Throughout the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, it was commonplace to find a complete story in a single issue. It made sense at the time, when the industry wasn’t the behemoth it is today, when publishers had to grab people’s attention without the advantage of decades of continuity and culture from which to draw inspiration. This was how the modern comic book universes were built; through fast-paced storytelling that laid a lot of groundwork quickly.
The downside to this narrative style is the lack of human relatablility. Golden and Silver age books focused on the fantastical instead of the emotional, which meant there wasn’t a need for long-form stories or expansive tales. Post-World War II, the United States needed fiction that inspired people and built up the idea that good would always triumph over evil.
Modern comicbooks are a different beast than in decades gone by. As the industry grew, so too did the way comic books were written. Writers and artists work together more closely today than ever before. Innovative page layouts and high-concept narrative styles have become the part of the norm instead of an experimental niche. Emotional ramifications are taken more seriously, and thus, given more importance. It would be difficult for a comic book reader in the 60s to wrap his or her head around the way comicbooks are written today.
All of this is preface to the problem with Superman #19: Scott Lobdell. Seemingly stuck on a technique from the Silver Age, and molded by the slipshod editorial practices of Marvel in the mid-1990s, Lobdell’s unique style is at odds with the modern comic landscape. While Lobdell has embraced the idea of the New 52 more literally than other writers, he’s done so in a way that weakens the Superman franchise instead of making it more interesting.
Lobdell’s handling of Superboy since the company-wide relaunch is a testament to this unfortunate truth. While the Boy of Steel is, indeed, completely new and different from his pre-New 52 counterpart, he’s a self-righteous blowhard who, for some reason, understands sarcasm and witty banter between colleagues, but not the concept of how a bank and money work. Lobdell’s new origin for Superboy had Kon-El grow up learning normal human characteristics and academic knowledge through a virtual computer simulation, so why doesn’t he understand the basic concepts of right and wrong?
But it’s not just limited to Superboy. Beyond these basic revisionary errors, Lobdell’s insistence on using internal monologue to convey key plot points is simply uninteresting. One of the most basic principles of storytelling is that one should always “show” more than “tell” the audience what is happening. Instead of saying “Jim was sick”, it’s far more effective to explain how, “Jim woke up barely able to breath, had a sore throat, and felt worse than he had in weeks.” Since Lobdell has taken over Superman, the series has fallen into a jumble of mismanaged ideas and poorly executed storylines.
After a five month-long debacle that was “H’el on Earth”, Lobdell seems to find himself at a loss for how to proceed. For some reason, Lobdell decided long-time Green Lantern villain Hector Hammond would be a good enemy for the Man of Steel. I say ‘for some reason’ because Hammond has been in a catatonic state for the two issues he’s been featured, and readers know as much about the giant-headed man’s motives at the beginning of Superman #18 as they do at the end of Superman #19: nothing.
Of course, this is to say nothing of the over-explanatory Sunturians, a race of aliens made up of red sun energy, which cancels out Superman’s powers. It’s unfortunate that Lobdell would create this new race of creatures simply as a distraction from the main storyline at hand. And a good alien race at that! It’s hard not to think about the potential of a Sunturian invasion as a Superman arc, but the red creatures are soon swept to the side to make way for no plot advancement on the Hector Hammond front.
It is truly unfortunate that a writer whose style is anything but bright and iconic is handling a character that embodies those characteristics. It’s when the internal monologue becomes more important than the story that Lobdell’s work starts to fall apart. Lois Lane’s dinner party was the best part of Superman #19, but that’s still like saying it’s the most intelligent mouse in a group—it’s still heavily steeped in frustrating thought balloons that do little to advance the story because anything that happens is processed internally, giving not context for a relationship between these characters. If Clark only says the most necessary things to Lois, how are they expected to have a real relationship? Sure, they can be friends. But under Lobdell’s hand, Clark feels disconnected from humanity, and not in a good way.
Superman #19 is another in a long list of examples of why not to read Scott Lobdell’s work. Unlike, say, Batman or Justice League Dark or…really most of the other titles throughout the New 52, Superman doesn’t feel like a cohesive series under Lobdell’s hand. It’s like there isn’t any plan. Each issue feels like a separate story that just so happens to have connecting factors, instead of reading like an ongoing narrative, which is what comic books are supposed to do.