New Super-Man #1
Art: Viktor Bogdanovic
Covers: Kelsey Shannon, Bernard Chang
Inks: Richard Friend
Letters: Dave Sharpe
Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.
With the launch of New Super-Man, DC is hoping to replicate Marvel’s successful attempts to generate more diversity in their lineup through the use of legacy characters. A new Chinese Superman is being shepherded by no less than Gene Luen Yang. On the surface, this sounds like a move reminiscent of hiring Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Black Panther. Yang is an award-winning author known for his stories tackling the issue of Chinese identity. Furthermore, he’s got a much better comics pedigree than Coates. Yang was already writing for the New 52 Superman, a tenure which was negatively affected by the turmoil surrounding the DCYou initiative. With Rebirth, he's been given an opportunity to examine the larger world beyond America’s shores.
Clark Kent has been interpreted a hundred different ways, but he’s always been viewed as fundamentally a decent guy. Not so the new protagonist Kenan Kong. The reader’s first impression of him is that of a teenage bully. In an obvious subversion of reader expectations, Kenan is first shown harassing a stereotypical nerdy Asian classmate. It’s soon revealed that Kenan's reasons for picking on him aren't just because he’s a weakling. Kenan is carrying a lot of barely repressed rage over an untimely death in the family, exacerbated by a sense of helplessness caused by being a member of China’s overlooked working class. The story unfolds like an alternate timeline where Flash Thompson was bitten by the radioactive spider and got superpowers instead of Peter Parker.
Kenan exhibits only one sign of heroism. When a supervillain pops out of nowhere and attacks the very classmate he was just harassing, Kenan bravely but unwisely challenges him. His actions are enough to earn Kenan the attention of intrepid reporter Laney Lang. Naturally, he initially responds by hitting on her. But he’s also approached by another woman whose unsettling leer and black trench coat immediately marks her as a member of a nefarious shadow organization. She then makes an offer that apparently Kenan can’t refuse.
Yang utilizes enough classic tropes that the comic almost reads as one that could have taken place in one of the many parallel worlds of the DC Multiverse. Kenan may be a douchebag, but he’s still an underdog. His supporting cast embody several familiar archetypes. And the process that gives him his powers parallels many a dangerous procedure that was used on a Steve Rogers or a Logan. But it takes place in another country, not another Earth. Kenan lives in Shanghai, but he’s one of the people who've been left behind by China’s rapid economic growth. And while Kenan appears to be largely apolitical, his dad pontificates about the need for greater freedom.
Setting the comic on the mainline Earth allows Yang to engage in some meta-commentary about cultural imperialism and soft power. Most of DC’s characters live in the United States, and that bias is horribly skewed given the comparatively few characters that come out of Asia. This doesn’t reflect China’s own status as world’s most populous country and emerging world power, so the Chinese government decides to do something about this baffling metahuman gap by manufacturing their own superheroes. As befitting China’s real-world position as a manufacturing powerhouse, their homegrown products look and sound like cheap knockoffs of their American counterparts. Even Kenan’s first costume gives the impression of an inexpensive action figure.
This is an intriguing setup from a respected creator finally working on a project tailored to his talents. But it's let down by mediocre art. DC has so far been pairing Yang with artists who don’t mesh well with his comic sensibilities. Viktor Bogdanovic gets that Kenan is meant to look like a cad, but otherwise his style is so unremarkable that the comic comes across as just another disposable superhero title. Is this effect a deliberate choice? If it is, it doesn't bode well for the New Super-Man's future.