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New Super-Man #1 (review)

New Super-Man #1 (review)
DC Comics, September 2016
Writer: Gene Luen Yang

American publisher DC Comics are presently undertaking one of its periodic hedge-trimming exercises, where its character properties are revamped or reconstituted so as to remove complexity caused by years of convoluted plots. This time around the exercise is called “Rebirth”.

In this “Rebirth”-branded title, DC Comics have made the editorial decision to create a Chinese version of its premier property, Superman. This is achieved in the form of a new, Shanghainese character called Kong Kenan. Kong is not a typical altruistic hero. The characters is in fact a conceited bully who picks on Lixin, the overweight son of a media mogul, stealing his lunch and money. In a moment of bravado, as a supervillain called Blue Condor is about to kidnap Lixin, Kong throws a can at the Blue Condor’s head. Lixin is saved – but not from Kong, who continues to extort Lixin for cash. Kong’s moment of courage is captured in social media and he quickly becomes a minor TV celebrity.

Kong’s father, a mechanic (and likely to be revealed as “Blue Condor” down the track), is entirely unimpressed with his son and his behaviour generally. Kong’s father is obsessed by government conspiracies and meets with fellow paranoids to try and ascertain the existence of a mysterious Chinese government agency called the Ministry of Self-Reliance. At this point the plot plainly looks like it was written by a Westerner: the Chinese government, even in relatively liberal Shanghai, would be extremely unimpressed by a group of workers investigating the existence of a secret government agency, with the aim of exposing the truth through the media. By way of comparison, there is PLA Unit 61398 located in Pudong district in Shanghai and its shyness about media attention, the existence of which would never have been revealed by an investigation by Chinese citizens. This aspect of the plot is, frankly, a Western conceit.

The same can be said of the letter “S” appearing on Kong’s chest. Latin characters are not well understood by many Chinese speakers and the use on his uniform of Chinese character or characters like 超人 would have made more sense, if not immediately apparent to a Western audience of readers.

Kong is offered the chance by the Ministry of Self-Reliance to test a serum which will give him the powers of Superman, and it of course dramatically works: Kong can suddenly fly and has heat vision. At the very end of this first issue, Kong is confronted by two other Chinese superheroes, a Chinese version of Batman and a Chinese version of Wonder Woman. Why the writer, Gene Luen Yang, is going down this path remains to be seen but Chinese counterfeits of Western superheroes is a droll plotline.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this story is that, in this title, the plain fact that Superman is not an American. The character Superman has been very closely identified with the United States for a very long time reinforced by a speech by US president Barack Obama in 2008. This is remarkable. Why DC Comics decided to allow an iconic American character to become a Chinese national hero is uncertain, other than a desire to try and open a new market in Asia (will the title be translated into Chinese?), alternatively to appeal to prevailing trends in demographics around ethnic minorities, a strategy which both Marvel Comics and DC Comics have embraced with gusto.