Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr. have their sights set on Superman, and they’re aiming straight for the heart. “The Men of Tomorrow” spends seven chapters exploring what makes Superman tick. It’s chock full of optimism and whimsy with Superman at his most hopeful and idealistic. The complication? Ulysses, a man born on Earth and sent to the 4th Dimension to save his life. There he was raised on the Great World–a utopia with no need of superheroes. “The Men of Tomorrow” is the story of Ulysses, Superman’s dark mirror.
Johns and Romita craft many touching moments between Superman and Ulysses. Superman and Ulysses understand one another, they share a common history, and it doesn’t take long to empathize with this new superhero from a mysterious world. In one of my personal favorite moments of the book Ulysses asks Superman if Kryptonians need to sleep. Ulysses doesn’t; but Superman doesn’t need to sleep either. Superman actually forces himself to sleep, just as he also chooses to live as Clark Kent. To sleep is to be vulnerable, but Superman accepts these vulnerabilities in order to manufacture his own humanity. Ulysses is Superman without the human baggage.
The early chapters focus on Superman and Ulysses teaming up to take down a villain called the Machinist. Johns and Romita end up drawing a parallel between Ulysses and the machines. Ulysses doesn’t dream, he’s careless with his powers, and he doesn’t fully comprehend Superman’s methods. When Ulysses learns of the extensive weaponry and warfare around the Earth, it’s too much. Ulysses asks permission to forcefully disarm the planet, but Superman forbids it. This is one of Superman’s pivotal traits explained elegantly–Superman is reactive. Superman saves people in need, and he’s very cautious with how he does it for fear of abusing his power. But often that means Superman allows terrible things to happen that he has the power to stop.
In response Ulysses leads 6 million humans on an exodus to the 4th Dimension. He offers a better life in utopia, but in reality the Great World needs to sacrifice 5 million lives every decade in order to sustain itself. “Health. Sustenance. The Core provides it all.” Superman does what Superman does. Superman says there’s got to be another way, and he convinces Ulysses to help him find one. They evacuate the humans back to Earth, but in their fight to send the humans back they trigger the Core’s detonation prematurely. The Great World is destroyed, a planet full of life is gone, and Ulysses blames Superman for failing to find a way like he said. Ulysses is imprisoned on Earth; and the story concludes with Superman telling Jimmy Olsen who he is. The revelation of Superman’s identity is more than just a silly twist; it’s Superman reaffirming his faith in humanity. Superman still believes he’s on the right path. Johns and Romita put significant weight behind what would otherwise be a trivial the reveal, and that’s impressive.
“The Men of Tomorrow” reads incredibly well as a whole, and there’s enough nuance to make sure it’s worth giving a second read as well. Geoff Johns, John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, and Laura Martin execute a Superman story that feels like a classic. Structurally and thematically it’s refined. Artistically it’s strong, especially when Romita Jr. absolutely lets loose on the big set pieces. It’s hard to ask for much more, but I’m writing this shortly after the news that Geoff Johns is finishing his run on Superman with issue 39. I’m suddenly hesitant. This is a fantastic story arc on its own, but it’s clearly setting up for much more. I love Ulysses’ character arc through this story, but Superman somehow walks away nearly unscathed physically and emotionally. Superman’s arc still feels incomplete. I want to see Superman struggle, I want to see Superman grieve, and I want to see Superman suffer. Then I want to see him pick himself up and be Superman. I was hoping that’s what the next arc had in store, but now I feel like we’ll never really know until Geoff finishes the story sometime, somewhere, somehow. Until then.