4 out of 5
And now, in a single sentence, I will praise and criticize Steve Gerber’s Superman Elseworlds title, Last Son Earth: it’s so restrained.
I think the impetus behind Elseworlds – or What Ifs – is to always go big, at least when dealing with the big players. Maybe you go hyper-specific and alter Stilt-Man’s origin or something, but when you’re dabbling with Superman and the lot, well, of course, if you change his cape to blue or something, you gotta show how that impacts eeeeeverythinggg. And that’s what ends up being quite amazing about Last Son – Gerber certainly doesn’t avoid referencing Action Comics #1 cover, because you have to, and makes sure to nod to what his twist may have done to our other JLAers, but it’s also a fairly quiet tale in that it stays focused on its pitch, and doesn’t spiral out. To me, that speaks to the lessons learned of a seasoned writer: Gerber recognized that giant DCU rewrites had happened previously, and would like happen again, and wanted instead to actually do what these alternate tales allow for – to follow a particular thread wherever it may lead. Even the pitch is, in this sense, simplistic: that instead of a Kryptonian child rocketing to Earth, it’s an Earth-borne child being rocketed – by Pa and Ma Kent – to Krypton. And go from there. It may seem a bit of a cheat to work Green Lantern into this, that it takes away from the Superman myth exploration, but I think it was just good ol’ writerly problem-solving: Kal-El, raised by his Kryptonian parents in a chamber adapting him to the planet’s force, needs to learn about his past and the world, and him being elected as the GL of Krypton is a smart way doing that, and also pokes at how the various characters we end up meeting – Lois Lane, Perry White, and Kal – remain true to themselves, despite this rewritten history; Superman is who he is because it’s part of his core nature, and not just because he can fly and whatnot.
The way Gerber flits through concepts to summarize large swaths of story and character is also quite masterful, explaining the isolationist Krypton culture via example and not exposition and then using that as an indirect study of the way lessons and behaviors are passed from parent to child, with Jor-El’s moderate rejection of Kryptonian practices translating to his adopted son’s unrestrainable curiosity about the planet’s past. And back on Earth, when Kal uses his newfound GL powers to go check out his home, Nazi-parables are used to quickly sum up Lex Luther, and the lines that have assumedly been drawn between conquerors and survivors after the destruction that encouraged the Kents to send their son to the star. Throughout, there are just enough hints to imagine the details in between the panels, but, as mentioned, the very streamlined focus does have the effect of making the story feel too restrained at points, and there is the sense that there ultimately weren’t enough pages allowed for telling the “whole story,” as Krypton and Kal’s thereupon family are relegated to an epilogue once the action shifts to Earth.
Doug Wheatley’s art is fascinating: it has the formal stiffness of Gene Ha, but the framing and character positioning feels very classically cinematic, while also being mindful of traditional comic pacing. This is a perfect fit for the way the story is both grand and sprawling and focused at the same time, with Chris Chuckry’s colors giving a soft, emotive palette to the affair. Bob Lappan’s letter are kind of weird – a little scraggly, with some variations suggestive of hand-lettering – but they give the comic a gentler “voice” that does also make it seem more personal.
Gerber’s DC work seemed more pick-and-choose versus his more expansive Marvel offerings, and it also often carries with it the reserved sensibilities mentioned here, as though Steve willfully toned his more loquacious indulgences down in reverence for god-like characters. When paired with the relative freedom allowed for by Elseworlds, it results in something that wholly embraces the potential scope of that imprint, while also remaining somewhat intimate and focused; a bracingly original and affecting read.