The Comic Cave – Superman: Up In The Sky

The Comic Cave is a bi-weekly feature where we spin the Wheel of Comics and see what graphic novel story it brings up for us to deep dive into! This week we take a look at Superman: Up In The Sky, a book that puts a writer famous for his Batman stories onto DC’s other iconic hero.

In a previous entry of The Comic Cave we took at look at Batman Universe, a book that was originally published in twelve parts across issue of the Walmart exclusive book Batman Giant. This was a decision by DC to try to grab new readers; those who might not normally walk into a comic book shop, but have a passing interest in the characters.

A similar thing is done here in the UK, where the easiest place to pick up select Marvel and DC comics is in supermarkets, where they’re reprinted in extra-sized books that collect two or three issues of whatever hero the book is for. But this is something rarely done in the US, so when DC tried it they tried it with their big two heroes, Batman and Superman. The story we’re looking at today was, much like Batman Universe, a completely new and original story for the book.

When I spoke about Batman Universe I mentioned how Brian Michael Bendis, the writer of that story, was working on both Superman and Action Comics at the time, and that he was swapped over to Batman for the Walmart book. The opposite was done for Superman, with Batman writer Tom King being put onto Superman Giant. Whether this was an experiment from DC, something that the writers wanted to do, or some kind of odd marketing idea, the result is two writers whose main books are not looked upon that favourably creating two of the most popular and well received Superman and Batman books in recent years.

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Superman: Up In The Sky begins with Superman receiving a call from Batman, who tells him about a family that were murdered in Gotham. The parents and two of the children were killed, a third child was shot and is in hospital, and the fourth kid is missing. He tells Superman to go and talk to the little girl. Arriving at the hospital, Superman speaks to the girl, who tells her about her foster sister, Alice. The two of them were playing with their superhero toys in the basement. Alice took her Superman toy because Superman is her favourite, even though it’s not her toy. When the shooting started they ran out into the garden and hid in the bushes. The injured girl tells him about being shot, and as she lay there bleeding suddenly a man in a space suit appeared and took Alice. Took her “up, in the sky”.

Over the next few days Superman wrestles with what to do. He wants to raise awareness of what happened using the Daily Planet, but his boss doesn’t think there’s much of a story there. He asks Green Lantern to help, and Hal sends the girl’s details to the rest of the Corps, but doesn’t hold out much hope in finding her. Batman tells Superman that he might have a clue as to the next piece of the puzzle, the planet Rann, but Superman feels like he can’t just leave Earth for one girl.

He goes to see his father and explains everything, and Jonathan Kent agrees that it would be tough to find her, and says that she might never be found. He also tells him that because she’s a kid she’ll be hoping she will be found; that her faith in Superman won’t let her give in. When Batman delivers the news that the girl in the hospital died of her injuries, Superman takes to the skies and flies into space. He’s going to bring Alice home.

This begins various trial for Superman to overcome, and the subsequent twelve parts of the series deal with snapshots of his journey across the universe to try to save this one little girl. His first stop is the planet Rann, where they have data that might be able to track where the teleportation beam that took Alice went. Unfortunately, they tell Superman that the best computer in the universe tried to figure out the date, and it killed it. Superman plugs his mind into the machine, and has them put the data into his head, sending him into a strange dream reality. In this reality a boy puts on a Superman costume and jumps off his roof, killing himself. Superman believes his example led to this death, and quits being a superhero. He then meets this young girl, and the two of them talk on a park bench, where she mentions going to the Bode’s galaxy. He asks her her name, and it’s Alice. Superman snaps out of the dream, with the knowledge of where Alice is, having survived the impossible to do so.

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The next stage of his journey sees Superman in a boxing ring, fighting against an alien named Mighto. Mighto knows where the kidnappers went, but won’t tell Superman unless he beats him in a fight. The two battle for round after round, with Superman being brutalised. He refuses to give in though, no matter how much Mighto tells him to. When Mighto realises that Superman is never going to stop, that he’ll keep finding the strength to go on, he falls and is counted out.

From here we find Superman drifting in space, close to death from some unseen foe. His body is found by an alien ship and he’s brought aboard. The ships healer tries to fix him, but discovers that doing so will cost his own life, as he heals by transferring life essence. But the bond he made with Superman shows him all of the things that Superman has done, the lives, and planets he’s saved, and that he will always fight for a better tomorrow. The healer knows that he can’t let a man like Superman die, and so gives his life to save him. The issue ends with Superman visiting the healer’s family, delivering his last message, and then mourning with them.

The next stage in his journey is one that will test his patience, as he waits in line to make a call back home to Earth. Stuck in a huge, busy alien communications centre, Superman is forced to wait for hours, going from window to window, talking to bureaucrats in an effort to just call home and talk to his wife. All the while he’s imagining the awful things that could have happened to Lois while gone. Eventually he manages to get to talk to his wife, just for a moment, and it gives him the energy he needs to go on in his search.

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Following this, Superman is pulled through a crack in time, and ends up in World War II with amnesia. Found by Sergeant Rock and Easy Company, ‘Kansas’, as they call him, is with them as they try to capture a Nazi-controlled church. When a grenade lands in the middle of the group he grabs it to throw it away, and it explodes in his hand. The explosion jolts his memory, and he fights alongside Easy Company as Superman, helping them take the church, before returning to his own time.

Then we’re told a story by Alice, of the time that Superman and The Flash had a race for charity. Billions was raised all across the world, and whilst people were excited for the race no one thought Superman would win; no one except Alice. During the race Lex Luthor promises to match whatever money is raised, if Superman wins. He believes that Superman will fail, and wants him to find out after that he lost money for charity. But Superman is always listening in on Lex, and hears the promise. And so Superman, somehow impossibly, pushes himself harder and harder, and wins. That’s why Alice knows Superman will find her, why he’ll keep coming. We see that Alice is chained up, surrounded by other prisoners, some dead, still clutching her Superman toy.

After making it back from the past, Superman is hit by a strange lightning, that splits him into both Superman and Clark Kent. Clark is the decent, human side of the hero, whilst Superman is cold and calculated in his approach. The new Superman thinks going off to save one girl is ridiculous when he could be saving more, whilst the fragile, human refuses to give in. The two have a long back and forth, but eventually agree to fly back up together, hoping that another lightning strike will return them to one man.

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The final stage of his journey to find Alice takes Superman to one of the worst places in the universe: the home of Darkseid. The evil god promises to tell Superman where Alice is, if Superman agrees to kill an innocent person. With no other way to find the girl, Superman agrees. He eventually comes to a world where an old alien is sick. His mind is failing him, and great pain is coming. He wants his life to end, but doesn’t have the strength to take it himself. He thinks that Superman is an angel come to help him.

Superman goes with the alien, he takes the knife, and we see him struggle to find the strength to do what he must, pulled back and forth on what’s right. We then see Superman leave the alien’s home, the light now extinguished. Coming back to Darkseid he tells him that the deed is done. Darkseid doesn’t believe him, to which Superman responds “If that is a lie, then I have broken my word. And if it’s the truth… then I’ve broken my word. Either way Darkseid, I have fallen. Either way Darkseid. You win.” And so Darkseid tells him where Alice is.

Superman finds the world where Alice has been taken, but is taken prisoner. Chained in indestructable metal, the aliens make him an offer: give up, leave them be, and they will bring him peace on Earth. They show him his perfect day, a world where he can take his time, where there’s no crime to worry about, where the worst he has to deal with is helping a cat out of a tree. He refuses, and breaks the bonds holding him. Meanwhile, on Earth, the aliens have sent an army of robotic warriors to conquer the planet, and the Earth’s heroes are falling to them.

On the aliens’ world we learn that they took Alice to study, to better prepare their forces to fight humans. They took a girl that no one would miss, that no one would care about. Superman destroys their controls, disables their army, and breaks Alice free from her chains. He then puts her in a tiny space suit, and flies her back to Earth, answering all of her questions along the way. Along the way they stop at the home of the alien Superman was supposed to kill, and we learn that instead he found a way to cure him of his illness. When they eventually make it back home she tells him that there’s one question that she didn’t need to ask him, why he came for her, because she already knows the answer: because he’s Superman.

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Superman: Up In The Sky isn’t a long story, it’s only six issues, but thanks to Superman Giant breaking the story into twelve parts, King uses this to structure it in such a way that it feels like it packs a lot in. King makes the most of the space he’s been given, and never really wastes a moment as each of the parts of his story takes an impressively deep dive into what makes Superman who he is. Whether it’s seeing him fighting against the urge to go save Alice at the beginning of the book, refusing to be beaten over and over again, or doing the impossible, the story makes a point of explaining each and every act of heroism as ‘because he’s Superman’. It seems like Tom King understands Superman in a way that not every writer does, that it’s not his strength and powers that make him special, but his force of will, and his refusal to let evil win out that does.

There are several amazing moments in this story, moments that very quickly became some of my favourite for Superman. His refusal to fall for Mighto, with his face more battered and bruised then when he literally died fighting Doomsday. The moment he comes to the healer’s family and delivers his last message o them, knowing that someone gave their life for him (something he’s never asked anyone to do). And the whole segment with Darkseid and Superman contemplating killing a man. There’s a misconception amongst some people that Superman needs to be violent, that he solves all of his problems by fighting and hitting things. This tends to be people who don’t read a whole lot of Superman, or people who are only passingly familiar with the character thanks to film and TV. But that’s not really who he is. And this book showcases that wonderfully.

The art on the book, by Andy Kubert, with colours by Brad Anderson, looks fantastic. Kubert is part of a comic legacy, and the entire family is hugely talented, and his work here shows why. Superman looks amazing throughout, you can feel his emotions, can see the struggle on his face each story, whether that be the grief at what’s happened, the determination, or the utter sense of powerlessness and borderline rage he feels being stuck in line. Kubert portrays the character wonderfully, and the art is a big reason for the story being so well crafted here. Kubert also does a brilliant job at filling the universe that Superman is travelling through, making it a weird and wonderful place.

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There are a few books that people always seem to bring up when talking about the best Superman stories. Things like All-Star SupermanThe Death of SupermanSuperman Red Son, and Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow. But Superman: Up In The Sky very much deserves to be on those lists too. It’s an amazing example of the character, of how creative you can be with Superman, and why there’s a reason he’s not just the first superhero, but the best superhero.

Superman: Up In The Sky was originally published in Superman: Giant from September 2019 to February 2020 by DC Comics.

Next time on The Comic Cave – Old Man Logan by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven

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