Gene Luen Yang and Billy Tan give us the eighth chapter in the introduction to DC’s newest Super character. Does this issue give us enough to keep us coming back for more Kong Kenan? Read on for the review, which contains spoilers.
Written by Gene Luen Yang
Illustrated by Billy Tan
“TRAINING DAY” part two! The Academy of the Bat descends into chaos—and the Chinese Joker, Grass Mud Horse, is to blame! As the new Bat-Man of China defends his cowl against a horde of challengers, Wonder-Woman battles the new villain to a standstill! This sounds like a job for Super-Man…but will Kong Kenan master his abilities and training with I-Ching in time to help his friends?
Some series hit the ground running and fizzle out before anything major happens. Others slowly but steadily craft a world and story which gets greater with every issue, eventually locking you in before you realize how engaged you are. Gene Luen Yang’s comics tend to be the latter, and this issue was the one where I finally realized how captivated I am by the series.
The first four pages of the issue feature three mid-progress scenes, each of which re-establishes the scene and characters from the previous issue, furthers those situations, and gives us a quick joke or two. I am amazed at how smoothly these pages read, given how dense the material is. Yang clearly has well-honed skills in plotting and writing nuanced dialogue, and Tan’s dynamic framing and sense of movement keep the reader moving through the story. Gadson’s colors also ground us in each scene with the subtler color patterns: Kenan’s scenes have more yellow and orange, Baixi’s scenes more blue and green, and Deilan’s scenes more red. It all works together to provide both clarity and a constant sense of natural forward momentum, all of which have become hallmarks of this series.
As for the story itself, every issue of “New Super-Man” surprises me with the hidden layers of complexity. For a smaller example of this, look no further than the scene where Kenan stops a truck. The art treats this as a huge heroic moment with over half of the page dedicated to one panel of the car smashing into Kenan as he shields a young boy. The only other panel, on the bottom part of the page, shows a woman thanking him. Taken on its own, this page clearly shows Kenan as a hero. On the very next page, however, we see how his heroic impulses have led him to forget about the driver, whose truck ended up crushed all around him. Was Kenan’s act good because it saved the child, or bad because it endangered the life of the driver?
On a larger scale, the entire series up to this point has played with the idea of a vagueness surrounding good and bad. The series isn’t unique in focusing on moral ambiguity, especially for a recent superhero comic, but it does have a much more nuanced view. The entire Chinese government here, in a take on the real-life Chinese government, pledges to keep the citizens safe but acts in ways that restrict freedom. Even the heroes, including these young characters just entering the world, aren’t sure who is good and who is bad, or whose version of right versus wrong is correct. Major kudos to Yang for also keeping the character voices young while dealing with these complex topics. The occasional lowbrow joke or normal slang term like ‘bullcrap’ or ‘wackjob’ goes a long way — lesser writers would take it too far, but Yang knows just how much is enough.
Another thing I endlessly appreciate about this series is the way Yang has been working classic Chinese DC characters into the story. In past issues we got The Great Ten, and here (as well as in the previous issue), I-Ching gets his spotlight. I-Ching was created in 1968 as mentor for the de-powered Wonder Woman, where he was essentially a walking bag of Asian stereotypes. Yang, with his Chinese heritage and deep knowledge of the country’s culture, re-interprets the character by retaining all of the fun aspects while giving him actual Chinese concepts to work with and explain. That alone saves the character from being a stereotype, and his bond with Kenan gives us a reason to really care about him.Continued below
The art fully comes to the forefront during one of the I-Ching scenes, where he and Kenan enter a mind-scape to discuss the Chinese philosophical concept of trigrams. It’s a classic scene of a master helping his student reach a better understanding of himself, which could have been flat as these scenes rely heavily on dialogue. But the black-and-white color scheme and varying angles keep this scene interesting. As we learn about the trigrams, we also see their aesthetically pleasing forms take shape, ultimately giving character-specific significance to a separate symbol that’s been lingering in front of us from the beginning. It’s a satisfying reveal, brought about by pure synergy between writer and artist.
Also on the topic of reinterpreting classic Chinese characters, there is a final page reveal which will only ring a bell to the most trivia-obsessed DC readers, but which nonetheless sets a path and builds excitement for the issues to come. It’s definitely exciting for all readers — I just hope the series doesn’t get too involved in the line-wide ‘DC Rebirth’ story to where it confuses newer readers. Yang and his artists, Viktor Bogdanovic in the first arc and Billy Tan here, have done such a great job crafting these characters and this world that it would be a shame to see it fold its unique elements into the larger DC world that we already know. Luckily, though, the series has so far been completely accessible, and I expect that to continue no matter where the story goes.
This series is exactly what DC needs in launching a new character: a fresh voice, accessibility, a complex — but not complicated — story, a fully-formed world, and just enough links to the overall DC universe to please the hardcore fans without alienating the new ones. This issue in particular features all of the series’ strengths, and I hope this quality lasts long into the future.
Final Verdict: 8.9 – A superb, layered continuation of the adventures of Kong Kenan and the Justice League China. Highly recommended for anyone who appreciates good storytelling.