When Rebirth shook things up in the DC Universe in 2016, a refreshing twist on one of the publisher’s iconic characters came with it. The New Super-Man, Kong Kenan, burst onto the superhero scene in his very own solo series. Writer Gene Luen Yang brought the young hero to life in a 24-issue comic packed with action and family drama, all with a distinct cultural twist that was completely new to DC.
“This new Super-Man grew out of an idea that Jim Lee had,” Yang wrote in 2016. “Who can say no to Jim Lee?” (Be sure to check out last year’s interview with Yang commemorating AAPI Heritage Month for more on his remarkable work.)
I’ll admit that I was fairly unfamiliar with Kong Kenan, but this year’s AAPI Heritage Month felt like the perfect time to change that. I started at the beginning, reading New Super-Man Vol. 1: Made in China as a way of getting acquainted with Kenan and the impressive Justice League of China. New Super-Man might be different from his namesake in a myriad of ways, but there’s more than one way to be a hero.
As the story begins, we meet regular teenager Kong Kenan. He’s a high school student who lives in Shanghai. Kenan is arrogant, self-centered and reckless. And, if we’re being honest, he’s a bit of a bully. He torments his classmate Lixin, the son of a rich airline CEO, and Kenan would probably argue that he deserves it.
If you’re thinking, “He sounds nothing like Clark Kent,” you’re not wrong. Kenan, estranged from his father after his mother’s death, tends to think only of himself. That is, he did, until the day a super-villain named Blue Condor tries to abduct Lixin from the city streets. Kenan uses the only weapon he has—a soda can—and knocks the villain upside the head with a nicely timed toss. Blue Condor retreats and his classmate is safe.
However, Kenan’s noble (if admittedly stupid) act of bravery is noticed by more than the local media. He draws the attention of Dr. Omen, a shadowy Ministry of Self-Reliance who offers Kenan the chance scientist to become a real superhero complete with powers—Superman’s powers. If you’ll recall, just prior to the start of Rebirth, the New 52 Superman gave his life in a final, selfless act of heroism. Dr. Omen devised a way to imbue a subject with that Superman’s qi, or life force. The experiment is a success and Kenan becomes a New Super-Man, esteemed member of the Justice League of China.
Or he would be if his powers weren’t constantly on the fritz.
While he has Superman’s abilities, New Super-Man can seemingly only use them one at a time. And even then, they’re not reliable. He’s benched for the team’s first mission together for his own safety, although he leaps into action as just plain Kenan to save another innocent life. Unfortunately, once again in the spotlight, Super-Man can’t resist immediately revealing his secret identity and the existence of the Justice League of China to the public.
New Super-Man also finds himself at odds with his father Zhongdan, who reveals that he’s a “super-villain” himself. Zhongdan is part of the rebellious Freedom Fighters of China, who espouse truth, justice and democracy. Kenan’s loyalties are torn between his father and the government agency that gave him his powers.
“Truth, justice, democracy—I don’t even know what those words really mean!” Kenan cries. “The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t want you or anyone I care about to get hurt.”
“That’s a good place to start, Super-Man,” his father replies.
New Super-Man and Superman don’t seem to have anything in common beyond their powers… or do they? In a rare moment of candor, Dr. Omen tells Kenan she chose him for her project because he has the heart of a hero. It might not be as big as Clark Kent’s yet, but Kenan Kong’s heart is in the right place. He’s selfless when he needs to be. He’s constantly growing as a hero and a person, learning to listen to and trust his teammates. (Even if he won’t admit it.) Yes, Kenan is a jerk, but he’s a likeable jerk. You can’t help rooting for him.
While he might have started his superhero career for questionable reasons, Kenan Kong is a fantastic reminder that a hero doesn’t have to look or even act like Superman to be super. Heroes come in all shapes, sizes and even personalities. Being a hero simply requires the bravery to do the right thing.
New Super-Man Vol. 1: Made in China by Gene Luen Yang, Viktor Bogdanovic and Richard Friend is available in bookstores, comic shops, libraries and as a digital graphic novel. Read the complete New Super-Man series right now on DC UNIVERSE INFINITE!
Kelly Knox writes about all-ages comics and animation for DCComics.com and her writing can also be seen on IGN, Nerdist and more. Follow her on Twitter at @kelly_knox to talk superheroes, comics and pop culture.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are those of Kelly Knox and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.