If you’re troubled and you can’t relax
Close your eyes and think of this
If the rumors floating in your head
all turn to facts
Close your eyes and think of this
Armenia, city in the sky!
The sky is glass, the sea is brown
And everyone is upside-down!
—The Who, The Who Sell Out
Are you a comics reader who’s mostly OD’d on superhero books? But once in a while you find something that sends you back to your local comic shop in search of back issues? Are you picky—and get thrown out of a story unless the artwork is good enough to keep your eyes on the page? If so, then Tangent: Superman’s Reign might just be your cup of tea. This 12-chapter story is full of characters with familiar names—but the people behind the names are completely different from the ones you think you know in standard DC comics. I liked the original 12-issue presentation of this well enough to nominate it for a Hugo, last year. But when I plowed into the new two-volume trade edition for this review, it struck me as mysteriously flat. I wondered what was going on until I went back and reviewed the original monthly serial.
I have a small bone to pick with the format and organization of the two trade volumes that collect Tangent: Superman’s Reign. In the original monthly comic books, the story opens with an impressively-illustrated sequence at a dramatic high point:
A striking woman in a trenchcoat walks through the rain. She is accosted by a mysterious green-cloaked figure who begs for spare change to buy food. We don’t know who these characters are (unless we’re grizzled readers of DC’s first set of Tangent stories, published in 1998). But we don’t really have to know! We learn that the trenchcoated woman is an ex-convict. She’s on her first day out after a 10-year prison term. The green-cloaked stranger shrugs off the woman’s excuse that ex-cons don’t exactly have huge bank accounts. “We all get what we deserve in life, no more, no less,” Green Cloak ruminates—while Trenchcoat Woman walks over to a telescreen communicator and identifies herself as “Lori Lemaris, logging in.”
Ex-detective Lori Lemaris (formerly one of three people who assumed the identity of the masked crimefighter known as The Joker) reports to her parole officer. “A decade ago,” she reminds herself over a panel depicting the harlequin-costumed Joker in action, “I was the one getting bad guys put away. Who knows? The Joker might have been responsible for getting that guy his job.”
A full-page splash panel on the next page shows a huge LCD screen mounted on one side of a skyscraper. Out of her flashback reverie, Lori continues her internal lament, directing it at the huge panopticon image of a bald-headed black man with glowing eyes.
“You,” she says, as the rain beats down on her trenchcoat. “If not for you I’d be in a vastly different place now. I might even be happy. But you took everything and made it your own. And wiped out the rest of us in the process.”
This is the actual opening of Tangent: Superman’s Reign, and all you need to know to get into the story.
The Yul Brynner/Avery Brooks-like black man with the glowing eyes is “The Superman.” Once just a New York City police officer named Harvey Dent, he has been transformed (through secret experiments of an organization called Nightwing) into a telepathic/telekinetic mutant.
The DC Comics Wiki says of Dent:
With his newfound powers Harvey as the SuperMan continued to develop his powers at an amazing rate. Harvey started by taking on slumlords, then local thugs, and eventually moved up to defeating super villains. [….] It was obviously that Harvey did not do his deeds to play Good Samaritan, but that he liked solving problems.
Dent, we eventually learn, has decided that most social problems and unhappiness in modern civilization are caused by human beings having too much choice. “The Superman,” once a member of Tangent Earth’s Justice League, is now the supreme dictator of the planet. Having used his telekinetic powers to become the world government, he outlaws his fellow superheroes. He also confiscates the wealth of Middle Eastern oil billionaires, puts an end to poverty and international warfare, and ends all crime on Earth.
But, as you might guess from being a science fiction reader, some people aren’t happy with this state of affairs—notably, an alliance of rebel costumed heroes known as the Secret Six. The mysterious green-cloaked figure we meet in the first few pages is actually the linchpin of the story. She is the Green Lantern of Tangent Earth. Not to be confused with the Green Lantern of any other Earth, she is the guardian of the Unquiet Grave—an emissary of spiritual forces that protest the sacrifice of human liberty made by “The Superman” to achieve his utopia.
The story told in the original monthly issues provides us with skillfully-crafted flashbacks, interleaved with the main story. We follow the progression of current events on Tangent Earth each month in the lead story; and we learn how “The Superman” rose to power and dealt with the rebel alliance in the History Lesson back-end stories. The back-end stories occur in an unspecified timeframe. They consist of a series of interrogations conducted at the headquarters of an underground resistance movement. Internet scholar and bookworm Guy Gardner has been captured by a group of covert black-ops agents. Special Agent Jennifer Hayden grills Guy aggressively in an attempt to learn the personal histories and whereabouts of all the missing Tangent superheroes—which conveniently fills the reader in on this information, too, as the interrogation continues each month:
“...We can start with what we know. And what we know... is the start. When the Soviets launched their missiles in 1962, Florida wasn't the only thing wiped off the planet. The old way of life was gone forever, too. ...In the eyes of the government this new world needed a new kind of watchdog. Kennedy approved the creation and founding of Nightwing, a covert intelligence agency. JFK got popped by Oswald a few months later, so he never knew what he'd set in motion. ...Nightwing’s technology advances—cellular comm, voice-responsive computers, solar-powered cars, artificial intelligence—began to seep into the culture. ...Cryogenics breakthroughs restored restored Walt Disney and Howard Hughes to life. Ted Williams came back and hit .400 again. ...And all the while, Nightwing sat in the shadows and watched, plugged into every house in America and beyond.”
In the two collected volumes of Tangent: Superman’s Reign, DC Editorial has pre-empted the well-crafted narrative designed by authors Dan Jurgens and Ron Marz. Instead of presenting the work “as is,” DC decided that the reader had to see the link between the regular DC Universe and Tangent Earth—and had to learn the backstory of the Tangent Universe before beginning the new main story. Accordingly, they begin Volume 1 with the reprint of an inferior tease written by a different author (Dwayne McDuffie), set on the Earth that houses the current Justice League of America. The JLA story, A Brief Tangent, is followed by the reprint of six Guy Gardner History Lesson back-episodes. Then, and only then, do they present Chapter 1 of Dan Jurgens’ brilliant new story. The first volume continues from there with Chapters 2 through 6 of the main story. Volume 2 of Tangent: Superman’s Reign leads off with Guy Gardner History Lessons 7-12. After introducing a significant story spoiler in History Lesson #12, they present Chapters 7 through 12 of the main story.
To get the most out of the stories collected in these books, I recommend that you read them in the order they were originally published. Buy both volumes (or just the first one to get a taste). Read Chapter 1 of the main story in Superman’s Reign followed by History Lesson #1. If you’re interested in how the regular Justice League learned about Tangent Earth, you can follow that with A Brief Tangent, which is the first story in the collected edition. But this isn’t required. Proceed to Chapter 2 of the Superman’s Reign main story. Follow that with History Lesson #2, and so on. (If you’re already bored with the Dan DiDio-mandated template that has defined DC’s regular superhero books for the last few years, don’t bother with A Brief Tangent. You’ll find out all you need to know from Dan Jurgens in Chapters 1 and 2 of the main story. ) The History Lessons written by Ron Marz combine into a good story in its own right. But the History Lessons and Jurgens’ main story work better together when read concurrently—rather than sequentially.
While the firelight’s aglow, strange shadows
from the flames will grow
Till things we’ve never seen will seem familiar....
—The Grateful Dead, “Terrapin Station”
Dan Jurgens created the Tangent Universe in 1997. He was looking for a change of pace from the traditional DC parade of superheroes and superheroines. Jurgens weighs in on the subject here, shortly before the first issue of Superman’s Reign appeared in 2008:
“It happened as a result of a combination of things,” explained Jurgens, who acknowledged the return of Tangent Universe has been a long-time coming. “Way back in the beginning, we planned to do more Tangent projects and eventually bring the universe into contact with the DCU. Talk of that may have survived in the DC offices as [Executive Editor] Dan [DiDio] moved into his job. In any event, it was something he and I discussed for a couple of years and we finally got around to getting it done.”
The Tangent Universe is full of interesting superhero characters. In addition to Lori Lemaris (whose crimefighting career as the Joker bears some resemblance to the career of Harlan Ellison’s Harlequin), you have Sir William, the 14th century nobleman who was seduced by Morgan LeFay, cursed by Merlin, and whose ghost now protects London—animating a suit of armor as Batman, the Dark Knight. But I won’t mince words about my favorite character, mentioned more times in this review than any other. If the mysterious Tangent Green Lantern has a Christian birthname, we never really learn it. (In one of the myths about her that Guy Gardner notes, she’s called “Zatanna.”) I’m fascinated by the power of her Chinese magic lantern to temporarily resurrect dead heroes for completion of their “unfinished business.” (My life-long obsession with Grateful Dead folklore is busted, here.)
Fans of decently-plotted stories involving DC’s traditional Justice League should also find plenty to like in this story. All three of the regular Green Lanterns become involved in the struggle against “The Superman.” (John Stewart, in character from the animated Justice League Unlimited cartoons, has a few things to say to Harvey Dent. But this “Superman” has taken down an entire world of superheroes, and Dan Jurgens makes you believe it.) The stubborn, resourceful Batman we know also has a part to play.
And this is inevitable.
The most compelling element of Tangent: Superman’s Reign, for me, is that Harvey Dent/Superman is a complicated character. His primary motivation to become the supreme political authority in his world is his desire to abolish poverty and crime. He’s not without his advocates in the Tangent superhero community.
[Mild spoiler below]
When “The Superman” eventually manages to open a path into our universe, the first thing he sees is a starving mother and child being ejected from a restaurant. So he teleports some money over from his own Earth, buys the restaurant, and instructs the proprietor to feed the beggars on a regular basis. Upon meeting the Superman of New Earth/Earth-1, he delivers some sharp criticism of the alleged virtues of democracy.
[End spoiler zone]
The colorful, well-pencilled and well-inked artwork in Tangent: Superman’s Reign contributes to the story’s readability. Human figures (in conversation, in flight, or in combat) are anatomically proportional and plausible. The combat scenes contain no heroes or villains with distorted head-to-body ratios, and there’s no over-inking to exaggerate the drama of fist fights. The combat scenes that do occur in the story happen in the context of a well-developed plot. More Fernando Pasarin, please! (Pasarin is the penciller on all of the History Lessons in the first volume. )
Aside from the virtues of this particular story, the Tangent Universe is an intriguing exercise in “what-if?” The trade paperbacks of the 1997-1998 titles present a detailed glimpse into an alternate, superhero-populated world. It’s almost as if they could belong to another comic book company, where DC’s standard characters are guests—the same way the Milestone characters are now guests in the standard DC product line.
Lenny Bailes is a longtime science fiction fan, who helps put on small s-f literary conventions and even still publishes a fanzine. IT specialist by day and college instructor by night, he desperately tries to find time for other reading, writing, and music making.