Tuesday, April 16, 2024
ComicsComics Corner

Comics Corner – ‘Superman: Son of Kal-El’ offers a reminder that coming out is a never-ending process

Yes, we’ve already sung the praises of the current Superman: Son of Kal-El series for its brilliant portrayal of LGBTQ+ identities. From its bisexual leading man Jon Kent, to the introduction of trans superhero Dreamer into the core DC Comics continuity, or the ongoing presence of queer and non-binary allies such as The Aerie and Wink, it’s established itself as one of the biggest and most important superhero comics on the stands.

Consider this a ‘Part 2’, though. As the current series winds down – ahead of a relaunch as Adventures of Superman: Jon Kent in early 2023 – it’s managed to further surprise and delight readers with something we rarely see in media focusing on queer characters: the protagonist’s second coming out.

Superman: Son of Kal-El #16 (Art by Travis Moore & Tamra Bonvillain, ©DC Comics)

The most recent arc of the series is a pseudo-crossover with sister title Action Comics, with the storyline “Kal-El Returns” exploring the elder Superman – Jon’s father Clark – resuming his life on Earth after triumphantly liberating the alien planet of Warworld. However, rather than alternating chapters of the same story, Action and Son of Kal-El are really separate tales, each book looking at Clark’s return from different perspectives. While the former is about the impact of the original Superman’s reappearance, along with an entire planet’s worth of refugees, the latter is more personal, centred on Clark and Jon’s relationship.

Written by Tom Taylor, with art by Cian Tormey and Ruairí Coleman, October’s issue #16 was a ‘day in the life’ issue, following Jon’s daily activities as the Superman of Earth in his father’s absence. It’s interspersed with Jon’s heartfelt recollections of how Clark was always there for him, helping him come to grips with his own powers as they emerged, with the smallest of connections alerting Jon to Clark’s return. It’s a beautiful issue focusing on a father-son bond, but it’s the recent issue #17 where things get interesting from an LGBTQ+ perspective.

The issue kicks off with more of the two Supermen reconnecting after Clark’s interplanetary rescue mission. Rather than a round of catch though, the two most powerful beings on Earth stretch their legs with a race to a nearby star, where Clark tries to have a catch up chat. While Jon is happy to discuss his liberation of Gamorra and the overthrow of its dictatorial leader Henry Bendix, he bristles and leaves when his dad asks if there’s “anything else I missed?”

When Jon is injured by a new supervillain back on Earth – in a set-up for a series finale battle in the next issue – and rushed to the Justice League infirmary, he’s visited by his boyfriend Jay. It’s a sweet moment for the pair, with Jay, who has the power of intangibility, running right past (or technically through) both Dr Mid-Nite and Clark in order to check that Jon’s okay. More importantly, it sets up the conversation Jon had been avoiding since his father’s return – that he’s bisexual.

Superman: Son of Kal-El #17 (Art by Travis Moore & Tamra Bonvillain, ©DC Comics)

Of course, Clark unflinchingly accepts Jon’s sexuality – that’s no surprise. He’s Superman. What makes the scene especially resonant for queer readers is how Jon’s fears and doubts creep through, with the potential to undermine his invulnerability in ways Kryptonite never could.

Jon even acknowledges that his bisexuality isn’t really a secret – the cameras of the world were on him and Jay kissing after their battle to free Gamorra. He knew that his father knew, but still hadn’t been able to discuss it openly with him. The real concern was voicing it, making it real. As he says, “I wasn’t worried you’d literally fly away from me at super-speed. But if I saw the wrong look on your face – doubt, disapproval, disappointment – even for a fraction of a second, then that would be… distance between us.”

It’s a poignant reminder that queer people never stop having to “come out”. It’s not a one-time event – one glittery explosion from a closet, and then the whole world knows, forever. Coming out is something LGBTQ+ people have to do over and over again throughout our lives, with almost every person we meet. Every new colleague, new friend, every time we move home or city or job. There’s a weight to that, a constant uncertainty as to whether even the people closest to us will be accepting, and it’s a cloud of doubt that’s perfectly presented here.

The framing of the issue also makes Jon and Clark’s discussion special. While the series is usually narrated from Jon’s perspective, issue #17 sees Taylor flip the script, with Clark’s internal monologue guiding the story. Not only is it a clever reversal of Jon’s coming out to his mother, Lois Lane – a moment shown from his perspective in Superman: Son of Kal-El #10 – but it makes Jon seem even more isolated and awkward; his thoughts as distant from the reader as his father.

However, it also allows Taylor to explore how a parent can unflinchingly support their queer child. Clark’s inner thoughts though the issue show he is heartbroken that Jon would ever think he wouldn’t accept him, that Jon “thought I wouldn’t support you or stand by you”. Yet while Clark can relate to some of Jon’s feelings of alienation – growing up as a literal alien with untested powers, the first of his kind on Earth – he also acknowledges that it’s not the same as coming to grips with sexuality, and that pain can still be caused even by well-meaning parents.

A super guide to accepting queer kids (art by Cian Tormey and Ruairí Coleman, ©DC Comics)

When father and son have their infirmary chat, it culminates in Clark saying “Every day of my life has been better since you’ve been in it. Every single day. Who you love is the last thing that could change that”. It’s a truly beautiful moment of unshakable love, made all the more powerful for the vulnerability of each of them. Like Lois’ acceptance earlier, it’s also likely to pull at the heartstrings of any readers not lucky enough to experience that themselves.

While Jon’s future comings out won’t likely be as emotionally fraut as this one, the fact that it’s not the first time he’s had to come out to someone is a first for the genre. The fact that a mainstream superhero comic even broaches this lived reality of queer people in such an authentic manner is a significant moment, and another example of how special Superman: Son of Kal-El has been. It’ll be a shame to see the series come to an end next issue, but with Adventures of Superman: Jon Kent to follow, we’re glad to see the importance of the character won’t be lost.

Matt Kamen

[He/Him] Matt Kamen is a veteran media writer based in the UK, specialising in video games, film, and comics. If found, return to nearest coffee shop.