After last year's epic story, Geoff Johns says goodbye to "Superman" in a quiet issue full of solid character work that speaks to who the character really is and why he does what he does. It's a reminder of Johns' strengths as a writer who can craft small stories with a pointed focus just as much as he can create sweeping epics that span the DC Universe.
Using his new solar flare power last issue has left the Man of Steel sans superhuman abilities for 24 hours, a rechargeable battery that's simply run out of juice. In the meantime, he revealed his identity to Jimmy Olsen, who is by equal turns skeptical and overwhelmingly thrilled. John Romita Jr. illustrates the reaction page with something closer to photorealism than he's ever done in his previous work with Klaus Janson. The team really works to give three visual dimensions to a moment that Johns has given multiple emotional layers in the script. The joy in his acceptance is palpable; his face, glowing with excitement.
The banter between the two as they enjoy a depowered day together is light and fun; Johns really makes these two sound like best friends. The parallels between them get highlighted in entertaining ways: for instance, when Clark says he is just trying to fit in, Jimmy says he's been doing the same all his life. Johns has fun with a Superman who's simply Man at the moment, with Clark bleeding from papercuts and scrapes and genuinely not knowing how long it takes to reach the Daily Planet on foot because he usually flies. This is a humble Clark, confident but accepting of the situation and open to the possibility of a new experience. We even get a slight No Prize explanation of how the glasses hide Superman's identity; it's a small but clever use of the existing tools at Johns' disposal, a strength of the writer's throughout his career.
When Clark faces a man at gunpoint, the story really sings. In a tense standoff, a not-so-bulletproof, costumed Superman faces off against a man with a hostage. Romita Jr. and Janson illustrate the showdown in similarly-sized and similarly framed panels, slowing down time and living in the beat of every exchange. When Jimmy asks Clark why he'd do that when he knows he could be hurt, Johns delivers one of the best lines of his run: "You think I only step in front of guns because I'm bulletproof?" It's such a small piece of the story, delivered as a walk-and-talk, but it shows who this character truly is in ways that throwing him in front of space monsters and tsunamis cannot. Clark is a man raised to do the right thing and help others, regardless of his personal sacrifice.
Johns lets this sit with the reader for a few panels as his final statement on the character, before Superman's powers return in a gorgeous splash page. Romita Jr. and Janson show the relief and joy in Clark's face as he lifts off the ground while Jimmy beams with pride, both at his best friend's abilities and from excitement in being let in on this secret. It's touching and beautiful and an incredible moment in an issue full of great scenes.
"Superman" #39 is a fantastic close to this chapter of Superman's life. Geoff Johns has taken the Man of Tomorrow and distilled him to the parts that make him great. Though Romita Jr. and Janson are sticking around to maintain visual consistency, Romita Jr.'s next issue and post-"Convergence" stories do have some large shoes to fill. If they approach it the same way Superman approaches his humanity -- with confidence and humble curiosity -- then the Man of Tomorrow will be in great hands.