2 out of 5
As great of an idea as I think it has been for DC to expand their Batman: Black and White concept to other characters, and as pants-wetting amazing as the promise of having both Michel Fiffe and James Stokoe in the same issue is, “Black and White” can be said to work for some various basic reasons that Red and Blue (or at least this issue) doesn’t, and Superman is forever a difficult character to make into an interesting one, such that even the most talented of creators can fail at it.
Bats: B & W benefits from some core things: its duotone colors are the basis of comics, and we’ve had decades of examples to study as to how to apply it effectively; black and white very naturally lend themselves to the back alley criminality which runs through Batman; and Bats himself is fitted to the anthology format, being a jack-of-all-trades badass human who can be slotted into more imaginative or more grounded tales in a whatever-works way. Superman: Red and Blue limits itself to the colors mentioned, and while it seems like this could translate to a simple palette swap, most of this issue’s contributors chose to use blue as the base color, meaning it replaces white as the de facto background or juxtaposition to shadowed blacks; but red is not used as a black replacement, rather as a spot enhancer – Supes’ cape, for example. This means the majority of panels are a range of blue tones, generally seen as a “calming” color, with some occasional red. The effect, unfortunately, makes the pages look bland – fades of blues – or cluttered; not using a light vs. dark paradigm, the artists are just drawing their pages as usual, and then it’s all colored very, very similarly. Just flipping through the book, while super stylized dudes like Fiffe stick out, the other works blend together – I didn’t even know I had changed stories at one point.
There’s then “the Superman problem:” he can be a boring dude. He’s overpowered; he’s a boyscout. His limited problem set – do I help everyone all the time? – has been covered ad nauseam. The list of writers who’ve been able to write Supes compellingly is very short, and even many of my faves have struggled. The problem is incredibly evident here.
Jesse J. Holland’s opening story tries to find some humor in the friendship of the League head honchos – Clark, Bruce, and Diana – but Holland falls back on a feel-good tone (a splinter of the “problem”) that wholly washes the story out of any momentum; Laura Braga’s romance-comic-y art does work well, though, and Hi-Fi actually makes good use of the reds and blues, smartly using a very pale red for flesh tones. Michel Fiffe tries to go for a more traditionally hokey Supes tale, circling around and being good-humored amongst his powered buddies while they put down a threat, but it ends up feeling too unfocused – there’s not much personality, just that top-down hokey feel – and the colors prove to be a challenge for Fiffe to adapt to the spot-color way he handles his work. Brandon Thomas’ and Berat Pekmezci’s story of an oft-Superman-rescued dude fares the worst, with the artist’s bubbly, cartoonish style being tailored for a way more colorful presentation, and the narration being too talky for the short page length, even though I think the high level idea was solid. Nick Spencer’s and Christian Ward’s offering is similarly a bit too heavy on dialogue (this could be said to be another aspect of the aforementioned problem, as Supes stories require extra effort to “justify” their existence), and the watercoloring style just adds to the inherent blue-based blandness. James Stokoe’s concluding story is the only one to keep its head above water: Stokoe “cheats” a bit by being the only artist to use black – the tale is set in space – and it makes a huge difference. Stokoe parallels the negative space in his panels with a relatively sparse, omniscient narration – an important point, not trying to get inside Superman’s head – and allows the focus to be on the wildness of the event rather than Superman himself; at the same time, the setting and the scale of things make Superman actually relevant to the story.