"New Super-Man and the Justice League of China": exploring character growth and maturity in the series finale
"Let go of the goodness that can never be
And embrace the goodness that is."
Those words are spoken late in the final issue of New Super-Man and the Justice League of China. Given that it's the final issue, and they're words spoken by a master to his student, it would be easy to look back on the series and retroactively apply it as a theme. Sure, there have been moments in this series where the characters need to let go of their ideas of how they think the world should work and just enjoy life as it is. While that theme certainly applies, I think New Super-Man has been about one thing more than anything else: growth.
When we first meet Kong Kenan, the young man who would become China's very own Super-Man, he is a jerk. Flat out, no beating around the bush, he is incredibly unlikable. Headstrong, a bit of a bully, and incredibly arrogant, he's not the kind of guy you would think would make a good hero.
And that's precisely the point. By making him brash and hard to sympathize with, writer Gene Luen Yang planted seeds for Kenan to grow into a true hero. We go on his journey with him, seeing him learn lessons along the way, watching as he learns to be more patient and think of others before himself. Of all the books to come out of DC's Rebirth initiative, New Super-Man was the freshest idea, the series with the least history and baggage attached to it. It's strange to think of the title as a "Rebirth" title: a rebirth of what? But as the series progressed over the past two years, it's become clear: this is the rebirth of Kenan.
Kenan has been at the core of the series, obviously, yet it's the supporting cast that made the book shine. He has his own allies in the Justice League of China, including a Chinese Wonder Woman and Bat-Man. Instead of being direct analogues of their American counterparts, they have their own distinct identities: Bat-Man is a young man who may lack physical prowess but nonetheless earned the title of "Bat-Man" thanks to his brains and ingenuity; and Wonder Woman is the literal embodiment of a Chinese fable. Initially annoyed at being partnered with Kenan and refusing to suffer him lightly, the trio eventually came to respect and even love each other. Their ranks have even grown to include a female, Chinese-American Flash, a North Korean expatriate who serves as an Aquaman analogue, and a robotic Robin, making the Justice League of China an exciting and diverse group.
Yang has made some bold choices over the course of the series, particularly in resurrecting the character of Fu Manchu. The character originally appeared back in the Thirties in Detective Comics, predating even Batman, and... well, time has not been kind to his portrayal, let's say. Here he’s recast as the “Western perception” of the villainous All-Yang, one side of the chi balance that Kenan strives toward. It was an inspired choice that celebrates the extensive past of the publisher without trying to excuse stereotypes and racist depictions. It’s similar to the approach he took with his brilliant American Born Chinese, an autobiographical comic that wove in elements of Chinese folklore. Like his more personal work, Yang’s writing on New Super-Man is smart, literary, and clever.
That’s why I appreciated the fact that the final issue of the series was small and introspective. There’s not a huge threat to the world, or even China. Instead, Kenan wrestles with the man he was, the man he is, and the man he could be. While he’s definitely grown since the first issue, there are aspects of Kenan’s personality that cause him to stumble over himself: he’s still brash and a little cocky, yet in wanting to be better than he was he has a touch of insecurity. There's a physical element to the final confrontation, seeing each of the League square off against their possible future selves, but the core conflict rests on Kenan's struggle with balance.
Kenan is presented with the opportunity to eventually become a Perfect Man. It's an enticing proposition, to be sure, but one that he ultimately rejects. Looking past his own shortcomings and his broken family life, Kenan realizes that there is good all around him. He's grown as a hero and a man, he has a strong support system with his friends and teammates, and he's learning to control his powers more and more each day. Kenan may not be a Perfect Man, but he's content being a Super-Man.