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Austin Chronicle Superman: Peace On Earth

By Robert Faires

DECEMBER 21, 1998: 

Superman: Peace on Earth
by Paul Dini and Alex Ross (DC Comics, $9.95 paper)

When is the last time you saw Superman? No, really. When is the last time you came across an image of that character -- you know, strange visitor from another planet, powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men? -- and truly saw him, as the mighty, strikingly heroic figure he was created to be? Probably some time. He's one of those pop figures, like Santa Claus and Uncle Sam, so ingrained in the culture that when we come across his picture, we usually absorb it without thinking -- red cape, big S. Yeah, I know him -- and go on.

It's only when we encounter that rare image that captures something primal, something essential, about such an emblematic figure that we pause and reconsider him, why he has such a hold on our imaginations, what he stands for -- the painting of Santa which radiates a generosity so profound it embraces every child on the planet; the poster of Uncle Sam which captures the ideals of liberty and equality for every individual.

To see the Last Son of Krypton rendered by painter Alex Ross in this handsome graphic novel is to see that kind of image. Ross' photorealistic style is enough to captivate you -- it's startling to see one of these Spandex-clad crimefighters look so human -- but that isn't what keeps your gaze on his Superman. It is the spirit that comes through his portraits, a spirit as much a part of this character's enduring power as his ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. This is a man of uncommon goodness.

From the moment he was conceived by two imaginative teens in Depression-era Cleveland, Superman has been a force for good. The very point of him having such phenomenal powers is that he chooses to use them for the benefit of humanity: to defend the weak, to fight that never-ending battle for truth and justice. And Ross gives us a face which projects that. Broad of brow, with a wide, firm jaw and neck as thick and sturdy as an oak, Ross' Superman is solid and true, a frame that will stand fast through any storm, that will always be there. In his pale blue eyes and gaze of unshakable resolve shine a dedication to right, a remarkable integrity, a profound decency.

It is just those qualities that are central to the book's narrative. Ross and co-author Paul Dini provide an introspective Man of Steel who is drawn to ponder what he can do to alleviate the plight of the world's hungry. Acknowledging that the problem is beyond even his superhuman might to address alone, he decides instead to attempt one major feat -- distributing as much food throughout the world as he can in a 24-hour span -- in the hopes that it might inspire others to help fight hunger. However, as he criss-crosses the globe delivering truckloads of grain, the hero must confront the staggering scope of the issue and the inadequacy of even this grand gesture. Moreover, he comes face-to-face with the hungry themselves and finds their reactions to his efforts as varied as the languages they speak, and not all of them involve gratitude.

Ross and Dini are smart enough to know that this is no super-slugfest in which the Man of Tomorrow can win the day with a well-placed haymaker to a musclebound maniac's kisser. They take pains to stress that even a Superman -- even the Superman -- is no match for a crisis this pervasive. In fact, they build their drama on the Man of Steel's response to the problem's magnitude and the doubt it breeds in this good man that he has embarked on a fool's errand.

But the authors are also wise enough to know that, even with a problem as massive as global hunger, the efforts of one person count. They bring the story home in a way that shows that a difference can be made by both man and Superman. Their ending rings true and, I believe, does justice to the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Truth and justice ... Isn't that what this character is all about?

What a fitting way for DC Comics to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Superman's first appearance. Ross and Dini's story honors the character not for his mighty muscles but for his heart, and Dini's words, artfully chosen, draw on the character's mythic pull yet make him as real as he's ever been. Even the design of the book is respectful, Georg Brewer's use of type and color giving this humble comic-book star a vehicle as elegant and lush as a museum exhibition book and the tabloid-sized format letting us luxuriate in Ross' exceptional illustrations. It allows us once more to see Superman. -- Robert Faires

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