on a foreign lesser able peoples is at all the logical route to take in life, or even the rational one. The entire scheme as it stands here lacks even a shred of logic to it. But perhaps the point has to be considered that what we see is not
what we see? Clearly Jor-el, if it is accepted to be he, is not the man he once was. That there IS no rationality to be had as he is no longer rational.
The loss of ones humanity, of compassion, of like-minded companionship, has thrust Jor-el into madness. Let us assume that then. And yes none of it is either rational or makes sense with the character. But for the purposes of the story at hand let us assume that it is a Jor-el driven to bitter depths, and a depression that has mutated into mean-spirited vindictiveness. Here then we see the possibility and germ for something quite interesting, by reinserting the character into the Superman landscape of today there lies an ironic sense of symmetry and parallel to the sad and lonely figure of Jor-el, as while his son would carry a degree of the same loneliness and sense of isolation in his youth it was the presence of his adoptive parents that ensured that true loneliness, and certainly any potential for bitterness, were never prospects that would truly affect the upbringing of the unearthly child they took as their own flesh and blood. Jor's arrival back into the life of his now adult Son offers potential for sincere humanist exploration, and not a small amount of bitter irony too, as surely what he sees when he looks into the life of his son is a reflection of his own life on Krypton those three decades or so ago, with the family man and his wife Lara joined by a new son, and now he watches on as his Son himself is the family man and Wife Lois is accompanied by new son Jon. To be sure, if Jor-el feels any pride or satisfaction at seeing his son's achievements then it is not at all apparent in this issue. No the comics of 2017 are a very different beast to the days before the Crisis of 1985, and the era that allowed for as fine and warm a story of family and lost ones who live on in the heart as "The Return of Jonathan Kent" pleasured the readership with.
With his broken twisted Kryptonian ideology matching his equally scarred and distorted face the once benevolent alien is the menace and the earthlings are very much the prey in today's world of Superman... but then the apparent ruin of Jor-El has to be measured against the success and solidarity of the modern house of El - of Clark, Lois, and the next generation that is Jon. Whether Jor is redeemable, or whether Jor even IS Jor-el, are questions that will stretch to months ahead. But in the meantime I do at least gain some satisfaction in recalling those two issues back in 1980, and knowing that whatever theatrics and forced angst stand behind the Mr Oz/Jor-el storyline, it will almost certainly miss the mark on achieving the potential as offered by The Return of Jor-El.
Over the years we have had many a fine story that has honoured the lives and place of the Kents in the role of Clark Kent's parents, how nice it might have been to see similar honour given to Jor-el, and done so in a less mean-spirited take on that much loved predecessor "The Return of Jonathan Kent"... as whatever the experiences have been for this Jor who survived his world's passing and stands now as a survivor and damaged soul any attempts at a faux redemption will still be tainted by the fact he was a participant in cruel mass-murderous reigns of terror. One hopes then that appearances are indeed deceiving, and that Dan jurgens can add a more convincing rationale and method to the madness than this roughly put together issue puts forth.
A Doomsday killing machine. A shard of Kryptonite torn from Metallo. Just two of the lethal objects taken into the possession of 'Mr Oz'. As this figure fair seethes with a hitherto unseen contempt and apparent hatred for humanity there seems little or no difference at all between what might once have been Jor-El and those monstrous figures he once consigned to The Phantom Zone which he himself discovered. So inexplicable, rough, and extreme is the flow of events in this issue that the question lingers - is all really as it appears to be?
And yet how much does it say that some thirty-seven years ago, in a whole other era of Superman and comicbooks in general, two well seasoned creators did it all before, in just two issues. And with so much more charm, sincerity, and skill, for what was at the time just-another Superman installment...