Last year, Eisner-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang began a run with one of DC Comics’ oldest and most beloved titles, Superman, in an arc that brought the Man of Tomorrow face-to-face with the unforgiving realities of life in a post-Snowden society. Having completed his journey with the Metropolis Marvel earlier this year, Yang set out on an ambitious new project: a monthly comic series entitled New Super-Man. The new series centers on Kong Kenan, a Chinese teenager from Shanghai who is imbued with Superman-like powers. But Kenan is more than a repackaged, retooled Man from Krypton. More importantly, in the very capable hands of Yang, this New Super-Man offers hope to the marginalized and gives a voice to the outcasts of twenty-first century society.
The opening pages of New Super-Man #1 show us a frightened school-aged boy, Lixin, who is running, running, running. We see his pursuer’s giant shadow on the walls of a dingy Shanghai alley. The narration is tonally disparate: “In the whole history of China, there are maybe three people as I am,” boasts a faceless voice. We think to ourselves, “This self-important pontificating can’t possibly be coming from the child on the page.” Then, shortly after a fist appears on the panel, knocking Lixin’s glasses off of his head, Yang delivers the punchline, a clever reversal: “Hold up,” the narrator cries in disbelief, “don’t tell me you think I’m the tubby kid with the glasses and the punchable face!”
In the next panel, we finally get a look at our so-called “hero,” Kong Kenan. An arrogant bully who is not especially handsome, tall, or physically fit, Kenan is far from extraordinary and certainly doesn’t meet the traditional expectations for a superhero candidate. But as we learn more about our protagonist, we see that his braggadocio is just a facade that covers up his overwhelming desire to please his negligent father, as well as his inability to cope with the loss of his mother in an airplane crash. (This bravado is most transparent when he meets Laney Lan, a reporter for Primetime Shanghai.)
In spite of his rather questionable character, however, Kenan surprisingly and inexplicably rescues Lixin from the clutches of the super-villain Blue Condor, attracting the attention of the mysterious Dr. Omen and her shadowy organization, the Ministry of Self-Reliance. She tells Kenan, “My colleagues and I have developed a way to replicate Superman’s abilities in the right person.” And thus the bully becomes the hero.
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