Clark Kent is an aw-shucks Kansas farmboy who can juggle tanks but is modest and humble to a fault. Kenan Kong is no Clark Kent. He’s an asshat who steals his classmate’s lunch.
Superman stands for Truth, Justice, and, in the old-school version of his motto, the American Way. But this newest Man of Steel starts off as being a massive jerk. When we meet the main character of New Super-Man—written by Gene Luen Yang, with art by Viktor Bogdanovic, Richard Friend, Dave Sharpe and Hi-Fi Color Design—he’s doing the exact same thing that classic comic-book bullies do: giving grief to a chubby, glasses-wearing nerd.
When he does engage in an act of heroism and saves rich classmate Luo Lixin from a supervillain kidnapping, he revels in the viral media attention and hits on the reporter responsible for his fleeting fame. Kenan thinks he’s hot shit, but all that bravado masks pain from a life of poverty and the untimely death of his mom in an airplane crash.
Sympathy signifiers aside, he still comes across as a cad.
Yang’s award-winning comics work like American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints has explored the intermingling and clash of Chinese and Western cultures in brilliant and heartbreaking fashion. With New Super-Man, there seems to be an added layer of subtext. The first issue happens in Shanghai and the subtext feels like it’s channeling China’s status as an anything-goes industrial powerhouse. Mainland China is a place where faster, cheaper knockoffs of popular goods and intellectual properties from the West are just a fact of life. (For example, the awful laundry detergent commercial that made the rounds recently was a rip-off that inverted an older Italian one.) Kenan gets his superpowers in a seeming allusion to the way an off-brand imitation iPhone gets churned out: a shady Chinese government super-science lab siphoned energy off the most recent “real” Superman and has been trying to create their own knock-off Kryptonian.
After Kenan undergoes the experiment that gives him his powers, the Chinese government’s versions of Wonder-Woman and Bat-Man crash in and try to rein him in. The costume designs for all three heroes look like a riff on the cheap, off-model superhero toys that circulate over the internet. They’re good costumes for this book’s storytelling goals, though, evoking enough brand familiarity, Chinese cultural specificity, and military-style standardization to speak volumes about the zeitgeist they sprang from.
In his best iterations, Superman stands for what’s most inspiring about humanity. But the execution of those ideals has been filtered almost exclusively through white, Western, paternalistic sensibilities. The most intriguing part of New Super-Man’s premise is that it already seems to be gesturing at a superhero model that might skip ticking off the standard checkboxes. Kenan isn’t particularly self-effacing and, right now, I don’t think I want him to be. This is a comic about cultural difference and I’d love it if Yang and company leaned into that as hard as they can.
With a character like Luo Lixin in the mix, it’ll be interesting to see if the book touches on the phenomenon of fuerdai, the sons and daughters of China’s super-rich whose conspicuous consumption lifestyles make them objects of scorn and fascination. Whether it’s obedient enough to Chinese government media policies to be allowed into their markets is an open question.
Nevertheless, I felt like the first issue offers up seductive tiny slices of a fictionalized cross-section of modern-day China. Creating shanzai versions of luxury cars may seem tacky to Westerners but there’s a different kind of entrepreneurial spirit at play in the practice. New Super-Man looks like the beginning of a modern-day, media-obsessed exploration of what how a Superman gets super with a totally different set of cultural influences. I’m on board for that.