The Brian Michael Bendis era of Superman kicks into gear with The Unity Saga: Phantom Earth.
While badly missing his absent wife and son, Superman continues his mission to safeguard Earth. When the planet is mysteriously plunged into the Phantom Zone, the Man of Steel has to figure out why and how to restore it to its rightful place, before Earth either tears itself apart or side effects of the switch on the population take a deadly toll. Meanwhile, the brutal Rogol Zaar spots the Earth’s appearance in the Zone and rallies an attack force of other criminals imprisoned there. Superman attempts to hold them back, winding up with a very surprising ally against Zaar, before an unexpected turn reunites him with his very changed son.
Bendis taking over a franchise often comes with equal doses of excitement and trepidation, as his work can be as polarizing as it is popular. Happily, his first arc for the relaunched Superman title is a lot more effective than the chaotic Man of Steel miniseries that preceded it. Part of that is that the writer clearly has a strong bead on who his main character is. Even while missing his absent family, Bendis presents Superman as a positive character, a beacon of hope and strength for those around him. And honestly, it would be much easier to try to make Superman emo and brooding instead of steering in to those more positive qualities, so it’s impressive that Bendis not only embraces those brighter aspects, but makes them central to his characterization. He provides a lot of nice moments, both present day and flashbacks, that illustrate Superman’s character.
For all that Bendis is famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for decompressed plotting, Phantom Earth actually moves at a pretty decent pace, with a lot going on and a true sense of narrative momentum. Bendis is really going for a big, superhero action story here, with a classic-meets-modern sensibility that celebrates the core aspects of the character while attempting to add to the mythos in new ways. The focus on this first arc really is on Superman, so the usual supporting cast doesn’t get much time in the spotlight, though Bendis does bring in a variety of heroes and villains to interact with his main character and tucks some nice character moments in between the action beats. If there’s one weak spot, it’s Rogol Zaar, the villain introduced in Man of Steel with important ties to Superman’s past. He still feels like a placeholder menace and if the writer has plans that will make him more compelling, it hasn’t happened yet. Other foes with a more minor place in the proceedings come off far more interestingly (like imprisoned Kryptonian terrorist Jax-Ur). Fortunately, the rest of the arc is so well done that even the generic feeling attached to Zaar winds up being a fairly minor quibble.
The art team of penciler Ivan Reis, inkers Joe Prado and Oclair Albert and colorist Alex Sinclair turn in some sensational work. Phantom Earth gives the team the opportunity to go big and they deliver, with a widescreen aesthetic that sells the epic scope of the plot. Reis is an expressive and dynamic draftsman who produces an agreeably classic take on Superman, coming up with some neat ways to depict the hero in action. There are the expected big splash pages and two-page spreads, as well as points where the story lets Reis and company get more experimental. The inkers and Sinclair are strongly attuned to Reis and compliment his work ideally, resulting in colorful, dramatic pages with a true sense of motion and energy. They embrace the iconography of the franchise (one flashback of Superman and his son quotes a famous Superman visual in a clever way) while also forging some new paths, including a new Fortress of Solitude and a somewhat different take on the Phantom Zone.
DC has positioned Superman as a flagship book and with The Unity Saga: Phantom Earth, the creative team delivers on that promise.