NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for Superman #18
Being the Man of Steel is no easy task - and no, we're not talking about the doomed prospects of every movie version being compared to Christopher Reeve. For Superman, every victory is temporary, since there's always another villain, billionaire weapons dealer, or alien tyrant bent on global destruction to take care of personally. The DC Rebirth has thrown more than a few at Clark Kent, but his latest battle came as a total shock to readers - costing him more than any loss he's ever faced.
It's a heartbreaking issue, but Superman #18 begins by picking up on the mystery surrounding Superman's return to the DC Universe - the Superman of the 1990s and 200s, saved from DC's New 52 relaunch and now returned to the DCU. That return came in the wake of the New 52 Superman's death, but from moment one, it was obvious there was a mystery to be solved... as neither Clark, not the one he replaced, were exactly as they seemed. But the first major step in unraveling that mystery has proved more costly than readers expected.
Because the villain at the end of this story didn't come for Superman at all... they came for his son.
The Mystery of Clark Kent
The strangest part of the Man of Steel's "Rebirth" so far - and the plot thread likely to reveal the biggest missing piece of the puzzle - has been the sudden appearance of a de-powered, everyday Clark Kent also living in the New 52 (somehow not the same Superman who fell prior to "Rebirth"). Things only got weirder when Lois Lane decided to investigate him for a crack in his story, and found none. What she actually found was a man obsessed with her, completely convinced that they were meant to be together. Even following her back to her isolated farmhouse with Clark and their son, Jonathan.
It's here where Issue #18 picks up, as the trio are celebrating Clark and Lois's anniversary... and a ring of the doorbell takes the evening from loving to nightmarish. Jonathan answers the door in time to see Clark leaving, Krypto barking after him - proving dogs can always sense evil. Before his parents can react, Clark has vanished from the farm leaving only a photo album labeled for The Kents. Whoever this Clark may be, he knows the family's secret. And since the album is filled with photos of Clark and Lois from their original, Post-Crisis Earth, his knowledge goes well beyond that of a single part of DC's Multiverse.
Before the family can speculate as to how that's even possible, the eruption of white fire in their home claims their full attention.
Something is Wrong on The Kent Farm
We say "fire," except the phenomenon that suddenly strikes the Kents' farmhouse isn't so much burning the building as erasing it piece by piece. And before any readers start to wonder: yes, it does share a similarity to the kind of energy manipulation one would expect to find near a character like Watchmen's Doctor Manhattan. He has yet to be revealed in the Rebirth properly, but hints have been dropping left and right, including his telltale use of explosive blue-white energy to erase people from existence in this universe. Could the Kents be his next target?
The problem here is that the answer relies on the identity or nature of Clark Kent - a reveal coming soon as the "Superman Reborn" arc continues in the coming weeks. What matters is the here and now: and the white 'flames' spreading to Clark and Lois's son, Jonathan. It's hard to imagine a parent reading this issue without feeling their stomach drop at the reveal, and even those with a passing affection for Jonathan, Lois, or Superman will have a hard time stomaching what comes next.
As Superman leaps to grab his son in distress, he begins blinking in and out, teleporting to different locations in the house. Finally, Clark wraps him in his Kryptonian cape, and promises that everything will be okay. They leap clear of the house, but with no way to comprehend, let alone smother the 'flames' engulfing Jonathan... things are anything but 'okay.'
Superman's Worst Nightmare Comes True
Despite his promises that he will never let his son go, Clark is forced to watch as Jonathan fades from existence before his eyes. The house is similarly burned away into nothingness, but the strangest twist comes in that photo album left behind by the doppelganger Clark Kent. The pictures of Clark And Lois's relationship prior to joining the New 52 Universe also burn away, meaning any theories on the 'flames' affecting things that aren't native to the New 52 are blown. Only a single picture remains intact.
The photo is unremarkable aside from the unforgettable globe of The Daily Planet building, but it's enough for Clark to know what must be done. Refusing to accept that Jonathan is gone, Clark interprets the photo as a sign that this unknown Clark Kent has stolen Jonathan, just as he's stolen the rest of their lives. And the only thing to do is to take it back - by force, if necessary (we're guessing it's going to be necessary).
Superman #18 is available now.