In The Oz Effect, Dan Jurgens continues to impress me with his treatment of Superman. His run on Action Comics (along with Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason in the Superman title) has been very well done. Without deviating from the core of what makes Kal-El Superman, Action Comics has explored several interesting themes—but for my money, the best thing to come out of the post-Rebirth Superman books has been their exploration the relationships between fathers, mothers, and sons (a topic I’ve written on before).
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in The Oz Effect, which not only puts Superman up against a dangerous threat that makes him question his commitment to protecting a flawed world, but also presents him with one of the greatest challenges a man can face: raising a son in a world full of uncertainty.
Supes and his family have been haunted by a mysterious figure called “Mr. Oz” since before DC Rebirth, and for a long time fans speculated that he was Ozymandias. But The Oz Effect reveals that he is instead Jor-El, Kal-El’s father. As Jor-El tells Superman, he survived the death of Krypton because a powerful, mysterious figure plucked him out of catastrophe at the last moment. That strange figure seems almost certainly to be Dr. Manhattan, who we know from Doomsday Clockand from DC Rebirth has somehow come from the Watchmen universe into the DC universe and begun making changes to its continuity.
When The Oz Effect begins, violence has broken out all over the globe––so much that the sheer intensity and number of incidents around the world threaten to overwhelm even the Man of Steel, who is barely able to cope with having to put out fires in so many different places. Even after years of protecting humans against not only supervillains but from themselves as well, Superman can’t understand why so much violence is happening at once. But what he soon learns is that Oz is responsible for driving the world into chaos by enabling people’s worst instincts across the globe. He hasn’t forced anybody to commit violence, mind you. He has only given people the tools and means of committing violence in order to prove to Clark that humans are not worth saving and persuade him to leave Earth with his wife and son before a mysterious threat (again, almost certainly Dr. Manhattan) destroys the world.
Superman is understandably both shocked and suspicious, then, when Oz reveals himself as his father, but he is also incensed that this supposed Jor-El has manipulated the world into chaos and violence.
While Oz has already caused a great deal of trouble for the Man of Steel, what makes the situation unlike other crises is the family dynamic at play. Superman not only has to deal with the epistemological problem of whether or not Oz is lying about his identity, crazy, or telling the truth; he also has to reckon with the problem of having to fulfill his responsibilities as a father to Jon, his son—a responsibility that requires him to rely on his instincts and judgment in an uncertain situation and, worse, to risk looking like a bad person to his son in order to do what he believes is right.
Oz manages to catch Jon separately from Clark and Lois and to convince him that he’s the boy’s grandfather. He shows Jon his ultimate goal: to lead Clark, Lois, and Jon to another world where “everyone is special” (i.e., has superpowers) and doesn’t have to hide. There they will live happily and at peace while the Earth suffers the fate that (presumably) Dr. Manhattan has in store for it.
When Superman confronts Oz about “taking” Jon, Jon stands up for Oz, says that he went with him willingly, and tries to convince Superman to listen to him. The scene points to just how difficult a situation fathers and mothers often find themselves in, and it’s a nice reversal of a trope in modern cinema that the film critic Steven Greydanus calls “Junior Knows Best.” You can see it in any number of movies for children: the parent is old, hard-headed, and backward thinking and can only be saved from this condition by Junior, who is more open-minded.
Sometimes parents are indeed hard-headed and closed-minded. Often they do learn things from their children. But the reality of being a parent is often more like what we see in the scene where Superman confronts Oz about Jon: Superman can’t prove that something is amiss about “Jor-El”; he can only rely on his instinct and good judgment in a situation that is fraught with uncertainty.
As the proud father of four, I can readily say that this is one of the agonies of parenthood. There is a great deal that we simply can’t know—at least not in the sense that we can prove it––but every day we have to make choices for the well being of our children based on our incomplete knowledge. And there is so much complexity in the world that children, for all their innocence and simple insight, aren’t able to grasp yet.
Superman seems aware of this when he confronts Jor-El about Jon. It clearly isn’t easy for him to treat the man who might well be his father like an enemy, and it clearly isn’t easy for him to stand between Jon and the grandfather he’s never known. But giving into the uncertainty and refusing to act would be worse. For all anybody knows at this point, Oz could be the real Jor-El and yet still be an enemy who is either brainwashed or manipulated in some way by Dr. Manhattan.
Clark risks losing Jon’s respect when he responds so suspiciously to Jor-El, but that is what fatherhood––and motherhood––is like: every day we help our children navigate life and sail toward adulthood, and they often won’t understand the choices we make for them until they’re much older and have become the people they’ll be for the rest of their lives. And because our children sometimes don’t understand, they often think that we’re wrong in our decisions. Indeed, sometimes we are wrong––and nobody is more aware of that fact that we are. But that doesn’t change the fact that the responsibility falls to us.